This document was originally published in The Cambridge History of English and American Literature in 18 Volumes, Volume V. The Drama to 1642, Part One. New York: G.P. Putnam’s Sons; Cambridge, England: University Press, 1907–21.

So, also, the present writer can see no valid evidence of any personal connection with Spenser. “Our pleasant Willy” has, almost necessarily, been given up: the connection of “Aetion” with Shakespeare appears to be wholly gratuitous. “No doubt,” as is pointed out, Shakespeare’s company, if he belonged to any before 1594, probably, and, after that, certainly, “toured in the provinces”; but there is no evidence that he ever was, and no necessity that he ever should have been, in Germany or Scotland or Denmark; nor any reason of either kind why he should have surveyed the battlefields of Towton or of Shrewsbury or of Bosworth any more than those of Actium or Pharsalia. London and Stratford are the only places in which, from evidence, we can place him. Excepting his family, business folk in the two places mentioned, lord Southampton and Ben Jonson, there are hardly any persons with whom, on evidence, we can associate him.

This manner of handling the subject must, of course, be profoundly unsatisfactory to those who think that, in consequence of the long discussions of biographical facts and fictions by scholars, “final judgments” should be possible on such points as Shakespeare’s marriage, his religious views, his knowledge of law, his conduct in business relations and the like. It seems to be impossible to get a very large number of presumably educated and not unintelligent people to perceive the difference between proof and opinion. In all the instances just given, we have no basis for proof; and, as to all of them, opinion can never be final, because every person of fair intelligence and education has a right to his own. Of such argument as that Shakespeare’s father could not have been a butcher because he was a glover and guild rules forbade the combination, there can be no end. Those who love it may follow it in its endless course; it cannot be too peremptorily asserted that these who do not love it are entitled to reject it entirely and to say “fight Tradition: fight Presumption’ to this shadowy dog and that unsubstantial bear.

The solid fact, however, of Meres’s mention of the Sonnets, two of which (though the whole collection was not published till ten years later) appeared surreptitiously, it would seem, next year (1599), introduces another range of hypothetical exercise in biography, which has sometimes been followed in opposition to the former method, but has been more frequently combined with it so as to permit of even more luxuriant and wilder expatiation. This is the autobiographic reading of Shakespeare’s work; and, more particularly, of the Sonnets themselves. The extravagances of this “method” are a byword; yet it may be questioned whether almost everybody—sometimes in the very act of protesting against them—has not been caught in the mazy meshes. Are we to say to John Shakespeare “Thou art this man,” when we read about testy and platitudinous fathers like old Capulet and Egeus and Polonius? Should we substitute the “best silver bowl” argument for the “second-best bed” argument and, calling in The Tempest, see Judith Quiney, to whom that bowl was left, in Miranda? Criticism, it is to be feared, shakes its head and observes that the “colours” of different ages date from long before Aristotle; and that, doubtless, there were charming girls even before Nausicaa.



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