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ROWE'S BIOGRAPHY OF 1709
wards George the First's poet laureate, published the first professed biography of the poet. The eminence of the subject justified such alacrity, and it had no precise parallel. More or less definite lives of a few of Shakespeare's great literary contemporaries followed his biography at long intervals. But the whole field has never been occupied by the professed biographer. In some cases the delay has meant loss of opportunity for ever. Very many distinguished Elizabethan and Jacobean authors have shared the fate of John Webster, next to Shakespeare the most eminent tragic dramatist of the era, of whom no biography was ever attempted, and no positive biographic fact survives.
But this is an imperfect statement of the advantages which Shakespeare's career enjoyed above that of his fellows from the commemorative point of view. Although formal biography did not lay hand on his name for nearly a century after his death, the authentic tradition of his life and work began steadily to crystallise in the minds and mouths of men almost as soon as he drew his last breath. Fuller's characteristically shadowy hint of "witcombats betwixt Shakespeare and Ben Jonson" and of the contrasted characters of the two combatants, suggests pretty convincingly that Shakespeare's name presented to the seventeenth-century imagination and tongue a better defined personality and experience than the embryonic biographer knew how to disclose. The commemorative instinct never seeks satisfaction in biographic effort exclusively, even when the art of biography has ripened into satisfying fulness. A great man's reputation and the moving incidents of his career never live solely
in the printed book or the literary word. In a great man's life-time, and for many years after, his fame and his fortunes live most effectually on living lips. The talk of surviving kinsmen, fellow-craftsmen, admiring acquaintances, and sympathetic friends is the treasure-house which best preserves the personality of the dead hero for those who come soon after him. When biography is unpractised, no other treasure-house is available.
The report of such converse moves quickly from mouth to mouth. In its progress the narration naturally grows fainter, and, when no biographer lies in wait for it, ultimately perishes altogether. But oral tradition respecting a great man whose work has fascinated the imagination of his countrymen comes into circulation early, persists long, even in the absence of biography, and safeguards substantial elements of truth through many generations. Although no biographer put in an appearance, it is seldom that some fragment of oral tradition respecting a departed hero is not committed to paper by one or other amateur gossip who comes within earshot of it early in its career. The casual unsifted record of floating anecdote is not always above suspicion. As a rule it is embodied in familiar correspondence, or in diaries, or in commonplace books, where clear and definite language is rarely met with; but, however disappointingly imperfect and trivial, however disjointed, however deficient in literary form the registered jottings of oral tradition may be, it is in them, if they exist at all with any title to credit, that future ages best realise the fact that the great man was in plain truth a living entity, and no mere shadow of a name.
ANTIQUITY OF SHAKESPEAREAN TRADITION 57
When Shakespeare died, on the 23rd of April, 1616, many men and women were alive who had come into personal association with him, and there were many more who had heard of him from those who had spoken with him. Apart from his numerous kinsfolk and neighbours at Stratford-onAvon, there was in London a large society of fellow-authors and fellow-actors with whom he lived in close communion. Very little correspondence or other intimate memorials, whether of Shakespeare's professional friends or of his kinsfolk or country neighbours, survive. Nevertheless some scraps of the talk about Shakespeare that circulated among his acquaintances or was handed on by them to the next generation has been tracked to written paper of the seventeenth century and to printed books. A portion of these scattered memorabilia of the earliest known oral traditions respecting Shakespeare has come to light very recently; other portions have been long accessible. As a connected whole they have never been narrowly scrutinised, and I believe it may serve a useful purpose to consider with some minuteness how the mass of them came into being, and what is the sum of information they conserve.
The more closely Shakespeare's career is studied the plainer it becomes that his experiences and fortunes were identical with those of all who followed in his day his profession of dramatist, and that his conscious aims and ambitions and practices were those of every contemporary man of letters. The difference between the results of his endeavours and those of his fellows was due to the magic and in
voluntary working of genius, which, since the birth of poetry, has exercised "as large a charter as the wind, to blow on whom it pleases." Speculation or debate as to why genius bestowed its fullest inspiration on Shakespeare is no less futile than speculation or debate as to why he was born into the world with a head on his shoulders instead of a block of stone. It is enough for wise men to know the obvious fact that genius endowed Shakespeare with its richest gifts, and a very small acquaintance with the literary history of the world and with the manner, in which genius habitually plays its part there, will show the folly of cherishing astonishment that Shakespeare, rather than one more nobly born or more academically trained, should have been chosen for the glorious dignity. Nowhere is this lesson more convincingly taught than by a systematic survey of the oral tradition. Shakespeare figures there as a supremely favoured heir of genius, whose humility of birth and education merely serves to intensify the respect due to his achievement.
In London, where Shakespeare's work was mainly done and his fortune and reputation achieved, he lived with none in more intimate social relations than with the leading members of his own prosperous company of actors, which, under the patronage of the king, produced his greatest plays. Like himself, most of his colleagues were men of substance, sharers with him in the two most fashionable theatres of the metropolis, occupiers of residences in both town and country, owners of houses and lands, and bearers of coat-armour of that questionable validity which commonly attaches to the heraldry of the nouveaux riches. Two of these affluent associates
THE ACTORS' TRADITION
predeceased Shakespeare; and one of them, Augustine Phillips, attested his friendship in a small legacy. Three of Shakespeare's fellow-actors were affectionately remembered by him in his will, and a fourth, one of the youngest members of the company, proved his regard for Shakespeare's memory by taking, a generation after the dramatist's death, Charles Hart, Shakespeare's grand-nephew, into his employ as a "boy" or apprentice. Grandnephew Charles went forth on a prosperous career, in which at its height he was seriously likened to his grand-uncle's most distinguished actor-ally, Richard Burbage. Above all is it to be borne in mind that to the disinterested admiration for his genius of two fellow-members of Shakespeare's company we owe the preservation and publication of the greater part of his literary work. The personal fascination of "so worthy a friend and fellow as was our Shakespeare" bred in all his fellow-workers an affectionate pride in their intimacy.
Such men were the parents of the greater part of the surviving oral tradition of Shakespeare, and no better parentage could be wished for. To the first accessible traditions of proved oral currency after Shakespeare's death, the two fellow-actors who called the great First Folio into existence pledged their credit in writing only seven years after his death. They printed in the preliminary pages of that volume these three statements of common fame, viz., that to Shakespeare and his plays in his lifetime was invariably extended the fullest favour of the court and its leading officers; that death deprived him of the opportunity he had long contemplated of preparing his literary work for the