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WILLIAM BEESTON AND HIS FAMILY 65
actors for another theatre early in his career, and his closest friend among the actor-authors of his day in later life was not Shakespeare himself but Thomas Heywood, the popular dramatist and pamphleteer, who lived on to 1650. This was a friendship which kept Beeston's respect for Shakespeare at a fitting pitch. Heywood, who wrote the affectionate lines: Mellifluous Shakespeare, whose inchanting Quill Commanded Mirth or Passion, was but Will,
enjoys the distinction of having published in Shakespeare's lifetime the only expression of resentment that is known to have come from the dramatist's proverbially "gentle lips." Shakespeare (Heywood wrote) "was much offended" with an unprincipled publisher who "presumed to make so bold with his name" as to put it to a book of which he was not the author. And Beeston had direct concern with the volume called An Apology for Actors, to which Heywood appended his report of these words of Shakespeare. To the book the actor Beeston contributed preliminary verses addressed to the author, his "good friend and fellow, Thomas Heywood." There Beeston briefly vindicated the recreation which the playhouse offered the public. Much else in Christopher Beeston's professional career is known, but it is sufficient to mention here that he died in 1637, while he was filling the post that he had long held, of manager to the King and Queen's Company of Players at Cock-pit Theatre in Drury Lane. It was the chief playhouse of the time, and his wife was lessee of it.
Christopher's son, William Beeston the second, was his father's coadjutor at Drury Lane, and succeeded him in his high managerial office there. The son encountered difficulties with the Govern
ment through an alleged insult to the King in one of the pieces that he produced, and he had to retire from the Cock-pit to a smaller theatre in Salisbury Court. Until his death he retained the respect of the play-going and the literature-loving public, and his son George, whom he brought up to the stage, carried on the family repute to a later generation.
William Beeston had no liking for dissolute society, and the open vice of Charles the Second's Court pained him. He lived in old age much in seclusion, but by a congenial circle he was always warmly welcomed for the freshness and enthusiasm of his talk about the poets who flourished in his youth. "Divers times (in my hearing)," one of his auditors, Francis Kirkman, an ardent collector, reader, and publisher of old plays, wrote to him in 1652-"Divers times (in my hearing), to the admiration of the whole company you have most judiciously discoursed of Poesie." In the judgment of Kirkman, his friend, the old actor, was "the happiest interpreter and judg of our English stage-Playes this Nation ever produced; which the Poets and Actors these times cannot (without ingratitude) deny; for I have heard the chief, and most ingenious of them, acknowledg their Fames and Profits essentially sprung from your instructions, judgment, and fancy." Few who heard Beeston talk failed, Kirkman continues, to subscribe "to his opinion that no Nation could glory in such Playes" as those that came from the pens of the great Elizabethans, Shakespeare, Fletcher, and Ben Jonson. "Glorious John Dryden" shared in the general enthusiasm for the veteran Beeston, and bestowed on him the title of "the chronicle of
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
1 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