One evening I thought that I had really discovered Willie Hughes in Elizabethan literature. In a wonderfully graphic account of the last days of the great Earl of Essex, his chaplain, Thomas Knell, tells us that the night before the Earl died, “he called William Hewes, which was his musician, to play upon the virginals and to sing. ‘Play,’ said he, ‘my song. Will Hewes, and I will sing it myself.’ So he did it most joyfully, not as the howling swan, which, still looking down, waileth her end, but as a sweet lark, lifting up his hands and casting up his eyes to his God, with this mounted the crystal skies, and reached with his unwearied tongue the top of highest heavens.” Surely the boy who played on the virginals to the dying father of Sidney’s Stella was none other than the Will Hews to whom Shakespeare dedicated the Sonnets, and who he tells us was himself sweet “music to hear.” Yet Lord Essex died in 1576, when Shakespeare was but twelve years of age. It was impossible that his musician could have been the Mr W. H. of the Sonnets. Perhaps Shakespeare’s young friend was the son of the player upon the virginals? It was at least something to have discovered that Will Hews was an Elizabethan name. Indeed the name Hews seemed to have been closely connected with music and the stage. The first English actress was the lovely Margaret Hews, whom Prince Rupert so madly adored. What more probable than that between her andLord Essex’ musician had come the boy-actor of Shakespeare’s plays? [In 1587 a certain Thomas Hews brought out at Gray’s Inn a Euripidean tragedy entitled “The Misfortunes of Arthur,” receiving much assistance in the arrangement of the dumb shows from one Francis Bacon, then a student of law. Surely he was some near kinsman of the lad to whom Shakespeare said —
the “profitless usurer” of “unused beauty,” as he describes him. But the proofs, the links — where were they? Alas! I could not find them. It seemed to me that I was always on the brink of absolute verification, but that I could never really attain to it. I thought it strange that no one had ever written a history of the English boyactors of the sixteenth and seventeenth centuries, and determined to undertake the task myself, and to try and ascertain their true relations to the drama. The subject was, certainly, full of artistic interest. These lads had been the delicate reeds through which our poets had sounded their sweetest strains, the gracious vessels of honour into which they had poured the purple wine of their song. Foremost, naturally, amongst them all had been the youth to whom Shakespeare had intrusted the realisation of his most exquisite creations. Beauty had been his, such as our age has never, or but rarely seen, a beauty that seemed to combine the charm of both sexes, and to have wedded, as the Sonnets tell us, the grace of Adonis and the loveliness of Helen. He had been quick-witted, too, and eloquent, and from those finely curved lips that the satirist had mocked at had come the passionate cry of Juliet, and the bright laughter of Beatrice, Perdita’s flower-like words, and Ophelia’s wandering songs. Yet as Shakespeare himself had been but as a god among giants, so Willie Hughes had only been one out of many marvellous lads to whom our English Renaissance owed something of the secret of its joy, and it appeared to me that they also were worthy of some study and record. In a little book with fine vellum leaves and damask silk cover — a fancy of mine in those fanciful days — I accordingly collected such information as I could about them, and even now there is some thing in the scanty record of their lives, in the mere mention of their names, that attracts me. I seemed to know them all: Robin Armin, the goldsmith’slad who was lured by Tarlton to go on the stage: Sandford, whose performance of the courtezan Hamantia Lord Burleigh witnessed at Gray’s Inn: Cooke, who played Agrippina in the tragedy of “Sejanus”: Nat. Field, whose young and beardless portrait is still preserved for us at Dulwich, and in “Cynthia’s Revels” played the “Queen and Huntress chaste and fair”: Gil. Carie, who, attired as a mountain nymph, sang in the same lovely masque Echo’s song of mourning for Narcissus : Parsons, the Salmacis of the strange pageant of “Tamburlaine”: Will. Ostler, who was one of “The Children of the Queen’s Chapel,” and accompanied King James to Scotland: George Vernon, to whom the King sent a cloak of scarlet cloth, and a cape of crimson velvet: Alick Gough, who performed the part of Caenis, Vespasian’s concubine, in Massinger’s “Roman Actor,” and three years later that of Acanthe, in the same dramatist’s “Picture”: Barrett, the heroine of Richards’ tragedy of “Messalina”: Dicky Robinson, “a very pretty fellow,” Ben Jonson tells us, who was a member of Shakespeare’s company, and was known for his exquisite taste in costume, as well as for his love of woman’s apparel: Salathiel Pavy, whose early and tragic death Jonson mourned in one of the sweetest threnodies of our literature : Arthur Savile, who was one of “the players of Prince Charles,” and took a girl’s part in a comedy by Marmion: Stephen Hammerton, “a most noted and beautiful woman actor,” whose pale oval face with its heavy ‘lidded eyes and somewhat sensuous mouth looks out at us from a curious miniature of the time: Hart, who made his first success by playing the Duchess in the tragedy of ” The Cardinal,” and who in a poem that is clearly modelled upon some of Shakespeare’s Sonnets is described by one who had seen him as “beauty to the eye, and music to the ear”: and Kynaston, of whom Betterton said that “it has been disputed among the judicious, whether any woman could have more sensibly touched the passions,” and whose white hands and amber-coloured hair seem to have retarded by some years the introduction of actresses upon our stage.
The Puritans, with their uncouth morals and ignoble minds, had of course railed against them, and dwelt on the impropriety of boys disguising as women, and learning to affect the manners and passions of the female sex. Gosson, with his shrill voice, and Prynne, soon to be made earless for many shameful slanders, and others to whom the rare and subtle sense of abstract beauty was denied, had from pulpit and through pamphlet said foul or foolish things to their dishonour. To Francis Lenton, writing in 1629, what he speaks of as —
“loose action, mimic gesture
By a poor boy clad in a princely vesture,”
is but one of the many —
“tempting baits of hell
Which draw more youth unto the damned cell
Of furious lust, than all the devil could do
Since he obtained his first overthrow.”
Deuteronomy was quoted and the ill-digested learning of the period laid under contribution. Even our own time had not appreciated the artistic conditions of the Elizabethan and Jacobean drama. One of the most brilliant and intellectual actresses of this century had laughed at the idea of a lad of seventeen or eighteen playing Imogen, or Miranda, or Rosalind. “How could any youth, however gifted and specially trained, even faintly suggest these fair and noble women to an audience? . . . One quite pities Shakespeare, who had to put up with seeing his brightest creations marred, misrepresented, and spoiled.” In his book on “Shakespeare’s Predecessors” Mr John Addington Symonds also had talked of “hobbledehoys” trying to represent the pathos of Desdemona and Juliet’s passion. Were they right? Are they right? I did not think so then. I do not think so now. Those who remember the Oxford production of the “Agamemnon,” the fine utterance and marble dignity of the Clytemnestra, the romantic and imaginative rendering of the prophetic madness of Cassandra, will not agree with Lady Martin or Mr Symonds in their strictures on the condition of the Elizabethan stage.
Of all the motives of dramatic curiosity used by our great playwrights, there is none more subtle or more fascinating than the ambiguity of the sexes. This idea, invented, as far as an artistic idea can be said to be invented, by Lyly, perfected and made exquisite for us by Shakespeare, seems to me to owe its origin, as it certainly owes its possibility of life-like presentation, to the circumstance that the Elizabethan stage, like the stage of the Greeks, admitted the appearance of no female performers. It is because Lyly was writing for the boy-actors of St. Paul’s that we have the confused sexes and complicated loves of Phillida and Gallathea: it is because Shakespeare was writing for Willie Hughes that Rosalind dons doublet and hose, and calls herself Ganymede, that Viola and Julia put on pages’ dress, that Imogen steals away in male attire. To say that only a woman can portray the passions of a woman, and that therefore no boy can play Rosalind, is to rob the art of acting of all claim to objectivity, and to assign to the mere accident of sex what properly belongs to imaginative insight and creative energy. Indeed, if sex be an element in artistic creation, it might rather be urged that the delightful combination of wit and romance which characterises so many of Shakespeare’s heroines was at least occasioned if it was not actually caused by the fact that the players of these parts were lads and young men, whose passionate purity, quick mobile fancy, and healthy freedom from sentimentality can hardly fail to have suggested a new and delightful type of girlhood or of womanhood. The very difference of sex between the player and the part he represented must also, as Professor Ward points out, have constituted “one more demand upon the imaginative capacities of the spectators,” and must have kept them from that over-realistic identificationof the actor with his role which is one of the weak points in modern theatrical criticism.
This, too, must be granted, that it was to these boy-actors that we owe the introduction of those lovely lyrics that star the plays of Shakespeare, Dekker, and so many of the dramatists of the period, those “snatches of bird-like or god-like song,” as Mr. Swinburne calls them. For it was out of the choirs of the cathedrals and royal chapels of England that most of these lads came, and from their earliest years they had been trained in the singing of anthems and madrigals, and in all that concerns the subtle art of music. Chosen at first for the beauty of their voices, as well as for a certain comeliness and freshness of appearance, they were then instructed in gesture, dancing, and elocution, and taught to play both tragedies and comedies in the English as well as in the Latin language. Indeed, acting seems to have formed part of the ordinary education of the time, and to have been much studied not merely by the scholars of Eton and Westminster, but also by the students at the Universities of Oxford and Cambridge, some of whom went afterwards upon the public stage, as is becoming not uncommon in our own day. The great actors, too, had their pupils and apprentices, who were formally bound over to them by legal warrant, to whom they imparted the secrets of their craft, and who were so much valued that we read of Henslowe, one of the managers of the Rose Theatre, buying a trained boy of the name of James Bristowe for eight pieces of gold. The relations that existed between the masters and their pupils seem to have been of the most cordial and affectionate character. Robin Armin was looked upon by Tarlton as his adopted son, and in a will dated “the fourth daie of Maie, anno Domini 1605,” Augustine Phillips, Shakespeare’s dear friend and fellowactor, bequeathed to one of his apprentices his “purple cloke, sword, and dagger,” his “base viall,” and much rich apparel, and to another a sum of money and many beautiful instruments of music, “to be delivered unto him at the expiration of his terme of yeres in his indenture of apprenticehood.” Now and then, when some daring actor kidnapped a boy for the stage, there was an outcry or an investigation. In 1600, for instance, a certain Norfolk gentleman of the name of Henry Clifton came to live in London in order that his son, then about thirteen years of age, might have he opportunity of attending the Bluecoat School, and from a petition which he presented to the Star Chamber, and which has been recently brought to light by Mr Greenstreet, we learn that as the boy was walking quietly to Christ Church cloister one winter morning he was waylaid by James Robinson, Henry Evans, and Nathaniel Giles, and carried off to the Blackfriars Theatre, “amongste companie of lewde and dissolute mercenarie players,” as his father calls them, in order that he might be trained “in acting of parts in base playes and enterludes.” Hearing of his son’s misadventure, Mr Clifton went down at once to the theatre, and demanded his surrender, but “the sayd Nathaniel Giles, James Robinson and Henry Evans most arrogantlie then and there answered that they had authoritie sufficient soe to take any noble man’s sonne in this land,” and handing the young schoolboy “a scrolle of paper, conteyning parte of one of their said playes and enterludes,” commanded him to learn it by heart. Through a warrant issued by Sir John Fortescue, however, the boy was restored to his father the next day, and the Court of Star Chamber seems to have suspended or cancelled Evans’ privileges.
The fact is that, following a precedent set by Richard III, Elizabeth had issued a commission authorising certain persons to impress into her service all boys who had beautiful voices that they might sing for her in her Chapel Royal, and Nathaniel Giles, her Chief Commissioner, finding that he could deal profitably with the managers of the Globe Theatre, agreed to supply them with personable and graceful lads for the playing of female parts, under colour of taking them for the Queen’s service. The actors, accordingly, had a certain amount of legal warrant on their side, and it is interesting to note that many of the boys whom they carried off from their schools or homes, such as Salathiel Pavy, Nat. Field, and Alvery Trussell, became so fascinated by their new art that they attached themselves permanently to the theatre, and would not leave it.
Once it seemed as if girls were to take the place of boys upon the stage, and among the christenings chronicled in the registers of St.Giles’, Cripplegate, occurs the following strange and suggestive entry: “Comedia, bascborn, daughter of Alice Bowker and William Johnson, one of the Queen s plaiers, lo Feb. 1 589.” But the child upon whom such high hopes had been built died at six years of age, and when, later on, some French actresses came over and played at Blackfriars, we learn that they were “hissed, hooted, and pippin’pelted from the stage.” I think that, from what I have said above, we need not regret this in any way. The essentially male culture of the English Renaissance found its fullest and most perfect expression by its own method, and in its own manner.
I remember I used to wonder, at this time, what had been the social position and early life of Willie Hughes before Shakespeare had met with him. My investigations into the history of the boy ‘actors had made me curious of every detail about him. Had he stood in the carved stall of some gilded choir, reading out of a great book painted with square scarlet notes and long black key-lines? We know from the Sonnets how clear and pure his voice was, and what skill he had in the art of music. Noble gentlemen, such as the Earl of Leicester and Lord Oxford, had companies of boy-players in their service as part of their household. When Leicester went to the Netherlands in 1585 he brought with him a certain “Will” described as a “plaier.” Was this Willie Hughes? Had he acted for Leicester at Kenilworth, and was it there that Shakespeare had first known him? Or was he, like Robin Armin, simply a lad of low degree, but possessing some strange beauty and marvellous fascination? It was evident from the early sonnets that when Shakespeare first came across him he had no connection whatsoever with the stage, and that he was not of high birth has already been shewn. I began to think of him not as the delicate chorister of a Royal Chapel, not as a petted minion trained to sing and dance in Leicester’s stately masque, but as some fair-haired English lad whom in one of London’s hurrying streets, or on Windsor’s green silent meadows, Shakespeare had seen and followed, recognising the artistic possibilities that lay hidden in so comely and gracious a form, and divining by a quick and subtle instinct what an actor the lad would make could he be induced to go upon the stage. At this time Willie Hughes’ father was dead, as we learn from Sonnet XIII, and his mother, whose remarkable beauty he is said to have inherited, may have been induced to allow him to become Shakespeare’s apprentice by the fact that boys who played female characters were paid extremely large salaries, larger salaries, indeed, than were given to grown-up actors. Shakespeare’s apprentice, at any rate, we know that he became, and we know what a vital factor he was in the development of Shakespeare’s art. As a rule, a boy-actor s capacity for representing girlish parts on the stage lasted but for a few years at most. Such characters as Lady Macbeth, Queen Constance and Volumnia, remained of course always within the reach of those who had true dramatic genius and noble presence. Absolute youth was not necessary here, not desirable even. But with Imogen, and Perdita, and Juliet, it was different. “Your beard has begun to grow, and I pray God your voice be not cracked,” says Hamlet mockingly to the boyactor of the strolling company that came to visit him at Elsinore; and certainly when chins grew rough and voices harsh much of the charm and grace of the performance must have gone. Hence comes Shakespeare’s passionate preoccupation with the youth of Willie Hughes, his terror of old age and wasting years, his wild appeal to time to spare the beauty of his friend:
Time seems to have listened to Shakespeare’s prayers, or perhaps Willie Hughes had the secret of perpetual youth. After three years he is quite unchanged:
More years pass over, and the bloom of his boyhood seems to be still with him. When, in “The Tempest,” Shakespeare, through the lips of Prospero, flung away the wand of his imagination and gave his poetic sovereignty into the weak, graceful hands of Fletcher, it may be that the Miranda who stood wondering by was none other than Willie Hughes himself, and in the last sonnet that his friend ad’ dressed to him, the enemy that is feared is not Time but Death.