Read CHAPTER V - LONDON. ITS GUILT AND GLORY. of Shakspere‚ Personal Recollections , free online book, by John A. Joyce, on

"They say, best men are molded out of faults;
And for the most, become much more the better
For being a little bad."

It was on the 13th of September, 1586, that William and myself first feasted our eyes on the variegated wilderness of wood, mortar, stone and tile of wonderful London.

The evening was bright and clear, while a north-west wind blew away the smoky clouds that hovered over the city like a funeral pall, displaying to our view the silver sinuosities of old Father Thames, as he moved in sluggish grandeur by Westminster, Blackfriars Bridge, the Tower, and to Gravesend, on his way to the channel and the sea.

To get a grand view of the town, an old sexton advised us to climb the steeple steps of crumbling Saint Mary’s, that once felt the tread of the Crusaders, and heard the chanting hymn of monks, nuns and friars five hundred years before.

Standing on a broken column of the old steeple, three hundred feet above Primrose Hill, William struck an attitude of theatrical fashion and uttered the following oratorical flight:

Glorious London! Leviathan of human greed; Palpitating hot-bed of iniquity and joy, Greek, Roman, Spanish, Saxon, Kelt, Scot, Pict, Norman and Dane Have swept over thee like winter storms; And the mighty Caesar, Julius of old, With a myriad of bucklered warriors And one hundred galleons of sailors Triple-oared mariners, defying wave and fate, Have ploughed the placid face of Father Thames, Startling the loud cry of hawk and bittern As his royal prows grated on thy strand, Or skimmed over the marshes of thy infancy. Yet, amid all the wrecks of human ambition Where Pagan, Jew, Buddhist, Turk and Christian Struggled for the mastery of gold and power, You still march forward, giant-like and brave, Facing the morning of progress and liberty, Carrying thy cross and crown to all lands And with thy grand flotilla, chartered by Neptune Remain mistress of all the seas, defiant The roar of thy cannon and drum beats Heard with pride and glory around the world! Sad, how sad, to think that the day will come When not a vestige of this wonderful mass Of human energy shall remain; Where the cry of the wolf, bat and bittern Shall only be heard, and Nature again Resume her rustic, splendid desolation! Cities older and far greater than this, Dreaming of everlasting endurance, Have been long since buried in desert sands, Or engulfed in the pitiless waves of ocean, Lost forever from the rusty records Of Time, the tyrant and tomb builder Of man, vain insect of a moment, Who promises himself immortality, And then disappears like the mist of mountains, Or wandering meteors that sparkle and darkle In the midnight of oblivion!

We quickly descended from the steeple, passed by Buckingham Palace, Regent Park, British Museum, through Chancery Lane into Fleet street, by Ludgate Hill, under the shadow of old battered Saint Paul’s Church on to the Devil’s Tavern, near Blackfriars Bridge, where we found gay and comfortable lodgings for the night, it being twelve o’clock when we shook hands with Meg Mullen, the rubicund landlady.

The Devil’s Tavern was a resort for actors, authors, bohemians, lords and ladies, who did not retire early to their downy couches.

The night we arrived the tavern was crowded, as the Actors’ Annual Ball was in progress, and many fair women and brave men belated by Bacchus could not find their way home, and were compelled to remain all night and be cared for by the host of the Devil.

I told “Meg” we were Stratford boys, come up to London to seek our fortune, and set the Thames afire with our genius.

Plucking the “rosy” dame aside, I informed her that William Shakspere was a poet, author, actor and philosopher; and, while he was posing over the counter, smiling at a blooming barmaid, he looked the picture of his own immortal Romeo. Meg told me in a quizzical tone that the town was full of poets and actors, and that the surrounding playhouses could hire them for ten shillings a week, with sack and bread and cheese thrown in every Saturday night.

After a hasty supper, I tossed Meg a golden guinea to pay score, as if it were a shilling, to convince her that we were of the upper crust of bohemians, not strollers from the Strand, or penny puppets from Eastcheap or Smithfield.

After passing back the change, Meg sent a gay and festive porter to light us to the top cock-loft of the tavern, five stairs up, among the windows and angled gables of the tile roof.

A tallow dip and coach candle lit up the room, which was large, containing two Roman couches with quilts, robes and blankets, a stout table, two oak chairs, a pewter basin, and a large stone jug filled with water.

The tavern seemed to be on the banks of the Thames, for we could see through the two large windows, flitting lights as if boats and ships were moving on the water, while across the bridge old Southwark could be seen in the midnight glare as if it were a field of Jack-o’-lanterns moving in mystic parade.

William and myself soon found rest in deep slumber, and wafted away into a dreamless realm, our tired bodies lay in the enfolding arms of Morpheus until the porter knocked at our door the next morning as the clock of the tower struck the hour of nine.

Our first sight of sunrise in London gave us great expectations of fame and fortune for surely all we had was glowing expectations.

"Oft expectation fails, and most oft there
Where most it promises; and oft it hits
Where hope is coldest and despair most fits."

While William stood gazing out of the roof windows of the Devil’s Tavern on the moving, meandering population of London as they passed below on lane, street and stream, by foot, car or boat, he heaved a long drawn sigh, turned to me and said, “Jack, what do you think of London?”

“I like its whirl, dash and roar, far better than mingling with the rural milk-sops and innocent maidens of Warwick. Here we can work and climb to the top of the ladder of fame, while you, dear Will, will not be battered in ear by crying kids and tongue-lashing spouse.”

Brushing away a tear of sorrow, no doubt for the absence of loved ones at Stratford, he dashed down the stairs, and was soon in the jolly whirlpool of tavern loungers, where beaming Meg greeted us with a smiling face, having prepared in advance a fine breakfast, smoking hot from the busy kitchen of the Devil.

In passing out of the dining room, Meg led us through a back hall into a low, long room, where a number of “ladies” and “gentlemen” were assembled about a round table, playing “cut the card,” “spring the top” and “throw the dice;” small piles of silver and gold stacked in front of each player, while the “King’s Dealer,” or fat Jack Stafford, lost or paid all bets on “call.”

William and myself were incidentally introduced to the motley gang as young “bloods” from Warwick, who had just entered London for fame and fortune. The conclave rose with extreme politeness, and Jack as spokesman welcomed us to their bosoms (so to speak), and asked if we would not “sit up and take a hand.”

I respectfully declined, but William, surcharged with sorrow or flushed with ambition, bethought of the guineas in his pocket and belt, and called for the “dice box.” “Deuces” won double and “sixes” treble coin.

William, to the great amazement of the dealer, flung a guinea in the center pot, which was immediately tapped by Jack, while the others looked on in silent expectation.

Grasping the dice box, he whirled it in his grasp, rattling the “bones” in triumphant glee and threw on the table three “sixes,” thus abstracting from the inside pocket of the “Gentleman” at the head of the table, twenty-seven guineas.

Pushing back the coin and dice box, William proposed another throw, which was smilingly consented to by the “child of Fortune,” and grasping the box, the Bard clicked the “ivories” and flung on the table three aces, which by the rule of the game, gave all the coin to the “Royal” dealer.

William never winced or hesitated, but pulling from his waist a buckskin belt, threw it on the table, exclaiming, “There’s fifteen guineas I wager on the next throw.”

The polite Jack replied, “All right, sir, take your word for it.”

William frantically said:

"I have set my life upon a cast,
And will stand the hazard of the die!"

Then, with a round whirl, he threw three “aces” again, rose from the table and bolted out of the room like a shot from a blunderbuss.

I immediately followed in his footsteps and found him joking with the landlady about a couple of infant bull pups she was fondling in her capacious lap.

At this juncture, who should appear on the scene but Dick Field, the first cousin of William, who had been in London a few years engaged in the printing and publishing business.

If he had dropped out of the clouds William could not have been more pleased or surprised, and the feeling was reciprocal.

The printing shop of Field was only a short distance from the Devil’s Tavern, and we were invited to visit the establishment. On our way we passed by the Blackfriars, Curtain, In Yard, Paris and Devil theatres, interspersed with hurdy-gurdy concert hall, sailor and soldier, gin and sack vaults, where blear-eyed belles and battered beaux vied with each other in fantastic intoxication.

Field did a lot of rough printing for the various theatres, issuing bill posters, announcing plays, and setting up type sheets for actors and managers, in their daily concerts and dramas for the public amusement.

As luck would have it, old James Burbage and his son Dick were waiting for Field, with a lot of dramatic manuscript that must be put in print at once.

We were casually introduced to the great theatrical magnate Burbage, as relatives from Stratford who were just then in search of work.

James Burbage gazed for a moment on the manly form of William and blurted out in his bluff manner, “What do you know?”

Quick as a flash William replied: “I know more than those who know less, and know less than those who know more.”

“Sharp answer, ‘boy.’ See me to-morrow at the Blackfriars at noon.”

We turned aside and left Field and Burbage to their business; while Dick Burbage, the gay theatrical rake, invited us across the way to the Bull’s Head, where we irrigated our anatomy, and then returned to the printing shop.

Field informed me that he had given us a great setting up with old Burbage; and would see his partner Greene, the playwright, and add to our recommendation for energy and learning.

We were invited to dine with Field that evening at eight o’clock at the Boar’s Head Tavern, where Dame Quickly dispensed the best food and fluid of the lower town, and where the wags and wits of all lands congregated in security.

"At the very witching time of night
When church yards yawn and hell itself
Breathes out contagion to this world."