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What Manner of Man was Shakespeare?

The first in a four-part lecture series; 'What Was Shakespeare Really Like'


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Transcript

Russell Jackson, Professor Emeritus of Drama, University of Birmingham:

The first of Stanley’s lectures addresses that intriguing question: what manner of man was he?

In the course of his career, Prof Sir Stanley Wells has achieved what the current culture of higher education likes to term impact, on three levels, local, national and international.  Through his work with the Shakespeare Birthplace Trust, the Royal Shakespeare Company, and the University of Birmingham Shakespeare Institute, he has supported these Stratford based institutions in their respective and complementary missions to enrich the lives of scholars, theatre goers, and the wider public across the globe. 

In introducing the first of these lectures I want you to think local, and imagine that you are in the Shakespeare Birthplace Trust’s Queen Elizabeth Hall in Henley Street, next to the Birthplace itself – the spacious modern lecture hall now enlarged immeasurably by the technology which is helping us, to put it mildly, through these troubled times.

I will say a few words about Sir Stanley’s work in one of these institutions, the Shakespeare Institute.  At the risk of seeming to divert attention towards myself, I will mention two of the personal debts I owe him.  The first is his recommendation in 1970 that I should be taken on as student at the Institute, where he was an exemplary supervisor for my research on the stage history of Shakespeare’s plays.  And the second is the very good turn he did me by leaving the Institute in 1978, creating the opening for a new appointment which I was fortunate enough to gain.  Of course, in the event it was only a temporary departure, and he returned as director of the Institute in 1988, having overseen the Oxford edition of the complete works in the interim.  Again, on a personal level, this gave me the opportunity to work under his guidance, this time as a colleague.

He did much to enhance the collegiate spirit of the Institute, the spirit that extended across the world through its alumni and through the biennial International Shakespeare Conference.   In the Institute, and as the director of the RSC’s annual summer schools he continued the tradition established in the late 1940s by the Institute’s founder Allerdyce Nicoll, and Sir Barry Jackson, then artistic director of the theatre, bringing together, to coin a well-worn phrase, stage and page.  These achievements, which one might call institutional, were a vital element of Sir Stanley’s contribution to that worldwide collaborative activity, working with Shakespeare.  Shakespeare here being a phenomenon encompassing everything associated with the local hero, not just the plays and poems.  Through his critical and scholarly works, literally voluminous, he has illuminated important aspects of that general conversation around them that is a sustaining and enlightening factor in our artistic and intellectual lives.

And now over to the man himself, to tell us what the man Shakespeare was really like.


Professor Sir Stanley Wells:

In these talks, ladies and gentlemen, I want to think about four specific aspects of Shakespeare’s life and work. Today I shall speak about the general problem of discerning the personality of a writer who spent a lifetime of creative activity in depicting people other than himself. In my second talk I shall address the question of how Shakespeare set about the task of writing a play. Thirdly, I shall ask what we can deduce about his personality from the body of work in which he seems to write most directly about himself, his sonnets. And finally I shall ask what made him laugh.

First, then, how can we hope to know what he was like? It’s a question that characters in the plays ask about other characters. When a nobleman intrudes upon the revels in the Boar’s Head Tavern (1 Henry IV, 2. 5.295), Sir John Falstaff asks ‘What manner of man is he?’ In the same scene [lines 422-3] Prince Hal asks Falstaff, who is standing in for King Henry, ‘What manner of man, an it like your majesty?’.

A narrative account of the bare facts of a person’s journey through life, their parentage and education, their career, the ‘actions that a man might play’ do not, as Hamlet knows, pluck out the heart of his mystery. A curriculum vitae or a Who’s Who entry may supply such an account. What people show to the world around them may reveal little or nothing of their inner being, just as the visible signs of Hamlet’s mourning for Claudius are ‘but the trappings and the suits of woe.’ 

Biographical studies of Shakespeare vary in the degree to which they attempt to dig below the surface to interpret the facts of his life in search of the inner man. Some accounts are pretty well wholly objective. I think for example of E. K. Chambers’s William Shakespeare: A Study of Facts and Problems, and of S. Schoenbaum’s Shakespeare: A Documentary Life, and its lesser-known sequel, Records and Images, which offer raw materials for the biography that Schoenbaum hoped to write but did not live long enough to do.  At the other extreme is Katherine Duncan-Jones’s Shakespeare: An Ungentle Life. It’s a combative title. She is picking up on the fact that several of Shakespeare’s contemporaries, including Ben Jonson, referred to him as ‘gentle’ (which of course could refer to social status no less than to character). In her view, the adjective as applied to his character is undeserved. Making interpretative use of absence of evidence she remarks in the blurb of her book that ‘unlike other local worthies, or his actor-contemporary Edward Alleyn’, Shakespeare ‘shows no inclination to divert any of his wealth towards charitable, neighbourly or altruistic ends’. This is not really fair, since he left £10 – half the schoolmaster’s annual salary - to the poor of Stratford, and there are also bequests to neighbours and to other persons outside the immediate family circle. 

There have also been attempts – less fashionable now than previously - to apply the techniques of psychoanalysis to Shakespeare through interpretation of both the life-records and the works. An example is the volume entitled Shakespeare’s Personality (1989), edited by Norman N. Holland and other scholars, which offers a series of essays, many of them based on Freudian psychology, relating Shakespeare’s life to his works. Its index includes entries for such subjects as Shakespeare’s ‘abhorrence of vagina’, his ‘compliant tendencies’, his ‘erotic versus aggressive drives’, his ‘phallic fantasy’, his ‘sexual fantasies’, and his ‘vindictive impulses’. 

For all its intellectual sophistication, such work has to negotiate two difficult obstacles. One is our imperfect knowledge of the facts of Shakespeare’s life. For instance, several of the contributors to Holland’s volume make much of what the editor refers to in his introduction as Shakespeare’s ‘father’s loss of patriarchal authority as a result of his financial decline’ (Holland, p. 7). But that supposed financial decline is imperfectly documented and has indeed been disputed in a study by David Fallow. John Shakespeare was buried in September 1601; William, who already owned New Place, was his eldest son and clearly inherited John’s house here in Henley Street; only nine months later William made the most expensive purchase of his life, paying £320 for a large area of land in Old Stratford. I should be surprised if all this money came from his theatrical earnings. If his father’s supposed financial decline didn’t occur, theories of its supposed psychological effect on Shakespeare are invalidated.

The second major obstacle to reading Shakespeare’s life through his plays is the fact that the plays are not purely the product of his own imagination but draw heavily both for their plots and their language on historical events and on writings by other people, and so cannot be properly thought of as purely the projections of his subconscious mind or as reflections of his personal experience. To give an example close to home – in more than one sense – there is a speech in Henry IV Part Two (act one, scene three) written about the time that Shakespeare was buying and, there is reason to believe, renovating New Place in which it is tempting to suppose that he was drawing on recent personal experience:

When we mean to build
We first survey the plot, then draw the model;
And when we see the figure of the house,
Then must we rate the cost of the erection,
Which if we find outweighs ability,
What do we then but draw anew the model
In fewer offices, or, at least, desist
To build at all?

The temptation may dwindle, however, when we find that the lines paraphrase quite closely the Parable of the Wise and Foolish Builders in St. Luke’s Gospel.

Are there – in spite of the many notorious gaps in our knowledge about Shakespeare’s life, the paucity of personal documentation, the absence of self-revelatory letters such as we have for Keats, of diaries such as those of Simon Forman and Samuel Pepys or, closer to our time, Virginia Woolf, intimate memoirs such as Elizabeth Gaskell’s Life of Charlotte Bronte and documentary films such as we have for some more recent writers – are there, in spite of such absences, ways in which we can attempt to pluck out the heart of Shakespeare’s mystery?

To start with, these absences are not total. We have expressions of opinion about him from contemporaries. These start in 1592, when he was 28, with the description of him in Greene’s Groatsworth of Wit as an ‘upstart crow’. This is an obviously malicious and envious gibe, and it was countered by the prolific but congenitally impecunious writer Henry Chettle in his Kind Heart’s Dream: ‘I am as sory,’ wrote Chettle, ‘as if the originall fault had beene my fault because myselfe have seene his [i.e. Shakespeare's] demeanour no lesse civill than he [is] exelent in the qualitie he professes, besides divers of worship have reported his uprightnes of dealing, which argues his honesty, and his facetious grace in writing that approves his art.’ (This is the first time the word ‘facetious’, from the Latin meaning ‘witty’, appears in English; here the phrase ‘facetious grace’ seems to mean something like ‘amusing skill’.) It would be good to know who the ‘divers of worship’ were. Might they include the Earl of Southampton, to whom Shakespeare was to dedicate Venus and Adonis and The Rape of Lucrece in the two following years? Anyhow this is a powerful character reference; and to the best of my belief, the ‘upstart crow’ jibe is the only denigratory surviving reference to Shakespeare’s character made by any of his contemporaries throughout his career.

People liked him. The minor poet John Weever addressed him as ‘Honey-tongued Shakespeare’ in a poem published in 1599. And he is mentioned favourably in several commendatory poems and in the three Parnassus plays performed at St John ’s College, Cambridge around the turn of the century  – ‘O sweet Master Shakespeare, I’ll have his picture in my study at the court’’, says Gullio. Heminges and Condell, in their dedication to the Folio, also write of his personality. He was their ‘worthy friend and fellow whose reputation they wish to keep alive.’ And in their preface addressed to ‘the great variety of readers’, they write of him as a ‘gentle expresser of nature’.  Of course they are not writing on oath, but the amount of effort that Heminges and Condell, actors by profession and amateurs in the art of editing, put into compiling the volume is itself a testimony to their affection for the man who left money for them – along with Richard Burbage, who had died before the Folio went to press - to buy mourning rings.

There are predictably laudatory posthumous comments and tributes in the First Folio including Ben Jonson’s great elegy headed ‘To the memory of my beloved the author Mr William Shakespeare and what he hath left us. This is more concerned with Shakespeare’s artistry and his fame than with his personality, but the famously outspoken Jonson does refer to Shakespeare as his ‘beloved’, says that the ‘race / Of Shakespeare’s mind and manners brightly shines / In his well-turnèd and true-filèd lines’, and calls him ‘Sweet’ - that word again – ‘swan of Avon.’

Ben Jonson also gives us the most intimate surviving testaments to Shakespeare’s character in his notebooks published posthumously as Timber: or Discourses upon men and matter as they have flowed out of his daily readings or had their reflux from his peculiar notion of the times.’  These give us what must surely be the most honest and fullest assessment of Shakespeare’s character deriving from a contemporary. Jonson says:

I loved the man, and do honour his memory on this side idolatry as much as any. He was indeed honest, and of an open and free nature; had an excellent fancy, brave notions, and gentle expressions, wherein he flowed with that facility that sometime it was necessary he should be stopped. His wit was in his own power: would the rule of it had been so too. But he redeemed his vices with his virtues. There was ever more in him to be praised than to be pardoned. (‘Vices’ here surely refers to stylistic faults rather than to moral qualities.

In spite of the cautious qualification in ‘this side idolatry’, the view that Shakespeare was ‘honest, and of an open and free nature’ represents a noble and generous character reference from a writer who had once been a rival.  

To the somewhat generalized tributes to Shakespeare’s character – his ‘uprightness of dealing’ - we can his capacity to keep out of trouble with the law. Most of his fellow playwrights, unlike him, spent time in prison for a variety of offences – Marlowe for, among other crimes, suspected murder; Jonson for killing a man in a duel; Dekker on numerous occasions for debt. Shakespeare seems to have had two brushes with the law. In 1596 in which one William Waite served on him and on several other theatre people a writ requiring them to keep the peace ‘for fear of death and mutilation of limbs’; according to Schoenbaum this is ‘a conventional legal phrase in such documents.’ In other words, Shakespeare was part of an overly boisterous night-out with the theatrical friends. We should like to know more about it. The second (which includes a third) brush with the law names him as having defaulted on tax payments in both September 1597 and October 1598. There are no records of prosecutions. Shakespeare on those two occasions was probably simply living away from Bishopsgate – in Stratford-upon-Avon, moving into New Place, and overseeing its renovations. Shakespeare’s only known brush with the law of a kind at all similar These instances apart, Shakespeare appears to have been exceptionally law-abiding.

What about Shakespeare’s outward appearance? We have evidence of varying degrees of reliability about what Shakespeare looked like. Most reliable, I suppose, are the Droeshout engraving in the First Folio, certified as a true likeness by Ben Jonson in verses printed below it, and the bust in Holy Trinity Church, presumably approved by members of his family. There are also the Chandos and Cobbe portraits, both with claims of good provenance. The (late) report by John Aubrey mentions that he was ‘a handsome, well-shaped man’. Some contemporary writers had distinctive features. Thomas Nashe described Robert Greene’s hair as ‘A jolly long red peak – like the spire of a steeple ‘ which ‘he cherished continually without cutting, whereat a man might hang a jewel, is was so sharp and pendant.’ Nashe himself was famous for his unruly shock of hair and his beardlessness – unusual at the time. And Ben Jonson was exceptionally large – he is said to have weighed over twenty stone at one stage of his life. Everything suggests, on the other hand, that there was nothing especially striking about Shakespeare’s appearance. His appearance was conventional, middle class - we might even say, respectable. He went to the barber’s regularly, both in Stratford and in London, to have his hair cut and his beard neatly trimmed.

Various other potentially revealing areas of investigation exist. It is possible, for example, to assess his attitudes to work. We may deduce something about his ambition, his conscientiousness, his industry, by looking at the tasks he undertook. Early in his career he wrote the two long narrative poems Venus and Adonis and The Rape of Lucrece, published in 1593 and 1594 respectively. Maybe this is because he saw the need for an alternative career while the theatres were closed because of plague. In his early years, at least, he worked as an actor –  the 1616 Folio of his rival Ben Jonson’s plays names him in the actor list of Every Man in his Humour, played at the Curtain in 1598, and as one of the ‘principal tragedians’ in Jonson’s Sejanus in 1603, and he heads the list of actors in the 1623 First Folio of his own plays, but ‘Less for making’ is scribbled beside his name in a copy in the Glasgow University Library, which may suggest that as time passed his colleagues gave him time off from his acting duties so that he could write. He worked too as a theatre administrator, helping for two decades to manage a single theatre company, which suggests a high degree of business acumen, of stability of character, and of conscientiousness. Above all he worked as a playwright, producing an average of around two plays a year over two decades or more, but ceasing it would seem around 1613, three years before he died. And, as I shall discuss later, much serious reading lies behind his writings.  He was a hard-working man for most of his life.

We may learn more about him too by thinking about how he got on with his colleagues, observing for instance that they stuck together over long periods of time and that he both received and made bequests to some of them. He was a true company man, writing with individual actors in mind for specific roles. He knew his colleagues’ strengths and their limitations.  As his leading actor and co-founder of the Lord Chamberlain’s Men, Richard Burbage, grew older Shakespeare provided for him star roles that did not require him to appear youthful. It would be interesting to know how long Burbage went on playing Romeo and Hamlet; certainly the central characters in plays written later in the careers of the playwright and his leading actor are less youthful than in the earlier plays. And it is clear from the first printed text of Much Ado About Nothing that he had Will Kemp and Abraham Cowley in mind for the roles of Dogberry and Verges.

We can learn about Shakespeare too by thinking about his financial affairs, his purchases and his investments – how extensive they were, where they were, and when and to what end he made them. It is surely significant that he appears to have lived relatively modestly in more than one neighbourhood in London and to have poured most of his financial resources into property and land in his home town. From the age of 33 – only three years after the founding of the Lord Chamberlain’s Men – he owned New Place, the largest house in the borough of Stratford-upon-Avon.  Five years after this, in 1602, he paid £320 for the Welcombe estate, a property of some 107 acres – almost as big at the whole of the Borough of Stratford-upon-Avon (109 acres).  And only three years later, in 1605, he paid £440 for a share in the Stratford tithes. His last known investment, and his only known purchase of property in London, came in March 1613 when he along with three associates agreed to pay £140 for the lease of the Blackfriars Gatehouse, which was close to the Blackfriars playhouse.  Such information may help us to assess where his priorities lay, how much he cared about his family and about his social status. We can think, too, about his family concerns. We can examine his will, thinking about what it reveals about his standing in the local community at the time of his death, what it suggests about his attitudes to his surviving relatives and friends, to his fellow Stratfordians and to his colleagues. In so doing, we should bear in mind that wills were as they always have been – starkly legal documents. The phrase ‘second-best bed’, so often interpreted as personally inflected, was matter-of-fact and ensured that his widow, Anne, had residential rights in New Place.

Even without the aid of psychoanalytical techniques we can assess much from Shakespeare’s writings about his mental qualities. We can say confidently that he was highly articulate, at least on the page; that he had a wide, flexible vocabulary which developed over the years. We can observe that the Latin that he learnt at school lies on the surface in his earlier writings but goes underground later. We can examine his vocabulary to see what it can tell us about his areas of knowledge such as the law, the court and the countryside, hunting, shooting and fishing, his familiarity with dialects and with languages other than English, and with various kinds of technical language. We can see how he deployed his vocabulary in his writings, his awareness of rhetorical devices and the development of his skill in using them, his innovative powers. We can observe, for example, that he uses highly specialized language of horse breeding in a speech by Biondello in The Taming of the Shrew, and that a speech in Much Ado About Nothing shows remarkable familiarity with women’s clothing – the Duchess of Milan’s wedding gown was made of ‘cloth o’ gold, and cuts, and laced with silver, set with pearls, down sleeves, side sleeves, and skirts, round underborne with a bluish tinsel’ – and we may wonder where he got all this from. He clearly had an exceptional sense of verbal rhythm, an ear for the musical qualities of language, and a capacity to tussle with complex ideas. And of course we know that he was capable of extreme sexual wordplay, used sometimes to scintillatingly comic ends but also in profound explorations of sexual torment and disgust in plays such as Timon of Athens and Troilus and Cressida, and in the Sonnets.

We have no record of his exercising his verbal skills in private life. Indeed the records of what he actually said are sparse. There is one juicy episode, reported in the diary of Henry Manningham, a lawyer at the Middle Temple, who saw Twelfth Night performed there on 2 February 1602. A few weeks later, on 13 March, Manningham wrote ‘Upon a time when Burbage played Richard III there was a citizen grew so far in liking with him that before she went from the play she appointed him to come to her that night by the name of Richard III. Shakespeare, overhearing their conclusion, went before, was entertained and at his game ere Burbage came. The message being brought that Richard III was at the door, Shakespeare caused return to be made that William the Conqueror was before Richard.’ It is a good story, worthy of theatrical circles, and it may be true. It is funny but of course it has serious implications in its presentation of a promiscuously adulterous Shakespeare. The only other contemporary record of what Shakespeare is reported of having said is when he said very little – in the witness box in the Bellott-Mountjoy case in the spring of 1612. The sparse records of conversations and correspondence with his Stratford friends about the controversial Welcombe enclosures tell us little, though Duncan-Jones may be right in discerning a significant, even hypocritical division between the man who can make King Lear pray for ‘poor homeless wretches’ and the landowner who, a few years after writing that, seems more concerned about his financial security than about the interests of the poor people of his native town. People don’t always practise what they preach, and Shakespeare was clearly interested in securing what was best for his own family.

We can deduce much from Shakespeare’s writings about his education, and we can relate this to what is known of the curriculum of the school that was available to him, sometimes, especially in his early plays, quoting directly from works of classical literature in the original language (for example, in Titus Andronicus). We know a lot about the amount of reading he had to do for some, at least, of his plays. We can assess his knowledge of the Bible, and we may try to deduce which parts of it he found most to his taste. We can even deduce what he was reading at certain times: the Book of Revelation, for example, while he was composing Antony and Cleopatra. We can argue about whether his writings betray his religious leanings – was he a Protestant, did he have Roman Catholic sympathies, how did he feel both personally and professionally about Puritanism? – if I had to express my own views I should say that he was a conforming Church of England Protestant, did not have Roman Catholic sympathies, and profoundly disliked the Puritans.

We can see that he went on reading assiduously and widely throughout his working life, and we may make deductions from this about his sociability – aided perhaps by Aubrey’s remark that he ‘was not a company keeper; lived in Shoreditch; wouldn’t be debauched, and, if invited to writ he was in pain.’ He needed time to himself. We can see that he had a taste for – or at least that he saw that he could make use in his own work of - certain sorts of literature – the poetry of his contemporaries and predecessors such as Geoffrey Chaucer, Christopher Marlowe, and Sir Philip Sidney, works of English and classical history, Italianate romance, popular English  fiction by writers including Greene and Lodge, philosophical writings including the essays of Montaigne, studies of contemporary issues such as A Declaration of Egregious Popish Impostures by Samuel Harsnett – who became Archbishop of York - and we can be certain from the date of publication of some of these books that he remained an assiduous reader for most, at least, of his life. We may note absences from the record, too, such as the small impact on his work of Spenser’s Faerie Queene.

Still developing studies in authorship and dramatic collaboration suggest that in his earlier years Shakespeare was enough of a team player to collaborate with George Peele (on Titus Andronicus), and possibly with Nashe and Marlowe. From the founding of the Lord Chamberlain’s Men in1594 onwards we can see him continuing to plough his own furrow as an essentially romantic dramatist in face of the growing popularity of city comedy, led by Ben Jonson, and of satirical tragedy in the works of writers such as John Marston and Thomas Middleton, even though in his later years he found enough sympathy with Middleton to collaborate with him and to draw on his individual talents for the more satirical scenes of Timon of Athens; and we can perhaps more readily understand how he found a congenial collaborator in the more romantically inclined John Fletcher, a younger man who may have seen Shakespeare as a mentor. At the same time we may wonder how he got on in his collaboration on Pericles with the villainous George Wilkins, brothel keeper and woman beater; indeed our knowledge that he worked with him may extend our sense of his powers of (moral) tolerance.

Through study of texts on which Shakespeare collaborated with other writers we can think about what collaboration involved. It doesn’t for example necessarily mean that he sat down in the same room as Marlowe or Middleton or Fletcher or Wilkins, and that they worked on both plot and dialogue in intimate communion. Ben Jonson boasts in the Prologue to Volpone that he wrote the play single-handed within the space of five weeks:

‘Tis known, five weeks fully penned it
From his own hand, without a coadjutor,
Novice, journeyman, or tutor.’

Here Jonson usefully identifies four different kinds of collaborator. ‘Coadjutor’ is an ecclesiastical term referring to a bishop’s assistant, so here I suppose we may take it to apply to a more or less equal collaborator; ‘novice’ seems to imply a beginner or apprentice playwright, ‘journeyman’ a hack writer, and ‘tutor’ an experienced writer working alongside and advising a novice. George Peele, with whom it is now believed Shakespeare worked on the early Titus Andronicus, was eight years older than Shakespeare. Was he, as it were, the tutor and Shakespeare the novice? If Shakespeare really did collaborate with his almost exact contemporary Christopher Marlowe, were they genuine coadjutors or was the more experienced Marlowe in charge? Or did they perhaps devise plots together and then write their allotted scenes independently? In Shakespeare’s later years, was he perhaps ‘tutor’ to his collaborator Thomas Middleton and John Fletcher, both of whom were about sixteen years younger than he?

Study of the structure of his plays can help us to identify qualities of mind that made him successful as a plotter, as someone who could construct a complex dramatic structure, who had a practical knowledge of the theatrical conditions of his time, of the limitations imposed by the fact that only male actors would appear in his plays, that he needed to lay out his plot so that an individual actor might be required to take more than one role. We can guess that such exigencies affected his plotting. Did Lady Montague, for instance, die before her time because there was no one left to play her in the final scene of Romeo and Juliet?  We can sometimes identify limitations in his dramatic technique, and developments in it as he gained in experience. Even early in his career there is a great leap forward between the relatively amateurish plotting of The Two Gentlemen of Verona and the masterly construction of The Comedy of Errors.

We can see him as an observer of the life around him, as someone who knew, whether from direct experience or through his reading, about domestic life, about the law, and music, and philosophy, about plants and gardens, and about hunting and wild life. We can think about his sense of individual character, both by observing how he makes characters in his plays speak and behave and also by observing what he makes them say about other characters in their plays, their moral attitudes, their foibles and sensitivities. We can look at his portrayal of human idiosyncrasy, observing his sympathetic amusement at the ramblings of the Nurse in Romeo and Juliet and of Justice Shallow, at the immature illusions of the lords in Love’s Labour’s Lost, the affected language of Osric in Hamlet, the social pretensions of the Old Shepherd and his son in The Winter’s Tale. We can try to assess his sensibility by examining how in his plays he imagines himself into his characters’ attitudes to the life around them. We can observe, for example, that he was capable of empathizing with the suffering of animals: ‘The poor beetle that we tread upon / In corporal sufferance finds a pang as great as when a giant dies’ says Isabella in Measure for Measure (3.1.). And in Pericles (Scene 15, or 4.1.), Marina evinces the same kind of sensibility:

Believe me, la, I never killed a mouse nor hurt a fly.
I trod upon a worm against my will,
But I wept for it.

We can wonder how common such empathy was at the time – I remember Terence Spencer saying that he had observed it only in Shakespeare and Montaigne.

We can think about the absences in the literary as well as the biographical record; about for instance the fact that in spite of his massive literary talent he wrote almost entirely for the theatre, that he appears not to have written masques for the court, or pageants for the City, or what we may call ‘public’ poems such as commendatory verses for other writers’ work, or comments on national events, or tributes on the death of members of the royal family such as Queen Elizabeth in 1603 or Prince Henry in 1612 – both of which elicited extensive comment from fellow writers. We can wonder about ‘The Phoenix and the Turtle’ – how did it come to be published, what are its apparently esoteric significances, what relationship, if any, did Shakespeare have to Sir John Salusbury – whose son, incidentally, addressed a sonnet to his ‘good friends’ Heminges and Condell on the publication of the 1623 Folio?

We can think about the implications for Shakespeare’s personality of his choice of subject matter for his plays, of the fact that almost all of them are set in the past and (except of course for the English history plays) in foreign lands. And in relation to this we can consider how his choice of subject matter compares with that of his contemporaries – of his fondness for Italian sources, of the comparative absence from his plays of clear topical reference, of his general avoidance of direct contemporary satire. He was a Romantic, and his work always had a touch of the old-fashioned about it, even whilst bristling with dazzling new words, freshly-minted from his hyper-articulating imagination.

We can observe his sympathetic portrayal of morally dubious characters such as Bardolph and Doll Tearsheet, Parolles, Toby Belch, and even Falstaff, and we can contrast this with his evident dislike of such cold fish as Prince John and Angelo, Don John, Octavius Caesar, or Giacomo. Some characters in his plays, such as Richard III and Iago, may seem unmitigatedly evil, but other villains, such as Macbeth and even Edmund in King Lear, are portrayed with a degree of sympathy and understanding, and he is unmoralistic about, for example, the passions of Antony and Cleopatra.

We can, I think, deduce something about Shakespeare’s personal opinions from the plays. He seems to me to have distrusted people, like Iago in Othello, and Goneril, Regan, and above all Edmund, in King Lear, who express a severely rationalistic view of life and of morality, and to have sympathized more easily with the sceptical irrationality of Gloucester and indeed of Hamlet: ‘There are more things in heaven and earth, Horatio …’ There is a speech by Lafeu in All’s Well that Ends Well, unnecessary to the action, in which  I think that for once we can hear Shakespeare speaking: ‘They say miracles are past, and we have our philosophical persons to make modern and familiar things [that are] supernatural and causeless. Hence is it that we make trifles of terrors, ensconcing ourselves into seeming knowledge when we should submit ourselves to an unknown fear.’ (2.3.1-6) He is suggesting that ‘clever’, excessively rational people, try to reduce to a commonplace level matters that are beyond human understanding, reducing the mysteries of the universe to a series of scientific formulae, making ‘trifles of terrors’ instead of opening their imaginations to the fullness of experience – or, as he puts it, submitting themselves ‘to an unknown fear’- that is, to the uncertainties of the unknown and unknowable. It is an exact description of the error that Lady Macbeth makes in thinking that she can ignore the promptings of imagination. Essentially, it seems to me, this identifies Shakespeare as someone who acknowledges the mystery of human life but is not bound by any dogma.

We can also, I suggest, discern something about the subconscious workings of Shakespeare’s mind in images not directly demanded by the narrative, in a manner that was adumbrated by Caroline Spurgeon in her book Shakespeare’s Imagery and What it Tells Us and, more subtly, by Edward Armstrong in his Shakespeare's Imagination: A Study of the Psychology of Association and Inspiration of 1943, where he discerns recurrent image-clusters that help to track the working of Shakespeare’s subconscious mind. 

And I notice a recurrent preoccupation with imagery of diminution, as in Edgar’s description of Dover Cliff:

The fishermen, that walk upon the beach,
Appear like mice; and yond tall anchoring bark,
Diminish'd to her cock; her cock, a buoy
Almost too small for sight. (The Tragedy of King Lear, 4.5.)

It comes again elsewhere, as in Innogen’s imagining of Posthumus’s departure:

I would have broke mine eye-strings; cracked them, but
To look upon him, till the diminution
Of space had pointed him sharp as my needle,
Nay, followed him, till he had melted from
The smallness of a gnat to air, and then
Have turned mine eye and wept . (Cymbeline, 1.3.

And maybe this preoccupation relates also to recurrent imagery of a coming together of opposites, as several times in The Winter’s Tale, as when Camillo says of Leontes and Polixenes:  

they have seemed to be together, though absent, shook hands, as over a vast, and embraced, as it were, from the ends of opposed winds. (1.1.)

And in the Young Shepherd’s:

I am not to say it is a sea, for it is now the
sky: betwixt the firmament and it you cannot thrust
a bodkin's point. (The Winter’s Tale, 3.3.)

And this observational quality is also present in Othello (2.1.):

For do but stand upon the foaming shore,
The chidden billow seems to pelt the clouds;
The wind-shaked surge, with high and monstrous mane,
Seems to cast water on the burning bear,
And quench the guards of the ever-fixed pole.

These are just a few instances of points in the plays where the poetic content seems to me to be determined as much by Shakespeare’s subconscious mind as by his literary intentions.

In brief, it seems to me that Shakespeare led a life of external respectability and that he achieved personal popularity and worldly success, but the amazing degree of imaginative fecundity and emotional ferment to which his works bear abundant witness surely reflects a life of inner turmoil. His life is a tale of two cities (or one town and one city). In Stratford he is the prosperous and outwardly respectable family man. But he leads a double life, disappearing at frequent intervals to the metropolis. There he is the successful poet, actor, and playwright, leading member of the most successful theatre company of the age, a frequenter of the royal court and also of the Inns of Court. I see him as a man whose inner tensions were contained with stern self-discipline in an external appearance of harmony, but who found release in the creative energy that informs his plays and especially, I believe, in his Sonnets. In some of them, I believe, he delved deeply into his innermost self, discovering for himself what manner of man he was by giving voice to his most intimate being.  I plan to talk about the Sonnets in the third of my lectures, but next week I shall remain with his professional life and discuss how he wrote his plays.


A talk by Stanley Wells, for reference purposes only; not to be copied or reproduced


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