Thursday, October 28, 2010

Stephen Greenblatt, Will in the World

Stephen Greenblatt, Will in the World; How Shakespeare Became Shakespeare, W.W. Norton & Company, New York, London, 2004.

The key was not so much topicality—with government censorship and with repertory companies often successfully recycling the same scripts for years, it would have been risky to be too topical… Virtually all his rival playwrights found themselves on the straight road to starvation; Shakespeare, by contrast, made enough money to buy one of the best houses in the hometown to which he retired in his early fifties, a self-made man. (12)

…two of Shakespeare’s longtime associates and friends, John Heminges and Henry Condell, who brought out the First Folio in 1623, seven years after the playwright’s death. Eighteen of the thirty-six plays in this great volume, including such masterpieces as Julius Caesar, Macbeth, Antony and Cleopatra, and The Tempest, had not appeared in print before; without the First Folio they might have vanished forever. The world owes Heminges and Condell an immense debt. But beyond noting that Shakespeare wrote with great facility—“what he thought,” they claimed, “he uttered with that easiness that we have scarce received from him a blot in his paper”—the editors had little or no interest in furthering biography. (18)

Love’s Labour’s Lost, … created a ridiculous schoolteaches, Holofernes, … the comical embodiment of a curriculum that used, as one of its key textbooks, Erasmus’s On Copiousness, a book that taught students 150 different ways of saying (in Latin, of course) “Thank you for your letter.” If Shakespeare deftly mocked this manic word game, he also exuberantly played it in his own voice and his own language, as when he writes in sonnet 129 that lust “Is perjured, murd’rous, bloody, full of blame,/ Savage, extreme, rude, cruel, not to trust” (lines 3-4). (24)

John Shakespeare himself seems to have had at most only partial literacy: as the holder of important civic offices in Stratford-upon-Avon, he probably knew how to read, but throughout his life he only signed his name with a mark. Judging from the mark she made on legal documents, Mary Shakespeare, the mother of England’s greatest writer, also could not write her name, though she too might have acquired some minimal literacy. (25)

But probably starting at age seven, he was sent to the Stratford free grammar school, whose central educational principle was total immersion in Latin. (25)

The sons of the very poor—a large proportion of the population—also did not go to school, for they were expected to begin work at a younger age, and, besides, though there was no fee, there were some expenses: students were expected to bring quills for pens, a knife for sharpening the quills, candles in winter, and—an expensive commodity—paper. (26)

In the summer the school day began at 6 A.M.; in the winter, as a concession to the darkness and the cold, at 7. At 11 came recess for lunch—Will presumably ran home, only three hundred yards or so away—and then instruction began again, continuing until 5:30 or 6. Six days a week; twelve months a year. The curriculum made few concessions to the range of human interests: no English or literature; no biology, chemistry, or physics; no economics or sociology; only a smattering of arithmetic. There was instruction in the articles of the Christian faith, but that must have seemed all but indistinguishable from the instruction in Latin. (26)

Everyone understood that Latin learning was inseparable from whipping… as part of his final examination at Cambridge, a graduate in grammar in the late Middle Ages was required to demonstrate his pedagogical fitness by flogging a dull or recalcitrant boy. (26)

In Plautus’s opening scene, Menaechmus of Epidamnum squabbles with his wife and then goes off to visit his mistress, the courtesan Erotium (women’s parts as well as men’s would have been played by the boys in Will’s class). Before Menaechmus knocks at her door, it swings open and Erotium herself appears, ravishing his senses: “Eapse eccam exit” (“Look, she’s coming out herself!”). And then in this moment of rapture—the sun is bedimmed, he exclaims, by the radiance of her lovely body—Erotium greets him: “Anime mi, Meaechme, salve!” (“My darling Meaechmus, welcome!”). /
This is the moment that anxious moralists like Northbrooke and Rainolds most feared and hated: the kiss of the spider boy. “Beautiful boys by kissing,” writes Rainolds, “do sting and pour secretly in a kind of poison, the poison of incontinency.” It is easy to laugh at this hysteria, but perhaps it is not completely absurd—on some such occasion as this, it is possible that the adolescent Shakespeare felt an intense excitement in which theatrical performance and sexual arousal were braided together. (28)

The cultivated Elizabethan literary critic George Puttenham writes snobbishly of “boys of country fellows” who listened with delight to blind harpers and tavern minstrels singing old romances and who enjoyed the carols sung at Christmas dinners and at the old-fashioned wedding feasts known as bridales. Will was almost certainly one of those fellows. He doesn’t seem to have been anxious about such pleasures, though he subsequently moved in circles that laughed at their rusticity. He simply took them with him to London, as him possession, to be used as much or as little as he liked. /
Shakespeare was anything but indifferent to being counted as a gentleman. But his concern for his station in life, his longing for social success, and his fascination with the lives or aristocrats and monarchs did not entail the erasure of the world from which he came. (41)

The climax of the 1575 progress was a nineteen-day stay—from July 9 to 27—at Kenilworth, the castle of the queen’s favorite Robert Dudley, the Earl of Leicester. … Leicester, whose hold on the queen’s favor had been slipping and who clearly regarded this as an occasion on which nothing should be omitted that might conceivably bring her pleasure, also arranged for a set of rustic shows. The shows were the equivalent of the mock-authentic cultural performance done in our own time for visiting dignitaries or wealthy tourists; they included a bridale and morris dance, a quintain (a sport of tilting at targets), and the traditional Coventry Hock Tuesday play. These folk entertainments were of the kind that had been attacked by moralists and strict reformers, as Leicester understood perfectly well. He also understood that the queen took pleasure in them, was hostile to their puritanical critics, and would be sympathetic to an appeal to allow them to continue. (43)

In the single most extravagant entertainment Leicester staged for the queen during her long stay, a twenty-four-foot-long mechanical dolphin rose up out of the waters of the lake adjacent to the castle. On the back of the dolphin—in whose belly was concealed a consort of wind instruments—sat the figure of Arion, the legendary Greek musician, who sang, as Langham put it, “a delectable ditty” to the queen. [46] … Years later, Shakespeare seems to have remembered this luminous spectacle in Twelfth Night, when the sea captain tries to reassure Viola that her brother may not have drowned in the shipwreck: “like Arion on the dolphin’s back,” he tells her, “I saw him hold acquaintance with the waves” (1.2.14-15). (46-47)

A Midsummer Night’s Dream… For the playwright relied not on elaborate machinery but on language, simply the most beautiful language any English audience had ever heard:
I know a bank where the wild thyme blows,
Where oxlips and the nodding violet grows,
Quite overcanopied with luscious woodbine,
With sweet musk-roses, and with eglantine.
There sleeps Titania sometime of the night,
Lulled in these flowers with dances and delight. (2.1.249-54) (49)

It is a safe bet that from boyhood on Will had helped his father in the family business, the making and selling of gloves from the shop that occupied part of the family’s handsome double house on Henley Street. (55)

John Shakespeare bought and sold wool as well as leather. Here he was violating the laws that restricted this business to authorized wool merchants. But the illegal trade, called wool brogging, was potentially lucrative, and he had the range of contracts both in the town and in the countryside to make it seem worth the risk. To mask his deals, John would have had to travel to sheep pens and rural markets, and he is likely to have taken his eldest son with him. Here too Will’s imagination seems to have borne the imprint long after. (56)

An inhabitant of Elizabethan Stratford, a town with only some two thousand inhabitants, was, in any case, only a short stroll away from the surrounding farms and woods. (57)

Though he had intimate knowledge of the country… William Shakespeare was not essentially a countryman, nor, despite his origins, was his father. Indeed, the son was powerfully struck less by his father’s rural wisdom than by his moneylending, for which he was twice taken to court in 1570, and by his property transactions, the real-world model for the maps, deeds, and conveyance that figure so frequently in the plays. The core biographical records of the poet’s adult life are real estate documents. Biographers have often lamented the plethora of these documents. Biographers have often lamented the plethora of these documents in the place of something more intimate, but Shakespeare’s lifelong interest in property investments—so unlike that of his fellow playwrights—may be more intimate a revelation that has been readily understood to be. (58)

John Shakespeare, the son of a tenant farmer from the small village of Snitterfield, was rising in the world. In the late 1550s he had made his first decisive move upward by wedding Mary Arden, the daughter of the man from whom his father had rented land. … Mary’s father, Robert, was by no means a prominent member of this family; he was simply a prosperous farmer who kept seven cows, eight oxen for the plough, two bullocks, and four weaning calves. (58)

John Shakespeare … This is the record of an impressively solid citizen and locally distinguished public man, someone liked and trusted. In the patriarchal world of Tudor Stratford none of these positions was taken lightly. (59)

Then, around the time Will reached his thirteenth year, things began to turn sour for his buoyant, successful father. One of the fourteen aldermen of Stratford, John Shakespeare had been marked absent from council meetings only once in thirteen years. Abruptly, beginning in 1577, he ceased to attend meeting. He must have had very good friends on the council, for they repeatedly exempted him from fines, reduced his assessments, and kept his name on the roster. At one time he had given generously to the poor, but now his situation had changed [60] … John Shakespeare needed money. he needed it urgently enough by November 1578 to do what Elizabethan families dreaded and resisted doing: he sold and mortgaged property. And not just any property: in a few years’ time he disposed of virtually all of his wife’s inheritance. (60-61)

The most striking glimpse of John Shakespeare’s financial situation is provided by evidence of the inquisitive eyes of the queen’s officers. The government was anxious to enforce religious uniformity. … Once a month at a minimum, everyone was expected to attend Sunday services of the Church of England. [61] … The fines were relatively small and manageable until 1581; thereafter, in the wake of a systematic crackdown on religious dissidents, they became astronomical. /
In the autumn of 1591 the government ordered the commissioners of every shire in the land to draw up a list of those who did not come monthly to church. John Shakespeare’s name turns up on the list prepared by the local officials, but in a category set apart by a note: … “It is said that these last nine come not to church for fear of process for debt.” If the explanation is accurate and not a cover for religious dissent, then the onetime bailiff of Stratford and justice of the peace was staying in his house on Sundays—and, presumably, many other days as well—to avoid arrest. The public man had become a very private man. /
By 1591, when John Shakespeare was making himself scarce, his eldest son had almost certainly flown the coop: the next year he is first mentioned as a London playwright. But his father’s humiliating position was only the latest scene in a drama that had been long unfolding and that must have shaped Will’s entire adolescence. As he came of age, Will would have been keenly aware that something had gone seriously wrong. (62)

What was the cause of the decline? Then, as now, there were business cycles—the last decades of the sixteenth century were particularly difficult in the Midlands [62]… likelier cause was a sharp government crackdown on one of the key sources of his income. In the wake of wool shortages in the mid-1570s, the authorities decided that the fault lay with the “braggers,” men like John Shakespeare… (62-3)

In 1580 the Crown issued a long list of names—over two hundred—and demanded that everyone listed appear on a specified day in June at the Queen’s Bench in Westminster to be bound over to “keep the peace towards the queen and her subjects.” John Shakespeare’s name was on the list. “Binding over”—roughly equivalent to a restraining order—was a key low-level policing the crime-prevention method in the sixteenth and seventeenth centuries. Upon someone’s swearing an oath that he feared for his life or well-being or the well-being of the entire community, the court could issue an order requiring the suspected malefactor to appear in order to guarantee his good behavior and to post a bond—a surety—to this end. The surviving records do not reveal who swore an oath against John Shakespeare or why. Was it because of his wool brogging, or some drunken quarrel for which he had been denounced, or a suspicion that he held the wrong religious beliefs? (63)

…the story of the son’s being taken out of school in order to help at home would certainly be consistent with the documented financial straits of the late 1570s. At a certain point it may have seemed an absurd luxury to have his eldest son parsing Latin sentences. (64)

Shakespeare did not, from all appearances, harbor any regrets about failing to attend Oxford or Cambridge; he did not show sign of a frustrated vocation as a scholar. For that matter, nothing in his works suggests any very sentimental feeling about school: … Nor does the scene of Latin instruction in The Merry Wives of Windsor [64]

But it is certainly not the glimpse of a lost vocation. Ben Jonson wrote scholarly footnotes to his Roman plays and his classicizing masques; Shakespeare laughed and scribbled obscenities. (66)

Hamlet focuses his brooding attention is heavy drinking, a Danish national custom [66] Is this a further clue to the cause of the father’s decline? Did the man who served in 1556 as the borough ale-taster drink himself into deep personal trouble? … “a merry-cheeked old man” whom someone had seen once in his shop and questioned about his celebrated son. … But … Even when he depicts the potentially disastrous consequences of alcohol, Shakespeare never adopts the tone of a temperance tract, and in Twelfth Night the drunk and disorderly Sir Toby Belch delivers the decisive put-down of the puritanical Malvolio: “Dost thou think because thou art virtuous there shall be no more cakes and ale?” (2.3.103-4). (67)

One of the earliest anecdotes about Shakespeare reports that though he was good company, he was not a “company keeper”—he “wouldn’t be debauched, and if invited to, writ: he was in pain.” Aubrey recorded this aroused 1680, many years after the playwright’s death, but it is peculiar enough as a recollection to suggest that it might be authentic. “He was in pain.” … propensity to decline invitations with a polite excuse and to stay at home. A certain steadiness, in any case, rings true: it would be hard otherwise to imagine how Shakespeare could have done what he did… (70)

All come to nothing in an adult son’s contempt for the symbolic father who has failed him. “God save thee, my sweet boy!” exclaims Falstaff, when he sees Hal in triumph in London. “I know thee not, old man,” Hal replies, in one of the most devastating speeches Shakespeare ever wrote. … it is difficult to register the overwhelming power and pathos of the relationship between Hal and Falstaff without sensing some unusually intimate and personal energy. (71)

The strong presence of legal situation and terms in his plays and poems—used, for the most part, accurately, and infiltrating scenes where one would least expect them—has led to the recurrent speculation that he worked in the office of a local attorney, someone who handled minor lawsuits, title searches, and the like. (71)

Uncanny ability to absorb vocabulary from a wide range of pursuits and his lightning transformation of technical terms into the intimate registers of thoughts and feelings. It is true that the absorption is not uniform—though in the course of his life he bought and sold houses, for example, he picked up relatively few terms from architecture and the building trades—but the general phenomenon is broad enough and intense enough to defy using language as a clue to any occupation and intense pursued. (72)

The musical ability, sword fighting, and above all the costly clothing of velvet and silks (for taffeta in this period referred to a kind of plain-woven silk) together point to what was probably the most significant aspect of the Elizabethan actor’s training: players were supposed to be able to mime convincingly the behavior of gentlemen and ladies. That is, boys and men, drawn almost entirely from the 98 percent of the population that were not “gentle,” had to assume the manner of the upper 2 percent. (74)

A mother who could trace her family to the important Ardens of Park Hall, a father who had risen in the world only to sink down again—the focus of Elizabethan theatrical impersonation is deeply suggestive. Will may have been attractive to the trade of acting in part because it so centrally involved the miming of the lives of the gentry. As a practical strategy, this was, of course, absurd: becoming an actor or even a playwright was probably the worst imaginable route towards social advancement. (75)

At the height of his wealth and prestige—in 1575 or ’76, just before his downward slide began—he had applied to the College of Heralds for a coat of arms, an expensive process a person undertook not only to confer honor on himself but also to enhance the status of his children and grandchildren. To be granted a coat of arms—not to buy one on the sly, as Phillips tried to do, but to obtain one officially—was to rise above playacting to the thing itself. (76)

By royal proclamation, silks and satins were officially restricted to the gentry. Actors were exempted, but outside of the playhouse they could not legally wear their costumes. … Even executions were distinct: hanging for the base, beheading for the elite. (76)

To pass from the status of yeoman—the term used to describe John Shakespeare, even after he had left the land and established himself in business—to the status of gentleman was a major step, a virtual transformation of social identity. There were many fine gradations in Elizabethan society, but the key division was between the gentry and the “common,” or “baser,” sort. (76-7)

When his financial circumstances worsened, ascent to the status of gentleman must have seemed a hopeless extravagance or perhaps a mockery, like a beggar dreaming of a crown. John Shakespeare’s application was shelved and forgotten. / But not, it seems, by his oldest son. Decades later, in October 1596, the process was renewed. The old sketch… was pulled off the shelf, where it had gathered dust; once again John Shakespeare’s claim was reviewed and, this time round, approved. (78)

Will had by this time no doubt played gentlemen onstage, and he could carry off the part outside the playhouse as well, but he and others would always know he was impersonating someone he was not. He now had the means to acquire legitimately, through the offices his father had once held, a role he had only played. He could legally wear outside of the theater the kinds of clothes he had been wearing onstage. For a man singularly alert to the social hierarchy—and Shakespeare spent most of his professional life imagining the lives of kings, aristocracy, and gentry—the prospect of this privilege must have seemed sweet. He would sign his last will and testament “William Shakespeare, of Stratford upon Avon in the county of Warwick, gentleman.” … For whatever John Shakespeare’s problems—drink or foolish loans or whatever—he did in fact legitimately possess the social standing, through the offices he had held in Stratford, to lay claim to the status of gentleman. Not so his son. There were few occupations for an educated man more stigmatized socially than player. (79)

Every Man Out of His Humour, performed at the newly erected Globe by the Lord Chamberlain’s Men in 1599, Ben Jonson has a rustic buffoon named Sogliardo pay thirty pounds for a ridiculous coat of arms, to which an acquaintance mockingly proposes the humiliating motto “Not Without Mustard.” As a member of the Lord Chamberlain’s Men, Will would have listened to this insult again and again in rehearsal and in performance. He probably laughed uncomfortably—how else does someone get through this kind of teasing? (80)

Shakespeare was a witty mocker of pretensions and must have known that he would be exposing himself to this embarrassment. He may have felt that the social cachet was worth wincing for (80)

What is ridiculed in Malvolio, then, is not simply ill nature or puritanical severity but rather the dream of acting the part of a gentleman. And the ridicule comes very close to describing the process by which any actor, including Shakespeare himself, must have learned his trade. (83)

The peculiar intensity with which Shakespeare repeatedly embraces the fantasy of the recovery of a lost property or title or identity is striking. (84)

In 1599, three years after the old application for the coat of arms was revived, almost certainly at his instigation and expense, Will was in all likelihood the person behind another successful application to the College of Heralds, this time for the right to add (the technical term is “impale”) the Arden arms to what is now is described as “the Ancient coat of Arms” of the Shakespeares. In the end only the Shakespeare arms appeared on his funeral monument, but the symbolic statement is clear: … I have with the fruits of my labor and my imagination returned my family to the moment before things began to fall apart; I have affirmed the distinction of my mother’s name and restored my father’s honor; I have laid claim to my lost inheritance; I have created that inheritance. (86)

Even if Will in his late teens or early twenties and decided clearly that he wanted to become an actor, he was in fact not likely simply to have headed off to London to seek his fortune onstage, stopping along the way to pick up a few pennies for food and lodging singing and juggling. A person uprooted from his family and community in Elizabethan England was generally a person in trouble. This was a society deeply suspicious of vagrancy. … The age of questing knights and wandering minstrels was over—if indeed it ever existed except as a fantasy. Itinerant friars and pilgrims had certainly existed, and within living memory, but the religious orders had been dissolved by the state and the pilgrimage sites had been shut down and smashed by zealous reformers. (87)

If the vagrant could not show that he had land of his own or a mater whom he was serving, he was tied to a post and publicly whipped. Then he was either returned to his place of birth—to resume the work he was born to do—or put to labor or placed in the stocks until someone took him into service. (88)

The seventeenth-century gossip John Aubrey jotted down something that strongly suggests that Will did not immediately find a place in a theater company or move directly from Stratford to London in search of employment. “He had been in his younger years,” Aubrey wrote, “a schoolmaster in the country.” … This, therefore, is a piece of biographical information that can be traced directly back to someone who actually knew Shakespeare … The vicious, murky world of Tudor religious conflict will help to explain why an adolescent boy, fresh from school, might have ventured from the Midlands of England to the north, how he could have had a connection with a powerful Catholic family there, and why that family would have bothered to employ someone like him rather than a licensed schoolmaster with an Oxford or Cambridge education. (88-9)

At first repression was relatively mild. Queen Elizabeth made it clear that she was interested more in obedience and conformity than in purity and conviction. … Her officials generally followed suit, if sometimes grudgingly, until the moment came in which they felt that the Protestant religious settlement was in danger. /
That moment came when William Shakespeare was six years old. In May 1570 a well-to-do Catholic, John Felton, nailed to the door of the bishop of London’s house a papal bull excommunicating Queen Elizabeth. The pope, Pius V, added an order to all her Catholic subjects “that they presume not to obey her, or her monitions, mandates, and laws,” lest they too be excommunicated. Felton was torture, convicted of treason, and executed. English Catholics were regarded with greatly intensified suspicion. (92)

The papal bull initiated a nightmarish sequence of conspiracy and persecution, plot and counterplot that continued throughout Elizabeth’s long reign. (93)

In Stratford the Catholic priest Roger Dyos, who had baptized the Shakespeare’s first child, Joan, was dismissed, replaced by the staunchly Protestant John Bretchgirdle. It was Bretchgirdle who on April 26, 1564, christened the Shakespeares’ first son, “gulielmus filius Johannes Shakspere.” Religious upheaval aside, it was not a propitious moment to enter the world: by July the town was ravaged by bubonic plague, killing fully a sixth of the population before winter. Nearly two-thirds of the babies born that year in Stratford died before they reached their first birthday. Perhaps Mary Shakespeare packed up and took her newborn to the country for several months, away from the pestiferous streets. (93)

A few months before Will’s birth and in the years that followed, Chamberlain John Shakespeare oversaw the “reparations” of Stratford’s fine Guild Chapel. “Reparations” here was a euphamism. What it meant was that he paid the workmen who went in with buckets of whitewash and ruined the medieval paintings—St. Helena and the Finding of the Cross, St. George and the Dragon, the murder of St. Thomas a Becket, and, above the arch, the Day of Judgment—that covered the church walls. Their task was not quite finished: the workmen also broke up the altar, putting a simple table in its place, and pulled down the rood loft—a gallery, surmounted by a cross, that separated the nave from the choir and displayed to the faithful the image of the crucified God. Town authorities proceeded to sell off the gorgeous vestments worn by the Catholic priests who had once celebrated the mystery of the Mass. It is worth pausing over these acts: John Shakespeare did not directly do any of them, and, in all likelihood, he did not single-handedly make the decision to have them done, but he was responsible for them, answerable both administratively—in the form of signed accounts presented on January 10, 1564, March 21, 1565, and February 15, 1566—and morally. (94-5)

John Shakespeare… On the town council, he voted to dismiss the Catholic steward …and to hire the Protestant… to replace the Catholic curate… The same town council …the hired…a succession of impressively learned schoolmasters who had surprisingly strong Catholic connections. (96)

Originally from Lancashire, in the north of England, where the old faith was clung to most tenaciously, Simon Hunt, Will’s teacher between the ages of seven and eleven… (96)

This double consciousness—a tenaciously held inward Catholic faith coupled with a steadfast public adherence to the official religious settlement… Catholic… Thomas Jenkins taught in Stratford for four years, from 1575 to 1579, and hence must have been, together with Simon Hunt, a significant schoolteacher in Will’s life… Jenkins resigned his post and was succeeded by another Oxford graduate, John Cottam… His younger brother, Thomas, had… taken orders as a Catholic priest. … Determined to pry from Cottam his innermost secrets, officials in the Tower employed one of their most horrible devices, the scavenger’s daughter. This instrument of torture was a hoop of iron that slowly closed around the prison’s spine, bending it almost in two. Evidently, the government did not get enough from their interrogation to warrant an immediate trial. Instead, they kept their prisoner in the Tower almost year, until they had captured other members of the mission. Cottam was then arraigned as a traitor, together with the others, in November 1581. On May 30, 1582, he was executed in the grisly way designed to demonstrate the full rage of the state; he was dragged on a hurdle through the muddy streets to Tyburn, past jeering crowds, and then hanged, taken down while he was still alive, and castrated; his stomach was then slit open and his intestines pulled out to be burned before his dying eyes, whereupon he was beheaded and his body cut in quarters, the pieces displayed as a warning. (98)

In 1580, when Pope Gregory XIII proclaimed that the assassination of England’s heretic queen would not be a mortal sin. The proclamation was a clear license to kill. It was precisely at this time that the priest Thomas Cottam, with his small packet of tokens, was arrested on his way to the vicinity of Stratford. (99)

By 1585 it was treason to be a Catholic priest, and by law it was illegal (and after 1585 a capital offense) to harbor priests or, knowingly, to give a priest aid or comfort. The penalty for failure to attend Protestant services in the local parish was raised to as astronomical twenty pounds per week. Though the fine cannot have been imposed very often, it hung, as a threat of ruin, … (100)

If Thomas Cottam had been apprehended in Stratford, there might well have been house-to-house searches, conducted by the sheriff. … if the searchers had done a thorough job—and they were on occasion notoriously thorough, ripping open virtually everything in every room—they might have found a highly compromising document to which John Shakespeare had apparently set his name: a piously Catholic “spiritual testament,” (101)

Perhaps the secret Catholic was the real John Shakespeare, and Protestant civic officer was only the worldly, ambitious outward man. Alternatively, perhaps John Shakespeare, securely Protestant for most of his adult life, only briefly returned (during an illness, say, or simply to placate his wife) to the Catholicism he had left behind. Did John Shakespeare’s eldest son know the truth? (102)

And Will? By the time he was leaving school in 1579-80, when he was fifteen or sixteen years old, had he come to acquire a comparable double consciousness? Shakespeare’s plays provide ample evidence for doubleness and more: at certain moments—Hamlet is the greatest example—he seems at once Catholic, Protestant, and deeply skeptical of both. (103)

The small clue that Shakespeare sojourned in Lancashire has nothing in any obvious way to do with religion, Catholic or Protestant. Instead, it points to the theater. … The precocious adolescent—recommended by Cottam as intelligent, reasonably well educated, discreet, and securely Catholic—would have come north in 1580 as schoolmaster. … Whatever his skills as a teacher, those he possessed as a player would have immediately brought him to the special attention of the household and its master, and the charismatic appeal of the young player would have enabled him—like Cesario in Twelfth Night—quickly to overleap other, older servants and become one of the trusted favorites. (104)

Will’s life, if he actually sojourned in the north, would have been a peculiar compound of theatricality and danger. On the one hand, a life of open, exuberant display, where for the first time Will’s talents—his personal charm, his musical skills, his power of improvisation, his capacity to play a role, and perhaps even his gifts as a writer—were blossoming in performances beyond the orbit of his family and friends. (105)

…at a time when Will may have been in his service, Hesketh was thrown into prison for failing to suppress recusancy in his household. The atmosphere at the entertainments in which Will would have performed was compounded of festivity and paranoia. (106)

Or perhaps, rather, it would be better to say that Shakespeare did not entirely understand saints, and that what he did understand, he did not entirely like. In the huge panoply of characters in his plays, there are strikingly few who would remotely qualify. … There are many forms of heroism in Shakespeare, but ideological heroism—the fierce, self-immolating embrace of an idea or an institution—is not one of them. Nothing in his work suggests a deep admiration for the visible church. Several of his conspicuously Catholic religious figures—Friar Laurence in Romeo and Juliet is an example—are fundamentally sympathetic, but not because they are important figures in the church hierarchy. On the contrary, Shakespeare’s plays almost always depict powerful prelates as disagreeable. (111)

This is not a parody of the Mass, but it is also not exactly a sly tribute, slipped under the censor’s eye. Instead, the lines and much else like them in Shakespeare’s work suggests how completely he had absorbed Catholicism for his own poetic purposes. (113)

The north was a traditional site of resistance to the centralizing authority of the Crown, and the families in whose houses he lived and worked skirted close to treason. All of Shakespeare’s early history plays—the plays with which he made a name for himself in London in the early 1590s—were concerned with rebellion, which he consistently conceived of as a family affair. These plays were safely set in the England of the fifteenth century, and the events were taken from the chronicles, but Shakespeare had to draw upon more than his reading to give his characters the touch of reality. (113)

Stratford… that the eighteen-year-old boy was in the village is certain, for there he met the eldest daughter of an old acquaintance of his father, a staunchly Protestant farmer named Richard Hathaway, who had died the year before. Anne Hathaway was twenty-six years old. In the summer of 1582—as if to mark his decisive distance form Campion, from the deep piety and the treasonous murmurs, from the scavenger’s daughter and the horrible scaffold—Will was making love to her. To this secret life too there were momentous consequences, of a very different kind. By November they were married, and six months later their daughter Susanna was born. (117)

Anne’s world was the diametrical opposite of the dangerous world to which he may have been exposed: … Will’s family almost certainly leaned towards Catholicism, and Anne’s almost certainly leaned in the opposite direction. (119)

Anne Hathaway represented an escape in another sense: she was in the unusual position of being her own woman. …But Anne—an orphan in her mid-twenties, with some resources left to her by her father’s will and more due to her upon her marriage—was, in the phrase of the times, “wholly at her own government.” She was independent, in a way virtually ordained to excite a young man’s sexual interest, and she was free to make her own decisions. (119)

It is not known if Will’s parents approved of the marriage of their eighteen-year-old son to the pregnant twenty-six-year-old bride. Then as now, in England eighteen would have been regarded as young for a man to marry; the mean age upon marriage for males in Stratford in 1600 (the earliest date for which there are reliable figures) was twenty-eight. And it was unusual for a man to marry a woman so much his senior; women in this period were on average two years younger than their husbands. The exceptions were generally among the upper classes… Anne Hathaway, the bride had something of an inheritance, but she was hardly a great heiress… it is likely that in the eyes of John and Mary Shakespeare, Will was not making a great math. (121)

Romeo’s urgency is sketched rather cursorily; it is Juliet’s that is given much fuller scope and intensity. Similarly, it is eminently likely that Anne, three months pregnant, rather than the young Will, was the prime source of the impatience that led to the bond. (123)

It is, perhaps, as much what Shakespeare did not write as what he did that seems to indicate something seriously wrong with his marriage. … though wedlock is the promised land toward which his comic heroes and heroines strive, and though family fission is the obsessive theme of the tragedies, Shakespeare was curiously restrained in his depictions of what it is actually like to be married. / To be sure, he provided some fascinating glimpses. A few of his married couples have descended into mutual loathing: … But for the most part, they are in subtler, more complex states of estrangement. (127)

It is no accident that Milton wrote important tracts advocating the possibility of divorce; the longing for deep emotional satisfaction in marriage turned out to depend heavily upon the possibility of divorce. In a world without this possibility most writers seemed to agree: it was better to make jokes about endurance, pass over most marriages in discreet silence, and write love poetry to anyone but your spouse. (129)

Demographers have shown that the risks of childbirth in Elizabethan England were high, but not nearly high enough to explain the wholesale absence of spouses from the plays. (133)

There is no end of longing, flirtation, and pursuit, but strikingly little long-term promise of mutual understanding. How could earnest, decent, slightly dim Orlando ever truly take in Rosalind? How could the fatuous, self-absorbed Orsino ever come to understand Viola? (136)

If spousal intimacy in Hamlet is vaguely nauseating, in Macbeth it is terrifying. Here, almost uniquely in Shakespeare, husband and wife speak to each other playfully, as if they were a genuine couple. (138)

Shakespeare’s plays then combine, on the one hand, an overall diffidence in depicting marriage and, on the other hand, the image of kind of nightmare in the two marriages they do depict with some care. It is difficult not to read his works in the context of his decision to live for most of a long marriage away from his wife. Perhaps, for whatever reason, Shakespeare feared to be taken in fully by his spouse or by anyone else; perhaps he could not let anyone so completely in; or perhaps he simply made a disastrous mistake, when he was eighteen, and had to live with the consequences as a husband and as a writer. (140)

Desire is everywhere in his work. But his imagination of love and in all likelihood his experiences of love flourished outside of the marriage bond. The greatest lovers in Shakespeare are Antony and Cleopatra, the supreme emblems of adultery. And when he wrote love poems… sonnets. (143)

Sometime around 1610, Shakespeare, a wealthy man with many investments, retired from London and returned to Stratford, … When Shakespeare, evidently gravely ill, came to draw up his will, in January 1616, he took care to leave virtually everything, including New Place and all his “barns, stables, orchards, gardens, lands, tenements” and lands in and around Stratford, to his elder daughter, Susanna. … To his wife of thirty-four years, Anne, he left nothing, nothing at all. (144)

For on March 25, in a series of additions to the will… Susanna, there is a new provision: “Item I gyve vnto my wife my second best bed with the furniture.” (145)

But what the eloquently hostile gesture seems to say emotionally is that Shakespeare had found his trust, his happiness, his capacity for intimacy, his best bed elsewhere. (146)

And when he thought of the afterlife, the last thing he wanted was to be mingled with the woman he married. There are four lines carved in his gravestone in the chancel of Stratford Church: /


In 1693 a visitor to the gave was told that the epitaph was “made by himself a little before his death.” If so, these are probably the last lines that Shakespeare wrote. Perhaps he simply feared that his bones would be dug up and thrown in the nearby charnel house—he seems to have regarded that fate with horror—but he may have feared still more that one day his grave would be opened to let in the body of Anne Shakespeare. (147-8)

In the summer of 1583 the nineteen-year-old William Shakespeare was settling into the life of a married man with a newborn daughter, living all together with his parents and his sister, Joan, and his brothers, Gilbert, Richard, and Edmund, and however many servants they could afford in the spacious house on Henley Street. He may have been working in the glover’s shop, perhaps, or making a bit of money as a teacher’s or lawyer’s assistant. In his spare time he must have continued to write poetry, practice the lute, hone his skills as a fencer—that is, work on his ability to impersonate the lifestyle of a gentleman. (149)

Then sometime in the mid-1580s (the precise date is not known), he tore himself away from his family, left Stratford-upon-Avon, and made his way to London. How or why he took this momentous step is unclear though until recently biographers were generally content with a story first recorded in the late seventeenth century by the clergyman Richard Davies. Davies wrote that Shakespeare was “much given to all unluckiness in stealing venison and rabbits, particularly from Sir — Lucy, who had him oft whipped and sometimes imprisoned and at last made him fly his native country to his great advancement.” [150] … As for the deer-poaching story itself, though four independent versions were in circulation by the later seventeenth century, recent biographers have treated it too with comparable skepticism. … But these arguments are not decisive. (151)

Oxford students were famous for this escapade. It was, for a start, a daring game: it took impressive skill and cool nerves to trespass on a powerful person’s land, kill a large animal, and drag it away, without getting caught by those who patrolled the area. “What, hast not thou full often struck a doe,” someone asks in one of Shakespeare’s early plays, “And borne her cleanly by the keeper’s nose?” (Titus Andronicus, 2.1.93-4). It was a skillful assault upon property, a symbolic violation of the social order, a coded challenge to authority. (152)

What we know, and what those who originally circulated the legend knew, is that he had a complex attitude toward authority, at once sly, genially submissive, and subtly challenging. He was capable of devastating criticism; he saw through lies, hypocrisies, and distortions; he undermines virtually all of the claims that those in power made for themselves. And yet he was easygoing, humorous, pleasantly indirect, almost apologetic. If this relation to authority was not simply implanted in him, if it was more likely something he learned, then his implanted in him, if it was more likely something he learned, then his formative learning experience may well have been a nasty encounter with one of the principal authorities in his district. (152)

For in all the versions of the story something went wrong: Shakespeare was caught and then treated more harshly than he felt was appropriate (and indeed than the law allowed). He responded, it is said, with a bitter ballad. (152)

But the late-seventeenth-century gossips who circulated the story may have had a better understanding of that world. … Above all, they believed that something serious must have driven Shakespeare out of Stratford, something more than his own poetic dreams and theatrical skill, something more than dissatisfaction with his marriage, and something more than the limited economic opportunities in the immediate area. … the believed that without some shock Shakespeare would have continued in the rut that life had prepared for him. With the family’s lands mortgaged, his education finished, no profession, a wife and three children to support, he had already begun to deepen that rut for himself. (153)

Shakespeare may in his private conversation have told the story of a slightly comical misadventure to account for his departure form Stratford. The story might have served as a convenient cover, all the more convenient if it had at least some basis in fact: it acknowledged that Lucy played a role, … It acknowledged too that Shakespeare was in trouble, but trouble of the kind, more winked at than prosecuted, for which Oxford students were famous. The far more serious threat that Lucy would have posed—his role not as defender of his game but as relentless persecutor of recusancy… (156)

The triumphant Lucy must have been more militant and more vigilant than ever. And, after all, in the mid-1580s, with constant talk of conspiracies to kill the queen and put her imprisoned cousin, the Catholic Mary, Queen of Scots, on the throne, it made sense to be vigilant… There were dark rumors that Spain’s Philip II was assembling a fleet large enough to carry an army across the English Channel in an invasion that would be abetted by treasonous English Catholics. It was in this time of extreme tension that Shakespeare may have run afoul of Lucy and decided that he had to get out. / Judging from the birth of his twins in February 1585, it seems likely that Shakespeare remained in Stratford at least until the summer of 1584, but at some point shortly after he turned his back on his wife and children and made his way to London. (161)

London. With a population nearing two hundred thousand, it was some fifteen times larger than the next most populous cities in England and Wales; in all of Europe only Naples and Paris exceeded it in size. (166)

Ben Jonson showed himself passionately interested in the city in which he grew up, … Other contemporary London-born playwrights, such as Thomas Dekker and Thomas Middleton, similarly interested themselves in the lives of ordinary citizens: shoemakers, whores, shopkeepers, and watermen. But what principally excited Shakespeare’s imagination about London were its more sinister or disturbing aspects. (167)

But one sight in particular would certainly have arrested Shakespeare’s attention; it was a major tourist attraction, always pointed out to new arrivals. Stuck on poles on the Great Stone Gate, two arches from the Southwark side, were severed heads, some completely reduced to skills, others parboiled and tanned, still identifiable. These were not the remains of common thieves, rapists and murderers. Ordinary criminals were strung up by the hundreds on gibbets located around the margins of the city. The heads on the bridge, visitors were duly informed, were those of gentlemen and noble who suffered the fate of traitors. A foreign visitor to London in 1592 counted thirty-four of them; another in 1598 said he counted more than thirty. When he first walked across the bridge, or very soon after, Shakespeare must have realized that among the heads were those of John Somerville and the man who bore his own mother’s name and may have been his distant kinsman, Edward Arden. (172-3)

Keep your head on your shoulders. / Hard lessons for a poet and an actor aspiring to be heard and seen by the world. But some such lessons may have caused Shakespeare to reach a decision that has since made it difficult to understand who he was. Where are his personal letters? Why have scholars, ferreting for centuries, failed to find the books he must have owned—or rather, why did he choose not to write his name in those books, the way that Jonson or Donne or may of his contemporaries did? Why, in the huge, glorious body of his writing, is there no direct access to his thoughts about politics or religion or art? Why is everything he wrote—even in the sonnets—couched in a way that enables him to hide… (173)

Scholars have long thought that the answer must lie in indifference and accident: no contemporary thought that this playwright’s personal views were sufficiently important to record, no one bothered to save his casual letters, and the boxes of papers that may have been left to his daughter Susanna were eventually sold off and used to wrap fish or stiffen the spines of new books or were simply burned. Possibly. But the heads on the pikes may have spoken to him on the day he entered London—and he may well have heeded their warning. (174)

And though in Shakespeare’s time the open spaces to which Londoners had once had easy access had already begun to disappear, other attractions drew people through the gates or across the river to the suburbs. Many taverns and inns, some of them quite venerable—the famous Tabard Inn, where Chaucer’s pilgrim s started their journey to Canterbury, was located in Southwark, on the south bank of the Thames—offered food and drink and private rooms in a world that had almost no privacy. … Other places of amusement included firing ranges (for practicing pistol shooting), cockfighting pits, wrestling rings, bowling alleys, places for music and dancing, platforms upon which criminals were mutilated or hanged, and an impressive array of “houses of resort,” that is, whorehouses. … The congested city, then, was effectively surrounded by an all-purpose entertainment zone, the place where Shakespeare spent much of his professional life. His imagination took it all in, even things that at this distance seem quite negligible. He was forcefully struck, for example, by the game of bowls, particularly by the way the ball with the off-center weight swerved, so that you hit your target only by seeming to aim elsewhere. (176)

Shakespeare’s imagination was excited as well by the less innocuous amusements of the suburbs. Henry VIII bequeathed to his royal children a love of seeing bulls and bears “baited,” … The game was something of an English specialty—in their travel journals foreign tourists frequently noted that they took in the sight, and Queen Elizabeth treated visiting ambassadors to it. …In a popular variation, an ape was tied to the back of a pony, which was then attacked by the dogs: “To see the animal kicking amongst the dogs, with the screams of the ape,” wrote one observer, “beholding the curs hanging from the ears and the neck of the pony, is very laughable.” /

Be there bears i’the’town?” asks the asinine Slender, in The Merry Wives of Windsor; “I love the sport well” (1.1.241, 243). Shakespeare clearly visited the bear garden in person—he had professional reasons to be interested in what crowds were excited by—but evidently he was less wholeheartedly enamored. The sport, he saw wryly, served to make the Slenders of the world feel more like real men. … Elizabethans perceived bears as supremely ugly, embodiments of everything coarse and violent, and Shakespeare repeatedly echoed this view, but he also grasped something else: “They have tied me to a stake. I cannot fly,” says Macbeth… (177)

Why did Elizabethan and Jacobean people, including, notably, the Tudor and Stuart monarchs who were its special patrons, enjoy something so brutal and nasty? (Though there was an attempt to revive the “royal sport” at the end of the seventeenth century, it never really recovered from the blow it suffered when seven bears were shot to death in 1655 by Puritan soldiers… But one key is found in a remark by Shakespeare’s contemporary Thomas Dekker: “At length a blind bear was tied to the stake, and instead of baiting him with dogs, … Christians…whipped Monsieur Hunks till the blood ran down his old shoulders.” … It confirmed the order of things—this is what we do—and at the same time it called that order into question—what we do is grotesque. (178)

The theater, which did not exist as a freestanding structure anywhere in England when Shakespeare was born… (181)

Playacting in purpose-built playhouses (as opposed to candlelit private halls, innyards, and the backs of wagons) had only recently come to London, significantly later than blood sports. A map of Southwark from 1542 already shows a bullring on High Street, but it was not until 1567 that a prosperous London grocer, John Brayne, put up the city’s first freestanding public playhouse, the Red Lioin, in Stepney. (182)

The yard, for the “groundlings” to stand and watch the play, was open to the elements, but the stage… (183)

One penny would get you into the yard where you could stand for the two or three hours with the crowd, milling about, buying apples, oranges, nuts, and bottled ale, or pushing in as close as you could get to the edge of the stage. (185)

The open amphitheaters were large—they could hold two thousand or more—and the city, though populous by sixteenth-century standards, was only two hundred thousand. This meant that to survive economically it was not enough to mount one or two successful plays a season and keep them up for no reasonable runs. The companies had to induce people, large numbers of people, to get in the habit of coming to the theater again and again, and this meant a constantly changing repertoire, as many as five or six plays per work. The sheer magnitude of the enterprise is astonishing: for each company, approximately twenty new plays per year in addition to some twenty plays carried over from previous seasons. (188)

Judging from the multiple versions that exist of many of his plays and poems, Shakespeare in fact must have quietly blotted thousands of lines. There is powerful evidence that he extensively revised his work. Yet the impression of a great ease in writing remains and may have extended back even to his early efforts. (189)

Tamburlaine. Shakespeare almost certainly saw the play (along with the sequel that shortly followed), and he probably went back again and again. It may indeed have been on of the first performances he ever saw in a playhouse—perhaps the first—and, from its effect upon his early work, it appears to have had upon him an intense, visceral, indeed life-transforming impact. (189)

Tamburlaine… core of its appeal is its incantatory celebration of the will to power: /
Nature…Doth teach us all to have aspiring minds. / Our souls…Wills us to wear ourselves and never rest/ until we reach the ripest fruit of all:/ That perfect bliss and sole felicity,/ The sweet fruition of an earthly crown. (2.7.18-29)
For the space of this play, all of the moral rules inculcated in schools and churches, in homilies and proclamations and sober-minded tracts, are suspended. … There is no hierarchy of blood, no divinely sanctioned legitimate authority, no inherited obligation to obey, no moral restraint. (190)

The part of Tamburlaine was created by an astonishingly gifted young actor in the Lord Admiral’s Men, Edward Alleyn, at the time only twenty-one years old. At the sight of the performance, Shakespeare, two years his senior, may have grasped, if he had not already begun to do so, that he was not likely to become one of the leading actors on the London stage. Alleyn was the real thing: a majestic physical presence, with a “well-tuned,” clear voice capable of seizing and holding the attention of enormous audiences. (191)

The actor in Shakespeare would have perceived what was powerful in Alleyn’s interpretation of Tamburlaine, but the poet in him understood something else: the magic that was drawing audiences did not reside entirely in the actor’s … (191)

Marlowe’s recklessness became known—Shakespeare waited, with others in the audience, for the tyrant, soaked with the blood of innocents, to be brought low. … But what he saw instead was one insanely cruel victory follow another, … (191)

Nothing holds Tamburlaine back, no fear, no deference, no respect for the established order of things: “Emperors and kings lie breathless at my feet” (5.1.469). With these words and with the slaughter of the innocent virgins of Damascus, he takes his beautiful bride, the divine Zenocrate, daughter of the conquered sultan of Egypt. Then, shockingly, outrageously, the play was over, and the crowd applauded, cheering the trampling of everything that they had been instructed with numbing repetition to hold dear. (192)

The fingerprints of Tamburlaine (both the initial play and the sequel that soon followed) are all over the plays that are among Shakespeare’s earliest known ventures as a playwright, the three parts of Henry VI—so much so that earlier textual scholars thought that the Henry VI plays must have been collaborative enterprises undertaken with Marlowe himself. The decided unevenness in the style of the plays suggests that Shakespeare may well have been working with others, though few scholars any longer believe that Marlowe was among them. Rather, the neophyte Shakespeare and his collaborators seem to have been looking over their shoulders at Marlowe’s achievement. (192)

Even though as a poet Shakespeare dreamed of eternal fame, he does not seem to have associated that fame with phenomenon of the printed book. And even when he was well established as a playwright, with his plays for sale in the bookstalls in St. Paul’s Churchyard, he showed little or no personal interest in seeing his plays on the printed page, let alone assuring the accuracy of the editions. He never, it seems, anticipated what turned out to be the case: that he would live as much on the page as on the stage… (194)

The great idea of the history play—taking the audience back into a time that had dropped away from living memory but that was still eerily familiar and crucially important—was not absolutely new, but Shakespeare gave it an energy, power, and conviction that it had never before possessed. The Henry VI plays are still crude, especially in comparison with Shakespeare’s later triumphs in the same genre, but they convey a striking picture of the playwright poring over Holinshed’s Chronicles in search of materials that would enable him to imitate Tamburlaine. (195)

In Marlowe’s vision of the exotic East, vaunting ambition, stopping at nothing, leads to the establishment of a grand world order, cruel but magnificent. The order, as part of two of Tamburlaine shows, crumbles, but only because everything eventually crumbles: there is no moral other than the brute fact of mortality. In Shakespeare’s vision of English history, vaunting ambition leads to chaos, an ungovernable, murderous factionalism and the consequent loss of power at home and abroad. Despite or even because of his ruthlessness, Marlowe’s hero bestrides the world like a god, doing whatever it pleases him to do—“This is my mind, and I will have it so” (4.2.91). By contrast, Shakespeare’s petty Tamburlaines, even though they are queens and dukes, are like mentally unbalanced small-town criminals: they are capable of incredible nastiness but cannot achieve a hint of grandeur. /
In part, this limitation was a consequence of poetic inexperience: Shakespeare was not able, at least at this point in his life, to match the unstoppable, monomaniacle grandiloquence Marlowe commanded. But in part it was a clear choice: Shakespeare refused to give any of his characters, even his stalwart English military hero Talbot, the limitless power Marlowe gleefully conferred on Tamburlaine. (197)

Crowds flocked in the late 1580s to see the Henry VI plays…but they did not come to fantasize about possessing absolute power. On the contrary, they came to shudder at the horrors of popular uprising and civil war. (197)

Playwrights—poets at they were then called— (198)

Circumstances…the emergence of the public theaters, and the existence of a competitive market for new plays. They included too an impressive, widespread growth in literacy; an educational system that trained its students to be highly sensitive to rhetorical effects; a social and political taste for elaborate display; a religious culture that compelled parishioners to listen to long, complex sermons; and a vibrant, restless intellectual culture. There were very few options for promising intellectuals: the educational system had surged ahead of the existing social system, so that highly educated men who did not want to pursue a career in the church or law had to cast about for something to do with themselves. Disreputable though it was, the theater beckoned. (199-200)

Nashe…had particularly acerbic things to say about upstarts “who (mounted on the stage of arrogance) think to out-brave better pens with the swelling bombast of a bragging blank verse.” … certain men with only a grammar school education have had the audacity to write plays in blank verse for the public stage. This type of impudent rustic—a man with little or no Latin, French, or Italian, born to be a servant or a small-town lawyer’s clerk… Presumably, the specific object of nastiness here was Thomas Kyd… (203)

Though he turned out to play an important role in Shakespeare’s life, Greene was by no means the most accomplished; Marlowe towered above him, and he would never write anything as good as Nashe’s wild picaresque novel, The Unfortunate Traveler, Peele’s charming play The Old Wive’s Tale; or even Lodge’s elegant Ovidian poem, Scylla’s Metamorphosis. But Greene was larger than life, a hugely talented, learned, narcissistic, self-dramatizing, self-promoting, shameless, and undisciplined scoundrel… Greene, who constantly fictionalized his life, wrote a story of how he was recruited to write for the stage. Since he was an inveterate liar, there is no reason to believe a word of his account… (203-4)

Greene is a man with no moral compass, and his life is a shambles. Harvey rehearsed as many of the scabrous details as he could muster: Greene’s monstrous overeating, his constant shifting of his lodgings, his feasting his friends and then skipping out before paying the bill, his abandonment of his virtuous wife, his pawning of his sword and cloak, his prostitute-mistress and their bastard son Infortunatus, his employment of the mistress’s thuggish brother-in-law as a bodyguard, the brother-in-law’s execution, his insolence to his superiors… (206)

This was the neighborhood to which Shakespeare came in the late 1580s, and this was the figure at the center of the group of playwrights, all in their twenties or very early thirties, whom he encountered. Shakespeare would have had no difficulty recognizing that Marlowe was the great talent, but it was the flamboyant Greene, with his two M.A. degrees, sharp peak of red hair, enormous appetites, and volcanic energy, who was the most striking figure in the fraternity of restless, hungry writers. (206)

The electrifying effect of Tamburlaine upon him was only one facet of this fascination. Shakepseare studied Watson’s sonnets and Lodge’s Scylla’s Metamorphisis (whose stanza he borrowed for Venus and Adonis); he probably collaborated with Peele in the bloody revenge tragedy Titus Andronicus; he repeatedly minded Nashe’s satiric wit and probably used his as the model for Mote in Love’s Labour’s Lost; at the height of his powers he took Lodge’s prose romance Rosalind and turned it into As You Like It; and near the end of his career, when he wanted to stage an old-fashioned piece, a “winter’s tale,” he dramatized Greene’s by-now-forgotten story of irrational jealousy, Pandosto. In Shakespeare’s work there are relatively few signs of the influence of Spenser, Donne, Bacon, or Ralegh, to name a few of his great contemporaries; the living writers who meant the most to him were those he encountered in the seedy inns near the theatres soon after he arrived in London. (207)

Shakespeare lacked the principal qualification of belonging to their charmed circle; he had not attended either Oxford or Cambridge. The little society of writers was, by Tudor standards, quite democratic. Birth and wealth did not greatly matter: … What mattered was attendance at one or the other of the universities. (208)

Shakespeare was by no means without learning—The Comedy of Errors, written early in his career, shows how elegantly and lightly he carried his knowledge of Latin comedy—but he was neither capable of nor interested in Watson’s type of academic self-display. / Moreover, Shakespeare was by origin a provincial, and, more to the point, he had not completely left the provinces behind. If he had turned away from his father’s occupation and left his parents, he had not, like Lodge, incurred a parental curse; if he had left his wife and three small children, he had not, like Greene, burned his bridges. He had none of the dark glamour of the prodigal son. Indeed, even his imagination remained bound up with the local details of country living. (208)

If they were startled by the quickness of his intellect, the breadth of his vocabulary, and his astonishing power to absorb everything he encountered and make it his own, perhaps they also were nettled by something morally conservative in him. The conservatism was already visible in the Henry VI trilogy, with its reaffirmation of the traditional cautionary precepts that Marlowe in Tamburlaine had boldy called into question. But it was visible as well in Shakespeare’s refusal to throw himself fully into a chaotic, disordly life. Aubrey did not specify what particular social situation he was referring to when he wrote that Shakespeare “wouldn’t be debauched,” but a strong candidate would be any invitation from Robert Greene. (209)

He grasped, in all likelihood, that no matter what he wrote, he would remain in their eyes a player, not a poet… One part of this at least is indubitably true: Shakespeare wrote for the theater not as a poet, in the sense that Greene and company understood themselves, but as a player. He was no alone in writing for the stage on which he also performed, but he was the one who was best at it, … (210)

Greene’s purse, by constant, was evidently empty when, in August 1592, he fell ill after a dinner, at which Nashe was present, of pickled herring and Rheinish wine. Abandoned by all of his friends, he would have died like a homeless beggar had a poor shoemaker named Isam and his kindly wife not taken him in and cared for him through his final days. [210] … Greene had another dying wish. He asked Mrs. Isam to place “a garland of bayes”—a laurel wreath—on his head: he would go to the grave a poet laureate, even if he had to be crowned by a shoemaker’s wife. … Though this catalog suggests a remarkably full life of vice, and though Greene himself often adopted the melancholy voice of an old man looking back upon his prodigal youth, at his death he was only thirty-two years old. / The others in the group quickly followed their leader to the grave. In the same month, September 1592, Thomas Watson, aged about thirty-five, was buried, cause of death unknown—or perhaps in that terrible year of plague, it was not necessary to specify it. [211] … The following May, Watson’s friend Marlowe, who had not yet reached his thirtieth birthday, was killed in a tavern fight, allegedly over the “reckoning,” that is, the bill. /
George Peele, the great reveler, published a moving verse tribute to his dead friends Watson and Marlowe. Then a few years later, probably in 1596, Peele too was gone. Not quite forty years old, he died, it was said, of a “loathsome disease,” possibly syphilis. And in 1601, at thirty-three, the youngest of the original group, Thomas Nashe, died, leaving his grieving father, the minister, to bury him in the country churchyard. /
Of the six young university-trained playwrights whom Shakespeare encountered in the late 1580s, only one, Thomas Lodge, managed to survive his thirties and to live what the age would have considered a long life. But not a literary life: abandoning poetry and fiction, Lodge took a degree in medicine… After 1593, with Greene, Watson, and Marlowe all dead, Shakespeare, not yet thirty years old, had no serious rivals. (212)

The deeper we plunge into the tavern world of Falstaff—gross, drunken, irresponsible, self-dramatizing, and astonishingly witty Falstaff—the closer we come to the world of Greene; [216] … Perhaps Shakespeare had participated in the games; in any case, he had absorbed the less and could outdo their best effort. (217)

Or rather, they provide a glimpse of how Shakespeare looked back upon that relationship years later, when most of the doomed lot were dead and his own position as England’s reigning playwright was secure. “I know you all,” (218)

The more demanding and interesting task is to savor the power of the illusions without simply submitting to the cheating and the lies. What Falstaff helps to reveal is that for Shakespeare, Greene was a sleazy parasite, but he was also a grotesque titan, a real-life version of the drunken Silenus in Greek mythology or of Rabelais’ irrepressible trickster, Panurge. (219)

Falstaff was not a straightforward portrait of Robert Greene (who was neither a knight nor an old man), … The point is not to strip away the reimaginings, as if the life sources were somehow more interesting than the metamorphoses, but rather to enhance a sense of the wonder of Shakespeare’s creation—the immensely bold, generous imaginative work that took elements from the wasted life of Robert Greene and used them to fashion the greatest comic character in English literature. (220)

If a theatrical tradition, first recorded in 1702, is correct, Queen Elizabeth herself not only admired Shakespeare’s great comic character but also sensed this inner principle: she commanded the author to write a play showing Falstaff in love. In two weeks’ time, or so it is said, The Merry Wife of Windsor was written, to be first performed on April 23, 1597 (222)

Of course, given Falstaff’s manner of life, the official cause of death must be overindulgence—the equivalent of Greene’s fatal feast of pickled herring and Rhenish wine—but the play makes clear that it has staged a symbolic murder: “The King has killed his heart” (2.1.79). (224)

In Prince Hal, the author of Henry IV play saw himself, projecting onto his character a blend of experimental participation and careful, self-protective distance; (224)

Henry Wriothesley, third Earl of Southampton. … Southampton mentioned being accompanied somewhere by “only ten or twelve” of his usual attendants. (227)

Southampton, described in the early 1590s as “young and fantastical” and easily “carried away,” was evidently one of these theater lovers. (227)

Southampton may have taken special pleasure in imaginative escape at this particular moment in his life: he was under enormous pressure to marry. The stakes were not sentimental; they were financial, and they were huge. When Southampton was a young child, his parents had a spectacular breakup. His father accused his mother of adultery, and in the wake of their bitter separation, his mother was forbidden ever to see her son again. Then, just shy of Southampton’s eight birthday, his father died, and the wealthy young heir became the ward of the most powerful man in England, Elizabeth’s lord treasurer, Lord Burghley. The elderly Burghley was reasonably attentive to his ward’s upbringing—he took the boy inot his house, hired distinguished tutors to educate him, and then sent him off to Cambridge University at the tender age of twelve—but the whole wardship system was rotten to the core. Its most sinister feature was the guardian’s legal right to negotiated a marriage for his ward. If, upon turning twenty-one, the ward declined the match, he could be liable for substantial damages, to be paid to the family of the rejected party. As it just so happened, Burghley arranged for Southampton to marry his own granddaughter. As it just so happened too, Burghley held the position of Master of the Wards, which meant that he could virtually dictate the fine that would be assessed should Southampton be rash enough to decline. In the event, the young earl did decline, and when he came of age, he was fined the truly staggering sum of five thousand pounds. /
Sixteen or seventeen years old when the match was first proposed to him, Southampton refused, declaring that he was averse not to this particular girl but to marriage itself. (228)

And this leads us back to Shakespeare. It is possible that someone, either in the circle of Burghley or in the circle of Southampton’s mother, had taken note of the fact that the young earl was exited by the talents or by the person of an actor who was also a promising poet. Whoever noticed this excitement—and a wealthy nobleman’s slightest inclinations would have been carefully watched—might well have had the clever idea of commissioning the poet to try his hand at persuading the narcissistic, effeminate young earl to marry. Such a commission would help to account for the first 17 of the extraordinary sequence of 154 (229-30)

But while most printed books in this period eagerly trumpeted, through a dedication, an author’s epistle, or some other means, a connection to a powerful patron, this book claimed no clear link and offered no identification of the persons to whom the poems were originally addressed. The publisher’s famous dedication in the first edition—“To the only begetter of these ensuing sonnets, Mr. W. H., all happiness and that eternity promised by our ever-living poet, wisheth the well-wishing adventurer in setting forth. T. T.”—does not help. It is not clear whether these words reveal something crucial about Shakespeare or merely about the publisher, Thomas Thorpe, whose initial seem to lay claim to the dedication as his own. And if it were somehow established that Shakespeare, rather than Thorpe, wrote the dedication, it would still not be known whether “W.H.,” the initials of the “only begetter,” slyly reverse those of Henry Wriothesley, the Earl of Southampton, or refer to someone else—perhaps to William Herbert, the Earl of Pembroke… As it happens, in 1597 this wealthy aristocrat, part of a family celebrated for its literary interests, was also being urged to marry. If the opening poems in the sequence seem suited in style to the earlier 1590s, a time for which Southampton is the likeliest candidate, most of the later poems seem on stylistic grounds to date from the late 1590s and the early years of the new century, when Herbert’s case is stronger. Could Shakespeare have, as some scholars have proposed, been addressing both young men in succession, cleverly recycling (232)

Many love poets of the period used a witty alias as a mask: Philip Sidney called himself “Astrophil”; Spenser was the shepherd “Colin Clout”; Walter Ralegh (whose first name was pronounced “water”), “Ocean.” But there is no mask here; these are, as the title announces, Shake-speare’s Sonnets, and the poet puns repeatedly on his own first name: (233)

Did Shakespeare place them in the order in which they were printed? Did he approve their publication? (233)

If it is not unreasonable to speculate that the young man of the opening suite of sonnets is the Earl of Southampton, it is because the earl’s personal circumstances perfectly fit the situation that is sketched, because his family had already tried literary persuasion, and, above all, because Shakespeare in the 1590s dedicated to Southampton two long, elaborate nondramatic poems: Venus and Adonis and The Rape of Lucrece. The dedicatory letters to these long poems are the only such documents from Shakespeare’s hand, [240] … Shakespeare was attempting, probably for the first and the only time in his career, to find a patron, and with the theaters shut down and the plague continuing to rage, he may have thought that a great deal was riding on whether he was successful. (240-1)

The plot Venus and Adonis echoes the sonnets’ warning: a beautiful boy’s rejection of love—Love herself, in the person of Venus—enables death to triumph over him. (241)

Venus and Adonis is a spectacular display of Shakespeare’s signature characteristic, his astonishing capacity to be everywhere and nowhere, to assume all positions and to slip free of all constraints. The capacity depends upon a simultaneous, deeply paradoxical achievement of proximity and distance, intimacy and detachment. … In such passages we seem to be at a great distance from the figures, watching their frantic movements the way the audience of A Midsummer Night’s Dream watches the crazed lovers in the Athenian woods. But the without warning—and without ever completely losing the comic detachment—we are unnerving close. Venus not only sighs for Adonis; she “locks her lily fingers one in one” (line 228) around the struggling boy and proposes that he “graze” (line 233) on her body: … He is manifestly in Venus, in her physical urgency and her rhetorical inventiveness, and he is in Adonis too, in his impatience and his misogynistic distaste. But he is in everything else as well. If a mare could write a love poem to a stallion (and, more precisely, the ecstatic inventory of the beloved’s features, known as a blazon), she might write this: … if a hare could write a poem about the misery of being hunted, he might write this: … What do you offer a beautiful, spoiled young aristocrat who has everything? You present him with a universe where everything has an erotic charge, (244)

Lucrece. But this time the tone of the extraordinary letter to Southampton was no longer diffident, tentative, or anxious: “The love I dedicate to your lordship is without end…What I have done is yours; what I have to do is yours, being part in all I have, devoted yours.” Elizabethan dedicatory letters were often quite florid, but what Shakespeare wrote here is not at all typical. This was not, as might have been expected, an exercise in praise or the desire to please or a plea for patronage; this was a public declaration of fervent, boundless love. /
Something happened in the course of the year between Venus and Adonis and The Rape and Lucrece, something led Shakespeare to shift from “I know not how I shall offend” to “love…without end.” (246)

Sonnet writing was a courtly and aristocratic performance, and Shakespeare was decidedly not a courtier or an aristocrat. Yet the challenge of this form proved agreeable to him. To be a very public man—an actor onstage, a successful playwright, a celebrated poet; and at the same time to be a very private man—a man who can be trusted with secrets, a writer who keeps his intimate affairs to himself and subtly encodes all references to others: this was the double life Shakespeare had chosen for himself. (249)

Such a deliberately chosen double existence helps to explain the paradox that has tantalized centuries of readers: the sonnets are a thrilling, deeply convincing staging of the poet’s inner life, an intimate performance of Shakespeare’s response to his tangled emotional relationships with a young man, a rival poet, and a dark lady; and the sonnets are a cunning sequence of a beautiful locked boxes to which there are no keys, an exquisitely constructed screen behind which it is virtually impossible to venture with any confidence. (249)

It would be folly to take these as a kind of confidential diary, a straightforward record of what actually went on in the relationship (249)

The sonnets represent the poet and the young man as excited by the immense class and status difference between them. (249)

As a decrepit father takes delight
To see his active child do deeds of youth,
So I, made lame by fortune’s dearest spite,
Take all my comfort of thy worth and truth. (37.1-4) /
Where could the seductive pleasure possibly lie here? Perhaps in a patriarchal society where the young were accustomed to domineering fathers or tyrannical guardians, a weak father figure was thrilling. (251)

The poet adores a man whom he cannot possess and desires a woman whom he cannot admire. (254)

In 1290, two hundred years before the momentous expulsion from Spain, the entire Jewish community of England had been expelled and forbidden on pain of death to return. The act of expulsion, in the reign of Edward I, was unprecedented; England was the first nation in medieval Christendom to rid itself by law of its entire Jewish population. There was no precipitating crisis, as far as is known, no state of emergency, not even any public explanation. No jurist seems to have thought it necessary to justify the deportations; no chronicler bothered to record the official reason. Perhaps no one, Jew or Christian, thought reasons needed to be given. For decades the Jewish population in England had been in desperate trouble: accused of Host desecration and the ritual murder of Christian children, hated moneylenders, reviled as Christ killers, beaten and lynched by mobs… By the time of Marlowe and Shakespeare, three centuries later, the Jewish population of England was ancient history. London had a small population of Spanish and Portuguese converts from Judaism, and some of these may have been Marranos, secretly maintaining Jewish practices. But the Jewish community in England had long vanished, and there were no Jews who openly practiced their religion. Yet in fact the Jews left traces far more difficult to eradicate than people, and the English brooded on these traces—stories circulated, reiterated, and elaborated—continually and virtually obsessively. There were Jewish fables and Jewish jokes and Jewish nightmares: Jews lured little children into the their clutches, murdered them, and took their blood to make bread for Passover. Jews were immensely wealthy—even when they looked like paupers—and covertly pulled the strings of an enormous international network of capital and goods. Jews poisoned wells and were responsible for spreading the bubonic plague. Jews secretly plotted an apocalyptic war against the Christians. Jews had a peculiar stink. Jewish men menstruated. (258-9)

“If I do not take pity of her I am a villain,” says Benedick in Much Ado About Nothing, tricked by his friends into declaring a passion for Beatrice. “If I do not love her, I am a Jew” (2.3.231-32). Everyone knew what that meant: Jews were by nature villainous, unnatural, coldhearted. (259)

For a brief time Luther even felt kindly disposed toward contemporary Jews, who had, he thought, refused to convert to a corrupt and magical Catholicism. But when they stubbornly refused to convert to the purified, reformed Christianity he was championing, Luther’s muted respect turned to rage, and in terms rivaling those of the most bigoted medieval friar, he called upon Christians to burn the Jews to death in their synagogues. / Luther’s On the Jews and Their Lies probably had little currency in Elizabethan to burn, no Jewish community to hate or to protect. (261)

Marlowe… used to declare (or so the spy claimed) that Jesus was a bastard and his mother a whore; that Moses was a “juggler,” that is, a trickster, who had deceived the ignorant chronology; that the New Testament was “filthily written” and that he, Marlowe, could do better; that Jesus and St. John were homosexual lovers; and so on. If Marlowe said even a fraction of what was attributed to him, then he could only have survived—and that no for very long—in a social and professional sphere that winked at views that would elsewhere have been instantly and ferociously punished. (268-9)

Sometime in the spring or summer of 1596 Shakespeare may have received word that his only son, Hamnet, eleven years old, was ill. [287] … By the time he reached Stratford the eleven-year-old boy—whom, apart from brief returns, Shakespeare had in effect abandoned in his infancy—may already have died. On August 11, the father presumably saw his son buried at Holy Trinity Church: (289)

It is sometimes said that parents in Shakespeare’s times could not afford to invest too much love and hope in any one child. One out of three children died by the age of ten, and overall mortality rates were by our standards exceedingly high. … But did familiar breed detachment? The private diary of a contemporary doctor, recently deciphered, shows that desperate spouses and parents, inconsolable with grief, were constantly coming to him for treatment. Human emotions are not rationally coordinated with actuarial affection or to protect themselves from misery, but by no means all means all did. (289)

In the four years following Hamnet’s death, the playwright, as many have pointed out, wrote some of his sunniest comedies: The Merry Wives of Windsor, Much Ado About Nothing, As You Like It. But the plays of these years were by no means uniformly cheerful, and at moments they seem to reflect an experience of deep personal loss. In King John, probably written in 1596, just after the boy was laid to rest, Shakespeare depicted a mother so frantic at the loss of her son that she is driven to thoughts of suicide. (289-90)

Increasingly acrimonious conflict with Giles Allen, the owner of the land in Shoreditch on which the Theater, where the Lord Chamberlain’s Men chiefly performed, had been built. The lease that James Burbage and his partner had taken back in 1576 was about to expire, and Allen refused to renew it [291] … The real solution was a daring one. On the snowy night of December 28, 1598, in a season cold enough to make the Thames freeze over, the players came together in Shoreditch. They carried lanterns and bore arms—in the words of one deposition, “swords, daggers, bills, axes and such like.” The small company , aided perhaps by a few hired thugs, may not immediately strike one as a formidable force, but as actors were all trained in wielding weapons and as London had no regular police force, they were adequate for the enterprise. They posted guards around the perimeter, and then together with a dozen workmen, they proceeded to dismantle the Theater. In the morning light they loaded the heavy timbers on wagons and began the work of carting them across the river to a site they had secured not far from the Rose Theatre, in Southwark. The landlord, Allen, was apoplectic and sued for trespass, but the legal situation was a complex one, for the Burbages’ lease stipulated a right to retrieve any structures they had built on Allen’s land. The deed, in any event, was done, thought it is difficult to understand how it was accomplished in a single night in the darkness. /
Over the next months the gifted carpenter Peter Streete cleverly recycled the pieces of the old playhouse and fashioned a splendid new theater. A many-sided wooded polygon, roughly one hundred feet across, with a huge platform stage jutting into the pit and three galleries, it could hold over three thousand spectators, … Globe. (292)

At the very least, judging from the play he wrote, he carefully read the story as narrated in French by Francois de Belleforest, whose collection of tragic tales was a publishing phenomenon in the late sixteenth century. … Belleforest had taken the Hamlet story from a chronicle of Denmark [295] compiled in Latin in the late twelfth century by a Dane known as Saxo the Grammarian. And Saxo in turn was recycling written and oral legends that reached back for centuries before him. (295-6)

Shakespeare was himself a known quality. It would have been reasonable for anyone who had followed his career to conclude by 1600 that he had already fully mapped the capacious boundaries of his imaginative kingdom. (296)

Though he was still young (only thirty-six years old), he had in the course of a decade achieved extraordinary things in three major genres—comedy, history, and tragedy—with plays that are each in their way so perfect that it would have been difficult to imagine going beyond them. Indeed, in the years that followed he made no attempt to surpass the two parts of Henry IV and Henry V, as if he understood that he had done what he was capable of doing in the history play. And though he shortly was to write the stupendous Twelfth Night, he did not in the genre of comedy actually go beyond what he had created in A Midsummer Night’s Dream, Much Ado About Nothing, and As You Like It. Hamlet turned out to inaugurate a creative frenzy that also brought forth Othello, King Lear, Macbeth, Antony and Cleopatra, and Coriolanus, but a well-informed contemporary theatergoer in 1600 had no reason to expect that Shakespeare had not already demonstrated what he could do in tragedy as well. (296)

But Hamlet makes clear that Shakespeare had been quietly steadily developing a special technical skill. This development may have been entirely deliberate, the consequence of a clear, ongoing professional design, or it may have been more haphazard and opportunistic. The achievement was, in any case, gradual: not a sudden, definitive discovery or a grandiose invention, but the subtle refinement of a particular set of representational techniques. By the turn of the century Shakespeare was poised to make an epochal breakthrough. He had perfected the means to represent inwardness. (299)

Written in 1595, Richard II marked a major advance in the playwright’s ability to represent inwardness, but Julius Caesar, written four years later, shows that, not content with what he had mastered, Shakespeare subtly experimented with new techniques. Alone, pacing in his orchard in the middle of night, Brutus begins to speak: … But it has something new: the unmistakable marks of actual thinking. Richard speaks of hammering it out, but the words he utters are already highly polished. [301] …without prelude, the audience is launched into the midst of Brutus’s obsessive brooding. It is impossible to know if he is weighing a proposition, trying out a decision, reiterating words that someone else has spoken. He does not need to mention whose death he is contemplating, nor does he need to make clear—for it is already part of his thought—that it will be by assassination. /
Brutus is speaking to himself, and his words have the peculiar shorthand of the brain at work. “Crown him: that!”—the exclamation is barely comprehensible, except as a burst of anger provoked by a phantasmic image passing at that instant through the speaker’s mind. The spectators are pulled in eerily close, watching firsthand the forming of a fatal resolution—a determination to assassinate Caesar—that will change the world. (302)

In Saxo the Grammarian’s account, King Horwendil (the equivalent of Shakespeare’s old King Hamlet) is killed by his envious brother Feng (the equivalent of Claudius) not secretly but in plain view. The brother has a thin cover story—he says that Horwendil had been brutally abusing his gentle wife, Gerutha—but the reality is that the ruthless Feng is powerful enough to seize his brother’s crown, his realm, and his wife and get away with it. The only potential obstacle is Horwendil’s young son Amleth, for everyone in this pre-Christian world of treachery and vengeance understood that a son must avenge his father’s murder. Amleth is still a child and no danger to anyone, but when he grows up, his obligation will be clear. The murderous Feng understands this strict social code as well, of course, and, if the boy does not quickly come up with a stratagem, his life is worth nothing. In order to survive long enough to take his just revenge, Amleth feigns madness, persuading his uncle that he cannot ever pose a threat. Flinging dirt and slime on himself, he sits by the fire, listlessly whittling away at small sticks and turning them into barbed hooks. Though the wary Feng repeatedly sets traps to try to discern some hidden sparks of intelligence behind his nephew’s apparent idiocy, Amleth cunningly avoids detection. He bides his time and makes plans. Mocked as a fool, treated with contempt and derision, he eventually succeeds in burning to death Feng’s entire retinue and in running his uncle through with a sword. He summons an assembly of nobles, explains why he has done what he has done, and is enthusiastically acclaimed as the new king. “Many could have been seen marveling how he had concealed so subtle a plan over so long a space of time.” (303)

Once the ghost of his father has disclosed the actual cause of death…Hamlet, who has full access to the unguarded Claudius, is in the perfect position to act immediately. And such an instantaneous response is precisely what Hamlet himself anticipates:
Haste, haste me to know it, that with wings as swift
As meditation or the thoughts of love
May sweep to my revenge. (1.5.29-37)
The play should be over by the end of the first act. (305)

Hamlet’s show of madness, then, seems a cover for something like madness. Indeed, he never seems more genuinely insane than at the moment, in his mother’s closet, in which he insists that he is perfectly sane and warns his mother not to disclose his strategy. “What shall I do?” cries the frightened queen. “Not this, by no means, that I bid you do,” answers Hamlet, jumbling together his injunction with his obsessive fantasies:
Let the bloat King tempt you again to bed,
Pinch wanton on your cheek, call you his mouse,
And let him for a pair of reechy kisses,
Or paddling in your neck with his damned fingers,
Make you to ravel all this matter out,
That I essentially am not in madness,
But mad in craft. (3.4.164-72)
Gertrude may be saying exactly what she believes when she tells Claudius a few moments later that Hamlet is “Mad as the sea and wind when both contend/ Which is the mightier” (4.1.6-7). (307)

“To be, or not to be; that is the question.” This suicidal urge has nothing to do with the ghost—indeed, Hamlet has so far forgotten the apparition as to speak of death as “The undiscovered country from whose bourn/ No traveler returns” (3.1.58, 81-82)—but rather has to do with a soul sickness brought on by one of “the thousand natural shocks/ That flesh is heir to.” (307)

Hamlet marks a sufficient enough break in Shakespeare’s career as to suggest some more personal cause for his daring transformation both of his sources and of his whole way of writing. A simple index of this transformation is the astonishing rush of new words, words that he had never [307] used before in some twenty-one plays and in two long poems. There are, scholars have calculated, more than six hundred of these words, many of them not only new to Shakespeare but also new to the written record of the English language. This linguistic explosion seems to come not from a broadened vision of the world but from some shock or series of shocks to his whole life. If Hamlet was written not in 1600 but in early 1601, then, as some scholars believe, one shock might have been the insurrection—to use Brutus’s word, in Julius Caesar—that led to the execution of the Earl of Essex and, more important, to the imprisonment of Shakespeare’s patron, friend, and possible lover, the Earl of Southampton. Accompanied by Southampton, Essex, who had long been the queen’s cosseted favorite, had gone off to Ireland in 1599 as the general of an expeditionary force designed to crush a rebellion led by the Earl of Tyrone. The enterprise, like so many others in Ireland, had failed miserably in the face of stanch Irish resistance, and late that year, suddenly and without the queen’s permission. Essex returned to London. Placed under house arrest and enraged by the queen’s refusal to readmit him to stage an armed putsch—the official purpose was to defend his life and save the queen from her evil counselors, Cecil and Ralegh. The London crowd refused to back the rising, and it was quickly over. The outcome of the trial was a foregone conclusion. On February 25, 1601, three strokes of the ax separated Essex’s head from his shoulders. The execution of several of his principal supporters and friends followed in short order. /
Shakespeare had every reason to be shaken by the upheaval. It was not only a matter of the possible loss of Southampton, who, though ultimately spared, seemed in early 1601 likely to be executed along with Essex. (308)

Something deeper must have been at work in Shakespeare, then, something powerful enough to call forth the unprecedented representation of tormented inwardness. “To be, or not to be”: as audiences and readers have long instinctively understood, these suicidal thoughts, provoked by the death of a loved one, lie at the heart of Shakespeare’s tragedy. … Hamnet… in the loose orthography of the time, the names were virtually interchangeable. Even if the decision to redo the old tragedy were a strictly commercial one, the coincidence of the names—the act of writing his own son’s name again and again—may well have reopened a deep wound, a wound that had never properly healed. (311)

But, of course, in Hamlet, it is the death not of a son but of a father that provokes the hero’s spiritual crisis. If the tragedy swelled up form Shakespeare’s own life—if it can be traced back to the death of Hamnet—something must have made the playwright link the loss of his child to the imagined loss of his father. I say “imagined” because Shakespeare’s father was buried in Holy Trinity Churchyard on September 8, 1601: the handwrighting may have been on the wall, but he was almost certainly still alive when the tragedy was written and first performed. How did the father’s death become bound up so closely in Shakespeare’s imagination with the son’s? (311)

Shakespeare undoubtedly returned to Stratford in 1596 for his son’s funeral. The minister, as the regulations required, would have met the corpse at the entry to the churchyard and accompanied it to the grave. Shakespeare must have stood there and listened to the words of the prescribed Protestant burial service. While the earth was thrown onto the body—perhaps by the father himself, perhaps by friends—the minister intoned the words, “Forasmuch as it hath pleased Almighty God of his great mercy to take unto himself the soul of our dear brother here departed, we therefore commit his body to the ground, earth to earth, ashes to ashes, dust to dust; in sure and certain hope of the Resurrection to eternal life.” (312)

Within living memory, the whole relationship between the living and the dead had been changed. In Lancashire, if not closer to home, Shakespeare could have seen the remnants of the old Catholic practice: candles burning night and day, crosses everywhere, bells tolling constantly, close relatives wailing and crossing themselves, neighbors visiting the corpse and saying over it a Paternoster or a De Profoundis, alms and food distributed in memory of the dead, priests paid to say Masses to ease the soul’s perilous passage through purgatory. [312]

Above all, it was now illegal to pray for the dead. / The first Protestant prayer books had retained the old formula: “I commend thy soul to God the father almighty, and thy body to the ground, earth to earth, ashes to ashes, dust to dust.” But vigilant reformers felt that these words had too much of the old Catholic faith hidden within them, and so a simple change was made: “We therefore commit his body to the ground…” The dead person is no longer directly addressed, as if he retained some contact with the living. The small revision makes a large point: the dead are completely dead. No prayers can help them; no messages can be sent to the m or received from them. Hamnet was beyond reach. (312-3)

Catholics believed that after death…to purgatory… Fortunately, the Catholic Church taught, there was a way to help your loved ones and yourself. Certain good works—prayers, alms, and above all special masses [313] … Many stories were told of ghosts who had returned to earth form purgatory, desperately pleading for help. And after the help was given, these same ghosts would often return to thank the giver… (314)

Ceremony was not the only or even the principal issue. What mattered was whether the dead could continue to speak to the living, at least for a short time, whether the living could help the dead, whether a reciprocal bond remained. When Shakespeare stood in the churchyard, watching the dirt fall on the body of his son, did he think that his relationship with Hamnet was gone without a trace? (315)

“If thou didst ever thy dear father love…,” the ghost says to his groaning son, “Revenge his foul and most unnatural murder” (1.5.23-25). But, strangely enough, the spectral injunction that Shakespeare’s Hamlet dwells upon is not this stirring call to action but something quite different: “Adieu, adieu, Hamlet. Remember me.” “Remember thee?” Hamlet echoes, clutching his head. (318)

On the face of things, as Hamlet’s tone of incredulity suggests, the request is absurd: the son is hardly likely to forget the return of his father from the grave. But in fact Hamlet does not sweep to his revenge, and it turns out that remember his father—remembering him in the right way, remembering him at all—is far more difficult to do than he imagined. Something interferes with the straightforward plan, an interference whose emblem is the feigned madness that makes no sense in the plot. [318] … Shakespeare had to be careful: plays were censored, and it would not have been permissible to refer to purgatory as a place that actually existed. (319)

Even setting aside for a moment the fact that purgatory, according to the Protestant church, did not exist, the allusions to it here are an enigma, for spirits in God’s great penitentiary could not by definition ask anyone to commit a crime. After all, they are being purged of their sins in order to ascend to heaven. Yet this ghost is not asking for Masses and alms; he is preempting God’s monopoly on revenge by demanding that his son kill the man who murdered him, seized his crown, and married his widow. Audiences then as now would not necessarily worry about this—the play is not, after all, a theology lesson [319]. But Hamlet worries about it, and his paralyzing doubts and anxieties displace revenge as the center of the play’s interest. /
The official Protestant line in Shakespeare’s time was that there were no ghosts at all. The apparitions that uncannily bore the appearance of loved ones or friends—were mere delusions, or, still worse, they were devils in disguise… (319-20)

Shakespeare must have attended the regular services in his Protestant parish; otherwise his name would have turned up on lists of recusants. But did he believe what he heard and recited? (321)

Rowe noted, “than that the top of his performance was the Ghost in his own Hamlet.” Enacting the purgatorial spirits who demands that the living listen carefully to his words—“lends thy serious hearing / To what I shall unfold” (1.5.5-6)—Shakespeare must have conjured up within himself the voice of his dead son, the voice of his dying father, and perhaps too his own voice, as it would sound when it came from the grave. Small wonder that it would have been his best role. (322)

The crucial breakthrough in Hamlet did not involve developing new themes or learning how to construct a shapelier, tighter plot; it had to do rather with an intense representation of inwardness called forth by a new technique of radical excision. He had rethought how to put a tragedy together—specifically, he had rethought the amount of causal explanation a tragic plot needed to function effectively and the amount of explicit psychological rationale a character needed to be compelling. Shakespeare found that he could immeasurably deepen the effect of his plays, that he could provoke in the audience and in himself a peculiarly passionate intensity of response, if he took out a key explanatory element, thereby occluding the rationale, motivation, or ethical principle that accounted for the action that was to unfold. The principle was not the making of a riddle to be solved, but the creation of a strategic opacity. This opacity, Shakespeare found, released an enormous energy that had been at least partially blocked or contained by familiar, reassuring explanations. /
Shakespeare’s work had long been wryly skeptical of official explanations and excuses—the accounts, whether psychological or theological, of why people behave the way they do. His plays had suggested that the choices people make in love are almost entirely inexplicable and irrational, which is the conviction that generates the comedy in A Midsummer Night’s Dream and the tragedy in Romeo and Juliet. But at least love was the clearly identifiable motive. (323-4)

The key is not simply the creation of opacity, for by itself that would only create a baffling or incoherent play. Rather, Shakespeare came increasingly to rely on the inward logic, the poetic coherence that his genius and his immensely hard work had long enabled him to confer on his plays. Tearing away the structure of superficial meanings, he fashioned an inner structure through the resonant echoing of key terms, the subtle developments of images, the brilliant orchestration of scenes, the complex unfolding of ideas, the intertwining of parallel plots, the uncovering of psychological obsessions. (324)

The excision of motive must have arisen from something more than technical experimentation; coming in the wake of Hamnet’s death, it expressed Shakespeare’s root perception of existence, his understanding of what could be said and what should remain unspoken, his preference for things untidy, damaged, and unresolved over things neatly arranged, well made, and settled. The opacity was shaped by his experience of the world and of his own inner life: his skepticism, his pain, his sense of broken rituals, his refusal of easy consolations. (324)

Iago…Shakespeare refused to provide the villain with a clear and convincing explanation of his behavior. (325)

Opaque: “Not out of absolute lust.” A further motivation—Iago’s fear that he has been cuckolded by Othello—displaces the first, but neither is convincing, and the addition of further layers only weakens the explanatory force of them… Iago’s murky attempt to account for his obsessive, unappeasable hatred—in Coleridge’s memorable phrase, “the motive-hunting of motiveless malignity”—is famously inadequate. (326)

But why does Lear, who has, as the play begins, already drawn up the map equitably dividing the kingdom among his three daughters, stage the love test at all? In Shakespeare’s principal source, an old Queen’s Men play called The True Chronicle History of King Leir (eventually published in 1605 but dating from 1594 or earlier), there is a gratifyingly clear answer. Leir’s strong-willed daughter Cordella has vowed that she will only marry a man whom she herself loves; Leir wishes her to marry the man she chooses for his own dynastic purposes. He stages the love test, anticipating that in competing with her sisters, Cordella will declare that she loves her father best, at which point will demand that she prove her love by marrying the suitor of his choice. The stratagem backfires, but its purpose is clear. /
Once again, as he did in Hamlet and Othello, Shakespeare simply cut out the motive that makes the initiating action of the story make sense. (328)

By stripping his character of a coherent rationale for the behavior that sets in motion the whole ghastly train of events, Shakespeare makes Lear’s act seem at once more arbitrary and more rooted in deep psychological needs. His Lear is a man who has determined to retire from power but who cannot endure dependence. Unwilling to lose his identify as absolute authority both in the state and in the family, he arranges a public ritual—“Which of you shall we say doth love us most?”—whose aim seems to be to allay his own anxiety by arousing it in his children. (328)

There is no evidence—as there is, for example, with Ben Jonson or John Donne—that Shakespeare laid out his money for books (let alone for paintings, antique coins, or small bronzes, or indeed for any other object of learning or art). What interested him was real estate in and around Stratford. /
He could easily have afforded a place for his wife and children to live in London, but they—or he—evidently preferred that they remain in the country. (330)

James was nervous, deeply nervous. He could relax, toy with abstruse scholarly questions, get drunk, fondle his handsome male favorites, lose himself in the peculiar joy of killing animals. He could, in the right mood, laugh at himself and be teased, even quite coarsely. But he could never entirely escape the terror that haunted him. Attempts to delight him with fireworks displays or surprises tended to go awry; chance events could conjure up horrible memories from the past; and though he was an ardent hunter, he could never learn to fence, because the sight of a drawn sword would suddenly send him into a panic. /
He had good reason for fear. Not only had his mother been executed by the queen on whose throne he now sat, but his father had died at an assassin’s hand. He himself had narrowly escaped assassination on at least one and perhaps more than one occasion. He believed that his enemies would stop at nothing in their attempts to harm him and his children: he feared not sharp steel alone but also wax figurines stuck with pins and the mumbled charms of toothless old women. (333)
Shakespeare constructed Macbeth around, or perhaps as, a piece of flattery. The flattery is not direct and personal, the fulsome praise characteristic of many other royal entertainments in the period, but indirect and dynastic. That is, James is honored not for his wisdom or learning or statecraft but for his place in a line of legitimate descent (335)

Shakespeare’s Banquo, by contrast, is a figure of probity and decency. When Macbeth cautiously asks for his assistance, without specifying what action he has in mind, the upright thane delicately but firmly declares his allegiance to the reigning king. Shakespeare transforms James’s ancestor, then, from a collaborator into a resister. It must have been agreeable to James—whose immediate past was a sickening tangle of conspiracy and betrayal—to be told that his line was founded on a rock of rectitude. (336)

On November 4, 1605, the night before King James I was due to appear in person to open a new session of Parliament, officers of the Crown, alerted some days before by a hint in an anonymous letter, apprehended Guy Fawkes in a cellar that extended beneath the Parliament House. The cellar was loaded with barrels of gunpowder and iron bars, concealed by a load of lumber and coal. Carrying a watch, a fuse, and tinder, Fawkes intended to put into execution a desperate plot devised by a small group of conspirators, embittered by what they perceived as James’s unwillingness to extend toleration to Roman Catholics. Under ferocious torture, Fawkes revealed the names of those who had conspired with him to blow up the entire government. The conspirators were hunted down. Those who resisted were killed on the spot; others were arrested and, after a trial that the king watched in secret, were hanged, cut down while they were still alive, slit open, and hewed in quarters. (336)

The King’s Men, like the other theater companies, would have had to think hard about what would best suit this moment, both for the general London audience and fro the court. In Macbeth, Shakespeare seems to have set out to write a play that would function as a collective ritual of reassurance. Everyone had been deeply shaken: the whole of the ruling elite, along with the king and his family, could have been blown to bits, the kingdom ripped apart and plunged into the chaos of internecine religious warfare. The staging of the events of eleventh-century Scotland—the treacherous murder of the king, the collapse of order and decency, the long struggle to wrest the realm from the bloody hands of traitors—allowed its seventeenth-century audience to face a symbolic version of this disaster and to witness the triumphant restoration of order. / The plot of Macbeth, to be sure, is very far from the Gunpowder plot. (337)

At this point, a porter, roused by the noise but half-drunk from the evening’s revelry, appears. As he grumbling goes to unlock the gate, he seems to be still in a dream state. He imagines that he is the gatekeeper in hell, opening the door to new arrivals. (338)

Queen Elizabeth’s godson, a celebrated wit named John Harrington, recounted an audience with the king in 1604. James began in a pedantic vein—he showed off his learning, Harrington wrote, “in such sort as made me remember my examiner at Cambridge”—and went on to literature, with a discussion of the Italian epic Ariosto. Then the conversion took a strange turn: “His Majesty did much press for my opinion touching the power of Satan in matter of witchcraft, and..why the Devil did work more with ancient [i.e., old] women than others.” Harrington tried to deflect the odd urgency of the king’s question with an off-color joke: he reminded the king that Scripture says the devil has a preference for “walking in dry places/” But James did not simply laugh and move on to other matters. There was, he said, a weird apparition in the heavens in Scotland before his mother’s death, “a bloody head dancing in the air.” The English courtier restrained himself and made no further attempt at comedy. / James’s anxiety about witches and apparitions was no laughing matter, and it obviously behooved anyone interested in the king’s favor—a playwright as much as a courtier—to take its full measure. (342)

There were, however, other means of access into the king’s interests and imagination. James had taken the unusual step of publishing a learned dialogue on witchcraft in 1597, the Daemonologie. This work, which went through two London editions in 1603 and which Shakespeare could easily have encountered, acknowledges the existence of skepticism—“many can scarcely believe that there is such a thing as witchcraft”—but argues that disbelief is a step toward atheism and damnation. Witches do indeed exist and are a significant danger to the whole realm. / Shakespeare knew about witches long before the Scottish king lectured his subjects on them. (343)

From James’s Daemonologie, Shakespeare would have learned that though the king was struck by the fact that so many of the people accused of witchcraft were old women from small villages, he was not at all interested in the local hatreds and heartbreaks that generated most of the accusations. Unlike Brian Darcy’s, the king’s mind soared away from the familiar rancors of rural life. As befitted a monarch of wide reading, James had grand metaphysical theories, complex political strategies, the subtle ideas of an intellectual and a statesman. He was, moreover, well aware that many of the charges of witchcraft were mere fantasies and lies, and he was proud of his perspicacity. (344-5)

The devil’s goal is the ruin not of a tiny hamlet but of a whole kingdom, and hence his principal target is not this or that local villager but God’s won representative on earth, the king. It is to ensnare princes that the devil teaches his disciples, his “scholars,” as the owlish James calls them, his tricks. … “He will make his scholars to creep in credit with Princes,” James writes, “by fore-telling them many great things”—the outcome of battles, the fate of commonwealths, and the like—“part true, part false.” If Satan’s scholars only spoke lies, their master would soon lose credit, and if they straightforwardly told the truth, they could scarcely do the devil’s work. So their prognostications are “always doubtsome, as his Oracles were.” (345-6)

Shakespeare was burrowing deep into the dark fantasies that swirled about in the king’s brain. It is all here: the ambiguous prophecies designed to lure men to the destruction, the “Shipwrecking storms and direful thunders” (1.2.26) that once threatened Anne of Denmark, the murderous hatred of anointed kings, the illusory apparitions, the fiendish equivocations, the loathsome concoction of body parts, even the witches’ sailing in a sieve to do their diabolical mischief— (349)

Macbeth does not represent disaster miraculously averted; it does not confirm the belief that a divinity hedges an anointed king; it does not support James’s fantasy that a truly good man is invulnerable to the malice of witchcraft. Trust is violated, families are destroyed, nature itself is poisoned. To a kind who paled at the sight of sharp steel, it offered the insistent spectacle of a bloody dagger, both a real dagger and what Macbeth calls a dagger of the mind. True, the pageant promises the throne to an endless succession of Banquo’s heirs. True as well, the restoration of order in the tragedy’s final moments could be seen as a representation of the order that had been restored to the realm after the Gunpowder Plot: the severed head of Macbeth, carried onstage at the concluding moment by the victorious Macduff, was a reminder of the conspirators’ heads that members of the audience could see every time they walked across London Bridge. (350)

Reading this and other passages in the Malleus maleficarum, an older contemporary of Shakespeare’s, an English country gentlemen named Reginald Scot, said that he was tempted to regard the whole work as a “bawdy discourse,” a kind of obscene joke book. But he checked the impulse: “there are not jests,” he writes, “for they be written by them that were and are judges upon the lives and deaths of those persons.” Scot’s response in 1584 was to publish The Discovery of Witchcraft, the greatest English contribution to the skeptical critique of witchcraft. On his accession to the English throne, James ordered all copies of Scot’s book to be burned. But it seems, from allusions that he made to it, that Shakespeare got hold of a copy and read it when he wrote Macbeth. /
Scot argues that it is the masters of language, the poets, who have been the principal sources of the murderous fantasies that lead to witch hunts. (353)

The King’s Men did not preach anything of the kind: dressing themselves up as witches, they were determined to profit from those obsessions. (353)

Why Macbeth plots to assassinate King Duncan: spurred on by his wife, he wishes to seize the crown for himself. But in a tortured soliloquy, Macbeth reveals that he is deeply baffled by his own murderous fantasies:
My thought, whose murder yet is but fantastical,
Shakes so my single state of man that function
Is smothered in surmise, and nothing is
But what is not. (1.3.138-41)
At the center of the familiar and conventional motive there is a dark hole—“nothing is/ But what is not.” And this hole that is inside Macbeth is linked to the dark presence, within his consciousness and within the play’s world, of the witches. Do they actually arouse the thought of murdering Duncan in Macbeth’s mind, or is that thought already present before he encountered them? Do they have some affinity with Lady Macbeth—who calls upon the spirits that attend on mortal thoughts to “unsex” her (1.5.38-39)—or is their evil completely independent of hers? Does the witches’ warning—“beware Macduff” (4.1.87)—actually induce Macbeth to kill Macduff’s family, or has he already waded too deep in bloodshed to turn back? Do their ambiguous prophecies lead him to a final, fatal overconfidence, or is his end the result of his loss of popular support and the superior power of Malcolm’s army? None of the questions is answered. At the end of the play the weird sisters are left unmentioned, their role unresolved. Shakespeare refuses to allow the play to localize and contain the threat in the bodies of witches. (354)

Macbeth leaves the weird sisters unpunished but manages to implicate them in a monstrous threat to the fabric of civilized life. The genius of the play is bound up with this power of implication, by means of which the audience can never quite be done with them, for they are most suggestively present when they cannot be seen, when they are absorbed in the ordinary relations of everyday life. (355)

The witches—eerie, indefinable, impossible to locate securely or to understand—are the embodiment of the principle of opacity that Shakespeare embraced in his great tragedies. Shakespeare’s theater is the equivocal space where conventional explanations fall away, where one person can enter another person’s mind, and where the fantastic and the bodily touch. (355)

Shakespeare might well have been set to thinking about the story of Lear by a widely discussed lawsuit that had occurred in late 1603. The two elder daughters of a doddering gentleman named Sir Brian Annesley attempted to get their father legally certified as insane, thereby enabling themselves to take over his estate, while his youngest daughter vehemently protested on her father’s behalf. The youngest daughter’s name happened to be Cordell, a name almost identical to Cordella, the name of the daughter in the venerable legend of King Leir who tried to save her father from the malevolent designs of her two older sisters. The uncanny coincidence of the names and the stories must have been hard to resist. (357)

In the culture of Tudor and Stuart England, where the old demanded the public deference of the young, retirement was the focus of particular anxiety. It put a sever strain on the politics and psychology of deference by driving a wedge between status (358)

Edmund seethes with murderous resentment at the disadvantage entirely customary for someone in his position, both as a younger son and as what was called a base or natural child. (358)

In the strange universe of King Lear, nothing but precipitous ruin lies on the other side of retirement, just as nothing but a bleak, featureless heath lies on the other side of the castle gate. (358)

Once a father had turned over his property to his children, once he had lost his ability to enforce his will, his authority would begin to crumble away. (359)

King Lear, set in a pagan Britain roughly contemporary with the prophet Isaiah, … Lear’s maddened rage is a response not only to his daughter’s vicious ingratitude but also to the horror of being turned into an ordinary old man, a sojourner begging his children for charity. (360)

If King Lear is any indication , he shared with his contemporaries a fear of retirement and dread of dependence upon children. And from the surviving evidence, he could scarcely be expected to find comfort in the enduring bond with his wife. His way of dealing with this fear was work… and then the investment of his capital in land and tithes (an agricultural commodities investment), so that he could assure himself a steady annual income. … Shakespeare carefully accumulated and laid out his money so that in his old rage he would never have to depend upon his daughters—or upon the theater. (361)

New Place was the tangible fruit of his own imagination and his hard life. / To acquire such a house meant that Shakespeare had had to save his money. the limited evidence that survives suggests that in London he lived frugally. (361)

Generations of scholars have combed the archives for more details, but the principal records are a success of notices for the nonpayment of taxes. In 1597, the year Shakespeare bought the handsome New Place, the tax collectors for Bishopsgate ward affirmed that William Shakespeare, assessed the sum of thirteen shillings fourpence on his personal property, had not paid. The next year he was again delinquent, and a further notice, in 1600, when he was living on the Surrey side of the river, suggests that he was still in arrears. He may in the end have paid his taxes—the records are incomplete—but it does not seem likely. Shakespeare was someone who not only lived a modest London life but also hated to let even small sums of money slip through his fingers. (362)

Standing in the graveyard at Elsinore, Hamlet contemplates a skull that the gravedigger has dislodged with his dirty shovel: “This fellow might be in ‘s time a great buyer of land,” he remarks to Horatio, … It is altogether fitting that Hamlet should speak with such wry disdain. For on the one hand, he is the prince of Denmark, far above mere moneygrubbing, and on the other hand, as he has made overwhelming clear, he is indifferent to all worldly ambition. (363)

James displayed a peculiar quality that contemporaries would repeatedly note: he was nervous, sensitive, and on occasion dangerously paranoid, but then unexpectedly he could ignore or even laugh uproariously at what others—and not only absolute monarchs—could have taken as gross insults. In the case of the premier theater company of his new kingdom, he may simply have regarded the players as too insignificant to care about, for good or ill. Or perhaps he regarded the players as a collective version of the court jester, whom Shakespeare depicts with such wry sympathy in Twelfth Night, King Lear, and elsewhere (365)

The Blackfriars hall was much smaller than the Globe, but it had the great advantage, given the vagaries of the English weather, of being roofed and enclosed. It was, at least by comparison with the open amphitheaters, a place of decorum and even luxury. Disorderly crowds would not stand restlessly around the stage; instead, everyone would be seated. Hence admission prices could be greatly increased—from the mere pennies at the Globe to as high as two shillings in Blackfriars—and, as it was possible to illuminate the hall by candlelight, there could be evening as well as afternoon performances. (367)

Blackfriars … Shakespeare, already a sharer in the Globe, was one of the partners in the new venture, the culmination of an elaborate entrepreneurial strategy. (368)

Gallants eager to show off their clothes could even pay to sit on the Blackfriars stage and become part of the spectacle. The practice—not permitted at the Globe—must have annoyed the actor in Shakespeare: later in the century a riot broke out during a performance of Macbeth when a nobleman slapped an actor who had remonstrated with him for crossing directly in front of the action in order to greet a friend on the other side of the stage. And it must have annoyed the playwright in his as well, since the stage-sitters could conspicuously get up and walk out during the play. But the businessman in Shakespeare must have found the extra profit irresistible. (368)

As his career progressed, he shifted the principal focus on his plays away from ardent young men and women, impatient to get on with their lives, to the older generation. This shift is obvious in King Lear, with its tormented old men, but it can also be seen, though more subtly, in the character of Othello, who worries about his age, and in Macbeth, whose vitality ebbs away before our eyes:
My way of life
Is fall’n into the sere, the yellow leaf,
And that which should accompany old age,
As honour, love, obedience, troops of friends,
I must not look to have. (5.3.23-27) [369] …

It will not do to force the point: Shakespeare’s last play, The Two Noble Kinsmen, which he probably wrote in 1613-14 with the playwright John Fletcher, fifteen years his junior, is a tragicomic story of young lovers. (370)

The Winter’s Tale is a reworking in particular of Othello, as if Shakespeare had set himself to the task once again of staging a story of male friendship and homicidal jealousy, but this time without any tempter at all. The effect is the most extreme version in his work of the radical excision of motive: there is no reason at all why King Leontes should suspect his beautiful wife, nine months pregnant, of adultery with best friend; no reason why he should cause the death of his only son, order his newborn daughter to be abandoned, and destroy his own happiness; and there is no reason why he should, after sixteen years, recover the daughter and the wife whom he has believed long dead. The fatal madness comes upon his suddenly and without provocation; and the restoration takes the conspicuously irrational and dangerous form of magic: a statue brought to life. (370-1)

Shakespeare’s plays are rarely overtly self-reflexive: he wrote as if he thought that there were more interesting (or at least more dramatic) things in life to do than write plays. Though form time to time he seems to peer out, somewhere within Richard III or Iago or Autolycus or Paulina, for the most part he keeps himself hidden. But at last in The Tempest, he comes if not directly to the surface, then at least so close that his shadowy outline can be discerned. (372-3)

The Tempest is not, strictly speaking, Shakespeare’s last play. Written probably in 1611, it was followed by All is True (now more often called Henry VIII), The Two Noble Kinsmen, and the lost Cardenio. But none of these latter plays is a wholly personal vision; each is written in collaboration with John Fletcher, whom Shakespeare seems to have handpicked as his successor as principal playwright for the King’s Men. (373)

How could Shakespeare give all of this up? The answer is that he couldn’t, at least not entirely. When he actually left London is not known. He may have moved back to Stratford as early as 1611, just after he finished The Tempest, but he did not cut all of his ties. He was no longer overwhelmingly present, but he collaborated with John Fletcher on at least three plays. And in March 1613 he made the last of his real estate investments, not this time in Stratford, but in London. For the large sum of 140 pounds (80 pounds of which was in cash), he purchased a “dwelling house or tenement” built over one of the great gatehouses of the old Blackfriars priory. This was precisely the kind of dwelling that he could have bought, had he wished his wife and children to live with him in London, during the long years of his professional life there. But it was only now that he had returned to Stratford that he decided he wanted to own something in the city. Though his Blackfriars house was in hailing distance of the Blackfriars Theater and close too to Puddle Wharf, where boats could take him quickly across the river to the Globe, Shakespeare does not seem to have bought it to live in. he may have arranged to stay there during his trips back to London—to see the plays on which he had collaborated or to conduct business—but he rented it to someone named John Robinson. Still, he owned something in the place where he had wielded his magical powers. (379)

At the very beginning of July 1613, only a few months after he completed the expensive Blackfriars purchase, news would have reached Shakespeare of a disaster that must have had a powerful impact upon him: on June 29, during a performance of the new play he had co-authored with Fletcher, the Globe Theater—the structure he himself had helped to build back in the winter of 1599—had burned to the ground. (379)

Shakespeare had probably been feeling unwell for some months, for already in January, just at the time he must have learned of the proposed wedding, he had called for his attorney, Francis Collins, and asked him to draft his last will and testament. (385)

The contraction of his world helps perhaps to explain how quietly he passed from it. His burial on April 25, 1616, is noted in the Stratford register, but there are no contemporary accounts of his last hours. (386)

Even if we strip away the machinations over the enclosures, the probably sense of disappointment in his younger daughter, the disgrace of Thomas Quiney, the sour anger toward his wife; even if we imagine his Stratford life as a sweet idyll—the great poet watching the peaches ripen on the espaliered trees or playing with his granddaughter—it is difficult to escape a sense of constriction and loss. The magician abjures his astonishing, visionary gift; retires to his provincial domain; and submits himself to the crushing, glacial weight of the everyday. (387)


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