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The Scandal Concerning Shakespeare in 1601

From Sonnets. Ed. Thomas Tyler.

In the series of Sonnets 100 to 126 there are allusions to some scandal which, at the time when these Sonnets were written, was in circulation with regard to Shakespeare. This scandal is not to be confounded with the generally low social esteem of players, though it was in some manner connected with Shakespeare's dramatic engagements. Such a connection is indicated by what is said in 111 of Fortune, "the guilty goddess," having made so ill provision for the poet's wants that he was compelled to depend on "public means." From this dependence resulted "public manners" and the branding of the poet's name. A similar inference is to be drawn from 110, where Shakespeare speaks of having "gone here and there," and made himself look like "a motley," though possibly he had not actually played in "a suit of motley" the part of the Fool:
"Alas, 'tis true, I have gone here and there,
And made myself a motley to the view,
Gored mine own thoughts, sold cheap what is most dear,
Made old offences of affections new."
How deeply Shakespeare felt the scandal is shown by the first two lines of 112, where he speaks of his forehead as though branded or stamped thereby:
"Your love and pity doth the impression fill
Which vulgar scandal stamp'd upon my brow. "
The great difficulty in the way of supposing that the reference is merely to the stage and acting is presented by the remarkable language of Sonnet 121, from which it appears that the scandal had some relation to Shakespeare's moral character:
"'Tis better to be vile than vile esteemed,
When not to be receives reproach of being,
And the just pleasure lost, which is so deemed
Not by our feeling, but by others' seeing.
For why should others' false adulterate eyes
Give salutation to my sportive blood?
Or on my frailties why are frailer spies,
Which in their wills count bad what I think good?
No I am that I am; and they that level
At my abuses, reckon up their own:
I may be straight, though they themselves be bevel;
By their rank thoughts my deeds must not be shown;
Unless this general evil they maintain,
All men are bad, and in their badness reign."

The expressions here printed in italics, taken together, can scarcely leave a doubt as to the general nature of the matter alluded to. These expressions are incompatible with the supposition that the scandal proceeded merely from the low esteem in which players were held. Shakespeare does not deny that there was some foundation for the scandal. He pleads, however, that his failings had been exaggerated, and that his accusers were worse than himself.

A complete explanation of this scandal it may now be impossible to attain, but, bearing in mind the date, 1601, to which chronological indications require us to refer the Sonnets just cited, we can see evidence of conditions out of which scandal might very easily grow. With regard to Shakespeare's moral character and reputation, the facts to which the Sonnets themselves relate must, of course, be taken into account. There is, besides, contemporary evidence coming very close indeed to the time with which we are now concerned. This evidence may, perhaps, be considered slight; possibly it may not be strictly and literally true, but, nevertheless, since it comes from a contemporary source, it must not be too hastily put aside.

I allude to the tolerably well-known story concerning Shakespeare, Burbage, and a lady-citizen who so much admired the latter's impersonation of Richard the Third that she invited him to visit her after the play, and to the trick which Shakespeare in consequence played off. This story (or piece of scandal, if it be such) is told in John Manningham's Diary, with the date 13th March 1601[-2]. 1 With this story in view it is not difficult to understand how more serious scandal of a somewhat similar nature may have arisen.

Another piece of evidence of about the same date is entitled possibly to greater attention. This is to be found in "The Returne from Pernassus: or the Scourge of Simony. Publiquely acted by the Students in Saint Johns Colledge in Cambridge." In Act iv. sc. 3 Shakespeare's colleagues Burbage and Kemp are introduced. The latter makes a reference to Shakespeare which has been repeatedly quoted: "Few of the vniuersity [men] pen plaies well, they smell too much of that writer Ouid, and that writer Metamorphosis, and talke too much of Proserpina & luppiter. Why heres our fellow Shakespeare puts them all downe, I and Ben lonson too. O that Ben lonson is a pestilent fellow, he brought vp Horace giuing the Poets a pill, but our fellow Shakespeare hath giuen him a purge that made him beray his credit." 2 The date of the production of the play from which this extract is given has been fixed as December 1601. 3

In 1601 there was in progress, or reaching its climax, a famous literary and theatrical quarrel, in which Ben Jonson was one of the principal actors. Mr. Fleay observes though I know not on what grounds that "the quarrel was known as the 'War of the theatres.'" 4 In relation to this quarrel two dramatic works stand out with especial prominence, one of these being Ben Jonson's The Poetaster; or Arraignment, and the other Dekker's Satiromastix, or the Untrussing of the Humorous Poet, which was designed as a counterblast to the Poetaster. In the passage of the Return from Parnassus just quoted, there is clearly an allusion to the Poetaster in what is said of Ben Jonson's "bringing up Horace giving the poets a pill." In the Poetaster (Act v. sc. i) Horace (that is, Jonson) says,
"I have pills about me,
Mixt with the whitest kind of hellebore,
Would give him a light vomit, that should purge
His brain and stomach of those tumorous heats."
The pills are taken, and speedily produce their due effect. The allusion to this in the Return from Parnassus is clear enough; but what is referred to when it is said that "Shakespeare hath given him (i.e. Jonson) a purge that made him beray his credit?" The suggestion easily presents itself that the reference is to the Satiromastix. What is said of Jonson's "credit" having been tarnished is not difficult to explain in view of the unsparing severity with which, in the Satiromastix, personal and other characteristics of Jonson's are satirised. And that there is in the Return from Parnassus an allusion to the Satiromastix, with its "untrussing of the humorous poet," is rendered very probable indeed by what Kemp says a little further on in the same scene: "You are at Cambridge still with [size que] and be lusty humorous poets, you must vntrusse, I [made] this my last circuit, purposely because I would be judge of your actions." 5 Here, too, we have the idea of "arraignment" as in both the Poetaster and the Satiromastix. But how could the Satiromastix be ascribed to Shakespeare, so that it could be said that it was he who "gave the purge"? Did Dekker write it at Shakespeare's instigation? If not, on what other ground could the attack on Jonson be ascribed to Shakespeare?

The action of the Satiromastix takes place under the sway of King William Rufus; and it was the opinion of the late Mr. Richard Simpson that this monarch was intended to represent Shakespeare, 6 who thus "presides over the untrussing of the humorous poet," being "brought in," Mr. Simpson observes, "as William Rufus directing the punishment of Jonson, but giving no brilliant example of chastity in his own person," Mr. Simpson places in close relation to this the story already alluded to about Shakespeare and Burbage, William the Conqueror and Richard the Third. And certainly the way in which William Rufus carries off Walter Terrill's bride is in no small degree analogous to what is said of Shakespeare in the William the Conqueror story. The suggestion may be made that there is a designed allusion to this story in the Satiromastix. If the story was widely circulated and it must be remembered also how close in point of time is Manningham's notice the spectators of the play would have little difficulty in recognising Shakespeare, notwithstanding the slight change of William the Conqueror into William Rufus. For this change, indeed, Shakespeare's light hair and probably ruddy complexion would easily account. 7

If Shakespeare was thus intended by the character of King William Rufus, it is not easy to suppose that the Satiromastix was put on the stage at his instigation or with his concurrence, notwithstanding that it was acted by his own company. Mr. Fleay appears to be of opinion that this would not have occurred if Shakespeare had been in London at the time (Chronicle History, p. 43). And Mr. Simpson thought that Shakespeare was much vexed at the attack on himself in the Satiromastix; and, moreover, that "he seems to refer to and protest against the general ill-fame under which he laboured at this time in his 121st Sonnet -- "'Tis better to be vile than vile esteemed,'" &c. 8

For our present purpose, however, it is, in accordance with what has been already said, not necessary to affirm that the story about William the Conqueror is true, nor need we assert that Shakespeare was satirised in Dekker's play. It is sufficient, with reference to the 121st Sonnet and other allusions previously quoted, that we have evidence that in or about 1601 there was in circulation scandal affecting Shakespeare's moral character and connected with the theatre, and also that there was at the same time a theatrical quarrel in which Shakespeare was supposed to have taken part. It is not at all difficult to understand how, from such elements, scandal and slander may have grown and become intensified to any possible degree or extent. Moreover, the scandal was probably concerned also with other matters which are now unknown. But, whatever may have been the cause or causes of the scandal, there is ground for believing that it had a deep and powerful influence on Shakespeare's mind, and, in consequence, on those great dramas which were produced during several years onward from 1601. 9


(Note numbers have been edited.)

1. "Vpon a tyme when Burbidge played Richard III. there was a citizen grone soe farr in liking with him, that before shee went from the play shee appointed him to come that night vnto hir by the name of Richard the Third. Shakespeare ouerhearing their conclusion went before, was ntertained and at his game ere Burbidge came. Then message being brought that Richard the Third was at the dore, Shakespeare caused returne to be made that William the Conqueror was before Richard the Third. Shakespeare's name William (Mr. Touse?)." -- Camden Society's edition by Bruce, p. 39.

2. Macray's Pilgrimage to Pernassus, p. 138.

3. The date "has been proved from internal evidence (see Professor Arber's Introduction to his reprint) to be December, 1601," Macray's Preface, p. viii. But about this date is sufficient for us here.

4. Chronicle History of the Life and Work of Shakespeare, p. 36. Dekker, however, in his Rauens Almanack, speaks of "another ciuill warre," which "will fal between players." But this is in 1609.

5. I still quote from Mr. Macray's edition.

6. North' British Review, July 1870, art. "Ben Jonson's Quarrel with Shakspeare," p. 416.

7. Wivell (Shakspeare Portraits, 1827, pp. 128, 129, 131) says of the Stratford bust, that it was "originally coloured to resemble life, conformably to the taste of the times in which the monument was erected, the eyes being of a light hazel, and the hair and beard auburn."
"In the year 1748 this monument was carefully restored, and the original colours of the bust, &c., as much as possible preserved (by Mr. John Hall, a limner of Stratford)." Subsequently (1793) it was "painted white at the request of Mr. Malone," p. 133.
Mr. Friswell (Life Portraits of Shakspeare, 1864, p. 7) says: "The bust has now been restored to its last coat of colour by Mr. Collins of New Bond Street, who prepared for it a bath of some detergent, which entirely took off Malone's whitewash," &c. We may take it, then, that the bust represents approximately Shakespeare's complexion, colour of hair, &c.
The following quotation from Manningham's Diary may also be given with respect to contemporary use of the word "Rufus:" "I askt Mr. Leydall whether he argued a case according to his opinion. He said, noe! but he sett a good colour upon it. I told him he might well doe soe, for he neuer wants a good colour; he is Rufus."

8. North British Review, loc. cit. p. 411.

9. What is said in the Folio Hamlet (Act ii. sc. 2, lines 372-376) of the "throwing about of brains" and the "poet and the player going to cuffs in the question" may very well pertain to the quarrel as existing in 1601. But, as this is absent from the Quartos of 1603 and 1604, an objection might easily be made to the citation of the passage as authoritative.

How to cite this article:
Shakespeare, William. Sonnets. Ed. Thomas Tyler. London: D. Nutt, 1890. Shakespeare Online. 10 Jan. 2014. < >.
How to cite the sidebars:
Mabillard, Amanda. Notes on Shakespeare. Shakespeare Online. 10 Jan. 2014. < >.

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