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The Portrait of Mr. W. H. Summary
Sign in. Not registered? Inseparably connected with Shakespeare's plays, he was to live in them. There were endless allusions, also, to Willie Hughes's power over his audience, - the 'gazers,' as Shakespeare calls them; hut perhaps the most perfect description of his wonderful mastery over dramatic art was in The Lover's Complaint , where Shakespeare says of him 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.
It was impossible that his musician could have been the Mr. 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 News seemed to have been closely connected with music and the stage. What more probable than that between her and Lord Essex's musician had come the boy-actor of Shakespeare's plays? But the proofs, the links - where were they? 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.
From Willie Hughes's life I soon passed to thoughts of his death. I used to wonder what had been his end. Perhaps he had been one of those English actors who in went across sea to Germany and played before the great Duke Henry Julius of Brunswick, himself a dramatist of no mean order, and at the Court of that strange Elector of Brandenburg, who was so enamoured of beauty that he was said to have bought for his weight in amber the young son of a travelling Greek merchant, and to have given pageants in honour of his slave all through that dreadful famine year of , when the people died of hunger in the very streets of the town, and for the space of seven months there was no rain.
We know at any rate that Romeo and Juliet was brought out at Dresden in , along with Hamlet and King Lear , and it was surely to none other than Willie Hughes that in the death-mask of Shakespeare was brought by the hand of one of the suite of the English ambassador, pale token of the passing away of the great poet who had so dearly loved him. Indeed there would have been something peculiarly fitting in the idea that the boy-actor, whose beauty had been so vital an element in the realism and romance of Shakespeare's art, should have been the first to have brought to Germany the seed of the new culture, and was in his way the precursor of that Aufklarung or Illumination of the eighteenth century, that splendid movement which, though begun by Lessing and Herder, and brought to its full and perfect issue by Goethe, was in no small part helped on by another actor Friedrich Schroeder - who awoke the popular consciousness, and by means of the feigned passions and mimetic methods of the stage showed the intimate, the vital, connection between life and literature.
If this was so, - and there was certainly no evidence against it, - it was not improbable that Willie Hughes was one of those English comedians mimoe quidam ex Britannia , as the old chronicle calls them , who were slain at Nuremberg in a sudden uprising of the people, and were secretly buried in a little vineyard outside the city by some young men 'who had found pleasure in their performances, and of whom some had sought to be instructed in the mysteries of the new art.
For was it not front the sorrows of Dionysos that Tragedy sprang? Was not the light laughter of Comedy, with its careless merriment and quick replies, first heard on the lips of the Sicilian vine-dressers? Nay, did not the purple and red stain of the wine-froth on face and limbs give the first suggestion of the charm and fascination of disguise the desire for self-concealment, the sense of the value of objectivity thus showing itself in the rude beginnings of the art?
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At any rate, wherever he lay whether in the little vineyard at the gate of the Gothic town, or in some dim London churchyard amidst the roar and bustle of our great city - No gorgeous monument marked his resting-place. His true tomb, as Shakespeare saw, was the poet's verse, his true monument the permanence of the drama.
So had it been with others whose beauty had given a new creative impulse to their age. The ivory body of the Bithynian slave rots in the green ooze of the Nile, and on the yellow hills of the Cerameicus is strewn the dust of the young Athenian; but Antinous lives in sculpture, and Charmides in philosophy. No sooner, in fact, had I sent it off than a curious reaction came over me.
It seemed to me that I had given away my capacity for belief in the Willie Hughes theory of the Sonnets, that something had gone out of me, as it were, and that I was perfectly indifferent to the whole subject. What was it that had happened? It is difficult to say, perhaps, by finding perfect expression for a passion I had exhausted the passion itself. Emotional forces, like the forces of physical life, have their positive limitations.
Perhaps the mere effort to convert any one to a theory involves some form of renunciation of the power of credence. Perhaps I was simply tired of the whole thing, and, my enthusiasm having burnt out, my reason was left to its own unimpassioned judgment. However it came about, and I cannot pretend to explain it, there was no doubt that Willie Hughes suddenly became to me a mere myth, an idle dream, the boyish fancy of a young man who, like most ardent spirits, was more anxious to convince others than to be himself convinced. As I had said some very unjust and bitter things to Erskine in my latter, I determined to go and see him at once, and to make my apologies to him for my behaviour.
Accordingly, the next morning I drove down to Birdcage Walk, and found Erskine sitting in his library, with the forged picture of Willie Hughes in front of him. You have shown me that Cyril Graham's theory is perfectly sound. Do you think I cannot estimate the value of evidence. I had been touched by the story of Cyril Graham's death, fascinated by his romantic theory, enthralled by the wonder and novelty of the whole idea.
I see now that the theory is based on a delusion. The only evidence for the existence of Willie Hughes is that picture in front of you, and the picture is a forgery. Don't be carried away by mere sentiment in this matter.
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Whatever romance may have to say about the Willie Hughes theory, reason is dead against it. Why have you changed your mind? Or is all that you have been saying to me merely a joke? The Sonnets are addressed to Lord Pembroke. For heaven's sake don't waste your time in a foolish attempt to discover a young Elizabethan actor who never existed, and to make a phantom puppet the centre of the great cycle of Shakespeare's Sonnets. Why, I feel as if I had invented it. Surely my letter shows you that I not merely went into the whole matter, but that I contributed proofs of every kind.
The one Haw in the theory is that it presupposes the existence of the person whose existence is the subject of dispute. If we grant that there was in Shakespeare's company a young actor of the name of Willie Hughes it is not difficult to make him the object of the Sonnets.
But as we know that there was no actor of this name in the company of the Globe Theatre, it is idle to pursue the investigation further.
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We argued the matter over for hours, but nothing that I could say could make Erskine surrender his faith in Cyril Graham's interpretation. He told me that he intended to devote his life to proving the theory, and that he was determined to do justice to Cyril Graham's memory.
I entreated him, laughed at him, begged of him, but it was of no use. Finally we parted, not exactly in anger, but certainly with a shadow between us. He thought me shallow, I thought him foolish. When I called on him again his servant told me that he had gone to Germany. Two years afterwards, as I was going into my club, the hall-porter handed me a letter with a foreign postmark.
It was from Erskine, and written at the Hotel d'Angleterre, Cannes. When I had read it I was filled with horror, though I did not quite believe that he would be so mad as to carry his resolve into execution. The gist of the letter was that he had tried in every way to verify the Willie Hughes theory, and had failed, and that as Cyril. Graham had given his life for this theory, he himself had determined to give his own life also to the same cause. The concluding words of the letter were these: 'I still believe in Willie Hughes; and by the time you receive this, I shall have died by my own hand for Willie Hughes's sake: for his sake, and for the sake of Cyril Graham, whom I drove to his death by my shallow scepticism and ignorant lack of faith.
The truth was once revealed to you, and you rejected it. It comes to you now stained with the blood of two lives, - do not turn away from it. It was a horrible moment. I felt sick with misery, and yet I could not believe it. To die for one's theological beliefs is the worst use a man can make of his life, but to die for a literary theory! It seemed impossible. I looked at the date.