Form and Content
Drawing on contemporary documents, none later than 1635, as well as on numerous secondary sources, Marchette Chute traces William Shakespeare’s life chronologically, from his father’s coming to Stratford from Snitterfield sometime in the mid-1500’s to the publication of the First Folio in 1623, seven years after the play-wright’s death. The first of Shakespeare of London’s three appendices examines the sonnets, especially the first 126, which are addressed to a young man; Chute argues that the poet uses terms of friendship conventional for the time but denies that the identity of the youth can be determined. Appendix 2, “The Legends,” debunks late seventeenth and early eighteenth century stories that arose about Shakespeare and rejects romantic tales of his deer-poaching or holding horses in front of London’s theaters in the 1580’s. A third appendix considers the canon; Chute apparently denies that Pericles belongs among Shakespeare’s works. A ten-page bibliography concludes the volume.
Although Shakespeare’s life is better documented than those of almost all of his contemporaries, many gaps remain. For example, little is known of his first twenty-eight years: He was christened on April 26, 1564 (birthdate unknown); married Anne Hathaway on November 30 or December 1, 1582; became father to Susannah (1583) and the twins Hamnet and Judith (1585); and by 1592 was acting and probably writing in London. Chute devotes four chapters to this first half of Shakespeare’s life, fleshing out her account by discussing the life of John Shakespeare, the playwright’s father, the cities of Stratford and London, and the development of the theater. Her discussion emphasizes the coexistence of the medieval and Renaissance worlds. Shakespeare’s education differed little from Geoffrey Chaucer’s more than two hundred years earlier; Chaucer would have found Shakespeare’s London still a walled city with a centuries-old form of government.
London looms large in Chute’s account because it was there that Shakespeare learned his craft, found his medium and audiences, and developed his innate talents. As Chute writes, “The root of his genius was Shakespeare’s own but it was London that supplied him with the favoring weather.” As her book’s title suggests, Chute sees Shakespeare as a product of the capital, not of the little Warwickshire town where he was born.
Much of his nurturing came from the theater, which only in Shakespeare’s lifetime had replaced inn-yards as the site of dramatic performances. The growth and prosperity of acting companies, which increasingly enjoyed royal protection against London’s Puritanical city government, provided an element indispensable for Shakespeare’s achievement. Generally avoiding literary criticism, Chute discusses the plays in the context of their theatrical milieu—actors and spectators, costumes and controversies, competition and the classical tradition (which Chute maintains that Shakespeare knew but largely ignored). Particularly helpful is Chute’s tracing of the evolution of Romeo and Juliet (15961597) from its source in Arthur Brooke’s didactic poem about two young lovers to Shakespeare’s masterful tragedy. She clearly explains the various stages: licensing, copying, casting, costuming, rehearsing, advertising, staging, and publication. Throughout the process, as throughout the book, Chute places the reader inside the Elizabethan theater world.
To his contemporaries, Shakespeare was a businessperson who invested shrewdly in land in London and Stratford. Chute examines Shakespeare’s financial affairs, including his will, and she notes how medieval legal practices endured into the seventeenth century. She also shows how his contracts reveal prudence and a desire for status; he strove mightily and successfully to place himself among the gentry.