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five little backs to clothe, were quite enough to harass the poor man who could not keep his own body out of a debtor's prison, and to cause him to abandon any ambitious projects which he might have formed for his eldest son, and call him from his studies to contribute something to his own support, and perhaps to that of the family.
The traditions of the townsfolk upon this subject were surely therefore in the main well founded, though in their particulars they were discordant. Rowe, speaking for Betterton, says, that "upon his leaving school he seems to have given entirely into that way of living which his father proposed to him,” which, according to the same authority, was that of a dealer in wool. Gossiping John Aubrey, who says that John Shakespeare was a butcher, adds: “I have been told heretofore by some of the neighbors that when he was a boy he exercised his father's trade; but when he kill'd a calfe he wold doe it in a high style, and make a speeche.” Aubrey, who died about 1700, probably received this precious information from the same source through which an old parish clerk of Stratford, who was living in 1693, and was then more than eighty years old, derived a similar story, that Shakespeare had been “bound apprentice to a butcher." Aubrey also records, on the authority of an unknown Mr. Beeston, that William Shakespeare "understode Latin pretty well, for he had
been many years a schoolmaster in the country.” The only point upon which these loose traditions are of importance is that upon which they all conform to probability, that William Shakespeare was obliged to leave school early and earn his living. *
* Isolated passages in Shakespeare's plays have been gravely brought forward to sustain each of these traditions as to his early occupation, — surely a wise and penetrative method of getting at the truth in such a matter. Let us see.
When we read a passage like this in King Henry the Sixth,
“ Who finds the heifer dead and bleeding fresh,
But will suspect ’t was he that made the slaughter?”– what way to avoid concluding that the writer had been himself a butcher ? Consider, too, the profound inner significance of this passage in Love's Labour's Lost, in which Holofernes describes Sir Nathaniel : “He is too picked, too spruce, too affected, too odd, as it were, too peregrinate, as I may call it. . . . He draweth out the thread of his verbosity finer than the staple of his argument.” Is there not a goodly part of the wool-stapler's art, as well as of the art of rhetoric, compressed into that last sentence by the power of Shakespeare's genius? And is it not thus made clear that he was practically initiated into the mysteries of long and short staple before he wrote this, one of the earliest of his plays ? But, again, ponder the following lines in King Henry the Sixth, written when the memory of his boyish days was freshest, and see evidence that both these traditions were well founded :
“So, first the harmless sheep doth yield his fleece,
And next his throat, unto the butcher's knife.” Certainly these lines could have been written only by a man who was both the son of a considerable dealer in wool, and a butcher, who killed calves in high style, making a speech. Who, appreciating rightly the following passage in Hamlet, can have a doubt about this matter?
Utterly ruined, however, as John Shakespeare was, he seems never to have been driven out of his house in Henley Street, or to have lost his property in it; though how this could be in the case of a man as to whom the return upon an execution was “no effects,” it is not easy to conjecture.
“Our indiscretion sometimes serves us well
Rough-hew them how we will.”
“Dr. Farmer informs me that these words are merely technical. A woolman, butcher, and dealer in skewers lately observed to him that his nephew (an idle lad) could only assist him in making them. 'He could rough-hew them, but I was obliged to shape their ends !' To shape the ends of wool-skewers, i. e. to point them, requires a degree of skill; any one can rough-hew them. Whoever recollects the profession of Shakespeare's father will admit that his son might be no stranger to such terms. I have frequently seen packages of wool pinn'd up with skewers.”
What a revelation at once of the unknown outer and that more mysterious inner life of Shakespeare! Lucky wool-man, butcher, and dealer in skewers ! to furnish thus a comment upon the great philosophical tragedy, and proof that you and its author were both of a trade. Fortunate Farmer, to have heard the story! and most sagacious Steevens, to have penetrated its hidden meaning, recollecting felicitously that you had seen packages of wool pinned up with skewers ! But, O wisest, highest, and deepest-minded Shakespeare ! to have remembered, as you were propounding, Hamlet-wise, one of the great unsolvable mysteries of life, the skewers that you, being an idle lad, could but rough-hew, leaving to your careful father the skill-requiring task of shaping their ends !-- ends without which they could not have bound together the packs of wool with which you loaded
But what was William Shakespeare doing in all those years through which his father was descending into the vale of poverty, whither we have followed him to the lowest depth? We have passed over thereby some events of great importance to the son, whom his father's trials seem not
carts at the door in Henley Street, or have penetrated the veal of the calves you killed in such high style and with so much eloquence, and which loaded the tray you daily bore on your shoulder to the kitchen-door of New Place, yet unscheming to become its master!
Yet I would not insist too strongly upon this evidence that Shakespeare's boyhood was passed as a butcher's and woolstapler's apprentice; because I venture to think that I have discovered like evidence in his works that their author was a tailor. For in the first place I have found that the word "tailor” appears in his plays no less than twenty-seven times ! “Measures” occurs nearly thrice as often; "sheak,” no less than six times; “thimble,” thrice ; “goose," no less than twenty-seven times ! And when we see that in all his thirty-seven plays “cabbage occurs but once, and then with the careful explanation that it means roots, and is "good cabbage,” must we not regard such reticence upon this tender point as touching confirmation of the theory sartorical? His plays abound with like evidence. He says of the use to which his favorite hero Prince Hal will put the manners of his wild companions, that
By which his Grace must meet the lives of others.” He makes one of the Two Gentlemen of Verona, as his severest censure of the other, reproach him with being badly dressed :
“Ruffian, let go that rude uncivil touch,
Thou friend of an ill fashion !” And how unmistakably he gives us in Hamlet a reminiscence of a highly ornamented style of children's clothing :
to have chastened into sobriety. In estimating Shakespeare's character, the fact that he left among his neighbors the reputation of having been somewhat irregular in his youth cannot be lightly set aside. Nor is it at all strange that such a reputation should have been attained in the early years of a man of his lively fancy, healthy organization, and breadth of moral sympathy. It is from tradition that we learn that during his father's misfortunes he was occasionally engaged in stealing deer ; but we know on good evidence that about that time he also got himself married in no very creditable fashion. While he was sowing his wild oats in the fields round Stratford, he naturally visited the cottage of Richard Hathaway, a substantial yeoman of Shottery, who seems to have been on terms of friendship with John Shakespeare. This Richard Hathaway had,
“ The canker galls the infants of the Spring
Too oft before their buttons be disclosed.” What more natural than that a tailor, vexed with the memories of peevish customers, should make the incensed Northumberland compare himself to a man who is “impatient of his fit”? And yet this evidence, so strong and cumulative, must not be too much relied upon. For who but a publisher, anxious about the health and the progress in her work of a popular authoress, could have written thus in Twelfth Night?
“ Lady, you are the cruell'st she alive,
And leave the world no copy." The subject expands illimitably before me, and I resign it to the followers of Farmer and of Steevens, and to the Germans.