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FULLER'S BIOGRAPHICAL EXPERIMENT
name”; Ovid, for the naturalness and wit of his poetry; and Plautus, alike for the extent of his comic power and his lack of scholarly training. He was, Fuller continued, an eminent instance of the rule that a poet is born not made. “Though his genius,” he warns us, "generally was jocular and inclining him to festivity, yet he could, when so disposed, be solemn and serious.” His comedies, Fuller adds, would rouse laughter even in the weeping philosopher Heraclitus, while his tragedies would bring tears even to the eyes of the laughing philosopher Democritus.
Of positive statements respecting Shakespeare's career Fuller is economical. He commits himself to nothing more than may be gleaned from the following sentences :
Many were the wit-combats betwixt him and Ben Jonson; which two I behold like a Spanish great galleon and an English man-of-war; master Jonson (like the former) was built far higher in learning; solid, but slow, in his performances. Shakespeare, with the English man-of-war, lesser in bulk, but lighter in sailing, could turn with all tides, tack about, and take advantage of all winds, by the quickness of his wit and invention. He died Anno Domini 1616, and was buried at Stratford-uponAvon, the town of his nativity.
Fuller's successors did their work better in some regards, because they laboured in narrower fields. Many of them showed a welcome appreciation of a main source of their country's permanent reputation by confining their energies to the production of biographical catalogues, not of all manners of heroes, but solely of those who had distinguished
themselves in poetry and the drama. In 1675 a biographical catalogue of poets was issued for the first time in England, and the example once set was quickly followed. No less than three more efforts of the like kind came to fruition before the end of the century.
In all four biographical manuals Shakespeare was accorded more or less imposing space. Although Fuller's eccentric compliments were usually repeated, they were mingled with far more extended and discriminating tributes. Two of the compilers designated Shakespeare “the glory of the English stage”; a third wrote, “I esteem his plays beyond any that have ever been published in our language”; while the fourth quoted with approval Dryden's fine phrase: “Shakespeare was the Man who of all Modern and perhaps Ancient Poets had the largest and most comprehensive Soul.” But the avowed principles of these tantalising volumes justify no expectation of finding in them solid information. The biographical cataloguers of the seventeenth century did little more than proclaim Shakespeare and the other great poets of the country to be fit subjects for formal biography as soon as the type should be matured. That was the message of greatest virtue which these halting chroniclers delivered.
In Shakespeare's case their message was not long neglected. In 1709 Nicholas Rowe, after
1 Such a compilation had been contemplated in 1614, two years before the dramatist died, by one of Shakespeare's own associates, Thomas Heywood. Twenty-one years later, in 1635, Heywood spoke of “committing to the public view ” his sum
" mary Lives of the Poets, but nothing more was heard of that project.
ROWE'S BIOGRAPHY OF 1709
wards George the First's poet laureate, published the first professed biography of the poet. The eminence of the subject justified such alacrity, and it had no precise parallel. More or less definite lives of a few of Shakespeare's great literary contemporaries followed his biography at long intervals. But the whole field has never been occupied by the professed biographer. In some cases the delay has meant loss of opportunity for ever. Very many distinguished Elizabethan and Jacobean authors have shared the fate of John Webster, next to Shakespeare the most eminent tragic dramatist of the era, of whom no biography was ever attempted, and no positive biographic fact survives.
But this is an imperfect statement of the advantages which Shakespeare's career enjoyed above that of his fellows from the commemorative point of view. Although formal biography did not lay hand on his name for nearly a century after his death, the authentic tradition of his life and work began steadily to crystallise in the minds and mouths of men almost as soon as he drew his last breath. Fuller's characteristically shadowy hint of “witcombats betwixt Shakespeare and Ben Jonson” and of the contrasted characters of the two combatants, suggests pretty convincingly that Shakespeare's name presented to the seventeenth-century imagination and tongue a better defined personality and experience than the embryonic biographer knew how to disclose. The commemorative instinct never seeks satisfaction in biographic effort exclusively, even when the art of biography has ripened into satisfying fulness. A great man's reputation and the moving incidents of his career never live solely in the printed book or the literary word. In a great man's life-time, and for many years after, his fame and his fortunes live most effectually on living lips. The talk of surviving kinsmen, fellow-craftsmen, admiring acquaintances, and sympathetic friends is the treasure-house which best preserves the personality of the dead hero for those who come soon after him. When biography is unpractised, no other treasure-house is available.
The report of such converse moves quickly from mouth to mouth. In its progress the narration naturally grows fainter, and, when no biographer lies in wait for it, ultimately perishes altogether. But oral tradition respecting a great man whose work has fascinated the imagination of his countrymen comes into circulation early, persists long, even in the absence of biography, and safeguards substantial elements of truth through many generations. Although no biographer put in an appearance, it is seldom that some fragment of oral tradition respecting a departed hero is not committed to paper by one or other amateur gossip who comes within earshot of it early in its career. The casual unsifted record of floating anecdote is not always above suspicion. As a rule it is embodied in familiar correspondence, or in diaries, or in commonplace books, where clear and definite language is rarely met with; but, however disappointingly imperfect and trivial, however disjointed, however deficient in literary form the registered jottings of oral tradition may be, it is in them, if they exist at all with any title to credit, that future ages best realise the fact that the great man was in plain truth a living entity, and no mere shadow of a name.
ANTIQUITY OF SHAKESPEAREAN TRADITION 57
When Shakespeare died, on the 23rd of April, 1616, many men and women were alive who had come into personal association with him, and there were many more who had heard of him from those who had spoken with him. Apart from his numerous kinsfolk and neighbours at Stratford-onAvon, there was in London a large society of fellow-authors and fellow-actors with whom he lived in close communion. Very little correspondence or other intimate memorials, whether of Shakespeare's professional friends or of his kinsfolk or country neighbours, survive. Nevertheless some scraps of the talk about Shakespeare that circulated among his acquaintances or was handed on by them to the next generation has been tracked to written paper of the seventeenth century and to printed books. A portion of these scattered memorabilia of the earliest known oral traditions respecting Shakespeare has come to light very recently; other portions have been long accessible. As a connected whole they have never been narrowly scrutinised, and I believe it may serve a useful purpose to consider with some minuteness how the mass of them came into being, and what is the sum of information they conserve.
The more closely Shakespeare's career is studied the plainer it becomes that his experiences and fortunes were identical with those of all who followed in his day his profession of dramatist, and that his conscious aims and ambitions and practices were those of every contemporary man of letters. The difference between the results of his endeavours and those of his fellows was due to the magic and in