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TESTIMONIES OF TAYLOR AND LOWIN 63
fifty years and more that followed his death. Little of their gossip is extant. But some of it was put on record, before the end of the century, by John Downes, the old prompter and librarian of a chief London theatre. According to Downes's testimony, Taylor repeated instructions which he had received from Shakespeare's own lips for the playing of the part of Hamlet, while Lowin narrated how Shakespeare taught him the theatrical interpretation of the character of Henry the Eighth, in that play of the name which came from the joint pens of Shakespeare and Fletcher.
Both Taylor's and Lowin's reminiscences were passed on to Thomas Betterton, the greatest actor of the Restoration, and the most influential figure in the theatrical life of his day. Through him they were permanently incorporated in the verbal stagelore of the country. No doubt is possible of the validity of this piece of oral tradition, which reveals Shakespeare in the act of personally supervising the production of his own plays, and springs from the mouths of those who personally benefited by the dramatist's activity.
Taylor and Lowin were probably the last actors to speak of Shakespeare from personal knowledge. But hardly less deserving of attention are scraps of gossip about Shakespeare which survive in writing, on the authority of some of Taylor's and Lowin's actor-contemporaries. These men were never themselves in personal relations with Shakespeare, but knew many formerly in direct relation with him. Probably the seventeenth century actor with the most richly stored memory of the oral Shakespearean tradition was William Beeston, to whose
house in Hog Lane, Shoreditch, the curious often resorted in Charles the Second's time to listen to his reminiscences of Shakespeare and of the poets of Shakespeare's epoch.
Beeston died after a busy theatrical life, at eighty or upwards, in 1682. He belonged to a family of distinguished actors or actor-managers. His father, brothers, and son were all, like himself, prominent in the profession, and some of them were almost as long-lived as himself. His own career combined with that of his father covered more than a century, and both sedulously and with pride cultivated intimacy with contemporary dramatic authors.
It was probably William Beeston's grandfather, also William Beeston, to whom the satirical Elizabethan, Thomas Nash, dedicated in 1593, with goodhumoured irony, one of his insolent libels on Gabriel Harvey, a scholar who had defamed the memory of a dead friend. Nash laughed at his patron's struggles with syntax in his efforts to write poetry, and at his indulgence in drink, which betrayed itself in his red nose. But, in spite of Nash's characteristic frankness, he greeted the first William Beeston as a boon companion who was generous in his entertainment of threadbare scholars. Christopher Beeston, this man's son, the father of the Shakespearean gossip, had in abundance the hereditary taste for letters. He was at one time Shakespeare's associate on the stage. Both took part together in the first representation of Ben Jonson's Every Man in His Humour, in 1598. His name was again linked with Shakespeare's in the will of their fellowactor, Augustine Phillips, who left each of them a legacy as a token of friendship at his death in 1605. Christopher Beeston left Shakespeare's company of
WILLIAM BEESTON AND HIS FAMILY 65
actors for another theatre early in his career, and his closest friend among the actor-authors of his day in later life was not Shakespeare himself but Thomas Heywood, the popular dramatist and pamphleteer, who lived on to 1650. This was a friendship which kept Beeston's respect for Shakespeare at a fitting pitch. Heywood, who wrote the affectionate lines: Mellifluous Shakespeare, whose inchanting Quill Commanded Mirth or Passion, was but Will,
enjoys the distinction of having published in Shakespeare's lifetime the only expression of resentment that is known to have come from the dramatist's proverbially "gentle lips." Shakespeare (Heywood wrote) "was much offended" with an unprincipled publisher who "presumed to make so bold with his name" as to put it to a book of which he was not the author. And Beeston had direct concern with the volume called An Apology for Actors, to which Heywood appended his report of these words of Shakespeare. To the book the actor Beeston contributed preliminary verses addressed to the author, his "good friend and fellow, Thomas Heywood." There Beeston briefly vindicated the recreation which the playhouse offered the public. Much else in Christopher Beeston's professional career is known, but it is sufficient to mention here that he died in 1637, while he was filling the post that he had long held, of manager to the King and Queen's Company of Players at Cock-pit Theatre in Drury Lane. It was the chief playhouse of the time, and his wife was lessee of it.
Christopher's son, William Beeston the second, was his father's coadjutor at Drury Lane, and succeeded him in his high managerial office there. The son encountered difficulties with the Govern
ment through an alleged insult to the King in one of the pieces that he produced, and he had to retire from the Cock-pit to a smaller theatre in Salisbury Court. Until his death he retained the respect of the play-going and the literature-loving public, and his son George, whom he brought up to the stage, carried on the family repute to a later generation.
William Beeston had no liking for dissolute society, and the open vice of Charles the Second's Court pained him. He lived in old age much in seclusion, but by a congenial circle he was always warmly welcomed for the freshness and enthusiasm of his talk about the poets who flourished in his youth. "Divers times (in my hearing)," one of his auditors, Francis Kirkman, an ardent collector, reader, and publisher of old plays, wrote to him in 1652-"Divers times (in my hearing), to the admiration of the whole company you have most judiciously discoursed of Poesie." In the judgment of Kirkman, his friend, the old actor, was "the happiest interpreter and judg of our English stage-Playes this Nation ever produced; which the Poets and Actors these times cannot (without ingratitude) deny; for I have heard the chief, and most ingenious of them, acknowledg their Fames and Profits essentially sprung from your instructions, judgment, and fancy." Few who heard Beeston talk failed, Kirkman continues, to subscribe "to his opinion that no Nation could glory in such Playes" as those that came from the pens of the great Elizabethans, Shakespeare, Fletcher, and Ben Jonson. "Glorious John Dryden" shared in the general enthusiasm for the veteran Beeston, and bestowed on him the title of "the chronicle of
AUBREY ON BEESTON'S GOSSIP
the stage"; while John Aubrey, the honest antiquary and gossip, who had in his disorderly brain the makings of a Boswell, sought Beeston's personal acquaintance about 1660, in order to "take from him the lives of the old English Poets."
It is Aubrey who has recorded most of such sparse fragments of Beeston's talk as survive-how Edmund "Spenser was a little man, wore short hair, little bands, and short cuffs," and how Sir John Suckling came to invent the game of cribbage. Naturally, of Shakespeare Beeston has much to relate. In the shrewd old gossip's language, he “did act exceedingly well," far better than Jonson; "he understood Latin pretty well, for he had been in his younger years a schoolmaster in the country"; "he was a handsome, well-shaped man, very good company, and of a very ready and pleasant smooth wit"; he and Ben Jonson gathered "humours of men daily wherever they came." The ample testimony to the excellent influence which Beeston exercised over "the poets and actors of these times" leaves little doubt that Sir William D'Avenant, Beeston's successor as manager at Drury Lane, and Thomas Shadwell, the fashionable writer of comedies, largely echoed their old mentor's words when, in conversation with Aubrey, they credited Shakespeare with "a most prodigious wit," and declared that they "did admire his natural parts beyond all other dramatical writers." 1
John Lacy, another actor of Beeston's generation, who made an immense reputation on the stage
Aubrey's Lives, being reports of his miscellaneous gossip, were first fully printed from his manuscripts in the Bodleian Library by the Clarendon Press in 1898. They were most carefully edited by the Rev. Andrew Clark.