May Clarissa Gillington Byron.

A Day with William Shakespeare online

. (page 1 of 2)
Online LibraryMay Clarissa Gillington ByronA Day with William Shakespeare → online text (page 1 of 2)
Font size
QR-code for this ebook


Produced by Delphine Lettau, Matthew Wheaton and the Online
Distributed Proofreading Team at http://www.pgdp.net







"Some ardent love-scene in the rich dim gardens of Verona."

_Juliet._ This bud of love, by summer's ripening heat,
May prove a beauteous flower when next we meet.
(_Romeo and Juliet_).


[Illustration: ROMEO AND JULIET.
_Painting by W. Hatherill, R.I._]


A DAY WITH WILLIAM SHAKESPEARE
BY MAURICE CLARE

HODDER & STOUGHTON


_In the same Series._

_Tennyson._
_Browning._
_E. B. Browning._
_Burns._
_Byron._
_Longfellow._
_Whittier._
_Rossetti._
_Shelley._
_Scott._
_Coleridge._
_Morris._
_Wordsworth._
_Whitman._
_Keats._
_Milton._




A DAY WITH WILLIAM SHAKESPEARE.


It was early on a bright June morning of the year 1599. The household
of Christopher Mountjoy, the wig-maker, at the corner of Silver Street
in Cripplegate, was already up and astir. Mountjoy, his wife and
daughter, and his apprentice, Stephen Bellott, were each refreshing
themselves with a hasty mouthful - one could not term it
breakfast - before beginning their day's work. For town wig-makers were
busy folk, then as now. Every fashionable dame wore "transformations,"
and some noble ladies, like the late Queen of Scots and - breathe it
low - the great Elizabeth herself, changed the colour of their tresses
every day.

Breakfast, in 1599, was a rite "more honoured in the breach than in
the observance." Most people, having supped with exceeding heartiness
the previous night, ignored breakfast altogether: especially as dinner
would occur some time between 10 and 12 a.m. Those who could not go
long without food had no idea of a regular sit-down meal during that
precious morning hour which "has a piece of gold in its mouth." They
contented themselves with beaten-up eggs in muscadel wine, as now the
Mountjoy family; who, being of French origin, boggled somewhat at the
only alternative - a very English one - small ale and bread-and-butter.

To these good folk, standing up and swallowing their morning draught,
entered their well-to-do lodger, Mr. William Shakespeare, up betimes
like them - for he was a very busy person, - and shared their jug of
eggs and muscadel. Mr. Shakespeare was thirty-five years of age, "a
handsome, well-shap't man," in the words of his friend Aubrey, - his
eyes light hazel, his hair and beard auburn. He still retained, in
some degree, the complexion which accompanies auburn hair, and this
imparted a tinge of delicacy to his sensitive and mobile face. He was
already slightly inclined to _embonpoint_: for in the seventeenth
century people aged soon, and thirty-five was much more like
forty-five nowadays.

In all company, with all people, Shakespeare was charmingly
pleasant-spoken. He had long since shed any provincial _gaucherie_,
and was of an exquisite courtesy, "of a very ready and pleasant smooth
wit," - again to quote his intimates, "a good-natured man, of a great
sweetness in his bearing, and a most agreeable company." Moreover,
that indefinable ease of bearing, which accrues with success, was
evident in the gracious _bonhomie_ of his mien. For, after many years
of stress and struggle, many hard bouts with fortune, innumerable
humiliations and adverse events, he was now prosperous, popular,
possessed of this world's goods. Although a self-made man in every
sense of the word, - although still a member of that despised
theatrical profession against which the pulpit thundered, at which the
decent citizen looked askance, - he was a distinctly marked
personality, not to be ignored. He was part proprietor of the _Globe_
Theatre, the _Blackfriars_, and the _Rose_, - he had house property in
Southwark and Blackfriars, lands and houses at Stratford-upon-Avon. He
had obtained a coat-of-arms for his family from the College of
Heralds, thus constituting himself legally a "gentleman"; he was the
brilliant author of immensely popular plays. And he was reputed to
earn at the rate of £600 per annum - which would be now worth nearly
eight times as much.

Such was the man who presently sauntered out into the summer sunlight,
this June morning, and went leisurely westward towards Holborn. He
strolled along, thoughtfully ruminating the day's work before him, but
courteously alert to every greeting from passing acquaintances in the
streets. He encountered, as he went, warm and invigorating scents,
which floated round each corner - and rose, for the nonce, above the
malodours of the open gutter - pleasant midsummer perfumes which were
exhaled, in the clear and smokeless air of those days, from a
multiplicity of blossoming London gardens. For every house had its
private garden, large or small. Every householder garnished his
dwelling-rooms with flowers, instead of ornaments of potter's ware or
metal: the floors were still strewn with leaves and grasses, and the
doorways often decked with boughs. Cherries and strawberries were
ripening in the ancient monastery gardens, among the majestic
precincts of ruined priories: blackbirds were singing in the trees. If
the actual dewy freshness of the Warwickshire water-meadows were not
present in the London air - if the wild roses of the Avon-side did not
bloom in Holborn - yet Shakespeare had only to close his eyes one
moment, to project himself back into his boyhood's scenes. For London
was emphatically a "garden city," encircled by forests, and fields,
and farms, and wooded hills; and the ecstatic sweetness of an English
June was wafted over its cobbled thoroughfares.

Of all seasons, this was the most enjoyable to Shakespeare - because of
his passion for flowers. He delighted to make long luscious lists of
flowers - their very names were a pleasure to him, each fraught with
its own special significance. He loved to write of

Daffodils,
That come before the swallow dares, and take
The winds of March with beauty; violets dim,
But sweeter than the lids of Juno's eyes,
Or Cytherea's breath: pale primroses....
The crown-imperial, - lilies of all kinds,
The flower-de-luce being one.

- to collect, in imagination,

Roses, their sharp spines being gone,
Not royal in their scent alone,
But in their hue.
Maiden pinks of odour faint,
Daisies smell-less yet most quaint,
And sweet thyme true;

"Carnations and streaked gillyflowers," and all the lovely company of
the garden, were a joy to him; and equally so the wild flowers in
woodlands where "the wild thyme grows, And oxlips and the nodding
violet blows," over which the south wind breathes softly, "stealing
and giving odour." Beneath the tangled woodbines and musk-roses, the
poet could linger in fantasy, if not in fact, - in dream, if not in
deed. A passionate enjoyment of wild nature distinguished him
pre-eminently above all his town-bred compeers. Trees and birds and
forest brooks, but flowers especially, claimed an equal place with
music in his affections. Beauty of sight and sound appealed, with
magic power, to the man on whom the robuster joys failed to make any
permanent mark. For towards all the salient characteristics of the
Elizabethan age, - the volcanic vigour, the incandescent longing for
adventure, the magnificent dare-devilry of seamanship, the fierce and
splendid valour, inciting men to desperate deeds, - William Shakespeare
was strangely impassive and unimpressionable. The wave of Elizabethan
ardour surged past, and left him not even sprinkled by its spray. He
was quite content to go on clothing with new flesh - glowing and
Giorgione-like - the antique bones of old romances; to infuse new life
into forgotten mediæval episodes, crudely treated by his predecessors,
the men who supplied stock plays for travelling companies. He
preferred some ardent love-scene in the rich, dim gardens of Verona to
all the opulent possibilities of the New World: some pageantry in
Venice or in Athens to any present splendour of the Elizabethan
court. He secretly revelled, with conscious and justifiable pride, in
pouring forth imperial passages of words, reverberant with rolling
sound; but frequently, for the sheer pleasure of musical effect, as it
would seem, he introduced those exquisite lyrics, - bird-like in
their careless spontaneity, flower-like in their grace and
daintiness, - which float like flakes of thistledown above his plays.
These songs say all that need be said: they condense into a few swift
words the essential spirit of a whole drama. So in _Othello_:

"My mother had a maid call'd Barbara," says Desdemona, standing
unwittingly upon the threshold of death,

"She had a song of 'willow';
An old thing 'twas, _but it expressed the future_,
And she died singing it. That song, to-night,
Will not go from my head."

The most apparently casual and irrelevant ditties of Shakespeare's
dramas, in like manner, "express the future" of the story.

"Come unto these yellow sands,
And there take hands"....

So, eventually, Ferdinand and Miranda avow their mutual love beside
the lapping of the long blue waves.

"Under the greenwood tree
Who loves to lie with me," -

might be the very _leit-motiv_ of _As You Like It_.

"Sigh no more, ladies, - ladies, sigh no more,
Men were deceivers ever:
One foot on sea, and one on shore,
To one thing constant never," -

- here you have the treachery of Don John, and the vacillating
mistrust of Claudio, succinctly summed up.

"Journeys end in lovers' meeting,
Every wise man's son doth know," -

thus the Clown in _Twelfth Night_ becomes mouthpiece of the
_dénouement_ which was never long in doubt.

To every man his _métier_: and that of William Shakespeare was not to
be the mouthpiece of those "spacious times," tingling with sensation,
with excitement, with huge enterprise. Exhibiting, throughout, the
curious patient persistence of the essential Midlander, he had worked
his way right up from the bottom rung of the ladder. The ill-mated
young man of twenty-three, who had left Stratford with a travelling
company of players in 1587, - who had (whether conscious or unconscious
of his genius) plodded industriously onward as a literary hack of
drama - tinkering, adapting, re-shaping and re-writing the stale old
stock plays, until they suffered a change "into something rich and
strange," - whose colossal greatness his contemporaries were not great
enough to appreciate; - that same man was now arriving - like so many
other Midlanders - at a point where criticism could not touch him. He
had gained no giddy pinnacle of sudden success, but a safe and solid
summit of assured position. That he should attain it in his own way,
and after his own methods, - that, after all, was his business. There
were plenty of other poets to utter _Arma virumque cano_. William
Shakespeare preferred to link himself with thoughts of Italy, and
fairy-folk, and "the sea-coast of Bohemia," - with youth and palaces
and forests, and fortunate or frustrate love. His range and scope were
enormous, if he cared: his output astonishing, if he chose....
Meanwhile, it was mid-summer and there were roses....

* * * * *

"Ferdinand and Miranda avow their mutual love, beside the lapping of
the long blue waves."

_Ferdinand._ Here's my hand.

_Miranda._ And mine, with my heart in't.

(_The Tempest_).


[Illustration: FERDINAND AND MIRANDA. _Painting by Edmund Dulac_.]


Moving meditatively along Holborn, he presently encountered his old
friend Gerard the botanist, whose _Herball_ had been published two
years before, - who stood at the head of his profession for knowledge
and achievement. He lived in Holborn, where he had not only a fine
garden-ground, but a fruit-ground in Fetter Lane, which he
superintended for the surgical society of which he was a member.

"Well met, Will!" said the grave and reverend herbalist, "no other man
in London would I more gladly welcome: for that thou hast a most
worthy apprehension of the seemliness of plants and herbs. Country
blood, country blood, good sir! Come, now, into my poor enclosure and
let me regale thee with new and marvellous things.... What! it is but
eight o' the clock! The paltry playhouse shall not claim thee yet
awhile. What are all Euripides his dramas, in comparison with that
wherewith I shall rejoice thine eyes?"

And, seizing the poet's hand, Gerard drew him through a side-door into
his beloved garden. "Behold!" he exclaimed, "the Apple of Love, _Pomum
Aureum_!" - and, with ineffable pride, he pointed out some
slowly-ripening tomatoes. "These grow in Spain, Italy and such hot
countries, from whence myself have received seeds for my garden,
where, as thou seest, they do grow and prosper.... Howbeit there be
other golden apples, which the poets do fable growing in the gardens
of the daughters of Hesperus. These," - he added regretfully, "I have
not."

"Master Gerard, there shall no golden apples ever come to England
worthy to compare with yours," remarked the dramatist, luxuriously
inhaling the warm June scents shut closely within sun-baked walls, and
gazing down the coloured vistas and aisles of bloom. "Here's flowers
for you!" he murmured to himself,

"Here's a plenty of sweet herbs!
Hot lavender, mints, savory, marjoram,
The marigold that goes to bed with the sun,
And with him rises weeping: these are flowers
Of middle summer. And I think they are given
To men of middle age."

"Sithee here again," continued Gerard, well launched upon his
favourite topic, "this plant, which is called of some Skyrrits of
Peru, is generally called of us, Potatus or Potatoes," - and he waved
his hand towards a bed of sweet potatoes. "Of these roots may be made
conserves, toothsome, wholesome and dainty, and many comfortable and
restorative sweetmeats. Other potatoes there be, which some do use
with salt, - but of these I have no present apprehension."

Shakespeare was not paying attention to the potatoes. On his knees
beside a strawberry bed, he looked up with a laughing face. "Methinks
I would rather fresh fruit than conserves," said he, filling his mouth
with much satisfaction.

"Then, of the Indian pot-herb, tobacco," the botanist proceeded, "give
me joy that I have had good fortune in three kinds thereof, - the
Henbane of Peru, the Trinidada Tobacco, and the pigmy or dwarfish
sort. But, indeed, this same tobacco is by no means to be commended as
a fume or smoking-medicine. The juice, boiled with sugar into a syrup,
is a sovereign cure for many maladies. I pray you, good Master
Shakespeare," said he, earnestly seizing the other's arm and
punctuating his words with a gentle see-saw movement, "believe me,
that any other herb of hot temperature will suffice for
pipe-smoking - rosemary, thyme, winter savory, sweet marjoram and
such-like."

"Faith, I am no great smoker," replied Shakespeare, as with a
dexterous jerk he eluded his friend and dived down an alley of damask
roses. "Here," said he, "I shall play the robber, - " He gathered a
rose and set it behind his ear in the most approved Court fashion. "I
would fain linger all day among these manifold sweetnesses," he added,
"but alack! I have need to hasten now. I pray you, therefore, give me
leave to depart." The herbalist, talking volubly, accompanied him to
the door.

The playwright turned down towards Blackfriars: on his way he entered
an apothecary's shop, and, heedless of Master Gerard's warnings,
purchased a "rich smoke" at sixpence a pipeful - (equivalent to,
perhaps, four shillings of our money). This was no cheap and
adulterated mixture, such as the "groundlings" used, but the very best
procurable: and, to emphasise its _recherché_ quality, it was kept in
a lily-pot, minced on a maple-block, served out with silver tongs, and
lighted from a little fire of juniper shavings. Shakespeare, having
thus filled his long clay pipe, proceeded to the Blackfriars shore,
where he took a ferry-boat across to Bankside in Southwark and entered
the _Globe_ Theatre, of which he was part proprietor. It may here be
explained that, every theatre having recently been banished from the
City as the very quintessence of disreputability and root of all evil,
the exiled players had taken refuge south of the river, in Bankside:
which, being a quarter singularly ill-famed, was considered by all
reputable citizens a most appropriate situation for them. The _Globe_,
like other public playhouses of the period, was roofless: three
stories high, with boxes all round in tiers, the ground tier paled
with oaken boards and fenced with strong iron pikes. The stage, which
had a "shadow" or cover over it, was some 40 ft. wide and extended to
the middle of the yard or pit. At the back of the stage was a balcony,
over the entrance from the "tiring-house" or dressing-rooms. It was
lighted, if necessary, by branched candlesticks, while "cressets"
(tarred ropes' ends in cages) were set in front of the boxes.

The _Globe_ company of about ten actors, Burbage, Heminge, Condell,
Field and the rest, were entering by ones and twos, with the boys
who played women's parts: last of all, the orchestra of ten
performers, the largest in London, dawdled in, and took up their
instruments - chiefly drums and trumpets. The rehearsal commenced - the
play of _Hamlet_, with Burbage in the title-rôle. Shakespeare, though
necessarily present, paid but little attention to the business in
hand. In studied and self-conscious acting he had no interest
whatsoever. His theory was the same as Ben Jonson's, that a man should
act "freely, carelessly, and capriciously, as if one's veins ran with
quicksilver, and not utter a phrase but shall come forth in the very
brine of conceit, and sparkle like salt in fire." But this was too
high a criterion to impose upon his company. He therefore left them
chiefly to their own devices, under the capable management of Burbage,
and remained himself in the tiring-room, employed upon his usual
morning's avocation, revising and revivifying old "stock" plays, and
considering fresh MSS., which arrived in vast numbers - and accepting
as much as he could. For he was incapable of jealousy: he "did his
greatness easily," and was the kindest of friends, the most indulgent
of critics, to would-be dramatic authors. His acquaintance with Ben
Jonson had originated in "a remarkable piece of humanity and
good-nature." Jonson, unknown and unaccredited, had offered a play to
the theatre. "But the persons into whose hands it was put, after
turning it carelessly and superficially over, were just upon returning
it to him, with an ill-natured answer, that it would be of no service
to their company, when Shakespeare luckily cast his eye upon it, and
found something so well in it, as to encourage him to read it through,
and afterwards to recommend Ben Jonson and his writings to the
public." (Rowe) Similar experiences befell many a budding stage
writer: Shakespeare's singular sweetness of disposition led him to be
lavish of praise as of money. He was "always willing to touch up this
man's play, or write in an act for that one." And of no other man did
he utter a cruel or an injurious word. "A kinder gentleman treads not
the earth," his intimates might have said of him, as he of Antonio.

* * * * *

"The young gallants were glad when the Play-scene was over."

_Hamlet._ He poisons him in the garden for his estate. His
name's Gonzago.

(_Hamlet_).


[Illustration: THE PLAY-SCENE IN _HAMLET_. _Painting by W. G.
Simmonds._]


Yet it might almost be averred that William Shakespeare found himself
a dramatist by accident. He accepted from the first the conditions of
a life despised and contemned, the life of the actor classed with
rogues and vagabonds, banished with contumely into ignominious
neighbourhoods. "He looked upon the half-art of acting with disdain
and disgust": he saw his worst plays performed much more frequently
than his best. By nature a poet _pur et simple_, of a delicate,
fastidious, bookish temperament, one who continually corrected his
best verses with endless pains and critical scrupulosity - he had been
thrown into the rowdy pot-house company of second-rate actors, and
was accused by jealous rivals of being "an upstart crow," swelled out
with inordinate vanity - or gibed at, by those who professed themselves
his friends, as a slovenly and careless writer - or openly contemned by
the very lackeys and menials, should he receive a call to Court. And
this was only one of the darker sides to the life of this
gentle-natured, cheerful, seemingly successful man. The others, as we
shall presently perceive, were, in some sense, infinitely more tragic.

The rehearsal over, and the hungry actors pouring forth to obtain
their dinner at the nearest taverns or cookshops, Shakespeare (who
had, as we know, already broken fast) re-crossed the river and paced
quietly up towards St. Paul's Churchyard, to visit the booksellers'
shops. The Signs of the _White Greyhound_, the _Angel_, the _Spread
Eagle_, the _Green Dragon_, the _Flower de Luce_, and so on, were the
recognised rendezvous for men of letters, and Shakespeare's own
earlier works, such as _Venus and Adonis_, _Lucrece_, _Henry IV_, and
_Richard II_, were issued at several of these shops. Here he could
foregather with learned and literary friends; here he could sit and
study the latest books; here, in short, he was no longer the actor,
but the author. And it may be noted in passing, that Shakespeare's
literary _confrères_ respected him, not as the permanent dramatist of
the _Globe_, the transmuter of old lead into gold of Ophir - but as a
lyrical poet, an authentic "maker" of beautiful verse. "The Muses
would speak Shakespeare's fine filed phrase if they could speak
English," so ran the encomium of his admirers. His "sugared sonnets,"
they declared, were of surpassing excellence and charm. "His facetious
(pleasant) grace in writing," as they termed it, "which approves
(proves) his art," was that of the sonneteer, not the playwright. That
state and majesty, that knowledge of human nature, which distinguish
his dramatic work, seemed, to his contemporaries, quite foreign to the
man they knew, the witty, gracious, graceful poet.

After a short look-in at his favourite bookshops, Shakespeare
proceeded to another popular rendezvous - the middle aisle of St.
Paul's. This was no sequestered haunt of studious folk, but a busy
promenade where all sorts and conditions of men met freely, by
appointment or otherwise: here one might encounter the down-at-heels
adventurer, the "masterless man or penniless companion," side by side
with the rubicund citizen, the opulent merchant, and the country
gentleman whose talk was of hawks and hounds. Every condition of
character, every variety of type, was here for Shakespeare's sharp
eyes to scan: every fragment of conversation that fell upon his keen
ears was noted down almost automatically. Friends and acquaintances
many were here to be encountered: the popular writer received
salutations on every hand, and those who might benefit by his
well-known laxity of purse were not slow to avail themselves of it.
Money frequently changed hands before Shakespeare passed out of the
Cathedral. He had the customary careless generosity of stage-folk, and
the fact that he was reputed to spend as much as he earned was
doubtless largely due to his lavish freehandedness. Nobody could look
into that kindly face and expect a _No_ to any asking.

But now it was striking twelve on every clock in the City, and he
turned into Cheapside to the _Mermaid_, which stood between Friday
Street and Bread Street. In those days, few except the upper classes
dined at home. The "restaurant habit" of the twentieth century
prevailed among middle-class townsfolk - especially those who were only
lodgers, or visitors in London: and the cook-shops, ordinaries, and
taverns laid themselves out to provide such hearty dinners as were
necessary to people who had only two meals a day.

Upon the table to which Shakespeare sat down there were a stewed
rabbit, a roast capon, a salmon stuck with cloves, and a piece of
boiled beef; a jug of ale, a flagon of white wine (sack or canary) and
a quart of claret. Honey was poured over the meat, and the wine-cups
were half full of sugar. For the Elizabethans loved "sugar and spice
and all things nice." Every dish was highly seasoned, highly


1

Online LibraryMay Clarissa Gillington ByronA Day with William Shakespeare → online text (page 1 of 2)