W HEN Shakespeare first went to London he had a hard life. He found no better work to do than that of holding horses outside the theater doors. In those days the plays took place in the afternoon, and as many of the fine folk who came to watch them rode on horseback, some one was needed to look after the horses until the play was over. But poor though this work was, Shakespeare seems to have done it well, and he became such a favorite that he had several boys under him who were long known as "Shakespeare's boys." Their master, however, soon left work outside the theater for work inside. And now began the busiest years of his life, for he both acted and wrote. At first it may be he only altered and improved the plays of others. But soon he began to write plays that were all his own. Yet Shakespeare, like Chaucer, never invented any of his own stories. There is only one play of his, called Love's Labor's Lost, the story of which is not to be found in some earlier book. That, too, may have been founded on another story which is now lost.
When you come to know Shakespeare's plays well you will find it very interesting to follow his stories to their sources. That of King Lear, which is one of Shakespeare's great romantic historical plays, is, for instance, to be found in Geoffrey of Monmouth, in Wace's Brut, and in Layamon's Brut. But it was from none of these that Shakespeare took the story, but from the chronicle of a man named Holinshed who lived and wrote in the time of Queen Elizabeth, he in his turn having taken it from some one of the earlier sources.
For, after all, in spite of the thousands of books that have been written since the world began, there are only a certain number of stories which great writers have told again and again in varying ways. One instance of this we saw when in the beginning of this book we followed the story of Arthur.
But although Shakespeare borrowed his plots from others, when he had borrowed them he made them all his own. He made his people so vivid and so true that he makes us forget that they are not real people. We can hardly realize that they never lived, that they never walked and talked, and cried and laughed, loved and hated, in this world just as we do. And this is so because the stage to him is life and life a stage. "All the world's a stage," he says,
And again he tells us:
It is from Shakespeare's works that we get the clearest picture of Elizabethan times. And yet, although we learn from him so much of what people did in those days, of how they talked and even of how they thought, the chief thing that we feel about Shakespeare's characters is, not that they are Elizabethan, but that they are human, that they are like ourselves, that they think, and say, and do, things which we ourselves might think, and say, and do.
There are many books we read which we think of as very pretty,
very quaint, very interesting—but
Shakespeare's men and women speak and act and feel in the main as we might now. Many of his people we feel are our brothers and sisters. And to this human interest he adds something more, for he leads us too through "unpathed waters" to "the undreamed shores" of fairyland.
Shakespeare's writing time was short. Before he left Stratford
he wrote nothing unless it may have been a few scoffing verses
against the Justice of the Peace who punished him for poaching.
But these, if they were ever written, are lost. In the last few
years of his life he wrote little or nothing. Thus the number of
his writing years was not more than twenty to
Shakespeare writes his plays sometimes in rime, sometimes in blank verse, sometimes in prose, at times using all these in one play. In this he showed how free he was from rules. For, until he wrote, plays had been written in rime or blank verse only.
For the sake of convenience Shakespeare's plays have been divided into histories, tragedies and comedies. But it is not always easy to draw the line and decide to which class a play belongs. They are like life. Life is not all laughter, nor is it all tears. Neither are Shakespeare's comedies all laughter, and some of his tragedies would seem at times to be too deep for tears, full only of fierce, dark sorrow—and yet there is laughter in them too.
Besides being divided into histories, tragedies and comedies they have been divided in another way, into three periods of time. The first was when Shakespeare was trying his hand, when he was brimming over with the joy of the new full life of London. The second was when some dark sorrow lay over his life, we know not what, when the pain and mystery and the irony of living seems to strike him hard. Then he wrote his great tragedies. The third was when he had gained peace again, when life seemed to flow calmly and smoothly, and this period lasted until the end.
We know very little of Shakespeare's life in London. As an actor
he never made a great name, never acted the chief character in a
play. But he acted sometimes in his own plays and took the part,
we are told, of a ghost in one, and of a servant in another,
neither of them great parts. He acted, too, in plays written by
other people. But it was as a writer that he made a name, and
that so quickly that others grew jealous of him. One called him
"an upstart Crow, beautified in our feathers
And so although outside his work we get only glimpses of the man,
these glimpses taken together with his writings show us Will
Shakespeare as a
There are parts in some of Shakespeare's plays that many people
find coarse. But Shakespeare is not really coarse. We remember
the vision sent to
About eleven years passed after Shakespeare left Stratford before he returned there again. But once having returned, he often paid visits to his old home. And he came now no more as a poor wild lad given to poaching. He came as a man of wealth and fame. He bought the best house in Stratford, called New Place, as well as a good deal of land. So before John Shakespeare died he saw his family once more important in the town.
Then as the years went on Shakespeare gave up all connection with
London and the theater and settled down to a quiet country life.
He planted trees, managed his estate, and showed that though he
was the world's
Shakespeare was only
He was buried in Stratford Parish Church, and on his grave was placed a bust of the poet. That bust and an engraving in the beginning of the first great edition of his works are the only two real portraits of Shakespeare. Both were done after his death, and yet perhaps there is no face more well known to us than that of the greatest of all poets.
Beneath the bust are written these lines:
Upon a slab over the grave is carved:
And so our greatest poet lies not beneath the great arch of Westminster but in the quiet church of the little country town in which he was born.