#45 Thomas Fuller, The History of the Worthies of England (1662)
The first formal biographical notice of Shakespeare was written fifty years after his death by Thomas Fuller, a clergyman whose most important work was The Church History of Britain. His final work, published posthumously, was the first biographical dictionary in English. Fuller’s History of the Worthies of England catalogued the significant features of every county in England, relying on comprehensive research (he was known as a “walking library”). He sought to enliven the entries of writers by naming and numbering their books. Fuller included Shakespeare among the notable authors of his native Warwickshire. This brief passage outlines Shakespeare’s contemporary reputation. He is compared to classical poets, including that “fine wag” Ovid (see items 2 and 3). In a notable nautical metaphor, he repeats an anecdote about the “wit combats” between Shakespeare and Ben Jonson (see item 38). While the more learned and laborious Jonson is characterized as “solid, but slow,” Shakespeare is praised for the “quickness of his wit and invention” which can “turn with all tides.” The myth that Shakespeare lacked learning derives from Jonson’s memorial poem in the First Folio, where he refers to Shakespeare’s “small Latin, and less Greek”—although it is important to note that in Jonson’s estimation, no other writer could approach his own authoritative knowledge of the classics. This book is from the collection of Arthur E. Bonfield.