Welcome to The Coffee Shop, just for you early risers on Monday mornings. This is an Open Thread forum, so if you have an off-topic opinion burning a hole in your brainpan, feel free to add a comment.
Pleasure and action make the hours seem short.
— William Shakespeare, Othello, Act II, scene 3
Timelines fascinate me, as much for what they leave out as for what they include. And any timelines for William Shakespeare have significant gaps. There are lots of theories about those gaps, but not a lot in the way of actual evidence.
Very little is known about Shakespeare’s “Lost Years” from 1585 to 1592. In considering Shakespeare’s sonnets, we have even less to go on than there is for his plays, which at least have “first known performance dates” so we can be certain they were written before those dates.
It’s generally believed that most, but not all, of Shakespeare’s sonnets were written before 1599. We can know for certain that all of them were written by 1609, the year they were published, and also the year Shakespeare turned 45. In those times, if you were lucky enough to live through all the diseases that killed so many infants and children, you might make it to your early sixties, but Shakespeare would only last another seven years. He was either already semi-retired to Stratford, or about to leave London. In 1610, he wrote this, for Prospero’s final speech in The Tempest:
Now my charms are all o’erthrown,
And what strength I have’s mine own,
Which is most faint.
Looking at several timelines, I came across this gem:
1590 — Shakespeare’s writing career begins (age 26)
Which falls between:
1585 — Twins Hamnet and Judith are born (likely named for Shakespeare’s friends Hamnet and Judith Sadler, possibly the children’s godparents) (age 21)
circa 1590-1596 — Writes King Richard III (age 26-32)
Could even Shakespeare have suddenly picked up a pen at age 26 and started work as a writer with Richard III?
“Shakespeare’s writing career begins” is almost comparable to “Athena sprang full-grown and in full armor from Zeus’ skull.”
Especially since the next entry is:
1591-1593 — Writes King Henry V (age 27-29)
1592 — The earliest known record of Shakespeare’s residency in London; in a critical piece included in a posthumous collection of the writings of Robert Greene, Groat’s-worth of Wit, there is an allusion to Shakespeare’s theatrical and literary career (age 28)
1593 — London’s theatres are closed down for a period of about 2 years, due to plague (age 29-31)
but which is somewhat contradicted by the next entry:
1594 — The Chamberlain’s Men (later the King’s Men), Shakespeare’s first known company, is formed to give performances at the Theatre in Shoreditch (built in 1576) (age 30)
I’m convinced that the bard of the sonnets must have tried his hand at love poems long before age 26. By age 18, he had at least a sexual relationship with Anne Hathaway which led to a hasty wedding and the birth of daughter Susanna six months later.
While a household with three young children might not be an ideal place to begin a writing career, that has certainly been overcome by a number of women authors. But was Shakespeare still in Stratford-Upon-Avon in 1590, or had he already left?
Sonnet 129 The expense of spirit is a waste of shame
The expense of spirit in a waste of shame
Is lust in action: and till action, lust
Is perjured, murderous, bloody, full of blame,
Savage, extreme, rude, cruel, not to trust;
Enjoyed no sooner but despised straight;
Past reason hunted; and no sooner had,
Past reason hated, as a swallowed bait,
On purpose laid to make the taker mad.
Mad in pursuit and in possession so;
Had, having, and in quest to have extreme;
A bliss in proof and proved, a very woe;
Before, a joy proposed; behind, a dream.
. . . All this the world well knows; yet none knows well
. . . To shun the heaven that leads men to this hell.
Of course, there’s no way to know, but I think Shakespeare left home some time before his “writing career begins” in 1590. He needed time to acquire experiences that would fuel his imagination. Was he a soldier, as he seems to have such understanding of a soldier’s thoughts before battle in Henry V ? Or perhaps he was a tutor in some minor noble’s household, which would account for his having some knowledge about genteel society, but not so much about its upper-most echelons?
Or am I right, and he made his way to London, and became Christopher Marlowe’s ghostly apprentice? Marlowe could certainly have introduced a newly arrived young man to London’s homosexual society, which might account for the “fair youth” sonnets.
Yet the very first sonnet presents a problem with that possibility. If Shakespeare were involved in a homosexual affair, would he be urging his lover to have sex with a woman in order to father a child to pass on his beauty? Especially when Shakespeare himself had left behind his wife and children?
Sonnet 1 From fairest creatures we desire increase
From fairest creatures we desire increase,
That thereby beauty’s rose might never die,
But as the riper should by time decease
His tender heir might bear his memory.
But thou, contracted to thine own bright eyes,
Feed’st thy light’s flame with self-substantial fuel,
Making a famine where abundance lies,
Thyself thy foe, to thy sweet self too cruel.
Thou that art now the world’s fresh ornament
And only herald to the gaudy spring,
Within thine own bud buriest thy content,
And, tender churl, mak’st waste in niggarding.
. . . Pity the world, or else this glutton be,
. . . To eat the world’s due, by the grave and thee.
Not to mention that the Buggery Laws passed under Henry VIII made such homosexual relations punishable by death if caught. As Shakespeare gained fame and some fortune, he would have more to lose, and be increasingly vulnerable to blackmail, so was the “fair youth” only worshiped from afar, akin to Dante’s Beatrice?
If the “dark lady” was real, she would certainly have been a safer lover, even if the Church said he would be risking his immortal soul by breaking his marriage vows. The Church had a such very long list of ways to lose one’s immortal soul, it was difficult to avoid all of them, especially in the rowdy theatrical milieu of London.
London’s theatres were often closed, attempting to prevent the spread of deadly diseases. Only a theatrical company with a wealthy patron, willing to pay their expenses so he could impress his friends with private performances, could avoid the hazards of traveling as a troupe from town to town. These lulls would offer a successful playwright time to write and polish at a more leisurely pace, or to lure his Muse with poetry.
Sonnet 154 The little love-god lying once asleep
The little love-god lying once asleep
Laid by his side his heart-inflaming brand,
Whilst many nymphs that vowed chaste life to keep
Came tripping by; but in her maiden hand
The fairest votary took up that fire,
Which many legions of true hearts had warmed;
And so the general of hot desire
Was, sleeping, by a virgin hand disarmed.
This brand she quenchèd in a cool well by,
Which from love’s fire took heat perpetual,
Growing a bath and healthful remedy
For men diseased; but I, my mistress’ thrall,
. . . Came there for cure, and this by that I prove,
. . . Love’s fire heats water, water cools not love.
In #154, Shakespeare’s last “dark lady” sonnet, Cupid is asleep, his “heart-flaming brand” lying beside him. A group of virgin nymphs pass by, and the fairest nymph picks up Cupid’s weapon, quenching it in a near-by well. The waters remain heated and become known for curing disease. The poet comes to be cured of his obsession with his mistress, but discovers that “Love’s fire heats water; water cools not love.”
Perchance, my lord, I show more craft than love;
And fell so roundly to a large confession
To angle for your thoughts; but you are wise —
Or else you love not; for to be wise and love
Exceeds man’s might; that dwells with gods above.
— Troilus and Cressida, Act III, scene 2
So the mystery of Shakespeare’s offstage life and loves remains. And who did
get his best bed?
- Possible portrait of Anne Hathaway Shakespeare
- View of London from Southwark in the 1600s
- Miniature of a young man, possibly Sir Philip Sydney
- Flora, goddess of spring, first century Italian fresco from Villa di Arianna