Of Such a Mery Nimble Stiring Spirit

Shakespeare himself was fifteen in that year, 1579, and entering that period of life when, according to the shepherd in The Winter’s Tale, there is nothing “but getting wenches with childe, wronging the Auncientry, stealing, fighting” (1313-14). He committed at least one of these offences, and is popularly supposed to have been guilty of two others. But we may prefer to see him as Goethe saw the young Hamlet, as “a good companion, pliant, courteous, discreet, and able to forget and forgive an injury.” If he was also “able to discern and value the good and the beautiful in the arts,”1 then he reached the borders of manhood at an appropriate time. In this year were published North’s translations of Plutarch, from which he would later borrow, as well as the Euphues of John Lyly and The Shepheardes Calender of Edmund Spenser. New forms of prose, and new kinds of poetry, were all around him.

It is possible that his father paid the £5 necessary for his son to continue his schooling after the age of fourteen; only after that age, according to the conventional school curriculum, could he have acquired even the “lesse Greeke” of which Ben Jonson accused him. The age of fourteen, however, was that hard year when boys became apprentices. The young Shakespeare may have started working for his father in some capacity; this was the standard practice of those who were not apprenticed elsewhere. Nicholas Rowe states that after school his father “could give him no better education than his own employment”;2 this surmise is confirmed by John Aubrey, who wrote that “when he was a boy he exercised his father’s Trade.”3 Rowe assumes that John Shakespeare was in poverty, however, and Aubrey assumes that he was a butcher. These assumptions are not correct.

It has also been suggested that the young Shakespeare worked as a lawyer’s clerk, or that he found employment as a schoolmaster in the country, or that he was called up for military service—a duty for which he would have been liable after the age of sixteen. It is perhaps significant that the only form of recruitment known to Shakespeare was that of impressments, and that there are many allusions in his plays to archery. But his extraordinary capacity for entry into imagined worlds has misled many scholars. His apparent knowledge of the technical terms of seamanship—even to the details of dry ship-biscuits—has, for example, convinced some that he served in the English navy. You can never overestimate his powers of assimilation and empathy.

In the absence of certainty, there have emerged many legends concerning Shakespeare’s early years. The most famous of these is his aptitude for poaching. The story concerns his encroachment upon the estate of a local dignitary, Sir Thomas Lucy, and is first mentioned in print by Rowe. Rowe himself gathered it from the actor, Thomas Betterton, who had travelled to Stratford in order to pick up any Shakespearian lore. “He had,” Rowe writes,

by a Misfortune common enough to young Fellows, fallen into ill Company; and amongst them, some that made a frequent practice of Deer-stealing, engag’d him with them more than once in robbing a Park that belong’d to Sir Thomas Lucy of Cherlecote, near Stratford. For this he was prosecuted by the Gentleman, as he thought, somewhat too severely; and in order to revenge that ill Usage, he made a Ballad upon him. And tho’ this, probably the first Essay of his Poetry, be lost, yet it is said to have been so very bitter, that it redoubled the Persecution against him to that degree, that he was oblig’d to leave his Business and Family in Warwickshire, for some time, and shelter himself in London.4

The ballad itself was, according to one elderly Warwickshire resident, “stuck upon the park gate, which exasperated the knight to apply to a lawyer at Warwick to proceed against him.”5 And then, at a later date, two versions of the ballad itself were fortuitously discovered, one of them ringing the changes on the consonance of “Lucy” and “lowsie.” It might all be dismissed as minor literary speculation—or indeed fabrication, as many scholars believe— except that, quite apart from the testimony of Rowe, the same story was repeated by a clergyman in the late seventeenth century. Richard Davies told the antiquarian Anthony a Wood that Shakespeare “was much given to all unluckinesse in Stealing venison & Rabbits particularly from Sir—Lucy who had him oft whipt and Sometimes Imprisoned & at last made Him fly his Native Country …”6 Two independent accounts, employing approximately the same facts, deserve attention. But there are difficulties with the story as it stands. There was no park in the grounds of Sir Thomas Lucy’s house, Charlecote; it was then a “free warren,” and deer were not brought onto the estate until the eighteenth century. As a result of this discovery the site of Shakespeare’s alleged misdeed was moved, two miles away across the Avon, to another of Lucy’s parks called Fullbrooke. Yet it has been pointed out that the Lucys did not have proprietary rights in Fullbrooke until the last years of Shakespeare’s life. Even if Shakespeare had been able to poach the nonexistent deer in a non-existent park, he could not have been whipped for the offence; he would have been fined or imprisoned. Shakespeare does indeed make the allusive connection between “Lucy” and “lowsie,” through the happy medium of Justice Shallow in The Merry Wives of Windsor. But the target of his humour is much more likely to have been a bailiff of Southwark, William Gardiner, a notorious hater of the theatre who had threatened Shakespeare with arrest. He had married Frances Lucy, and on his coat of arms were impaled three “lucies” or fish. In any event Shakespeare refers with great respect to one of Sir Thomas Lucy’s ancestors, William Lucy, in the first part of Henry VI.

But there may be a certain truth at the bottom of this well of conjecture. Sir Thomas Lucy was, in Shakespeare’s adolescence, a notable persecutor of Catholics. He was an ardent Protestant, a pupil of John Foxe, famous for Foxe’s Book of Martyrs, and as high sheriff and deputy lieutenant of Warwickshire he inflicted his zeal upon the recusants of that county.

In Warwickshire, too, Catholicism was the faith of the gentry and what has been called a “seigneurial” religion in which clients and retainers espoused the old faith as a matter of duty as well as piety. That is why the high politics of the county can be analysed in religious terms, with reforming families like the Lucys and the Dudleys and the Grevilles pitted against such proponents of the old faith as the Ardens and the Catesbys and the Somervilles.

Thomas Lucy visited Stratford on many occasions, and he was the principal signatory on two documents accusing John Shakespeare of refusing to attend church services. He was also granted lands confiscated from Catholics. It should also be noted that he had introduced a bill into Parliament, turning the trespass of poaching into a felony. In 1610 his son, another Sir Thomas Lucy, did prosecute poachers. It is not difficult to observe the stages of legendary change, whereby enmity between the Lucys and the Shakespeares became transformed into the story of young Shakespeare being whipped and imprisoned for poaching Lucy’s deer.

There is another authentic note: the many allusions in his poetry and drama to poaching. “Chasing the deer,” as it was called, was a normal pursuit for young men of the period. In May-Day Sir Philip Sidney describes deer-stealing as a “pretty service.” The Elizabethan occultist and physician Simon Forman relates how students prefer “to steal deer and conies.”7 In Shakespeare’s work the chase is a consistent theme, whether in the form of metaphor or simile or allusion. It is an obsession common to the period, but no other Elizabethan dramatist is so acquainted with all the details of the hunt. He knows the technical language of the sport with such terms as “recheat” and “embossed,” using them as effortlessly and instinctively as any other household words. He has many references to the bow and the crossbow; he knows that the noise of the crossbow will scare the herd. He accompanies the hunter and runs with the hunted, his extraordinary powers of empathy turning the chase into a masterwork of the imagination. He knows about the dogs and the horses; he names the canine breeds from brach to mastiff. In Titus Andronicus (584-5) can be found the lines:

What hast not thou full often stroke a Doe

And borne her cleanlie by the Keepers nose?

Yet in other passages he laments the plight of the “sobbing deer” and the stricken deer who seeks the water. These were commonplaces of Renaissance literature, of course, but they may also reflect his instinctive attitude.

The allusions to hunting also carry a different significance in late sixteenth-century England, where it was still considered to be primarily an aristocratic pursuit. It was a mimic war and, perhaps more significantly for Shakespeare, an exercise for nobility and for gentlemen. In that sense it suited Shakespeare’s abiding preoccupation with gentility. His hunters are noblemen, such as the Lord in The Taming of the Shrew and the Duke of Athens in A Midsummer Night’s Dream. It may also be significant that, in both of theseplays, the hunt acts as a prelude and context for theatrical performances. The hunt is itself a form of theatre. The lord of the hunt might also be the patron of a group of players, confirming the strangely disconcerting association. The hunt and the theatre both present ritualised forms of conflict and violence, and the killing of the noble stag to the sound of horns may be compared to the mimic murder of a king. The hands of the hunters in the field, and the hands of the assassins in Julius Caesar, are similarly dyed in blood. The writer of the plays confesses to a “dyer’s hand.” The mature Shakespeare has often been described as a poacher of other men’s plays or plots. It is impossible to untangle the web of associations and resemblances that may be glimpsed here. But we may be sure that we are looking into the heart of Shakespeare’s design. The stray story of the poacher Shakespeare has carried us a long way.

There are many other references to outdoor pursuits that suggest the presence of personal experience. He could have played bowls, for example, and the language of falconry becomes almost his private possession. One book upon his imagery fills no fewer than eight pages with his references to trained hawks and hawking, to the “check” and the “quarry,” the “haggard” and the “Jesse.” There are eighty separate and technical allusions to the sport in his published writing, whereas there are very few in the work of any other dramatist of the period. The Taming of the Shrew uses the taming of the falcon as a metaphor throughout. The process of stitching up a bird’s eyelids was known as “seeling.” Thus in Macbeth (991-2) occurs the imprecation—

Come, seeling Night,

Skarfe vp the tender Eye of pittifull Day

Nor does he commit errors or solecisms. His references may of course have been derived from book-learning, or from his attempts to internalise what was in large part an aristocratic sport; but he speaks the language of practice, much of which is still in use.

He alludes to the hunting of hares, and of foxes, on several occasions. It was the practice of countrymen then to hunt hares on foot, with nets at the ready. Shakespeare notes how the quarry “outruns the wind,” and “crankes and crosses with a thousand doubles”(Venus and Adonis, 681-2). In this context he uses the very specific term of “musit” for a round hole in a hedge or fence through which the hare escapes; he could not have learned this from any book.

On the basis of dramatic references one early biographer has also safely concluded that Shakespeare “was an angler” who “did not use a fly but was familiar with bottom-fishing”;8 the Avon was close by, but it is hard to imagine a still and patient Shakespeare. He seems preoccupied, too, with the liming of birds. This was the practice of the fowler, who smeared twigs and branches with the white glutinous paste of bird-lime in order to capture his terrified prey. It is one of those images particularly favoured by Shakespeare; it emerges in a variety of contexts and situations, and represents some primitive or primary scene of his imagination. He responds eloquently to the idea of speed being checked or free flight being hampered; the picture of a bird struggling to be free impressed itself upon him. It lies behind the “limed soul” of Claudius in Hamlet, or the bush “limed” for the Duchess of Gloucester in the second part of Henry VI. Shakespeare was familiar with all the sports of the field and the open air—which is, perhaps, no more than to say that he had a conventional rural boyhood.

There is another legend of this period, confirming Shakespeare’s status as a rustic cavalier of free and manly disposition who was shaped by nature rather than by art. It concerns his drinking, that English token of virile and unaffected behaviour. The story goes that he visited the neighbouring village of Bidford, whose male inhabitants were supposed to be “deep drinkers and merry fellows”; he wanted to “take a cup” with them but was told that they were absent. Instead he was invited to join “the Bidford sippers” (could they perhaps have been female?) and became so drunk in their company that he had to sleep beneath a tree. This hallowed crabtree was, by the eighteenth century, shown to visitors as “Shakespeare’s canopy” or “Shakespeare’s Crab.”9 The story has the advantage of being entirely unprovable. But it also has an inherent significance. It displays an instinctive tendency, among literary mythographers, to identify Shakespeare with his native soil and to portray him as a kind of genius loci. This is not in itself unwelcome, as long as it does not ignore all the sophistication and wit that Shakespeare brought to his unmistakable rural inheritance.

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