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THE SHAKESPEAREAN MYTH.
HE thirty-seven plays called, collectively, "Shakespeare," are a phenomenon, not only in English letters, but in human experience. The literature of the country to which they belong, had, up to the date of their appearance, failed to furnish, and has been utterly powerless since, to produce any type, likeness, or formative trace of them; while the literature of other nations possesses not even a corresponding type. The history of a century on either side of their era discloses, within the precints of their birth, no resources upon which levy could have been made for their creation. They came and went like a meteor; neither borrowing of what they found, nor loaning to what they left, their own peculiar and unapproachable magnificence.
The unremitting researches of two centuries have only been able to assign their authorship (where it rested at first) to an hiatus in the life of a wayward village lad named William Shakespeare-who fled his native town penniless and before the constable, to return, in a few years, a well-to-do esquire-with a coat of arms and money in his pocket.
We have the history of the boy, and certain items as to the wealthy squire, who left behind him two or three exceedingly common-place and conventional epitaphs (said to be his handiwork) and a remarkable WILL; but, between them, no hint of history, chronicle, or record. Still, within this unknown period of this man's career, these matchless dramas came from somewhere, and passed current under his name.
The death of their reputed author attracted no contemporary attention, and for many years thereafter the dramas remained unnoticed. Although written in an idiom singularly open to the comprehension of all classes and periods of English-speaking men, no sooner did they begin to be remarked, than a cloud of what are politely called "commentators" bore down upon them; any one who could spell feeling at liberty to furnish a "reading;" and any one who supposed himself able to understand one of these "readings," to add a barnacle in the shape of a "note." From these "commentators" the stately text is even now in peril, and rarely, even to-day, can it be perused, except one line at a time, across the top of a dreary page of microscopic and exasperating annotation. But, up to within a very few years, hardly a handful of Shakespearean students had arisen with courage to admitwhat scarcely any one of the "commentators" even, could have failed to perceive-the utterly inadequate source ascribed to the plays themselves.
It is not yet thirty years since an American lady was supposed to have gone crazy because she declared that William Shakespeare, of the Globe and Blackfriars theaters in London, in the days of Elizabeth, was not the author of these certain dramas and poems
for which-for almost three hundred years-he has stood sponsor.
Miss Bacon's "madness," indeed, has been rapidly contageous. Now-a-days, men make books to prove, not that William Shakespeare did not write these works, but that Francis Bacon, Walter Raleigh, or some other Elizabethan, did not. And we even find, now and then, a treatise written to prove that William Shakespeare was, after all, their author; an admission, at least, that the ancient presumption to that effect no longer covers the case. And, doubtless, the correct view is within this admission. For, probably, if permitted to examine this presumption by the tests which would be applied to any other question of fact, namely, the tests of contemporary history, muniments, and circumstantial evidence, it will be found to be quite as well established and proved that William Shakespeare was not the author of the plays that go by his name, as any other fact, occurring in London between the years 1585 and 1616, not recorded in history or handed down by tradition, could be established and proved in 1881.
If a doubt as to the authorship of the plays had arisen at any time during or between those years, and had been kept open thereafter, the probability is that it would have been settled by this time. But, as it is, we may be pretty certain that no such doubt did arise, and that no such question was asked, during the years when those who could have dispelled the doubt or answered the question were living. When we are about to visit a theater in these days, what we ask and concern ourselves with is: Is the play entertaining? Does it "draw?" And, when we wit
ness it, the question is: Do we enjoy it-or does it bore us? Will we recommend our friends to come that they may be entertained, too, and that we may discuss it with them? or will we warn them to keep away? We very speedily settle these questions for ourselves. Doubtless we may and do inquire who the author is. But we do not enter into any discussion upon the subject, or charge our minds enough with the matter to doubt it when we are told. The author's name is, not unusually, printed on the play-bill before us; we glance at it indifferently, take what is told us for granted, and think no more about it. If the name happens to be assumed, we may possibly see its identity discussed in the dramatic columns of our newspapers next morning, or we may not. If the play entertains us, we commend it. If it drags, we sneer at it, get up and go off. That is all the concern we give it. The evening has slipped away; and, with it, any idle speculations as to the playwright who has essayed to amuse us for an hour.
If, three hundred years hence, a question as to who wrote the play we saw at Mr. Daly's theater or Mr. Wallack's theater last evening should come up, there would be very little evidence, not any records, and scarcely an exhibit to refer to in the matter. Copies of the play-bill or the newspapers of the day might chance to be discovered; but these-the internal testimony of the play itself, if any, and a sort of tacit presumption growing out of a statement it was nobody's cue to inquire into at the time it was made, and had been nobody's business to scrutinize since—would constitute all the evidence at hand. Now this supposititious case is precisely all-fours with the facts
in the matter of the dramatic works which we call, collectively, Shakespeare's. Precisely: except that, on the evenings when those plays were acted, there were no play-bills, and, on the succeeding morning, no daily newspaper. We have, therefore, in 1881, much fewer facilities for setting ourselves right as to their authorship than those living three hundred years after us could possess in the case we have supposed. The audiences who witnessed a certain class of plays at Shakespeare's theaters, in the years between 1585 and 1606, were entertained. The plays "drew." People talked of them about town, and they become valuable to their proprietors. The mimic lords and ladies were acceptable to the best seats; the rabble loved the show and glitter and the alarum of drums; and all were Britons who gloated over rehearsal of the prowess of their own kings and heroes, and to be told that their countrymen at Agincourt had slain ten thousand Frenchmen at an expense of but five and twenty of themselves. But, if M. Taine's description of the Shakespearean theaters and the audience therein wont to assemble may be relied upon, we can pretty safely conclude that they troubled themselves very little as to who fashioned the dialogue the counterfeit kings and queens, soldiers, lords, and ladies spoke; or that they saw any thing in that dialogue to make such. speculation appear worth their while. Nor can we discover any evidence, even among the cultured courtiers who listened to them-or in the case of Elizabeth herself, who is said to have loved them (which we may as well admit for the argument's sake)—that any recognition of the plays as works worthy of any other than a stage-manager, occurred.