Subscribe for ad free access & additional features for teachers. Authors: 267, Books: 3,607, Poems & Short Stories: 4,435, Forum Members: 71,154, Forum Posts: 1,238,602, Quizzes: 344

Chapter 4


The historians "suppose" that Shakespeare attended the Free School
in Stratford from the time he was seven years old till he was
thirteen. There is no EVIDENCE in existence that he ever went to
school at all.

The historians "infer" that he got his Latin in that school--the
school which they "suppose" he attended.

They "suppose" his father's declining fortunes made it necessary
for him to leave the school they supposed he attended, and get to
work and help support his parents and their ten children. But
there is no evidence that he ever entered or retired from the
school they suppose he attended.

They "suppose" he assisted his father in the butchering business;
and that, being only a boy, he didn't have to do full-grown
butchering, but only slaughtered calves. Also, that whenever he
killed a calf he made a high-flown speech over it. This
supposition rests upon the testimony of a man who wasn't there at
the time; a man who got it from a man who could have been there,
but did not say whether he was or not; and neither of them thought
to mention it for decades, and decades, and decades, and two more
decades after Shakespeare's death (until old age and mental decay
had refreshed and vivified their memories). They hadn't two facts
in stock about the long-dead distinguished citizen, but only just
the one: he slaughtered calves and broke into oratory while he was
at it. Curious. They had only one fact, yet the distinguished
citizen had spent twenty-six years in that little town--just half
his lifetime. However, rightly viewed, it was the most important
fact, indeed almost the only important fact, of Shakespeare's life
in Stratford. Rightly viewed. For experience is an author's most
valuable asset; experience is the thing that puts the muscle and
the breath and the warm blood into the book he writes. Rightly
viewed, calf-butchering accounts for Titus Andronicus, the only
play--ain't it?--that the Stratford Shakespeare ever wrote; and yet
it is the only one everybody tries to chouse him out of, the
Baconians included.

The historians find themselves "justified in believing" that the
young Shakespeare poached upon Sir Thomas Lucy's deer preserves and
got haled before that magistrate for it. But there is no shred of
respectworthy evidence that anything of the kind happened.

The historians, having argued the thing that MIGHT have happened
into the thing that DID happen, found no trouble in turning Sir
Thomas Lucy into Mr. Justice Shallow. They have long ago convinced
the world--on surmise and without trustworthy evidence--that
Shallow IS Sir Thomas.

The next addition to the young Shakespeare's Stratford history
comes easy. The historian builds it out of the surmised deer-
stealing, and the surmised trial before the magistrate, and the
surmised vengeance-prompted satire upon the magistrate in the play:
result, the young Shakespeare was a wild, wild, wild, oh SUCH a
wild young scamp, and that gratuitous slander is established for
all time! It is the very way Professor Osborn and I built the
colossal skeleton brontosaur that stands fifty-seven feet long and
sixteen feet high in the Natural History Museum, the awe and
admiration of all the world, the stateliest skeleton that exists on
the planet. We had nine bones, and we built the rest of him out of
plaster of paris. We ran short of plaster of paris, or we'd have
built a brontosaur that could sit down beside the Stratford
Shakespeare and none but an expert could tell which was biggest or
contained the most plaster.

Shakespeare pronounced Venus and Adonis "the first heir of his
invention," apparently implying that it was his first effort at
literary composition. He should not have said it. It has been an
embarrassment to his historians these many, many years. They have
to make him write that graceful and polished and flawless and
beautiful poem before he escaped from Stratford and his family--
1586 or '87--age, twenty-two, or along there; because within the
next five years he wrote five great plays, and could not have found
time to write another line.

It is sorely embarrassing. If he began to slaughter calves, and
poach deer, and rollick around, and learn English, at the earliest
likely moment--say at thirteen, when he was supposably wrenched
from that school where he was supposably storing up Latin for
future literary use--he had his youthful hands full, and much more
than full. He must have had to put aside his Warwickshire dialect,
which wouldn't be understood in London, and study English very
hard. Very hard indeed; incredibly hard, almost, if the result of
that labor was to be the smooth and rounded and flexible and
letter-perfect English of the Venus and Adonis in the space of ten
years; and at the same time learn great and fine and unsurpassable
literary form.

However, it is "conjectured" that he accomplished all this and
more, much more: learned law and its intricacies; and the complex
procedure of the law courts; and all about soldiering, and
sailoring, and the manners and customs and ways of royal courts and
aristocratic society; and likewise accumulated in his one head
every kind of knowledge the learned then possessed, and every kind
of humble knowledge possessed by the lowly and the ignorant; and
added thereto a wider and more intimate knowledge of the world's
great literatures, ancient and modern, than was possessed by any
other man of his time--for he was going to make brilliant and easy
and admiration-compelling use of these splendid treasures the
moment he got to London. And according to the surmisers, that is
what he did. Yes, although there was no one in Stratford able to
teach him these things, and no library in the little village to dig
them out of. His father could not read, and even the surmisers
surmise that he did not keep a library.

It is surmised by the biographers that the young Shakespeare got
his vast knowledge of the law and his familiar and accurate
acquaintance with the manners and customs and shop-talk of lawyers
through being for a time the CLERK OF A STRATFORD COURT; just as a
bright lad like me, reared in a village on the banks of the
Mississippi, might become perfect in knowledge of the Behring
Strait whale-fishery and the shop-talk of the veteran exercisers of
that adventure-bristling trade through catching catfish with a
"trot-line" Sundays. But the surmise is damaged by the fact that
there is no evidence--and not even tradition--that the young
Shakespeare was ever clerk of a law court.

It is further surmised that the young Shakespeare accumulated his
law-treasures in the first years of his sojourn in London, through
"amusing himself" by learning book-law in his garret and by picking
up lawyer-talk and the rest of it through loitering about the law-
courts and listening. But it is only surmise; there is no EVIDENCE
that he ever did either of those things. They are merely a couple
of chunks of plaster of paris.

There is a legend that he got his bread and butter by holding
horses in front of the London theatres, mornings and afternoons.
Maybe he did. If he did, it seriously shortened his law-study
hours and his recreation-time in the courts. In those very days he
was writing great plays, and needed all the time he could get. The
horse-holding legend ought to be strangled; it too formidably
increases the historian's difficulty in accounting for the young
Shakespeare's erudition--an erudition which he was acquiring, hunk
by hunk and chunk by chunk every day in those strenuous times, and
emptying each day's catch into next day's imperishable drama.

He had to acquire a knowledge of war at the same time; and a
knowledge of soldier-people and sailor-people and their ways and
talk; also a knowledge of some foreign lands and their languages:
for he was daily emptying fluent streams of these various
knowledges, too, into his dramas. How did he acquire these rich

In the usual way: by surmise. It is SURMISED that he travelled in
Italy and Germany and around, and qualified himself to put their
scenic and social aspects upon paper; that he perfected himself in
French, Italian and Spanish on the road; that he went in
Leicester's expedition to the Low Countries, as soldier or sutler
or something, for several months or years--or whatever length of
time a surmiser needs in his business--and thus became familiar
with soldiership and soldier-ways and soldier-talk, and generalship
and general-ways and general-talk, and seamanship and sailor-ways
and sailor-talk.

Maybe he did all these things, but I would like to know who held
the horses in the meantime; and who studied the books in the
garret; and who frollicked in the law-courts for recreation. Also,
who did the call-boying and the play-acting.

For he became a call-boy; and as early as '93 he became a
"vagabond"--the law's ungentle term for an unlisted actor; and in
'94 a "regular" and properly and officially listed member of that
(in those days) lightly-valued and not much respected profession.

Right soon thereafter he became a stockholder in two theatres, and
manager of them. Thenceforward he was a busy and flourishing
business man, and was raking in money with both hands for twenty
years. Then in a noble frenzy of poetic inspiration he wrote his
one poem--his only poem, his darling--and laid him down and died:

Good friend for Iesus sake forbeare
To digg the dust encloased heare:
Blest be ye man yt spares thes stones
And curst be he yt moves my bones.

He was probably dead when he wrote it. Still, this is only
conjecture. We have only circumstantial evidence. Internal

Shall I set down the rest of the Conjectures which constitute the
giant Biography of William Shakespeare? It would strain the
Unabridged Dictionary to hold them. He is a Brontosaur: nine
bones and six hundred barrels of plaster of paris.

Mark Twain

Sorry, no summary available yet.