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speculative or disputable, and look only to the mass of incontrovertible facts set forth in the new edition of Sir Sidney Lee's Life of Shakespeare. When we compare this with what we know (apart from the evidence of their own works) about Greene, Beaumont, Marlowe, Ben Jonson, Fletcher, Kyd, or Peele, the foregoing assertion becomes definitely established. Or we may extend the comparison beyond the mere playwrights, and say that we know more about Shakespeare than about any other man of letters of his time who was not also thrust into the glare of publicity as a statesman or courtier. Less is known of Hooker, of Drayton or of Chapman than of Shakespeare.
To be sure, we cannot follow the dramatist from day to day and from year to year as we can follow Doctor Johnson through the ever-charming pages of Boswell. We have no collection of letters such as those of Matthew Arnold, from which, in the absence of a biography, Shakespeare's story could be reconstructed by the methods of scientific textual analysis. Shakespeare kept no diary like that of Pepys or Evelyn; or, if he did, it has not been preserved. On the other hand, we have plenty of unquestionably genuine contemporary references, all of which go to prove that he was recognized, by friends and foes alike, both as an actor and as a dramatist.
A priori arguments about his lack of education His are in any case fantastic. A man's education is to
education. be inferred from his actual works, not his possible works from his education. Once establish the fact that any given person has done a known task, and then from the evidence of that task you can reason to the person's education. If, for instance, Huxley can be shown to have written his essay on The
Value of Witness to the Miraculous, then all arguments to prove that he could not have done it, because he never went through a university, are out of court. Proof that he wrote that essay is at the same time proof that he knew enough to write it. He must have been sufficiently familiar with Latin to read understandingly the extant works of Eginhard. If he wrote the volume on Hume and Berkeley, and the essay on Science and Morals, which bear his name, he was familiar with the main currents of philosophical thought from Descartes down to his time.
The question, then, regarding Shakespeare cannot be settled a priori, on the strength of allegations about his ignorance. It is simply whether the mass of contemporary and nearly contemporary testimony, which represents him as the author of Romeo and Juliet, The Merchant of Venice, and the rest of the plays listed by Meres, to say nothing of the other contents of the Folio of 1623, can be trusted. If it can, then to discover what education Shakespeare possessed we have only to read his works. A man may acquire education in many different ways. The issue resolves itself into determining the authorship of the plays. Whoever composed them possessed at least so much education as went to their making.
There is, however, a great misapprehension as to the amount of knowledge and book-learning revealed in the dramas. They by no means testify to the possession of encyclopaedic information. The writer was clearly not a person of exact or academic scholarship. The common idea that the plays betray an expert and professional intimacy with the
1 See below, p. 48.
The playwright not a man of rare learning.
law, and its language and modes of procedure, is a complete illusion. Shakespeare was the litigious son of a litigious father, and this fact alone would be sufficient to explain his smattering of legal Legal terminology. When we remember, further, that language. the use of law-terms in poetry and drama was a prevalent literary fashion of the time — when we find that Ben Jonson, Spenser, Massinger, Greene and Webster use them more freely than Shakespeare does, and with greater accuracy,— then the theory that the dramatist must have been a professional lawyer goes hopelessly by the board. The lore of agriculture, horticulture, falconry, the chase, and country life generally, which the plays reveal, Knowledge is little more than what might naturally be expected
of country of a man brought up in the country, and familiar from childhood with the life of farms and gardens and with village sports. Shakespeare's knowledge of flowers and of the animal world is by no means that of a man of science; it is rather that of a creative poet. It is the kind of knowledge that tradition and common-sense observation may give to anybody, and creative fancy to poetic minds; not that which is given in text-books or scientific lectures.
As regards history, the plays disclose only such History. knowledge as any fairly diligent reader could have picked up by reading Holinshed and the other chroniclers whose works were current in Shakespeare's England, and the widely circulated translations of Plutarch. Not only is the knowledge glaringly defective, but it may be positively affirmed that the writer of the plays was either seriously deficient in historic sense, or absolutely contemptuous of the kind of accuracy which it comes naturally to an academically trained mind to strain after.
The knowledge of authors.
What is more, the general impression as to Shakespeare's omniscience, and the wonder expressed at it, betray a curiously naïve conception of the way in which authors go about the making of their books. People who do not write books are apt to have a notion that the men who do must possess simultaneously all the knowledge displayed in all their works. I once knew a publishers' hack who spent all his days at the British Museum Reading-room, picking other men's brains. He had put his name to a score or two of books thus manufactured. A mutual acquaintance who was not in the secret once asked me admiringly, “What is there that that man doesn't know?” Such is the assumption which lies at the root of the astonishment commonly expressed at Shakespeare's learning. Every man who has had occasion in his time to write a few volumes will feel compelled to smile, if only in his sleeve, at this sweetly childlike faith. A writer of books has to "cram" for each volume he turns out. To suppose that a man knows to-day what he put into a book ten years ago is like supposing that he could to-day pass the examination on the strength of which he graduated from his university. I may be told that in thus betraying a jealously guarded secret of the bookmaker's art, I am “giving the show away” with both hands; to which I would briefly reply that that is precisely what I desire to do.
When a man is writing a book, he knows the contents of the chapter on which at a given moment he is engaged. If he is a conscientious craftsman, he knows, at the time his work goes through the press, all that it contains. He is at pains to check every statement of fact, and to see that the various
How books are made.
parts of the work are mutually consistent. But the chances are that by the time he is reading the reviews, he has already forgotten a great deal that his book sets forth. If it treats of an academic or abstruse subject, and if after writing it the author turns his attention to other lines of study, then in a few years he has to go back and grind at the contents of his own book, almost as though it had been the product of another mind.
Now, in the case of Shakespeare, it is foolish to How much assume that the entire range of knowledge in all his did Shake
speare know dramatic and poetic works was present in his con- at any one sciousness at any single moment. His method of time? work lies on the face of his plays. He crammed for each of them as the college man crams for his exam,—though with far less regard to accuracy. For his English or Scottish history he went to Holinshed. Whether what Holinshed gave was true he did not know, and he cared as little as some newspaper reporters care whether what they write is true. What he wanted was material for a dramatic story. He picked it up wherever he could find it, and, having found it, he made such use of it as he chose. For his knowledge of foreign countries he probably depended much more upon conversation than upon books. This hypothesis accounts not only for his knowledge, but also for the amazing ignorance that he frequently displays. The one kind of knowledge in which he excelled all other men — the knowledge of human character, of the loves and hates, the desires and aversions of the human heart, the knowledge of "the breaking strain of a man under temptation” — such knowledge is not to be found in books. It is here that his creative force, his unrivalled powers of observa