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BETTERTON AT STRATFORD-ON-AVON
the instruction which he had derived through the medium of Taylor and Lowin from Shakespeare's own lips. But more to the immediate purpose is it to note that D'Avenant's ardour as a seeker after knowledge of Shakespeare fired Betterton into making a pilgrimage to Stratford-on-Avon to glean oral traditions of the dramatist's life there. Many other of Shakespeare's admirers had previously made Stratford Church, where stood his tomb, a place of pilgrimage, and Aubrey had acknowledged in haphazard fashion the value of Stratford gossip. But it was Betterton's visit that laid the train for the systematic union of the oral traditions of London and Stratford respectively.
It was not until the London and Warwickshire streams of tradition mingled in equal strength that a regular biography of Shakespeare was possible. Betterton was the efficient cause of this conjunction. All that Stratford-on-Avon revealed to him he put at the disposal of Nicholas Rowe, who was the first to attempt a formal memoir. Of Betterton's assistance Rowe made generous acknowledgment in these terms:
I must own a particular Obligation to him [i.e., Betterton] for the most considerable part of the Passages relating to his [i.e., Shakespeare's] Life, which I have here transmitted to the Publick; his veneration for the Memory of Shakespear having engag'd him to make a Journey into Warwickshire, on purpose to gather up what Remains he could of a Name for which he had so great a Value.
The contemporary epitaph on Shakespeare's tomb in Stratford-on-Avon Church, which acclaimed
Shakespeare a writer of supreme genius, gave the inhabitants of the little town no opportunity of ignoring at any period the fact that the greatest poet of his era had been their fellow-townsman. Stratford was indeed openly identified with Shakespeare's career from the earliest possible day, and Sir William Dugdale, the first topographer of Warwickshire, writing about 1650, noted that the place was memorable for having given "birth and sepulture to our late famous poet Will Shakespeare." But the obscure little town produced in the years that followed Shakespeare's death none who left behind records of their experience, and such fragments of oral tradition of Shakespeare at Stratford as are extant survive accidentally, with one notable exception, in the manuscript notes of visitors, who, like Betterton, were drawn thither by a veneration acquired elsewhere.
The one notable exception is John Ward, a seventeenth-century vicar of Stratford, who settled there in 1662, at the age of thirty-three, forty-six years after Shakespeare's death. Ward remained at Stratford till his death in 1681. He is the only resident of the century who wrote down any of the local story. Ward was a man of good sentiment. He judged that it became a vicar of Stratford to know his Shakespeare well, and one of his private reminders for his own conduct runs-"Remember to peruse Shakespeare's plays, and bee much versed in them, that I may not bee ignorant in that matter."
Ward was a voluminous diarist and a faithful chronicler as far as he cared to go. Shakespeare's last surviving daughter, Judith Quiney, was dying when he arrived in Stratford; but sons of Shakespeare's sister, Mistress Joan Hart, were still living
in the poet's birthplace in Henley Street. Ward seems, too, to have known Lady Barnard, Shakespeare's only grandchild and last surviving descendant, who, although she only occasionally visited Stratford after her second marriage in 1649, and her removal to her husband's residence at Abington, near the town of Northampton, retained much property in her native place till her death in 1670. Ward reported from local conversation six important details, viz., that Shakespeare retired to Stratford in his elder days; that he wrote at the most active period of his life two plays a year; that he made so large an income from his dramas that
he spent at the rate of £1000 a year"; that he entertained his literary friends Drayton and Jonson at "a merry meeting" shortly before his death, and that he died of its effects.
Oxford, which was only thirty-six miles distant, supplied the majority of Stratford tourists, who, before Betterton, gathered oral tradition there. Aubrey, the Oxford gossip, roughly noted six local items other than those which are embodied in Ward's diary, or are to be gleaned from Beeston's reminiscences, viz., that Shakespeare had as a lad helped his father in his trade of butcher; that one of the poet's companions in boyhood, who died young, had almost as extraordinary a "natural wit"; that Shakespeare betrayed very early signs of poetic genius; that he paid annual visits to his native place when his career was at its height; that he loved at tavern meetings in the town to chaff John Combe, the richest of his fellow-townsmen, who was accused of usurious practices; and finally, that he died possessed of a substantial fortune.
Until the end of the century, visitors were shown round the church by an aged parish clerk, some of whose gossip about Shakespeare was recorded by one of them in 1693. The old man came thus to supply two further items of information: how Shakespeare ran away in youth, and how he sought service at a playhouse, "and by this meanes had an opportunity to be what he afterwards proved." A different visitor to Stratford next year recorded in an extant letter to a friend yet more scraps of oral tradition. These were to the effect that "the great Shakespear" dreaded the removal of his bones to the charnel-house attached to the church; that he caused his grave to be dug seventeen feet deep; and that he wrote the rude warning against disturbing his bones, which was inscribed on his gravestone, in order to meet the capacity of the "very ignorant sort of people" whose business it was to look after burials.
Betterton gained more precise particulars-the date of baptism and the like-from an examination of the parochial records; but the most valuable piece of oral tradition with which the great actor's research must be credited was the account of Shakespeare's deer-stealing escapade at Charlecote. Another tourist from Oxford privately and independently put that anecdote into writing at the same date, but Rowe, who first gave it to the world in his biography, relied exclusively on Betterton's authority. At a little later period inquiries made at Stratford by a second actor, Bowman, yielded a trifle more. Bowman came to know a very reputable resident at Bridgtown, a hamlet adjoining Stratford, Sir William Bishop, whose family was of old standing there. Sir William was born ten
THE TRADITION OF GRENDON
years after Shakespeare died, and lived close to Stratford till 1700. He told Bowman that a part of Falstaff's character was drawn from a fellowtownsman at Stratford against whom Shakespeare cherished a grudge owing to his obduracy in some business transaction. Bowman repeated the story to Oldys, who put it on record.
Although one could wish the early oral tradition of Stratford to have been more thoroughly reported, such as is extant in writing is sufficient to prove that Shakespeare's literary eminence was well known in his native place during the century that followed his death. In many villages in the neighbourhood of Stratford-at Bidford, at Wilmcote, at Greet, at Dursley-there long persisted like oral tradition of Shakespeare's occasional visits, but these were not written down before the middle of the eighteenth century; and although they are of service as proof of the local dissemination of his fame, they are somewhat less definite than the traditions that suffered earlier record, and need not be particularised here. One light piece of gossip, which was associated with a country parish at some distance from Stratford, can alone be traced back to remote date, and was quickly committed to writing. A trustworthy Oxford don, Josias Howe, fellow and tutor of Trinity, was born early in the seventeenth century at Grendon in Buckinghamshire, where his father was long rector, and he maintained close relations with his birthplace during his life of more than ninety years. Grendon was on the road between Oxford and London. Howe stated that Shakespeare often visited the place in his journey from Stratford, and that he found the original of his character of Dog