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Ranging over the whole dramatic works of Shakspere, whenever we find a classical image or allusion, such as in Hamlet,
"A station like the herald Mercury,
New lighted on a heaven-kissing hill,"
the management of the idea is always elegant and graceful; and the passage may sustain a contrast with the most refined imitations of his contemporaries, or of his own imitator, Milton. In his Roman plays he appears co-existent with his wonderful characters, and to have read all the obscure pages of Roman history with a clearer eye than philosopher or historian. When he employs Latinisms in the construction of his sentences, and even in the creation of new words, he does so with singular facility and unerring correctness. And then, we are to be told, he managed all this by studying bad translations, and by copying extracts from grammars and dictionaries; as if it was reserved for such miracles of talent and industry as the Farmers and the Steevenses to read Ovid and Virgil in their original tongues, whilst the dull Shakspere, whether schoolboy or adult, was to be contented through life with the miserable translations of Arthur Golding and Thomas Phaer.* We believe that his familiarity at least with the best Roman writers was begun early, and continued late; and that he, of all boys of Stratford, would be the least likely to discredit the teaching of Thomas Hunt and Thomas Jenkins, the masters of the grammar-school from 1572 till 1580.
The happy days of boyhood are nearly over. William Shakspere no longer looks for the close of the day when, in that humble chamber in Henley Street, his father shall hear something of his school progress, and read with him some
* See a series of learned and spirited papers by Dr. Maginn on Farmer's Essay, printed in Fraser's Magazine. 1839.
English book of history or travel,-volumes which the active presses of London had sent cheaply amongst the people. The time is arrived when he has quitted the free-school. His choice of a worldly occupation is scarcely yet made. The wishes of his father, whatever they may be, are rather hinted at than carried out. It is that pause which so often takes place in the life of a youth, when the world shows afar off like a vast plain with many paths, all bright and sunny, and losing themselves in the distance, where it is fancied there is something brighter still. At this season we may paint the family of John Shakspere at their evening fireside. The mother is plying her distaff, or hearing Richard his lesson out of the ABC book. The father and the elder son are each intent upon a book of chronicles, manly reading. Gilbert is teaching his sister Joan Gamut, "the ground of all accord;" whilst the little Anne, a petted child, is wilfully twanging upon the lute which her sister has laid down. A neighbour comes in upon business with the father, who quits the room; and then all the group crowd round their elder brother, who has laid aside his chronicle, to entreat him for a story; the mother even joins in the children's prayer to their gentle brother. Has not he himself pictured such a home scene? May we not read for Hermione, Mary Shakspere, and for Mamillius, William ?
And truly that boy had access to a prodigious mine of such stories, whether "merry or sad." He had a copy, well thumbed from his first reading days, of The Palace of Pleasure, beautified, adorned, and well furnished with pleasaunt histories and excellent nouelles, selected out of diuers good and commendable authors; by William Painter, Clarke of the Ordinaunce and Armarie.' In this book, according to the dedication of the translator to Ambrose Earl of Warwick, was set forth the great valiance of noble gentlemen, the terrible combats of courageous personages, the virtuous minds of noble dames, the chaste hearts of constant ladies, the wonderful patience of puissant princes, the mild sufferance of well-disposed gentlewomen, and, in divers, the quiet bearing of adverse fortune." Pleasant little apophthegms and short fables were there in that book, which the brothers and sisters of William Shakspere had heard him tell with marvellous spirit, and they abided therefore in their memories. There was * Winter's Tale, Act 11., Scene 1.
Come on then,
Æsop's fable of the old lark and her young ones, wherein "he prettily and aptly doth premonish that hope and confidence of things attempted by man ought to be fixed and trusted in none other but in himself." There was the story, most delightful to a child, of the bondman at Rome, who was brought into the open place upon which a great multitude looked, to fight with a lion of a marvellous bigness; and the fierce lion when he saw him "suddenly stood still, and afterwards by little and little, in gentle sort, he came unto the man as though he had known him," and licked his hands and legs; and the bondman told that he had healed in former time the wounded foot of the lion, and the beast became his friend. These were for the younger children; but William had now a new tale, out of the same storehouse, upon which he had often pondered; the subject of which had shaped itself in his mind into dialogue that almost sounded like verse in his earnest and graceful recitation. It was a tale which Painter translated from the French of Pierre Boisteau-a true tale, as he records it," the memory whereof to this day is so well known at Verona, as unneths* their blubbered eyes be yet dry that saw and beheld that lamentable sight." It was 'The goodly history of the true and constant love between Romeo and Julietta.' Then the youth described how Romeo came into the hall of the Capulets, whose family were at variance with his own, the Montesches, and, "very shamefaced, withdrew himself into a corner;-but by reason of the light of the torches, which burned very bright, he was by and by known and looked upon by the whole company;" how he held the frozen hand of Juliet, the daughter of the Capulet, and it warmed and thrilled, so that from that moment there was love between them; how the lady was told that Romeo was the "son of her father's capital enemy and deadly foe;" how, in the little street before her father's house, Juliet saw Romeo walking, "through the brightness of the moon;" how they were joined in holy marriage secretly by the good Friar Lawrence; and then came bloodshed, and grief, and the banishment of Romeo, and the friar gave the lady a drug to produce a pleasant sleep, which was like unto death; and she, "so humble, wise, and debonnaire," was laid "in the ordinary grave of the Capulets," as one dead, and Romeo, having bought poison of an apothecary, went to the tomb, and there lay down and died; and the sleeping wife awoke, and with the aid of the dagger of Romeo she died beside him. There were "blubbered eyes" also at that fireside of the Shaksperes, for the youth told the story with wonderful animation. From the same collection of tales had he before half dramatized the story of "Giletta of Narbonne," who cured the King of France of a painful malady, and the King gave her in marriage to the Count Beltramo, with whom she had been brought up, and her husband despised and forsook her, but at last they were united, and lived in great honour and felicity. There was another collection, too, which that youth had diligently read,—the 'Gesta Romanorum,' translated by R. Robinson in 1577,-old legends, come down to those latter days from monkish historians, who had embodied in their narratives all the wild traditions of the ancient and modern world. He could tell the story of the rich heiress who chose a husband by the machinery of a gold, a silver, and a leaden casket ;-and another story of the merchant whose *Unneths, scarcely.
inexorable creditor required the fulfilment of his bond in cutting a pound of flesh nearest the merchant's heart, and by the skilful interpretation of the bond the cruel creditor was defeated. There was the story too, in these legends, of the Emperor Theodosius, who had three daughters; and those two daughters who said they loved him more than themselves were unkind to him, but the youngest, who only said she loved him as much as he was worthy, succoured him in his need, and was his true daughter. There was in that collection also a feeble outline of the history of a king whose wife died upon the stormy sea, and her body was thrown overboard, and the child she then bore was lost, and found by the father after many years, and the mother was also wonderfully kept in life. Stories such as these, preserved amidst the wreck of time, were to that youth like the seeds that are found in the tombs of ruined cities, lying with the bones of forgotten generations, but which the genial influences of nature will call into life, and they shall become flowers, and trees, and food for man.
But, beyond all these, our Mamillius had many a tale "of sprites and goblins.” He told them, we may well believe at that period, with an assenting faith, if not a prostrate reason. They were not then, in his philosophy, altogether “the very coinage of the brain." Such appearances were above nature, but the commonest movements of the natural world had them in subjection :--
"I have heard,
Powerful they were, but yet powerless. They came for benevolent purposes: to warn the guilty; to discover the guilt. The belief in them was not a debasing thing. It was associated with the enduring confidence that rested upon a world beyond this material world. Love hoped for such visitations; it had its dreams of such-where the loved one looked smilingly, and spoke of regions where change and separation were not. They might be talked of, even amongst children then, without terror. They lived in that corner of the soul which had trust in angel protections; which believed in celestial hierarchies; which listened to hear the stars moving in harmonious music
"Still quiring to the young-eyed cherubins,”–
but listened in vain, for,
"Whilst this muddy vesture of decay Doth grossly close it in, we cannot hear it." +
William Shakspere could also tell to his greedy listeners, how
"In olde dayis of the king Artour,
+ Merchant of Venice.
Chaucer, Wife of Bath's Tale.'
Here was something in his favourite old poet for the youth to work out into beautiful visions of a pleasant race of supernatural beings; who lived by day in the acorn-cups of Arden, and by moonlight held their revels on the green sward of Avon-side, the ringlets of their dance being duly seen,
"Whereof the ewe not bites ;""
who tasted the honey-bag of the bee, and held counsel by the light of the glowworm; who kept the cankers from the rosebuds, and silenced the hootings of the owl. But he had his story, too, of a "shrewd and knavish sprite," whether named Robin-Goodfellow, Kit-with-the-canstick, Man-in-the-oak, Fire-drake, Puckle, Tom-Tumbler, or Hobgoblin. Did he not grind malt and mustard, and sweep the house at midnight, and was not his standing fee a mess of white milk?* Some day would William make a little play of the Fairies, and Joan should be the Queen, and he would be the King; for he had talked with the Fairies, and he knew their language and their manners, and they were "good people," and would not mind a boy's sport with them.
But when the youth began to speak of witches there was fear and silence. For did not his mother recollect that in the year she was married Bishop Jewel had told the Queen that her subjects pined away, even unto the death, and that their affliction was owing to the increase of witches and sorcerers? Was it not known how there were three sorts of witches,-those that can hurt and not help, those that can help and not hurt, and those that can both help and hurt ?† was unsafe even to talk of them. But the youth had met with the history of the murder of Duncan King of Scotland, in a chronicler older than Holinshed; and he told softly, so that "yon crickets shall not hear it,"-that, as Macbeth and Banquo journeyed from Forres, sporting by the way together, when the warriors came in the midst of a laund three weird sisters suddenly appeared to them, in strange and wild apparel, resembling creatures of an elder world, and prophesied that Macbeth should be King of Scotland; and Macbeth from that hour desired to be King, and so killed the good King his liege lord. And then the story-teller and his listeners would pass on to safer matters-to the calculations of learned men who could read the fates of mankind in the aspects of the stars; and of those more deeply learned, clothed in garments of white linen, who had command over the spirits of the earth, of the water, and of the air. Some of the children said that a horse-shoe over the door, and vervain and dill, would preserve them, as they had been told, from the devices of sorcery. But their mother called to their mind that there was security far more to be relied on than charms of herb or horse-shoe-that there was a Power that would preserve them from all evil, seen or unseen, if such were His gracious will, and if they humbly sought Him, and offered up their hearts to Him, in all love and And to that Power this household then addressed themselves; and the night was without fear, and their sleep was pleasant.
* See Scot's Discovery of Witchcraft,' 1584.