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The Cambridge History of English and American Literature in 18 Volumes (1907–21).
Volume IV. Prose and Poetry: Sir Thomas North to Michael Drayton.

VIII. Shakespeare: Life and Plays

§ 3. His Marriage and relations with his Wife

The stories of his apprenticeship (to a butcher or otherwise) are, again, late, very uncertain and, in part—such as his making speeches to the calves he was to kill—infinitely childish, even when quite possibly true. The story of his marriage, though starting from some positive and contemporary facts, is a very spider’s web of unsubstantial evolution. On 28 November, 1582, two husbandmen of Stratford, named Sandells and Richardson, became sureties for £40 in the consistory court of Worcester to free the bishop from liability in case of lawful impediment, by pre-contract or consanguinity, to the marriage of “William Shagspeare and Anne Hathwey” which might proceed hereupon with only one publication of banns. On 26 May, 1583, Shakespeare’s eldest daughter, Susanna, was baptised at Stratford. Moreover (a much more surprising thing than this juxtaposition), on the very day before the signing of the bond, a regular licence was issued for the marriage of William Shakespeare and Anne Whateley—a coincidence extraordinary in any case, most extraordinary if we note the extreme closeness of the names Hathwey and Whateley and remember that Anne Hathaway is not otherwise traceable, though Agnes Hathaway (the two names are in practice confused) is. This mystery, however, has been less dwelt on than the irregular character of the “bond” marriage and its still more irregular chronological adjustment to the birth of Susanna. On this, on the apparent fact that the wife was eight years older than the husband, who was only eighteen, on his long absences from Stratford and on the solitary bequest (and that an afterthought) of his second-best bed to his wife, have been founded romances, moralisings, censures, defences, hypotheses of formal antenuptial contract, every possible symptomatic extravagance of the lues commentatoria, every conceivable excursion and alarum of the hunt after mares’ nests. The only rational course of conduct is to decline to solve a problem for which we have no sufficient data; and which, very likely, is no problem at all. Only, as Shakespeare’s works have been ransacked for references to disapproval of marriages in which the bride is older than the husband, and to anticipations of marriage privileges, let us once more appeal to the evidence of those works themselves. No writer of any time—and his own time was certainly not one of special respect for marriage—has represented it so constantly as not only “good” but “delightful,” to retort La Rochefoucauld’s injurious distinction. Except Goneril and Regan, who, designedly, are monsters, there is hardly a bad wife in Shakespeare—there are no unloving, few unloved, ones. It is not merely in his objects of courtship—Juliet, Viola, Rosalind, Portia, Miranda—that he is a woman-worshipper. Even Gertrude—a questionable widow—seems not to have been an unsatisfactory wife to Hamlet the elder as she certainly was not to his brother. One might hesitate a little as to Lady Macbeth as a hostess—certainly not as a wife. From the novice sketch of Adriana in the Errors to the unmatchable triumph of Imogen, from the buxom honesty of Mistress Ford to the wronged innocence and queenly grace of Hermione, Shakespeare has nothing but the beau rôle for wives. And if, in this invariable gynaecolatry, he was actuated by disappointment in his own wife or repentance for his own marriage, he must either have been the best good Christian, or the most pigeon-livered philosopher, or the most cryptic and incomprehensible ironist, that the world has ever seen. Indeed, he might be all these things, and feel nothing of the kind. For the next incident of the biographic legend—the deerstealing and consequent flight to London—there is, it has been said, no real evidence. It is not impossible, though the passage in The Merry Wives of Windsor which has been supposed to be a reference to the fact is at least equally likely to be the source of the fiction. That Shakespeare went to London somehow there can be no doubt; how, and when, and for what reason, he went, there can be no certainty. If the Greene reference be accepted, he must have been there long enough to have made a reputation for himself in 1592; by next year, 1593, the year of Venus and Adonis, he had begun his unquestionable literary career, and made the acquaintance of lord Southampton; and, by next year again (1594) (though at the end of it), we first find him a member of the famous company of which he became a leader, and which included Burbage, Heminge, Condell and other persons famous in connection with him.

How long the career—which emerges from obscurity, perhaps with the first, certainly with the second and third of these dates and facts—had been going on is, again, guesswork. Casting back, however, we get a reasonable terminus ante quem non, if not a certain terminus a quo, in the birth of twins (Hamnet, who died young and Judith, who lived) to him and his wife, before 2 February, 1585, when they were baptised. Four years later, again, than 1594, the Meres list of 1598 shows to Shakespeare’s name, besides Venus and Adonis and Lucrece (1594), the goodly list of plays which will be seen presently, and the as yet unprinted Sonnets, while Shakespeare had also become at least a competent actor—a business not to be learnt in a day—and had acquired money enough to buy, in 1597, the famous New Place, the largest house in his native town.

The literary progress of these nine or thirteen years, according as we take the first theatrical record or the Meres list for goal, can be assigned, in some cases, with certainty: of the life, hardly anything whatever is known. Legends about horse-holding at theatres, in the first place; of the organisation of a brigade of horse-boys, in the second; of promotion to callboy and to actor—are legends. William Shakespeare’s name seems to occur, in April, 1587, in a deed relating to some property in which his family were interested. Otherwise, all positive statements in biographies of credit will be found qualified with the “doubtless” or the “probably,” the “may have” and the “would have,” until we find him taking part in the Christmas entertainments presented to the queen at Greenwich on St. Stephen’s day and Innocents’ day, 1594. Then, and then only, does the mist disappear; though it hardly leaves him in a very lively “habit as he lived.” But we have mentions of houses in London and (before the New Place purchase) at Stratford; details of financial disaster to his father which seems to have been repaired, and of the subsequent application for arms, in his father’s name, which was at last granted in 1599; suits about the property in dispute ten years earlier—a good many business details, in short, but little more that is satisfying.

But the nature of commentators abhors a vacuum: and this vacuum has been filled up (excluding for the present the various arrangements of the Works) from two different sides. In the first place, we have a series of conjectures dealing with the progress of Shakespeare’s novitiate as actor and playwright, and his relations to his immediate predecessors in the latter capacity. In the second, we have the application of hypothetical hermeneutics to the Sonnets.

The first is guesswork pure and unadulterated; or, to speak with more correctness, adulteration without any purity, except in so far as concerns the Works themselves—which are reserved for the moment. From them, it derives whatever shadow of substance it possesses. We do not know that Shakespeare ever personally knew a single one of the “university wits.” The Greene reference, taken at its fullest possible, is, distinctly, against personal knowledge. The Chettle reference, from its obvious and definite disclaimer of personal knowledge, strengthens the counter-evidence. The (probably much later) passages in The Returne from Pernassus give no support to it. Parodies of phrasings universal in Elizabethan drama go for practically nothing. And the famous and beautiful appeal to the “Dead Shepherd” in As You Like It contains as little to indicate that, wherever Shakespeare was and whatever he did, from 1585 to 1593, his circle and that of the “wits” anywhere overlapped.