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substance of a biography of Shakespeare in the following words: "All that is known with any degree of certainty concerning Shakespeare is—that he was born at Stratfordupon-Avon—married and had children there—went to London, where he commenced actor, and wrote poems and plays—returned to Stratford, made his will, died, and was buried." In fact, a hundred years ago the biographer of Shakespeare was much in the same predicament as the young theologian who found that Frederick the Great, when about to select a preacher, had caused a blank sheet of paper to be placed in the pulpit as the text from which he was to preach his sermon. Shakespeare's life is, indeed, anything but a blank leaf, but the writing has for the most part become illegible, and all the philosophical and critical tests that have been applied, have not, as yet, succeeded in accomplishing much more than in bringing to view a number of—for the most part—unimportant, nay, trifling facts and scattered fragments, and these can be formed into one structure only by means of various combinations and conjectures.2 In the same
1 In a note to Sonnet 93.
1 Even Mr. Halliwell-Phillipps (Outlines of the Life of Shakespeare, 6th edition, i. p. xix), who professes merely "to furnish the reader with an authentic collection of all the known facts," has nevertheless to admit that he has given his "own interpretation of various testimonies," nor can he get on without hypotheses, and it is these very hypotheses more especially that want a proper foundation, as, for instance, his supposition that Shakespeare's wife was afflicted in mind (i. 240). » B
way, as Lord Bacon once remarked, that large obstacles may be seen through narrow crevices, we here obtain through small openings a view over large sections and important influences in the poet's life; and Charles Knight is perfectly justified in prefixing to his biography of Shakespeare the words that "every life of him must to a certain extent be conjectural." And indeed this incontrovertible fact is made to hide a number of very questionable statements, in Knight more especially. Goethe's remark, that everything that has been said of Shiikespeare is inadequate, does not apply only to the resthetical domain, but to the hermeneutical and biographical domains as well.
When we look around and inquire into the causes which have led to the obscurity that envelops Shakespeare's life, we find, in the first place, that it is wrong to say that his contempories did not value him sufficiently, or—as Hermann Kurz 1 does—to consider it an irretrievable disgrace on their part not to have handed down any detailed account of his life. For, apart from the fact that Shakespeare may have been active and energetic as a youth, his life in maturer years—like that of almost every poetical nature—was very probably richer in inward than in outward experiences; in this respect, therefore, he would have but little excited the curiosity or the interest of his contemporaries. Besides, biographical literature, the literature of narrating the story of specially remarkable lives, had not yet become the fashion; the age of Boswell, with its minute details of the domestic life of great writers, had not yet come. Nor were there as yet any journals that entertained their readers with communications concerning the private life and habits of eminent persons. The efforts of all men, in those days, were directed mainly in furthering their own peculiar interests in political, military, naval, or literary affairs, not in describing or narrating the lives of other men, and least of all of writers who had not yet attained a position of their own, or the eminent position they occupy in our day. What do we know of the lives of Spenser, of Marlowe, of Chapman, of Ben Jonson, of Beaumont, or of Fletcher? Next to nothing. And of Milton, likewise, we should not know anything, had he not taken part in the political life of his day.3 Still, we might have possessed
1 JnhrbiKh dcr deii/scheii Shakespeare Gescllschafl, vi. ;W2.
a With regard to Dryden, Dr. Johnson—in his Lives of the rods— more biographical material relating to Shakespeare, were it not that political and other events combined to destroy what existed. The Civil Wars, Puritanism, and a strange succession of conflagrations, are to blame for having destroyed the few detailed records of Shakespeare's life that had survived his day. Upon the accession of Charles I., only a few years after Shakespeare's death, and but two years after the publication of his works, the political affairs of the country assumed so serious and threatening an aspect, that all other considerations were thrust into the background—more especially everything connected with the drama, which, as is well known, was one of the first things attacked by the fanaticism of the Puritans. The appreciation of, and interest in literature— especially in dramatic poetry—which had shortly before risen to an unparalleled height, and which had affected all the different strata of the nation, died out, or rather was stifled by main force, and this change was accomplished with extraordinary rapidity and with a force that hurled down everything that came in its way. There are indications and single incidents enough that enable us distinctly to recognize this fact, even in their connection with Shakespeare. Let the reader but compare the enthusiastic and significant statements of Shakespeare's contemporaries given in Ingleby's " Centurie of Prayse," with the scanty notices of the poet from the last quarter of the seventeenth century given by Aubrey, FulmanDavies, Dowdall, and John Ward, which are meagre beyond all conception, and wholly devoid of trustworthy information and of judgment. John Ward even makes use of his opportunity by, as it were, mentally tying a knot in his handkerchief, for one of his remarks is: "Remember to peruse Shakespeare's plays, and be versed in them, that I may not be ignorant of them." What a come down! This neglect into which Shakespeare was allowed to fall, this total want of appreciation of and interest in him, can be accounted for only by the fact that the political revolution was also a complete up-turning of the whole social fabric, an up-turning of the moral, literary, and aesthetic ideas, which affected the very character of the nation. The fact that Shakespeare had himself been an actor was the
explains that "his contemporaries, however they reverenced his genius, Wihis lite unwritten; and nothing therefore can be known beyond what Casual mention and uncertain tradition have supplied." This applies word for word to Shakespeare,
very reverse of a recommendation to the party who had gained the upper hand in the country. Although the theatre was completely suppressed only for a few years during the Commonwealth, still, owing to the absolutely altered character of the drama on its return from exile with the Stuart dynasty, or which it assumed upon its return, there can be no doubt that the change that had taken place deeply affected the vital substance of dramatic poetry.
In addition to these political events, there were, as already said, other causes as well that helped in the destruction, and chief among these was a series of fires, which, by a most strange coincidence, destroyed all the buildings where any papers of Shakespeare's, or records of his life, might have been obtained. First of all, in 1613, during a performance of Shakespeare's "Henry VIII.," the Globe theatre was burned down, and in all probability manuscripts of the poet, or other written records relating to the history, the management, and the circumstances of this theatre, were destroyed on that occasion. In the following year, a second conflagration devastated a large portion of Stratford, the town so often visited by the poet, and although, fortunately, Shakespeare's own house (New Place) was spared, still it may surely be assumed —considering that some fifty-four houses fell victims to the flames, and the general confusion that would prevail—that many a record and many an important paper referring to his family was then lost. A few years later (1623 ?) a fire broke out in Ben Jonson's house, destroying more especially books and papers; there can be no doubt that among his papers were letters of Shakespeare's, and editions of single works, even though Ben Jonson does not mention this fact in the poem where he laments his losses.1 Doubtless, too, the great fire in London in 1666 still further lessened the scanty memorials of Shakespeare's life and work; a large portion of the third folio edition, which had appeared shortly before, is supposed to have fallen a prey to the flames on this occasion, and this edition can thus boast of being almost more scarce even than the first.
There are a few other circumstances of a more personal character that must not be left out of consideration. In the
1 An Execration upon Vulcan. See The Works of B. Jonson, ed. Wm. Gifford (Moxon, 1846), "07 ff. Compare also p. 41; Ben Jonson's Conversations with Wm. Drummond, ed. D. Laing, p. 6, Note.
first place, Shakespeare did nothing whatever himself towards leaving any record of his life to posterity; except in the case of his two narrative poems, he did not trouble himself about the printing or the preservation of his works, which may, indeed, be said to have been handed down to us almost against his will; his dramas were, in fact, not written with a view to being printed, but for representation, and his sonnets only for patrons and intimate friends. Never was a poet more indifferent about his own celebrity. And his family also did nothing in honour of his memory, with the exception of erecting the rather stately memorial tablet to him in the church at Stratford. This apparent neglect is perhaps not so much the result of any want of esteem and affection for the deceased, but much more owing to the fact of Shakespeare's not having left any male heir. After his death there was no one who could be regarded as the representative of the family, and for whom it would have been both a matter of pride and duty to have cherished the memory of its founder. His daughters had married and left Stratford, and naturally found the main interest of their lives away from their parents' home. According to tradition, a granddaughter of Shakespeare's, Lady Barnard, is said, upon her second marriage, to have taken a number of documents with her to her future home; however, even assuming this tradition to be true, we cannot be surprised that these papers should gradually have become scattered and lost. In all probability, also, the poet's relatives—perhaps even during his lifetime—were influenced by religious considerations, which made them regard the works and literary remains of the husband and father with but little sympathy or pleasure. In a subsequent chapter we shall speak of this point more in detail.
However, in spite of all this, we know incomparably more to-day about Shakespeare's life than did his first editor and biographer, Nicholas Rowe, whose edition of the poet's works (170y-10), may to a certain extent be said to have opened the gates for a flood of editions, of which there seems to be no end. Howe's biographical sketch is based mainly upon statements made by Betterton, Davenant, and Aubrey. /Betterton, the admirable actor, went to Warwickshire for the express purpose of gathering information concerning Shakespeare;1
'Accordipg to R. Gr. White, Shakespeare s Works, i. xxxvii, in the year