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Even if it should appear that these plays thus performed were the plays we now call Shakespeare's; had any of this audience suspected that these plays were not written for them, but for all time; that, three hundred years later-when the plays should not only be extant, but more loved and admired than ever-the thinking world should set itself seriously to probe the mystery of their origin; there might have been some interest as to their producer manifested, and we might have had some testimony competent to the exact point to-day.
But it is evident enough that no such prophetic vision was vouchsafed to them, and no such prophetic judgment passed. Nor is the phenomenon exceptional. The critic does not live, even to-day, however learned or cultured or shrewd, who would take the responsibility of affirming upon his own judgment, or even upon the universal judgment of his age and race, that any literary composition would be, after a lapse of three hundred years, not only extant, but immortal, hugged as its birthright by a whole world. Such a statement would have been contrary to experience, beyond the prophecy of criticism, and therefore only to be known-if known at all-as a Fact. Moreover, it could only be known as a fact at the expiration of the three hundred years. Doubtless, few critics would care, in any case, to commit themselves upon record one way or the other in a matter so hypothetical and speculative as the judgment of posterity upon a literary performance, and certainly nothing of the sort occurred in Shakespeare's day, even if there were any dramatic or literary critics to speculate upon the subject. There can be no doubt-and it must be conceded
-that certain acted plays did pass with their first audiences, and that certain printed plays, both contemporaneously and for years thereafter, did pass with the public who read them, as the compositions of Mr. Manager Shakespeare; and that probably even the manager's pot companions, who had better call to know him than any others, saw nothing to shake their heads at in his claim to be their author (provided he ever made any such claim; which, by the way, does not appear from any record of his life, and which nobody ever asserted as a fact). If they did-with the exception only of Robert Greene—they certainly kept their own counsel. On the one hand, then, the question of the authorship was never raised, and, on the other hand, if it had been, the scholars and critics who studied the plays (supposing that there were any such in those days) could not possibly have recognized them as immortal. If they had so recognized them, they would doubtless have left us something more satisfactory as to the authorship of the compositions than the mere "impression that they were informed" that the manager of the theater where they were produced wrote them; that they supposed he was clever enough to have done so, and they therefore took it for granted that he did. That is all there is of the evidence of Shakespeare's own day, as to the question-if it still is a question-before us.
But how about the presumption-the legal presumption, arising from such lapse of time as that the memory of man runneth not to the contrary-the presumption springing from tradition and common report—that William Shakespeare composed the Shakespearean plays? It is, of course, understood that one presump
tion is as good as another until it is disturbed. It is never safe to underrate an existing presumption; as long as it stands at all, it stands as conclusive; once overthrown, however, it is as if it had never existed.
A presumption three hundred years old may be a strong one to overthrow. But if its AGE is all there is of it-if it be only strong in years-it can yet be toppled over. Once overthrown, it is no more venerable because it is three hundred years old than if it were only three. An egg-shell will toss upon the crest of an angry surf, and, for very frailty, outride breakers when the mightiest ship man ever framed could not survive an instant. But it is only an egg-shell, for all that, and a touch of the finger will crush and destroy it. And so, formidable as it was in age, the presumption as to William Shakespeare's authorship of the great dramas which for three hundred years had gone by his name, had only to be touched by the thumb and finger of common sense to crackle and shrivel like the egg that sat on the wall in the Kindergarten rhyme, which all the king's army and all the king's men could not set up again, once it had tumbled over.
But as the world advanced and culture increased, why did not the question arise before? Simply because the times were not ripe for it. This is the age and generation for the explosion of myths, and, as one after another of them falls to pieces and disappears, who does not wonder that they have not fallen sooner? For how many years has the myth of William Tell been. cherished as history! And yet there is no element of absolute impossibility or even of improbability-much less of miracle-in the story of an archer with a sure eye and a steady aim. Or, in the case of physical
myths-which only required an exploration by physical sense for their explosion-the maps of two centuries or so ago represented all inaccessible seas as swarming with krakens and ship-devouring reptiles. And it is not twenty years since children were taught in their geographies that upon the coast of Norway there was a whirlpool which sucked down ships prow foremost. And here, in our midst, a cannon-shot from where we sit and write these lines, there was believed to be and exist a Hell Gate which was a very portal of death and slaughter to hapless mariners. But there are no krakens, and not much of a Maelstrom; and, for twenty years before General Newton blew up a few rocks at Hell Gate, people had laughed at the myth of its ferocity. And again: nothing is easier than to invent a story so utterly unimportant and immaterial that it will be taken for granted, without controversy, and circulate with absolute immunity from examination, simply because worth nobody's while to contradict it. For example, it is likely enough that Demosthenes, in practicing oratory, stood on a sea-beach and drilled his voice to outroar the waves. The story is always told, however, with the rider, that Demosthenes did this with his mouth filled with pebble-stones; and, as nobody cares whether he did or not, nobody troubles himself to ascertain by experiment that the thing is impossible, and that nobody can roar with a mouth full of pebble-stones. And not even then would he succeed in removing the impression obtaining with the great mass of the world, that a thing is proven sufficiently if it gets into "print.” Charles II. set the Royal Society of his day at work to
find the reason why a dead fish weighed more than a live one-and it was only when they gave it up, that the playful monarch assured them that the fact they were searching for the reason of was not a fact at all. It is not impossible to demonstrate from experience, that the human mind will be found-as a rule-to prefer wasting laborious days in accounting for, rather than take the very simplest pains to verify even a proposition or alleged fact, which, if a fact at all, is of value beyond itself. It was objected to the system of Copernicus, when first brought forward, that, if the earth turned on its axis as he represented, a stone dropped from the summit of a tower would not fall at the foot of it, but at a great distance to the west, in the same manner that a stone dropped from the masthead of a ship in full sail does not fall at the foot of the mast, but toward the stern. To this it was answered that a stone, being a part of the earth, obeys the same laws and moves with it, whereas it is no part of the ship, of which, consequently, its motion is independent. This solution was admitted by some and opposed by others, and the controversy went on with spirit; nor was it till one hundred years after the death of Copernicus that, the experiment being tried, it was ascertained that the stone thus dropped from the head of the mast does fall at the foot of it. And so, if, in the case of the Shakespearean authorship, the day has come for truth to dispel fiction, and reason to scout organic miracle, why should we decline to look into an alleged Shakespearean myth simply because it happens to be a little tardy in coming to the surface?
But, most of all, it is to be remembered that it is, practically, only our own century that has compre