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It is not probable that Shakespeare, when he had found that he could labor profitably in a less public walk of his calling, ever strove for distinction or much employment as an actor. We know from one of his sonnets how bitter the consciousness of his position was to him, and that he cursed the fortune which had consigned him to a public life.* If he ever had comfort on the stage it must have been in playing kingly parts, which are assigned to him in the lines of Davies.†
But although Shakespeare began his London life as a player, it was impossible that he should long remain without writing for the stage; and so it happened. With what company he became first connected, there is no direct evidence; but his earliest dramatic employment seems to have been as a co-worker with Greene, Marlowe, and Peele for the Earl of Pembroke's players. There are good reasons for believing that, in conjunction with one or more of these playwrights, he labored on The First Part of the Contention betwixt the Two Famous Houses of York and Lancaster, The True Tragedy of Richard Duke of York, A Pleasant Conceited History of the Taming of a Shrew, Titus Andronicus, an early form of Romeo and Juliet, of which there are some remains in the quarto edition of 1597, and probably some other pieces which have been lost. $ It would have
* Sonnet CXI.
† See page 138. | See the Essay on the Authorship of King Henry the Sixth,
been strange, indeed almost unprecedented, if a young adventurer going up to London had immediately found his true place, and taken firm root therein. But little as we know of Shakespeare's period of trial and vicissitude, we do know that it was brief, and that within about three years from the time when he left his native place he attached himself to the Lord Chamberlain Hunsdon's company (previously known as the Earl of Leicester's), of which the Burbadges, father and son, were prominent members, and that he became a shareholder in this company, and remained an active member of it until he finally retired to Stratford.
Shakespeare immediately showed that unmistakable trait of a man organized for success in life, which is so frequently lacking in men who are both gifted and industrious, - the ability to find his work, and to settle down quickly to it, and take hold of it in earnest. He worked hard, did everything that he could turn his hand to, acted, wrote, helped others to write, - and seeing through men and things as he did at a glance, he was in those early years somewhat over-free of his criticism and his advice, and, what was less endurable by his rivals, too ready to illustrate his principles of art successfully in practice. He came soon to be regarded, by those who liked and
Vol. VII., and the Introduction to Titus Andronicus, Vol. IX., The Taming of the Shrew, Vol. IV., and Romeo and Juliet, Vol. X. of the author's edition of Shakespeare's Works.
needed him, as a most useful and excellent fellow, a very factotum, and a man of great promise; while those who disliked him and found him in their way, and whose ears were wounded by his praises, set him down as an officious and conceited upstart.
He saw at once the coarse, unnatural, feeble, and inflated style of the men whom he found in possession of public favor, and he treated them to a little good-natured ridicule, of which we find traces in some of his plays, as in Hamlet and A Midsummer Night's Dream, and in some of his burlesque bombastic characters, as in Pistol and Nym. Now, men may love their enemies and do good to them that hate them; but men will never love their critics, or do anything but evil to them that ridicule them. As to criticism men are unwise ; but in regard to ridicule they have some reason. Accusation of crime is trifling in comparison. Say that a man has murdered his mother; and if he has not done the deed, your slander will recoil upon your own head, bringing him consolation in your infamy. But make him ridiculous, and he simply is ridiculous, and there is an end; except that he is your enemy for life. Ridicule can neither be refuted nor explained away. For which reason, although it is a fair weapon against words and acts, (however poor a test of truth,) against persons it is the fit resort of cowardice and malice; - a distinction, however, which many men cannot or will not
make; and consequently an author often resents the ridicule of his writings as if it were directed against himself. This was Shakespeare's experi
But not content with criticism and caricature, he began to outstrip his victims in favor with the public. Now, such conduct is always resented as an insult. There is no surer, as there can be no sadder, evidence to a man that he is rising in the world's consideration, than an outcry from the little souls around him that he is receiving that of which he is not worthy. How they strive by protests (always in the interests of truth), by sneers, and by all the little artifices of detraction, even silence, to show that he is as small as they are, only showing the while how much he is their superior! Goodness divine and wisdom infinite could not escape such scoffing. “Is not this the carpenter's son ? is not his mother called Mary? and his brethren James, and Joses, and Simon, and Judas, and his sisters, are they not all with
Whence then hath this man all these things? And they were offended in him.”
That such was Shakespeare's lot we are not left to conjecture, hardly to infer. One of the playwrights whom he found in high favor when he reached London, and with whom, as a youthful assistant, he began his dramatic labors, stretched out his hand from beyond the grave to leave a record of his hate for the man who had supplanted him, and who, he saw, would supplant his com
panions, as a writer for the stage. The drunken debauchee, Robert Greene, dying in dishonorable need, left behind him a pamphlet written on his death-bed, and published after his burial. It was called A Groatsworth of Wit bought with a Million of Repentance, and was better named than its author, or its editor, Henry Chettle, probably supposed. But Greene, though repentant, with the repentance of sordid souls when they are cast down, was not so changed in heart that he could resist the temptation of discharging from his stiffening hand a Parthian shaft, barbed with envy and malice, and winged with little wit, against young Shakespeare. In the pretended interests of truth and friendship, he warned his companions and co-workers, Marlowe, Lodge, and Peele, that the players who had all been beholden to them, as well as to him, would forsake them for a certain upstart crow, beautified with their feathers, who supposed that he was able to write blank verse with the best of them, and who, being in truth a Johannes Factotum, was in his own conceit the only Shake-scene in the country. Greene was right, as his surviving friends ere long discovered. Their sun had set; and it was well for them that they all died soon after. They could not forgive
* See the passage in question, given verbatim and in full, and its significance with regard to Shakespeare's early labors set forth, in the Essay on the Authorship of King Henry the Sixth, Vol. VII. pp. 408-412 of the author's edition of Shakespeare's Works.