Abbildungen der Seite

out the seventeenth century, and was put on record before the end of it by more than one scholar of the university, establishes the fact that Shakespeare on his annual journeys between London and Stratfordon-Avon was in the habit of staying at the elder D'Avenant's Oxford hostelry. The report ran that "he was exceedingly respected" in the house, and was freely admitted to the inn-keeper's domestic circle. The inn-keeper's wife was credited with a mercurial disposition which contrasted strangely with her husband's sardonic temperament; it was often said in Oxford that Shakespeare not merely found his chief attraction at the Crown Inn in the wife's witty conversation, but formed a closer intimacy with her than moralists would approve. Oral tradition speaks in clearer tones of his delight in the children of the family-four boys and three girls. We have at command statements on that subject from the lips of two of the sons. The eldest son, Robert, who was afterwards a parson in Wiltshire, and was on familiar terms with many men of culture, often recalled with pride for their benefit that "Mr William Shakespeare" had given him as a child "a hundred kisses" in his father's tavern-parlour.

The third son, William, was more expansive in his reminiscences. It was generally understood at Oxford in the early years of the seventeenth century that he was the poet's godson, as his Christian name would allow, but some gossips had it that the poet's paternity was of a less spiritual character. According to a genuine anecdote of contemporary origin, when the boy, William D'Avenant, in Shakespeare's lifetime, informed a doctor of the university that he was on his way to ask a blessing



of his godfather who had just arrived in the town, the child was warned by his interlocutor against taking the name of God in vain. It is proof of the estimation in which D'Avenant held Shakespeare that when he came to man's estate he was "content enough to have" the insinuation "thought to be true." He would talk freely with his friends over a glass of wine of Shakespeare's visits to his father's house, and would say "that it seemed to him that he wrote with Shakespeare's very spirit." Of his reverence for Shakespeare he gave less questionable proof in a youthful elegy in which he represented the flowers and trees on the banks of the Avon mourning for Shakespeare's death and the river weeping itself away. He was credited, too, with having adopted the new spelling of his name D'Avenant (for Davenant), so as to read into it a reference to the river Avon.

In maturer age D'Avenant sought out the old actors Taylor and Lowin, and mastered their information respecting Shakespeare, their early colleague on the stage. With a curious perversity he mainly devoted his undoubted genius in his later years to rewriting in accordance with the debased taste of Charles the Second's reign the chief works of his idol; but until D'Avenant's death in 1668 the unique character of Shakespeare's greatness had no stouter champion than he, and in the circle of men of wit and fashion, of which he was the centre, none kept the cult alive with greater enthusiasm. His early friend Sir John Suckling, the Cavalier poet, who was only seven years old when Shakespeare died, he infected so thoroughly with his own affectionate admiration that Suckling wrote of the

dramatist in familiar letters as "my friend Mr William Shakespeare," and had his portrait painted by Vandyck with an open volume of Shakespeare's works in his hand. Even more important is Dryden's testimony that he was himself "first taught" by D'Avenant "to admire" Shakespeare.

One of the most precise and valuable pieces of oral tradition which directly owed currency to D'Avenant was the detailed story of the generous gift of £1000, which Shakespeare's patron, the Earl of Southampton, made the poet "to enable him to go through with a purchase which he heard he had a mind to." Rowe, Shakespeare's first biographer, recorded this particular on the specific authority of D'Avenant, who, he pointed out, "was probably very well acquainted with the dramatist's affairs." At the same time it was often repeated that D'Avenant was owner of a complimentary letter which James the First had written to Shakespeare with his own hand. A literary politician, John Sheffield, Earl of Mulgrave and Duke of Buckinghamshire, who survived D'Avenant nearly half a century, said that he had examined the epistle while it was in D'Avenant's keeping. The publisher Lintot first printed the Duke's statement in the preface to a new edition of Shakespeare's Poems in 1709.

D'Avenant's devotion did much for Shakespeare's memory; but it stimulated others to do even more for the after-generations who wished to know the whole truth about Shakespeare's life. The great actor of the Restoration, Thomas Betterton, was D'Avenant's close associate in his last years. D'Avenant coached him in the parts both of Hamlet and of Henry the Eighth, in the light of



the instruction which he had derived through the medium of Taylor and Lowin from Shakespeare's own lips. But more to the immediate purpose is it to note that D'Avenant's ardour as a seeker after knowledge of Shakespeare fired Betterton into making a pilgrimage to Stratford-on-Avon to glean oral traditions of the dramatist's life there. Many other of Shakespeare's admirers had previously made Stratford Church, where stood his tomb, a place of pilgrimage, and Aubrey had acknowledged in haphazard fashion the value of Stratford gossip. But it was Betterton's visit that laid the train for the systematic union of the oral traditions of London and Stratford respectively.

It was not until the London and Warwickshire streams of tradition mingled in equal strength that a regular biography of Shakespeare was possible. Betterton was the efficient cause of this conjunction. All that Stratford-on-Avon revealed to him he put at the disposal of Nicholas Rowe, who was the first to attempt a formal memoir. Of Betterton's assistance Rowe made generous acknowledgment in these terms:

I must own a particular Obligation to him [i.e., Betterton] for the most considerable part of the Passages relating to his [i.e., Shakespeare's] Life, which I have here transmitted to the Publick; his veneration for the Memory of Shakespear having engag'd him to make a Journey into Warwickshire, on purpose to gather up what Remains he could of a Name for which he had so great a Value.


The contemporary epitaph on Shakespeare's tomb in Stratford-on-Avon Church, which acclaimed

Shakespeare a writer of supreme genius, gave the inhabitants of the little town no opportunity of ignoring at any period the fact that the greatest poet of his era had been their fellow-townsman. Stratford was indeed openly identified with Shakespeare's career from the earliest possible day, and Sir William Dugdale, the first topographer of Warwickshire, writing about 1650, noted that the place was memorable for having given "birth and sepulture to our late famous poet Will Shakespeare." But the obscure little town produced in the years that followed Shakespeare's death none who left behind records of their experience, and such fragments of oral tradition of Shakespeare at Stratford as are extant survive accidentally, with one notable exception, in the manuscript notes of visitors, who, like Betterton, were drawn thither by a veneration acquired elsewhere.

The one notable exception is John Ward, a seventeenth-century vicar of Stratford, who settled there in 1662, at the age of thirty-three, forty-six years after Shakespeare's death. Ward remained at Stratford till his death in 1681. He is the only resident of the century who wrote down any of the local story. Ward was a man of good sentiment. He judged that it became a vicar of Stratford to know his Shakespeare well, and one of his private reminders for his own conduct runs-"Remember to peruse Shakespeare's plays, and bee much versed in them, that I may not bee ignorant in that matter."

Ward was a voluminous diarist and a faithful chronicler as far as he cared to go. Shakespeare's last surviving daughter, Judith Quiney, was dying when he arrived in Stratford; but sons of Shakespeare's sister, Mistress Joan Hart, were still living

« ZurückWeiter »