Saturday, January 7, 2012

Shakespeare’s Life, a new theory. How did he spend his early days? - written 4 October 1926 – Guesses and Theories

How one wishes that Shakespeare had devoted part of his leisure in retirement to writing the story of his life! It would have saved a world of conjecture and oceans of printer's ink, not to speak of centuries of learned controversy. Was ever history more tantalisingly silent ! There are a hundred things we are dying to know about Shakespeare, and we are compelled to put up with guesses and theories and vacant peradventures.

The merest schoolboy knows the orthodox story of Shakespeare's early life; how his father married an Arden, as we say, above him; and how moving from the farm at Stratford he set up as a glover, combined other departments of business with it; rose to be an alderman, but afterwards fell upon evil times. We know also that the poet was his first son and third child—was' born in 1564, probably entered the grammar school of Stratford in 1571; that he learned to write the Old English character; and, as school opened at 6 a.m. and closed at 5.30 p.m., and Latin was the spoken language and main subject of study, the education of the dramatist was fairly thorough in one respect. In 1577 the father needed his help at home, and tradition has it that his business was now that of a butcher. Picture William Shakespeare killing a calf; but, as Aubrey says, "When he killed a calf he would do it in high style and make a speech." The statement carries an air of truth.

Then, of course, the poet married in 1582 at the age of eighteen, and our knowledge of Anne Hathaway, eight years his senior, is also very scanty. By 1585, that is three years after marriage, and when three children had been born to him, he took himself off to London, and was never in Stratford again till 1596.

The tantalising blank of Shakespeare's youth has given wings to imagination. Mr. Arthur Gray, M.A., master of Jesus College, Cambridge, has just set forth a new theory, which he claims to be reasonable, though modestly admitting that he has not fully proved his contention. Mr. Gray's case is that after 1585 Stratford completely lost sight of Shakespeare. What was he doing for the next seven years! We all know the story that he ran away to escape being had up for killing deer belonging to Sir Thomas Lucy.

Mr. Gray says there was no deer park at Charlecote, and Lucy had no such park anywhere. As to Shakespeare holding Lucy up to contempt as Justice Shallow, the answer is that Shakespeare never indulged in railing.


 The terms used regarding Shakespeare by his contemporaries are called in by Mr. Gray to prove that he had all the bearing and manners of a gentleman. He was "generous," which in those days meant a man of birth and breeding. Ben Jonson and Davies call him "gentle," a word used of nobles and kings.

Stratford was a place with no history and of no consequence. Not one important house stood in or near it. Why did Shakespeare leave it? Where did he go? How came he to be so perfectly versed in the manners of nobility? How could an uneducated youth at the age of 20 leap into the foremost place among poets, and that under the patronage of a great peer, the Earl of Southampton!

Mr Gray has an answer to all such questions. The poet’s father was a member of the Stratford Corporation, and was brought into close contact withHenry Goodere, of Polesworth, 38 miles from Stratford. The Gooderes were an ancient and wealthy family, and Mr. Gray propounds the theory that young William Shakespeare was packed off to Polesworth in 1572 to be a page in the family of Mr. Goodere. Is this a mere guess! "Yes," says Mr Gray, "a guess, with a circumstance.

At that time patronage was the prop of needy authors and such eminent men as Chaucer, More, and Davenant had served as pages in great families where they met cultured gentlemen and had access to books.

But as to the proof! One point adduced is that Shakespeare refers more familiarly to places near Polesworth than to Stratford. Stamford mentioned by Shallow, is Tamworth, four miles from Polesworth. The poet also makes no reference to places on the London-Stratford Road, but he did know about the road from North Warwickshire (where Polesworth is) to London. Again, this part of the country was a remarkable centre of literary activity. Mr. Goodere himself wrote verses, but famous persons like Holinshed of the Chronicles, Lodge, Drayton, Burton and Cokain frequented Polesworth. How could the young Shakespeare fail to be inspired by listening to the talk of such giants!

How did Shakespeare contrive to get introduced to the Earl of Southampton! Easily enough, according to Mr. Gray. Henry Goodere, the elder, was in the Tower of London with the second Earl of Southampton for supposed complicity in the Rudoli plot. The third Earl was at Cambridge with younger Henry Goodere, and it was highly reasonable to suppose that Shakespeare carried with him to London an introduction to the Earl.

If it be asked why we have no hint, of all this in Shakespeare's writings, the answer forthcoming is that he never consciously delineated the individual feature of any contemporary, and never pictured the actual localities where his scenes etc laid. Polesworth was much frequented by players, and no doubt "Little Will" had taken part in Polesworth pageants.


We rather suspect that if Mr. Gray had stated his case to the Supreme Court the verdict would have gone against him. The Scottish form "not proven" would exactly meet the case. It is quite clear that he undervalues the education obtainable at Stratford in the grammar school provided by the endowment of Henry VI. Besides, quite a number of Latin authors known to Shakespeare he shows himself fairly familiar with French and Italian, and in English knew Sidney, Spenser, and Chaucer. The master at Stratford during the greater part of Shakespeare school days was Mr. Simon Hunt, a graduate of Oxford, and one apparently well fitted to guide the literary tastes of his pupils.

As to witnessing plays and pageants, that would be no serious difficulty anywhere in England at this period. In 1575 Queen Elizabeth visited the Earl of Leicester at his castle of Kenilworth, only fifteen miles from Stratford, and their masques and pageants were the order of the day.

Mr. Gray's theory is open to another serious objection. If young Shakespeare had been taken away to Polesworth at such an early ago, what was he doing back in Stratford courting Anne Hathaway, marrying her, spending three years there afterwards, and only then making off for London?

There are many rumours about Shakespeare's occupation between 1585 and 1592. One is that he became schoolmaster, another that he joined regiment organised by the Earl of Leicester to serve in the Low Countries, another that he joined the naval forces which fought the Spanish Armada, and then, most popular' of all, that he went to London, held horses at the doors of theatres, was promoted to be prompter's assistant, and from that starting point rose to be an' actor and playwright. It is all a perhaps, and again perhaps, and the theory of Mr. Gray is more of a perhaps than most of them.

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