I Sommon Up Remembrance of Things Past

And when Davy Jones performed the Whitsun pastimes in front of the people of Stratford, was his young relative a part of the cast? The first accounts of his life suggest that in his youth Shakespeare was already an aspiring actor. In 1681 John Aubrey reports that “I have been told heretofore by some of the neighbours, that when he was a boy he exercised his father’s Trade, but when he kill’d a Calfe, he would do it in a high style, and make a Speech.”1 The “neighbours” may by the time of Aubrey’s visit have realised that their town had harboured a famous actor and tragedian, and shaped their memories accordingly; Aubrey himself is in any case a most unreliable narrator. It has often been proved, however, that behind the most fanciful account there lies a substratum of truth. And there may be a piece of authenticity even here. The act of “killing a calf” was in fact a dramatic improvisation performed by itinerant players at fairs or festivals; it was a form of shadow-play behind a cloth and in the accounts of the royal household in 1521 there is a payment to a man for “killing of a calfe before my ladys grace behynde a clothe.” (It is interesting that the image of the arras or cloth is a leitmotif in Shakespearian drama.) If there is a true memory in the neighbours’ reminiscences, therefore, it would be that of the young Shakespeare acting.

There is nothing so unusual in that. We are told that the young Molière—the actor and dramatist whom Shakespeare most closely resembles—was a “born actor.”2 Dickens, with whom there are other similarities to Shakespeare, confessed that he had been an actor from his earliest childhood. The idea of acting here is not simply one of histrionics or bravado; it means the ability and the desire to perform in front of other people. It may represent a longing to be free of restricting circumstance, an urge towards more powerful or more interesting status, what Ulysses in Troilus and Cressida describes as the “spirit” that “in aspiration lifts him from the earth” (2453-4). That is why there are various speculations about the young Shakespeare joining a group of travelling players, during one of their sojourns in Stratford, before accompanying them to London.

There was a tradition and an expectation, however, that the son of a “rising” family would attend the local petty or elementary school as preparation for more orthodox educational advancement. There seems no reason to doubt that this was the case with the five- or six-year-old Shakespeare, who would then become acquainted with the delights of reading, writing and arithmetic. In later life he generally practised a “secretary hand” very close to the one used as a model in the first English book on handwriting. If his mother had already taught him to read, then he could go on to sample the primer and the catechism. These were primarily works of moral and religious instruction, containing the Lord’s Prayer and the Creed, the Ten Commandments and daily prayers, as well as assorted graces and metrical psalms. It is interesting that the schoolmaster or “pedant” he satirises in Love’s Labour’s Lost is the master of a petty school who “teaches boyes the Horne-booke” (1649). A hornbook was used in the very first stages of learning. It was a wooden tablet, supporting a paper protected by thin horn, on which were printed the alphabet, the vowels, certain syllables and the Lord’s Prayer. Shakespeare’s imagination reverts to this early schooling also in Twelfth Night, where Maria refers to “a Pedant that keepes a Schoole i’ th’ Church” (1419-20). The petty school at Stratford was in fact held in the guild chapel, and was supervised by the assistant to the schoolmaster known as the usher.

The church was the site of his early learning. At the age of five or six he would have been expected to attend the sermons and the reading of the homilies, about which he might be questioned by his master; these latter were the doctrines of the Church and state as approved by the queen and privy council. They were essentially lessons in good Elizabethan citizenship and, as such, were later redeployed by Shakespeare in his history plays. In the Book of Homilies, published in 1574, there is, for example, an oration “Against Disobedience and Wilful Rebellion” which might be the sub-text for the three dramas concerning Henry VI. Even as a small boy Shakespeare must have been aware of the disparity between his familial religion and the orthodox pieties of the Stratford church; it was a difference of atmosphere more than doctrine, perhaps, but when two faiths compete the alert child will learn the power as well as the emptiness of words.

Somehow or other, he came to know the Bible very well. He may have been blessed with a singularly retentive memory rather than any more religious capacity, but it is one of his most significant sources. He knew the popular Geneva Bible and the later Bishops’ Bible, with a marked preference for the vigorous expressiveness of the former. It was known to be the household Bible, familiar to the folk of Stratford, and many phrases from his plays bear a striking resemblance to the language of this version. It has been calculated that he refers to forty-two of its books, but there is one anomaly. He prefers the beginnings of books, or scriptures, to their conclusions. He quotes extensively from the first four chapters of Genesis and in the New Testament he is most familiar with chapters 1 to 7 of Matthew. The same is often true of his secular reading—he is most at home with the first two books of Ovid’s Metamorphoses—and it leads to the conclusion that he did not necessarily persevere in his study of the various texts he employed. He imbibed a great deal at the beginning, and then tailed off. He was an opportunistic reader, who gathered quickly what he needed. Even at this early age he may have possessed an instinctive grasp of structure and of narrative.

It has often been suggested that the scriptural “colouring” of Shakespeare’s language comes from a dedicated reading of the Old and New Testaments; but it is more likely that he adopted them almost instinctively as the most readily available form of sonorous language. He was entranced by the sound and by the cadence. Of course he was not just a purloiner of local effects. The evidence of his drama suggests that he was also impressed by the book of Job and by the parable of the Prodigal Son; in each case the workings of Providence solicited his interest. Phrases and images returned to him when he needed them, so that the Bible became for him an echo-chamber of the imagination. It is perhaps ironical that the Bible was translated into English at the insistence of religious reformers. The reformers, as it were, gave the sacred book to Shakespeare. He returned the compliment with his own plangent and resourceful language.

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