Shakespeare, Bacon and the Great Unknown, by Andrew Lang

Chapter x

“The Traditional Shakspere”

In perusing the copious arguments of the Anti–Shakesperean but Non~Baconian Mr. Greenwood, I am often tempted, in Socratic phrase, to address him thus: Best of men, let me implore you, first, to keep in memory these statements on which you have most eloquently and abundantly insisted, namely, that society in Stratford was not only not literary, but was illiterate. Next pardon me for asking you to remember that the late sixteenth and the early seventeenth century did not resemble our fortunate age. Some people read Shakespeare’s, Beaumont’s, and Fletcher’s plays. This exercise is now very rarely practised. But nobody cared to chronicle literary gossip about the private lives and personal traits of these and several other Elizabethan and Jacobean playwrights, in the modern manner. Of Shakespeare (pardon, I mean Shakspere), the actor, there is one contemporary anecdote, in my poor opinion a baseless waggery. Of Beaumont there is none. Of a hand-maid of Fletcher, who drank sack in a tumbler, one anecdote appears at the end of the seventeenth century — nothing better. Meanwhile of Shakspere the “traditions” must be sought either at Stratford or in connection with the London Stage; and in both cases the traditions began to be in demand very late.

As Stratford was not literary, indeed was terribly illiterate, any traditions that survived cannot conceivably have been literary. That is absolutely certain. Natives at Stratford had, by your own hypothesis, scant interest in literary anecdote. Fifty years after Shakespeare’s death, no native was likely to cherish tales of any sprouts of wit (though it was remembered in 1649, that he was “witty”), or any “wood-notes wild,” which he may have displayed or chirped at an early age.

Such things were of no interest to Stratford. If he made a speech when he killed a calf, or poached, or ran away to town, the circumstance might descend from one gaffer to another; he might even be remembered as “the best of his family,”— the least inefficient. Given your non-literary and illiterate Stratford, and you can expect nothing more, and nothing better, than we receive.

Let me illustrate by a modern example. In 1866 I was an undergraduate of a year’s standing at Balliol College, Oxford, certainly not an unlettered academy. In that year, the early and the best poems of a considerable Balliol poet were published: he had “gone down” some eight years before. Being young and green I eagerly sought for traditions about Mr. Swinburne. One of his contemporaries, who took a First in the final Classical Schools, told me that “he was a smug.” Another, that, as Mr. Swinburne and his friend (later a Scotch professor) were not cricketers, they proposed that they should combine to pay but a single subscription to the Cricket Club. A third, a tutor of the highest reputation as a moralist and metaphysician, merely smiled at my early enthusiasm — and told me nothing. A white-haired College servant said that “Mr. Swinburne was a very quiet gentleman.”

Then you take us to dirty illiterate Stratford, from fifty to eighty years after Shakspere’s death — a Civil War and the Reign of the Saints, a Restoration and a Revolution having intervened — and ask us to be surprised that no anecdotes of Shakspere’s early brilliance, a century before, survived at Stratford.

A very humble parallel may follow. Some foolish person went seeking early anecdotes of myself at my native town, Selkirk on the Ettrick. From an intelligent townsman he gathered much that was true and interesting about my younger brothers, who delighted in horses and dogs, hunted, shot, and fished, and played cricket; one of them bowled for Gloucestershire and Oxford. But about me the inquiring literary snipe only heard that “Andra was aye the stupid ane o’ the fam’ly.” Yet, I, too, had bowled for the local club, non sine gloria! Even THAT was forgotten.

Try to remember, best of men, that literary anecdotes of a fellow townsman’s youth do not dwell in the memories of his neighbours from sixty to a hundred years after date. It is not in human nature that what was incomprehensible to the grandsire should be remembered by the grandson. Go to “Thrums” and ask for literary memories of the youth of Mr. Barrie.

Yet 145 the learned Malone seems to have been sorry that little of Shakespeare but the calf-killing and the poaching, and the dying of a fever after drink taken (WHERE, I ask you?), with Ben and Drayton, was remembered, so long after date, at Stratford, of all dirty ignorant places. Bah! how could these people have heard of Drayton and Ben? Remember that we are dealing with human nature, in a peculiarly malodorous and densely ignorant bourgade, where, however, the “wit” of Shakespeare was not forgotten (in the family) in 1649. See the epithet on the tomb of his daughter, Mrs. Hall.

You give us the Rev. John Ward, vicar of Stratford (1661–3), who has heard that the actor was “a natural wit,” and contracted and died of a fever, after a bout with Drayton and Ben. I can scarcely believe that THESE were local traditions. How could these rustauds have an opinion about “natural wit,” how could they have known the names of Ben and Drayton?

When you come to Aubrey, publishing in 1680, sixty years after Shakespeare’s death, you neglect to trace the steps in the descent of his tradition. As has been stated, Beeston, “the chronicle of the Stage” (died 1682), gave him the story of the school-mastering; Beeston being the son of a servitor of Phillips, an actor and friend of Shakespeare, who died eleven years before that player. The story of the school-mastering and of Shakespeare “knowing Latin pretty well,” is of no value to me. I think that he had some knowledge of Latin, as he must have had, if he were what I fancy him to have been, and if (which is mere hypothesis) he went for four years to a Latin School. But the story does not suit you, and you call it “a mere myth,” which, “of course, will be believed by those who wish to believe it.” But, most excellent of mortals, will it not, by parity of reasoning, “of course be disbelieved by those who do NOT wish to believe it”?

And do you want to believe it?

To several stage anecdotes of the actor as an excellent instructor of younger players, you refer slightingly. They do not weigh with me: still, the Stage would remember Shakspere (or Shakespeare) best in stage affairs. In reference to a very elliptic statement that, “in Hamlet Betterton benefited by Shakespeare’s coaching,” you write, “This is astonishing, seeing that Shakspere had been in his grave nearly twenty years when Betterton was born. The explanation is that Taylor, of the Black Fryars Company, was, according to Sir William Davenant, instructed by Shakspere, and Davenant, who had seen Taylor act, according to Downes, instructed Betterton. There is a similar story about Betterton playing King Henry VIII. Betterton was said to have been instructed by Sir William, who was instructed by Lowen, who was instructed by Shakspere!” 146

Why a note of exclamation? Who was Downes, and what were his opportunities of acquiring information? He “was for many years book~keeper in the Duke’s Company, first under Davenant in the old house . . . “ Davenant was notoriously the main link between “the first and second Temple,” the theatre of Shakespeare whom, as a boy, he knew, and the Restoration theatre. Devoted to the traditions of the stage, he collected Shakespearean and other anecdotes; he revived the theatre, cautiously, during the last years of Puritan rule, and told his stories to the players of the early Restoration. As his Book~keeper with the Duke of York’s Company, Downes heard what Davenant had to tell; he also, for his Roscius Anglicanus, had notes from Charles Booth, prompter at Drury Lane. On May 28, 1663, Davenant reproduced Hamlet, with young Betterton as the Prince of Denmark. Davenant, says Charles Booth, “had seen the part taken by Taylor, of the Black Fryars Company, and Taylor had been instructed by the author, (not Bacon but) “Mr. William Shakespeare,” and Davenant “taught Mr. Betterton in every particle of it.” Mr. Elton adds, “We cannot be sure that Taylor was taught by Shakespeare himself. He is believed to have been a member of the King’s Company before 1613, and to have left it for a time before Shakespeare’s death.” 147 His name is in the list in the Folio of “the principall Actors in all these plays,” but I cannot pretend to be certain that he played in them in Will’s time.

It is Mr. Pepys (December 30, 1668) who chronicles Davenant’s splendid revival of Henry VIII, in which Betterton, as the King, was instructed by Sir William Davenant, who had it from old Mr. Lowen, that had his instruction “from Mr. Shakespear himself.” Lowin, or Lowen, joined Shakespeare’s Company in 1604, being then a man of twenty-eight. Burbage was the natural man for Hamlet and Henry VIII; but it is not unusual for actors to have “understudies.”

The stage is notoriously tenacious of such traditions.

When we come with you to Mr. W. Fulman, about 1688, and the additions to his notes made about 1690–1708, we are concerned with evidence much too remote, and, in your own classical style, “all this is just a little mixed.” 148 With what Mr. Dowdall heard in 1693, and Mr. William Hall (1694) heard from a clerk or sexton, or other illiterate dotard at Stratford, I have already dealt. I do not habitually believe in what I hear from “the oldest aunt telling the saddest tale,”— no, not even if she tells a ghost story, or an anecdote about the presentation by Queen Mary of her portrait to the ancestor of the Laird — the portrait being dated 1768, and representing her Majesty in the bloom of girlhood. Nor do I care for what Rowe said (on Betterton’s information), in 1709, about Shakespeare’s schooling; nor for what Dr. Furnivall said that Plume wrote; nor for what anybody said that Sir John Mennes (Menzies?) said. But I do care for what Ben Jonson and Shakespeare’s fellow-actors said; and for what his literary contemporaries have left on record. But this evidence you explain away by aetiological guesses, absolutely modern, and, I conceive, to anyone familiar with historical inquiry, not more valuable as history than other explanatory myths.

What Will Shakspere had to his literary credit when he died, was men’s impressions of the seeing of his acted plays; with their knowledge, if they had any, of fugitive, cheap, perishable, and often bad reprints, in quartos, of about half of the plays. Men also had Venus and Adonis, Lucrece, and the Sonnets, which sold very poorly, and I do not wonder at it. Of the genius of Shakespeare England could form no conception, till the publication of the Folio (1623), not in a large edition; it struggled into a Third Edition in 1664. The engouement about the poet, the search for personal details, did not manifest itself with any vigour till nearly thirty years after 1664 — and we are to wonder that the gleanings, at illiterate Stratford, and in Stage tradition, are so scanty and so valueless. What could have been picked up, by 1680–90, about Bacon at Gorhambury, or in the Courts of Law, I wonder.

145 The Shakespeare Problem Restated, p. 214.

146 The Shakespeare Problem Restated, p. 214, note 2.

147 C. I. Elton, William Shakespeare, His Family and Friends, p. 56.

148 The Shakespeare Problem Restated, pp. 28, 29.

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Last updated Friday, March 7, 2014 at 22:03