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The Triumph of Will

Young Shakespeare

by Russell Fraser
Columbia University Press, 247 pp., $29.00

Biographies of Shakespeare usually dwell on the “outer life”—legal documents, his friends and professional associates, allusions to him—and say little or nothing about his art. Excellent in their own way, G.E. Bentley’s Biographical Handbook (1961) and S. Schoenbaum’s A Documentary Life (1975) followed this tradition, which began in the eighteenth century. “No biography exists,” according to Mr. Fraser, “that is simultaneously a comprehensive and scrupulous account of the life, and a consideration, worth having, of the art. This is the book I have sought to write.”

Young Shakespeare tilts much more toward the “life” than the “art,” and there will be argument whether the two really come together successfully, “two distincts, division none.” Nevertheless, this is a biography unlike any other, deliberately breaking away from some of the thinking as well as from the presentation of predecessors. Biographers of the “outer life” can also lean in different directions, either “life in Shakespeare’s England” or the life story of the dramatist. Mr. Fraser, again, tries to combine the two, and writes so fully (and interestingly) on the first that he leaves himself too little room for the life story, and so he misses some opportunities.

Instead of offering a straight narrative, or subsectioned chapters, Young Shakespeare weaves together a curious tapestry that includes literary and theatrical history, Shakespeare’s life story, and analysis of his art. The book moves back and forth, thus opening up new perspectives. This technique may confuse some readers; those who know a little about Shakespeare and his age, and who expect the familiar guided tour, will find Mr. Fraser a very pleasant surprise.

Historians of Shakespeare’s time report a War of the Theaters, Jonson pitted against his contemporaries, Marston, Dekker, etc. But the Theater War that mattered was between the new realism and old mimetic art, the approximation of reality. Dating from the years when these competitors were fighting it out, Shakespeare’s Winter’s Tale has a famous stage direction: “Exit, pursued by a bear.” For this, they brought on a man in a bear suit. Nobody was fooled, except as he wished to be. Inigo Jones, had they asked his opinion, would have sent them for their bear to Henslowe’s Garden, just over the way. Shakespeare, however, preferred the mimetic thing. He kept reality at art’s length.

Beginners may want to be told a little more about the War of the Theaters or Inigo Jones (the designer, among other things, of special stage costumes) or Henslowe’s Bear Garden. Mr. Fraser prefers not to answer every question, modeling himself on the dramatist. “Crosscutting from Cheapside to the king’s palace, Shakespeare, raising questions, leaves them unresolved. That is how he teaches.”

Yet Mr. Fraser, like every other biographer, feels the need to establish some central points, and he sometimes writes of possibilities as if they were facts. “He was still in his teens when Anne Hathaway, eight years older, initiated him.” “The failure of Shakespeare’s marriage didn’t turn on difference in years.” Perhaps she did, perhaps it failed, but not necessarily. And there are other assertions that seem to me to ignore some of the evidence, giving too one-sided a picture of young Shakespeare. “None of his acquaintances were allowed to get close.” “First of all a survivor, Shakespeare took strength from the city he lived in, also a thick skin and his unsurprised demeanor.” The Sonnets tell a different tale.

We know more about Shakespeare’s legal affairs than about those of his literary contemporaries, and—since his letters and notebooks have disappeared—less about his inner life than in the case of Spenser, Donne, or Jonson. So the temptation to fill in some of the gaps is hard to resist. When the Queen visited the Earl of Leicester at Kenilworth, near Stratford, of course the future dramatist has to be there as well. “Villagers from Warwickshire turned out en masse, Shakespeare among them, a boy of eleven years and three months. Common folk, not gentry, he stood outside looking in.” “In the hottest July in memory, John Shakespeare and son, coming over from Stratford, watched the goings-on.” Some of the goings-on, published in Robert Laneham’s account (1575) of the Queen’s entertainment, seem to resurface in Shakespeare’s plays. It remains possible, however, that Shakespeare himself later read Laneham, or heard of the visit from friends. What is important is that the future dramatist could not have failed to be aware of the charms of the theater in provincial Stratford, whether or not he personally attended every performance. “Shakespeare, part of the crowd in Coventry, watched the Slaughter of the Innocents…. He saw the naked infants spitted on pikes.” “Shakespeare, aged nine, saw this company [Leicester’s Men] when it played Stratford.” We need to know that the boy Shakespeare had these opportunities. But that is all we know and it serves no useful purpose to claim more than we can actually prove.

I am not writing a biographical romance, and have steered clear of the staple phrases of biography at its wits’ end: ‘Doubtless he’ or ‘It may well have been,’ etc.” Yet something very like romancing begins when the perhapsing stops, and other specialists may take issue with some of Mr. Fraser’s too risky statements. He calls Henry VI, Part 1, Shakespeare’s “first play,” and The Comedy of Errors “his first comedy.” Why be so positive, when there is so little agreement about the order and dating of the early plays? In the new one-volume Oxford Shakespeare series (1986), Henry VI is the sixth play, Errors the third comedy; and E.K. Chambers had other views. Should readers not be warned that young Shakespeare could even have written—or rewritten—Part 1 of Henry VI after Part 3, not before Part 2?

A figo for thy dates!” cry theater-lovers who, like Ancient Pistol, do not care for scholarly correctness. Yet if we get the dates wrong our perception of young Shakespeare may go quite seriously astray. “Marlowe, much on Shakespeare’s mind in the early 1590s, is the uncontested master of the love poem.” His Hero and Leander was “licensed for publication in 1593,” and Mr. Fraser thinks that, “taking this immaculate exercise for a model, Shakespeare is working against his bent” in Venus and Adonis. But what are the facts? Marlowe died on May 30, 1593, and Hero and Leander was entered in the Stationers’ Register (S.R.) on September 28 of the same year; the first surviving edition was published in 1598. Venus (S.R. April 18, 1593) was probably published six weeks or so before Marlowe died. Since Hero was left unfinished by Marlowe, either Shakespeare saw this fragment of a poem in manuscript or Marlowe wrote Hero after (not before) the publication of Venus. Just over eight hundred lines long, Hero could easily have been produced in those last six weeks, at the rate of twenty lines a day, after one of Shakespeare’s most sensational successes. Only the time-hallowed classification of Marlowe as one of “Shakespeare’s predecessors” pulls in the other direction, which is inherently less probable. It may be, then, that young Shakespeare did not take Hero for a model, and did not romp through the story of frigid Adonis and the lusty Venus “against his bent.”

As others have said, the two rival dramatists, both born in 1564, probably learned much from each other, a two-way traffic: Richard III was indebted to Marlowe and Edward II to Shakespeare. Even if Marlowe arrived in London before Shakespeare—which is by no means certain—we are not entitled to assume that, when one copied from the other, Marlowe always came first.

Mr. Fraser, of course, knows that the dating of Shakespeare’s early works remains a problem, and in general resists the notion that the dramatist was a late developer, “the late-bloomer imagined by Chambers-Malone.”

The evidence for chronology, fragmentary or abundant, sponsors different conclusions. The orthodox view concludes that Shakespeare began to write for the theater in 1590–91. Set in concrete a half century ago, this view derives from E.K. Chambers, building on the labors of Edmund Malone. Late-blooming Shakespeare is substantially the creation of these two great scholars…. This laggard in theater, copious and facile for most of his career, doesn’t meet our expectation.

The “late-bloomer” theory, orthodox for two hundred years, depends (inter alia) on the view one takes of the dates of several related texts, not only Venus and Adonis and Hero and Leander. In particular the dating of the two King John plays has figured as an issue for students of young Shakespeare, and Mr. Fraser sees that orthodoxy may be mistaken.

Cashing in on the popularity of Shakespeare’s play, a dishonest scribbler brought out a plagiarized version in 1591, The Troublesome Reign of King John. Shakespeare’s source, older scholarship called it, assigning Shakespeare’s King John to 1596–97.

King John, he believes, “looks and sounds like early Shakespeare.” Not all of it (does this mean that some passages were revised?); typically, though, the play’s verse is immature, with too much self-consciously “beautiful writing.”

Early Shakespeare, “aggressively symmetrical,” gives himself away by being overcareful. In King John, Act II, he set a French and English herald against each other, French and English armies, two petitioners—an emblematic scene, “visually striking but frozen.” So, in his early comedies, “Dromio S. meets Dromio E. and four young women of France pair off with four men of Navarre. In early tragedy too, for instance Titus Andronicus,…four virtuous Romans against four wicked Goths.” Asymmetry loosens, Mr. Fraser explains, “and early Shakespeare doesn’t often risk it.”

Here, then, we glimpse controversy. Elsewhere Mr. Fraser’s method often bypasses different explanations—understandably, for who wants to pause several times a page to caution that what has just been said may not be true? A life of Shakespeare, as soon as it goes beyond the bare bones of the story, unfortunately needs many such reminders.

Still walled when Shakespeare saw it first, the city proper began at Newgate. Through the archway that pierced the walls, he entered London, late in the 1580s. Nobody knew him when he came up. An inconspicuous man about theater, he was “Johannes Factotum,” doing odd jobs.

This assumes that Shakespeare arrived from Stratford. Could he not have toured with an established company before reaching London, as Mr. Fraser had hinted? Would he have been inconspicuous if Robert Greene called him a tiger, and “waspish,” as Mr. Fraser seems to accept? And did Greene’s famous smear (in Groat’s Worth of Wit, 1592) mean that young Shakespeare did odd jobs—or rather, that the “absolute Johannes Factotum,” who was “in his own conceit the only Shake-scene in a country,” saw himself as a “would-be universal genius” (Oxford English Dictionary, Factotum, 1)?

Whenever a biographer tries to flesh out the story he has to resort to conjecture, only too aware that others may think differently. Young Shakespeare prints forty pages of supporting notes for fewer than two hundred of text, and I still felt that the element of conjecture—usually reasonable conjecture—sometimes bordered on romancing. This may be partly due to the book’s crosscutting technique, which jumps across the years without sufficient warning and weaves together threads that are not really contemporary. Perhaps the fault also lies in the book’s arresting first sentence, “In 1594, when my story ends, Shakespeare turned thirty and more than half his life lay behind him.” One assumes that undated anecdotes refer to “young Shakespeare” and his world, but not so. Shakespeare’s son-in-law, Dr. John Hall, “ministered to young George Quiney, troubled with a ‘grievous cough,’ but this patient died, aged twenty-four”; this happened long after 1594. Players performed at Knowsley in Lancashire in 1587: “Among the guests this Christmas season, two catch the eye, Ursula, the illegitimate daughter of Henry, the fourth earl, and her husband Sir John Salisbury, later eulogized in Love’s Martyr (1601).” John Salusbury was not knighted until June 1601. In 1594, the Lord Chamberlain looked after the Queen’s entertainment, and “Shakespeare, Groom in Ordinary of the Chamber, helped to provide this”: Shakespeare and his colleagues only became Grooms in Ordinary in 1603, on being appointed the “King’s Men.”

In these and other similar passages we see the penalty Mr. Fraser pays for putting old wine in new bottles. Avoiding a consecutive narrative, and attempting instead impressionistic introductions to the places, persons and institutions that helped to form young Shakespeare, he seems careless about facts largely because his tapestry is a panorama, a composite picture, in which pedantic accuracy is not all-important. The nit-picking reviewer has a field day, and the originality of the book’s crosscutting method is too easily overlooked. Here is his account of Queen Elizabeth:

She thought herself endowed “with such qualities that if I were turned out of the realm in my petticoat, I were able to live in any place in Christendom.” English being partial to whatever lives long, they praised her to the skies. She was Astraea, goddess of justice, or Cynthia, the Virgin Queen. John Lyly, a fulsome contemporary of Shakespeare’s, adorned her with “singular beauty and chastity, excelling in the one, Venus, in the other, Vesta.” (Almost all the famous poets swelled this paean of praise but Shakespeare held his peace.)

No doubt “Venus” put it too high. The Queen’s nose was hooked, her hair “of an auburn color but false,” her teeth black from sucking sugar.

And here is part of a detailed account of the Globe theater:

In the darkness beneath the stage, props owned by the company waited for the playwright to dispose them. Item, 1 Hell Mouth, 1 tomb of Dido, the City of Rome, Tamburlaine’s bridle, Cerberus’s 3 heads, 2 moss banks and 1 snake, 1 great horse with his legs, 1 black dog, 1 cauldron for the Jew. Taking a hint from this cauldron, the last resting place of Marlowe’s Barabas, Shakespeare dug a pit for the sons of Titus Andronicus.

Actually, the props listed belonged to another theater…but, in the absence of similar information about the Globe, it is helpful to know that they existed. And did Titus Andronicus definitely take hints from The Jew of Malta, or was it the other way around? And is it not widely believed that Shakespeare did praise Elizabeth, perhaps more gracefully than any competitor?

That very time I saw, (but thou couldst not),
Flying between the cold moon and the earth,
Cupid all arm’d. A certain aim he took
At a fair vestal throned by [the] west,
And loos’d his love-shaft smartly from his bow,
As it should pierce a hundred thousand hearts;
But I might see young Cupid’s fiery shaft
Quench’d in the chaste beams of the wat’ry moon,
And the imperial vot’ress passed on,
In maiden meditation, fancy-free.
(A Midsummer Night’s Dream, II.i.155 ff.)

In the “life,” even if Mr. Fraser’s crosscutting and compacted style give some misleading impressions, he sees with his own eyes, teaching us to look with renewed interest. His brushwork is unlike anyone else’s. When he writes of Shakespeare’s “art” the same originality is at work, but less successfully, since he always hurries on from one text to another—he has plenty of ideas, but seems to have too little time. Venus and Adonis shows him to advantage. Shakespeare

got much pleasure from sex, a messy activity not easily accommodated in the golden world of the love poem…. Neither man nor woman is substantially there, and emblems or metonyms stand in for real persons…. Venus, coolly anatomized, isn’t flesh and blood but an artificial landscape with mountains, dales, pleasant fountains, and sweet bottom grass. Adonis, a deer, shelters in this grass. The last thing the poet wants for his erotic “exhibition piece” is reality breaking in.

Young Shakespeare is good on the poems, including A Lover’s Complaint and the Sonnets (surely most of the Sonnets were written after 1594?), and skips tantalizingly past the early plays, some of which are barely mentioned. And the same point has to be made about the life story: it fails to deal with some of the more important material. Little though we know about young Shakespeare’s own doings, we now have a clearer picture of his father’s career than was possible fifty years ago, and most of this new information I looked for in vain.

The last three decades of John Shakespeare’s life “record his failure,…a long running down” after a rapid rise. Stratford’s bailiff (equivalent to the modern mayor) in 1568, John changed his style of life in the 1570s.

He began to miss Council meetings. He got in debt and left his creditors unpaid. He mortgaged his wife’s property, losing some of it for good…. He couldn’t meet his alderman’s assessment for support of the local soldiery. When the Council reduced this, he couldn’t find the smaller sum either. Aldermen were supposed to pay a weekly tax toward poor relief, but the Council, knowing their man, excused “Mr. John Shakespeare.” After 1576, with a single exception he went no more to meetings.

It looks, at first, as if John Shakespeare were financially crippled—but let us fill in some of the missing detail. In 1580 he was summoned to appear in court at Westminster, and was fined £20 for not complying; he also acted as surety for John Audeley, who likewise failed to show up, which led to a second fine of £20. Would the court have fined him £40, a very large sum, if he was thought to be struggling financially?

Curiously, John Shakespeare had to raise the same sum in 1578, and borrowed it from his wife’s sister’s husband, Edmund Lambert, mortgaging to him Mary Arden’s inheritance, a house, and land in Wilmcote. In 1589 and 1597 John took the Lamberts to law, claiming that they failed to pay him another £20 for the property (i.e., Mary’s inheritance was really worth £60) and that he, John Shakespeare, had offered to repay the original £40.

In 1599 John Shakespeare sued John Walford, a clothier, for a debt of £21. Walford had bought twenty-one tods of wool from him in 1568 for £21, and had not paid. Reputedly “a considerable dealer in wool,” Shakespeare had got into difficulties in 1572, when he faced charges in the Court of Exchequer for illegal wool-dealing. It was alleged that he had purchased three hundred tods of wool (i.e., 8,400 pounds) for £210. Two years earlier he was twice accused of breaking the usury laws by lending £80 and £100 at 20 percent to Walter Musshem; in 1573 Shakespeare and Musshem were sued for debt by Henry Higford. To the end of his life (in 1601) Shakespeare owned property in Stratford, so there is no reason to doubt the statement made in 1596, when he was granted his coat of arms, “That he hath Landes & tenementes of good wealth, & substance 500 li [£500]”*—in those days a fortune.

Almost all of these legal actions are passed over in silence by Mr. Fraser, and yet they must have had an effect on the whole Shakespeare family, not excluding William, the eldest son and heir, later a shrewd businessman. Taken together, they tell us much about John Shakespeare: he amassed and lost large sums of money, he lived dangerously. More than that, he threw his weight around in Stratford and farther afield, and he made enemies. As Mr. Fraser says of some of his other legal affairs,

looking over his shoulder, he said he lived in “fear of death and mutilation” [a legal formula, not always to be taken literally]. Four Stratford men were after him, one of them bailiff in 1582. This looks drastic. Later, he made it up with the bailiff.

If, as seems likely enough, Nicholas Rowe was correct in stating (in 1709) that John Shakespeare trained William “in his own employment,” it may be that William also adopted his father’s rough style as a businessman, at least at the start of his career. “Gentle Shakespeare” to his friends, he impressed other witnesses as the very opposite. Our first glimpse of him comes from an infuriated enemy, Robert Greene, who described Shakespeare as selfishly competitive (like father like son?): he “supposes he is as well able to bombast out a blank verse as the best [established writers],” he “is in his own conceit the only Shake-scene in a country,” he has a “tiger’s heart.” Why was the first allusion to the dramatist so different from those that followed? Something must lie behind it. Perhaps that something was the influence of his father.

  1. *

    See David Thomas, Shakespeare in the Public Records (London: H.M.S.O., 1985), and the reviewer’s Shakespeare: The “lost years” (Manchester University Press, 1985), p. 115ff.

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