1832 ENGLISH POETRY 1579-1830: SPENSER AND THE TRADITION

Sir William Davenant

John Taylor Esq., in Records of my Life (1832) 2:152-58.



Mrs. Bembridge was an intimate friend of Mr. White, reading clerk to the House of Lords. I had read a manuscript book written by Mr. White, in which he had made minutes of all he had heard at the tables of Lord Bolingbroke, the Earl of Oxford, and other great houses. Among the articles in that book was the following story as related by Mr. Pope.

Shakspeare, after his retirement from the stage, used, on his visits to London and also on his return, to rest at the Crown at Oxford, the chief inn in that city, then kept by Mr. Davenant. This landlord had a son to whom Shakspeare was godfather, and who was therefore christened William. Mrs. Davenant was a very handsome woman, and it was surmised that Shakspeare was more than a god-father to the boy. Billy Davenant was always sent for from school when Shakspeare arrived, and one day when the boy was running home he was met by a head of one of the colleges, and asked where he was going in such haste. The boy said, "I am going to my godfather, Shakspeare." — "What!" said the gentleman, "have they not yet taught you not to take the Lord's name in vain?" — in which he was supposed to allude to the rumour against Mrs. Davenant's conjugal fidelity.

Such is the story as I copied it from the manuscript, and many years ago communicated to the world through the medium of the public press. I have since discovered that my father's old friend Mr. Oldys relates the same story in his manuscript, as having also received it from Pope at Lord Oxford's table, and states that it was a townsman of Oxford, not the head of a college, who addressed the boy; but the answer, in my opinion, is more pointed in Mr. White's account of the story, and more suitable to a scholar than a townsman.

Mr. Steevens's disbelief and contempt of this story is truly ridiculous, viz. that from Sir William Davenant's "heavy, vulgar, unmeaning face," he could not be Shakspeare's son: as if nature was always consistent in transmitting beauty and deformity. But surely Mr. Steevens might have traced some lineaments of Shakspeare's mind in Sir William, who was shrewd, intelligent, and a good poet; and whose son seemed to carry on the intellectual features, as he was a scholar, and published several learned works. Yet for the honour of Mrs. Davenant's character it would be liberal to distrust the story, though not upon the same grounds as the absurd scepticism of Mr. Steevens.

There is another story respecting Shakspeare, which I have read, but know not where, and which I may mention because every thing that relates to our great dramatic bard must have some interest attached to it. It is said that Burbage, the chief actor in Shakspeare's time, had made an assignation with a lady of a tolerating disposition, and that he was to call on her when he had performed his part at the theatre, and that when he knocked at the door and she answered him from the window, his signal was to be, "I am Richard the Third," the part which he had previously performed. Shakspeare, according to the story, overheard the appointment, and determined to forestall Burbage; and as either gallant was equally acceptable to the lady, Shakspeare was well received. When Burbage came and knocked at the door, Shakspeare looked out of the window instead of the lady, and in answer to Burbage's signal, "I am Richard the Third," said, "But I am William the Conqueror, and he was the first." It is not unlikely that this story might have furnished a hint to Otway for his lamentable incident in "The Orphan."

There was another curious anecdote in the same manuscript book, which I copied and gave to the public prints many years ago. It stated, that on the night after the decollation of King Charles the First, his body was placed in a room at Whitehall, and that the Earl of Southampton sat in the room to guard and manifest his respect for the royal corse. About midnight the door opened, and a person entered so muffled that he could not be known, who, after slowly walking to the coffin, looked at the corse some time, and having exclaimed, "Cruel necessity!" as slowly retired. Lord Southampton said he could not discover the person, but thought from his figure and voice that it might be Oliver Cromwell.

Having mentioned these anecdotes to my late friend Mr. Malone in a letter, he favoured me with the following answers, which I submit to the reader, as they afford additional proof of the indefatigable zeal with which he pursued all subjects that he took in hand, and of the judgment and acuteness with which he treated them.

Mr. Malone was quite a gentleman in his manners, and rather of a mild disposition, except when he had to support the truth, and then there were such firmness and spirit in what he said, as could hardly be expected from one so meek and courteous; but he never departed from politeness and respect. The following is Mr. Malone's answer to the first of these anecdotes:

TO JOHN TAYLOR, ESQ.

MY DEAR SIR,

An unusual press of business has prevented me from thanking you for your notices concerning Davenant's being the supposed son of Shakspeare. But you are in an error in supposing that the story which you mention is not noticed in my edition: it occurs there twice; once from the papers of Oldys, who says he had it from Pope at Lord Oxford's table, (see vol. i. part i. page 158, and additional anecdotes, Warton's long note, &c.) and again the fact is alluded to in vol. i. part ii. page 270. It also occurs, under different names, in Taylor the Water Poet's Jests. Oldys having got hold of the story, I could not give it well from myself, but shall give it in form in my new edition, with some new additional evidence. By the way, you see how stories gather as they run; for, according to your relater it was a grave head of a house who asked the boy this question, and made the sly observation on Davenant's answer; but Oldys, with more probability, says, that the questioner was a townsman of Oxford. Then again we are told that Shakspeare went to London every second year, whereas, unquestionably, as long as he was connected with the stage, he went every year.

I am, dear Sir, with many thanks,

Most faithfully yours,

E. MALONE.

Foley Place, September 12, 1810.

TO JOHN TAYLOR, ESQ.

MY DEAR SIR,

The anecdote you mentioned (as derived from Pope,) of a man skulking into the chamber at Whitehall, on the night when the body of the murdered Charles was laid there, is told also by Spence, in his anecdotes, from the same authority. But it is good for nothing: the perfidious Cromwell had no such feelings. Read the trial of the Regicides, and you will there find that when he saw Charles landed at Sir R. Cotton's garden, and he was sure they had caught him, he turned as white as a sheet; and just after, he and Harry Martin and others entered into a consultation how to destroy him; and they agreed that the best preparation for that work, would be to blacken him enough. Besides, Mr. Herbert, to whom the care of the body was consigned, has left memoirs, and having minutely noticed every little circumstance, and doubtless sat up with the body, he would hardly have omitted such a circumstance as this.

I have quite forgot what you told me concerning Johnson's prologue to Goldsmith's play. Pray be so good as to send it to me. The life will very soon go into the press.

Yours, dear Sir, faithfully,

E. MALONE.

Foley Place, Oct. 13, 1810.

To the zeal, judgment, and accuracy, of Mr. Malone, the world is indebted for a valuable account of the English stage, and for many interesting particulars respecting the works, life, and family, of Shakspeare. It is not unlikely, that the story importing that Sir William Davenant was supposed to be the son of Shakspeare, which I derived from the manuscript book written by Mr. White, is the most correct, for Mr. White immediately wrote all the anecdotes that he heard at Lord Oxford's table, and Oldys having so many literary works in hand, might not exactly recollect it. According to Aubrey's account, as published by Wood, Sir William was contented to be thought the son of Shakspeare, no great compliment to the memory of his mother. That the report had some foundation is obvious, since it was mentioned by Taylor, the Water-Poet, and probably by others at the time. At all events, whatever relates to Shakspeare must be interesting.