What humiliations he must have endured, to be so given to flaying the buffoon!
—Nietzsche

Others abide our question, thou art free. We ask and ask, thou smilest. . .
—Matthew Arnold

And last but not least to be mentioned, Mr. William Shakespeare.
—John Webster

By the time his brief career as a playwright was drawing to an end, poor Thomas Kyd had much to be sorry for—and ashamed of. Son to a “gentleman,” a London scrivener ever anxious to improve his status in life, he had been given a sound education at the new Merchant Tailors School which would have fully qualified him for following in his father's tracks. Instead, he strayed into literature, perpetrated a play (carefully based on the Senecan pattern), and it proved a resounding success. In fact The Spanish Tragedy, or “Hieronimo” as it came to be called, was probably the most often produced and reprinted of any play of the age, from the 1580s on into the Jacobean era. In 1601 it even appeared with additions by another hand—to which he could make no objection, having been miserably dead for seven years. While alive, he had seen to it that his name never appeared on any of the printings, so much so that the practice continued after his death, and even in the eighteenth century there were doubts about the identity of its author. There are none now. The play is of a piece (if the most notable piece) with the rest of his writing.

Among the famous plays of the period it is the least revivable, thanks to the mechanical dullness of the verse, and the labored, rhetorical tropes that load it. But the plot, given careful management, left the players every opportunity for tearing a passion to tatters. Success bred the kind of affectionate ridicule that adopts tags for quotation at any turn (they appear in a number of later plays), and years after its first appearance Ben Jonson grumbled that there were still those who would swear by “Hieronimo” in spite of all the progress the theater had made since—which suggests that some admirers were positively addicts who would sit through a new performance waiting for their favorite moments, for the famous tirade which they knew by heart and could spout in time with the player, correcting him vociferously if he made a slip or muffed a favorite line. And besides all this, the play, being the success it was, might well invite envy and personal attack. Who was this nonentity who dared to score such an outstanding if slightly ridiculous triumph? We can learn that from Thomas Nashe. In the preface to Menaphon, a posthumous work by his late and lamentably ended comrade-in-letters, Robert Greene, he launches into a characteristic diatribe, apropos of theater, against a certain ill-advised intruder into that world of precarious living, rabid rivalries, and unholy dying:

It is a common practise now-a-daies, amongst a set of shifting companions, that runne through every art and thrive by none, to leave the trade of Noverint, whereto they were borne, and busie themselves with the indevors of art, that could scarcely latinize their neck-verse if they should have neede; yet English Seneca read by candle-light yieldes many good sentences . . . and if you intreat him faire of a frosyy morning, he will affoord you whole Hamlets, I should say handfuls of tragical speeches. But O griefe! tempus edax rerum, what's that will last alwaies? The sea exhaled by droppes will in continuance be drie, and Seneca let blood line by line and page by page, at length must needes die to our stage, which makes his famisht followers to imitate the Kidde in Aesop who, enamoured with the Foxes newfangles, forsooke all hopes of life ro leape into a new occupation . . .

Nashe’s dancing prose is a wonderful contrast to Kyd’s flatfoot verse, but the studiously random-seeming archery of his invective nevertheless hits its mark. Researchers have found no such fable in Aesop as that of the kid and the fox, which makes the purpose of introducing the term “Kidde” unmistakable.

From his own point of view Kyd was a gentleman. If the lure of the playhouse could not be resisted, it must not be publicly admitted to—hence the anonymity of all the printings of his rapidly notorious play. Nashe, like his late comrade Grecne, was a university man. Thomas Kyd was not. A university man, a scholar, might dare to live by his wits and risk the consequences. He had the prestige of learning behind him, and the possibility of patronage, protection, from influential quarters, whereas Kyd was one of those who’d dared to “leave the trade of Noverint, whereto they were borne” and busy themselves with arts for which they were not qualified. Noverint (“Be it known”) was the standard opening word to most of the Latin screeds which were the daily work of scriveners. From Nashe's point of view, the best of learning possessed by such a person as Kyd would be scrivener’s dog-Latin. A scapegrace gentleman from university might deign to dabble in writing for the playhouse, but for a scrivener to aspire to such a thing was damnable presumption, made only the more heinous when attended by success.

Who were the others among this set of “shifting companions”—i.e., outsiders, interlopers? There may not have been many, for Nashe uses a sort of multiplying irony and sprays his satirical target to make sure of his mark. One other there certainly was, but he had already been dealt with by Robert Greene himself. Greene belonged to that not unfamiliar type in the writing world, the wild and roistering bullyboy with a slender and graceful talent, consequently prone to jealousy of a broader and more successful aptitude than his own. In his posthumous Groat’s Worth of Wit Bought with a Million of Repentance, published in 1592, he included a famous letter of warning to his compeers who wrote for the playhouse against the ingratitude of the players themselves, especially one of their number:

an upstart Crowe, beautified with our feathers, that with his Tyger’s heart wrapped in a player’s hide, supposes he is well able to bombast out a blank verse with the best of you, and being an absolute Johannes Factotum, is in his own conceit the only Shake-scene in the Country.

By way of acting in small parts Shakespeare had progressed to mending and rewriting other people’s dramatic efforts, “beautifying himself with our feathers.”

Here the target, if only half named, is equally unmistakable. And again the invective is prompted by the success of its object, this upstart, no university man but a mere player, a nobody in fact, come from the country, who had started work in the playhouse at some menial level. (The statement that his first connection with it was the task of holding horses’ heads outside the building, for visitors who came on horseback, sounds too improbable to be mere invention.) By way of acting in small parts he had progressed to mending and rewriting other people’s dramatic efforts, “beautifying himself with our feathers,” and thanks to his popularity with fellow players he had arrived at a position where, to a jealous eye, he could be called an “absolute Johannes Factotum.” Poor Robert Greene’s resentment has obviously jaundiced the portrait, but how much otherwise unrecorded hostility does it represent?

It is more than mere coincidence that made Greene and Nashe direct their shafts at Shakespeare and Kyd. A third playwright, the brilliantly precocious Marlowe, had, with Tamburlaine and The Jew of Malta, scored more success than either. But no such attacks were made on him. He was no “shifting companion,” no upstart, but a fellow scholar, a university man like themselves. In the same invective letter Greene issued warnings to two of these fellows of his: to one, a “famous gracer of tragedians” to beware of atheism; to the other, a “young Juvenal,” to avoid getting enemies by bitter words. As events were to prove, these could only be Marlowe and Nashe.

Catastrophe was in fact rapidly on its way to two of this so far successful trio, and in each case it came by a sudden, indirect, and surprising route. London was a continually growing metropolis and had its settlers from abroad. These too went on accumulating: tradesmen from the Netherlands in particular found it profitable to settle in England. It offered a sense of security from the Spanish-Catholic threat to their own country, and a market for their wares. Some of their communities were long enough established to have their own schools, churches, and cemeteries. Inevitably they aroused resentment among some of the native population, and xenophobia was sharpened by a more practical grievance: these strangers were encroaching on or stealing the natives’ livelihood. There were riots, demonstrations, continual threatenings of further trouble—a police problem without a solution. Who fomented the riots? One night a set of ugly doggerel rhymes was stuck up on the wall of the Dutch settlement, warning the residents of what might happen if they did not go home. The police mind, then as now, worked at clues in its own literal way. Rhymes! Some poet must be guilty! And where were poets of the lower, more scurrilous sort to be found if not in the purlieus of the playhouse? Searches must be made. As a possible source of those rhymes, a room shared for working purposes by two such men, one Thomas Kyd and Christopher Marley or Marloe, was raided. No anti-Dutch rhymes or their like were found, but something even worse: handwritten passages from an “atheistical tract.” This could be a hanging matter!

It is clear that the two men were associates and not friends. They happened to be writing for the same company of players. As Kyd was to write later:

My first acquaintance with this Marlowe rose upon his bearing name to serve my Lord, although this Lord never knew his service but in writing for his plaiers, for never could my L. endure his name or sight when he had heard of his conditions, nor would indeed the form of divine prayers, used daily in his Lps. house, have quadred with such reprobates. . . . That I should love or be familiar friend with one so irreligious were very rare . . . besides he was intemperate and of a cruel hart, the very contraries to wch. my greatest enimies will say of me.

It is not to be numbred amongst the best conditions of men to tax or to upbraide the dead. . . . But thus much have I dared in the greatest cause, which is to cleare myself of being thought an Atheist, which some will sweare he was.

But the “atheistical writings” had been found shuffled in among Kyd’s papers. He may have been present when the raid was carried out, Marlowe not. He was arrested, on May 12, 1593, and carried off to Bridewell prison where the instructions of the commissioners with regard to any suspected libelers (of the Dutch) were carried out with as much or more zest upon a suspected atheist: “all that after due examination be suspected and refuse to confess the truth are to be put to the torture in Bridewell, that by its extremity (to be used as often as the Commissioners deem necessary) they shall be drawn to discover their knowledge.” How long Kyd was put to the torture and kept in prison we do not know, but he was released without any charge. He emerged a broken creature, utterly alone it would seem, and helpless. All we know of his misfortunes is in the above-quoted letter of appeal (evidently written some time after Marlowe’s violent death in a tavern brawl at Deptford on May 30, 1593) written to the then Lord Keeper, Sir John Puckering, pleading for his intercession with Kyd’s late employer, the unnamed lord in whose service he had been for six years, and for whose company of players Marlowe too had been engaged to write. The letter, undated, was discovered among State papers more than three hundred years after Kyd’s death, with no record or evidence of a reply. In it Kyd reveals that the lord who had employed him fully believed in his innocence of the charge which had sent him to Bridewell, but even so could not afford to risk renewing his services. The slur remained, and would be irremovable.

There is no mention of his family or parents, though it would not have been unusual for a man’s family, when he was unjustly charged, to put in pleas for him with authority. If Kyd’s parents viewed him as a castaway, which is what he felt himself to be to judge from the tone of his letter, then his misfortunes were a consequence of the way of life he had willfully chosen. He now made shift to do what he could, and this was largely in the way of translations, notably a blank verse version of Garnier’s Cornélie. He could put his name to this, along with a hopefully dedicatory epistle, as it was obviously and irreproachably a closet play, meant for reading, not the playhouse. But what he calls his “bitter times and privy broken passions” must have ended in 1594, a short time before December 30, when his father published a declaration, in good scrivener’s Latin, wherein and at some length “Francis and Anna Kyd renounce the burden of administration, together with all right, title and interest in the goods, rights and properties of their deceased son Thomas . . . and do this expressly and absolutely.” This might be claimed to be simply a means of disclaiming all liabilities Thomas had left behind him, but the tone implies more. The slur which Thomas’s late employer could not risk must be removed as emphatically as possible from his parents' name. It seems certain that Kyd, who had been exposed and ridiculed by his "superiors" in the writing world, had been cut off by his family as a consequence of his entering that world.

Articles of accusation regarding “many vile and horrible blasphemies . . . and maintaining “that he would persuade men to atheism” . . . were laid before the Queen’s Council on May 26, 1593, four days before Marlowe was to die from a stab wound, in a quarrel of his own making.

But if Kyd had been released from prison and torture without any further charge, his plea that the “atheistical papers” were none of his must have been accepted. Which left them to Marlowe’s account. And against Marlowe a cloud of witness had already gathered. Clearly, Marlowe was by temperament a daredevil. The confidence of genius seems to have prompted a certain hubris. The will to shock, to overwhelm an audience in his plays was carried into his daily conversation in company. He went far beyond the sober, rationalist approach to established Christian doctrine which was a secret fashion of the time, notably with Raleigh and his intimates. For Marlowe, Christ was nor only the son of a carpenter and no virgin birth: he was also the lover of the beloved disciple John. The homosexuality ostentatious enough in Edward II and Hero and Leander was flourished in his talk: they that “loved not tobacco and boies” were contemptible fools. Homosexuality was obviously as common then as it is now, or any time since, and within a few years the next monarch, James I, was to make no great secret of his preferences. But its practice was still in law a capital crime. And allied with atheism! As recently as 1589 one Francis Kett, a former fellow of what was then called Benet College in Cambridge (at which Marlowe himself had been a student, graduating only a few years before) was tried for atheism and burnt to death at Norwich, though the articles of accusation imply that he was not an atheist, but a Socinian. This rationalist approach to official Christian doctrine was clearly active in private circles, ranging from Raleigh and his friends to certain quarters in Cambridge, and Marlowe had personal connections with both. But to flaunt such “blasphemies” and festoon them with gibes and jokes was to invite the rack, scaffold, or stake. Articles of accusation regarding “many vile and horrible blasphemies concerning Christ and his Mother” and maintaining “that he would persuade men to atheism into every company where he cometh” were laid before the Queen’s Council on May 26, 1593, four days before Marlowe was to die from a stab wound, in a quarrel of his own making. This could well have been a merciful release from a much worse fate.

How would he have behaved under questioning? It is hard not to feel that Marlowe, like a much later dramatist, wanted to carry his genius into his life: he had the itch to tempt fate, defy the rules, and single himself out as the challenger. Would his defiance have continued under questioning, with all or more than all that had been involved in the case of Thomas Kyd? Even recantation, in the face of such evidence, would have entailed punishment, torture, prison. It is anachronistic to suppose that the retrospective glow of genius would have had any influence in the eyes of authority. Before the law, civic and religious, he was a shoemaker’s son from Canterbury, graduate of Cambridge, and a writer of plays for that haunt of dubious repute, the public theater. Even the secret channel of influence which some have supposed he had with authority would have been of no use. In the face of such flagrant evidence not Cecil, not the Queen herself could have moved to save him.

As for the third in this trio, the “upstart Crowe,” by the end of 1594 he was the sole survivor. He must have known more of their character and circumstances than we do, and he must have felt their fate, and the public notice it incurred, deeply, as it reflected on his own lot. Unlike them he was both playwright and player—which might involve a double slur—but clearly he had already learned both dignity and discretion. Greene’s posthumous attack must be countered. He did so verbally, not in print, by remonstrating with Henry Chettle, who had seen the book into print. Chettle, though very much a mixer in the world of the playhouse, a collaborator, editor, and general factotum, had never met the object of Greene's diatribe until now. In his printed apology he records his surprise at what the “upstart” was really like:

. . . whom at the time I did not so much spare as since I wish I had. . . . that I did not I am as sorry as if the original fault had been my fault, because myself have seen his demeanor no less civil than he excellent in the quality he professes; besides divers of worship have reported his uprightness of dealing, which argues his honesty and his facetious grace in writing that approves his art.

Evidently a gentleman, in the literal not the class sense of the word. But the two images—the sick and malevolent distortion of poor Greene’s dying invective, and its startlingly unlike counterpart, Chettle’s direct impression of the living individual—represent the two extremes that were never to be reconciled in Shakespeare’s lifetime. “Gentle” is the word that became habitual with those who knew him, either personally or by intimate report. That was a matter of both disposition and choice; in a world where such disasters had overtaken Marlowe and Kyd, discretion was a condition of survival. But the outer shell of “reputation” remained unbreakable. He was to be Shakespeare the player all his life. Rage, bitterness would go into the plays, but any personal expression of such feelings, though it spills over into the pirated sonnets, was never to appear by his own intention in print.

At least one attempt was made to escape from the stigma of being a “player” to the dignity of being a poet, with a patron. At a time when Shakespeare was already earning his livelihood from the playhouse, and incurring jealousy thereby, he produced two long narrative poems which bore no stigma of the stage. The general view—since Victorian times at least—is that such was the creative ebullience of Shakespeare in these earlier years that when the playhouses were shut down because of the incidence of plague, his inventive energy had to find outlet in poems and produced Venus and Adonis and The Rape of Lucrece. But not only arc these poems task-works, bearing a certain reek of effort, with their dutiful tropes and endless elaboration of baroque conceits, they are the only works which he published with the hopeful flourish of a dedication to a lord. Patronage, for the poet, unless he had wealth and rank of his own, was an absolute essential. It was Sir Philip Sidney’s patronage of Spenser which led on to that of the Queen, thanks to which the poet became a royal servant, with rank and salary. We know the misery and ultimate tragedy which his service in Ireland involved, but his exterior reputation was no way affected. His funeral was a momentous occasion, attended with honors that certainly did not attend those of Marlowe, Kyd, or Shakespeare. For the poet, an influential and titled patron was a means to security and a certain degree of reflected rank. Unfortunately for him, Shakespeare had hit on the wrong patron. Henry Wriothesley, the twenty-one-year-old Earl of Southampton, was never liked by the Queen, incurred her marked displeasure by his precipitate marriage to a seven-months-pregnant bride, and was to achieve complete disgrace by his rash support of the Earl of Essex’s rebellion in 1601. He was to stand side by side with Essex on trial for treason and mutiny. His plea for pardon, supported by Essex, was proffered “with such sweet favour and winning expressions, and such ingenuous modesty that he moved the hearts of all the standers-by to pity,” and ultimately secured remission of the death sentence, and a spell in the Tower.

If both his narrative poems were published with a dedicatory flourish, why did Shakespeare not attempt the same thing with one of his early plays? The question itself is an anachronism. A play written for public performance in the playhouse was not an acceptable thing to dedicate to a lordship, not at this stage in the early 1590s. An ambitious courtier might keep a company of players to be known by his name. This was always a useful card to play at court, where an entertainment might any time be needed at short notice for one occasion or another. After all, when the Puritan fathers of the city council decreed, in 1586, that the playhouse must be expelled from the City and its environs, it was saved only by the court's stepping in. Unlike many a ducal court in Italy, it could not afford to retain a troupe of players of its own. But it did not choose to be without them. And so a situation that was always precarious was at least maintained in that position. The playhouse, and the actor and playwright, survived on two sources of livelihood: a general public at the playhouse and, on the other hand, the court, whenever it was summoned to perform at a hall of the court's choosing. Ideally a play would be aimed at pleasing both audiences, but regularly to entertain and please the court was a condition of survival.

But hostility to plays and playhouses on the part of public authority persisted throughout the reign and beyond. Nashe, that master of invective journalism, launches into a diatribe against those that “rail upon playing,” in Pierce Penniless, His Supplication to the Divell, printed in 1593. But the “railers” would have found his defense more than dubious. “The policy of playing is very necessary for a State, since those that are their own masters (as, Gentlemen of the Court, the Inns of Court, captains and soldiers), needs must spend their afternoons upon pleasure, either gaming, following of harlots, drinking, or seeing a play, of which the last is the least evil.” But to the civic authorities it was an evil that could incorporate many of the others.

In 1597, the Lord Mayor and Aldermen of London petitioned the Queen’s Privy Council “For the present stay and final suppression of stage plays at the Theatre, Curtain, Bankside and all other places” because they corrupt youth with “unchaste matters and ungodly practices . . . contrary to the rules and art prescribed for them even among the heathen, who used them seldom, at set rimes and not all the year long.” And moreover “they are the ordinary places for vagrant persons, masterless men, thieves, horse-stealers, whore-mongers, cozeners and other dangerous persons to meet together and make their matches.” Then again “they maintain idleness, and draw prentices and other servants from their work”; and in time of plague, “many having sores and yet not heartsick take occasion to walk abroad and hear a play, whereby others are infected.” In response to this appeal, the Privy Council ordered the prohibition of all plays during that summer (when infection was supposed to be most rampant) anywhere within three miles of the city, and likewise ordered the magistrates “to send for the owners of the playhouses and enjoin them to pluck down quite the stages, galleries and rooms, and so deface them that they may not again be employed to such use.” Four years earlier the Council had expressed concern that the students at the two universities should not be exposed to “things that may allure and entice them to lewdness, folly, and riotous manners” and with this in view had ordered that “no plays or interludes of common players be set forth either in the University or any place within the compass of five miles.”

In spite of all these deterrents, the playhouse persisted and even throve against the odds. Shakespeare's company, the Chamberlain’s Men, led by a shrewd actor-manager, consolidated its position to a degree where, on James Stuart’s accession to the English throne in 1603, he saw fit at once to promote the company to his own personal service, renaming it the King’s Men, with the right (or duty?) to take part in royal state processions, wearing a scarlet livery. To Shakespeare’s mind, the irony of this distinction can be guessed from a line or two in one of the more cryptic sonnets: “Were it aught to me I bore the canopy, With my extern the outward honouring?” It was the highest honor he received in his lifetime.

Meanwhile, in the late 1590s, the ranks of the playwrights had acquired a new and forceful recruit. Nine years junior to Shakespeare, Ben Jonson, posthumous child of a Lowland Scots father whose widow married a bricklayer, had a rougher start in life. He escaped apprenticeship to his stepfather's trade, being bright and industrious enough to be sent to Westminster School. But in his teens he was already serving as a soldier with the army of William of Orange against the Spanish in Flanders. Back in London at nineteen he married, not happily. His wife, he remarked in later years, was “a shrew, but honest.” After she had borne him three children, they parted. How he made shift to support himself and family isn't clear. He entered the world of theater at the lowest end, as a traveling player, tramping by the wagonload of props, reciting such plays as “Hieronimo” in barns and inn yards. He surfaces as a playwright with The Isle of Dogs, a satire which he and Nashe concocted between them in 1597. It was instantly withdrawn as scurrilous on its first performance, and those responsible, including the authors, were sentenced to prison. Nashe did a disappearing trick, to the wilds of Norfolk. Jonson, with others, served a three-month sentence.

Jonson armored himself with learning, he put it about that he had been to Cambridge, though there is no other record of this, he sought and found patronage, always protesting a manly independence.

So by the time he was twenty-four Jonson had done his share of living and learning. His later career was to be a shrewdly learned object lesson in how to project oneself, how to get on, to fight for and win personal respect for one’s work and self, in a world where condescension was the lot of the writer—especially the playwright—and even more of the actor. The latter trade he quickly gave up. He armored himself with learning, he put it about that he had been to Cambridge, though there is no other record of this, he sought and found patronage, always protesting a manly independence. He dedicated his plays to persons of influence and added prefaces indicating the learning and labor thai had gone into them. By the age of forty he had his plays published in collected form—and a contemporary wag remarked, significantly, “While others call them plays, he calls them works.” Like Bernard Shaw, in a different way and day, he set out to be the walking, talking advertisement for himself and his writings. The embodiment of professional jealousy, his later talk included next to nothing favorable to his contemporaries, if they had real merit. Middleton, who in his tragedies achieved something beyond Jonson and was fully his equal in city comedy, was dismissed as “a low fellow.” Thomas Dekker was an outright knave: he had retaliated against Jonson's barbed satire The Poetaster, in 1601, with a direct assault on Ben in Satiro-Mastix: the portrait of Jonson as the poet Horace gives us a shrewd close-up of how assiduous he was in practicing the art of self-promotion. “Horace” is awarded a crown of nettles and made to promise that

henceforth he shall not swear to hang himself if he think any man, woman or child can write better plays or rhymes than himself, nor sit in a gallery when his comedies have entered their actions, and there make vile and bad faces at every line to make gentlemen have an eye to him, nor, when the play is ended, to exchange courtesies and compliments with the gallants in the Lord’s rooms, to make all the house rise up and cry “That’s Horace, that's he that pens and purges humors”; nor, when he sups in a tavern among his betters shall he dip his manners in too much sauce, nor at table fling epigrams, emblems Or play-speeches about him to keep out of danger of the shot.

There is a strong tradition that Shakespeare read Jonson’s first fully fledged comedy, Every Man in his Humour, and was instrumental in having his company put it on, which they certainly did in 1598, with Shakespeare as one of the actors. If so, Ben can scarcely be accused of much gratitude in the prologue which he wrote for the play’s performance and printed with the text in the folio of his collected works in 1614. Here he casts a jaundiced eye over the plays of the recent past, including those exploiting “Yorke and Lancaster’s long jarres”—which would go for the three Henry VI plays and for Richard III—and continues:

He rather prays you will be pleas’d to see
One such, today, as other plays should be,
Where neither Chorus wafts you ore the seas,
Nor creaking throne comes down, the boys to please,
Nor nimble squib is seene, to make afeard
The gentlewomen, nor roul’d bullet heard
To say, it thunders, nor tempestuous drumme
Rumbles, to tell you when the storme doth come,
But deedes and language such as men do use.

(my italics) and he concludes trenchantly with a hope to the audience that

You, that have so grac’d monsters, may like men.

Clearly, the young Jonson saw himself as the new broom that would sweep away the cobwebs, the revolutionary realist who would make plays that mirrored the times. “Monsters” became his favorite word for everything in plays that seemed to him unnatural, childish, or absurd—ghosts, fairies, farfetched plots, and far-sought settings. “Here be no monsters, no Calibans” he reassures the reader in a preface to one of his masques. It is a cruel irony that The Tempest alone has been more studied, performed, re-edited, reprinted, reinterpreted, and adapted or imitated in the past thirty years than all of Jonson's plays over the past three centuries.

Unfortunately for Jonson’s realism, his psychology, his characterization, is based on a classifying system of “humors” or human temperaments which had its origin in the Middle Ages, and seems the reverse of realistic today. His topicality, in the city comedies, can need armfuls of notes to be intelligible. Throughout his plays, women characters have scant room. As a whole, they can be dismissed as tersely as he did his wife. Even he, in his greatest play, Volpone, had to move the scene “ore the seas” to Venice, which releases it from some elements of topicality; and even this play, like The Alchemist, is bottom-heavy with a weightincss that was both natural to him and deliberately emphasized. Weightiness, like learning, is an essential pan of his chosen image. He carries both into the two Roman plays, Sejanus and Catiline, written after the appearance of Julius Caesar, and quite expressly designed as a warning, an object-lesson to such as would embark on grand Roman themes, with nothing to support their enterprise beyond a reading of Plutarch in an English translation, Jonson has read all the sources, Tacitus, Pliny, Seneca, Suetonius in the original, and furnishes footnotes in Latin to show where they support the text of his play. The result, however well founded on the classical sources, and for all the skill and strength of the verse, is readable only with increasing effort. The impressive quality of the writing is curiously defeated by the continuous will to be impressive throughout. But there is no doubting that Ben Jonson felt these Roman plays to be exemplary and vastly superior to Julius Caesar, that omni-reflexive, unbearably hackneyed play, which still carries so much relevance where Jonson's two plays tend only to reflect themselves and their author. His resentful sense of rivalry with the older playwright persisted and rankled throughout his life; no record of compliment or praise from him until seven years after Shakespeare’s death, when the first folio appeared and Jonson contributed a handsome eulogy, though even then he had to roll out the learning:

to honour thee I would not seeke For names; but call forthe thund’ring Aeschilus,
Euripides and Sophocles to us, Paccuvius, Accius, him of Cordova dead,
To life againe, to heare thy buskin tread
And shake a stage: Or, when thy Sockcs were on,
Leave thec alone, for the comparison
Of all that insolent Greece, or haughtie Rome
Sent forth, or since did from their ashes come.
Triumph, my Britaine thou hast one to show
To whom all Scenes of Europe homage owe.

Having done this duty, and resoundingly, Ben felt free in later conversations to harp on the faults: Shakespeare was wanting in art, learning, knowledge of the Ancients. And he had his excesses: he “had an excellent Phantasie, brave notions, and gentle expressions: wherein he flow’d with that facility, that sometimes it was necessary he should be stopped. . . . His wit was in his own power: would the rule of it had been too.” Shakespeare, in short, had no self-criticism. But Romeo and Juliet, comparatively early in his career, was extensively rewritten, and invariably improved in the process. And it is about the same play that we have the one recorded remark of Shakespeare’s on any of his works—“If I had not killed Mercutio he would have killed me”—which has mystified commentators from Dryden onward. How could the creator of Richard III, Othello, Macbcth, have found anything so formidable in Mercutio? But the remark comes from within the strategy and stresses involved in the shaping of a play. Mercutio is the perfect ironic foil to his already love-prone comrade. But in himself, in his lines, he represents all the fanciful cadenzas, the verbal side kicks, the punning inconsequences that obviously tempted the poet’s own indulgence but must be kept in check, or even suppressed, above all in this the playwright’s first mature tragedy. Mercutio’s function as foil and comic relief is ended as the tragic action gets under way.

So much for not having the “rule” of his own wit. And it seems to me Mercutio is not the only figure who has to be emblematically sacrificed. Later the poet was to kill another aspect of himself as dramatist in the person of Polonius. Polonius is the last in that long line of sage commentators who people the early history plays and comedies and provide the wise saws and instances: “Lowliness is young ambition’s ladder,” “All places that the eye of heaven visits / Are to a wise man ports and happy havens,” “All the world’s a stage . . .” Polonius’s commonplaces are pithier than many that went before, and like them were a principal item in what the nineteenth century called “The Beauties of Shakespeare.” Yet Polonius is a target for Hamlet's vicious contempt. After all, isn't he a harmless old busybody, verbally a wiseacre if a fool in action? But he epitomizes the cut-and-dried “wisdom” which the author, in the person of Hamlet, can no longer tolerate.

To try to see the plays from within, the problems entailed by plot and action in their creation and performance, produces very different results from the traditional scholarly conclusions. Macbeth, we are always told, is shorter than Lear or Hamlet, so the text must be based on a shortened reporter’s or actor’s copy. But clearly the problem for the playwright was how to sustain and stretch it out to something like the standard length. No play moves at quite so feverish a pace—a pace that might seem more appropriate to the libretto of an opera than to the movement of spoken drama. Time on stage is a very different proposition from actual time. It stretches or contracts according to the spectator’s reactions, but there are decided limits to how far it can be manipulated. In Macbeth, from the moment when Lady Macbeth appears and reads the letter from her husband to the point where, after the murder, the knocking at the gate is heard, the action is continuous from dusk until dawn of the next day. Tension built up and sustained so long carries the risk of collapsing into bathos, and raises the problem of how to bring about an acceptable transition—a change in tempo and a break in time. The play resorts to the desperate remedy of avoiding accidental bathos by invoking it deliberately, with the drunk porter's monologue. It would have the first-time advantage of the unexpected, it would move at a sleepwalking pace, and it emphasizes the contrast between the fuddled, sleepy, normal world of every day (or every night) and the hallucinated clarity and horror of what has just happened. And it serves as well as it can the function of making time pause, and pass slowly, before the discovery of the murder and the outcry that follows. Later, toward the end of the play, the scene in England where Malcolm, the refugee son of Banquo, is approached with the offer of the Scottish throne once Macbeth is dispatched, is another case of filling in time, using the rather tedious and contrived device of Malcolm resisting the offer with an imaginary catalogue of the vices that make him unfit to accept. Given a more crowded plot, such a scene could have been briefly reported at second hand. And again, the clumsy scenes with Hecate, interpolated by another hand, were probably meant to fill out the length rather than treat the audience to more of the witch business.

One of the standard images of Shakespeare is of the genial man of the theater (how he must have loved his Wooden O!) always with an infallible finger on the pulse of his public, knowing exactly what was required to stir their interest, and catering as infallibly for the requirements and talents of the players of whom he was one. True enough perhaps of the early days when he was trying out his maturing skills on material ranging from farce to comedy to Senecan melodrama—the Comedy of Errors, The Taming of the Shrew, Titus Andronicus. But by the time of Hamlet the picture must have changed somewhat. “See the players well bestowed,” says the prince, i.e., have respect for them, give them the accommodation that is their due. Outwardly, here as elsewhere, Shakespeare pleads for the dignity of the players, their craft, and its vital service within a civilized community. But to the actors themselves, Hamlet’s tone is one of gentle but specific reprimand, with a list of tricks and habits they must get rid of: spouting and sawing the air in the more serious dramatic roles, too much ad-libbing and interpolating lines of their own on the part of the comedians.

From 1600 onward, the playwright’s products became less predictable and more difficult from the company’s point of view, One play they refused altogether. Troilus and Cressida was announced for printing (which was usually done in readiness to follow stage performance) as early as 1603. Six years later it appeared at last. The title page of the first issue stating that it was “acted by the King’s Majesties servants at the Globe” had to be replaced by one omitting any such reference. Clearly there had been a certain persistence on somebody’s part (and whose if not the author’s?) and an equal reluctance on the company’s to stage the play, which they never did. It is the only single play of Shakespeare’s issued in his lifetime with a prefatory note, and a fairly pointed one. It begins, “A never writer to an ever reader. Newes,” and it goes on with, “here you have a new play, never stal’d with the Stage, never clapper-clawed with the palms of the vulger.” The writer was evidently a friend and admirer of the author’s and may be expressing a shared view of some types of playhouse audience. Like most literate contemporaries he has to bring in the classical names, comparing the play for its wit to Terence and Plautus, implying that this was what disqualified it from “being sullied with the smoaky breath of the multitude,” and adds that it was being printed “against the grand possessors wills.” The grand possessors, the company at the Globe, made no recorded objection, which must mean that one of their number, the author, had willed and perhaps instigated the publication.

Troilus and Cressida may well be the first tragi-comedy on record, certainly with no precedent in classical drama. It casts a deliberately jaundiced eye on the Trojan War, that archetype of all wars in the poetic record, and reduces it to what it was, ten years of squabble and bloodshed over a kidnapped woman. It works out as a deliberate, evenhanded study in human vanity, treachery, infatuation, cowardice, hypocrisy, and malevolence. More than Hamlet or any other play in the canon it seems loaded with the writer's mood. And it is stylistically a difficult play. Shakespeare has passed beyond the easy and total mastery of the language, and seems to be restlessly forging a new one which, particularly in the opening scenes, becomes congested with its own coining of words, its syntactical twists. The comic element is grim, and the tragic cruel.

Apart from a “happy ending” adaptation by Dryden, the play remained unperformed through the centuries: a puzzle and a stumbling block to the Shakespeare worshipper. But in the early 1960s, and coinciding with the Kennedy-Khrushchev confrontation, it finally received its due in one of the most memorable productions achieved by the Royal Shakespeare Company: the stage reduced to a sand-pit arena for confrontations and treacheries, a brilliant, classically trained comedian as the choric Pandarus, and an Achilles of “heroic” stature and stunted adolescent intelligence emerging finally as the dull epitome of evil as he presides over the slaughter of Hector by his Myrmidons.

Romantic conjecture has been fond of suggesting that the Dark Lady of the sonnets, thanks to her complexion, served as a study for Shakespeare’s Cleopatra. (Antony and Cleopatra, was another problem for the players, and a scholar has recently announced that it too was never performed by the company.) Much more decidedly the Dark Lady, the “woman coloured ill,” could have been the model for “false Cressid.” Poor Troilus cannot put an end to his passion, even with the certainty that Cressida has been faithless beyond contempt. The writer of the sonnets is in the same cruel predicament:

Whence hast thou this becomming of things il,
That in the very refuse of thy deeds
There is such strength and warrantise of skill,
That, in my minde thy worst all best exceeds?
Who taught thee how to make me love thee more,
The more I hear and see just cause of hate . . .

The sonnets (which appeared in the same year as Troilus) offer us a heart laid bare, but every clue as to person, occasion, time, and place remains in code: so much so that one might wonder if the recipient who passed them on to the publisher or that “well-wishing” pirate himself had not removed any which offered unmistakable clues to these mysteries. There is no guarantee that we have all that were written; and T. Thorpe, whose dedication to Mr. W. H. is obviously designed to entice and mystify, hint and conceal, may have suppressed any sonnets which might give away facts and names too obviously. One thing seems beyond doubt: the sonnets as a whole must cover a longer period than the two or three years often assigned to them. Witness the well-known one beginning “To me, fair friend, you never can be old,” celebrating the third anniversary of the writer's meeting with his friend, affectionate certainly, but still dominated by a sense of respect, a certain shyness. The earliest sonnets have a commissioned look—written at the request of parents who were anxious that their young son should marry and beget an heir. The latest have a sourness, passion, and disgust that might be contemporary with Hamlet or Troilus.

Shakespeare was forty-five at the time when the sonnets appeared, with twenty years’ experience of his “trade” as player and playwright, and all that the latter involved in relation to printing. His “sugred sonnets among his friends” are mentioned in 1598. Like much other poetry of the time, including Donne’s, they were known and privately admired in manuscript. A year or so later he is known to have complained of poems of his being pirated and printed without his knowledge. Ten years later he knew better, at his age, than to voice any complaint. It would simply magnify the offense by drawing attention to it. There is evidence that few copies of the book were circulated, and others may have been withdrawn at the source.

How deep and lasting was the shock of this exposure to the poet we can only guess. But silence must have been far from Olympian indifference. We know how Keats reacted when, staying with Leigh Hunt, a letter from Fanny Brawne was handed to him already opened. A servant had accidentally broken the seal. But that a letter from his beloved had been opened by another hand was enough to prompt instant departure. Nothing would persuade him to stay under the roof where such a thing had happened. Keats, notably in his letters, often shows a certain kinship with Shakespeare. But then consider what happened in the case of Wilde, the peacock. In his early days, when he was notorious for his dress, his aesthetics, and his epigrams, he was approached by a daily paper, The Telegraph, with the idea of being featured as a well-known personality. He was delighted to agree, adding with a characteristic flourish “and be indiscreet by all means!” Indiscreet they were, having contrived to secure a few letters, including some from his wife. The material was harmless and dull enough—especially when compared with the dreadful little missive to Lord Alfred Douglas about his “slim gilt soul” which was made so much of at his trial. But Wilde on this earlier occasion was extremely hurt and distressed, the more so perhaps at having got what he asked for.

In the case of the sonnets the offense was infinitely greater. It was both heinous and dangerous. A malicious finger might have pointed at one particular sonnet:

A womans face with nature’s owne hand painted.
Hast thou the Master mistris of my passion . . .

Superficially its meaning is homosexual, it is a passionate love letter from a man to a younger man. But there is one artlessly self-revelatory detail: the beloved friend has all the charm and beauty of a woman, but then wise nature “fell a-doting,” adding “one thing to my purpose nothing.” The burden of it is simply: if only you were the woman your beauty makes you seem!—which is the last thing a real homosexual could genuinely feel or say. Proust's great novel is, among many other things, a personally compiled encyclopedia of what he called “Sodome et Gomorrhe,” and somewhere in it he remarks that a lifelong homosexual may fall in love with a woman, and the worse for him, since his love can have no fulfillment that seems to him “natural”; and conversely a lifelong heterosexual may for once in his life fall in love with a member of his own sex, with the same consequences. The sonnets exhale a deep sense of loneliness. The need for affection, stalled every other way, fastens on and irradiates a single being, invests it with a mystery of all possible attributes and wonders:

What is your substance, whereof are you made,
That millions of strange shadoes on you tend?
Since every one, hath every one, one shade,
And you but one, can every shaddow lend.

In the same sense Keats, in the depths of illness, saw all possible desire and fulfillment in the one being of his fiancée, Fanny Brawne—or the aging Beethoven, in the abyss of deafness, concentrated all his need to give and receive affection on his puzzled nephew, and all his jealousy on the boy’s mother.

From the beginning of the eighteenth century onward scholars began the task of sifting the dust of archives, law records, parish registers, in search of every possible grain of evidence concerning the man who had been so little noted in his lifetime. They read the sonnets, and almost unanimously passed them over in silence. They were too much—and too little; somehow beyond scholarly discussion. They gave no facts, dates, details of where the poet was living. But they do give some unambiguous indications of what the poet felt about his trade, his position in the world.

When in disgrace with Fortune and mens eyes,
I all alone beweepe my out-cast state,
And trouble deaf heaven with my bootless cries,
And look upon myself, and curse my fate. . . .

He wrote such lines as these from experience, and he meant them. He can also be more temperate, but more specific:

O for my sake doe you with fortune chide,
The guiltie goddesse of my harmfull deeds,
That did not better for my life provide
Than publick meanes which publick manners breeds.
Thence comes it that my name receives a brand,
And almost thence my nature is subdu'd
To what it workes in, like the Dyer's hand.

The dusty records finally did turn up something that gives us a tantalizing picture of where and how this man with the branded name lived and lodged, in mid-career. In May 1612, one Stephen Bclott brought a suit against his father-in-law Christopher Mountjoy for the dowry he had undertaken and failed to pay on Belott’s marriage to Mountjoy’s daughter. One William Shakespeare, gentleman, now resident at Stratford-upon-Avon, “aged 48 years or thereabouts,” who had lain, i.e., lodged at Mountjoy’s house in 1604, was called as witness and testified that Belott, then a servant to Mount-joy, “did well and honestly behave himself in his service”; that Mrs, Mountjoy approved of Stephen Belott, wanted him as a son-in-law, and was evidently familiar enough with the lodger Shakespeare to ask his good offices in persuading Belott to the marriage, which, after “many conferences amongst themselves,” was finally “consummated and solemnized” in 1604; he further testified that the defendant had certainly promised a marriage portion, but what sum he could not recall, and had no recollection of the defendant having promised to leave his daughter two hundred pounds in his will.

A preeminent Shakespeare authority, E. K. Chambers, has deduced from this that the poet “was then of failing memory”—at forty-eight! But why after eight years should a man with so many preoccupations remember the precise facts and figures of a case that had no personal interest for him, and which could only remind him, now that he was safely installed in his own residence at Stratford, of times and conditions which he did not care to remember? Some clearer deductions can be made. Since he testified in 1612 that he had known Mountjoy and Belott for about ten years, the obvious inference is that he had lodged with the household since 1602, a sufficiently familiar member of it for Mrs. Mountjoy to feel after two years' acquaintance that he would be kind, reliable, and persuasive enough to help in her marriage plans for her daughter.

Mountjoy was a Huguenot refugee who had settled in London in the 1590s as a tiremaker, a designer of women’s headdresses, a vital clement in the fashions of the day. Belott too was French. So the case was referred for settlement to the elders of the Huguenot church in London, who awarded twenty nobles to Belott and noted that both he and Mountjoy were “desbauchés”—men of licentious life. So this was the kind of household that was raffish, prosperous, and “foreign” enough to accommodate a player without any sense of incurring a social slur. And however loose his life, Mountjoy, tight with money (the twenty nobles were still unpaid a year after the award), found it useful to have a paying guest who was affable enough to have friendly relations with the whole family. Affability would be the best protection for reserve, for securing peace and quiet, and freedom from inquisitiveness perhaps.

We have another intimate glimpse, on the professional side. John Aubrey, that assiduous if feckless searcher-out of anecdotes about past worthies, managed to unearth an aged actor whose father, Christopher Beeston, had also been an actor in Shakespeare’s company, then called the Chamberlain’s Men, in 1598. From this man Aubrey learned that “Shakespeare was the more to be admired” (i.e., wondered at) because he was not a company-keeper, “lived at that time in Shoreditch,” wouldn't be debauched, and if invited he would write that he was “in paine.” There is a distinctly factual and personal ring in this. If Shakespeare had been a company-keeper, given to talking himself up like Marlowe or Jonson, some records would remain. As an actor among actors he would have company enough during rehearsing and performing hours. Outside those he had motive enough for solitude, working on the plays, searching out plot material, sheltering a continual sense of humiliation—and two years-long tormenting love relationships.

What life was like then is hard to recapture. We have lost the quality of night as it must have been even in a “great” city—always impressive to foreign visitors—like London: a walled city of less than a hundred thousand people but enclosing within it many gardens, waste spaces, and open deposits of sewage. Rotting heads of exemplary traitors and criminals, exposed on spikes, were a not uncommon sight. And there were the long, dark, candlelit winters. Jonson gives us a glimpse of the writer at work on his plays:

Things that were born when none but the still night
And his dumb candle saw his pinching throes.

Winters were hard, and several times during the 1590s and the following decade the Thames froze over and stayed frozen for weeks. Thomas Nashe had a peculiar dread of the dead season:

Short days, sharp days, long nights come on apace,
And who shall hide us from the winter’s face?
Cold doth increase, the sickness will not cease,
And here we lie, God knows, with little ease.
From winter, plague, and pestilence, good Lord deliver us!

Nashe vanishes without further trace, about the year 1600. One hopes his plague-dread was not prophetic. Plague deaths often went unrecorded.

The playhouses (with one exception, The Children’s Company) could function only by daylight, and had a thin time of it when midwinter darkness ate into the afternoons. Fortunately, with James’s accession the demand for plays at court greatly increased, and entertainment had sometimes to be rustled up at short notice. There are numbers of notes from court officials testifying to this, and one can be taken as typical: “I have sent and bene all thys morning hunting for players, Juglcrs, & Such kinde of Creatures, but finde them harde to finde, wherefore Leaving notes of them to sceke me.” Burbage the actor finally turned up to say there was no new play but they had revived an old one, Loves Labours Lost, which would please James’s queen by its wit. Who knows, perhaps some Juglers were unearthed as well. The imperious condescension or contempt of official empty-heads like the one who wrote the above note was something to which the players had to become case hardened. With one exception? And the evidence of such an attitude, as it survives on record, is probably the mere tip of the iceberg.

To endure, and financially to make the best of it, was the only resource. In 1605 an anonymous pamphlet remarks, “Players were never so thriftie as they are now about London,” and goes on to advise the actor to make his hand a stranger to his pocket, and when he finds his purse well lined let him buy some place or lordship of a manor in the country, so that his money will bring him dignity and reputation. This was the policy of Edward Alleyn, the most famous actor of his day, who never took a part in any of Shakespeare’s plays. Alleyn amassed a fortune, enough for an opulent retirement, as well as to found a boy’s college, on the scale of the university colleges of the day, in his name and memory. No mere playwright could come up to that. Some of Shakespeare’s later plays can have earned him nothing. His income came chiefly from the proceeds of partnership, shared management in the company. But he emulated the Alleyn policy on a modest scale. From the early 1590s onward there was a steady laying by of money for investment in property, in land for revenue, and finally a place, New Place, Stratford, for residence in retirement,

He had gone away, vanished from Stratford in 1586, aged twenty-two, four years married and father of three children, and nothing whatever is known of him till he surfaces again in 1592, when he is malevolently noted by Greene as the “upstart crowe” among the players in London. He had certainly not been driven away from home by some deer-poaching exploit, since the Deer Park of the legend never even existed. He had married at eighteen, his bride being three months pregnant. The native urge to gentility, to make the poet respectable, has prompted the suggestion that the pair had “plighted troth” and were legitimately married some months before the church ceremony. But the latter was hurried and furtive, taking place at a small village outside Stratford. The bride, one and a half times as old as her groom, would have been eminently marriageable when he was a boy of nine. “Some marriages are good,” observed La Rochefoucauld; “none are delightful.” This one cannot have remained long even in the first category if, after four years, the husband vanished leaving wife and children to his father’s care.

At what date he reappeared in Stratford—a prodigal returned, to be forgiven?—we don’t know. But from the mid-1590s onward a pattern emerges of regular goings to Stratford, whenever work in London allowed. We know from the sonnets that affections and passions lay elsewhere. But he was fond of his two surviving children, both daughters; there was a household to establish, a marriage to be made the best of—and Stratford was home, the ultimate haven. By 1610 he had taken up permanent residence there.

He had returned safe and sound, not unprosperous if far from rich, but—a player, of all things! The attitude of country gentry to the profession would be even narrower, more prone to ridicule than in the capital. It may well have been more for the sake of his family's feelings than his own that he purchased the famous coat-of-arms. The College of Arms (still subsisting today with all its panoply along with the conferment of titles} had, in James I’s day, been corrupted by the king’s determined practice of selling titles for cash. Five hundred new knighthoods in a year made a handsome addition to his exchequer. If the king made so free, the heralds saw no harm in doing likewise, since they could sell the title of “Gentleman,” with a coat-of-arms at their own discretion, and put the fee in their own pockets. This led to fallings-out among themselves, and one of their number in 1605 denounced the Garter King of Arms for selling coats-of-arms to “persons not of fit station,” including a hosier, a plasterer, a fishmonger, a soapmaker, and . . . “Shakespeare the player.” So the brand remained irremovable. And Jonson could not resist a sly gibe: “I can write myself Gentleman now,” says a minor character in Every Man out of his Humour, “Here’s my pattent, it cost me thirtie pound.”

The giant enigma attaching to Shakespeare resides not in the nature of the man, his life, or his works—since genius is never a probable thing—but simply in the fact that so little serious notice was taken of his works in his lifetime. We know nothing of the first production of Hamlet or any of his plays. Research has sifted all records for any intelligent comment, and turned up only a notebook of one Simon Forman, a maggoty-brained astrologer who in 1611 reports going to see Macbeth and three other plays and sums up the plots like a semiliterate, moralizing schoolboy. There were keen minds at work in the age, ranging from Gloriana herself to Raleigh, Bacon, Donne-keen but narrow minds. Perhaps the last named is the best illustration of this. Donne, a young man with the best of backgrounds, Oxford, Cambridge, and Lincoln’s Inn, with his way to make, tormented by ambition and by a gift for poetry which could only get in the way of it, surveys the chances in one of his satires. Poetry he calls a disease, or a sin such as “brings dearth, and Spaniards in.” As for the patronage seekers,

 . . . they who write to Lords, rewards to get,
Are they not like singers at doores for meat?

But most wretched of all must be the playhouse poet who

gives ideot actors meanes
(Starving himselfe) to live by his labor’d sceanes;
As in some Organ, Puppits dance above
And bellows pant below, which them do move.

If Donne, as a young spark of the Inns of Court, ever spent an idle afternoon at the playhouse around 1593, it can hardly have been to admire the play. Though in later years he wrote a congratulatory poem, in Latin of course, for that learned and meritorious friend Ben Jonson, to be printed with his play Volpone. Jonson had been vociferous in his praises of two verse exercises by Donne, The Storm and The Calm. Donne’s love poems, to be collected and published only after his death, circulated widely in manuscript, and were greatly admired. If they’d been pirated into print they would have done no good to his prospects of a secular career and ruined his chances of entering the church. Later, as a churchman, he felt that the itch to publish even his religious verse was unworthy: “Of my Anniversaries, the fault that I acknowledge in myself, is to have published anything in verse which, though it have excuse even in our times by men who professe and practice much gravity, yet I wonder how I declined to it, and do not pardon myself.” This was simply the extreme of an attitude which had become general and which persisted into the eighteenth century and beyond. It meant that the man who lived by his pen was one who lived by his wits, which could only mean the shadier or the shabbier side of things.

Hogarth’s print of the Distressed Poet, spreadeagled against the window of his ground-floor hovel in agonized protest at the din outside—drunken brawls, cats and dogs, street vendors—expressed the common view, like Rowlandson’s drawing of the threadbare author, waiting in desperate hope while the all-important bookseller-publisher surveys his offering at a safe, arms-length distance. Swift in his letters alludes, between commiseration and contempt, to one Foe or Defoe, who lived by his pen. Textbook history puts the two side by side; writers of full-length fictions equally based, in their different ways, on the literature of voyages of discovery. Both were pamphleteers. Defoe was pilloried and had his ears clipped as punishment for one of his pamphlets. No such penalty could touch the Dean for writing A Modest Proposal or Wood’s Halfpence. Swift too kept an ironic and jealous eye on the career of his school contemporary Congreve, his brilliant debut as a playwright at barely twenty praised by Dryden in terms that might have greeted a Shakespeare but never did. Later in his career as an important political go-between, Swift noted Congreve waiting—and again waiting—in the anteroom of a great man for the patronage, the official sinecures, that might earn him an income. Congreve gave up the profitless and arduous business of playwriting in 1700, with the failure of his last and finest comedy. In later years, interviewed by a young visiting Frenchman, he declared that he wished to be remembered simply as a gentleman. “Would I have come all this way,” asked the young Frenchman, whose name was Voltaire, “simply to see an English gentleman?” Congreve must have realized the fatuousness of such a remark, to this visitor from a different mental climate.

Across the Channel, the young Racine, irresistibly drawn to theater, had found himself to be an outcast from his eminent Jansenist family, for whom all theater was an abomination, as it was for their patron saint Augustine. But he was in receipt of a royal pension when he wrote his first play. From Andromaque onward his plays were a continual subject of discussion, comparison: Was he greater than his senior rival Corneille? Which lady had wept most at which play, Bérénice, Iphigénie? and so forth, each play prompting a debate in which court, clergy, and literary world all joined. In his retirement, a regular visitor at court, Racine was lured back into writing plays by the uncrowned queen, Madame de Maintenon, for strictly private performance by the girls in the school she had founded.

Moliere’s career in theater is rather closer to Shakespeare’s, beginning as traveling player and furnisher of quick material for his troupe. But established in Paris, and his maturer hand producing plays like I'Ecole des femmes, he became a “somebody,” interesting enough to be invited into society, which found him quiet and dull—perhaps he was making notes for Le Misanthrope. And just as Louis XIV had laughed at Racine's only comedy, Les Plaideurs, at Versailles and rescued it from the failure it had been in Paris, so too Moliere had much to thank the monarch for: protection from the Church’s wrath against Tartuffe, and retrieval from bankruptcy at a late stage in his career.

One William Keeling, captain of the Dragon, bound with two other ships for the East Indies, notes in his log; “I invited Captain Hawkins to a fishe dinner and had Hamlet acted abord me, which I permitt to keepe my people from idleness and unlawful games, or sleepe.”

In France, as in Spain and Italy, poetry and drama ranked as equal in the arts with music, painting, architecture. Not so in England. James and his son were great patrons of painting and architecture—Inigo Jones, Rubens, Van Dyke. Plays were simply for pastime. As such, if successful, they could make their way into a popularity that conferred nothing on their author. By 1607, Hamlet had traveled on to the high seas. One William Keeling, captain of the Dragon, bound with two other ships for the East Indies, notes in his log; “I invited Captain Hawkins to a fishe dinner and had Hamlet acted abord me, which I permitt to keepe my people from idleness and unlawful games, or sleepe.”

Since the Romantic era—and popular journalism is the bastard child of Romanticism—it is always assumed that a genius must somehow be extraordinary in his life and character, in spite of the fact that Bach, Handel, Cezanne, Rembrandt, and many another led industrious and humdrum lives. Whatever the inner turmoils, the hells, the titanic struggles, outwardly Shakespeare’s was a humdrum career. To my mind, his personality might have had quite a kinship with that of Verdi who, across the barrier of language, so deeply admired him. Unlike his contemporaries—Wagner the grand poseur and Berlioz the frenetic self-exponent—Verdi was the soul of reticence, terse and technical in his comments on his works, socially a “bear” as he described himself, in fact something of a recluse except for business matters: nothing in his life or character corresponds with the volcanic energy and passion that erupts in Il Trovatore, as it does thirty years later in Otello. Yet his mature operas are so often marked by a curious intimacy: the real climaxes seem to come where a character is alone with him—or herself—Gilda, Lago, Violetta, Filippo. And in Shakespeare there can be the same inwardness. Hamlet, Lear, and even Macbeth are in a sense dream plays: we have to identify with the protagonists, hallucinate their ordeals, though we remain outside the ordeals of jealousy, arrogance—Othello, Leontes, Coriolanus.

For Shakespeare a plot exterior to his own invention was as necessary as a libretto to an opera composer. Drama in verse and prose is as much an artifice as opera; who knows, man may have learned to sing before he began to shape words into verse forms. And Shakespeare’s plays are no more realist than opera. In a sense he creates a reality without any of the prerequisites of realism, which is what annoyed Jonson and maddened Tolstoy, the arch-novelist. Several of the plays are ghost stories. The supernatural, fairies, monsters exist on the same plane of reality as the mortals. For his material, Shakespeare was always tempted by the challenge of the improbable, the farfetched. His plays take off from their time and place into a world of their own, just as opera, by its nature, has to lift its material on to a different plane. Sometimes Shakespeare chose an impossible challenge. A late play, Cymbeline, for all its maturity of style and handling remains in the end a farrago, thanks to its plot. But then who, reading an old wives' morality tale like the story of Lear in its early form, could have seen it as material for the greatest of tragedies?

Any comparison with opera and Verdi must invoke a drastic contrast. The greater man had by so much the less success. Verdi’s first three masterpieces (voted vulgar by the cognoscenti) traveled quickly to nearly every country in Europe and the Americas. By his early forties Verdi was a man with wealth enough to invest in leisure, land, horse-breeding, charities. At the same age Shakespeare was still an actor in minor roles. And half the work he had written never saw print until the publication of the folio, seven years after his death.

Heminge and Condell, the actors entrusted with the task of preparing and publishing it, were faithful, simple souls. Their chief anxiety in the preface is that the volume should sell and the venture be justified. The dedication to William Herbert, Earl of Pembroke and his brother is sufficiently abject—from lifelong habit, one supposes. In view of their lordships’ rank, “we cannot but know their dignities greater than to descend to the reading of these trifles; and, while we name them trifles, we have deprived ourselves of the defence of our Dedication. But since you have been pleased to think these trifles something heretofore and have prosecuted both them and their author living with so much favour . . . we hope that you will use the like indulgence to them, you have done unto their parent.” Their work was well and scrupulously done, with fidelity and innocence, witness their famous statement about the author: “His mind and hand went together, and what he thought he uttered with that easiness, that we have scarce received from him a blot in his papers”—a remark that was seized on with alacrity by Ben Jonson, though no one was better placed than he to know it couldn’t possibly be true. Obviously the two actors had been entrusted by the author with a number of fair copies. It was his care in the first place that they should survive and be easily read. Publishing them could be left to others. He had suffered enough from that in his lifetime, witness the “diverse stolne, and surreptitious copies, maimed and deformed by the frauds and stealths of injurious impostors” which had appeared over the years since his career began. And even in 1623, when Heminge and Condell presented the plays “cur’d and perfect of their limbes . . . absolute in their numbers, as he conceived them,” they could still be called trifles (three times over) for lordly eyes.

Has any other writer, great or small, played so much and often on the theme of ingratitude? It is the ground bass of Lear, Timon of Athens, As You Like It, The Tempest, and strikes a lingering note in some of the others, so insistent that it cannot be unconnected with personal experience, only some of which we can guess. But perhaps the supreme instance of it came comparatively late, with the ingratitude, fecklessness, and treachery which led to the printing of the sonnets. So much in them which to us remains obscure must have seemed to the writer as nakedly obvious to any eye as it was to his own. After that, the rest would be silence. There may well have been a steady practice of destroying any intimate personal document he possessed or could lay hands on. Such a policy points logically to his final message, the inscription he personally chose to have incised on his gravestone, under which, by tradition, he lies buried three fathoms deep:

Good Frend, for Jesus sake forbeare,
To digg the Dust enclosed Heare:
Bleste be the Man that spares thes stones,
And Curst be he that moves my bones.

Here and there in the plays he had always found an eloquent use for doggerel: and he knew this injunction would be necessary for more than one reason, It was his final word to a world that was to owe him so much and to which he owed nothing more. After all, he had lived all his life next door to—Anon.

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This article originally appeared in The New Criterion, Volume 1 Number 9, on page 8
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