Vanity Fair, April 1916


Or the Pocket Biography of the Bard of Avon

By P. Brooke-Haven

THE celebration of the tercentenary of William Shakespeare (occurring by a curiously apt coincidence exactly three hundred years after his death) makes it almost imperative for Vanity Fair to publish a few brief facts about the fellow, just to show that we have our finger on the public pulse. William Shakespeare, or Shakspere, or Shikspur—he was still trying to decide how to spell his name when the angel of death appeared in the wings with the hook—was the George M. Cohan of his day. He not only wrote plays of a high order of merit, but also acted in them; and there is no evidence to prove that he did not wave the English flag at selected points in the drama and make curtain-speeches about his father. Indeed, if only William had been a better soft-shoe dancer, the resemblance might be said to be one of the most complete and striking in the annals of the stage.


BORN in the year 1564, it was not immediately that the Bard of Avon turned his attention to the stage. In his early youth he seems to have had the idea that there was a good living to be made out of stealing rabbits from the preserves of the local squires, and it was only when approaching years of discretion that he got onto the fact that the big money lay in stealing plots. In the year 1591, he began to write plays, and from then onward anybody who had a good plot put it in a steel-bound box and sat on the lid when he saw Shakespeare coming. In all England there was not his equal in this particular form of larceny. He was the forerunner of the dramatizer of novels.


THERE was, of course, some excuse for this trait of his. He was the official playwright to a company of actors, and they sweated the poor man to such an extent that there was really hardly time for him to think up his own plots. In those days a good run for a play was two nights, and anything over three was sensational. This made it pretty hard for Shakespeare. Indeed, it is a wonder that Shakspere did not get brain fever. A less tough man than Shikspur would have cracked under the strain. He would dash off “Macbeth” on Sunday night for production on Monday, and on Tuesday morning at six o’clock, as he lay in bed thinking, “Well, that’s that!” round would come Burbage in a frightful state of excitement. “Good Heavens, Bill, why aren’t you working? Don’t you know we’ve got to give ’em something tonight?” “What about ‘Macbeth’?” Shakespeare would ask sleepily. “ ‘Macbeth’ finished its long and successful run last night, and it’s up to you to push out another.” So Shakespeare would heave himself out of bed, dig down into the box where he kept other people’s plots, and by lunch-time he would hand Burbage the script of “Hamlet.” “How do you like it?” he would ask. “Rotten!” Burbage would reply. “But it’ll have to do.” A playwright can not give of his best under these conditions, which accounts for a peculiarity in Shakespeare’s work, which, we believe, has hitherto escaped the notice of critics; the fact that, while his stuff sounds all right, it generally doesn’t mean anything. It cannot be doubted that, when he was pushed for time, William Shakespeare just shoved down anything and trusted to the charity of the audience to pull him through.

As, for instance, in “Romeo and Juliet,” Act One, Scene One. “Who set this ancient quarrel new abroach?” Of course he knew perfectly well that “abroach” meant nothing, but it sounded darned good, and Burbage was popping in and out every two minutes, asking him when the deuce he was going to get the thing finished: so down it went.


THERE seems to be no doubt that Shakespeare had the usual struggles of the beginner who tries to break into the play-writing business. Tradition says that he started in a modest way by holding horses at the doors, and a moving historical picture might be painted of the future king of the English stage, trying to read Burbage the opening scene of a comedy while the latter flitted past on his way to the Mermaid Tavern (the Elizabethan Lambs Club), and at the same time endeavoring to elude the attentions of a peevish mustang who was trying to bite him in the back of the neck. Eventually, however, merit came to the top, and our hero found himself a member of a London company and was able to stand with his co-workers in the Strand, telling every one how he lifted them out of their seats when he played the Ghost at Ippleton-cum-East-Wobsley-in-the-Marsh.

Shakespeare’s first play, according to the authorities, was entitled “The Contention of York and Lancaster (2, 3 Henry VI).” One is forced to admit that as a title it could be improved, but the Encyclopaedia Britannica says that was it, so there can be no mistake. Of course, they had no electric light signs over the theaters in those days, so that it didn’t matter how long you made the name of your piece. But even so it would have had more of a punch without the numerals.


THINGS were not made easy for William at any point in his career. Just as he succeeded in getting a footing and was beginning to tot up how much his royalties would amount to if they played to fifteen ducats, four pieces of eight, and a rose noble on the week, along came the Plague; and from the beginning of February, 1593, to the end of December the theaters were closed. Bearing up as well as he could against this blow, he wrote “Titus Andronicus,” and got it produced in 1594. Back came the Plague and shut the theaters again. But you cannot keep a good man down, and by that time Shakespeare had started to steal his plots, so that he could now produce dramas almost without conscious effort. The result was that, when the theater opened again, he bobbed up like a tidal wave and had “The Taming of the Shrew,” “Love’s Labor Lost” and “Romeo and Juliet” put on before the year was over. After that, they saw that it was no good closing the theaters.

Of his first piece little is known, but the fact that it is said to have been written in collaboration with Marlowe, Greene and Peele, makes it seem probable that it was a musical comedy. No doubt Shakespeare wrote the original book, Marlowe added extra scenes, Greene contributed additional lines and Peele inserted supplementary material. It does not seem to have been a great success, thus emphasizing the hopelessness of trying to do a piece of this kind without Frank Tinney and the Castles.


A GOOD deal of mystery surrounds both the private life and the artistic career of William Shakespeare. Nobody seems to know what he did with his time, where he lived, whom he married, and what he looked like. He is generally supposed to have married Anne Hathaway, but there is an entry in an existing register relating to the marriage of “William Shakespeare” with “Annam Whateley de Temple Grafton.” One can only suppose that the clerk was a weaker speller than the bridegroom himself, and that this was his plucky, though scarcely successful, attempt at “Anne Hathaway.” At that it would not have been at all a bad shot for those Elizabethan times.

As regards his appearance, there are sixteen portraits of him in the book of reference to which we owe so grateful a debt in the compilation of these few kind words, and, except that they are all solid on the fact that he never shaved, each is absolutely different from the other. Either Shakespeare sat for his portrait on the correspondence method, describing by letter what he looked like and leaving the rest to the ingenuity of the artist, or else the standard of art was low in those days. Of course it must have been difficult to paint Shakespeare’s portrait. He was always either rushing onto the stage to play a part, or else seated at Burbage’s desk in the room marked “No Admittance,” hustling away at a new drama; and you had to get the best view of him that you could through the keyhole.


THIS is no time to touch on the Baconian controversy, beyond saying that many people, quite sane in other respects, believe that the plays were written by Lord Bacon and that all Shakespeare did was to practise spelling his signature on the covers of the typed script. As there is no record of Bacon making any protest during his lifetime, this seems incredible. Nobody who had contributed even a line to a play could refrain from going about the place during its run, telling people that he really did all the work.