Abbildungen der Seite



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

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.


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



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



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.

« ZurückWeiter »