It has been said that the year 1616 is an insignificant one in theatrical history. In fact, both Shakespeare and Francis Beaumont died in that year, but the King's men had learned to do without Shakespeare the man while keeping his popular plays in repertoire, and Beaumont, too, had left the theatre earlier. Actors carried on without new dramas from older suppliers, and even the great Folio of Shakespeare's plays broke no trade records in selling possibly 750 copies, or perhaps fewer, inside nine years. Why was curiosity about the Stratford poet at a low ebb for some decades after 1623?

He was not alive to inspire new gossip -- and Inns of Court wits (for example) needed to be au courant in their enthusiasms. Views similar to Ben Jonson's on his Stratford friend's lack of learning were repeated. That Shakespeare was 'never any Scholar' and that 'his learning was very little' are claimed, by a self-styled 'biographist', in the first formal sketch of him, in Thomas Fuller The History of the Worthies of England ( 1662); and Fuller's views are echoed in paragraphs about Stratford's poet for the rest of the century.

Furthermore, from about 1660 to the 1730s, with the canons of criticism mainly set against them, Shakespeare's plays were often radically adapted or purged of scenes of bloodshed, of their sensuously strong imagery, and of other assumed faults. As Brian Vickers has written, there is no 'comparable instance of the work of a major artist being altered in such a sweeping fashion' ( Shakespeare: The Critical Heritage, i, 1623-1692 ( 1974.)). Those who dwelt on his small learning, or his gross diction and imagery, evidently did little to stimulate fresh enquiry into the man.

Useful biographical work really begins with John Aubrey's hectic notes, of about 1661 (but not published until Andrew Clark's edition


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Shakespeare: A Life


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