When Shakespeare died, in 1616, great literary productions attributed to him as author had been before the London world and in high favor for twenty-four years. Yet his death was not an event. It made no stir, it attracted no attention. Apparently his eminent literary contemporaries did not realize that a celebrated poet had passed from their midst. Perhaps they knew a play-actor of minor rank had disappeared, but did not regard him as the author of his Works. “We are justified in assuming” this.
His death was not even an event in the little town of Stratford. Does this mean that in Stratford he was not regarded as a celebrity of ANY kind?
“We are privileged to assume” — no, we are indeed OBLIGED to assume — that such was the case. He had spent the first twenty-two or twenty-three years of his life there, and of course knew everybody and was known by everybody of that day in the town, including the dogs and the cats and the horses. He had spent the last five or six years of his life there, diligently trading in every big and little thing that had money in it; so we are compelled to assume that many of the folk there in those said latter days knew him personally, and the rest by sight and hearsay. But not as a CELEBRITY? Apparently not. For everybody soon forgot to remember any contact with him or any incident connected with him. The dozens of townspeople, still alive, who had known of him or known about him in the first twenty-three years of his life were in the same unremembering condition: if they knew of any incident connected with that period of his life they didn’t tell about it. Would the if they had been asked? It is most likely. Were they asked? It is pretty apparent that they were not. Why weren’t they? It is a very plausible guess that nobody there or elsewhere was interested to know.
For seven years after Shakespeare’s death nobody seems to have been interested in him. Then the quarto was published, and Ben Jonson awoke out of his long indifference and sang a song of praise and put it in the front of the book. Then silence fell AGAIN.
For sixty years. Then inquiries into Shakespeare’s Stratford life began to be made, of Stratfordians. Of Stratfordians who had known Shakespeare or had seen him? No. Then of Stratfordians who had seen people who had known or seen people who had seen Shakespeare? No. Apparently the inquires were only made of Stratfordians who were not Stratfordians of Shakespeare’s day, but later comers; and what they had learned had come to them from persons who had not seen Shakespeare; and what they had learned was not claimed as FACT, but only as legend — dim and fading and indefinite legend; legend of the calf-slaughtering rank, and not worth remembering either as history or fiction.
Has it ever happened before — or since — that a celebrated person who had spent exactly half of a fairly long life in the village where he was born and reared, was able to slip out of this world and leave that village voiceless and gossipless behind him — utterly voiceless., utterly gossipless? And permanently so? I don’t believe it has happened in any case except Shakespeare’s. And couldn’t and wouldn’t have happened in his case if he had been regarded as a celebrity at the time of his death.
When I examine my own case — but let us do that, and see if it will not be recognizable as exhibiting a condition of things quite likely to result, most likely to result, indeed substantially SURE to result in the case of a celebrated person, a benefactor of the human race. Like me.
My parents brought me to the village of Hannibal, Missouri, on the banks of the Mississippi, when I was two and a half years old. I entered school at five years of age, and drifted from one school to another in the village during nine and a half years. Then my father died, leaving his family in exceedingly straitened circumstances; wherefore my book-education came to a standstill forever, and I became a printer’s apprentice, on board and clothes, and when the clothes failed I got a hymn-book in place of them. This for summer wear, probably. I lived in Hannibal fifteen and a half years, altogether, then ran away, according to the custom of persons who are intending to become celebrated. I never lived there afterward. Four years later I became a “cub” on a Mississippi steamboat in the St. Louis and New Orleans trade, and after a year and a half of hard study and hard work the U.S. inspectors rigorously examined me through a couple of long sittings and decided that I knew every inch of the Mississippi — thirteen hundred miles — in the dark and in the day — as well as a baby knows the way to its mother’s paps day or night. So they licensed me as a pilot — knighted me, so to speak — and I rose up clothed with authority, a responsible servant of the United States Government.
Now then. Shakespeare died young — he was only fifty-two. He had lived in his native village twenty-six years, or about that. He died celebrated (if you believe everything you read in the books). Yet when he died nobody there or elsewhere took any notice of it; and for sixty years afterward no townsman remembered to say anything about him or about his life in Stratford. When the inquirer came at last he got but one fact — no, LEGEND— and got that one at second hand, from a person who had only heard it as a rumor and didn’t claim copyright in it as a production of his own. He couldn’t, very well, for its date antedated his own birth-date. But necessarily a number of persons were still alive in Stratford who, in the days of their youth, had seen Shakespeare nearly every day in the last five years of his life, and they would have been able to tell that inquirer some first-hand things about him if he had in those last days been a celebrity and therefore a person of interest to the villagers. Why did not the inquirer hunt them up and interview them? Wasn’t it worth while? Wasn’t the matter of sufficient consequence? Had the inquirer an engagement to see a dog-fight and couldn’t spare the time?
It all seems to mean that he never had any literary celebrity, there or elsewhere, and no considerable repute as actor and manager.
Now then, I am away along in life — my seventy-third year being already well behind me — yet SIXTEEN of my Hannibal schoolmates are still alive today, and can tell — and do tell — inquirers dozens and dozens of incidents of their young lives and mine together; things that happened to us in the morning of life, in the blossom of our youth, in the good days, the dear days, “the days when we went gipsying, a long time ago.” Most of them creditable to me, too. One child to whom I paid court when she was five years old and I eight still lives in Hannibal, and she visited me last summer, traversing the necessary ten or twelve hundred miles of railroad without damage to her patience or to her old-young vigor. Another little lassie to whom I paid attention in Hannibal when she was nine years old and I the same, is still alive — in London — and hale and hearty, just as I am. And on the few surviving steamboats — those lingering ghosts and remembrancers of great fleets that plied the big river in the beginning of my water-career — which is exactly as long ago as the whole invoice of the life-years of Shakespeare numbers — there are still findable two or three river-pilots who saw me do creditable things in those ancient days; and several white-headed engineers; and several roustabouts and mates; and several deck-hands who used to heave the lead for me and send up on the still night the “Six — feet — SCANT!” that made me shudder, and the “M-a-r-k — TWAIN!” that took the shudder away, and presently the darling “By the d-e-e-p — FOUR!” that lifted me to heaven for joy. 5 They know about me, and can tell. And so do printers, from St. Louis to New York; and so do newspaper reporters, from Nevada to San Francisco. And so do the police. If Shakespeare had really been celebrated, like me, Stratford could have told things about him; and if my experience goes for anything, they’d have done it.
5 Four fathoms — twenty-four feet.
Last updated Sunday, March 27, 2016 at 12:00