Oxfordian Journal Chapter 5: My First Plunge Into the Strangely Elusive and Disappearing Life of Shakespeare

Reading through A Life of Shakespeare (1898) by Sidney Lee, I experienced an unfamiliar foreboding:  He’s not going to tell about Shakespeare’s creative process.  No, the premonition was even worse:  He’s not going to tell anything about the man himself.

A modern edition of the sturdy little used book I had bought in Portland, Maine, a copy signed by its original owner, W. E. Hart, in 1899

The more I learned about Shakespeare, the less I knew:  By the final page, I’m going to know even less than I did in the first place!  It wasn’t that the biographer was failing to tell things; he was filling nearly five hundred pages; but how was it that the more I read, the faster Shakespeare was disappearing?

I kept waiting for a quote from some guy who shared a mug with him at the Mermaid Tavern and recalled what he looked like … what he wore … what he said … anything!  When I learned that Shakespeare might have played the Ghost in his own play about Hamlet, I thought:  That makes sense.  He was already invisible!

Early on I read that in his plays Shakespeare exhibited quite a bit of knowledge about the life of a soldier; but, according to Lee, that knowledge “is no greater and no less than that which he displayed of almost all other spheres of human activity, and to assume that he wrote all or any from practical experience is to underrate his intuitive power of realizing life under almost every aspect by force of his imagination.” [My emphases]

Sir Sidney Lee (1859-1926), who wrote some 800 articles for the Dictionary of National Biography — including bios of both “Shakespeare” and Edward de Vere!

Okay, I thought, I get it.  Well, yes and no … actually … no. 

If Shakespeare attended the Stratford grammar school, his father’s financial difficulties “caused his removal from school at an unusually early age.”  This was not too promising for a kid on his way to becoming the greatest writer of the English language.  “Probably in 1577, when he was thirteen, he was enlisted by his father in an effort to restore his decaying fortunes.”

And so he became … a butcher’s apprentice. 

“At the end of 1582 Shakespeare, when little more than eighteen and a half years old, took a step which was little calculated to lighten his father’s anxieties.  He married.”  His wife (Anne Hathaway), eight years his senior, was pregnant with their first child (Susanna), born in 1583.  Then came twins (Hamnet and Judith) in 1585.  And just one year after that, Lee reported, he walked out on the whole family:

“To London Shakespeare naturally drifted, doubtless trudging thither on foot during 1586 … “

High Street, Southwark, in Elizabethan times

He naturally drifted.  I pictured him floating out the front door, leaving them all behind, and trudging down the dirt road through the hills and valleys toward the big city, ninety-two miles away, a journey of several days.  My heart began to beat faster, because … just over the horizon … very soon … there was going to be a very big turn in the plot … Shakespeare was going to write so much great poetry and drama it’s a wonder he’d be able to buy all that ink and parchment … and this is Sidney Lee’s chance to tell how the great author did it.

Shakespeare was “a homeless youth” in London at this point, Lee wrote, and his first job at a playhouse must have been a “mean” or lowly one.  But – “His intellectual capacity and the amiability with which he turned to account his versatile powers were probably soon recognized, and thenceforth his promotion was assured.”

Interior of the Swan Playhouse, sketched by Dutch traveler Johannes de Witt in 1596

He became an actor.   He’d remain a busy member of that profession during most of his life.  He would be acting in the afternoons and otherwise rehearsing new parts and memorizing new lines.  He’d be traveling all over England with the play company.  He’d barely have time for costume fittings, not to mention eating and sleeping.

Lee reported that in 1591, at twenty-seven, just nine years after becoming a butcher’s apprentice … and just five years after “naturally drifting” to London … Shakespeare wrote the early version of his sophisticated Court comedy Love’s Labours Lost.

And Lee skipped right over the subject of Shakespeare’s creative process!

Shakespeare had time to revise the play before it was performed for Her Highness in 1597 and published the next year…

Love’s Labour’s Lost was chock full of “keen observation of contemporary life in many ranks of society, both in town and country, while the speeches of the hero Biron clothed much sound philosophy in masterly rhetoric.”  In this play the busy young actor was “openly travestying known traits and incidents of current social and political life.”  He drew the names of the chief characters “from the leaders in the civil war in France…”

(The setting was Navarre, a former kingdom situated between present-day France and Spain!  He was inspired by the sixteenth-century literary vogue in France for restricted societies devoted to self-improvement through study!  He probably set this play in a French-speaking country after reading the 1586 translation of Pierre de la Primaudaye’s L’Academie Francaise, published in 1577…!)

Okay, okay!  Stop!  But how did he do it?  What was his working method?  When did he have time to go to the bathroom?    

The famous six signatures … No Comment!

Sidney Lee ignored my pleas and kept piling it on.  Shakespeare during 1590-1592 was also writing all three parts of Henry VI, which begins during 1422 to 1445 and the final battles of the Hundred Years’ War with France … then into the dangerous waters of domestic politics by charting the rise of the Yorkist challenge to the Lancastrian monarchy … then into the Wars of the Roses to address the instability that flows from challenges to the legitimacy of the crown … thereby ringing a warning bell to an England ruled by the aging Queen Elizabeth …!

(And I was worried about writing a strictly fictional one-act play set inside the White House???)

During 1590-1595 he also wrote Richard III, The Comedy of Errors, Titus Andronicus, The Taming of the Shrew, The Two Gentlemen of Verona and Romeo and Juliet, not to mention the highly sophisticated and cultured narrative poems, Venus and Adonis of 1593 and Lucrece of 1594, both instant bestsellers!

Al Pacino as Shylock in “The Merchant of Venice” (2004)

Sidney Lee in this 1898 biography told of “the nineteen plays which may be set to Shakespeare’s credit between 1591 and 1599, combined with such revising work as fell to his lot during those eight years,” adding, “But it was as an actor that at any early date he acquired a genuinely substantial and secure income.”

I knew by now that it was a sacrilege to question the plausibility of all this.  In fact, I didn’t question it at all.  I was too busy being overwhelmed.

(Love’s Labour’s Lost contains the following speech with a very big word:  “I marvel thy master hath not eaten thee for a word; for thou art not so long by the head as honorificabilitudinitatibus: thou art easier swallowed than a flap-dragon.”)

The other plays in those nine years included Richard II, A Midsummer Night’s Dream, King John, The Merchant of Venice, parts one and two of Henry IV, Much Ado About Nothing, Henry V, Julius Caesar, As You Like It and probably Twelfth Night, with Hamlet, Prince of Denmark already baking in the oven!  Among the settings in Italy were Belmont, Venice, Padua, Mantua, Verona, Milan and Messina (Sicily), and let’s not forget France and the French king’s palace!  And so on!

But I was even less clear about how he did this work than I’d been before opening the book.  So I put it down — intermission! — to catch my breath…

(To be continued)

Published in: Uncategorized on August 4, 2012 at 3:04 pm  Comments (2)  
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  1. Hank,

    Lee continued to revise the book through 1925.Despite his regular incredibly habit of regularly writing “doubtless” whenhe had no evidence and there is every reason to doubt,he takes on hundreds of problems which Chambers and the next generation which followed him refused to admit existed.
    Among other things he stood up against Chambers and endorsed Col.Ward’s identification of Anthony Munday cousin William Hall as Thorpe’s
    W.H.and was the first to correctly identify MND as written for the Stanley-DeVere wedding

    • Thanks, Roger. That’s interesting information. I’d guess that Lee had to face these things because he knew more about them, writing the bios for the DNB, including the one of Oxford that got Looney started. So, yes, let’s give Sir Sidney some credit, here. I appreciate your wealth of facts, and all best to you.


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