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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.
and was also a successful writer of farces, was one of Beeston's closest friends, and, having been personally acquainted with Ben Jonson, could lend to many of Beeston's stories useful corroborative testimony. With Lacy, too, the gossip Aubrey conversed of Shakespeare's career.
At the same time, the popularity of Shakespeare's grand-nephew, Charles Hart, who was called the Burbage of his day, whetted among actors the appetite for Shakespearean tradition, especially of the theatrical kind. Hart had no direct acquaintance with his great kinsman, who died fully ten years before he was born, while his father, who was sixteen at Shakespeare's death, died in his son's boyhood. But Hart's grandmother, the poet's sister, lived till he was twentyone, and Richard Robinson, the fellow-member of Shakespeare's company who first taught Hart to act, survived his pupil's adolescence. That Hart did what he could to satisfy the curiosity of his companions there is a precise oral tradition to confirm. According to the story, first put on record in the eighteenth century by the painstaking antiquary, William Oldys, it was through Hart that some actors made, near the date of the Restoration, the exciting discovery that Gilbert, one of Shakespeare's brothers, who was the dramatist's junior by only two years, was still living at a patriarchal age. Oldys describes the concern with which Hart's professional acquaintances questioned the old man about his brother, and their disappointment when his failing memory only enabled him to recall William's performance of the part of Adam in his comedy of As You Like It.
D'AVENANT AND SHAKESPEARE
It should be added that Oldys obtained his information of the episode, which deserves more attention than it has received, from an actor of a comparatively recent generation, John Bowman, who died over eighty in 1739, after spending "more than half an age on the London theatres."
Valuable as these actors' testimonies are, it is in another rank of the profession that we find the most important link in the chain of witnesses alike to the persistence and authenticity of the oral tradition of Shakespeare which was current in the middle of the seventeenth century. Sir William D'Avenant, the chief playwright and promoter of theatrical enterprise of his day, enjoyed among persons of influence and quality infinite credit and confidence. As a boy he and his brothers had come into personal relations with the dramatist under their father's roof, and the experience remained the proudest boast of their lives. D'Avenant was little more than ten when Shakespeare died, and his direct intercourse with him was consequently slender; but D'Avenant was a child of the Muses, and his slight acquaintance with the living Shakespeare spurred him to treasure all that he could learn of his hero from any who had enjoyed fuller opportunities of intimacy.
To learn the manner in which the child D'Avenant and his brothers came to know Shakespeare is to approach the dramatist through oral tradition at very close quarters. D'Avenant's father, a melancholy person who was never known. to laugh, long kept at Oxford the Crown Inn in Carfax. Gossip which was current in Oxford through
out the seventeenth century, and was put on record before the end of it by more than one scholar of the university, establishes the fact that Shakespeare on his annual journeys between London and Stratfordon-Avon was in the habit of staying at the elder D'Avenant's Oxford hostelry. The report ran that "he was exceedingly respected" in the house, and was freely admitted to the inn-keeper's domestic circle. The inn-keeper's wife was credited with a mercurial disposition which contrasted strangely with her husband's sardonic temperament; it was often said in Oxford that Shakespeare not merely found his chief attraction at the Crown Inn in the wife's witty conversation, but formed a closer intimacy with her than moralists would approve. Oral tradition speaks in clearer tones of his delight in the children of the family-four boys and three girls. We have at command statements on that subject from the lips of two of the sons. The eldest son, Robert, who was afterwards a parson in Wiltshire, and was on familiar terms with many men of culture, often recalled with pride for their benefit that "Mr William Shakespeare" had given him as a child "a hundred kisses" in his father's tavern-parlour.
The third son, William, was more expansive in his reminiscences. It was generally understood at Oxford in the early years of the seventeenth century that he was the poet's godson, as his Christian name would allow, but some gossips had it that the poet's paternity was of a less spiritual character. According to a genuine anecdote of contemporary origin, when the boy, William D'Avenant, in Shakespeare's lifetime, informed a doctor of the university that he was on his way to ask a blessing
of his godfather who had just arrived in the town, the child was warned by his interlocutor against taking the name of God in vain. It is proof of the estimation in which D'Avenant held Shakespeare that when he came to man's estate he was "content enough to have" the insinuation "thought to be true." He would talk freely with his friends over a glass of wine of Shakespeare's visits to his father's house, and would say "that it seemed to him that he wrote with Shakespeare's very spirit." Of his reverence for Shakespeare he gave less questionable proof in a youthful elegy in which he represented the flowers and trees on the banks of the Avon mourning for Shakespeare's death and the river weeping itself away. He was credited, too, with having adopted the new spelling of his name D'Avenant (for Davenant), so as to read into it a reference to the river Avon.
In maturer age D'Avenant sought out the old actors Taylor and Lowin, and mastered their information respecting Shakespeare, their early colleague on the stage. With a curious perversity he mainly devoted his undoubted genius in his later years to rewriting in accordance with the debased taste of Charles the Second's reign the chief works of his idol; but until D'Avenant's death in 1668 the unique character of Shakespeare's greatness had no stouter champion than he, and in the circle of men of wit and fashion, of which he was the centre, none kept the cult alive with greater enthusiasm. His early friend Sir John Suckling, the Cavalier poet, who was only seven years old when Shakespeare died, he infected so thoroughly with his own affectionate admiration that Suckling wrote of the