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William Shakespeare

by Victor Hugo

Part I -- Book I: His Life
Chapter 3

William Shakespeare was born at Stratford-on-Avon, in a house under the tiles of which was concealed a profession of the Catholic faith beginning with these words, "I, John Shakespeare." John was the father of William. The house, situate in Henley Street, was humble; the chamber in which Shakespeare came into the world, wretched,-- the walls whitewashed, the black rafters laid crosswise; at the farther end a tolerably large window with two small panes, where you may read today, among other names, that of Walter Scott. This poor lodging sheltered a decayed family. The father of William Shakespeare had been alderman; his grandfather had been bailiff. Shakespeare signifies "shakelance;" the family had for coat-of-arms an arm holding a lance,--allusive arms, which were confirmed, they say, by Queen Elizabeth in 1595, and apparent, at the time we write, on Shakespeare's tomb in the church of Stratford-on-Avon. There is little agreement on the orthography of the word Shake-speare, as a family name; it is written variously-- Shakspere, Shakespere, Shakespeare, Shakspeare. In the eighteenth century it was habitually written Shakespear; the actual translator has adopted the spelling of Shakespeare, as the only true method, and gives for it unanswerable reasons. The only objection that can be made is that Shakspeare is more easily pronounced than Shakespeare, that cutting off the 'e' mute is perhaps useful, and that for their own sake, and in the interests of literary currency, posterity has, as regards surnames, a claim to euphony. It is evident, for example, that in French poetry the orthography Shakspeare is necessary. However, in prose, and convinced by the translator, we write Shakespeare.

2. The Shakespeare family had some original drawback, probably its Catholicism, which caused it to fall. A little after the birth of William, Alderman Shakesperae was no more than "butcher John." William Shakespeare made his début in a slaughterhouse. At fifteen years of age, with sleeves tucked up, in his father's shambles, he killed the sheep and calves 'pompously,' says Aubrey. At eighteen he married. Between the days of the slaughterhouse and the marriage he composed a quatrain. This quatrain, directed against the neighboring villages, is his début in poetry. He there says that Hillbrough is illustrious for its ghosts and Bidford for its drunken fellows. He made this quatrain (being tipsy himself) in the open air, under an apple tree still celebrated in the country in consequence of this Midsummer Night's Dream. In this night and in this dream where there were lads and lasses, in this drunken fit, and under this apple tree, he discovered that Anne Hathaway was a pretty girl. The wedding followed. He espoused this Anne Hathaway, older than himself by eight years, had a daughter by her, then twins, boy and girl, and left her; and this wife, vanished from Shakespeare's life, appears again only in his will, where he leaves her the worst of his two beds, "having probably," says a biographer, "employed the best with others." Shakespeare, like La Fontaine, did but sip at a married life. His wife put aside, he was a schoolmaster, then clerk to an attorney, then a poacher. This poaching has been made use of since then to justify the statement that Shakespeare had been a thief. One day he was caught poaching in Sir Thomas Lucy's park. They threw him in prison; they commenced proceedings. These being spitefully followed up, he saved himself by flight to London. In order to gain a livelihood, he sought to take care of horses at the doors of the theatres. Plautus had turned a millstone. This business of taking care of horses at the doors existed in London in the last century, and it formed then a kind of small band or corps that they called "Shakespeare's boys."

3. You may call London the black Babylon,-- gloomy the day, magnificent the night. To see London is a sensation; it is uproar under smoke. Mysterious analogy! The uproar is the smoke of noise. Paris is the capital of one side of humanity. London is the capital of the opposite side,-- splendid and melancholy town! Life there is a tumult; the people there are an ant-hill; they are free, and yet dovetailed. London is an orderly chaos. The London of the sixteenth century did not resemble the London of our day; but it was already a town without bounds. Cheapside was the high-street; St. Paul's, which is a dome, was a spire. The plague was nearly as much at home in London as at Constantinople. It is true that there was not much difference between Henry VIII and a sultan. Fires, also, as at Constantinople, were frequent in London, on account of the populous parts of the town being built entirely of wood. In the streets there was but one carriage,-- the carriage of her Majesty. Not a cross-road where they did not cudgel some pickpocket with that drotsch-block which is still retained at Groningen for thrasing the wheat. Manners were rough, almost ferocious; a fine lady rose at six, and went to bed at nine. Lady Geraldine Kildare, to whom Lord Surrey inscribed verses, breakfasted off a pound of bacon and a pot of beer. Queens, the wives of Henry VIII, knitted mittens, and did not even object to their being of coarse red wool. In this London, the Duchess of Suffolk took care of her hen house, and with her dress tucked up to her knees, threw corn to the ducks in the court below. To dine at midday was a late dinner. The pleasures of the upper classes were to go and play at "hot cockles" with my Lord Leicester. Anne Boleyn played there; she knelt down, with eyes bandaged, rehearsing this game, without knowing it, in the posture of the scaffold. This same Anne Boleyn, destined to the throne, from whence she was to go farther, was perfectly dazzled when her mother bought her three linen chemises at sixpence the ell, and promised her for the Duke of Norfolk's ball a pair of new shoes worth five shillings.

4. Under Elizabeth, in spite of the anger of the Puritans, there were in London eight companies of comedians, those of Newington Butts, Earl Pembroke's company, Lord Strange's retainers, the Lord Chamberlain's troop, the Lord High Admiral's troop, the company of Blackfriars, the children of St. Paul's, and, in the first rank, the Showmen of Bears. Lord Southampton went to the play every evening. Nearly all the theatres were situate on the banks of the Thames, which increased the number of water-men. The play-rooms were of two kinds: some merely open tavern-yards, a trestle leaning against a wall, no ceiling, rows of benches placed on the ground, for boxes the window of the tavern. The performance took place in the broad daylight and in the open air. The principal of those theatres was the Globe; the others, where were mostly closed play-rooms, lighted with lamps, were used at night. The most frequented was Blackfriars. The best actor of Lord Pembroke's troop was called Henslowe; the best actor at Blackfriars was Burbage. The Globe was situate on Bank Side. This is known by a document at Stationer's Hall, dated 26th of November, 1607:-- "His Majesty's servants playing usually at the Globe on the Bank Side."

The scenery was simple. The swords laid crosswise, sometime two laths, signified a battle; a shirt over the coat signified a knight; the petticoat of one of the comedian's wives on a broom-handle, signified a palfrey caparisoned. A rich theatre, which made its inventory in 1598, possesed "the limbs of Moors, a dragon, a big horse with his legs, a cage, a rock, four Turks' heads, and that of the ancient Mahomet, a wheel for the seige of London, and a bouche d'enfer. " Another had "a sun, a target, the three feathers of the Prince of Wales, with the device Ich Dien, besides six devils, and the Pope on his mule." An actor besmeared with plaster and immovable, signified a wall; if he spread his fingers, it meant that the wall had crevices. A man laden with a fagot, followed by a dog, and carrying a lantern, meant the moon; his lantern represented the moonshine. People may laugh at this mise en scène of moonlight, become famous by the "Midsummer Night's Dream," without imagining that there is in it a gloomy anticipation of Dante. [See L'Inferno, Chant XX] The robing-room of these theatres, where the comedians dressed themselves pell-mell, was a corner separated from the stage by a rag of some kind stretched on a cord. The robing-room at Blackfriars was shut off by an acient piece of tapestry which had belonged to one of the guilds, and represented a blacksmith's workshop; through the holes in this partition, flying in rags and tatters, the public saw the actors redden their cheeks with brick-dust, or make their mustaches with a cork burned at a tallow-candle. From time to time, through an occasional opening of the curtain, you might see a face grinning in a mask, peeping to see if the time for going on the stage had arrived, or the smooth chin of a comedian, who was to play the part of a woman. "Glabri histrones," said Plautus. These theatres were frequented by noblemen, scholars, soldiers, and sailors. They acted there the tragedy of "Lord Blackhurst," "Gorbudue," or "Ferrex and Porrex," "Mother Bombie," by Lilly, in which the phip-phip of sparrows was heard; "The Libertine," an imitation of the "Convivado e Piedra," which had a European fame; "Felix and Philomena," a fashionable comedy, performed for the first time at Greenwich, before Queen Bess;" "Promos and Cassandra," a comedy dedicated by the author, George Whetstone, to William Fleetwood, recorder of London; "Tamerlane," and the "Jew of Malta," by Christopher Marlowe; farces and pieces by Robert Greene, George Peele, Thomas Lodge, and Thomas Kid; and lastly, medieval comedies. For just as France has her "L'Avocat Pathelin," so England has her "Gossip Gurton's Needle." While all the actors gesticulated and ranted, the noblemen and officers, with their plumes and band of gold lace, standing or squatting on the stage, turning their backs, haughty and easy in the midst of the constrained comedians, laughed, shouted, played at cards, threw them at each other's heads, or played at post and pair; and below in the shade, on the pavement, among pots of beer and pipes, you might see the "stinkards" (the mob). It was by that very theatre that Shakespeare entered on the drama. From being the guardian of horses, he became the shepherd of men.

5. Such was the theatre in London about the year 1580, under "the great queen." It was not much less wretched, a century later, at Paris, under "the great king;" and Molière, at his début, had, like Shakespeare, to make shift with rather miserables playhouses. There is in the archives of the Comédie Française, an unpublished manuscript of four hundred pages, bound in parchment and tied with a band of white leather. It is the diary of Legrange, a comrade of Molière company played by order of Mr. Rateban, superintendent of the king's buildings: "Three beams, the frames rotten and shored up, and half the room roofless and in ruins." In another place, by date Sunday, 15 March, 1671, he says, "The company have resolved to make a large ceiling over the whole room, which, up to the said date (15th) has not been covered, save by a large blue cloth suspended by cords." As for lighting and heating this room, particularly on the occasion of the extraordinary expenses necessary for the performance of "Psyche," which was by Molière and Corneile, we read: "Candles, thirty livres; door-keeper, for wood, three livres." This was the style of the playhouse which "the great king" placed at the disposal of Molière. These bounties to literature did not impoverish Louis XIV. so much as to deprive him of the pleasure of giving, for example, at one and the same time, two hundred thousand livres to Lavardin, and the same to D'Epernon; two hundred thousand livres, besides the regiment of France, to the Count de Médavid; for hundred thousand livres to the Bishop of Noyon, because this bishop was Clermont-Tonnerre, a family that had two patents of count and peer of France,-- One for Clermont and one for Tonnerre; five hundred thousand livres to the Duke of Vivonne; and seven hundred thousand livres to the Duke of Quintin-Lorges, besides eight hundred thousand livres to Monseigneur Cl&eactue;ment de Bavière, Prince-Bishop of Liége. Let us add that he gave a thousand livres pension to Molière. We find in Lagrange's journal in the month of April, 1663, this remark, --

"About the same time, M. de Molière received, as a great wit, a pension from the king, and has been placed on the civil list for the sum of a thousand livres."

Later, when Molière was dead and interred at St. Joseph, "Chapel of ease to the parish of St. Eustache," the king pushed patronage so far as to permit his tomb to be "raised a foot out of the ground."

6. Shakespeare, as we see, remained an outsider a long time on the threshold of theatrical life. At length he entered. He passed the door and got behind the scenes. He succeeded in becoming a call-boy, vulgarly, a 'barker.' About 1586 Shakespeare was barking with Greene at Blackfriars. In 1587 he gained a step. In the piece called "The Giant Agrapardo, King of Nubia, worse than his late brother, Angulafer," Shakespeare was intrusted with carryng the turban to the giant. Then from a supernumerary he became actor, thanks to Burbage, to whom, by an interlineation in his will, he left thirty-six shillings, to buy a gold ring. He was the friend of Condell and Hemynge,-- his comrades whilst alive, his publishers after his death. He was handsome; he had a high forehead, a brown beard, a mild countenance, a sweet mouth, a deep look. He took delight in reading Montaigne, translated by Florio. He frequented the Apollo tavern, where he would see and keep company with two habitués of his theatre,-- Decker, author of the "Gull's Hornbook," in which a chapter is specially devoted to "the way a man of fashion ought to behave at the play," and Dr. Symon Forman, who has left a manuscript journal containing reports of the first representations of the "Merchant of Venice," and "A Winter's Tale." He used to meet Sir Raleigh at the Siren Club. Somewhere about that time, Mathurin Régnier met Philippe de Béthune at La Pomme de Pin. The great lords and fine gentlemen of the day were rather prone to lend their names in order to start new taverns. At Paris the Viscount de Montauban, who was a Créqui founded Le Tripot des Onze Mille Diables. At Madrid, the Duke of Medina Sidonia, the unfortunate admiral of the "Invincible," founded the Puño-en-rostro, and in London Sir Walter Raleigh founded the Siren. There you found drunkenness and wit.

7. In 1589, when James VI of Scotland, looking to the throne of England, paid his respects to Elizabeth, who, two years before, on the 8th of February, 1587, had beheaded Mary Stuart, mother of this James, Shakespeare composed his first drama, "Pericles." In 1591, while the Catholic king was dreaming, after a scheme of Marquis d'Astorga, of a second Armada, more lucky than the first, inasmuch as it never put to sea, he composed "Henry VI." In 1593, when the Jesuits obtained from the Pope express permission to paint "the pains and torments of hell," on the walls of "the chamber of meditation" of Clermont College, where they often shut up a poor youth, who the year after, became famous under the name of Jean Châtel, he composed "Taming the Shrew." In 1594, when looking daggers at each other and ready for battle, the King of Spain, the Queen of England, and even the King of France, all three said "my good city of Paris," he continued and completed "Henry VI." In 1595, while Clement VIII at Rome was solemnly aiming a blow at Henry IV by laying his crosier on the backs of Cardinals due Perron and d'Ossat, he wrote "Timon of Athens." In 1596, the year when Elizabeth published an edict against the long points of bucklers, and when Philip II drove from his presence a woman who laughed when blowing her nose, he composed "Macbeth." In 1597, when this same Philip II said to the Duke of Alba, "You deserve the axe," not because the Duke of Alba had put the Low Countries to fire and sword, but because he had entered into the king's presence without being announced, he composed "Cymbeline" and "Richard III." In 1598, when the Earl of Essex ravaged Ireland, bearing on his headdress the glove of the virgin Queen Elizabeth, he composed the "Two Gentlemen of Verona," "King John," "Love's Labour's Lost," "The Comedy of Errors," "All's Well that Ends Well," "A Midsummer Night's Dream," and "The Merchant of Venice." In 1599, when the Privy Council, at her Majesty's request, deliberated on the proposal to put Dr. Hayward to the rack for having stolen some of the ideas of Tacitus, he composed "Romeo and Juliet." In 1600, while the Emperor Rudolph was waging war against his rebel brother and sentencing his son, murderer of a woman, to be bled to death, he composed "As You LIke It," "Henry IV," "Henry V," and "Much Ado About Nothing." In 1601, when Bacon published the eulogy on the execution of the Earl of Essex, just as Leibnitz, eighty years afterward, was to find out good reasons for the murder of Monaldeschi, with this difference however, that Monaldeschi was nothing to Leibnitz, and that Essex had been the benefactor of Bacon, he composed "Twelfth Night; or, What you Will." In 1602, while in obedience to the Pope, the King of France, styled "Renard de Béarn" by Cardinal Aldobrandini, was counting his beads every day, reciting litanies on Wednesday, and the rosary of the Virgin Mary on Saturday, while fifteen cardinals, assisted by the heads of the chapter, oopened the discussion on Molinism at Rome, and while the Holy See, at the request of the crown of Spain, "was saving Christianity and the world" by the institution of the congregation "de Auxiliis," he composed "Othello." In 1603, when the death of Elizabeth made Henry IV say, "she was a virgin just as I am a Catholic," he composed "Hamlet." "In 1604, when Philip III was losing his last footing in the Low Countries, he wrote "Julius Caesar" and "Measure for Measure." In 1606, at the time when James I of England, the former James VI of Scotland, wrote against Bellarmin the "Tortura Forti" and faithless to Carr began to look sweetly on Villiers, who was afterward to honour him with the title of "Your Filthiness," he composed "Coriolanus." In 1607, when the University of York received the little Prince of Wales as doctor, according to the account of Father St. Romuald "with all the ceremonies and the usual fur gowns," he wrote "King Lear." In 1609, when the magistracy of France, placing the scaffold at the disposition of the king, gave upon trust a carte blance for the sentence of the Prnice de Condé to "such punishment as it might please his Majesty to order," Shakespeare composed "Troilus and Cressida." In 1610, when Ravaillac assassinated Henry IV by the dagger, and the French parliament assassinated Ravaillac by the process of quartering his body, Shakespeare composed "Antony and Cleopatra." In 1611, while the Moors, driven out by Philip III, and in the pangs of death, were crawling out of Spain, he wrote the "Winter's Tale," "Henry VIII," and "The Tempest."

8. He used to write on flying sheets, like nearly all poets. Malherbe and Boileau are almost the only ones who have written on quires of paper. Racan said to Mlle de Gournay:-- Each of Shakespeare's dramas, composed according to the wants of his company, was in all probability learned and rehearsed in haste by the actors from the original itself, as they had not time to copy it; hence, in his case as in Molière's, the mislaying of manuscripts which were cut into parts. Few or no entry-books in those almost itinerant theatres; no coincidence between the time of representation and the publication of the plays; sometimes not even a printed copy, -- the stage the sole publication. When the pieces by chance are printed, they bear titles which bewilder us. The second part of Henry VI is entitled "The First Part of the War between York and Lancaster." The third part is called "The True Tragedy of Richard, Duke of York." All this enables us to understand why so much obscurity rests on the dates Shakespeare composed his dramas, and why it is difficult to fix them with precision. The dates that we have just given, and which are here brought together for the first time, are pretty nearly certain; notwithstanding, some doubt still exists as to the years when the following were written, or indeed played,-- "Timon of Athens," "Cymbeline," "Julius Caesar," "Antony and Cleopatra," "Coriolanus," and "Macbeth." Here and there we meet with barren years; others there are of which the fertility seems excessive. It is, for instance, on a simple note by Meres, author of the "Treaure of Wit," that we are compelled to attribute to the year 1598 the creation of six pieces,-- "The Two Gentlemen of Verona," the "Comedy of Errors," "King John," "Midsummer Night's Dream," "The Merchant of Venice," and "All's Well that Ends Well," which Meres calls "Love's Labour Gained." The date of "Henry VI" is fixed, for the first part at least, by an allusion which Nash makes to this play in "Pierce Penniless." The year 1604 is given ast that of "Measure for Measure," inasmuch as this piece had been represented on Stephen's Day of that year, of which Hemynge makes a special note; and the year 1611 for "Henry VIII" inasmuch as "Henry VIII" was played at the time of the fire of the Globe Theatre. Various circumstances -- a disagreement with his company, a whim of the lord-chamberlain -- sometimes compelled Shakespeare to change from one theatre to another. "Taming of the Shrew" was played for the first time in 1593, at Henslowe's theatre; "Twelfth Night" in 1601, at Middle Temple Hall; 'Othello" in 1602, at Harefield Castle. "King Lear" was played at Whitehall during Christmas (1607) before James I. Burbage created the part of Lear. Lord Southampton, recently set free from the Tower of London, was present at this performance. This Lord Southampton was an old habitué of Blackfriars; and Shakespeare, in 1589, had dedicated the poem of "Adonis" top him. Adonis was the fashion at the time; twenty-five years after Shakespeare, the Chevalier Marini wrote a poem on Adonis which he dedicated to Louis XIII.

9. In 1597 Shakespeare lost his son, who has left as his only trace on earth one line in the death-register of the parish on Stratford-on-Avon: "1597. August 17. Hamnet. Filius William Shakespeare." On the 6th September, 1601, his father, John Shakespeare, died. He was now the head of his company of comedians. James I had given him, in 1607, the lease of Blackfriars, and afterward that of the Globe. In 1613 Madame Elizabeth, the daughter of James, and the Elector-palatine, King of Bohemia, whose statue may be seen in the ivy at the angle of a big tower at Heidelberg, came to the Globe to see the "Tempest" performed. These royal attendances did not save him from the censure of the lord-chamberlain. A certain interdict weighed on his pieces, the representation of which was tolerated, and the printing now and then forbidden. On the second volume of the register at Stationers' Hall you may read to-day on the margin of the title of three pieces, "As You Like It," "Henry V," "Much Ado About Nothing," the words "4 Augt. to suspend." The motives for these interdictions escape us. Shakespeare was able, for instance without raising objection, to place on the stage his former poaching adventure and make Sir Thomas Lucy a buffoon (Judge Shallow), show the pubilc Falstaff killling the buck and belabouring Shallow's people, and push the likeness so far as to give to Shallow the arms of Sir Thomas Lucy,-- an outrageous piece of Aristophanism by a man who did not know Aristophanes. Falstaff, in Shakespeare's manuscripts, was written Falstaffe. In the mean time his circumstances had improved, as later they did with Molière. Toward the end of the century he was rich enough for a certain Rye-Quiney to ask, on the 8th October, 1598, his assistance in a letter which bears the inscription: "To my amiable friend and countryman, William Shakespeare." He refused the assistance, as it appears, and returned the letter, found since among Fletcher's papers, and on the reverse of which the same Rye-Quiney had written: Histrio! Mima! He loved Stratford-on-Avon, where he was born, where his father had died, where his son was buried. He there purchased or built a house, for he bought it, according to Whiterill, and he built it according to Forbes, and on this point Forbes disputes with Whiterill. These cavils of the learned about trifles are not worth being searched into, particularly when we see Father Hardouin, for instance, completely upset a whole passage of Pliny by replacing nos pridem by non pridem.

10. Shakespeare went from time to time to pass some days at New Place. In these short journeys he met half-way Oxford, and at Oxford the Crown Hotel, and in the hotel the hostess, a beautiful, intelligent creature, wife of the worthy innkeeper, Davenant. In 1606 Mrs. Davenant was brought to bed of a son whom they named William, and in 1644 Sir William Davenant, created knight by Charles I, wrote to Lord Rochester: "Know this, which does honour to my mother, I am the son of Shakespeare," thus allying himself to Shakespeare in the same way that in our days M. Lucas Montigny claimed relationshipo with Mirabeau. Shakespeare had married off his two daughters,-- Susan to a doctor, Judith to a merchant; Susan had wit, Judith knew not how to read or write, and signed her name with a cross. In 1613 it happened that Shakespeare, having come to Stratford-on-Avon, had no further desire to return to London. Perhaps he was in difficulties. He had just been compelled to mortgage his house. The contract deed of this mortgage, dated 11th March, 1613, and indorsed with Shakespeare's signature, was up to the last century in the hands of an attorney, who gave it to Garrick, who lost it. Garrick lost likewise (it is Miss Violetti, his wife who tells the story), Forbes's manuscript, with his letters in Latin. From 1613 Shakespeare remained at his house at New Place, occupied with his garden, forgetting his plays, wrapped up in his flowers. He planted in this garden of New Place the first mulberry tree that was grown at Stratford, just as Queen Elizabeth wore, in 1561, the first silk stockings seen in England. On the 25th March, 1616, feeling ill, he made his will. His will, dictated by him, is written on three pages; he signed each of them; his hand trembled. On the first page he signed only his Chrstian name, "William;" on the second, "Willm Shaspr.;" on the third, "William Shasp." On the 23d April, 1616, he died. He had reached that day exactly fifty-two years, being born on the 23d April 1564. On that same day, 23d April, 1616, died Cervantes, a genius of like growth. When Shakespeare died, Milton was eight years, Corneille ten years of age; Charles I and Cromwell were two youths, the one sixteen, the other seventeen years old.

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