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Shakespeare and His Friends

ISSUE:  Autumn 1938

Shakespeare: Man and Artist. By Edgar I. Fripp. New York: Oxford University Press. Two volumes. $15.00. William Shakespeare. By Leslie Hotson. New York: Oxford University Press. $3.00.

In “Shakespeare: Man and Artist,” two big volumes running to nine hundred and nineteen pages, handsomely printed and richly illustrated, Edgar Innes Fripp, late fellow of Liverpool University, undertook “to see Shakespeare in his context—to study and interpret him in the light of his environment, geographical, domestic, social, religious, dramatic, literary.” “The book,” says its publisher, “is an interesting successor to Sir Edmund Chambers’s great study.” It is, but Sir Edmund need not be disturbed for his laurels. The book is full of interesting things, but the mind that is revealed is the mind of Edgar I. Fripp rather than that of William Shakespeare. “Shakespeare: Man and Artist” is the fruit of a life’s study; the “practically completed” work of Edgar I. Fripp, who died in 1931, edited by F. C. Wellstood. Mr. Fripp attempted to approach Shakespeare from the first half of the sixteenth century, not from the second half of the seventeenth. He believed that Shakespeare has been misrepresented by the approach to him through the tradition of Restoration gossip, a degenerate stage, and an exhausted Puritanism.

Mr. Fripp was convinced that as a young man Shakespeare was “articled for three years to an attorney” in or about the years 1579-87. “Much of our information,” he writes, “in Stratford as in London, comes by way of the law-court.” He is even able (on supposition) to supply us with the name of the attorney, Henry Rogers, who was town clerk and steward of Stratford. The case he makes for the assumption that as a young man the dramatist had practical experience in a law office is unquestionably a strong one.

His exposition of the distillation of Ovid’s “Metamorphoses” throughout the poet’s work, especially prevalent in the earlier years, is very convincing. The pervasive influence of the Bible upon his language and his figures is stressed effectively, though here and elsewhere the effectiveness of the work is often strained by insistence upon more than the evidence warrants. One of the most important elements of this discussion of Biblical influence is the demonstration that the words of the Geneva Version of 1587 or of the Bishops’ Bible often make clear what would be otherwise misunderstood.

As the law terms and the Ovidian and Biblical coloring are for Mr. Fripp tests of Shakespearean authorship, so for him the clue to the interpretation of the plays is Shakespeare’s moral philosophy and his Calvinism: “Into them Shakespeare brings the critique of his Stratford Protestantism.” His Calvinism is tempered by a love of the poetry and beauty in the forms and objects associated with the old ritual and by a tolerant love of humanity. How far “the doctrine of Grace” is pushed to show the working of “the critique of Stratford Protestantism” may be illustrated by the citation in this regard of the line from the song, “Who is Silvia?”, “The heaven such grace did lend her.” Some readers will still find more grace with less doctrine.

The plan of the biography is to trace—in short sections or chapters—the development of Shakespeare chronologically, year by year, in terms of his family, his time, and his habitat.

Each play and each poem is discussed in the order in which it comes under the year to which the author assigns it. The incidents of the plots are given in outline to an extent unnecessary to the reader familiar with the plays. The critical interpretation and comments on the dramas are the least satisfying portions of the work. There is a lack of that natural intuition which gives a good critic insight into subtleties of meaning that are convincing once they have been pointed out.

The most valuable material of the book comes out of the antiquarian lore of Mr. Fripp. It is packed with detailed information, much of it new, about the men and doings that formed the warp through which the shuttle of Shakespeare’s life moved. Mr. Fripp held the belief that certain of the dramas hold many topical allusions. An example of how far his method takes him is the case of one, Alexander As-pinwall, schoolmaster of Stratford after 1582. His life is set forth in astonishing detail. And we are expected to believe that he was the original of Holofernes in “Love’s Labour’s Lost” because Dumain said of him, when he made a delayed exit while acting the part of Judas, that he stayed “For the latter end of his name.” “Ass,” remarks our author, “was the former-end of the Stratford pedagogue’s name.” This evidence is strengthened and added to by the identification of Sir Nathaniel the curate with Aspinwall’s friend the curate, Sir William Gilbert. Sir Nathaniel is called “a very good bowler,” and we are told “There was a bowling-green in the Chapel garden.” Is it a Sherlock Holmes in the courtroom, or a Daniel come to judgment? These are matters interesting if presented as surmises, but not to be taken too solemnly. Mr. Fripp’s fault, after dullness, is to press too far a suggestive possibility until it becomes a tissue of improbabilities.

We extend the circle of our acquaintance among Shakespeare’s friends yet further in Leslie Hotson’s “I, William Shakespeare.” Mr. Hotson tells us much about one Thomas Russell, overseer of Shakespeare’s will, and his friends and foes, and would persuade us that he does “by indirections find directions out”; but no matter how much he may direct his indirections he is, to use a poor Shakespearean pun (and so draw Shakespeare into the matter somehow) more a good suitor than a good shooter. The book is delightful, even at times exciting, to read. But the too-ready assumption that what has been demonstrated as a possibility may be built upon as a proven truth shakes the reader’s confidence in his author and becomes for him a case of special pleading. Like Mr. Hotson’s other books, this is an astonishing example of minute and accurate scholarship. The countryside and its people come to life and one household is linked with another with amazing skill. The method of taking it for granted that, if each of these people was linked to the others by an acquaintance in common, therefore they were all friends of William Shakespeare, is so obviously unsound that there is danger of forgetting that it does not destroy the essential value of the mass of rich Elizabethan data that has been beautifully matched like the pieces of a picture puzzle.

For Americans there is a romantic interest in the frequent association with the annals of our colonial life and the names that are recalled from the past of the Warwickshire region by these recent studies. Mr. Fripp gives much personal history relating to the Priory, Warwick, demolished in 1925, and later brought to Virginia. Dr. Hotson has made two generations of the ancestors of Sir William Berkeley and of Edward Digges, and those two colonial governors of Virginia themselves, so vivid that one knows the men like neighbors.

These Shakespeare studies complement each other. The Fripp biography, though it is disfigured by great eccentricity, will be included in all Shakespearean libraries of any pretension to meeting a scholar’s needs.


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