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When Shakspere first exchanged the quiet intercourse of his native town for the fierce contests of opinion amongst the partisans of London-he must have had fears for his country. A conspiracy, the most daring and extensive, had burst out against the life of the Queen ; and it was the more dangerous that the leaders of the plot were high-minded enthusiasts, who mingled with their traitorous designs the most chivalrous devotion to another Queen, a long-suffering prisoner. The horrible cruelties that attended the execution of Babington and his accomplices aggravated the pity which men felt that so much enthusiasm should have been lost to their country. More astounding events were to follow. In a year of dearth the citizens had banqueted, amidst bells and bonfires, in honour of the detection of Babington and his followers ; and now, within three weeks of the feast of Christmas, the Lord Mayor and Aldermen, assisted with divers earls, barons, and gentlemen of account, and worshipful citizens “in coats of velvet and chains of gold, all on horseback, in most solemn and stately manner, by sound of four trumpets, about ten of the clock in the forenoon, made open and public proclamation and declaration of the sentence lately given by the nobility against the Queen of Scots under the great seal of England."* At the Cross in Cheap, or at the end of Chancery Lane, or at St. Magnus' Corner near London Bridge, would the young sojourner in this seat of policy hear the proclamation ; and he would hear also the “great and wonderful rejoicing of the people of all sorts, as manifestly appeared by ringing of bells, making of bonfires, and singing of psalms in every of the streets and lanes of the City." + But amidst this show of somewhat ferocious joy would he encounter gloomy and fear-stricken faces. Men would not dare even to whisper their opinions, but it would be manifest that the public heart was not wholly at ease. On the eighth of February the Queen of Scots is executed. Within a week after London pours forth its multitudes to witness a magnificent and a mournful pageant. The Queen has taken upon herself the cost of the public funeral of Sir Philip Sydney. She has done wisely in this. In honouring the memory of the most gallant and accomplished of her subjects, she diverts the popular mind from unquiet reflections to feelings in which all can sympathise. Even the humblest of the people, who know little of the poetical genius, the taste, the courtesy, the chivalrous bearing of this star of the Court of Elizabeth, know that a young and brave man has fallen in the service of his country. Some of his companions in arms have perhaps told the story of his giving the cup of water, about to be lifted to his own parched lips, to the dying soldier whose necessities were greater than his. And that story indeed would move their tears, far more than all the gallant recollections of the tilt-yard. From the Minorites at the eastern extremity of the City, to St. Paul's, there is a vast procession of authorities in solemn purple ; bnt more impressive is the long column of “certain young men of the City, marching by three and three in black cassokins, with their short pikes, halberds, and ensign trailing on the ground.” There are in that procession many of the “ officers of his foot in the Low Countries,” his “gentlemen and yeomen-servants,” and twelve “knights of his kindred and friends.” One there is amongst them upon whom all eyes are gazing-—Drake, the bold seaman, who has carried the terror of the English flag through every sea, and in a few months will be “singeing the King of Spain's beard." The corpse of Sydney is borne by fourteen of his yeomen ; and amongst the pall-bearers is one weeping manly tears, Fulke Greville, upon whose own tomb was written as the climax of his honour that he was " friend to Sir Philip Sydney.” The uncle of the dead hero is there also, the proud, ambitious, weak, and incapable Leicester, who has been kinging it as Governor-General of the Low Coutries, without the courage to fight a battle, except that in which Sydney was sacrificed. He has been recalled ; and is in some disfavour in the courtly circle, * Stow's " Annals.”
although he tried to redeem his disgraces in the Netherlands by boldly counselling the poisoning of the Queen of Scots. Shakspere may have looked upon the haughty peer, and shuddered when he thought of the murderer of Edward Arden.*
Within a year of the burial of Sydney the popular temper had greatly changed. It had gone forth to all lands that England was to be invaded. Philip of Spain was preparing the greatest armament that the combined navies of Spain and Portugal, of Naples and Sicily, of Genoa and Venice, could bear across the seas, to crush the arch-heretic of England. Rome had blessed the enterprise. Prophecies had been heard in divers languages, that the year 1588 “should be most fatal and ominous unto all estates," and it was “now plainly discovered that England was the main subject of that time's operation.”+ Yet England did not quail. “The whole commonalty,” says the annalist, “became of one heart and mind.” The Council of War demanded five thousand men and fifteen ships of the City of London. Two
days were craved for answer ; and the City replied that ten thousand men and thirty ships were at the service of their country. I In every field around the capital were the citizens who had taken arms practising the usual points of war. The Camp at Tilbury was formed. “It was a pleasant sight to behold the soldiers,
* See page 55.
† Stow's " Annals." | It has been said, in contradiction to the good old historian of London, that the City only gave what the Council demanded ; 10,000 men were certainly levied in the twenty-five wards.
as they marched towards Tilbury, their cheerful countenances, courageous words and gestures, dancing and leaping wheresoevor they came ; and in the camp their most felicity was hope of fight with the enemy: where ofttimes divers rumours ran of their foes approach, and that present battle would be given them ; then were they joyful at such news, as if lusty giants were to run a race." There is another description of an eager and confident army that may parallel this :
“All furnish'd, all in arms :
He who wrote this description had, we think, looked upon the patriot trainbands of London in 1588. But, if we mistake not, he had given an impulse to the spirit which had called forth this “strong and mighty preparation,” in a voice as trumpettongued as the proclamations of Elizabeth. The chronology of Shakspere's King John is amongst the many doubtful points of his literary career. The authorship of the “ King John” in two Parts is equally doubtful. But if that be an older play than Shakspere's and be not, as the Germans believe with some reason, written by Shakspere himself, the drama which we receive as his is a work peculiarly fitted for the year of the great Armada. The other play is full of matter that would have offended the votaries of the old religion. This, in a wise spirit of toleration, attacks no large classes of men-excites no prejudices against friars and nuns, but vindicates the independence of England against the interference of the papal authority, and earnestly exhorts her to be true to herself. This was the spirit in which even the undoubted adherents of the ancient forms of religion acted while England lay under the ban of Rome in 1588. The passages in Shakspere's “ King John" appear to us to have even a more pregnant meaning, when they are connected with that stirring time :
“ K. John. What earthly name to interrogatories
K. Phil. Brother of England, you blaspheme in this.
K. John. Though you, and all the kings of Christendom,
* “ Henry IV.,” Part I., Act Iv., Scene I.
Yet I, alone, alone do me oppose
K. John. The legate of the pope hath been with me,
O inglorious league !
This England never did, nor never shall,
The patriotism of Shakspere is less displayed in set speeches than in the whole life of historical plays-incident and character. Out of inferior writers might be collected more laudatory sentences flattering to national pride ; but his words are bright and momentary as the spark which fires the mine. The feeling is in the audience, and he causes it to burst out in shouts or tears. He learnt the management of this power, we think, during the excitement of the great year of 1588.
The Armada is scattered. England's gallant sons have done their work; the winds, which a greater Power than that of sovereigns and councils holds in His hand, have been let loose. The praise is to Him. Again a mighty procession is on the way to St. Paul's. The banners taken from the Spanish ships are hung out on the battlements of the cathedral ; and now, surrounded by all the nobles and mighty men who have fought her battles, the Queen descends from her “chariot throne” to make her “ hearty prayers on her bended knees.” Leicester, the favourite to whose weak hand was nominally intrusted the command of the troops, has not lived to see this triumph. But Essex, the new favourite, would be there ; and Hunsdon, the General for the Queen. There too would be Raleigh, and Hawkins, and Frobisher, and Drake, and Howard of Effingham--one who forgot all distinctions of sect in the common danger of his country. Well might the young poet thus apostrophize this country !
“This royal throne of kings, this scepter'd isle,
This earth of majesty, this seat of Mars,
But, glorious as was the contemplation of the attitude of England during the year of the Armada, the very energy that had called forth this noble display of patriotic spirit exhibited itself in domestic controversy when the pressure from without was removed. The poet might then, indeed, qualify his former admiration :
“O England ! model to thy inward greatness,
Like little body with a mighty heart,
The same season that witnessed the utter destruction of the armament of Spain saw London excited to the pitch of fury by polemical disputes. It was not now the quarrel between Protestant and Romanist, but between the National Church and Puritanism. The theatres, those new and powerful teachers, lent themselves to the controversy. In some of these their license to entertain the people was abused by the introduction of matters connected with religion and politics ; so that in 1589 Lord Burghley not only directed the Lord Mayor to inquire what companies of players had offended, but a commission was appointed for the same purpose. How Shakspere's company proceeded during this inquiry has been made out most clearly by a valuable document discovered at Bridgewater House, by Mr. Collier, wherein they disclaim to have conducted themselves amiss. “These are to certify your right Honourable Lordships that her Majesty's poor players, James Burbage, Richard Burbage, John Laneham, Thomas Greene, Robert Wilson, John Taylor, Anth. Wadeson, Thomas Pope, George Peele, Augustine Phillipps, Nicholas Towley, William Shakespeare, William Kempe, William Johnson, Baptiste Goodale, and Robert Armyn, being all of them sharers in the Blackfriars playhouse, have never given cause of displeasure, in that they have brought into their plays matters of state and religion, unfit to be handled by them or to be presented before lewd spectators : neither hath any complaint in that kind ever been preferred against them or any of them. Wherefore they trust most humbly in your Lordships' consideration of their former good behaviour, being at all times ready and willing to yield obedience to any command whatsoever your Lordships in your wisdom may think in such case meet," &c.
“ Nov. 1589."
In this petition, Shakspere, a sharer in the theatre, but with others below him in the list, says, and they all say, that "they have never brought into their plays matters of state and religion.” The public mind in 1589-90 was furiously agitated by “ matters of state and religion.” A controversy was going on which is now known as that of Martin Marprelate, in which the constitution and discipline of the Church were most furiously attacked in a succession of pamphlets; and they were defended with equal violence and scurrility. Izaak Walton says,-There was not only one Martin Marprelate, but other venomous books daily printed and dispersed, -books that were so absurd and scurrilous, that the graver divines disdained them an answer.” Walton adds,—“And yet these were grown into high esteem with the common people, till Tom Nashe appeared against them all, who was a man of a sharp wit, and the master of a scoffing, satirical, merry peu.” Connected with this controversy, there was subsequently a more personal one between Nashe and Gabriel Harvey ; but they were each engaged in the Marprelate dispute. John Lyly was the author of one of the most remarkable pamphlets produced on this occasion, called 6 Pap with a Hatchet.” Harvey, it must be observed, was the intimate friend of Spenser; and in a pamphlet which he dates from Trinity Hall, November 5, 1589, he thus attacks the author of “Pap with a Hatchet,” the more celebrated Euphuist, whom Sir Walter Scott's novel has made familiar to us :
“I am threatened with a bable, and Martin menaced with a comedy-a fit motion for a jester and a player to try what may be done by employment of his faculty.