My Life Hath in This Line Some Interest

Shakespeare had returned to Stratford by the summer of 1607, at the very latest, in order to attend the marriage of his oldest daughter. Susannah Shakespeare, named as a recusant in the previous year, had now outwardly conformed; this may have been to facilitate the wedding itself. In any case she was marrying a man of Puritan belief, John Hall, so there was no great religious prejudice in the family itself.

On 5 June William Shakespeare processed with his family to the church where at the altar, in ritual fashion, he relinquished his daughter to her new husband. In the marriage settlement he had promised them the 127 acres of Old Stratford he had purchased from the Combes five years before. There is every reason to suppose that Susannah was his favourite child. Certainly she was singled out in his will for preferential treatment. She may in fact have inherited something of his spirit, and was described on her tombstone as being “Witty above her sexe” and “Wise to salvation.” The memorialist added that “something of Shakespeare was in that,” so at the time she must have been recognised as in some ways resembling her father. She could also sign her own name, a skill which her sister Judith did not possess.

Her spouse, John Hall, was a doctor. Since in his later drama Shakespeare himself displays the utmost respect for doctors, the union no doubt had his blessing. The bridegroom was only eleven years younger than Shakespeare himself, and so Susannah was marrying a figure of some authority not unlike her father. He had been born in Bedfordshire, and had attended Queens’ College, Cambridge, where he received a bachelor’s and a master’s degree. He had travelled in France for a period, and had set up practice at Stratford some years before his betrothal. The newly married couple lived in New Place for a period after the wedding, but it is possible that they soon purchased a house a few hundred yards away in the area designated on the maps as “Old Town.” A timber-framed house of the period still survives, and has become known as “Hall’s Croft.” But the Halls returned to New Place after Shakespeare’s death.

Hall became a confidant of Shakespeare, travelling with him to London on occasions, and “proving” his father-in-law’s will. He kept a medical diary or case-book, which was published after his death with the somewhat exotic title of Select Observations on English Bodies. Here we find evidence that Doctor Hall tended his own family. When Susannah was suffering from the torments of the colic, for example, “I appointed to inject a Pint of Sack made hot. This presently brought forth a great deal of Wind, and freed her from all Pain.” In her youth their daughter, Elizabeth, suffered serious spasmodic pain. Her father rubbed spices into her back, and massaged her head with almond oil until she was “delivered from Death.” Hall believed in herbal cures, in other words, and treated other patients with pearl, powder of leaf gold and other precious minerals. He used emetics and purgatives to good effect. One happy patient wrote that “In regard I kno by experience: that hee is most excellent In that arte.”1 It can be supposed that he also treated his father-in-law, in Shakespeare’s declining years, although no record of his ministrations has been recovered.

It is interesting, however, that in his previous plays Shakespeare had used the language and terminology of what might be called folk medicine, with allusions to wormwood and ratsbane, syrup and balsam, but from the time of his friendship with his son-in-law he introduced a more exotic range of medicines such as hebenon and coloquintida, mallow and mandragora. In All’s Well That Ends Well writes of the fistula and alludes to Galen and Paracelsus; in Pericles the doctor, Cerimon, revives Thaisa with “the blest infusions that dwels in Vegetiues, in Mettals, Stones”(1239-40). It is hard to escape the conclusion that his interest in such matters was quickened by his son-in-law’s successful remedies. When in Troilus and Cressida Thersites recites a list of maladies, including cold palsies and sciatica, he might have been reading from Dr. Hall’s case-book.

There is also proof in this case-book that Hall as by no means an extreme Puritan. He successfully treated a Catholic priest and noted that “beyond all expectation the Catholicke was cured,” adding in Latin “Deo gratias.” We may imagine him to have been a moderate Puritan, married to a recusant and therefore content to overlook religious differences.

There were other births and deaths in the immediate Shakespeare family. The register of St. Leonard’s Shoreditch records the birth, on 12 July 1607, of “Edward Shakesbye, the sonne of Edward Shakesbye, was baptised the same day—morefilds.” The fact that he was baptised on the same day as his birth suggests that there was some urgency about the matter, and indeed a month later the baby died. On 12 August he was buried in St. Giles Cripplegate, where the register duly notes “Edward sonne of Edward Shackspeere, Playenbase-borne.” The infant was the son of Shakespeare’s younger brother. The name “Edward” in the church registers is a transcription error for “Edmund,” and is a common enough confusion in documents of the period; the mistake was prompted by the unfortunate child’s own name.

So we can deduce that Edmund Shakespeare had travelled to London and had taken up the profession of “Player,” imitating the career of his famous brother. Whether he had taken up the profession on his brother’s advice, or whether he had simply followed his example, is not known. The fact that his son was baptised in Shoreditch and buried in Cripplegate must mean that Edmund was living in the northern suburbs, and that he was probably playing at the Curtain Theatre. He was living very close to Shakespeare’s lodgings in Silver Street, in fact, and it is even possible that he shared them with him. There is no official record of his marriage, so he had also sired a bastard son. This was a not uncommon phenomenon in early seventeenth-century London but it does suggest that Edmund Shakespeare, now in his mid-twenties, was living a somewhat irregular existence as a player.

There are other domestic events to record. On 14 October 1607, in the parish church of Stratford, the son of Richard Tyler was baptised as “William”; it is possible that William Shakespeare was his godfather. Tyler, two years younger than Shakespeare, was a friend and neighbour of the dramatist. He was also no doubt at school with him. He was bequeathed a ring in the first draft of Shakespeare’s will. Richard Tyler was a prosperous yeoman and gentleman, living in Sheep Street, who had held civic office and had been elected as churchwarden. In an official document he is described as “a man of honest Conversacion & quiet & peacable Carryage amongst his neighbours & towards all people.”2 Very little else is known about Tyler, but he may stand as representative of Shakespeare’s Stratford acquaintances. They were generally prosperous, some of them being tradesmen and some of them being, like Tyler, “gentlemen.” They were “honest” and “quiet” and “peacable,” very much the model of the English townsman of this period. And Shakespeare remained on affectionate terms with them all his life. It is hard not to suspect that they were comfortable and welcome company after the vivid and more excitable ambience of London. Shakespeare could relax with them, converse with them, drink with them, without the constant press of theatrical business. Four days after the baptism of little William Tyler in the parish church, Shakespeare’s nephew, Richard Hathaway, baker, was married at the same altar. If the laws of family life applied to the Shakespeares, then the dramatist would have been present for that occasion also.

These rituals were taking place in the immediate aftermath of great local disturbance. The “Midlands Rising” was punctuated by savage enclosure riots directed against the larger landowners. The problems were particularly acute in the Forest of Arden where the enclosers had “turn’d so much of woodland into tillage … that they produce corn to furnish other counties.” The ironworks in the region had also “destroyed prodigious quantities of wood,”3 and the old commons had been transformed into privately owned pasturage. No one denied that the land was the property of the landowner; the rioters were protesting against the overthrow of centuries of traditional usage. There was also anger and dismay at continuing food shortages, a dearth which in the popular mind was associated with the pace of enclosures.

The rising began on the eve of May Day and quickly spread throughout the Midland counties until it became a summer of insurrection. The king issued a royal proclamation deploring the fact that “many of the meanest sort of people have presumed lately to assemble themselves riotously in multitudes.”4 The rebellion was only halted after savagely repressive measures by the authorities; the military killed scores of protesters, and many of those captured were hanged, drawn and quartered. The problems were, almost literally, on Shakespeare’s doorstep and they entered at least one of his subsequent dramas.

In the winter season of this year, stretching from December 1607 to February 1608, the King’s Men staged thirteen plays at the court for the benefit of the royal family. The names of these plays have not been recorded, but it is a fair assumption that one of them was the drama entitled The Tragedie of Antony and Cleopatra. In Samuel Daniel’s verse drama Cleopatra, reissued in this year, there is a detailed and expressive description of the dying Antony being hoisted onto Cleopatra’s “monument.” This had not appeared in the earlier version of Daniel’s play, printed in 1594, and suggests that Daniel had witnessed a performance of Shakespeare’s scene in which, according to the stage-directions, “They heaue Antony aloft to Cleopatra.” It has all the marks of a visual, rather than a verbal, memory. Since the theatres were closed from July onwards by reason of the plague, the likelihood must be that Daniel saw the play at the Globe in the late spring or early summer of 1607. It was restaged that Christmas for the benefit of the sovereign.

It is possible, however, that the audiences of the time remained unmoved by Antony and Cleopatra. With the exception of the allusion by Samuel Daniel, there is no recorded comment on its production. It was not published in Shakespeare’s lifetime—and nor indeed was that other Roman drama, Coriolanus. If they had not been included in the Folio edition of Shakespeare’s works, there would be no surviving text.

For Antony and Cleopatra Shakespeare borrowed from Plutarch and from Horace, from Montaigne and from Pliny. It says something about the effect of the theatre and the permanence of theatrical memory that this doomed love between Antony and Cleopatra, together with the assassination of Julius Caesar, have become the two most famous episodes of Roman history. With the magniloquent verse of Antony and Cleopatra, in particular, Shakespeare has reinvented the last years of republican Rome. The language of passion and aspiration dominates this play. It valorises everything, with the billowing rhetoric of the Egyptians contrasted with the high Roman rhetoric of time and duty. It is the oration conceived as poem. By some unerring insight, too, he has divined the essential characteristics of the protagonists. Octavius Caesar here bears all the incipient greatness and ruthlessness of the ruler who would become Augustus, the first emperor in Roman history.

Shakespeare’s imagination seems to have been stirred by the vastness of the enterprise he is enacting; there are images of the world and of immensity, with the main protagonists in the early stage of becoming deities. Antony and Cleopatra could have echoed the emperor Vespasian’s words upon his death-bed, “I am afraid I am turning into a god.” But they embrace that fate; they long for metamorphosis. No play has so wide a stage, with so many scenes and with so many messengers from the boundaries of the known world—except that there are no boundaries and no limits, in this evocation of immensity. It is a pageant, a moving tableau, a procession. That is why Antony and Cleopatra are intensely theatrical creations, admiring their images as if they had been projected by some conjuror upon a linen screen.

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