No Eulogy for Shakespeare?

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Shakespeare was a famous and respected dramatist at the time of his death. Why was so little attention paid to his passing?

Shakespeare indeed was a man of fame and wealth for many years before his death, thanks in great part to the privileges granted him by King James I. Yet, surprisingly there are no records of any significant tributes to Shakespeare by his fellow actors and writers at the time of his death. The great eulogies praising the Sweet Swan of Avon appeared much later, in the First Folio of 1623. The situation was quite different for Shakespeare’s friend and legendary actor, Richard Burbage. When he died in 1619 the nation mourned and eulogies poured forth from distraught writers whose characters would surely die with him.

The shock and sadness over Burbage’s passing may be the key to our understanding of why so little was written on Shakespeare’s death just three years earlier – a brilliant theory put so eloquently by C. C. Stopes in Burbage and Shakespeare’s Stage:

Shakespeare was out of it all now – away in the quiet Stratford Church he lay. And Richard Burbage, having a son at the end of the year, in memory of him called the child by the name of ‘”William.” It has often been noted by enemies that the world did not seem very much distressed about the death of Shakespeare. No one seems to have grasped the true reason. Shakespeare had retired from the stage, as an actor, some time before he died. His personal appearances in London were rare.

And when the end came, and the creation of plays from that source ceased, we have every reason to believe that there was an increase in the number of the performances of his plays. For in the characters Shakespeare wrote for him Richard Burbage attained his greatest glory. Men did not realize that Shakespeare was dead while Burbage lived. His power of impersonation was so great that he became his characters….We have only to turn to the poems referring to Richard Burbage to realize that it was in the death of Burbage that to the world our Shakespeare died (115).

Reference 

Stopes, C.C. Burbage and Shakespeare’s Stage. London: A. Moring, Ltd., 1913.