« ZurückWeiter »
berry in the person of a parish constable who lived on there till 1642. Howe was on familiar terms with the man, and he confided his reminiscence to his friend Aubrey, who duly recorded it, although in a somewhat confused shape.
VII It is with early oral tradition of Shakespeare's personal experience that I am dealing here. It is not my purpose to notice early literary criticism, of which there is abundant supply. It was obviously the free circulation of the fame of Shakespeare's work which stimulated the activity of interest in his private fortunes and led to the chronicling of the oral tradition regarding them. It could easily be shown that, outside the circle of professional poets, dramatists, actors, and fellow-townsmen, Shakespeare's name was, from his first coming into public notice, constantly on the lips of scholars, statesmen, and men of fashion who had any glimmer of literary taste. The Muse of History indeed drops plain hints of the views expressed at the social meetings of the great in the seventeenth century when Shakespeare was under discussion. Before 1643, "all
persons of equality that had wit and learning" engaged in a set debate at Eton in the rooms of “the ever-memorable” John Hales, Fellow of the College, on the question of Shakespeare's merits compared with those of classical poets. The judges who presided over “this ingenious assembly” unanimously and without qualification decided in favour of Shakespeare's superiority.
A very eminent representative of the culture and political intelligence of the next generation was
ROWE'S BIOGRAPHY OF 1709
in full sympathy with the verdict of the Eton College tribunal. Lord Clarendon held Shakespeare to be one of the "most illustrious of our nation.” Among the many heroes of his admiration, Shakespeare was of the elect few who were “most agreeable to his lordship’s general humour.” Lord Clarendon
' was at the pains of securing a portrait of Shakespeare to hang in his house in St. James's. Similarly, the proudest and probably the richest nobleman in political circles at the end of the seventeenth century, the Duke of Somerset, was often heard to speak of his "pleasure in that Greatness of Thought, those natural Images, those Passions finely touch’d, and that beautiful Expression which is everywhere to be met with in Shakespear.”
It was to this Duke of Somerset that Rowe appropriately dedicated the first full and formal biography of the poet. That work was designed as a preface to the first critical edition of Shakespeare's plays, which Rowe published in 1709. “Though the works of Mr Shakespear may seem to many not to want a comment," Rowe wrote modestly enough, “yet I fancy some little account of the man himself may not be thought improper to go along with them.” Rowe did his work quite as well as the rudimentary state of the biographic art of his day allowed. He was under the complacent impression that his supply of information satisfied all reasonable curiosity. He had placed himself in the hands of Betterton, an investigator at first hand. But the fact remains that Rowe made no sustained nor scholarly effort to collect exhaustively even the oral tradition; still less did he consult with thoroughness official records or references to Shakespeare's literary achievements in the books of his contemporaries. Such labour as that was to be undertaken later, when the practice of biography had assimilated more scientific method. Rowe preferred the straw of vague rhapsody to the brick of solid fact.
Nevertheless Rowe's memoir laid the foundations on which his successors built. It set ringing the bell which called together that mass of information drawn from every source-manuscript archives, printed books, oral tradition—which now far exceeds what is accessible in the case of any poet contemporary with Shakespeare. Some links in the chain of Shakespeare's career are still missing, and we must wait for the future to disclose them. But, though the clues at present are in some places faint, the trail never altogether eludes the patient investigator. The ascertained facts are already numerous enough to define beyond risk of intelligent doubt the direction that Shakespeare's career followed. Its general outline is, as we have seen, fully established by one source of knowledge alone-one out of many—by the oral tradition which survives from the seventeenth century.
It may be justifiable to cherish regret for the loss of Shakespeare's autograph papers and of his familiar correspondence. But the absence of such documentary material can excite scepticism of the received tradition only in those who are ignorant of the fate that invariably befell the original manuscripts and correspondence of Elizabethan and
PRESENT STATE OF KNOWLEDGE
Jacobean poets and dramatists. Save for a few fragments of small literary moment, no play of the era in its writer's autograph escaped early destruction by fire or dustbin. No machinery then ensured, no custom then encouraged, the due preservation of the autographs of men distinguished for poetic genius. Provision was made in the public record offices or in private muniment-rooms for the protection of the official papers and correspondence of men in public life, and of manuscript memorials affecting the property and domestic history of great county families. But even in the case of men of the sixteenth or seventeenth century in official life who, as often happened, devoted their leisure to literature, the autographs of their literary compositions have for the most part perished, and there usually only remain in the official depositories remnants of their writings about matters of official routine.
Not all those depositories, it is to be admitted, have yet been fully explored, and in some of them a more thorough search than has yet been undertaken may be expected to throw new light on Shakespeare's biography. Meanwhile, instead of mourning helplessly over the lack of material for a knowledge of Shakespeare's life, it becomes us to estimate aright what we have at our command, to study it closely in the light of the literary history of the epoch, and, while neglecting no opportunity of bettering our information, to recognise frankly the activity of the destroying agencies which have been at work from the outset. Then we shall wonder, not why we know so little, but why we know so much.
PEPYS AND SHAKESPEARE 1
In his capacity of playgoer, as indeed in almost every other capacity, Pepys presents himself to readers of his naïve diary as the incarnation, or the microcosm, of the average man.
No other writer has pictured with the same lifelike precision and simplicity the average playgoer's sensations of pleasure or pain. Of the play and its performers Pepys records exactly what he thinks or feels. He usually takes a more lively interest in the acting and in the scenic and musical accessories than in the drama's literary quality. Subtlety is at any rate absent from his criticism. He is either bored or amused. The piece is either the best or the worst that he ever witnessed. His epithets are of the bluntest and are without modulation. Wiser than more professional dramatic critics, he avoids labouring at reasons for his emphatic judgments.
Always true to his rôle of the average man, Pepys suffers his mind to be swayed by barely relevant accidents. His thought is rarely free from official
1A paper read at the sixth meeting of the Samuel Pepys Club, on Thursday, November 30, 1905, and printed in the Fortnightly Review for January, 1906.