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JUDGE WEBB ON SHAKSPERE.

THE

'HE author of the article “ Who Wrote Burns's Poems ?” in

the October number of this REVIEW seems to vie with Judge Webb in showing that a County Court Judge is not bound by any of the laws of evidence, may ignore all the facts relevant to the issue, and substitute for them his own ingenious imaginings. If these learned judges deal with evidence in their courts as they do in discussing matters of literature heaven help the poor suitors! The suppressio veri seems to be their favourite instrument for the discovery of truth. Their use of this instrument is constant and consistent, but the great suppression, which involves all the others, is the suppression of the fact, or the possibility, of human genius. Judge Webb assumes that William Shakspere was the ordinary young man who may be picked up off the streets of Stratford on any day in any year, and it follows without difficulty that such a young man could never become the author of Hamlet and The Tempest. The other judge (if judge he be) assumes that Robert Burns was the average Scottish ploughman, and spends a great deal of superfluous trouble in proving that the average Scottish ploughman could not write Tam O'Shanter. It is obvious that if we choose to ignore the fact of genius we may multiply mysteries without end.

We have only to assume that John Bunyan was the average tinker, or ranting Baptist preacher, and we have the mystery of the Pilgrim's Progress. We have only to assume that John Keats was the average surgeon's apprentice, a sort of milder Bob Sawyer, and we have the mystery of Keats's Poems. And so on, till we reduce the history of literature to the dominion of chaos and Old Night.

But why are we to assume that William Shakspere was not a man of genius unless we assume, as Judge Webb apparently does, that genius is never found except in a university? Why are we to ignore the effect which this man produced on the minds of his contemporaries, and of those who knew him best? His fellow-players, who edited and published his plays after his death, spoke of him as a a man of unsurpassed, almost of unexampled, genius. He conquered the fierce jealousy which his success as a dramatist had excited in the breast of honest, rugged Ben Jonson, and drew forth from the stern, crossgrained old man a eulogy as fervid, as whole-hearted, and as frank in its recognition of superior genius as that which Robert Browning in our own day bestowed upon Alfred Tennyson. It is needless to cite the testimonies of many of his other contemporaries to the “ honey-tongued” Shakspere, “ who was not of an age but for all time.” Several of these are to be found in Judge Webb's own book.

How does Judge Webb, in his “Summary of Evidence," deal with these contemporary testimonies to the esteem in which Shakspere was held as a man of genius? He treats them as of no value at all. They are the testimonies either of conspirators or of the dupes of conspirators. There was a conspiracy to foist the authorship of the greatest plays that were ever written upon a poor creature of a play-actor called William Shakspere, and the testimonies we have from his contemporaries were either written in furtherance of that conspiracy or came from dupes who were deceived by it. We must suppose, for example, that Shakspere's fellow-players, who had been acting in these plays with Shakspere himself for a long series of years, who had the custody of the manuscripts or acting copies of these plays, and who edited and published them under Shakspere's name after his death, had all along been the victims of a gigantic imposture (to which, of course, Shakspere himself was a party) by which their fellow-player was represented as the author. Ben Jonson, on the other hand, was an active hand in the conspiracy. He knew very well that the poor player, for whom he entertained a supreme contempt and a very active dislike, was not the author of the plays which passed under his name. But yet he joined heartily in a conspiracy which was to confer upon this ignorant mountebank and impostor the glory for all time of having written plays which surpassed all that “indolent Greece or haughty Rome” had achieved. He wrote the immortal verses prefixed to the First Folio with his tongue in his cheek, and years afterwards he wrote in serious prose, designed for the information of posterity, that he loved this unparalleled impostor“ on this side idolatry' as much as ever he loved man.

This is one way of dealing with evidence, and it is certainly summary” way. There is not a particle of evidence that

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Ben Jonson was a liar and a cheat, or capable of taking part in this monstrous imposition upon his contemporaries and posterity. All the evidence is the other way. But even if he were a proved liar and cheat, what possible motive can be suggested why he should have lent himself to this particular fraud ? It was for no honour or profit to himself; it was to confer the greatest glory upon a man to whom Judge Webb affirms he was consistently hostile, for whose attainments, character, and conduct he had the most sovereign contempt and whom he must have known to be a rank impostor. Was ever fraud conceived in such a spirit and with such an object? Judge Webb begins by calling upon his readers to ignore the fact that genius appears in the most unexpected quarters, and has no respect for rank or education. He next calls upon them to ignore all the known laws of human motive and human conduct, and to assume that Ben Jonson acted upon principles upon which no man has ever been known to act since the foundation of the world. And this in a judicial “Summary of Evidence."

When we come to the details of the argument the same system is pursued. Very little is known directly about the early education of Shakspere. There is a tradition that he was a pupil at the Stratford Grammar School, and visitors to Stratford are, we believe, shown the seat in which he sat at school. But Judge Webb, who relies very strongly upon tradition when it is to Shakspere's discredit, will have nothing to say to any tradition that might be turned to his advantage.

He holds that Shakspere was wholly uneducated when he left Stratford ; he will not allow him even the “ small Latin and less Greek" ascribed to him by Ben Jonson; he will go no further than that he was able to write his name in a sort of way. Now, putting aside tradition, what are the facts and probabilities of the case ? There is abundant evidence that up till the time of Shakspere's fourteenth year, his father was a prosperous man, He bought land and houses; he attained an honourable position in the Stratford Corporation; he was chief magistrate of the town for at least one year. It is more than probable, it is all but certain, that under these circumstances his son would attend the free Grammar School of the town of which his father was a prominent citizen. If Shakspere attended the Stratford Grammar School up to the time he was fourteen years of age

he had plenty of opportunity of acquiring the “small Latin and less Greek” Ben Jonson found him possessed of, and he certainly must have acquired all the Latin that appears in the plays. An elementary knowledge of the Latin Grammar would supply all the Latin that Holofernes and Sir Hugh Evans display And if Shakspere as a boy had any of the activity and vigour of intellect which afterwards appeared in the plays, he could easily carry away from the Grammar School a sufficient foundation for all the knowledge and understanding of antiquity which he acyuired in later life. It is absurd to contend that the author of the plays was necessarily a man of trained and accurate scholarship; the knowledge that appears in them is not that of the professional scholar, but that of the general reader. We all know that a sufficient knowledge of antiquity to pass current in ordinary life does not imply an acquaintance with the original sources of information. A man may make a correct allusion to Socrates who has never read a word of either Plato or Xenophon, and he may know something of Pericles though he has never read Thucydides. It is certain that when Ben Jonson referred to Shakspere's “small Latin and less Greek,” he did not mean that he was an ignorant clown, and it is still more certain that he did not intend to characterize the scholarship of Francis Bacon.*

In 1592 we find the first printed reference to Shakspere as a dramatic author. Robert Greene, in his Groatsworth of Wit, addressed to three brother dramatists-Marlowe, Nash, and Peele—uses these words :-." There is an upstart brow beautified with our feathers, that, with his Tyger's heart wrapt in a player's hide, supposes he is as well able to bombast out a blanke verse as the best of you; and, being an absolute Johannes factotum, is in his own conceit the only Shake-scene in a countrie."

Judge Webb is unable to deny that this passage refers to Shakspere, but he contends that it refers to him only as an actor, and absolutely denies that it has any reference to him as

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W. Hazlitt, a fine critic, says : "Shakespeare's was evidently an uneducated mind, both in the freshness of his imagination and in the variety of his views, as Milton's was scholastic in the texture both of his thoughts and feelings.” Was it mere tradition, or was it a true perception of a real difference that led Milton to draw so marked a contrast between Ben Jonson and Shakspeare in this respect ?

" If Jonson's learned sock is on,

Or sweetest Shakespeare, Fancy's child,
Warble his native wood-notes wild."

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an author. If Shakspere were merely an actor, it is hard to see why Greene should warn his fellow-dramatists against him as a dangerous, though upstart, rival. If Shakspere only spoke blank verse, and did not write it, why did he suppose that he

as well able to bombast out a blank verse as the best of you,-you being the playwrights, and not the play-actors ? Why was he, in his own conceit, "an absolute Johannes factotum," that is, a jack-of-all-trades, if he confined himself to his own business of acting, and did not trespass upon the sphere of the dramatist? And why the parody of a line out of the third part of Henry VI. :

Oh, Tiger's heart wrapt in a woman's hide, if Shakspere had nothing to do with the authorship of that play?

But whilst Judge Webb can see in this passage no reference to Shakspere as a dramatist, and denies that he was known in 1592 as a writer at all, it so happens that in the same year 1592 Greene's publisher apologised for printing this attack upon Shakspere, stating that “divers of worship have reported his (Shakspere's), uprightness of dealing, which

argues his honesty, and his facetious grace of writing, that approves his art.” After this, is it not the very genius of perversity that leads Judge Webb to assert that in 1592 Shakspere had written nothing, and that Greene attacked him, not as a rival dramatist, but as a mere play-actor ?

We now come to the most characteristic, if I may not say the most amusing, of Judge Webb's proofs that Shakspere did not write his own plays and poems. He says that the author of the Sonnets explicitly declares that Shakespeare was not his real name. The 76th Sonnet, he asserts, contains a clear intimation “that Shakespere was not the author's real name, and that he was fearful lest his real name should be discovered.”

It will occur to most people that this is a curiously absurd proceeding on the part of the author of the Sonnets. He is “ fearful lest his real name should be discovered:” he adopts a false name for the purpose of concealment, and he then defeats his own device by avowing to all the world that the false name is not his real name. This hardly smacks of the wisdom which we associate with the name of Francis Bacon. It reminds us

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