Shakespeare's Supposed 'Lost' Years

By Rowse, A. L. | Contemporary Review, February 1994 | Go to article overview

Shakespeare's Supposed 'Lost' Years


Rowse, A. L., Contemporary Review


TO anyone properly acquainted with the Elizabethan age there is mystery in a gap in our knowledge of any Elizabethan. Scholars of that age know that it is a quite regular feature. It is more remarkable when we know as much as we do about the lives of such people as Shakespeare or Marlowe. Yet people who know little about the age and time, that was their background and equipped them with their experience, are ready with all sorts of unnecessary conjectures to fill quite normal, frequent gaps.

A common conjecture is to equate Shakespeare with one William Shakeshaft, an otherwise unknown actor who appears in Lancashire, and to send our Stratford young man up there for the duration! Improbable and quite unnecessary.

In all my work on Shakespeare I have been careful, as an historian should be, to avoid conjectures. My identification of Emilia Bassano, young Mrs. Lanier, was not based on any conjecture, but on the complete and absolute convergence of every kind of evidence relating to them both. That gives an historian certainty. It always was incontrovertible, has never been controverted, and never will be.

But now I am going to follow up a thought, though the historian insists that it must be entirely in keeping with what is known for certain, must be in keeping with the evidence and what the evidence points us to.

A correspondent suggests that we should follow the track of the known association of Shakespeare with his London printer, Richard Field, his fellow Stratford townsman. The evidence shows that this is the right track.

The Fields and Shakespeares were known to each other in the small, tight community of Stratford, especially since Richard Field's father was a tanner, and Shakespeare's father a glover. On 21 August 1592 the latter, John Shakespeare, appraised the goods of Henry Field, the tanner of Bridge Street. The Shakespeares lived just up the street from there, at what we know as the Birthplace.

Meanwhile Richard Field was well established in London as a printer, serving six years as apprentice to the Huguenot printer, Vautrollier in Blackfriars. By 1587 he was a freeman of the Stationers' Company. He did even better by marrying Vautrollier's daughter and succeeding to the prosperous business, which had a notable List, with a French flavouring. By 1592 Richard Field's younger brother, Jasper, had arrived from Stratford to join the business as an apprentice for the usual six years.

There was plenty of work to do, for Vautrollier's List was a notable one, and Field improved on it. We might describe it as rather highbrow. Vautrollier printed a good deal of French stuff, along with editions of the classics. But notice that he also printed school text books, and notably North's translation of Plutarch's Lives, that favourite source for Shakepeare's plays.

The enterprising spirit of Field went further along this track, mainly in printing, but also in publishing -- not the same thing. He printed more French tracts, in translation, on the exciting political scene in France. In 1589 he produced Puttenham's Art of English Poesy, the best such critical work to appear in that age, and one whose whole approach, argument and tone, chime noticeably with Shakespeare's views and practice. As Edgar Fripp says, in his perceptive Shakespeare, Man and Artist, 'Shakespeare devoured this treatise, probably his first systematic guide in the writing of English verse. He quotes it frequently in his early dramas, and from time to time in subsequent work, even so late as The Winter's Tale'. Evidently a life-long companion.

Above all, in 1589 Field produced a fine edition of Ovid's Metamorphoses in Latin. In 1591 came the translation of Orlando Furlose by Sir John Harington, that congenial humorous spirit. Later in the 1590s Field published the Latin poems of the Catholic, Thomas Campion, and his critical Observations in 1602. That takes us beyond the years we have under view -- by then Shakespeare was off and away, into the theatre. …

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