However, he had no obvious reason to complain of London. It had given him success, acclaim, and fortune. There are over two hundred references to him, almost all favorable, in the surviving literature of his time. In 1598 Francis Meres’s Palladis Tamia: Wits Treasury listed Sidney, Spenser, Daniel, Drayton, Warner, Shakespeare, Marlowe, and Chapman, in that order, as England’s leading authors, and ranked Shakespeare first among the dramatists.86 In that same year Richard Barnfield, a rival poet, declared that Shakespeare’s work (of which the best was yet to come) had already placed his name in “Fame’s immortal Book.”87 He was popular even with his competitors. Drayton and Jonson and Burbage were among his closest friends; and though Jonson criticized his inflated style, his careless facility in composition, and his outrageous neglect of classic rules, it was Jonson who, in the First Folio, rated Shakespeare above all other dramatists ancient or modern and judged him to be “not of an age, but for all time.” In the papers that Jonson left at his death he wrote, “I loved the man … this side idolatry.”88

Tradition joins Jonson with Shakespeare in the meetings of literary men at the Mermaid Tavern in Bread Street. Francis Beaumont, who knew them both, exclaimed:

What things have we seen

Done at the Mermaid!—heard words that have been

So nimble and so full of subtle flame

As if that everyone from whence they came

Had meant to put his whole wit in a jest,

And had resolved to live a fool the rest

Of his dull life.89

And Thomas Fuller’s Worthies of England (1662) reported:

Many were the wit combats betwixt Shakespeare and Ben Jonson, which two I behold like a Spanish great galleon and an English man-of-war. Master Jonson (like the former) was built far higher in learning, solid but slow in his performances. Shakespeare … lesser in bulk but lighter in sailing, could turn with all tides, tack about, and take advantage of all winds by the quickness of his wit and invention.90

Aubrey, about 1680, continued the easily credible tradition of Shakespeare’s “very ready and pleasant smooth wit,” and added that he “was a handsome, well-shaped man, very good company.”91 The only extant likenesses of him are the bust placed over his tomb in the Stratford church and the engraving prefixed to the First Folio; they agree well enough, showing a man half bald, with mustache and (in the bust) beard, sharp nose, and meditative eyes, but giving no sign of the flame that burns in the plays. Perhaps the plays mislead us about his character; they suggest a man of high-strung energy and passion fluctuating between the summits of thought and poetry and the depths of melancholy and despair; while his contemporaries describe him as civil and honest, slow to take offense, “of an open and free nature,”92 enjoying life, careless of posterity, and showing a vein of practicality unbecoming a poet. Whether by thrift or gift, he was already rich enough in 1598 to join in financing the Globe theater; and in 1608 he and six others built the Blackfriars. His shares in these enterprises, added to his earnings as actor and playwright, gave him a substantial income—diversely estimated between £20093 and £60094 a year. The latter figure seems better able to explain his purchases of Stratford realty.

“He was wont,” says Aubrey, “to go to his native country once a year.”95 Sometimes he stopped on the way at Oxford, where a John Davenant kept an inn; Sir William Davenant (poet laureate in 1637) liked to suggest that he was the unpremeditated result of Shakespeare’s dalliance there.96 In 1597 the dramatist, for sixty pounds, bought New Place, the second-largest house in Stratford, but he continued to live in London. His father died in 1601, leaving him two houses in Henley Street, Stratford. A year later, for £320, he bought near the town 127 acres of land, which he probably leased to tenant farmers. In 1605 he bought for £440 a share in the prospective ecclesiastical tithes of Stratford and three other communities. While he was writing his greatest plays in London he was known in Stratford chiefly as a successful businessman, frequently engaged in litigation about his properties and investments.

His son Hamnet had died in 1596. In 1607 his daughter Susanna married John Hall, a prominent Stratford physician, and a year later she made the poet a grandfather. He had now new ties to draw him homeward. About 1610 he retired from London and the stage and moved into New Place. Apparently it was there that he composed Cymbeline (1609?), The Winter’s Tale (1610?), and The Tempest (1611?). Two of these are of minor rank, but The Tempest shows Shakespeare still master of his powers. Here is Miranda, who at the outset reveals her nature when, seeing a shipwreck from the shore, she cries out, “Oh, I have suffered with those that I saw suffer!”97 Here is Caliban, Shakespeare’s answer to Rousseau. Here is Prospero, the kindly magician, surrendering the wand of his art and bidding his airy world a fond goodbye. There is an echo of the poet’s melancholy in the undiminished eloquence of Prospero’s lines:

Our revels now are ended. These our actors,

As I foretold you, were all spirits, and

Are melted into air, into thin air:

And, like the baseless fabric of this vision,

The cloud-capp’d towers, the gorgeous palaces,

The solemn temples, the great globe itself,

Yea, all which it inherit, shall dissolve,

And, like this insubstantial pageant faded,

Leave not a rack behind. We are such stuff

As dreams are made on; and our little life

Is rounded with a sleep.98

But this is not now the dominant mood; on the contrary, the play is Shakespeare relaxing, talking of brooks and flowers, singing songs like “Full fathom five” and “Where the bee sucks, there suck I.” And, despite all cautious demurrers, it is the aging poet who speaks through Prospero’s farewell:

… graves at my command

Have waked their sleepers, oped, and let ’em forth

By my so potent art. But this rough magic

I here abjure … I’ll break my staff,

Bury it certain fathoms in the earth,

And deeper than did ever plummet sound

I’ll drown my book.99

And perhaps it is Shakespeare again, rejoiced by his daughters and his grandchild, who cries out, through Miranda:

O wonder!

How many goodly natures are there here!

How beauteous mankind is! O brave new world

That hath such people in it!100

On February 10, 1616, Judith married Thomas Quiney. On March 25 Shakespeare made his will. He left his property to Susanna, £300 to Judith, small bequests to fellow actors, and his “second-best bed” to his estranged wife. Perhaps he had arranged with Susanna to take care of her mother. Anne Hathaway survived him by seven years. In April, according to John Ward, vicar (1662–81) of Stratford Church, “Shakespeare, Drayton, and Ben Jonson had a merry party, and it seems drank too hard, for Shakespeare died of a fever there contracted.”III101 Death came on April 23, 1616. The body was buried under the chancel of the Stratford church. Nearby on the floor, graved on a stone bearing no name, is an epitaph which local tradition ascribes to Shakespeare’s hand:





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