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voluntary working of genius, which, since the birth of poetry, has exercised “as large a charter as the wind, to blow on whom it pleases.” Speculation or debate as to why genius bestowed its fullest inspiration on Shakespeare is no less futile than speculation or debate as to why he was born into the world with a head on his shoulders instead of a block of stone. It is enough for wise men to know the obvious fact that genius endowed Shakespeare with its richest gifts, and a very small acquaintance with the literary history of the world and with the manner, in which genius habitually plays its part there, will show the folly of cherishing astonishment that Shakespeare, rather than one more nobly born or more academically trained, should have been chosen for the glorious dignity. Nowhere is this lesson more convincingly taught than by a systematic survey of the oral tradition. Shakespeare figures there as a supremely favoured heir of genius, whose humility of birth and education merely serves to intensify the respect due to his achievement.
In London, where Shakespeare's work was mainly done and his fortune and reputation achieved, he lived with none in more intimate social relations than with the leading members of his own prosperous company of actors, which, under the patronage of the king, produced his greatest plays. Like himself, most of his colleagues were men of substance, sharers with him in the two most fashionable theatres of the metropolis, occupiers of residences in both town and country, owners of houses and lands, and bearers of coat-armour of that questionable validity which commonly attaches to the heraldry of the nouveaux riches. Two of these affluent associates
THE ACTORS' TRADITION
predeceased Shakespeare; and one of them, Augustine Phillips, attested his friendship in a small legacy. Three of Shakespeare's fellow-actors were affectionately remembered by him in his will, and a fourth, one of the youngest members of the company, proved his regard for Shakespeare's memory by taking, a generation after the dramatist's death, Charles Hart, Shakespeare's grand-nephew, into his employ as a “boy” or apprentice. Grandnephew Charles went forth on a prosperous career, in which at its height he was seriously likened to his grand-uncle's most distinguished actor-ally, Richard Burbage. Above all is it to be borne in mind that to the disinterested admiration for his genius of two fellow-members of Shakespeare's company we owe the preservation and publication of the greater part of his literary work. The personal fascination of "so worthy a friend and fellow as was our Shakespeare” bred in all his fellow-workers an affectionate pride in their intimacy.
Such men were the parents of the greater part of the surviving oral tradition of Shakespeare, and no better parentage could be wished for. To the first accessible traditions of proved oral currency after Shakespeare's death, the two fellow-actors who called the great First Folio into existence pledged their credit in writing only seven years after his death. They printed in the preliminary pages of that volume these three statements of common fame, viz., that to Shakespeare and his plays in his lifetime was invariably extended the fullest favour of the court and its leading officers; that death deprived him of the opportunity he had long contemplated of preparing his literary work for the
press; and that he wrote with so rapidly flowing a pen that his manuscript was never defaced by alteration or erasure. Shakespeare's extraordinary rapidity of composition was an especially frequent topic of contemporary debate. Ben Jonson, the most intimate personal friend of Shakespeare outside the circle of working actors, wrote how “the players” would “often mention” to him the poet's fluency, and how he was in the habit of arguing that Shakespeare's work would have been the better had he devoted more time to its correction. The players, Ben Jonson adds, were wont to grumble that such a remark was “malevolent,” and he delighted in seeking to vindicate it to them on what seemed to him to be just critical grounds.
The copious deliverances of Jonson in the tavernparliaments of the London wits, which were in almost continuous session during the first four decades of the seventeenth century, set flowing much other oral tradition of Shakespeare, whom Jonson said he loved and whose memory he honoured "on this side idolatry as much as any.” One of Jonson's remarks which seems to have lived longest on the lips of contemporaries was that Shakespeare "was indeed honest and (like his own Othello] of an open and free nature," had an excellent phantasy, brave notions and gentle expressions, wherein he flowed with that facility that sometimes it was necessary he should be stopped.”
To the same category of oral tradition belongs the further piece which Fuller enshrined in his slender biography with regard to Shakespeare's
Iago says of Othello, in Othello, I., iii., 405: “ The Moor is of a free and open nature."
SHAKESPEARE'S ALERTNESS IN DEBATE
alert skirmishes with Ben Jonson in dialectical battle. Jonson's dialectical skill was for a long period undisputed, and for gossip to credit Shakespeare with victory in such conflict was to pay his memory even more enviable honour than Jonson paid it in his own obiter dicta.
There is yet an additional scrap of oral tradition which, reduced to writing about the time that Fuller was at work, confirms Shakespeare's reputation for quickness of wit in everyday life, especially in intercourse with the critical giant Jonson. Dr. Donne, the Jacobean poet and dean of St. Paul's, told, apparently on Jonson's authority, the story that Shakespeare, having consented to act as godfather to one of Jonson's sons, solemnly promised to give the child a dozen good “Latin spoons" for the father to “translate.” Latin was a play upon the word “latten,” which was the name of a metal resembling brass. The simple quip was a goodhumoured hit at Jonson's pride in his classical learning. Dr. Donne related the anecdote to Sir Nicholas L'Estrange, a country gentleman of literary tastes, who had no interest in Shakespeare except from the literary point of view. He entered it in his commonplace book within thirty years of Shakespeare's death.
IV Of the twenty-five actors who are enumerated in a preliminary page of the great First Folio, as filling in Shakespeare's lifetime chief rôles in his plays, few survived him long. All of them came in personal contact with him; several of them constantly appeared with him on the stage from early days.
The two who were longest lived, John Lowin and
Joseph Taylor, came at length to bear a great weight of years. They were both Shakespeare's juniors, Lowin by twelve years, and Taylor by twenty, but both established their reputation before middle age. Lowin at twenty-seven took part with Shakespeare in the first representation of Ben Jonson's Sejanus in 1603. He was an early, if not the first, interpreter of the character of Falstaff. Taylor as understudy to the great actor Burbage, a very close ally of Shakespeare, seems to have achieved some success in the part of Hamlet, and to have been applauded in the role of Iago, while the dramatist yet lived. When the dramatist died, Lowin was forty, and Taylor over thirty.
Subsequently, as their senior colleagues one by one passed from the world, these two actors assumed first rank in their company, and before the ruin in which the Civil War involved all theatrical enterprise, they were acknowledged to stand at the head of their profession. Taylor lived through the Commonwealth, and Lowin far into the reign of Charles the Second, ultimately reaching his ninetythird year. Their last days were passed in indigence, and Lowin when an octogenarian was reduced to keeping the inn of the “Three Pigeons," at Brentford.
Both these men kept alive from personal knowledge some oral Shakespearean tradition during the
1 Like almost all their colleagues, they had much literary taste. When public events compulsorily retired them from the stage, they, with the aid of the dramatist Shirley and eight other actors, two of whom were members with them of Shakespeare's old company, did an important service to English literature. In 1647 they collected for first publication in folio Beaumont and Fletcher's plays; only one, The Wild Goose Chase, was omitted, and that piece Taylor and Lowin brought out by their unaided efforts five years