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Shakespeare — The Farewell to Stratford

by Sidney Lee


Anne Hathaway’s greater burden of years and the likelihood that the poet was forced into marrying her by her friends were not circumstances of happy augury.  Although it is dangerous to read into Shakespeare’s dramatic utterances allusions to his personal experience, the emphasis with which he insists that a woman should take in marriage ‘an elder than herself,’ and that prenuptial intimacy is productive of ‘barren hate, sour-eyed disdain, and discord,’ suggest a personal interpretation. To both these unpromising features was added, in the poet’s case, the absence of a means of livelihood, and his course of life in the years that immediately followed implies that he bore his domestic ties with impatience.  Early in 1585 twins were born to him, a son (Hamnet) and a daughter (Judith); both were baptised on February 2.  All the evidence points to the conclusion, which the fact that he had no more children confirms, that in the later months of the year (1585) he left Stratford, and that, although he was never wholly estranged from his family, he saw little of wife or children for eleven years.  Between the winter of 1585 and the autumn of 1596—an interval which synchronises with his first literary triumphs—there is only one shadowy mention of his name in Stratford records.  In April 1587 there died Edmund Lambert, who held Asbies under the mortgage of 1578, and a few months later Shakespeare’s name, as owner of a contingent interest, was joined to that of his father and mother in a formal assent given to an abortive proposal to confer on Edmund’s son and heir, John Lambert, an absolute title to the estate on condition of his cancelling the mortgage and paying £20.  But the deed does not indicate that Shakespeare personally assisted at the transaction.

Poaching at Charlecote.

Shakespeare’s early literary work proves that while in the country he eagerly studied birds, flowers, and trees, and gained a detailed knowledge of horses and dogs.  All his kinsfolk were farmers, and with them he doubtless as a youth practised many field sports.  Sympathetic references to hawking, hunting, coursing, and angling abound in his early plays and poems.  And his sporting experiences passed at times beyond orthodox limits.  A poaching adventure, according to a credible tradition, was the immediate cause of his long severance from his native place.  ‘He had,’ wrote Rowe in 1709, ‘by a misfortune common enough to young fellows, fallen into ill company, and, among them, some, that made a frequent practice of deer-stealing, engaged him with them more than once in robbing a park that belonged to Sir Thomas Lucy of Charlecote near Stratford.  For this he was prosecuted by that gentleman, as he thought, somewhat too severely; and, in order to revenge that ill-usage, he made a ballad upon him, and though this, probably the first essay of his poetry, be lost, yet it is said to have been so very bitter that it redoubled the prosecution against him to that degree that he was obliged to leave his business and family in Warwickshire and shelter himself in London.’  The independent testimony of Archdeacon Davies, who was vicar of Saperton, Gloucestershire, late in the seventeenth century, is to the effect that Shakespeare ‘was much given to all unluckiness in stealing venison and rabbits, particularly from Sir Thomas Lucy, who had him oft whipt, and sometimes imprisoned, and at last made him fly his native county to his great advancement.’  The law of Shakespeare’s day (5 Eliz. cap. 21) punished deer-stealers with three months’ imprisonment and the payment of thrice the amount of the damage done.

Unwarranted doubts of the tradition.

The tradition has been challenged on the ground that the Charlecote deer-park was of later date than the sixteenth century.  But Sir Thomas Lucy was an extensive game-preserver, and owned at Charlecote a warren in which a few harts or does doubtless found an occasional home.  Samuel Ireland was informed in 1794 that Shakespeare stole the deer, not from Charlecote, but from Fulbroke Park, a few miles off, and Ireland supplied in his ‘Views on the Warwickshire Avon,’ 1795, an engraving of an old farmhouse in the hamlet of Fulbroke, where he asserted that Shakespeare was temporarily imprisoned after his arrest.  An adjoining hovel was locally known for some years as Shakespeare’s ‘deer-barn,’ but no portion of Fulbroke Park, which included the site of these buildings (now removed), was Lucy’s property in Elizabeth’s reign, and the amended legend, which was solemnly confided to Sir Walter Scott in 1828 by the owner of Charlecote, seems pure invention.

Justice Shallow

The ballad which Shakespeare is reported to have fastened on the park gates of Charlecote does not, as Rowe acknowledged, survive.  No authenticity can be allowed the worthless lines beginning ‘A parliament member, a justice of peace,’ which were represented to be Shakespeare’s on the authority of an old man who lived near Stratford and died in 1703.  But such an incident as the tradition reveals has left a distinct impress on Shakespearean drama.  Justice Shallow is beyond doubt a reminiscence of the owner of Charlecote.  According to Archdeacon Davies of Saperton, Shakespeare’s ‘revenge was so great that’ he caricatured Lucy as ‘Justice Clodpate,’ who was (Davies adds) represented on the stage as ‘a great man,’ and as bearing, in allusion to Lucy’s name, ‘three louses rampant for his arms.’  Justice Shallow, Davies’s ‘Justice Clodpate,’ came to birth in the ‘Second Part of Henry IV’ (1598), and he is represented in the opening scene of the ‘Merry Wives of Windsor’ as having come from Gloucestershire to Windsor to make a Star-Chamber matter of a poaching raid on his estate.  The ‘three luces hauriant argent’ were the arms borne by the Charlecote Lucys, and the dramatist’s prolonged reference in this scene to the ‘dozen white luces’ on Justice Shallow’s ‘old coat’ fully establishes Shallow’s identity with Lucy.

The flight from Stratford.

The poaching episode is best assigned to 1585, but it may be questioned whether Shakespeare, on fleeing from Lucy’s persecution, at once sought an asylum in London.  William Beeston, a seventeenth-century actor, remembered hearing that he had been for a time a country schoolmaster ‘in his younger years,’ and it seems possible that on first leaving Stratford he found some such employment in a neighbouring village.  The suggestion that he joined, at the end of 1585, a band of youths of the district in serving in the Low Countries under the Earl of Leicester, whose castle of Kenilworth was within easy reach of Stratford, is based on an obvious confusion between him and others of his name. The knowledge of a soldier’s life which Shakespeare exhibited in his plays is no greater and no less than that which he displayed of almost all other spheres of human activity, and to assume that he wrote of all or of any from practical experience, unless the evidence be conclusive, is to underrate his intuitive power of realising life under almost every aspect by force of his imagination.