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This work is based on the article on Shakespeare which I contributed last year to the fifty-first volume of the ‘Dictionary of National Biography. But the changes and additions which the article has undergone during my revision of it for separate publication are so numerous as to give the book a title to be regarded as an independent venture. In its general aims, however, the present life of Shakespeare endeavours loyally to adhere to the principles that are inherent in the scheme of the ‘Dictionary of National Biography. I have endeavoured to set before my readers a plain and practical narrative of the great dramatist’s personal history as concisely as the needs of clearness and completeness would permit. I have sought to provide students of Shakespeare with a full record of the duly attested facts and dates of their master’s career. I have avoided merely æsthetic criticism. My estimates of the value of Shakespeare’s plays and poems are intended solely to fulfil the obligation that lies on the biographer of indicating succinctly the character of the successive labours which were woven into the texture of his hero’s life. Æsthetic studies of Shakespeare abound, and to increase their number is a work of supererogation. But Shakespearean literature, as far as it is known to me, still lacks a book that shall supply within a brief compass an exhaustive and well-arranged statement of the facts of Shakespeare’s career, achievement, and reputation, that shall reduce conjecture to the smallest dimensions consistent with coherence, and shall give verifiable references to all the original sources of information. After studying Elizabethan literature, history, and bibliography for more than eighteen years, I believed that I might, without exposing myself to a charge of presumption, attempt something in the way of filling this gap, and that I might be able to supply, at least tentatively, a guide-book to Shakespeare’s life and work that should be, within its limits, complete and trustworthy. How far my belief was justified the readers of this volume will decide.
I cannot promise my readers any startling revelations. But my researches have enabled me to remove some ambiguities which puzzled my predecessors, and to throw light on one or two topics that have hitherto obscured the course of Shakespeare’s career. Particulars that have not been before incorporated in Shakespeare’s biography will be found in my treatment of the following subjects: the conditions under which ‘Love’s Labour’s Lost’ and the ‘Merchant of Venice’ were written; the references in Shakespeare’s plays to his native town and county; his father’s applications to the Heralds’ College for coat-armour; his relations with Ben Jonson and the boy actors in 1601; the favour extended to his work by James I and his Court; the circumstances which led to the publication of the First Folio, and the history of the dramatist’s portraits. I have somewhat expanded the notices of Shakespeare’s financial affairs which have already appeared in the article in the ‘Dictionary of National Biography,’ and a few new facts will be found in my revised estimate of the poet’s pecuniary position.
In my treatment of the sonnets I have pursued what I believe to be an original line of investigation. The strictly autobiographical interpretation that critics have of late placed on these poems compelled me, as Shakespeare’s biographer, to submit them to a very narrow scrutiny. My conclusion is adverse to the claim of the sonnets to rank as autobiographical documents, but I have felt bound, out of respect to writers from whose views I dissent, to give in detail the evidence on which I base my judgment. Matthew Arnold sagaciously laid down the maxim that ‘the criticism which alone can much help us for the future is a criticism which regards Europe as being, for intellectual and artistic purposes, one great confederation, p. viiibound to a joint action and working to a common result.’ It is criticism inspired by this liberalising principle that is especially applicable to the vast sonnet-literature which was produced by Shakespeare and his contemporaries. It is criticism of the type that Arnold recommended that can alone lead to any accurate and profitable conclusion respecting the intention of the vast sonnet-literature of the Elizabethan era. In accordance with Arnold’s suggestion, I have studied Shakespeare’s sonnets comparatively with those in vogue in England, France, and Italy at the time he wrote. I have endeavoured to learn the view that was taken of such literary endeavours by contemporary critics and readers throughout Europe. My researches have covered a very small portion of the wide field. But I have gone far enough, I think, to justify the conviction that Shakespeare’s collection of sonnets has no reasonable title to be regarded as a personal or autobiographical narrative.
In the Appendix (Sections III. and IV.) I have supplied a memoir of Shakespeare’s patron, the Earl of Southampton, and an account of the Earl’s relations with the contemporary world of letters. Apart from Southampton’s association with the sonnets, he promoted Shakespeare’s welfare at an early stage of the dramatist’s career, and I can quote the authority of Malone, who appended a sketch of Southampton’s history to his biography of Shakespeare (in the p. ix‘Variorum’ edition of 1821), for treating a knowledge of Southampton’s life as essential to a full knowledge of Shakespeare’s. I have also printed in the Appendix a detailed statement of the precise circumstances under which Shakespeare’s sonnets were published by Thomas Thorpe in 1609 (Section V.), and a review of the facts that seem to me to confute the popular theory that Shakespeare was a friend and protégé of William Herbert, third Earl of Pembroke, who has been put forward quite unwarrantably as the hero of the sonnets (Sections VI., VII., VIII.) I have also included in the Appendix (Sections IX. and X.) a survey of the voluminous sonnet-literature of the Elizabethan poets between 1591 and 1597, with which Shakespeare’s sonnetteering efforts were very closely allied, as well as a bibliographical note on a corresponding feature of French and Italian literature between 1550 and 1600.
Since the publication of the article on Shakespeare in the ‘Dictionary of National Biography,’ I have received from correspondents many criticisms and suggestions which have enabled me to correct some errors. But a few of my correspondents have exhibited so ingenuous a faith in those forged documents relating to Shakespeare and forged references to his works, which were promulgated chiefly by John Payne Collier more than half a century ago, that I have attached a list of the misleading records to my chapter on ‘The Sources of Biographical Information’ in the Appendix (Section I.) I believe the list to be fuller than any to be met with elsewhere.
The six illustrations which appear in this volume have been chosen on grounds of practical utility rather than of artistic merit. My reasons for selecting as the frontispiece the newly discovered ‘Droeshout’ painting of Shakespeare (now in the Shakespeare Memorial Gallery at Stratford-on-Avon) can be gathered from the history of the painting and of its discovery which I give on pages 288-90. I have to thank Mr. Edgar Flower and the other members of the Council of the Shakespeare Memorial at Stratford for permission to reproduce the picture. The portrait of Southampton in early life is now at Welbeck Abbey, and the Duke of Portland not only permitted the portrait to be engraved for this volume, but lent me the negative from which the plate has been prepared. The Committee of the Garrick Club gave permission to photograph the interesting bust of Shakespeare in their possession, but, owing to the fact that it is moulded in black terra-cotta no satisfactory negative could be obtained; the engraving I have used is from a photograph of a white plaster cast of the original bust, now in the Memorial Gallery at Stratford. The five autographs of Shakespeare’s signature—all that exist of unquestioned authenticity—appear in the three remaining plates. The three signatures on the will have been photographed from the original document at Somerset House, by permission of Sir Francis Jenne, President of the Probate Court; the autograph on the deed of purchase by Shakespeare in 1613 of the house in Blackfriars has been photographed from the original document in the Guildhall Library, by permission of the Library Committee of the City of London; and the autograph on the deed of mortgage relating to the same property, also dated in 1613, has been photographed from the original document in the British Museum, by permission of the Trustees. Shakespeare’s coat-of-arms and motto, which are stamped on the cover of this volume, are copied from the trickings in the margin of the draft-grants of arms now in the Heralds’ College.
The Baroness Burdett-Coutts has kindly given me ample opportunities of examining the two peculiarly interesting and valuable copies of the First Folio in her possession. Mr. Richard Savage, of Stratford-on-Avon, the Secretary of the Birthplace Trustees, and Mr. W. Salt Brassington, the Librarian of the Shakespeare Memorial at Stratford, have courteously replied p. xiito the many inquiries that I have addressed to them verbally or by letter. Mr. Lionel Cust, the Director of the National Portrait Gallery, has helped me to estimate the authenticity of Shakespeare’s portraits. I have also benefited, while the work has been passing through the press, by the valuable suggestions of my friends the Rev. H. C. Beeching and Mr. W. J. Craig, and I have to thank Mr. Thomas Seccombe for the zealous aid he has rendered me while correcting the final proofs.