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Must we believe that this man was thus distinguished among a crowd of play-writing lawyers, not only by his genius, but by a lack of special knowledge of the law ? Or shall we rather believe that the son of the late high bailiff of Stratford, a somewhat clever lad, and ambitious withal, was allowed to commence his studies for a profession for which his cleverness fitted him, and by which he might reasonably hope to rise at least to moderate wealth and distinction, and that he continued these studies until his father's misfortunes, aided perhaps by some of those acts of youthful indiscretion which clever lads as well as dull ones sometimes will commit, threw him upon his own resources, — and that then, law failing to supply his pressing need, he turned to the stage, on which he had townsmen and friends ? One of these conclusions is in the face of reason, fact, and probability; the other in accordance with them all.
But the bare fact that Shakespeare was an attorney's clerk, even if indisputably established, though of some interest, is of little real importance. It teaches us nothing about the man, of what he did for himself, thought for himself, how he joyed, how he suffered, what he was in his mere manhood. It has but a naked material relation to the other fact, that he uses legal phrases oftener, more freely, and more exactly than any other poet.
Somewhere, then, within the years 1585 and 1586, Shakespeare went from Stratford to London, where we next hear of him as an actor and a mender of old plays. That he went with the intention of becoming an actor, has been universally assumed; but perhaps too hastily. For he had social ambition and high self-esteem; and in his day to become an actor was to cast the one of these sentiments aside, and to tread the other under foot. Betterton's story, told through Rowe, is, that Shakespeare was "obliged to leave his business and family for some time, and shelter himself in London." In so far as this may be relied upon, it shows that Shakespeare had business in Stratford, and that he sought only a temporary refuge in the metropolis. Probably it was with no very definite purpose that he left his native place. Poverty, persecution, and perhaps a third Fury, made Stratford too hot to hold him; and he might well flee, vaguely seeking relief for the present and provision for the future. He would naturally hope to live in London by the business which he had followed at Stratford. Such is the way of ambitious young men who go from rural districts to a metropolis. And, until every other means of livelihood had failed him, it was not in this high-minded, sensitive, aspiring youth to assume voluntarily a profession then scorned of all men.
be sure that, if he sought business as an attorney in London, he did not at once obtain it. Shakespeare although he was, no such miracle could be wrought for him; nay, the less would it be wrought because of his being Shakespeare. He doubtless in these first days hoped for a publisher; and not improbably this purpose was among those which led him up to London. Let who will believe that he went that journey without a manuscript in his pocket. For to suppose that a man of poetic power lives until his twenty-first year without writing a poem, which he then rates higher than he ever afterward will rate any of his work, is to set aside the history of poetry, and to silence those years which are most affluent of fancy and most eager for expression.
With Venus and Adonis written, if nothing else, — but I think it not unlikely a play, Shakespeare went to London and sought a patron. For in those days a poet needed a patron even more than a publisher; as without the former he rarely or never got the latter. Shakespeare found a patron; but not so soon, we may be sure, as he had expected. Meantime, while he waited, the stage door stood ajar invitingly, and he was both tempted and impelled to enter. For that natural inclination to poetry and acting which Aubrey tells us he possessed had been stimulated by the frequent visits of companies of players to Stratford, at whose performances he
could not have failed to be a delighted and thoughtful spectator. Indeed, as it was the custom for the mayor or bailiff of a town visited by a travelling company to bespeak the play at their first exhibition, to reward them for it himself, and to admit the audience gratis, it may safely be assumed that the first theatrical performance in Stratford of which there is any record had John Shakespeare for its patron. For it was given in 1569, the year in which he was high bailiff; and the bailiff's son, although he was then only five years old, we may be sure was present. Between 1569 and 1586 hardly a year passed without several performances by one or more companies at Stratford. But natural inclination and straitened means of living were not the only influences which led Shakespeare to the theatre. Other Stratford boys had gone up to London, and some of them had become players. Thomas Greene, one of the most eminent actors of the Elizabethan period, he who gave his name to The City Gallant, which was known and published as “Greene's Tu Quoque," was in 1586 a member of the company known as “ The Lord Chamberlain's Servants," to which Shakespeare became permanently attached. Greene was of a respectable family at Stratford, one member of which was an attorney, who had professional connections in London, and was Shakespeare's kinsman. Burbadge, Sly, Heminge, and Pope, who all bore Warwickshire
names, were on the London stage at the time of Shakespeare's arrival at the metropolis.* If Shakespeare went to London relying upon the good offices of friends, we may be sure that he looked more to his townsman, Greene the attorney, than to his other townsman, Greene the actor. But in that case, considering how shy attorneys are apt to be of the sort of young man who steals deer and writes verses, it is not at all surprising that the player proved to be the more serviceable acquaintance.
Many circumstances combine to show that it was in 1586 that William Shakespeare became connected with the London stage ; a few month's variation — and there cannot be more — in the date, one way or the other, is of small importance. Betterton heard that “he was received into the company at first in a very mean rank,” and the octogenarian parish clerk of Stratford, before mentioned, told Dowdall, in 1693, that he "was received into the play-house as a serviture." These stories have an air of truth. What claim had this raw Stratford stripling to put his foot higher than the first round of the ladder? In those days that round was apprenticeship to some well-established actor; and as such a servitor probability and tradition unite in assuring us that
* See the Remarks on the Preliminary Matter to the Folio, Vol. II. pp. xxxvi., xlvii., xlvii. of the author's edition of Shakespeare's Works.