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we are considering—that of an attorney's clerk—first suggested by Chalmers, and since countenanced by Malone, yourself, and others, whose opinions are entitled to high respect, but impugned by nearly an equal number of biographers and critics of almost equal authority,
-without any one, on either side, having as yet discussed the question very elaborately.
It must be admitted that there is no established fact with which this supposition is not consistent. At Stratford there was, by royal charter, a court of record, with jurisdiction over all personal actions to the amount of 301., equal, at the latter end of the reign of Elizabeth, to more than 1001. in the reign of Victoria. This court, the records of which are extant, was regulated by the course of practice and pleading which prevailed in the superior courts of law at Westminster, and employed the same barbarous dialect, composed of Latin, English, and Norman-French. It sat every fortnight, and there were belonging to it, besides the Town-clerk, six attorneys, some of whom must have practised in the Queen's Bench and in Chancery, and have had extensive business in conveyancing. An attorney, steward of the Earl of Warwick, lord of the manor of Stratford, twice a year held a court - leet and view of frankpledge there, to which a jury was summoned, and at which constables were appointed and various presentments were made.
If Shakespeare had been a clerk to one of these
attorneys, all that followed while he remained at Stratford, and the knowledge and acquirements which he displayed when he came to London, would not only have been within the bounds of possibility, but would seem almost effect from cause-in a natural and probable sequence.
From the moderate pay allowed him by his master he would have been able decently to maintain his wife and children; vacant hours would have been left to him for the indulgence of his literary propensity; and this temporary attention to law might have quickened his fancy,—although a systematic, life-long devotion to it, I fear, may have a very different tendency. Burke eloquently descants upon the improvement of the mental faculties by juridical studies; and Warburton, Chatterton, Pitt the younger, Canning, Disraeli, and Lord Macaulay are a few out of many instances which might be cited of men of brilliant intellectual career who had early become familiar with the elements of jurisprudence.
Here would be the solution of Shakespeare's legalism which has so perplexed his biographers and commentators, and which Aubrey's tradition leaves wholly unexplained. We should only have to recollect the maxim that the vessel long retains the flavour with which it has been once imbued.” Great as is the knowledge of law which Shakespeare's writings display, and familiar as he appears to have been with all its
forms and proceedings, the whole of this would easily be accounted for if for some years he had occupied a desk in the office of a country attorney in good business,-attending sessions and assizes,-keeping leets and law days,-and perhaps being sent up to the metropolis in term time to conduct suits before the Lord Chancellor or the superior courts of common law at Westminster, according to the ancient practice of country attorneys, who would not employ a London agent to divide their fees.*
* If Shakespeare really was articled to a Stratford attorney, in all probability during the five years of his clerkship he visited London several times on his master's business, and he may then have been introduced to the green room at Blackfriars by one of his countrymen connected with that theatre.
Even so late as Queen Anne's reign there seems to have been a prodigious influx of all ranks from the provinces into the metropolis in term time. During the preceding century Parliament sometimes did not meet at all for a considerable number of years ; and being summoned rarely and capriciously, the “ London season" seems to have been regulated, not by the session of Parliament, but by the law terms,—
" and prints before Term ends.”—Pope, While term lasted, Westminster Hall was crowded all the morning, not only by lawyers, but by idlers and politicians in quest of news. Term having ended, there seems to have been a general dispersion. Even the Judges spent their vacations in the country, having when in town resided in their chambers in the Temple or Inns of Court. The Chiefs were obliged to remain in town a day or two after term
On the supposition of Shakespeare having been an attorney's clerk at Stratford we may likewise see how, when very young, he contracted his taste for theatricals, even if he had never left that locality till the unlucky affair of Sir Thomas Lucy's deer. It appears from the records of the Corporation of Stratford, that nearly every year the town was visited by strolling companies of players, calling themselves “the Earl of Derby's servants,” “the Earl of Leicester's servants,” and “Her Majesty's servants." These companies are most graphically represented to us by the strolling
for Nisi Prius sittings; but the Puisnes were entirely liberated when proclamation was made at the rising of the court on the last day of term, in the form still preserved, that “all manner of persons may take their ease, and give their attendance here again on the first day of the ensuing term.” An old lady very lately deceased, a daughter of Mr. Justice Blackstone, who was a puisne judge of the Common Pleas and lived near Abingdon, used to relate that the day after term ended, the family coach, with four black long-tailed horses, used regularly to come at an early hour to Serjeants' Inn to conduct them to their country house; and there the Judge and his family remained till they travelled to London in the same style on the essoin-day of the following term. When a student of law, I had the honour of being presented to the oldest of the judges, Mr. Justice Grose, famous for his beautiful seat in the Isle of Wight, where he leisurely spent a considerable part of the year, more majorum. To his question to me, “Where do you live ?” I answered, “ I have chambers in Lincoln's Inn, my Lord.” “Ah!” replied he, “ but I mean—when term is over.”
players in ‘Hamlet' and in the Taming of the Shrew.' The custom at Stratford was for the players on their arrival to wait upon the Bailiff and Aldermen to obtain a licence to perform in the town. The Guildhall was generally allotted to them, and was fitted up as a theatre according to the simple and rude notions of the age. We may easily conceive that Will Shakespeare, son of the chief magistrate who granted the licence, now a bustling attorney's clerk, would actually assist in these proceedings when his master's office was closed for the day; and that he might thus readily become intimate with the manager and the performers, some of whom were said to be his fellow townsmen. He might well have officiated as prompter, the duty said to have been first assigned to him in the theatre at the Black-friars. The travelling associations of actors at that period consisted generally of not more than from five to ten members; and when a play to be performed in the Guildhall at Stratford contained more characters than individuals in the list of strollers, it would be no great stretch of imagination to suppose that, instead of mutilating the piece by suppression, or awkwardly assigning two parts to one performer, "pleasant Willy's” assistance was called in; and our great dramatist may thus have commenced his career as an actor in his native town.
To prove that he had been bred in an attorney's