The poet with a muse of fire

Shakespeare is celebrated for his plays and sonnets, but his life is no less fascinating.

Published : Aug 02, 2017 12:30 IST

William Shakespeare,  an artist’s impression.

William Shakespeare, an artist’s impression.

SHAKESPEARE is an enigma, both in the work that he left behind and in the extremely sketchy details of his life that are available to scholarship.

Sir Francis Bacon paid a legitimate tribute to Sir Thomas Bodley, who refounded and enlarged the illustrious Bodleian Library (the Oxford University library, which was renamed the Bodleian in 1602), extolling his qualities as a librarian: “... books are the shrines where the saint is, or is believed to be; and you having built an Ark to save learning from deluge, deserve propriety in any new instrument or engine, whereby learning should be improved or advanced.”

Bodley’s warrant to the curator of his library was unequivocal: “I would you had foreborne to catalogue our London bookes till I had bin privie to your purpose. There are many idle bookes, and riffe raffes among them, which shall never come into the Librarie, and I feare me that little, which you have done alreadie, will raise a scandal upon it, when it shal be given out, by such as sould disgrace it, that I have made up a number, with Almanacks, plaies and proclamacions: of which I will have none, but such as are singular.” Plays were bundled out with almanacs as idle and plebeian. It took 40 years for a Quarto edition of Hamlet to be considered “singular” enough for the shelves of the Bodleian.

Bodley’s grave reproof betrays the reality that plays, not to speak of playwrights, were seen in a poor light. Plays were no doubt sources of prime entertainment, but they were anathema to elite libraries.

Today, however, Shakespeare is a myth perfectly rendered in Matthew Arnold’s line “others abide our question, thou art free”. But his actual life was strife-torn, full of vicissitudes of fortune. Close on the heels of his father John Shakespeare’s marriage with Mary Arden in 1557, the Catholic Queen Mary died. In her pernicious drive to reinstate Catholicism, which Henry VIII had rebelled against, Mary had persecuted Protestants. Her death and Elizabeth’s accession to the throne uprooted Catholicism in England. The mission to “plant true religion” meant suppression of all Catholic ceremonies. Altars and images, wall paintings, stained-glass artwork and clerical vestments were ruthlessly destroyed or desecrated. The young Shakespeare could not but have suffered because of the turmoil. From 1571, when Shakespeare enrolled at the Stratford Grammar School, until 1580, when he left the school, socio-religious life in England was in turbulence. The Catholic Counter-Reformation and the ensuing repression deepened the crisis.

The 16 years (1564-80) of the poet’s childhood were a time of meteoric rise for John Shakespeare, a successful glover. He was also an ale taster and eventually became Bailiff and later a Justice of the Peace. The biographer F.E. Halliday speculates how William as a child must have enjoyed the gala ceremonial that accompanied his father’s entourage: “… the buff uniformed sergeants with their maces, who accompanied his father when he inspected the market on Thursdays, the fair on fair-days, and escorted him to and from church on Sundays”. The Queen inducted local gentry of consequence as Justices of the Peace: “They were Elizabeth’s maids [assistants] of all work. They had not only to carry out her political and ecclesiastical policy, but to administer petty justice, and to execute all the ordinary functions of local government...” ( English Social History , G.M. Trevelyan, pages 169-70).

Mary Arden’s father bequeathed to her in 1556 a part of his Wilmcote property and all his land in Asbyes. Thus, by marriage and personal venture, John prospered. By 1575, John had enlarged his property in Stratford’s Henley Street by annexing two adjoining houses to his own at Wilmcote with a garden and an orchard. It was a handsome property. The family was also growing. William had four surviving siblings: Gilbert, Joan, Anne and Richard.

But the good times did not last. Recall these famous lines of the Bard: “There is a tide in the affairs of men/ Which when taken at the flood/ Leads on to Fortune.” John was booked in a money-laundering case; 1577 and 1578 were crucial years.

John seems to have been obliged to withdraw William from the Stratford Grammar School. Some biographers claim that William completed the course there. At any rate, John was stripped of his badges of honour and he abandoned plans of applying for a coat of arms. John also disposed of his own and his wife’s property. This period of sensational decline in the family fortunes is powerfully reflected in Shakespeare’s sonnets.

The education that Shakespeare received at the Stratford Grammar School must have been formidable, a far cry from the “small Latin and less Greek” of Ben Jonson’s famous phrase. The school was hardly three miles from the Shakespeares’ home. Halliday writes: “He [Shakespeare] had to be up by five or so; wash, dress, comb his hair, say his prayers and have his breakfast well before he heard the chapel bell begin to ring. At school the day began with Bible-reading, singing psalms and prayers until nine. An half-an-hour break; resumption till eleven. A dinner break… at 1 o’clock. Finally liberty at five.”

The lessons included translations from English to Latin of exemplary passages in the Old Testament—Genesis, Job, Ecclesiastes. William read at the feet of Simon Hunt, later of Thomas Jenkins. His inquisitive mind must have garnered a rich harvest in Latin and Greek rhetoric. The grounding in Latin helped him through Cicero. There were also lessons in logic and rhetoric, the fruits of which can be clearly seen in the play Julius Caesar.

Of the grammar schools of Shakespeare’s time, Trevelyan wrote: “The typical unit of Elizabethan education was the Grammar School, where the cleverest boys of all classes were brought up together.” The differences in class were “taken as a matter of course, without jealously in those below, or itching anxiety on the part of the upper and middling classes to teach the grand law of subordination to the inferior orders”. After the religious unrest of the middle Tudor era, Queen Elizabeth ushered in a golden age. Trevelyan wrote: “Shakespeare chanced upon the best time and country in which to live, in order to exercise with least distraction and most encouragement the highest faculties of man.”

Marriage All Shakespeare scholars agree that the poet and playwright was unpredictable. His life betrays some behavioural oddity, interesting as also entertaining. His marriage with Anne Hathaway, for example. The only daughter of Richard Hathaway, a widower, Anne lived in Shottery (Stratford parish), hardly a mile away from Shakespeare’s house in Henley Street. Eight years senior to William, she did allure the burgeoning 18-year-old poet. The access from Henley Street to Rother Street to Shottery, albeit a short trek, lay through a teeming marketplace and a lane hid between two rows of heath. Sex was not so scandalous in those days; still to have a woman with child required that the young man must plight his troth before a physical violation or intercourse. Under the circumstances, John Shakespeare had to travel with an acquaintance to Worcester, accompanied by William, to apply to the consistory court for a special permission for the marriage.

James Joyce jocosely described the situation in Ulysses through the character of Stephen Dedalus: “He [Shakespeare] chose badly? He was chosen, it seems to me. If others have their will [read William] Ann hath a way [read Hathaway]. By cock, she was to blame. She put the come-hither, sweet and twenty six. The greyed goddess who bends the boy Adonis, stooping to conquer, as prologue to the swelling act, is a boldfaced Stratford wench who tumbles in a cornfield a lover younger than herself.”

There is not much evidence available on how Shakespeare fared in the decade from 1582 to 1592. For England, it was a time of uneasy calm. Religious persecutions and Protestant threnchancies countered by Catholic vendettas were rending asunder the nation’s peace and prosperity. Meanwhile, the Babington Plot, a notorious subterfuge to install Mary, Queen of Scots, on the English throne by shunting Elizabeth, shook the foundations of faith and trust in the country. Michael Wood in his book In Search of Shakespeare describes how the plotters were caught by the Queen’s agents provocateurs. One of those agents was Robin Poley, a double agent in the Queen’s employ.

One of the Catholic priests executed during Elizabeth’s reign for the crime of being a Catholic priest was Robert Debdale. He was Anne Hathaway’s neighbour and Mary Arden’s kinsman. He was also Shakespeare’s schoolmate in grammar school. The Queen’s dragnet captured Sara Williams, a serving girl who was forced in the inquisition to reveal the story of the exorcisms at Denham conducted by Debdale. Debdale was hanged, drawn and quartered, a horrendous punishment. Wood says the execution must have caused alarm in Stratford: “Debdale’s body was quartered and the parts sent to be hung on the gates of provincial towns with placards detailing his crimes. Many among his friends and neighbours in Shottery and Stratford, people like the Hathaways, must have felt that a member of their community had been done to death only for his conscience.”

This event, horrendous and deterrent, must have cast a spell of horror among the Catholics of Stratford. John Shakespeare took lessons and decided to shroud his faith. This period of 10 years led scholars to sort and sift various pieces of evidence to carve out a reasonable picture of the future great playwright. For Shakespeare could not have slunk way and bided his time. His burgeoning genius would take to any means or method to shape his career and life ahead: a runner, a prompt boy, an ostler holding horses for wealthier members in the audience—any raft to reach the ultimate destination was welcome. But his dramatic career was buffeted about by resistance spurred by vanity and vendetta.

Of the two existing drama companies, the Chamberlain’s Men and the Admiral’s Men, Shakespeare wrote exclusively for the former. Between 1592 and 1597, nearly all of his rival playwrights died. Robert Greene died in poverty in 1592; the following year Christopher Marlowe was stabbed to death and buried obscurely in Deptford churchyard; Thomas Kyd, too, died, and George Peele was on his deathbed. In 1595, Shakespeare was virtually without a rival. But his company faced a formidable challenge from Philip Henslowe, a great financier and owner of the theatre The Rose, which he refurbished at great cost. He struck a deal with Edward Alleyn, concluding a partnership over the management of the Admiral’s Men that involved buying plays, costumes and stage properties for them. Plays were then a rage, and Shakespeare of the Chamberlain’s Men was hugely successful. Henslowe spared no pains to put down the Chamberlain’s Men. Henslowe commissioned needy playwrights to write or touch up plays and advanced them money to sign away their freedom. Halliday says: “His fully developed system was one of mass production with carefully planned division of labour . ” Henslowe’s was almost like a corporate team, turning out tragedy, comedy and farce. The play-hungry audience lapped it all up.

In 1596, Shakespeare lost his only son, Hemnet, who was then 11 years old. The poet was in Kent, and it is not certain whether he was present at the burial. About this time, at his insistence, his father renewed his application for a coat of arms at the Herald’s Court, which was granted. It restored the family’s social status.

Playhouses & playwright In London, the times were tough for theatre. Lord Cobham, who was Lord Chamberlaine from 1596 to 1597, banned plays at the instance of the puritanical municipality. Players were expelled from the city. Shakespeare’s company shifted to the Swan Theatre from the Cross Keys. The Merchant of Venice , now in production, cast into limbo almost all other plays. The Chamberlaine’s Men were commanded to give six court performances. The Admiral’s Men fizzled out.

James Burbage, the great Elizabethan theatrical entrepreneur and father of the great thespian Richard Burbage (who played many of Shakespeare’s leading characters), had bought a part of the Blackfriars Priori, which was used as an indoor playhouse for the children of the Chapel Royal. Burbage converted it into a private theatre complete with stage, gallery and seats. But a company of petitioners of Blackfriars Liberty urged the Privy Council to prevent plays at the new venue as that would encourage lawlessness and plague, and the drums and trumpets of the theatre would undermine the peace and sanctity of the Priori’s service. Burbage was forbidden to open his new theatre.

James Burbage died in 1597. He left the first playhouse that he had built, called The Theatre, to his younger son, Richard, and his lease of the Swan Theatre to the elder, Cuthbert. Richard Burbage, Shakespeare’s colleague and friend, used a clause in the agreement with the owner of the land on which the playhouse stood to dismantle it and retrieve whatever he could for a new theatre. In Wood’s description: “On the night of 28 December [1598-99], with snow falling and the Thames freezing over, the Burbages, together with the most experienced theatrical carpenter in London, the contractor for the Rose, Peter Street, plus a dozen workmen and a few armed heavies, marched up to Shoreditch.... Over the next few days they carted the pieces through the city and across the frozen river to the new site where, over the next six months, The Theatre would be rebuilt as the Globe” ( In Search of Shakespeare , page 244). A shareholder’s agreement was made conceding half the shares to the Burbages and distributing the other half among other shareholders, including Shakespeare. “On 21 February 1599 a 31-year lease was signed and construction began.”

The most remarkable feature of the inimitable genius of Shakespeare was that his creative quill never stopped. No matter what happened—his son’s death, living away from his family, the seething religious unrest of the times—he continued to write. But the strain destroyed his health.

On June 29, 1613, the Globe caught fire during a performance of Henry VIII and burned down. The discharge of a cannonball had ignited the theatre’s thatched roof. Although it was to be rebuilt, Shakespeare sold out his share. Perhaps he had a premonition of what was to come. In the New Year of 1616, he dictated the first draft of his will, which ran through revisions. He bequeathed the lion’s share of his property to his daughter Susanna and her husband, John Hall.

The final will is superb in its humanitarian essence. Wood writes: “So it was during these crises that the poet made the final alterations to his will. There were gifts to many friends and neighbours; $10 to the poor of his home town; money to his old fellow actors in London, [John] Heminges, [Richard] Burbage, [Henry] Condell, with which to purchase remembrance rings. He faithfully remembered the old… friends and neighbours Hamnet Sadler and William Reynolds, and his estate went to Susanna and John Hall” ( In Search of Shakespeare, pages 373-74).

He travelled to London without signing his first will to celebrate his dearest friend and admirer Ben Jonson’s achievement of an annual pension of 100 mark (800 ounces of gold) granted by the King. They drank hard, and Shakespeare, sick and debilitated, rode up 90 miles to Stratford where John Hall’s desperate efforts failed to haul him up. He died on April 23, 1616. On April 25, he was buried within the chancel (a part of the church near the altar) of the Holy Trinity in Stratford.

Ben Jonson wrote a poem “To the memory of my beloved, The Author William Shakespeare”, in which he paid a moving tribute to the poet: Sweet Swan of Avon! what a sight it were/ To see thee in our waters yet appeare,/ And make those flights upon the bankes of Thames,/ That so did take Eliza, and our James!

Asim Kumar Mukherjee is a retired professor of English based in Kolkata.

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