Steevens has attempted to impugn the credibility of this anecdote by saying,
" That it was once the general custom to ride on horseback to the play I am yet to
learn. The most popular of the theatres were on the Bankside ; and we are told
by the satirical pamphleteers of that time that the usual mode of conveyance to
these places of amusement was by water, but not a single writer so much as hints
at the custom of riding to them, or at the practice of having horses held during the
hours of exhibition." Steevens is here in error ; he has a vague notion which is
still persevered in with singular obstinacy, even by those who have now the means
of knowing that Shakspere had acquired property in the chief theatre in 1589
that the great dramatic poet had felt no inspiration till he was about eight-and-
twenty, and that, therefore, his connexion with the theatre began in the palmy days
of the Globe on the Bankside a theatre not built till 1593. To the earlier theatres,
if they were frequented by the gallants of the Court, they would have gone on horses.
They did so go, as we learn from Dekker, long after the Bankside theatres were
established. The story first appeared in a book entitled " The Lives of the Poets,"
considered to be the work of Theophilus Gibber, but said to be written by a Scotch-
man of the name of Shiels, who was an amanuensis of Dr. Johnson. Shiels had
certainly some hand in the book ; and there we find that Davenant told the anecdote
to Betterton, who communicated it to Rowe, who told it to Pope, who told it to Dr.
Newton. Improbable as the story is as it now stands, there may be a scintillation
of truth in it, as in most traditions. It is by no means impossible that the Black-
friars Theatre might have had Shakspere's boys to hold horses, but not Shakspere
himself. As a proprietor of the theatre, Shakspere might sagaciously perceive that
its interest would be promoted by the readiest accommodation being offered to its
visitors ; and further, with that worldly adroitness which, in him, was not incom-
patible with the exercise of the highest genius, he might have derived an individual
profit by employing servants to perform this office. In an age when horse-stealing
was one of the commonest occurrences, it would be a guarantee for the safe charge
of the horses that they were committed to the care of the agents of one then well
known in the world, an actor, a writer, a proprietor of the theatre. Such an
association with the author of Hamlet must sound most anti-poetical ; but the fact
170 WILLIAM SHAKSPERE : A BIOGRAPHY. [BOOK III.
is scarcely less prosaic that the same wondrous man, about the period when he wrote
Macbeth, had an action for debt in the Bailiff's Court at Stratford, to recover thirty-
five shillings and tenpence for corn by him sold and delivered.
Familiar, then, with theatrical exhibitions, such as they were, from his earliest
youth, and with a genius so essentially dramatic that all other writers that the
world has seen have never approached him in his power of going out of himself, it
is inconsistent with probability that he should not have attempted some dramatic
composition at an early age. The theory that he was first employed in repairing
the plays of others we hold to be altogether untenable ; supported only by a very
narrow view of the great essentials to a dramatic work, and by verbal criticism,
which, when carefully examined, utterly fails even in its own petty assumptions.
There can be no doubt that the three Parts of " Henry VI." belong to the early stage.
We believe them to be wholly and absolutely the early work of Shakspere. But we
do riot necessarily hold that they were his earliest work ; for the proof is so absolute
of the continual improvements and elaborations which he made in his best produc-
tions, that it would be difficult to say that some of the plays which have the most
finished air, but of which there were 110 early editions, may not be founded upon
very youthful compositions. Others may have wholly perished ; thrown aside after
a season ; never printed ; and neglected by their author, to whom new inventions
would be easier than remodellings of pieces probably composed upon a false theory
of art. For it is too much to imagine that his first productions would be wholly
untainted by the taste of the period. Some might have been weak delineations of
life and character, overloaded with mythological conceits and pastoral affectations,
like the plays of Lyly, which were the Court fashion before 1590. Others might
have been prompted by the false ambition to produce effect, which is the charac-
teristic of Locrine, and partially so of Titus Andronicus. But of one thing we may
be sure that there would be no want of power even in his first productions ; that
real poetry would have gushed out of the bombast, and true wit sparkled amidst
the conceits. His first plays would, we think, fall in with the prevailing desire of
the people to learn the history of their country through the stage. , If so, they would
certainly not exhibit the feebleness of some of those performances which were popular
about the period of which we are now speaking, and which continued to be popular
even after he had most successfully undertaken
" To raise our ancient sovereigns from their hearse."
The door of the theatre was not a difficult one for him to enter. It is a singular
fact, that several of the most eminent actors of this very period are held to have
been his immediate neighbours. The petition to the Privy Council, which has
proved that Shakspere was a sharer in the Blackfriars playhouse in 1589, contains
the names of sixteen shareholders, he being the twelfth on the list. The head of
the Company was James Burbage ; the second, Richard Burbage his son. Malone
suspected that both John Heminge, one of the editors of Shakspere's Collected
Works, and Eichard Burbage, " were Shakspere's countrymen, and that Heminge
was born at Shottery." His conjecture with regard to Heminge was founded upon
entries in the baptismal register of Stratford, which show that there was a John
Heminge at Shottery in 1567, and a Richard Heminge in 1570. Mr. Collier has
shewn that a John Burbadge was bailiff of Stratford in 1555 ; and that many of the
same name were residents in Warwickshire. But Mr. Hunter believes that Richard
Burbage was a native of London. A letter addressed by Lord Southampton to Lord
Ellesmere in 1608, introducing Burbage and Shakspere to ask protection of that
nobleman, then Lord Chancellor, against some threatened molestation from the Lord
Mayor and aldermen of London, says, "they are both of one county, and indeed almost
CHAP. I.] LEAVING HOME. 171
of one town." This would be decisive, had some doubts not been thrown upon the
authenticity of this document. We do not therefore rely upon the assumption that
William Shakspere and Richard Burbage were originally neighbours. But from the
visits of the Queen's players to Stratford, Shakspere might have made friends with
Burbage and Heruinge, and have seen that the profession of an actor, however dis-
graced by some men of vicious manners, performing in the inn-yards and smaller
theatres of London, numbered amongst its members men of correct lives and honour-
able character. Even the enemy of plays and players, Stephen Gosson, had been
compelled to acknowledge this : " It is well known that some of them are sober,
discreet, properly learned, honest householders, and citizens well thought on among
their neighbours at home."* It was a lucrative profession, too ; especially to those
who had the honour of being the Queen's Servants. Their theatre was frequented
by persons of rank and fortune ; the prices of admission were high ; they were called
upon not unfrequently to present their performances before the Queen herself, and
their reward was a royal one. The object thus offered to the ambition of a young
man, conscious of his own powers, would be glittering enough to induce him, not
very unwillingly, to quit the tranquil security of his native home. But we inverse
the usual belief in this matter. We think that Shakspere became an actor because
he was a dramatic writer, and not a dramatic writer because he was an actor. He
very quickly made his way to wealth and reputation, not so much by a handsome
person and pleasing manners, as by that genius which left all other competitors far
behind him in the race of dramatic composition ; and by that prudence which taught
him to combine the exercise of his extraordinary powers with a constant reference
to the course of life he had chosen, not lowering his art for the advancement of his
fortune, but achieving his fortune in showing what mighty things might be accom-
plished by his art.
There is a subject, however, which we are now called upon to examine, which may
have had a material influence upon the determination of Shakspere to throw himself
upon the wide and perilous sea of London dramatic society. We have uniformly
contended against the assertion that the poverty of John Shakspere prevented him
giving his son a grammar-school education. We believe that all the supposed evi-
dences of that poverty, at the period of Shakspere's boyhood, are extremely vague
and contradictory.t But, on the other hand, it appears to us more than probable
that after William Shakspere had the expenses of a family to meet, there were
changes, and very natural ones, in the worldly position of his father, and conse-
quently of his own, which might have rendered it necessary that the son should
abandon the tranquil course of a rural life which he probably contemplated when he
married, and make a strenuous and a noble exertion for independence, in a career
which his peculiar genius opened to him. We will first state the facts which appear
to bear upon the supposed difficulties of John Shakspere, about the period when
William may be held to have joined Burbage's company in London facts which are
far from indicating any thing like ruin, but which exhibit some involvements and
In 1578 John Shakspere mortgaged his property of Asbies, acquired by marriage.
Four years before this he purchased two freehold houses in Stratford, which he
always retained. In 1578, therefore, he wanted capital. In 1579 he sold an interest
in some property at Snitterfield. But then, in 1580, he tendered the mortgage
money to the mortgagee of the Asbies' estate, which was illegally refused, on the
pretence that other money was owing. A Chancery suit was the consequence, which
was undetermined in 1597. In an action for debt in the bailiff's court in 1586,
the return of the serjeants-at-mace upon a warrant of distress against John Shak-
* "School of Abuse," 1579. f See Book n., Chap. i.
172 WILLIAM SHAKSPERE : A BIOGRAPHY. [BOOK III
spere is, that lie had nothing to distrain upon. It is held, therefore, that all the
household gear was then gone. Is it not more credible that the family lived else
where ? Mr. Hunter has discovered that a John Shakspere lived at Clifford, a pretty
village near Stratford, in 1579, he being described in a will of 1583 as indebted tc
the estate of John Ashwell, of Stratford. His removal from Stratford borough as a
resident, is corroborated by the fact that he was irregular in his attendance at the
halls of the corporation, after 1578 ; and was finally, in 1586, removed from th
body, for that he " doth not come to the halls when they be warned." And yet, as
there were fines for non-attendance, as pointed out by Mr. Halliwell, there is some
proof that he clung to the civic honours, even at a personal cost ; though, from
some cause, and that probably non-residence, he did not perform the civic duties
Lastly, he is returned in 1592, with other persons, as not attending church, anc
this remark is appended to a list of nine persons, in which is the name of " Mr
John Shackespere," " It is said that these last nine come not to church for fear of
process for debt." If he had been residing in the borough it would have been quite
unnecessary to execute the process in the sacred precincts ; he evidently lived anc
was occupied out of the borough. It is tolerably clear that the traffic of Henley
Street, whether of wool, or skins, or carcases, was at an end. John Shakspere, the
yeoman, was farming ; and, like many other agriculturists, in all districts, and all
times, was a sufferer from causes over which he had no control. There were pecu-
liar circumstances at that period which, temporarily, would have materially affected
In 1580 John Shakspere tendered the mortgage-money for his wife's inheritance
at Asbies. The property was rising in value ; the mortgagee would not give it up.
He had taken possession, and had leased it, as we learn from the Chancery proceed-
ings. He alleges, in 1597, that John Shakspere wanted to obtain possession, because
the lease was expiring, " whereby a greater value is to be yearly raised." Other
property was sold to obtain the means of making this tender. John Shakspere
would probably have occupied his estate of Asbies, could he have obtained posses-
sion. But he was unlawfully kept out ; and he became a tenant of some other land,
in addition to what he held of his own. There was, at this particular period, a
remarkable pressure upon proprietors and tenants who did not watchfully mark the
effects of an increased abundance of money a prodigious rise in the value of all
commodities, through the greater supply of the precious metals. In "A Briefe
2onceipte touching the Commonweale," already quoted,* there is, in the dialogue
Between the landowner, the husbandman, the merchant, the manufacturer, and the
doctor of divinity, a complaint on the part of the landowner, which appears to offer
a parallel case to that of John Shakspere : " All of my sort- I mean all gentlemen
have great cause to complain, now that the prices of things are so risen of all
lands, that you may better live after your degree than we ; for you may and do
raise the price of your wares as the prices of victuals and other necessaries do rise,
and so cannot we so much ; for though it be true, that of such lands as come to
lands either by purchase or by determination and ending of such terms of years
ihat I or my ancestors had granted them in time past, I do receive a better fine
han of old was used, or enhance the rent thereof, being forced thereto for the charge
>f my household, that is so encreased over that it was ; yet in all my lifetime I look
not that the third part of my land shall come to my disposition, that I may enhance
he rent of the same, but it shall be in men's holding either by leases or by copy
granted before my time, and still continuing, and yet like to continue in the same
tate for the most part during my life, and percase my sons. ***** *
We are forced therefore to minish the third part of our household, or to raise the
* Page 12.
CHAP. I.] LEAVING HOME. 173
third part of our revenues, and for that we cannot so do of our own lands that is
already in the hands of other men, many of us are enforced to keep pieces of our
own lands when they fall in our own possession, or to purchase some farm of other
men's lands, and to store it with sheep or some other cattle, to help make up the
decay of our revenues, and to maintain our old estate withal, and yet all is little
In such a transition state, we may readily imagine John Shakspere to have been
a sufferer. But his struggle was a short one. He may have owed debts he was
unable to pay, and have gone through some seasons of difficulty, deriving small rents
from his own lands, " in the hands of other men," and enforced to hold " some farm
of other men's lands" at an advanced rent. Yet this is not ruin and degradation.
He maintained his social position ; and it is pleasant to imagine that his illustrious
son devoted some portion of the first rewards of his labour to make the condition
of his father easier in that time of general uneasiness and difficulty. In ten years
prosperity brightened the homes of that family. The poet bought the best house
in Stratford ; the yeoman applied to the College of Arms for bearings that would
exhibit his gentle lineage, and asserted that he was a man of landed substance,
sufficient to uphold the pretension. But in the period of rapid changes in the value
of property, a transition which, from the time of Latimer, was producing the most
remarkable effects on the social condition of all the people of England, pressing
severely upon many, although it was affording the sure means of national progress,
it is more than probable that Shakspere's father gradually found himself in
straitened circumstances. This change in his condition might have directed his son
to a new course of life which might be entered upon without any large pecuniary
means, and which offered to his ambition a fair field for the exercise of his peculiar
genius. There was probably a combination of necessity and of choice which gave
us "Hamlet" and "Lear." If William Shakspere had remained at Stratford he
would have been a poet a greater, perhaps, than the author of " The Faery Queen ; "
but that species of literature which it was for him to build up, almost out of chaos,
and to carry onward to a perfection beyond the excellence of any other age, might
have been for him " an unweeded garden."
WILLIAM SHAKSPERE : A BIOGRAPHY.
Mr. Halliwell, in the Preface to his " Life," has done me the favour to call public attention to
my ignorance of " Palaeography," in reference to my publication of some documents on which
the preceding statements are founded. He says, " Mr. Knight is, I believe, the only one of
late years who has referred to the originals, ("records of Stratford-on-Avon,") but the very
slight notice he has taken of them, and the portatttnu mistakes he has committed in cases where
printed copies were not to be found, would appear to show that they were unintelligible to that
writer." In one other passage Mr. Halliwell has conferred on me the greater favour of pointing
out the number of " the portentous mistakes " in two documents out of the four which I gave
from reference " to the originals." As to the others he is silent. He says, as to these two
documents, "Malone makes thirty-one errors, and Mr. Knight, who professes in this in-
stance to see the value of accuracy in such matters, and to correct his predecessors, falls into
twenty-six." I acknowledge my own errors, with deep humility ; and I owe the public a duty
to show what these twenty-six " portentous mistakes " are, and how they ought to be corrected
from Mr. Halliwell's transcripts, founded upon his knowledge of " palaeography," which he
describes as " a science essentially necessary in the investigation of contracted records of the
sixteenth century, especially of those written in Latin." But Mr. Halliwell is too indulgent to
me. I have exceeded the number of Malone's errors by two. Of course I assume that in
reading these mouldy and blurred records Mr. Halliwell is infallible in the matters of ys and
it. In his case no one can believe in the possibility of a doubt.
" At his word
Is A deposed, and B with pomp restor'd."
4. &c. .
5. is .
6. , . .
8. towards .
10. burgess .
14. Plymley .
15. omitted .
reginse nostrse, &c.
20. a? .
22. &c. .
23. is .
24. ordeined .
25. towards .
28. omitted .
29. omitted .
30. Plimley .
31. pay .
33. weekely .
reginse nostrse, &c.
I think it my further duty " to make a clean breast," as my fellow- criminals say, and ac-
knowledge my faults in the other Latin document I examined. I have omitted in my copy of
a Writ the words "eundem" and "preedicti" recondite words, which to have passed over was
not only a crime but a fault a critical sin and a " portentous mistake " an ignorance of the
science of " Palaeography," which, to use the words of one who knew all sciences, " wholly dis-
qualifies for the office of critic." One has come to enlighten the world, who, by the light of
" science," does know that ibm. means ibidem, and dnce. domince. I am grateful.
A NEW PLAY.
[A Play at the BLtckfriars.]
A NEW PLAY.
AMONGST those innumerable by-ways in London which are familiar to the hurried
pedestrian, there is a well-known line of streets, or rather lanes, leading from the
hill on which St. Paul's stands to the great thoroughfare of Blackfriars Bridge.
The pavement is narrow, the carriage-way is often blocked up by contending
carmen, the houses are mean ; yet the whole district is full of interesting associa-
tions. We have scarcely turned out of Ludgate Street, under a narrow archway,
when the antiquary may descry a large lump of the ancient city wall embedded in
the lath and plaster of a modern dwelling. A little farther, and we pass the Hall
176 WILLIAM SHAKSPERE : A BIOGRAPHY. [BOOK III,
of the Apothecaries, who have here, by dint of long and earnest struggle, raised their
original shopkeeping vocation into a science. A little onward, and the name
Printing-house Yard indicates another aspect of civilization. Here was the King's
printing-house in the days of the Stuarts ; and here, in our own days, is the office
of the " Times"' Newspaper, the organ of a greater power than that of prerogative.
Between Apothecaries' Hall and Printing-house Yard is a short lane, leading into an
open space called Playhouse Yard. It is one of those shabby places of which so
many in London lie close to the glittering thoroughfares ; but which are known
only to their own inhabitants, and have at all times an air of quiet which seems like
desolation. The houses of this little square, or yard, are neither ancient nor modern.
Some of them were probably built soon after the great fire of London ; for a few
present their gable fronts to the streets, and the wide casements of others have
evidently been filled up and modern sashes inserted. But there is nothing here,
nor indeed in the whole precinct, with the exception of the few yards of the ancient
wall, that has any pretension to belong to what may be called the antiquities of
London. Yet here, three centuries ago, stood the great religious house of the
Dominicans, or Black Friars, who were the lords of the precinct ; shutting out all
civic authority, and enclosing within their four gates a busy community of shop-
keepers and artificers. Here, in the hallowed dust of the ancient church, were the
royal and the noble buried ; and their gilded tombs proclaimed their virtues to the
latest posterity. Where shall we look for a fragment of these records now 1 Here
parliaments have sat and pulled down odious favourites ; here kings have required
exorbitant aids from their complaining subjects ; here Wolsey pronounced the
sentence of divorce on the persecuted Katharine. In a few years the house of the
Black Friars ceased to exist ; their halls were pulled down ; their church fell into
ruin. The precinct of the Blackfriars then became a place of fashionable residence.
Elizabeth, at the age of sixty, here danced at a wedding which united the houses
of Worcester and Bedford. In the heart of this precinct, close by the church of
the suppressed monastery, surrounded by the new houses of the nobility, in the
very spot which is known as Playhouse Yard, was built, in 1575, the Blackfriars'
The history of the early stage, as it is to be deduced from statutes, and proclama-
tions, and orders of council, exhibits a constant succession of conflicts between the
civic authorities and the performers of plays. The act of the 14th of Elizabeth,
" for the punishment of vagabonds, and for relief of the poor and impotent," was
essentially an act of protection for the established companies of players. We have
here, for the first time, a definition of rogues and vagabonds ; and it includes not
only those who can " give no reckoning how he or she doth lawfully get his or her
living," but " all fencers, bearwards, common players in interludes, and minstrels,