Part 4 out of 7
"They lose it that do buy it with much care."
We now come to the most salient peculiarity in this play. When Bassanio,
his debtor, asks him for more money, Antonio answers:
"My purse, my person, my extremes! means,
Lie all unlocked to your occasions."
And, though Bassanio tells him his money is to be risked on a romantic
and wild adventure, Antonio declares that Bassanio's doubt does him more
wrong than if his friend had already wasted all he has, and the act
closes by Antonio pressing Bassanio to use his credit "to the
uttermost." Now, this contempt of money was, no doubt, a pose, if not a
habit of the aristocratic society of the time, and Shakespeare may have
been aping the tone of his betters in putting to show a most lavish
generosity. But even if his social superiors encouraged him in a
wasteful extravagance, it must be admitted that Shakespeare betters
their teaching. The lord was riotously lavish, no doubt, because he had
money, or could get it without much trouble; but, put in Antonio's
position, he would not press his last penny on his friend, much less
strain his credit "to the uttermost" for him as Antonio does for
Bassanio. Here we have the personal note of Shakespeare: "Your
affection," says the elder man to the younger, "is all to me, and
money's less than nothing in the balance. Don't let us waste a word on
it; a doubt of me were an injury!" But men will do that for affection
which they would never do in cool blood, and therefore one cannot help
asking whether Shakespeare really felt and practised this extreme
contempt of wealth? For the moment, if we leave his actions out of the
account, there can be, I think, no doubt about his feelings. His dislike
of money makes him disfigure reality. No merchant, it may fairly be
said, either of the sixteenth century or the twentieth, ever amassed or
kept a fortune with Antonio's principles. In our day of world-wide
speculation and immense wealth it is just possible for a man to be a
millionaire and generous; but in the sixteenth century, when wealth was
made by penurious saving, by slow daily adding of coin to coin,
merchants like this Antonio were unheard of, impossible.
Moreover all the amiable characters in this play regard money with
unaffected disdain; Portia no sooner hears of Shylock's suit than she
"Pay him six thousand, and deface the bond;
Double six thousand, and then treble that,
Before a friend of this description
Shall lose a hair through Bassanio's fault."
And if we attribute this outburst to her love we must not forget that,
when it comes to the test in court, and she holds the Jew in her hand
and might save her gold, she again reminds him:
"Shylock, there's thrice thy money offered thee."
A boundless generosity is the characteristic of Portia, and Bassanio,
the penniless fortune-hunter, is just as extravagant; he will pay the
Jew's bond twice over, and,
"If that will not suffice,
I will be bound to pay it ten times o'er,
On forfeit of my hands, my head, my heart."
It may, of course, be urged that these Christians are all prodigal in
order to throw Shylock's avarice and meanness into higher light; but
that this disdain of money is not assumed for the sake of any artistic
effect will appear from other plays. At the risk of being accused of
super-subtlety, I must confess that I find in Shylock himself traces of
Shakespeare's contempt of money; Jessica says of him:
"I have heard him swear
To Tubal and to Chus, his countrymen,
That he would rather have Antonio's flesh
Than twenty times the value of the sum
That he did owe him."
Even Shylock, it appears, hated Antonio more than he valued money, and
this hatred, though it may have its root in love of money, half redeems
him in our eyes. Shakespeare could not imagine a man who loved money
more than anything else; his hated and hateful usurer is more a man of
passion than a Jew.
The same prodigality and contempt of money are to be found in nearly all
Shakespeare's plays, and, curiously enough, the persons to show this
disdain most strongly are usually the masks of Shakespeare himself. A
philosophic soliloquy is hardly more characteristic of Shakespeare than
a sneer at money. It should be noted, too, that this peculiarity is not
a trait of his youth chiefly, as it is with most men who are
free-handed. It rather seems, as in the case of Antonio, to be a
reasoned attitude towards life, and it undoubtedly becomes more and more
marked as Shakespeare grows older. Contempt of wealth is stronger in
Brutus than in Antonio; stronger in Lear than in Brutus, and stronger in
Timon than in Lear.
But can we be at all certain that Antonio's view of life in this respect
was Shakespeare's? It may be that Shakespeare pretended to this
generosity in order to loosen the purse-strings of his lordly patrons.
Even if his motive for writing in this strain were a worthy motive, who
is to assure us that he practised the generosity he preached? When I
come to his life I think I shall be able to prove that Shakespeare was
excessively careless of money; extravagant, indeed, and generous to a
fault. Shakespeare did not win to eminence as a dramatist without
exciting the envy and jealousy of many of his colleagues and
contemporaries, and if these sharp-eyed critics had found him in drama
after drama advocating lavish free-handedness while showing meanness or
even ordinary prudence in his own expenditure, we should probably have
heard of it as we heard from Greene how he took plays from other
playwrights. But the silence of his contemporaries goes to confirm the
positive testimony of Ben Jonson, that he was of "an open and free
nature,"--openhanded always, and liberal, we may be sure, to a fault. In
any case, the burden of proof lies with those who wish us to believe
that Shakespeare was "a careful and prudent man of business," for in a
dozen plays the personages who are his heroes and incarnations pour
contempt on those who would lock "rascal counters" from their friends,
and, in default of proof to the contrary, we are compelled to assume
that he practised the generosity which he so earnestly and sedulously
praised. At least it will be advisable for the moment to assume that he
pictured himself as generous Antonio, without difficulty or conscious
But this Antonio has not only the melancholy, courtesy and boundless
generosity of Shakespeare; he has other qualities of the master which
need to be thrown into relief.
First of all, Antonio has that submission to misfortune, that
resignation in face of defeat and suffering which we have already seen
as characteristics of Richard II. The resignation might almost be called
saintly, were it not that it seems to spring rather from the natural
melancholy and sadness of Shakespeare's disposition; "the world is a
hard, all-hating world," he seems to say, "and misery is the natural lot
of man; defeat comes to all; why should I hope for any better fortune?"
At the very beginning of the trial he recognizes that he is certain to
lose; Bassanio and Gratiano appeal to the Duke for him; but he never
speaks in his own defence; he says of his opponent at the outset:
"I do oppose
My patience to his fury, and am arm'd
To suffer, with a quietness of spirit,
The very tyranny and rage of his."
and again he will not contend, but begs the Court,
".... with all brief and plain conveniency
Let me have judgement and the Jew his will."
Even when Bassanio tries to cheer him,
"What, man, courage yet!
The Jew shall have my flesh, blood, bones and all,
Ere thou shalt lose for me one drop of blood."
"I am a tainted wether of the flock,
Meetest for death: the weakest kind of fruit
Drops earliest to the ground: and so let me:
You cannot better be employed, Bassanio,
Than to live still and write mine epitaph."
He will not be saved: he gives himself at once to that "sweet way of
despair" which we have found to be the second Richard's way and
Just as we noticed, when speaking of Posthumus in "Cymbeline," that
Shakespeare's hero and alter ego is always praised by the other
personages of the drama, so this Antonio is praised preposterously by
the chief personages of the play, and in the terms of praise we may see
how Shakespeare, even in early manhood, liked to be considered. He had
no ambition to be counted stalwart, or bold, or resolute like most young
males of his race, much less "a good hater," as Dr. Johnson confessed
himself: he wanted his gentle qualities recognized, and his intellectual
gifts; Hamlet wished to be thought a courtier, scholar, gentleman; and
here Salarino says of Antonio:
"A kinder gentleman treads not the earth,"
and he goes on to tell how Antonio, when parting from Bassanio, had
"eyes big with tears":
"Turning his face, he put his hand behind him,
And with affection wondrous sensible
He wrung Bassanio's hand; and so they parted."
This Antonio is as tender-hearted and loving as young Arthur. And
Lorenzo speaks of Antonio to Portia just as Salarino spoke of him:
"Lor. But if you knew to whom you show this honour.
How true a gentleman you send relief,
How dear a lover of my lord your husband,
I know you would be prouder of the work
Than customary bounty can enforce you."
and finally Bassanio sums Antonio up in enthusiastic superlatives:
"The dearest friend to me, the kindest man,
The best-condition'd and unwearied spirit
In doing courtesies, and one in whom
The ancient Roman honour more appears
Than any that draws breath in Italy."
It is as a prince of friends and most courteous gentleman that Antonio
acts his part from the beginning to the end of the play with one notable
exception to which I shall return in a moment. It is astonishing to find
this sadness, this courtesy, this lavish generosity and contempt of
money, this love of love and friendship and affection in any man in
early manhood; but these qualities were Shakespeare's from youth to old
I say that Antonio was most courteous to all with one notable exception,
and that exception was Shylock.
It has become the custom on the English stage for the actor to try to
turn Shylock into a hero; but that was assuredly not Shakespeare's
intention. True, he makes Shylock appeal to the common humanity of both
Jew and Christian.
"I am a Jew. Hath not a Jew eyes? hath not a Jew
hands, organs, dimensions, senses, affections, passions?
fed with the same food, hurt with the same weapons,
subject to the same diseases, healed by the same means,
warmed and cooled by the same winter and summer, as
a Christian is? If you prick us, do we not bleed? if you
tickle us, do we not laugh? if you poison us, do we not
die? and if you wrong us, shall we not revenge?"
But if Shakespeare was far in advance of his age in this intellectual
appreciation of the brotherhood of man; yet as an artist and thinker and
poet he is particularly contemptuous of the usurer and trader in other
men's necessities, and therefore, when Antonio meets Shylock, though he
wants a favour from him, he cannot be even decently polite to him. He
begins by saying in the third scene of the first act:
"Although I neither lend nor borrow
By taking nor by giving of excess,
Yet to supply the ripe wants of my friend,
I'll break a custom."
The first phrase here reminds me of Polonius: "neither a borrower nor a
lender be." When Shylock attempts to defend himself by citing the way
Jacob cheated Laban, Antonio answers contemptuously "The devil can cite
Scripture for his purpose." Shylock then goes on:
"Signor Antonio, many a time and oft,
In the Rialto you have rated me
About my moneys and my usances:
Still, I have borne it with a patient shrug,
For sufferance is the badge of all our tribe.
You call me mis-believer, cut-throat dog,
And spit upon my Jewish gaberdine,
And all for use of that which is mine own.
Well then, it now appears you need my help:
Go to, then; you come to me, and you say,
'Shylock, we would have moneys:' you say so
You that did void your rheum upon my beard
And foot me as you spurn a stranger cur
Over your threshold: moneys is your suit.
What should I say to you? Should I not say
'Hath a dog money? is it possible
A cur can lend three thousand ducats?'"
Antonio answers this in words which it would be almost impossible to
take for Shakespeare's because of their brutal rudeness, were it not, as
we shall see later, that Shakespeare loathed the Jew usurer more than
any character in all his plays. Here are the words:
"Ant. I am as like to call thee so again,
To spit on thee again, to spurn thee too.
If thou will lend this money, lend it not
As to thy friends; for when did friendship take
A breed for barren metal of his friend?
But lend it rather to thine enemy
Who, if he break, thou mayst with better face
Exact the penalty."
Then Shylock makes peace, and proposes his modest penalty. Bassanio
"You shall not seal to such a bond for me:
I'll rather dwell in my necessity."
Antonio is perfectly careless and content: he says:
"Content, i' faith: I'll seal to such a bond,
And say there is much kindness in the Jew."
Antonio's heedless trust of other men and impatience are qualities most
foreign to the merchant; but are shown again and again by Shakespeare's
Perhaps it will be well here to prove once for all that Shakespeare did
really hate the Jew. In the first place he excites our sympathy again
and again for him on the broad grounds of common humanity; but the
moment it comes to a particular occasion he represents him as hateful,
even where a little thought would have taught him that the Jew must be
at his best. It is a peculiarity of humanity which Shakespeare should
not have overlooked, that all pariahs and outcasts display intense
family affection; those whom the world scouts and hates are generally at
their noblest in their own homes. The pressure from the outside, Herbert
Spencer would say, tends to bring about cohesion among the members of
the despised caste. The family affection of the Jew, his kindness to his
kindred, have become proverbial. But Shakespeare admits no such kindness
in Shylock: when his daughter leaves Shylock one would think that
Shakespeare would picture the father's desolation and misery, his sorrow
at losing his only child; but here there is no touch of sympathy in
".... I would my daughter were dead at my foot, and the jewels in her
ear! would she were hearsed at my foot, and the ducats in her coffin!"
But there is even better proof than this: when Shylock is defeated in
his case and leaves the Court penniless and broken, Shakespeare allows
him to be insulted by a gentleman. Shylock becomes pathetic in his
defeat, for Shakespeare always sympathized with failure, even before he
came to grief himself:
"Shy. Nay, take my life and all; pardon not that:
You take my house when you do take the prop
That doth sustain my house; you take my life
When you do take the means whereby I live."
"Por. What mercy can you render him, Antonio?
Gra. A halter gratis; nothing else for God's sake."
And then Antonio offers to "quit the fine for one-half his goods."
Utterly broken now, Shylock says:
"I pray you, give me leave to go from hence;
I am not well: send the deed after me,
And I will sign it.
Duke. Get thee gone, but do it.
Gra. In christening shalt thou have two godfathers:
Had I been judge, thou should'st have had ten more,
To bring thee to the gallows, not the font."
A brutal insult from a gallant gentleman to the broken Jew: it is the
only time in all Shakespeare when a beaten and ruined man is so
Antonio, it must be confessed, is a very charming sketch of Shakespeare
when he was about thirty years of age, and it is amusing to reflect that
it is just the rich merchant with all his wealth at hazard whom he picks
out to embody his utter contempt of riches. The "royal merchant," as he
calls him, trained from youth to barter, is the very last man in the
world to back such a venture as Bassanio's--much less would such a man
treat money with disdain. But Shakespeare from the beginning of the play
put himself quite naively in Antonio's place, and so the astounding
antinomy came to expression.
THE SONNETS: PART I
Ever since Wordsworth wrote that the sonnets were the key to
Shakespeare's heart, it has been taken for granted (save by those who
regard even the sonnets as mere poetical exercises) that Shakespeare's
real nature is discovered in the sonnets more easily and more surely
than in the plays. Those readers who have followed me so far in
examining his plays will hardly need to be told that I do not agree with
this assumption. The author whose personality is rich and complex enough
to create and vitalize a dozen characters, reveals himself more fully in
his creations than he can in his proper person. It was natural enough
that Wordsworth, a great lyric poet, should catch Shakespeare's accent
better in his sonnets than in his dramas; but that is owing to
Wordsworth's limitations. And if the majority of later English critics
have agreed with Wordsworth, it only shows that Englishmen in general
are better judges of lyric than of dramatic work. We have the greatest
lyrics in the world; but our dramas, with the exception of
Shakespeare's, are not remarkable. And in that modern extension of the
drama, the novel, we are distinctly inferior to the French and Russians.
This inferiority must be ascribed to the new-fangled prudery of language
and thought which emasculates all our later fiction; but as that prudery
is not found in our lyric verse it is evident that here alone the
inspiration is full and rich enough to overflow the limits of epicene
Whether the reader agrees with me or not on this point, it may be
accepted that Shakespeare revealed himself far more completely in his
plays than as a lyric poet. Just as he chose his dramatic subjects with
some felicity to reveal his many-sided nature, so he used the sonnets
with equal artistry to discover that part of himself which could hardly
be rendered objectively. Whatever is masculine in a man can be depicted
superbly on the stage, but his feminine qualities--passionate
self-abandonment, facile forgivingness, self-pity--do not show well in
the dramatic struggle. What sort of a drama would that be in which the
hero would have to confess that when in the vale of years he had fallen
desperately in love with a girl, and that he had been foolish enough to
send a friend, a young noble, to plead his cause, with the result that
the girl won the friend and gave herself to him? The protagonist would
earn mocking laughter and not sympathy, and this Shakespeare no doubt
foresaw. Besides, to Shakespeare, this story, which is in brief the
story of the sonnets, was terribly real and intimate, and he felt
instinctively that he could not treat it objectively; it was too near
him, too exquisitely painful for that.
At some time or other life overpowers the strongest of us, and that
defeat we all treat lyrically; when the deepest depth in us is stirred
we cannot feign, or depict ourselves from the outside dispassionately;
we can only cry our passion, our pain and our despair; this once we use
no art, simple truth is all we seek to reach. The crisis of
Shakespeare's life, the hour of agony and bloody sweat when his weakness
found him out and life's handicap proved too heavy even for his
strength--that is the subject of the sonnets.
Now what was Shakespeare's weakness? his besetting temptation? "Love is
my sin," he says; "Love of love and her soft hours" was his weakness:
passion the snare that meshed his soul. No wonder Antony cries:
"Whither hast thou led me, Egypt?"
for his gipsy led Shakespeare from shame to shame, to the verge of
madness. The sonnets give us the story, the whole terrible, sinful,
magical story of Shakespeare's passion.
As might have been expected, Englishmen like Wordsworth, with an intense
appreciation of lyric poetry, have done good work in criticism of the
sonnets, and one Englishman has read them with extraordinary
understanding. Mr. Tyler's work on the sonnets ranks higher than that of
Coleridge on the plays. I do not mean to say that it is on the same
intellectual level with the work of Coleridge, though it shows wide
reading, astonishing acuteness, and much skill in the marshalling of
argument. But Mr. Tyler had the good fortune to be the first to give to
the personages of the sonnets a local habitation and a name, and that
unique achievement puts him in a place by himself far above the mass of
commentators. Before his book appeared in 1890 the sonnets lay in the
dim light of guess-work. It is true that Hallam had adopted the
hypothesis of Boaden and Bright, and had identified William Herbert,
Earl of Pembroke, with the high-born, handsome youth for whom
Shakespeare, in the sonnets, expressed such passionate affection; but
still, there were people who thought that the Earl of Southampton filled
the requirements even better than William Herbert, and as I say, the
whole subject lay in the twilight of surmise and supposition.
Mr. Tyler, working on a hint of the Rev. W. A. Harrison, identified
Shakespeare's high-born mistress, the "dark lady" of the sonnets, with
Mistress Mary Fitton, a maid of honour to Queen Elizabeth.
These, then, are the personages of the drama, and the story is very
simple: Shakespeare loved Mistress Fitton and sent his friend, the young
Lord Herbert, to her on some pretext, but with the design that he should
commend Shakespeare to the lady. Mistress Fitton fell in love with
William Herbert, wooed and won him, and Shakespeare had to mourn the
loss of both friend and mistress.
It would be natural to speak of this identification of Mr. Tyler's as
the best working hypothesis yet put forward; but it would be unfair to
him; it is more than this. Till his book appeared, even the date of the
sonnets was not fixed; many critics regarded them as an early work, as
early indeed, as 1591 or 1592; he was the first person to prove that the
time they cover extends roughly from 1598 to 1601. Mr. Tyler then has
not only given us the names of the actors, but he has put the tragedy in
its proper place in Shakespeare's life, and he deserves all thanks for
his illuminating work.
I bring to this theory fresh corroboration from the plays. Strange to
say, Mr. Tyler has hardly used the plays, yet, as regards the story told
in the sonnets, the proof that it is a real and not an imaginary story
can be drawn from the plays. I may have to point out, incidentally, what
I regard as mistakes and oversights in Mr. Tyler's work; but in the main
it stands four-square, imposing itself on the reason and satisfying at
the same time instinct and sympathy.
Let us first see how far the story told in the sonnets is borne out by
the plays. For a great many critics, even to-day, reject the story
altogether, and believe that the sonnets were nothing but poetic
The sonnets fall naturally into two parts: from 1 to 126 they tell how
Shakespeare loved a youth of high rank and great personal beauty; sonnet
127 is an envoi; from 128 to 152 they tell of Shakespeare's love
for a "dark lady." What binds the two series together is the story told
in both, or at least told in one and corroborated in the other, that
Shakespeare first sent his friend to the lady, most probably to plead
his cause, and that she wooed his friend and gave herself to him. Now
this is not a common or easily invented story. No one would guess that
Shakespeare could be so foolish as to send his friend to plead his love
for him. That's a mistake that no man who knows women would be likely to
make: but the unlikelihood of the story is part of the evidence of its
truth--credo quia incredibile has an element of persuasion in it.
No one has yet noticed that the story of the sonnets is treated three
times in Shakespeare's plays. The first time the story appears it is
handled so lightly that it looks to me as if he had not then lived
through the incidents which he narrates. In the "Two Gentlemen of
Verona" Proteus is asked by the Duke to plead Thurio's cause with
Silvia, and he promises to do so; but instead, presses his own suit and
is rejected. The incident is handled so carelessly (Proteus not being
Thurio's friend) that it seems to me to have no importance save as a
mere coincidence. When the scene between Proteus and Silvia was written
Shakespeare had not yet been deceived by his friend. Still in "The Two
Gentlemen of Verona" there is one speech which certainly betrays
personal passion. It is in the last scene of the fifth act, when
Valentine surprises Proteus offering violence to Silvia.
"Val.(coming forward) Ruffian, let go that rude uncivil
Thou friend of an ill fashion!
Val. Thou common friend, that's without faith or love,--
For such is a friend now;--treacherous man!
Thou hast beguiled my hopes: nought but mine eye
Could have persuaded me. Now I dare not say
I have one friend alive: thou would'st disprove me.
Who should be trusted when one's own right hand
Is perjured to the bosom? Proteus,
I am sorry I must never trust thee more,
But count the world a stranger for thy sake.
The private wound is deepest: time most accurst
'Mongst all foes that a friend should be the worst!"
The first lines which I have italicised are too plain to be misread;
when they were written Shakespeare had just been cheated by his friend;
they are his passionate comment on the occurrence--"For such is a friend
now"--can hardly be otherwise explained. The last couplet, too, which I
have also put in italics, is manifestly a reflection on his betrayal: it
is a twin rendering of the feeling expressed in sonnet 40:
"And yet love knows it is a greater grief
To bear love's wrong than hate's known injury."
It contrasts "foe and friend," just as the sonnet contrasts "love and
Mr. Israel Gollancz declares that "several critics are inclined to
attribute this final scene to another hand," and to his mind "it bears
evident signs of hasty composition." No guess could be wider from the
truth. The scene is most manifestly pure Shakespeare--I take the
soliloquy of Valentine, with which the scene opens, as among
Shakespeare's most characteristic utterances--but the whole scene is
certainly later than the rest of the play. The truth probably is that
after his friend had deceived him, "The Two Gentlemen of Verona" was
played again, and that Shakespeare rewrote this last scene under the
influence of personal feeling. The 170 lines of it are full of phrases
which might be taken direct from the sonnets. Here 's such a couplet:
"O, 'tis the curse in love, and still approved,
When women cannot love where they're beloved."
The whole scene tells the story a little more frankly than we find it in
the sonnets, as might be expected, seeing that Shakespeare's rival was a
great noble and not to be criticised freely. This fact explains to me
Valentine's unmotived renunciation of Silvia; explains, too, why he is
reconciled to his friend with such unseemly haste. Valentine's last
words in the scene are illuminating:
"'Twere pity two such friends should be long foes."
The way this scene in "The Two Gentlemen of Verona" is told throws more
light on Shakespeare's feelings at the moment of his betrayal than the
sonnets themselves. Under the cover of fictitious names Shakespeare
ventured to show the disgust and contempt he felt for Lord Herbert's
betrayal more plainly than he cared, or perhaps dared, to do when
speaking in his own person.
There is another play where the same incident is handled in such fashion
as to put the truth of the sonnet-story beyond all doubt.
In "Much Ado about Nothing" the incident is dragged in by the ears, and
the whole treatment is most remarkable. Every one will remember how
Claudio tells the Prince that he loves Hero, and asks his friend's
assistance: "your highness now may do me good." There's no reason for
Claudio's shyness: no reason why he should call upon the Prince for help
in a case where most men prefer to use their own tongues; but Claudio is
young, and so we glide over the inherent improbability of the incident.
The Prince at once promises to plead for Claudio with Hero and with her
"And thou shalt have her. Was't not to this end
That thou began'st to twist so fine a story?"
Now comes the peculiar handling of the incident. Claudio knows the
Prince is wooing Hero for him, therefore when Don John tells him that
the Prince "is enamoured on Hero," he should at once infer that Don John
is mistaken through ignorance of this fact; but instead of that he falls
suspicious, and questions:
"How know you he loves her?
D. John. I heard him swear his affection.
Bor. So did I too, and he swore he would marry her
There is absolutely nothing even in this corroboration by Borachio to
shake Claudio's trust in the Prince: neither Don John nor Borachio knows
what he knows, that the Prince is wooing for him (Claudio) and at his
request. He should therefore smile at the futile attempt to excite his
jealousy. But at once he is persuaded of the worst, as a man would be
who had already experienced such disloyalty: he cries:
"'Tis certain so; the prince woos for himself."
And then we should expect to hear him curse the prince as a traitorous
friend, and dwell on his own loyal service by way of contrast, and so
keep turning the dagger in the wound with the thought that no one but
himself was ever so repaid for such honesty of love. But, no! Claudio
has no bitterness in him, no reproachings; he speaks of the whole matter
as if it had happened months and months before, as indeed it had; for
"Much Ado about Nothing" was written about 1599. Reflection had already
shown Shakespeare the unreason of revolt, and he puts his own thought in
the mouth of Claudio:
"'Tis certain so; the prince woos for himself.
Friendship is constant in all other things
Save in the office and affairs of love:
Therefore all hearts in love use their own tongues;
Let every eye negotiate for itself,
And trust no agent; for beauty is a witch,
Against whose charms faith melteth into blood.
This is an accident of hourly proof,
Which I mistrusted not. Farewell, therefore, Hero."
The Claudio who spoke like this in the first madness of love lost and
friendship cheated would be a monster. Here we have Shakespeare speaking
in all calmness of something that happened to himself a considerable
time before. The lines I have put in italics admit no other
interpretation: they show Shakespeare's philosophic acceptance of things
as they are; what has happened to him is not to be assumed as singular
but is the common lot of man--"an accident of hourly proof"--which he
blames himself for not foreseeing. In fact, Claudio's temper here is as
detached and impartial as Benedick's. Benedick declares that Claudio
should be whipped:
"D. Pedro. To be whipped! What's his fault?
Benedick. The flat transgression of a schoolboy, who
being overjoyed with finding a bird's nest, shows it his
companion and he steals it."
That is the view of the realist who knows life and men, and plays the
game according to the rules accepted. Shakespeare understood this side
of life as well as most men. But Don Pedro is a prince--a Shakespearean
prince at that--full of all loyalties and ideal sentiments; he answers
Benedick from Shakespeare's own heart:
"Wilt thou make a trust a transgression?
The transgression is in the stealer."
It is curious that Shakespeare doesn't see that Claudio must feel this
truth a thousand times more keenly than the Prince. As I have said,
Claudio's calm acceptance of the fact is a revelation of Shakespeare's
own attitude, an attitude just modified by the moral reprobation put in
the mouth of the Prince. The recital itself shows that the incident was
a personal experience of Shakespeare, and as one might expect in this
case it does not accelerate but retard the action of the drama; it is,
indeed, altogether foreign to the drama, an excrescence upon it and not
an improvement but a blemish. Moreover, the reflective, disillusioned,
slightly pessimistic tone of the narrative is alien and strange to the
optimistic temper of the play; finally, this garb of patient sadness
does not suit Claudio, who should be all love and eagerness, and
diminishes instead of increasing our sympathy with his later actions.
Whoever considers these facts will admit that we have here Shakespeare
telling us what happened to himself, and what he really thought of his
"The transgression is in the stealer."
That is Shakespeare's mature judgement of Lord Herbert's betrayal.
The third mention of this sonnet-story in a play is later still: it is
in "Twelfth Night." The Duke, as we have seen, is an incarnation of
Shakespeare himself, and, indeed, the finest incarnation we have of his
temperament. In the fourth scene of the first act he sends Viola to
plead his cause for him with Olivia, much in the same way, no doubt, as
Shakespeare sent Pembroke to Miss Fitton. The whole scene deserves
Thou know'st no less but all; I have unclasp'd
To thee the book even of my secret soul:
Therefore, good youth, address thy gait unto her
Be not denied access, stand at her doors,
And tell them, there thy fixed foot shall grow
Till thou have audience.
Vio. Sure, my noble lord,
If she be so abandon'd to her sorrow
As it is spoke, she never will admit me.
Duke. Be clamorous and leap all civil bounds
Rather than make unprofited return.
Vio. Say I do speak with her, my lord, what then?
Duke. O, then unfold the passion of my love,
Surprise her with discourse of my dear faith:
It shall become thee well to act my woes;
She will attend it better in thy youth
Than in a nuncio's of more grave aspect.
Vio. I think not so, my lord.
Duke. Dear lad, believe it;
For they shall yet belie thy happy years,
That say thou art a man: Diana's lip
Is not more smooth and rubious; thy small pipe
Is as the maiden's organ, shrill and sound;
And all is semblative a woman's part.
I know thy constellation is right apt
For this affair. Some four or five attend him;
All if you will; for I myself am best
When least in company."
I do not want to find more here than is in the text: the passage simply
shows that this idea of sending some one to plead his love was
constantly in Shakespeare's mind in these years. The curious part of the
matter is that he should pick a youth as ambassador, and a youth who is
merely his page. He can discover no reason for choosing such a boy as
Viola, and so simply asserts that youth will be better attended to,
which is certainly not the fact. Lord Herbert's youth was in his mind:
but he could not put the truth in the play that when he chose his
ambassador he chose him for his high position and personal beauty and
charm, and not because of his youth. The whole incident is treated
lightly as something of small import; the bitterness in "Much Ado" has
died out: "Twelfth Night" was written about 1601, a year or so later
than "Much Ado."
I do not want to labour the conclusion I have reached; but it must be
admitted that I have found in the plays, and especially in "The Two
Gentlemen of Verona" and "Much Ado," the same story which is told in the
sonnets; a story lugged into the plays, where, indeed, its introduction
is a grave fault in art and its treatment too peculiar to be anything
but personal. Here in the plays we have, so to speak, three views of the
sonnet-story; the first in "The Two Gentlemen of Verona," when the
betrayal is fresh in Shakespeare's memory and his words are embittered
with angry feeling:
"Thou common friend that's without faith or love."
The second view is taken in "Much Ado About Nothing" when the pain of
the betrayal has been a little salved by time. Shakespeare now moralizes
the occurrence. He shows us how it would be looked upon by a philosopher
(for that is what the lover, Claudio, is in regard to his betrayal) and
by a soldier and man of the world, Benedick, and by a Prince.
Shakespeare selects the prince to give effect to the view that the fault
is in the transgressor and not in the man who trusts. The many-sided
treatment of the story shows all the stages through which Shakespeare's
mind moved, and the result is to me a more complete confession than is
to be found in the sonnets. Finally the story is touched upon in
"Twelfth Night," when the betrayal has faded into oblivion, but the poet
lets out the fact that his ambassador was a youth, and the reason he
gives for this is plainly insufficient. If after these three recitals
any one can still believe that the sonnet-story is imaginary, he is
beyond persuasion by argument.
THE SONNETS: PART II
Now that we have found the story of the sonnets repeated three times in
the plays, it may be worth our while to see if we can discover in the
plays anything that throws light upon the circumstances or personages of
this curious triangular drama. At the outset, I must admit that save in
these three plays I can find no mention whatever of Shakespeare's
betrayer, Lord Herbert. He was "a false friend," the plays tell us, a
"common friend without faith or love," "a friend of an ill fashion";
young, too, yet trusted; but beyond this summary superficial
characterization there is silence. Me judice Lord Herbert made no
deep or peculiar impression on Shakespeare; an opinion calculated to
give pause to the scandal-mongers. For there can be no doubt whatever
that Shakespeare's love, Mistress Fitton, the "dark lady" of the
sonnet-series from 128 to 152 is to be found again and again in play
after play, profoundly modifying the poet's outlook upon life and art.
Before I take in hand this identification of Miss Fitton and her
influence upon Shakespeare, let me beg the reader to bear in mind the
fact that Shakespeare was a sensualist by nature, a lover, which is as
rare a thing as consummate genius. The story of his idolatrous passion
for Mary Fitton is the story of his life. This is what the commentators
and critics hitherto have failed to appreciate. Let us now get at the
facts and see what light the dramas throw upon the chief personage of
the story, Mistress Fitton. The study will probably teach us that
Shakespeare was the most impassioned lover and love-poet in all
History tells us that Mary Fitton became a maid of honour to Queen
Elizabeth in 1595 at the age of seventeen. From a letter addressed by
her father to Sir Robert Cecil on January 29th, 1599, it is fairly
certain that she had already been married at the age of sixteen; the
union was probably not entirely valid, but the mere fact suggests a
certain recklessness of character, or overpowering sensuality, or both,
and shows that even as a girl Mistress Fitton was no shrinking, timid,
modest maiden. Wrapped in a horseman's cloak she used to leave the
Palace at night to meet her lover, Lord William Herbert. Though twice
married, she had an illegitimate child by Herbert, and two later by Sir
This extraordinary woman is undoubtedly the sort of woman Shakespeare
depicted as the "dark lady" of the sonnets. Nearly every sonnet of the
twenty-six devoted to his mistress contains some accusation against her;
and all these charges are manifestly directed against one and the same
woman. First of all she is described in sonnet 131 as "tyrannous"; then
in sonnet 133 as "faithless"; in sonnet 137 as "the bay where all men
ride ... the wide world's commonplace"; in sonnet 138 as "false"; in
139, she is "coquettish"; 140, "proud"; "false to the bonds of love";
"black as hell... dark as night"--in both looks and character; "full of
foul faults "; "cruel"; "unworthy," but of "powerful" personality;
"unkind--inconstant... unfaithful... forsworn."
Now, the first question is: Can we find this "dark lady" of the sonnets
in the plays? The sonnets tell us she was of pale complexion with black
eyes and hair; do the plays bear out this description? And if they do
bear it out do they throw any new light upon Miss Fitton's character?
Did Miss Fitton seem proud and inconstant, tyrannous and wanton, to
Shakespeare when he first met her, and before she knew Lord Herbert?
The earliest mention of the poet's mistress in the plays is to be found,
I think, in "Romeo and Juliet." "Romeo and Juliet" is dated by Mr.
Furnival 1591-1593; it was first mentioned in 1595 by Meres; first
published in 1597. I think in its present form it must be taken to date
from 1597. Romeo, who as we have already seen, is an incarnation of
Shakespeare, is presented to us in the very first scene as in love with
one Rosaline. This in itself tells me nothing; but the proof that
Shakespeare stands in intimate relation to the girl called Rosaline
comes later, and so the first introductory words have a certain
significance for me. Romeo himself tells us that "she hath Dian's wit,"
one of Shakespeare's favourite comparisons for his love, and speaks of
her chastity, or rather of her unapproachableness; he goes on:
"O she is rich in beauty, only poor
That, when she dies, with beauty dies her store."
which reminds us curiously of the first sonnets. In the second scene
Benvolio invites Romeo to the feast of Capulet, where his love, "the
fair Rosaline," is supping, and adds:
"Compare her face with some that I shall shew,
And I will make thee think thy swan a crow."
Romeo replies that there is none fairer than his love, and Benvolio
"Tut! You saw her fair, none else being by."
This bantering is most pointed if we assume that Rosaline was dark
rather than fair.
In the second act Mercutio comes upon the scene, and, mocking Romeo's
melancholy and passion, cries:
"I conjure thee, by Rosaline's bright eyes,
By her high forehead and her scarlet lip...."
This description surprises me. Shakespeare rarely uses such physical
portraiture of his personages, and Mercutio is a side of Shakespeare
himself; a character all compact of wit and talkativeness, a character
wholly invented by the poet.
A little later my suspicion is confirmed. In the fourth scene of the
second act Mercutio talks to Benvolio about Romeo; they both wonder
where he is, and Mercutio says:
"Ah, that same pale-hearted wench, that Rosaline,
Torments him so that he will sure run mad."
And again, a moment later, Mercutio laughs at Romeo as already dead,
"stabbed with a white wench's black eye." Now, here is confirmation of
my suspicion. It is most unusual for Shakespeare to give the physical
peculiarities of any of his characters; no one knows how Romeo looked,
or Juliet or even Hamlet or Ophelia; and here he repeats the
The only other examples we have as yet found in Shakespeare of such
physical portraiture is the sketching of Falstaff in "Henry IV." and the
snapshot of Master Slender in "The Merry Wives of Windsor," as a "little
wee face, with a little yellow beard,--a cane-coloured beard." Both
these photographs, as we noticed at the time, were very significant, and
Slender's extraordinarily significant by reason of its striking and
peculiar realism. Though an insignificant character, Slender
is photographed for us by Shakespeare's contempt and hatred, just as this
Rosaline is photographed by his passionate love, photographed again and
Shakespeare's usual way of describing the physical appearance of a man
or woman, when he allowed himself to do it at all, which was seldom, was
what one might call the ideal or conventional way. A good example is to
be found in Hamlet's description of his father; he is speaking to his
"Hyperion's curls, the front of Jove himself,
An eye like Mars, to threaten and command,
A station like the herald Mercury
New-lighted on a heaven-kissing hill."
In the special case I am considering Rosaline is less even than a
secondary character; she is not a personage in the play at all. She is
merely mentioned casually by Benvolio and then by Mercutio, and even
Mercutio is not the protagonist; yet his mention of her is strikingly
detailed, astonishingly realistic, in spite of its off-hand brevity. We
have a photographic snapshot, so to speak, of this girl: she "torments"
Romeo; she is "hard-hearted"; a "white wench" with "black eyes"; twice
in four lines she is called now "pale," now "white"--plainly her
complexion had no red in it, and was in startling contrast to her black
eyes and hair. Manifestly this picture is taken from life, and it is
just as manifestly the portrait of the "dark lady" of the sonnets.
As if to make assurance doubly sure, there is another description of
this same Rosaline in another play, so detailed and striking, composed
as it is of contrasting and startling peculiarities that I can only
wonder that its full significance has not been appreciated ages ago. To
have missed its meaning only proves that men do not read Shakespeare
with love's fine wit.
The repetition of the portrait is fortunate for another reason: it tells
us when the love story took place. The allusion to the "dark lady" in
"Romeo and Juliet" is difficult to date exactly; the next mention of her
in a play can be fixed in time with some precision. "Love's Labour's
Lost" was revised by Shakespeare for production at Court during the
Christmas festivities of 1597. When the quarto was published in 1598 it
bore on its title-page the words, "A pleasant conceited comedy called
'Love's Labour's Lost.' As it was presented before Her Highnes this last
Christmas. Newly corrected and augmented By W. Shakespeare." It is in
the revised part that we find Shakespeare introducing his dark love
again, and this time, too, curiously enough, under the name of Rosaline.
Evidently he enjoyed the mere music of the word. Biron is an incarnation
of Shakespeare himself, as we have already seen, and the meeting of
Biron and his love, Rosaline, in the play is extremely interesting for
us as Shakespeare in this revised production, one would think, would
wish to ingratiate himself with his love, more especially as she would
probably be present when the play was produced. Rosaline is made to
praise Biron, before he appears, as a merry man and a most excellent
talker; but when they meet they simply indulge in a tourney of wit, in
which Rosaline more than holds her own, showing indeed astounding
self-assurance, spiced with a little contempt of Biron; "hard-hearted"
Mercutio called it. Every word deserves to be weighed:
"Biron. Did not I dance with you in Brabant once?
Ros. Did not I dance with you in Brabant once?
Biron. I know you did.
Ros. How needless was it, then, to ask the question!
Biron. You must not be so quick.
Ros. 'Tis long of you that spur me with such questions.
Biron. Your wit's too hot, it speeds too fast, 'twill tire.
Ros. Not till it leave the rider in the mire.
Biron. What time o' day?
Ros. The hour that fools should ask.
Biron. Now fair befall your mask!
Ros. Fair fall the face it covers!
Biron. And send you many lovers!
Ros. Amen, so you be none.
Biron. Nay, then will I be gone."
Clearly this Rosaline, too, has Dian's wit and is not in love with
Biron, any more than the Rosaline of "Romeo and Juliet" was in love with
The next allusion is even more characteristic. Biron and Longaville and
Boyet are talking; Longaville shows his admiration for one of the
Princess's women, "the one in the white" he declares, is a most sweet
Biron. What is her name in the cap?
Boyet. Rosaline, by good hap.
Biron. Is she wedded or no?
Boyet. To her will, sir, or so.
Biron. You are welcome, sir: adieu."
This, "To her will, sir, or so," is exactly in the spirit of the
sonnets: every one will remember the first two lines of sonnet 135:
"Whoever hath her wish, thou hast thy Will, And Will to
boot, and Will in overplus;"
That, "To her will, sir, or so," I find astonishingly significant, for
not only has it nothing to do with the play and is therefore unexpected,
but the character-drawing is unexpected, too; maids are not usually
wedded to their will in a double sense, and no other of these maids of
honour is described at all.
A little later Biron speaks again of Rosaline in a way which shocks
expectation. First of all, he rages at himself for being in love at all.
"And I, forsooth in love! I, that have been love's whip!" Here I pause
again, it seems to me that Shakespeare is making confession to us, just
as when he admitted without reason that Jaques was lewd. Be that as it
may, he certainly goes on in words which are astounding, so utterly
unforeseen are they, and therefore the more characteristic:
"Nay, to be perjured, which is worst of all;
And, among three, to love the worst of all;"
The first line of this couplet, that he is perjured in loving Rosaline
may be taken as applying to the circumstances of the play; but
Shakespeare also talks of himself in sonnet 152 as "perjured," for he
only swears in order to misuse his love, or with a side glance at the
fact that he is married and therefore perjured when he swears love to
one not his wife. It is well to keep this "perjured" in memory.
But it is the second line which is the more astonishing; there Biron
tells us that among the three of the Princess's women he loves "the
worst of all." Up to this moment we have only been told kindly things of
Rosaline and the other ladies; we had no idea that any one of them was
bad, much less that Rosaline was "the worst of all." The suspicion grows
upon us, a suspicion which is confirmed immediately afterwards, that
Shakespeare is speaking of himself and of a particular woman; else we
should have to admit that his portraiture of Rosaline's character was
artistically bad, and bad without excuse, for why should he lavish all
this wealth of unpleasant detail on a mere subsidiary character? He goes
on, however, to make the fault worse; he next speaks of his love
"A whitely wanton with a velvet brow,
With two pitch-balls stuck in her face for eyes;
Ay, and by heaven, one that will do the deed;
Though Argus were her eunuch and her guard:
And I to sigh for her! to watch for her!
To pray for her! Go to! it is a plague."
It is, of course, a blot upon the play for Biron to declare that his
love is a wanton of the worst. It is not merely unexpected and
uncalled-for; it diminishes our sympathy with Biron and his love, and
also with the play. But we have already found the rule trustworthy that
whenever Shakespeare makes a mistake in art it is because of some strong
personal feeling and not for want of wit, and this rule evidently holds
good here. Shakespeare-Biron is picturing the woman he himself loves;
for not only does he describe her as a wanton to the detriment of the
play; but he pictures her precisely, and this Rosaline is the only
person in the play of whom we have any physical description at all.
Moreover, he has given such precise and repeated photographs of no other
character in any of his plays:
"A whitely wanton with a velvet brow,
With two pitch-balls stuck in her face for eyes."
This is certainly the same Rosaline we found depicted in "Romeo and
Juliet"; but the portraiture here, both physical and moral, is more
detailed and peculiar than it was in the earlier play. Shakespeare now
knows his Rosaline intimately. The mere facts that here again her
physical appearance is set forth with such particularity, and that the
"hard-heartedness" which Mercutio noted in her has now become
"wantonness" is all-important, especially when we remember that Miss
Fitton was probably listening to the play. Even at Christmas, 1597,
Shakespeare's passion has reached the height of a sex-duel. Miss Fitton
has tortured him so that he delights in calling her names to her face in
public when the play would have led one to expect ingratiating or
complimentary courtesies. It does not weaken this argument to admit that
the general audience would not perhaps have understood the allusions.
It is an almost incredible fact that not a single one of his hundreds of
commentators has even noticed any peculiarity in this physical
portraiture of Rosaline; Shakespeare uses this realism so rarely one
would have thought that every critic would have been astounded by it;
but no, they all pass over it without a word, Coleridge, Mr. Tyler, all
The fourth act of "Love's Labour's Lost" begins with a most
characteristic soliloquy of Biron:
"Biron. The king he is hunting the deer; I am coursing
myself: they have pitched a toil; I am toiling in a
pitch--pitch that defiles: defile! a foul word."
Here Biron is manifestly playing on the "pitch-balls" his love has for
eyes, and also on the "foul faults" Shakespeare speaks of in the sonnets
and in Othello. Biron goes on:
"O, but her eye--by this light, but for her eye, I
would not love her; yes, for her two eyes. Well, I do
nothing in the world but lie, and lie in my throat. By
heaven, I do love: and it hath taught me to rhyme, and
to be melancholy; and here is part of my rhyme, and
here my melancholy. Well, she hath one o' my sonnets
already: the clown bore it, the fool sent it, and the lady
hath it: sweet clown, sweeter fool, sweetest lady!"
This proves to me that some of Shakespeare's sonnets were written in
1597. True, Mr. Tyler would try to bind all the sonnets within the three
years from 1598 to 1601, the three years which Shakespeare speaks about
in sonnet 104:
"Three winters cold
Have from the forests shook three summers' pride,
Three beauteous springs to yellow autumn turn'd
In process of the seasons have I seen.
Three April perfumes in three hot Junes burn'd,
Since first I saw you fresh, which yet are green."
Lord Herbert first came to Court in the spring of 1598, and so sonnet
104 may have represented the fact precisely so far as Herbert was
concerned; but I am not minded to take the poet so literally. Instead of
beginning in the spring of 1598, some of the sonnets to the lady were
probably written in the autumn of 1597, or even earlier, and yet
Shakespeare would be quite justified in talking of three years, if the
period ended in 1601. A poet is not to be bound to an almanack's
In the fourth act of "Love's Labour's Lost," when Biron confesses his
love for "the heavenly Rosaline," the King banters him in the spirit of
"King. By heaven, thy love is black as ebony.
Biron. Is ebony like her? O wood divine!
A wife of such wood were felicity.
O, who can give an oath? Where is a book?
That I may swear beauty doth beauty lack,
If that she learn not of her eye to look:
No face is fair that is not full so black."
Here we have Shakespeare again describing his mistress for us, though he
has done it better earlier in the play; he harps upon her dark beauty
here to praise it, just as he praised it in sonnet 127; it is passion's
trick to sound the extremes of blame and praise alternately.
In the time of Elizabeth it was customary for poets and courtiers to
praise red hair and a fair complexion as "beauty's ensign," and so
compliment the Queen. The flunkeyism, which is a characteristic of all
the Germanic races, was peculiarly marked in England from the earliest
times, and induced men, even in those "spacious days," not only to
overpraise fair hair, but to run down dark hair and eyes as ugly. The
"O paradox! Black is the badge of hell,
The hue of dungeons and the school of night;
And beauty's crest becomes the heavens well."
"Devils soonest tempt, resembling spirits of light.
O, if in black my lady's brow be deck'd
It mourns that painting and usurping hair
Should ravish doters with a false aspect;
And therefore is she born to make black fair.
Her favour turns the fashion of the days,
For native blood is counted painting now;
And therefore red that would avoid dispraise,
Paints itself black, to imitate her brow."
Our timid poet is bold enough, when cloaked under a stage-name, to
uphold the colour of his love's hair against the Queen's; the mere fact
speaks volumes to those who know their Shakespeare.
Sonnet 127 runs in almost the same words; though now the poet speaking
in his own person is less bold:
"In the old age black was not counted fair,
Or, if it were, it bore not beauty's name;
But now is black beauty's successive heir,
And beauty slandered with a bastard shame:
For since each hand hath put on nature's power,
Fairing the soul with art's false borrow'd face,
Sweet beauty hath no name, no holy bower,
But is profaned, if not lives in disgrace.
Therefore my mistress' eyes are raven black,
Her eyes so suited, and they mourners seem
At such who, not born fair, no beauty lack,
Slandering creation with a false esteem:
Yet so they mourn, becoming of their woe
That every tongue says beauty should look so."
There can be no doubt that in this Rosaline of "Romeo and Juliet" and of
"Love's Labour's Lost," Shakespeare is describing the "dark lady" of the
second sonnet-series, and describing her, against his custom in
play-writing, even more exactly than he described her in the lyrics.
There is a line at the end of this act which is very characteristic when
considered with what has gone before; it is clearly a confession of
Shakespeare himself, and a perfect example of what one might call the
conscience that pervades all his mature work:
"Light wenches may prove plagues to men forsworn."
We were right, it seems, in putting some stress on that "perjured" when
we first met it.
In the second scene of the fifth act, which opens with a talk between
the Princess and her ladies, our view of Rosaline is confirmed.
Katherine calls Rosaline light, and jests upon this in lewd fashion;
declares, too, that she is "a merry, nimble, stirring spirit," in fact,
tells her that she is
"A light condition in a beauty dark."
All these needless repetitions prove to me that Shakespeare is
describing his mistress as she lived and moved. Those who disagree with
me should give another instance in which he has used or abused the same
precise portraiture. But there is more in this light badinage of the
girls than a description of Rosaline. When Rosaline says that she will
torture Biron before she goes, and turn him into her vassal, the
"None are so surely caught when they are catch'd
As wit turned fool."
"The blood of youth burns not with such excess
As gravity's revolt to wantonness."
This remark has no pertinence or meaning in Rosaline's mouth. Biron is
supposed to be young in the play, and he has never been distinguished
for his gravity, but for his wit and humour: the Princess calls him
"quick Biron." The two lines are clearly Shakespeare's criticism of
himself. When he wrote the sonnets he thought himself old, and certainly
his years (thirty-four) contrasted badly with those of Mary Fitton who
was at this time not more than nineteen.
Late in 1597 then, before William Herbert came upon the scene at all,
Shakespeare knew that his mistress was a wanton:
"Ay, and by heaven, one that will do the deed;
Though Argus were her eunuch and her guard."
Shakespeare has painted his love for us in these plays as a most
extraordinary woman: in person she is tall, with pallid complexion and
black eyes and black brows, "a gipsy," he calls her; in nature
imperious, lawless, witty, passionate--a "wanton"; moreover, a person of
birth and position. That a girl of the time has been discovered who
united all these qualities in herself would bring conviction to almost
any mind; but belief passes into certitude when we reflect that this
portrait of his mistress is given with greatest particularity in the
plays, where in fact it is out of place and a fault in art. When
studying the later plays we shall find this gipsy wanton again and
again; she made the deepest impression on Shakespeare; was, indeed, the
one love of his life. It was her falseness that brought him to
self-knowledge and knowledge of life, and turned him from a
light-hearted writer of comedies and histories into the author of the
greatest tragedies that have ever been conceived. Shakespeare owes the
greater part of his renown to Mary Fitton.
THE SONNETS: PART III
The most interesting question in the sonnets, the question the vital
importance of which dwarfs all others, has never yet been fairly tackled
and decided. As soon as English critics noticed, a hundred years or so
ago, that the sonnets fell into two series, and that the first, and
longer, series was addressed to a young man, they cried, "shocking!
shocking!" and registered judgement with smug haste on evidence that
would not hang a cat. Hallam, "the judicious," held that "it would have
been better for Shakespeare's reputation if the sonnets had never been
written," and even Heine, led away by the consensus of opinion, accepted
the condemnation, and regretted "the miserable degradation of humanity"
to be found in the sonnets. But before giving ourselves to the novel
enjoyment of moral superiority over Shakespeare, it may be worth while
to ask, is the fact proved? is his guilt established?
No one, I think, who has followed me so far will need to be told that I
take no interest in white-washing Shakespeare: I am intent on painting
him as he lived and loved, and if I found him as vicious as Villon, or
as cruel as a stoat, I would set it all down as faithfully as I would
give proof of his generosity or his gentleness.
Before the reader can fairly judge of Shakespeare's innocence or guilt,
he must hold in mind two salient peculiarities of the man which I have
already noted; but which must now be relieved out into due prominence so
that one will make instinctive allowance for them at every moment, his
sensuality and his snobbishness.
His sensuality is the quality, as we have seen, which unites the
creatures of his temperament with those of his intellect, his poets with
his thinkers, and proves that Romeo and Jaques, the Duke of "Twelfth
Night" and Hamlet, are one and the same person. If the matter is fairly
considered it will be found that this all-pervading sensuality is the
source, or at least a natural accompaniment of his gentle kindness and
his unrivalled sympathy.
Shakespeare painted no portrait of the hero or of the adventurer; found
no new word for the virile virtues or virile vices, but he gave immortal
expression to desire and its offspring, to love, jealousy, and despair,
to every form of pathos, pleading and pity, to all the gentler and more
feminine qualities. Desire in especial has inspired him with phrases
more magically expressive even than those gasped out by panting Sappho
when lust had made her body a lyre of deathless music. Her lyric to the
beloved is not so intense as Othello's:
"O, thou weed
Who art so lovely fair and smell'st so sweet
That the sense aches at thee";
or as Cleopatra's astonishing:
"There is gold, and here
My bluest veins to kiss";
--the revelation of a lifetime devoted to vanity and sensuality,
sensuality pampered as a god and adored with an Eastern devotion.
I do not think I need labour this point further; as I have already
noticed, Orsino, the Duke of "Twelfth Night," sums up Shakespeare's
philosophy of love in the words:
"Give me excess of it, that, surfeiting,
The appetite may sicken, and so die."--
Shakespeare told us the truth about himself when he wrote in sonnet 142,
"Love is my sin." We can expect from him new words or a new method in
the painting of passionate desire.
The second peculiarity of Shakespeare which we must establish firmly in
our minds before we attempt to construe the sonnets is his extraordinary
English snobbishness is like a London fog, intenser than can be found in
any other country; it is so extravagant, indeed, that it seems different
in kind. One instance of this: when Mr. Gladstone was being examined
once in a case, he was asked by counsel, Was he a friend of a certain
lord? Instead of answering simply that he was, he replied that he did
not think it right to say he was a friend of so great a noble: "he had
the honour of his acquaintance." Only in England would the man who could
make noblemen at will be found bowing before them with this humility of
In Shakespeare's time English snobbishness was stronger than it is
to-day; it was then supported by law and enforced by penalties. To speak
of a lord without his title was regarded as defamation, and was punished
as such more than once by the Star Chamber. Shakespeare's position, too,
explains how this native snobbishness in him was heightened to
flunkeyism. He was an aristocrat born, as we have seen, and felt in
himself a kinship for the courtesies, chivalries, and generosities of
aristocratic life. This tendency was accentuated by his calling. The
middle class, already steeped in Puritanism, looked upon the theatre as
scarcely better than the brothel, and showed their contempt for the
players in a thousand ways. The groundlings and common people, with
their "greasy caps" and "stinking breath" were as loathsome to
Shakespeare as the crop-headed, gain-loving citizens who condemned him
and his like pitilessly. He was thrown back, therefore, upon the young
noblemen who had read the classics and loved the arts. His works show
how he admires them. He could paint you Bassanio or Benedick or Mercutio
to the life. Everybody has noticed the predilection with which he lends
such characters his own poetic spirit and charm. His lower orders are
all food for comedy or farce: he will not treat them seriously.
His snobbishness carries him to astounding lengths. One instance: every
capable critic has been astonished by the extraordinary fidelity to fact
he shows in his historical plays; he often takes whole pages of an
earlier play or of Plutarch, and merely varying the language uses them
in his drama. He is punctiliously careful to set down the fact, whatever
it may be, and explain it, even when it troubles the flow of his story;
but as soon as the fact comes into conflict with his respect for
dignitaries, he loses his nice conscience. He tells us of Agincourt
without ever mentioning the fact that the English bowmen won the battle;
he had the truth before him; the chronicler from whom he took the story
vouched for the fact; but Shakespeare preferred to ascribe the victory
to Henry and his lords. Shakespeare loved a lord with a passionate
admiration, and when he paints himself it is usually as a duke or
Holding these truths in our mind, Shakespeare's intense sensitiveness
and sensuality, and his almost inconceivable snobbishness, we may now
take up the sonnets.
The first thing that strikes one in the sonnets is the fact that, though
a hundred and twenty-five of them are devoted to a young man, and
Shakespeare's affection for him, and only twenty-six to the woman, every
one of those to the woman is characterized by a terrible veracity of
passion, whereas those addressed to the youth are rather conventional
than convincing. He pictures the woman to the life; strong, proud, with
dark eyes and hair, pale complexion--a wanton with the rare power of
carrying off even a wanton's shame. He finds a method new to literature
to describe her. He will have no poetic exaggeration; snow is whiter
than her breasts; violets sweeter than her breath:
"And yet, by heaven, I think my love as rare
As any she belied with false compare."
His passion is so intense that he has no desire to paint her seduction
as greater than it was. She has got into his blood, so to speak, and
each drop of it under the microscope would show her image. Take any
sonnet at haphazard, and you will hear the rage of his desire.
But what is the youth like?--"the master-mistress" of his passion, to
give him the title which seems to have convinced the witless of
Shakespeare's guilt. Not one word of description is to be found
anywhere; no painting epithet--nothing. Where is the cry of this
terrible, shameless, outrageous passion that mastered Shakespeare's
conscience and enslaved his will? Hardly a phrase that goes beyond
affection--such affection as Shakespeare at thirty-four might well feel
for a gifted, handsome aristocrat like Lord Herbert, who had youth,
beauty, wealth, wit to recommend him. Herbert was a poet, too: a patron
unparagoned! "If Southampton gave me a thousand pounds," Shakespeare may
well have argued, "perhaps Lord Herbert will get me made Master of the
Revels, or even give me a higher place." An aristocratic society tends
to make parasites even of the strong, as Dr. Johnson's famous letter to
Lord Chesterfield proves. But let us leave supposition and come to the
sonnets themselves, which are addressed to the youth. The first sonnet
"From fairest creatures we desire increase,
That thereby beauty's rose might never die."
This is a very good argument indeed when addressed to a woman; but when
addressed to a man by a man it rings strained and false. Yet it is the
theme of the first seventeen sonnets. It is precisely the same argument
which Shakespeare set forth in "Venus and Adonis" again and again:
"Seeds spring from seeds and beauty breedeth beauty;
Thou wast begot; to get it is thy duty."
"And so, in spite of death, thou dost survive,
In that thy likeness still is left alive ..."
"Foul cankering rust the hidden treasure frets,
But gold that's put to use more gold begets."
At the end of the third sonnet we find the same argument:
"But if thou live, remember'd not to be,
Die single, and thine image dies with thee."
Again, in the fourth, sixth, and seventh sonnets the same plea is urged.
In the tenth sonnet the poet cries:
"Make thee another self, for love of me,
That beauty still may live in thine or thee."
And again at the end of the thirteenth sonnet:
"You had a father; let your son say so."
Every one of these sonnets contains simply the argument which is set
forth with equal force and far superior pertinence in "Venus and
That is, Shakespeare makes use of the passion he has felt for a woman to
give reality to the expression of his affection for the youth. No better
proof could be imagined of the fact that he never loved the youth with
In sonnet 18 Shakespeare begins to alter his note. He then tells the
youth that he will achieve immortality, not through his children, but
through Shakespeare's verses. Sonnet 19 is rounded with the same
"Yet do thy worst, old Time: despite thy wrong,
My love shall in my verse ever live young."
Sonnet 20 is often referred to as suggesting intimacy:
"A woman's face with Nature's own hand painted,
Hast thou, the master-mistress of my passion;
A woman's gentle heart, but not acquainted
With shifting change, as is false woman's fashion;
An eye more bright than theirs, less false in rolling
Gilding the object whereupon it gazeth;
A man in hue, all 'hues' in his controlling,
Which steals men's eyes and women's souls amazeth.
And for a woman wert thou first created;
Till Nature, as she wrought thee, fell a-doting,
And by addition me of thee defeated,
By adding one thing to my purpose nothing.
But since she prick'd thee out for women's pleasure
Mine be thy love, and thy love's use their treasure."
The sextet of this sonnet absolutely disproves guilty intimacy, and is,
I believe, intended to disprove it; Shakespeare had already fathomed the
scandal-loving minds of his friends, and wanted to set forth the noble
disinterestedness of his affection.
Sonnet 22 is more sincere, though not so passionate; it neither
strengthens nor rebuts the argument. Sonnet 23 is the sonnet upon which
all those chiefly rely who wish to condemn Shakespeare. Here it is:
"As an unperfect actor on the stage,
Who with his fear is put beside his part,
Or some fierce thing replete with too much rage,
Whose strength's abundance weakens his own heart;
So I, for fear of trust, forget to say
The perfect ceremony of love's rite,
And in mine own love's strength seem to decay,
O'ercharged with burthen of mine own love's might.
O, let my looks be then the eloquence
And dumb presagers of my speaking breast;
Who plead for love, and look for recompense,
More than that tongue that more hath more express'd.
O, learn to read what silent love hath writ:
To hear with eyes belongs to love's fine wit."
We can interpret the phrases, "the perfect ceremony of love's rite" and
"look for recompense" as we will; but it must be admitted that even when
used to the uttermost they form an astonishingly small base on which to
raise so huge and hideous a superstructure.
But we shall be told that the condemnation of Shakespeare is based, not
upon any sonnet or any line; but upon the way Shakespeare speaks as soon
as he discovers that his mistress has betrayed him in favour of his
friend. One is inclined to expect that he will throw the blame on the
friend, and, after casting him off, seek to win again the affections of
his mistress. Nine men out of ten would act in this way. But the sonnets
tell us with iteration and most peculiar emphasis that Shakespeare does
not condemn the friend. As soon as he hears of the traitorism he cries
"Full many a glorious morning have I seen
Flatter the mountain-tops with sovereign eye,
Kissing with golden face the meadows green,
Gilding pale streams with heavenly alchymy;
Anon permit the basest clouds to ride
With ugly rack on his celestial face,
And from the forlorn world his visage hide,
Stealing unseen to west with this disgrace:
Even so my sun one early morn did shine
With all triumphant splendour on my brow;
But out! alack! he was but one hour mine,
The region cloud hath mask'd him from me now.
Yet him for this my love no whit disdaineth;
Suns of the world may stain, when heaven's sun staineth."
It is the loss of his friend he regrets, rather than the loss of his
mistress; she is not mentioned save by comparison with "basest clouds."
Yet even when read by Gradgrind and his compeers the thirteenth line of
this sonnet is utterly inconsistent with passion.
In the next sonnet the friend repents, and weeps the "strong offence,"
and Shakespeare accepts the sorrow as salve that "heals the wound"; his
friend's tears are pearls that "ransom all ill deeds." The next sonnet
begins with the line:
"No more be griev'd at that which thou hast done";
Shakespeare will be an "accessory" to his friend's "theft," though he
admits that the robbery is still sour. Then come four sonnets in which
he is content to forget all about the wrong he has suffered, and simply
exhausts himself in praise of his friend. Sonnet 40 begins:
"Take all my loves, my love, yea, take them all;
What hast thou then more than thou hadst before?
No love, my love, that thou may'st true love call; All mine was
thine, before thou hadst this more."
This is surely the very soul of tender affection; but it is significant
that even here the word "true" is emphasized and not "love"; he goes on:
"I do forgive thy robbery, gentle thief,
Although thou steal thee all my poverty;
And yet love knows it is a greater grief
To bear love's wrong, than hate's known injury."
Never before was a man so gentle-kind; we might be listening to the
lament of a broken-hearted woman who smiles through her tears to
reassure her lover; yet there is no attempt to disguise the fact that
Herbert has done "wrong." The next sonnet puts the poet's feeling as
strongly as possible.
"Those pretty wrongs that liberty commits,
When I am sometime absent from thy heart,
Thy beauty and thy years full well befits,
For still temptation follows where thou art.
Gentle thou art, and therefore to be won,
Beauteous thou art, therefore to be assail'd;
And when a woman woos, what woman's son
Will sourly leave her till she have prevail'd?
Ay me! but yet thou might'st my seat forbear,
And chide thy beauty and thy straying youth,
Who lead thee in their riot even there
Where thou art forced to break a twofold truth;
Hers, by thy beauty tempting her to thee,
Thine by thy beauty being false to me."
The first lines show that Shakespeare is pretending; he attempts not
only to minimize the offence, but to find it charming. A mother who
caught her young son kissing a girl would reproach him in this fashion;
to her his faults would be the "pretty wrongs that liberty commits." But
this is not the way passion speaks, and here again the sextet condemns
Herbert in the plainest terms. At length we have the summing-up:
"That thou hast her, it is not all my grief,
And yet it may be said I lov'd her dearly;
That she hath thee, is of my wailing chief,
A loss in love that touches me more nearly.
Loving offenders, thus I will excuse ye:
Thou dost love her, because thou know'st I love her;
And for my sake even so doth she abuse me,
Suffering my friend for my sake to approve her.
If I lose thee, my loss is my love's gain,
And losing her, my friend hath found that loss;
Both find each other, and I lose both twain,
And both for my sake lay on me this cross:
But here's the joy; my friend and I are one;
Sweet flattery! then she loves but me alone."
This sonnet, with its affected word-play and wire-drawn consolation,
leaves one gaping: Shakespeare's verbal affectations had got into his
very blood. To my mind the whole sonnet is too extravagant to be
sincere; it is only to be explained by the fact that Shakespeare's
liking for Herbert was heightened by snobbishness and by the hope of
patronage. None of it rings true except the first couplet. Yet the
argument of it is repeated, strange to say, and emphasized in the
sonnets addressed to the "dark lady" whom Shakespeare loved. Sonnet 144
is clear enough:
"Two loves I have of comfort and despair,
Which like two spirits do suggest me still:
The better angel is a man, right fair,
The worser spirit a woman, colour'd ill.
To win me soon to hell, my female evil
Tempteth my better angel from my side,
And would corrupt my saint to be a devil,
Wooing his purity with her foul pride.
And whether that my angel be turn'd fiend
Suspect I may, yet not directly tell;
But being both from me, both to each friend,
I guess one angel in another's hell:
Yet this shall I ne'er know, but live in doubt,
Till my bad angel fire my good one out."
As soon as his mistress comes on the scene Shakespeare's passionate
sincerity cannot be questioned. The truth is the intensity of his
passion leads him to condemn and spite the woman, while the absence of
passion allows him to pretend affection for the friend. Sonnet 133,
written to the woman, is decisive:
"Beshrew that heart that makes my heart to groan
For that deep wound it gives my friend and me!
Is't not enough to torture me alone,
But slave to slavery my sweet'st friend must be?
Me from myself thy cruel eye hath taken,
And my next self thou harder hast engross'd:
Of him, myself, and thee, I am forsaken;
A torment thrice threefold thus to be cross'd.
Prison my heart in thy steel bosom's ward,
But then my friend's heart let my poor heart bail;
Whoe'er keeps me, let my heart be his guard;
Thou canst not then use rigour in my gaol:
And yet thou wilt; for I, being pent in thee,
Perforce am thine, and all that is in me."
The last couplet is to me "perforce" conclusive. But let us take it that
these sonnets prove the contention of the cry of critics that
Shakespeare preferred friendship to love, and held his friend dearer
than his mistress, and let us see if the plays corroborate the sonnets
on this point. We may possibly find that the plays only strengthen the
doubt which the sonnets implant in us.
"The Merchant of Venice" has always seemed to me important as helping to
fix the date of the sonnets. Antonio, as I have shown, is an
impersonation of Shakespeare himself. It seems to me Shakespeare would
have found it impossible to write of Antonio's self-sacrificing love for
Bassanio after he himself had been cheated by his friend. This play then
must have been written shortly before his betrayal, and should give us
Shakespeare's ordinary attitude. Many expressions in the play remind us
of the sonnets, and one in especial of sonnet 41. In the sixth scene of
the second act, Jessica, when escaping from her father's house, uses
Shakespeare's voice to say:
"But love is blind and lovers cannot see
The pretty follies that themselves commit."
Here we have "the pretty follies" which is used again as "pretty wrongs"
in sonnet 41. Immediately afterwards Lorenzo, another mask of
Shakespeare, praises Jessica as "wise, fair, and true," just as in
sonnet 105 Shakespeare praises his friend as "kind, fair, and true,"
using again words which his passion for a woman has taught him.
The fourth act sets forth the same argument we find in the sonnets. When
it looks as if Antonio would have to give his life as forfeit to the
Jew, Bassanio exclaims:
"Antonio, I am married to a wife
Which is as dear to me as life itself;
But life itself, my wife and all the world
Are not with me esteem'd above thy life.
I would lose all, ay, sacrifice them all
Here to this devil to deliver you."
This is the language of passionate exaggeration, one might say.
Antoniois suffering in Bassanio's place, paying the penalty, so to
speak, for Bassanio's happiness. No wonder Bassanio exaggerates his
grief and the sacrifice he would be prepared to make. But Gratiano has
no such excuse for extravagant speech, and yet Gratiano follows in the
"I have a wife whom, I protest, I love:
I would she were in heaven, so she could
Entreat some power to change this currish Jew."
The peculiarity of this attitude is heightened by the fact that the two
wives, Portia and Nerissa, both take the ordinary view. Portia says:
"Your wife would give you little thanks for that
If she were by to hear you make the offer."
And Nerissa goes a little further:
"Tis well you offer it behind her back,
The wish would make else an unquiet house."
The blunder is monstrous; not only is the friend prepared to sacrifice
all he possesses, including his wife, to save his benefactor, but the
friend's friend is content to sacrifice his wife too for the same
object. Shakespeare then in early manhood was accustomed to put
friendship before love; we must find some explanation of what seems to
us so unnatural an attitude.
In the last scene of "The Two Gentlemen of Verona," which is due to a
later revision, the sonnet-case is emphasized. And at this time
Shakespeare has suffered Herbert's betrayal. As soon as the false friend
Proteus says he is sorry and asks forgiveness, Valentine, another
impersonation of Shakespeare, replies:
"Then I am paid;
And once again I do receive thee honest:
Who by repentance is not satisfied,
Is nor of heaven nor earth, for these are pleas'd;
By penitence the Eternal's wrath's appeased;
And that my love may appear plain and free,
All that was mine in Silvia I give thee."
This incarnation of Shakespeare speaks of repentance in Shakespeare's
most characteristic fashion, and then coolly surrenders the woman he
loves to his friend without a moment's hesitation, and without even
considering whether the woman would be satisfied with the transfer. The
words admit of no misconstruction; they stand four-square, not to be
shaken by any ingenuity of reason, and Shakespeare supplies us with
further corroboration of them.
"Coriolanus" was written fully ten years after "The Merchant of Venice,"
and long after the revision of "The Two Gentlemen of Verona." And yet
Shakespeare's attitude at forty-three is, in regard to this matter, just
what it was at thirty-three. When Aufidius finds Coriolanus in his
house, and learns that he has been banished from Rome and is now
prepared to turn his army against his countrymen, he welcomes him as
"more a friend than e'er an enemy," and this is the way he takes to show
"Know thou first,
I loved the maid I married: never man
Sigh'd truer breath; but that I see thee here,
Thou noble thing! more dances my rapt heart
Than when I first my wedded mistress saw
Bestride my threshold."
Here's the same attitude; the same extravagance; the same insistence on
the fact that the man loves the maid and yet has more delight in the
friend. What does it mean? When we first find it in "The Merchant of
Venice" it must give the reader pause; in "The Two Gentlemen of Verona"
it surprises us; in the sonnets, accompanied as it is by every
flattering expression of tender affection for the friend, it brings us
to question; but its repetition in "Coriolanus" must assure us that it
is a mere pose. Aufidius was not such a friend of Coriolanus that we can
take his protestation seriously. The argument is evidently a stock
argument to Shakespeare: a part of the ordinary furniture of his mind:
it is like a fashionable dress of the period--the wearer does not notice
The truth is, Shakespeare found in the literature of his time, and in
the minds of his contemporaries, a fantastically high appreciation of
friendship, coupled with a corresponding disdain for love as we moderns
understand it. In "Wit's Commonwealth," published in 1598, we find: "The
love of men to women is a thing common and of course, but the friendship
of man to man, infinite and immortal." Passionate devotion to friendship
is a sort of mark of the Renaissance, and the words "love" and "lover"
in Elizabethan English were commonly used for "friend" and "friendship."
Moreover, one must not forget that Lyly, whose euphuistic speech
affected Shakespeare for years, had handled this same incident in his
"Campaspe," where Alexander gives up his love to his rival, Apelles.
Shakespeare, not to be outdone in any loyalty, sets forth the same
fantastical devotion in the sonnets and plays. He does this, partly
because the spirit of the time infected him, partly out of sincere
admiration for Herbert, but oftener, I imagine, out of self-interest. It
is pose, flunkeyism and the hope of benefits to come and not passion
that inspired the first series of sonnets.
Whoever reads the scene carefully in "Much Ado About Nothing," cannot
avoid seeing that Shakespeare at his best not only does not minimize his
friend's offence, but condemns it absolutely:
"The transgression is in the stealer."
And in the sonnets, too, in spite of himself, the same true feeling
pierces through the snobbish and affected excuses.
"Ay me! but yet them might'st my seat forbear,
And chide thy beauty and thy straying youth,
Who lead thee in their riot even there
Where thou art forced to break a twofold truth,
Hers, by thy beauty tempting her to thee,
Thine, by thy beauty being false to me."
Shakespeare was a sycophant, a flunkey if you will, but nothing worse.
Further arguments suggest themselves. Shakespeare lived, as it were, in
a glass house with a score of curious eyes watching everything he did
and with as many ears pricked for every word he said; but this foul
accusation was never even suggested by any of his rivals. In especial
Ben Jonson was always girding at Shakespeare, now satirically, now
good-humouredly. Is it not manifest that if any such sin had ever been
attributed to him, Ben Jonson would have given the suspicion utterance?
There is a passage in his "Bartholomew Fair" which I feel sure is meant
as a skit upon the relations we find in the Sonnets. In Act V, scene
iii, there is a puppet-show setting forth "the ancient modern history of
Hero and Leander, otherwise called the Touchstone of true Love, with as
true a trial of Friendship between Damon and Pythias, two faithful
friends o' the Bankside." Hero is a "wench o' the Bankside," and Leander
swims across the Thames to her. Damon and Pythias meet at her lodgings,
and abuse each other violently, only to finish as perfect good friends.
"Damon. Whore-master in thy face;
Thou hast lain with her thyself, I'll prove it in this place.
Leatherhead. They are whore-masters both, sir, that's
a plain case.
Pythias. Thou lie like a rogue.
Leatherhead. Do I lie like a rogue?
Pythias. A pimp and a scab.
Leatherhead. A pimp and a scab!
I say, between you you have both but one drab.
Pythias and Damon. Come, now we'll go together to
breakfast to Hero.
Leatherhead. Thus, gentles, you perceive without any
'Twixt Damon and Pythias here friendship's true trial."
Rare Ben Jonson would have been delighted to set forth the viler charge
if it had ever been whispered.
Then again, it seems to me certain that if Shakespeare had been the sort
of man his accusers say he was, he would have betrayed himself in his
plays. Consider merely the fact that young boys then played the girls'
parts on the stage. Surely if Shakespeare had had any leaning that way,
we should have found again and again ambiguous or suggestive expressions
given to some of these boys when aping girls; but not one. The
temptation was there; the provocation was there, incessant and prolonged
for twenty-five years, and yet, to my knowledge, Shakespeare has never
used one word that malice could misconstrue. Yet he loved suggestive and
Luckily, however, there is stronger proof of Shakespeare's innocence
than even his condemnation of his false friend, proof so strong, that if
all the arguments for his guilt were tenfold stronger than they are,
this proof would outweigh them all and bring them to nought. Nor should
it be supposed, because I have only mentioned the chief arguments for
and against, that I do not know all those that can be urged on either
side. I have confined myself to the chief ones simply because by merely
stating them, their utter weakness must be admitted by every one who can
read Shakespeare, by every one who understands his impulsive
sensitiveness, and the facility with which affectionate expressions came
to his lips. Moreover, it must not be forgotten that while the sonnets
were being written he was in rivalry with Chapman for this very patron's
favour, and this rivalry alone would explain a good deal of the fervour,
or, should I say, the affected fervour he put into the first series of
sonnets; but now for the decisive and convincing argument for
Let us first ask ourselves how it is that real passion betrays itself
and proves its force. Surely it is by its continuance; by its effect
upon the life later. I have assumed, or inferred, as my readers may
decide, that Shakespeare's liking for Herbert was chiefly snobbish, and
was deepened by the selfish hope that he would find in him a patron even
more powerful and more liberally disposed than Lord Southampton. He
probably felt that young Herbert owed him a great deal for his
companionship and poetical advice; for Herbert was by way of being a
poet himself. If my view is correct, after Shakespeare lost Lord
Herbert's affection, we should expect to hear him talking of man's
forgetfulness and ingratitude, and that is just what Lord Herbert left
in him, bitterness and contempt. Never one word in all his works to show
that the loss of this youth's affection touched him more nearly. As we
have seen, he cannot keep the incident out of his plays. Again and again
he drags it in; but in none of these dramas is there any lingering
kindness towards the betrayer. And as soon as the incident was past and
done with, as soon as the three or four years' companionship with Lord
Herbert was at an end, not one word more do we catch expressive of
affection. Again and again Shakespeare rails at man's ingratitude, but
nothing more. Think of it. Pembroke, under James, came to great power;
was, indeed, made Lord Chamberlain, and set above all the players, so
that he could have advanced Shakespeare as he pleased with a word: with
a word could have made him Master of the Revels, or given him a higher
post. He did not help him in any way. He gave books every Christmas to
Ben Jonson, but we hear of no gift to Shakespeare, though evidently from
the dedication to him of the first folio, he remained on terms of
careless acquaintance with Shakespeare. Ingratitude is what Shakespeare
found in Lord Pembroke; ingratitude is what he complains of in him. What
a different effect the loss of Mary Fitton had upon Shakespeare. Just
consider what the plays teach us when the sonnet-story is finished. The
youth vanishes; no reader can find a trace of him, or even an allusion
to him. But the woman comes to be the centre, as we shall see, of
tragedy after tragedy. She flames through Shakespeare's life, a fiery
symbol, till at length she inspires perhaps his greatest drama, "Antony
and Cleopatra," filling it with the disgrace of him who is "a strumpet's
fool," the shame of him who has become "the bellows and the fan to cool
a harlot's lust."
The passion for Mary Fitton was the passion of Shakespeare's whole life.
The adoration of her, and the insane desire of her, can be seen in every
play he wrote from 1597 to 1608. After he lost her, he went back to her;
but the wound of her frailty cankered and took on proud flesh in him,
and tortured him to nervous breakdown and to madness. When at length he
won to peace, after ten years, it was the peace of exhaustion. His love
for his "gipsy-wanton" burned him out, as one is burnt to ashes at the
stake, and his passion only ended with his life.
There is no room for doubt in my mind, no faintest suspicion. Hallam and
Heine, and all the cry of critics, are mistaken in this matter.
Shakespeare admired Lord Herbert's youth and boldness and beauty, hoped
great things from his favour and patronage; but after the betrayal, he
judged him inexorably as a mean traitor, "a stealer" who had betrayed "a
twofold trust"; and later, cursed him for his ingratitude, and went
about with wild thoughts of bloody revenge, as we shall soon see in
"Hamlet" and "Othello," and then dropped him into oblivion without a
It is bad enough to know that Shakespeare, the sweetest spirit and
finest mind in all literature, should have degraded himself to pretend
such an affection for the profligate Herbert as has given occasion for
misconstruction. It is bad enough, I say, to know that Shakespeare could
play flunkey to this extent; but after all, that is the worst that can
be urged against him, and it is so much better than men have been led to
believe that there may be a certain relief in the knowledge.
THE FIRST-FRUIT OF THE TREE OF KNOWLEDGE: BRUTUS
The play of "Julius Caesar" was written about 1600 or 1601. As "Twelfth
Night" was the last of the golden comedies, so "Julius Caesar" is the
first of the great tragedies, and bears melancholy witness to us that
the poet's young-eyed confidence in life and joy in living are dying, if
not dead. "Julius Caesar" is the first outcome of disillusion. Before it
was written Shakespeare had been deceived by his mistress, betrayed by
his friend; his eyes had been opened to the fraud and falsehood of life;
but, like one who has just been operated on for cataract, he still sees
realities as through a mist, dimly. He meets the shock of traitorous
betrayal as we should have expected Valentine or Antonio or Orsino to
meet it--with pitying forgiveness. Suffering, instead of steeling his
heart and drying up his sympathies, as it does with most men, softened
him, induced him to give himself wholly to that "angel, Pity." He will
not believe that his bitter experience is universal; in spite of
Herbert's betrayal, he still has the courage to declare his belief in
the existence of the ideal. At the very last his defeated Brutus cries:
"My heart doth joy that yet in all my life
I found no man but he was true to me."
The pathos of this attempt still to believe in man and man's truth is
over the whole play. But the belief was fated to disappear. No man who
lives in the world can boast of loyalty as Brutus did; even Jesus had a
Judas among the Twelve. But when Shakespeare wrote "Julius Caesar" he
still tried to believe, and this gives the play an important place in
his life's story.
Before I begin to consider the character of Brutus I should like to draw
attention to three passages which place Brutus between the melancholy
Jaques of "As You Like It," whose melancholy is merely temperamental,
and the almost despairing Hamlet. Jaques says:
"Invest me in my motley; give me leave
To speak my mind, and I will through and through
Cleanse the foul body of the infected world,
If they will patiently receive my medicine."
This is the view of early manhood which does not doubt its power to cure
all the evils which afflict mortality. Then comes the later, more
hopeless view, to which Brutus gives expression:
"Till then, my noble friend, chew upon this;
Brutus had rather be a villager
Than to repute himself a son of Rome
Under these hard conditions as this time
Is like to lay upon us."
And later still, and still more bitter, Hamlet's:
"The time is out of joint; O cursed spite,
That ever I was born to set it right!"
But Shakespeare is a meliorist even in Hamlet, and believes that the
ailments of man can all be set right.