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press; and that he wrote with so rapidly flowing a pen that his manuscript was never defaced by alteration or erasure. Shakespeare's extraordinary rapidity of composition was an especially frequent topic of contemporary debate. Ben Jonson, the most intimate personal friend of Shakespeare outside the circle of working actors, wrote how "the players" would "often mention" to him the poet's fluency, and how he was in the habit of arguing that Shakespeare's work would have been the better had he devoted more time to its correction. The players, Ben Jonson adds, were wont to grumble that such a remark was "malevolent," and he delighted in seeking to vindicate it to them on what seemed to him to be just critical grounds.
The copious deliverances of Jonson in the tavernparliaments of the London wits, which were in almost continuous session during the first four decades of the seventeenth century, set flowing much other oral tradition of Shakespeare, whom Jonson said he loved and whose memory he honoured "on this side idolatry as much as any." One of Jonson's remarks which seems to have lived longest on the lips of contemporaries was that Shakespeare "was indeed honest and [like his own Othello] of an open and free nature,1 had an excellent phantasy, brave notions and gentle expressions, wherein he flowed with that facility that sometimes it was necessary he should be stopped."
To the same category of oral tradition belongs the further piece which Fuller enshrined in his slender biography with regard to Shakespeare's
Iago says of Othello, in Othello, I., iii., 405: "The Moor is of a free and open nature."
SHAKESPEARE'S ALERTNESS IN DEBATE 61
alert skirmishes with Ben Jonson in dialectical battle. Jonson's dialectical skill was for a long period undisputed, and for gossip to credit Shakespeare with victory in such conflict was to pay his memory even more enviable honour than Jonson paid it in his own obiter dicta.
There is yet an additional scrap of oral tradition which, reduced to writing about the time that Fuller was at work, confirms Shakespeare's reputation for quickness of wit in everyday life, especially in intercourse with the critical giant Jonson. Dr. Donne, the Jacobean poet and dean of St. Paul's, told, apparently on Jonson's authority, the story that Shakespeare, having consented to act as godfather to one of Jonson's sons, solemnly promised to give the child a dozen good "Latin spoons" for the father to "translate." Latin was a play upon the word "latten," which was the name of a metal resembling brass. The simple quip was a goodhumoured hit at Jonson's pride in his classical learning. Dr. Donne related the anecdote to Sir Nicholas L'Estrange, a country gentleman of literary tastes, who had no interest in Shakespeare except from the literary point of view. He entered it in his commonplace book within thirty years of Shakespeare's death.
Of the twenty-five actors who are enumerated in a preliminary page of the great First Folio, as filling in Shakespeare's lifetime chief rôles in his plays, few survived him long. All of them came in personal contact with him; several of them constantly appeared with him on the stage from early days.
The two who were longest lived, John Lowin and
Joseph Taylor, came at length to bear a great weight of years. They were both Shakespeare's juniors, Lowin by twelve years, and Taylor by twenty, but both established their reputation before middle age. Lowin at twenty-seven took part with Shakespeare in the first representation of Ben Jonson's Sejanus in 1603. He was an early, if not the first, interpreter of the character of Falstaff. Taylor as understudy to the great actor Burbage, a very close ally of Shakespeare, seems to have achieved some success in the part of Hamlet, and to have been applauded in the rôle of Iago, while the dramatist yet lived. When the dramatist died, Lowin was forty, and Taylor over thirty.
Subsequently, as their senior colleagues one by one passed from the world, these two actors assumed first rank in their company, and before the ruin in which the Civil War involved all theatrical enterprise, they were acknowledged to stand at the head of their profession.1 Taylor lived through the Commonwealth, and Lowin far into the reign of Charles the Second, ultimately reaching his ninetythird year. Their last days were passed in indigence, and Lowin when an octogenarian was reduced to keeping the inn of the "Three Pigeons," at Brentford.
Both these men kept alive from personal knowledge some oral Shakespearean tradition during the
1 Like almost all their colleagues, they had much literary taste. When public events compulsorily retired them from the stage, they, with the aid of the dramatist Shirley and eight other actors, two of whom were members with them of Shakespeare's old company, did an important service to English literature. In 1647 they collected for first publication in folio Beaumont and Fletcher's plays; only one, The Wild Goose Chase, was omitted, and that piece Taylor and Lowin brought out by their unaided efforts five years later.
TESTIMONIES OF TAYLOR AND LOWIN 63
fifty years and more that followed his death. Little of their gossip is extant. But some of it was put on record, before the end of the century, by John Downes, the old prompter and librarian of a chief London theatre.. According to Downes's testimony, Taylor repeated instructions which he had received from Shakespeare's own lips for the playing of the part of Hamlet, while Lowin narrated how Shakespeare taught him the theatrical interpretation of the character of Henry the Eighth, in that play of the name which came from the joint pens of Shakespeare and Fletcher.
Both Taylor's and Lowin's reminiscences were passed on to Thomas Betterton, the greatest actor of the Restoration, and the most influential figure in the theatrical life of his day. Through him they were permanently incorporated in the verbal stagelore of the country. No doubt is possible of the validity of this piece of oral tradition, which reveals Shakespeare in the act of personally supervising the production of his own plays, and springs from the mouths of those who personally benefited by the dramatist's activity.
Taylor and Lowin were probably the last actors to speak of Shakespeare from personal knowledge. But hardly less deserving of attention are scraps of gossip about Shakespeare which survive in writing, on the authority of some of Taylor's and Lowin's actor-contemporaries. These men were never themselves in personal relations with Shakespeare, but knew many formerly in direct relation with him. Probably the seventeenth century actor with the most richly stored memory of the oral Shakespearean tradition was William Beeston, to whose
house in Hog Lane, Shoreditch, the curious often resorted in Charles the Second's time to listen to his reminiscences of Shakespeare and of the poets of Shakespeare's epoch.
Beeston died after a busy theatrical life, at eighty or upwards, in 1682. He belonged to a family of distinguished actors or actor-managers. His father, brothers, and son were all, like himself, prominent in the profession, and some of them were almost as long-lived as himself. His own career combined with that of his father covered more than a century, and both sedulously and with pride cultivated intimacy with contemporary dramatic authors.
It was probably William Beeston's grandfather, also William Beeston, to whom the satirical Elizabethan, Thomas Nash, dedicated in 1593, with goodhumoured irony, one of his insolent libels on Gabriel Harvey, a scholar who had defamed the memory of a dead friend. Nash laughed at his patron's struggles with syntax in his efforts to write poetry, and at his indulgence in drink, which betrayed itself in his red nose. But, in spite of Nash's characteristic frankness, he greeted the first William Beeston as a boon companion who was generous in his entertainment of threadbare scholars. Christopher Beeston, this man's son, the father of the Shakespearean gossip, had in abundance the hereditary taste for letters. He was at one time Shakespeare's associate on the stage. Both took part together in the first representation of Ben Jonson's Every Man in His Humour, in 1598. His name was again linked with Shakespeare's in the will of their fellowactor, Augustine Phillips, who left each of them a legacy as a token of friendship at his death in 1605. Christopher Beeston left Shakespeare's company of