An’t Please Your Honor Players

In the summer of 1592 the newly formed Pembroke’s Men were obliged to leave London. The available records suggest that the plague of this year was particularly virulent in the neighbourhood of Shoreditch where Burbage, Shakespeare and other players lived. The exact route of this late summer tour is not completely known, but there is a record of Pembroke’s Men playing at Leicester as one “stop” in a more extended tour that must have included Coventry, Warwick—and Stratford-upon-Avon. We may say with some confidence that Shakespeare was reunited with his family in the late summer of 1592.

Shakespeare and his companions travelled in a wagon, the players packed in with the baskets containing the costumes and with the essential stage properties. One of the actors of Pembroke’s Men, mortally ill in that summer, was obliged to sell his share of “apparell newe boughte.”1 They might manage, at best, approximately thirty miles per day. It was an uncomfortable and overcrowded mode of travelling, but the alternative was to walk. One of the stage directions in The Taming of a Shrew is “Enter two of the players with packs at their backs, and a boy.” It is possible that some players took their horses with them, but the cost of upkeep on an extended tour was very high. They lodged at inns for the night, and played there for the price of their beds and suppers. This manner of life, difficult and uncertain in many respects, did have the virtue of encouraging a sense of fraternity among the actors. They were an extended family. It may even have become, for Shakespeare, a welcome substitute for his existing one.

They took with them trumpets and drums, to announce their arrival in every new town. They had to present the burgesses with a paper authorising them to perform, and a letter or some authority from the Earl of Pembroke to prove that they were not sturdy beggars to be whipped out of town. The mayor or chief magistrate then asked them to perform before a selected audience, for which a reward would generally be given. Only then were they granted permission to play in the inn-yards or in the guildhall. There were purpose-built playhouses, however, in larger places such as Bristol and York.

So Shakespeare came to know Ipswich and Coventry, Norwich and Gloucester, in the course of approximately twenty years of intermittent travelling “on the road.” The company with which he was associated for most of his career, the Lord Chamberlain’s Men, travelled extensively in East Anglia and Kent but they also journeyed to Carlisle and Newcastle upon Tyne, Plymouth and Exeter, Winchester and Southampton. They visited altogether some eighty towns and thirty noble households, even making the journey up to Edinburgh. This was an important aspect of Shakespeare’s experience of the world. In the summer and autumn of 1592 it may have been the only viable means of earning a living.

But Pembroke’s Men were not simply a group of travelling players. They were invited to perform before the queen during this Christmas season, a signal honour for a company so recently established. They attained this degree of recognition in part because of the acting of Richard Burbage; but their success may have also been connected with the plays which they performed. Among these, as we have seen, were The Taming of a Shrew, Titus Andronicus and the two plays on the reign of Henry VI. We may now conclude that Shakespeare had achieved some renown on his own part, perhaps among his fellows rather than the spectators who flocked to see the plays, not least because he was bitterly attacked in this year by Robert Greene.

In the autumn of 1592 Greene’s autobiographical pamphlet, Groats-worth of Witte, bought with a million, of Repentance, condemned “that only Shake-scene in a countrey” who “supposes he is able to bombast out a blank verse as the best of you.” This suggests an element of rivalry and competitiveness in Shakespeare’s nature. The “best of you” refers to the university playwrights, among them Marlowe, Nashe and Greene himself. It was, in other words, a continuation of that war of words which Nashe and Greene had begun three years before.

Greene describes his rival as one of “those Puppets (I meane) that spake from our mouths, those Anticks garnisht in our colours.” He is saying that Shake-scene was a player—moreover a player who had acted in the dramas of Greene and his contemporaries—and therefore not worthy of serious consideration. Because the young Shakespeare was one of the few who attained the dual role of actor and playwright, Greene berates him as “an absolute Johannes factotum” or jack-of-all-trades. He also intimates that, having supplied Shakespeare with lines (either acted or purloined), he had on his death-bed now been “forsaken.”“Trust them not,” he warns, and calls Shakespeare an “vpstart Crow beautified with our feathers” whose “Tygers hart”(an allusion to The True Tragedy of Richard, Duke of York) is “wrapt inn a Players hyde.” Accused of being an unlearned (“vpstart”) plagiarist, Shakespeare would have questioned “unlearned”—although he had not attended university, his plays are stuffed with classical allusions—but he could hardly deny the charge of plagiarism; his early plays were bedecked with lines and echoes from Marlowe.

The charge throws a suggestive light on a little fable that Greene included in his pamphlet, which immediately succeeded the assault upon “Shake-scene” and concerned the ant and the grasshopper. Greene compared himself to the grasshopper, and we are left to wonder who the ant might be. The ant was prudent and thrifty, taking up “what winters prouision was scattered in the way” where the grasshopper was unthrifty and careless. When winter came the grasshopper, quite without provisions, begged help from the comfortably ensconced ant. But the ant scorned his requests for aid, and blamed the grasshopper for his lack of effort and refusal to work. The grasshopper characterised the ant in these terms:

The greedy miser thirsteth still for gaine,

His thrift is theft, his weale works others woe …

The charge is again that of theft or plagiarism, but the ant is also condemned as a “greedy miser.” There is also an indirect allusion to “an Vsurer.” In a later period of his life, as we shall see, Shakespeare hoarded essential provisions at time of dearth; he also acted as a money-lender or money-broker on certain occasions and he possessed a healthy respect for money, as his own commercial speculations will prove. So Greene’s attack, over-heated and exaggerated as it is, might well have been recognised as a further assault upon Shakespeare’s character. In this account he is thrifty to the point of miserliness, hard-working and inclined to scorn those who are not. “Toyling labour,” the ant states, “hates an idle guest.” It is a plausible description of the young man on the rise in London. It is certainly true that, in his drama, Shakespeare continually satirises indolence and self-indulgence.

There is another anecdote in the same pamphlet when Greene, under the pseudonym of Roberto, is approached by a player of rich and fashionable appearance. He confesses to being once a “country Author” but, as Greene says, “I tooke you rather for a Gentleman of great liuing, for if by outward habit men should be censured, I tell you, you would be taken for a substantiall man.” The newly elevated actor agrees, and confesses that “my very share in playing apparel will not be sold for two hundred pounds.”“Truly,” Greene replies, “’tis straunge that you should so prosper in that vayne practise, for that it seems to me your voice is nothing gratious.” By “gratious” is here meant courtly or refined. So perhaps he was a quondam “country Author” still with a country accent. The passage may or may not refer to Shakespeare, becoming affluent and successful, but it is at least an indication of how actors were deemed to prosper in London.

There is some dispute whether Greene actually wrote this death-bed “repentance,” or whether it was passed off under his name. It may have been written by Nashe, Greene’s colleague, or perhaps by Henry Chettle. Chettle was a printer and minor dramatist who supervised the publication of Greene’s pamphlet. He was also an occasional poet and “dresser” or reviser of other men’s plays who inhabited the purlieus of sixteenth-century London literary society; if there had been a Grub Street, he would have been a part of it. Shakespeare was offended by Greene’s portrait of him, as well he might be, and he remonstrated with Chettle, who then wrote an apology, in a pamphlet published at the end of 1592, in which he stated that “I am as sory, as if the originall fault had been my fault.” Of Shakespeare he writes that “my self haue seene his demeanor no lesse ciuil than he excellent in the qualitie he professes: Beside, divers of worship haue reported his vprightnes of dealing, which argues his honesty, and his fa[ce]tious grace in writing, which approues his Art.” In describing Shakespeare’s “facetious” gift he was not employing the adjective in its modern sense; it was instead the compliment that Cicero had applied to Plautus’s sprightly and fluent wit. Shakespeare’s professed “qualitie” was that of actor, but the “divers of worship” who supported him are not known. It confirms, at least, that he was already recognised and admired by certain eminent people. He was also himself influential enough, at this date, to elicit an apology from Chettle.

We are now entering a period when Shakespeare’s plays can be securely placed if not precisely dated. And we find what we would expect to find—that he is already a superlative writer of comedies and of histories, of farce and of tragical matter. He was indeed the “Johannes factotum,” the “jack-of-all-trades,” of Greene’s description. The Shakespearian authorship of only one play is debated, Edward the Third, but the others are universally recognised as part of Shakespeare’s work. In the early 1590s we may notice in particular The Two Gentlemen of Verona, The Comedy of Errors and Richard III.

The Two Gentlemen of Verona is one of the first of Shakespeare’s comedies, composed soon after The Taming of a Shrew. Its best scenes bring on a clown, Launce, and his dog; Launce alternately berates and pleads with his dog, but the dog says nothing. It is suggestive of the early sixteenth-century interludes, which also included dogs as comic “props, ” and in that sense The Two Gentlemen of Verona has very ancient roots indeed. It is a rather febrile drama, with a very silly ending, but it breathes the spirit of comedy like the lop-sided grin of a clown. There are no records of any performance, which has led some scholars to speculate that it was material only for private performance. This seems most unlikely, however, since the broadly comic scenes are expressly designed for the groundlings of the public playhouses: “My Mother weeping: my Father wayling: my Sister crying: our Maid howling: our Catte wringing her hands, and all our house in a great perplexitie, yet did not this cruell-hearted Curre shedde one teare: he is a stone, a very pibble stone, and has no more pitty in him then a dogge”(571— 6).

It seems to have been written quickly—but then, under the circumstances of the time, all of his early plays were composed in that fashion. “A fine volly of words, gentlemen, ” as one character puts it, “& quickly shot off”(656). The same images are repeated, and the same comparisons are made. There are several inconsistencies and contradictions that show evident sign of haste or, perhaps, separate stages of composition. The Emperor suddenly becomes a Duke, and two very different characters are given the same name. InThe Two Gentlemen of Verona, Speed, in Milan, says to Launce: “Welcome to Padua!” It has been argued that the comic passages concerning the man and the dog, easily detachable from the text, were written at a later date. It is most probable that they were added for the performance of a specific clown—Will Kempe comes immediately to mind—and thus emphasise the extent to which Shakespeare was obliged to improvise. He changed his scripts according to change of cast. One of Kempe’s famous routines was to heave his leg over his staff, and pretend to urinate like a dog. And he would have danced his famous jig at the end of the proceedings.

An early date for this play can also be conjectured from the fact that Shakespeare imitates, or borrows, passages from the fashionable playwrights of the 1580s. He takes character and dialogue from John Lyly, a romantic plot from Robert Greene, and lines from Thomas Kyd. It can be argued that he is satirising the romantic drama of the 1580s, but he is at the same time heavily indebted to it. The Two Gentlemen of Verona is part of the atmosphere of its period, and influences upon it can be traced to Sir Philip Sidney’sArcadia, Arthur Brooke’s poem entitled The Tragicall Historye of Romeus and Juliet, George Puttenham’s Arte of English Poesie and the courtly literature of the period that Shakespeare seems to have devoured. There is even some evidence that he had read Marlowe’s Hero and Leander in manuscript form.

From the evidence of the play the young writer is half in love with music, of which he shows a distinct technical knowledge, and is already enamoured of the sonnet form. There are other distinct or distinctive Shakespearian aspects—or, rather, aspects that at a later date can be deemed to be Shakespearian. He places romance and farce so close together that they cannot ultimately be distinguished; the lover is followed on stage by the clown, and Launce’s affection for his dog seems stronger than that of the romantic rivals’ for their mistress. All forms of human experience are juxtaposed by Shakespeare, but his tendency is to deflate the heroic and the romantic with broad comedy. We will come to recognise that Shakespeare was a profoundly unsentimental person. In The Two Gentlemen of Verona, also, action in the world is subtly confused with play-acting; here, for the first time in Shakespeare’s drama, emerges the figure of the girl dressed as a boy that would become such a token of his art. The play also evinces immense verbal resource, with the principal characters trying out various forms of address with the sole intention of displaying the dramatist’s own skill. It shows a boundless invention and exuberance, in a language filled with puns and rhymes. No other writer of his age was so fluent and so various.

Here, as in Titus Andronicus, we also see the germs or seeds of his later work. The contrast between the court and the forest is one that he would fully exploit, as he began imaginatively to enlarge the English stage beyond the confines of unified time and space. The scene of elopement in the play here prefigures Romeo and Juliet. There are elements of Shakespeare’s imagination—preoccupations, perhaps—that did not change.

It seems almost inevitable that he turned quickly to The Comedy of Errors, another comedy in a hurry. At one point he mixes up the names of the characters from both plays, as if The Two Gentlemen of Verona was still on his mind. All of the characters in the play are in a hurry. The author was in a hurry. In her diary Virginia Woolf once confessed that “I never yet knew how amazing his stretch & speed & word coining power is, until I felt it utterly outpace & outrace my own … even the less known & worser plays are written at a speed that is quicker than anybody else’s quickest; & the words drop so fast one can’t pick them up.”2 There is a stage-direction in The Comedy of Errors, probably added by Shakespeare himself, concerning an exit: “Runne all out, as fast as may be”.

The Comedy of Errors is a mad play about suspected madness and mistaken identity, with two sets of twins being continually misrecognised to farcical effect. Shakespeare here went back to his earliest dramatic reading, in the plays of Plautus he had studied as a schoolboy, but characteristically goes a stage further in complication and intrigue. It is in terms of structure, however, a perfectly “correct” Roman play. Unusually among his plays it observes the “unities” of time and place as adumbrated by Aristotle, with a single action occurring in a single place during the course of a single day. It was played upon a stage with three doors, or “houses,” in a row like the set of some classical comedy. It is as if he had decided to prove, to his university-educated contemporaries, that he was not as unlearned as they assumed.

So The Comedy of Errors is for him an exercise in ingenuity as much as in comedy. His is a predominantly verbal humour, rapid, elaborate and ingenious. It is, as Coleridge put it, “in exactest consonance with the philosophical principles and character of farce.”3In that respect it requires a writer of the highest intelligence and sensitivity to maintain the pace and direction of the action. It might be seen as a slightly derivative and old-fashioned play, written by a schoolmaster of genius, since there are also elements of the morality play in its composition. As a schoolboy Shakespeare used the volume of Plautus edited by Lambinus, in which there are manifold references to various “errors.” Hence perhaps the title. But the play is not entirely derived from memories of the classroom. He is still close to Marlowe and to Lyly, from whom he lifts lines and situations. T. S. Eliot once suggested that bad poets borrow while good poets steal; Shakespeare managed to do both.

It has the distinction of being Shakespeare’s shortest play, but it is not without its subtleties of characterisation. We see here what might be called the natural bent of Shakespeare’s imagination, with the superiority of servants over their masters and the natural good sense of women contrasted with the wilful obtuseness of men. There also appears, in this comedy of twinship, the theme of self-division that runs through much of Shakespeare’s mature drama:

… oh how comes it,

That thou art then estranged from thy selfe? (500—l)

The fact that these lines are uttered by a wife, who believes that she has been abandoned by her husband, may add a private note of self-communing. In this play, as in so many others of Shakespeare, a family is reunited after many vicissitudes, and lost children are restored.

Self-estrangement has become so obvious a topic of Shakespearean commentary that it is often forgotten that it is peculiar to, and symptomatic of, his genius. Whether Shakespeare divined within himself the play of contraries, or whether it was the fruit of observation, is an open question. As a country boy come to London, as a player with aspirations to gentility, as a writer as well as an actor, he had ample scope for contemplation. We also have the interesting spectacle of an utterly practical and business-like man who was able to create a world of passion and of dream. That is perhaps the greatest mystery of all. He had within himself legions. He saw the human truth in any argument or controversy. All the evidence of his plays suggests that if he expressed a truth, or even an opinion, an opposing truth or opinion would then occur to him—to which he would immediately give assent. That was for him the natural condition of being a dramatist. It has often been noticed that in the plays there is no sense of Shakespeare’s personality, and that the characters themselves do all the thinking. It has also been suggested that there is a consistent and characteristic “doubleness” within the plays, whereby heroic or mighty action is duplicated by the fools and clowns. There are also occasions when an action can be interpreted in two different ways, or a passion such as sexual jealousy can seem both justified and unjustified. But doubleness is not the right word. Kings and clowns are all part of the essential singularity of his vision.

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