Friday, 23 March 2012

The 'Lost Years' of William Shakespeare

Clopton Bridge, Stratford upon Avon by Robert Bell Wheeler

The period between the baptism of Shakespeare's twins on 2 February 1585 and the oblique reference to him in 1592 in Robert Greene's notorious pamphlet Greene's Groatsworth of Wit, bought with a million of Repentance, are popularly known as the 'Lost Years', since there is no documentary record of him during these years.
[There is, in fact, one reference in 1587. Shakespeare's father, John Shakespeare, began a litigation against one John Lambert, in which he tried to regain possession of property mortgaged to Edmund Lambert, John Lambert's father. He argued that John Lambert had promised an extra £20 on condition that the Shakespeares and 'their eldest son William' handed over the estate outright.]

The Groatsworth of Wit is a thinly veiled autobiography 'Describing the folly of youth, the falsehood of make-shift flatterers, the misery of the negligent, and the mischief of deceiving Courtesans'. It's hero is called Roberto, a disinherited scholar (Greene was a Cambridge M.A.) who goes off to seek his destiny, and meets with a player on the look out for new talent for his theatre company. Impressed by the player's apparent prosperity, Roberto joins forces with him, makes and loses a fortune, while unmasking 'all the rabble of that unclean generation of vipers'. Greene then abandons any pretence of fiction and launches into a tirade addressed to his 'fellow scholars about this city', (identified as Christopher Marlowe, Thomas Nashe and George Peele) telling them:

'Base-minded men all three of you ..... there is an upstart crow, beautified with our feathers, that with his tiger's heart wrapped in a player's hide supposes he is as well able to bombast out a blank verse as the best of you; and, being an absolute Johannes Factotum, is in his own conceit the only Shake-scene in a country.'

Apart from the weak pun on his name, this is clearly a reference to Shakespeare, confirmed by the allusion to a line in 3 Henry VI - 'O tiger's heart wrapp'd in a woman's hide!' Clearly Greene was rattled by the fact that a grammar school boy from a provincial town should have established himself as a Johannes Factotum (Jack of all trades - actor and writer). 
Whilst most scholars and commentators agree that Shake-scene is Shakespeare, there are some dissenting voices, such as A.D.Wraight, who, in his book In Search of Christopher Marlowe, argues that 'Shake-scene is referred to by Greene not as a play on the name Shakespeare, but as synonymous with a great actor's rant - to 'shake a stage' with passion'. [In Search of Christopher Marlowe, page 197]. Wraight is a champion of Marlowe, though he does not go so far as to claim that he wrote Shakespeare's plays, or at least not all of them.

Robert Greene depicted on the title page of Greene in Concept, a pamphlet  published in 1598

So in 1592 Shakespeare appeared to be established in London both as a player and as a playwright. But when did he arrive in the capital, and by what means did he get there?   And indeed, what was he doing prior to 1585? Perhaps the most reliable account is that of John Aubrey (1626-1697), who conducted many careful inquiries into Shakespeare's life. He spoke with the children of people who would have known Shakespeare personally, including  William Beeston, the son of Chrisopher Beeston, an actor in Shakespeare's acting company from c.1596 until 1602, and therefore in a position to know our poet well. William Beeston himself was a theatrical manager, and it is from him that Aubrey claimed he learned that Shakespeare knew Latin 'pretty well' for he had been a 'schoolmaster in the country'. Aubrey also states that  Shakespeare was the son of a butcher, and that he would kill a calf in high style while making a speech. In this he is certainly mistaken, as it is well documented that Shakespeare's father was a glove maker, though it does correspond with the testimony of John Dowdall, a lawyer by profession, who went to Stratford in 1693. He visited the poet's monument and grave, and spoke with the church clerk, a man 'above eighty years old', who told him that 

'this Shakespeare was formerly in this town bound apprentice to a butcher, but that he run from his master to London, and there was received into the playhouse as a servitor, and by this means had an opportunity to be what he afterwards proved.' [Letter of John Dowdall dated 10 April 1693]

Other reports abound that Shakespeare was variously a soldier in the Low Countries, a runaway scrivener, apprenticed to a 'country attorney', and even that he circumnavigated the globe with Francis Drake [The Real Shakespeare by William Bliss, 1947]. He'd been a poacher of Sir Thomas Lucy's deer in the park of Charlecote, a tourist in Italy, a barber-surgeon, a physician, a heavy drinker, and a holder of patrons' horses outside London playhouses, this latter account from The Lives of the Poets of Great Britain and Ireland, published in 1753, by 'Mr Cibber'. And, of course, there are those who believe that the man from Stratford did not write the plays at all, theories which are humorously 'despunked' in Shagspurt.

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