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loftiest imagination must work upon the humblest materials. In his father's home, amongst his father's neighbours, he would observe those striking differences in the tempers and habits of mankind which are obvious even to a child. Cupidity would be contrasted with generosity, parsimony with extravagance. He would hear of injustice and of ingratitude, of uprightness and of fidelity. Curiosity would lead him to the bailiff's court; and there he would learn of bitter quarrels and obstinate enmities, of friends parted “on a dissension of a doit,” of foes who “interjoin their issues” to worry some wretched offender. Small ambition and empty pride would grow bloated upon the pettiest distinctions; and “the insolence of office” would thrust humility off the causeway. There would be loud talk of loyalty and religion, while the peaceful and the pious would be suspected ; and the sycophant who wore the great man's livery would strive to crush the independent in spirit. Much of this the observing boy would see, but much also would be concealed in the general hollowness that belongs to a period of inquietude and change. The time would come when he would penetrate into the depths of these things; but meanwhile what was upon the surface would be food for thought. At the weekly market there would be the familiar congregation of buyers and sellers. The housewife from her little farm would ride in gallantly between her panniers laden wit butter, eggs, chickens, and capons. The farmer would stand by his pitched corni, and, as Harrison complains, if the poor man handled the sample with the intent to purchase his humble bushel, the man of many sacks would declare that it was sold. The engrosser, according to the same authority, would be there with his understanding nod, successfully evading every statute that could be made against forestalling, because no statutes could prevail against the power of the best price. There, before shops were many, and their stocks extensive, would come the dealers from Birmingham and Coventry, with wares for use and wares for show,-horse-gear and womengear, Sheffield whittles, and rings with posies. At the joyous Fair-season it would seem that the wealth of a world was emptied into Stratford ; not only the substantial things, the wine, the wax, the wheat, the wool, the malt, the cheese, the clothes, the napery, such as even great lords sent their stewards to the fairs to buy,* but every possible variety of such trumpery as_fill the pedlar's pack,-ribbons, inkles, caddises, coifs, stomachers, pomanders, brooches, tapes, shoe-ties. Great dealings were there on these occasions in beeves and horses, tedious chafferings, stout affirmations, saints profanely invoked to ratify a bargain. A mighty man rides into the fair who scatters consternation around. It is the Queen's Purveyor. The best horses are taken up for her Majesty's use, at her Majesty's price; and they probably find their way to the Earl of Leicester's or the Earl of Warwick's stables at a considerable profit to Master Purveyor. The country buyers and sellers look blank; but there is no remedy. There is solace, however, if there is not redress. The ivy-bush is at many a door, and the sounds of merriment are within, as the ale and the sack are quaffed to friendly greetings. In the streets there are morrisdancers, the juggler with his ape, and the minstrel with his ballads. We can imagine the foremost in a group of boys listening to the “small popular music sung by these cantabanqui upon benches and barrels' heads," or more earnestly to some one of the “blind harpers, or such-like tavern minstrels, that give a fit of mirth for a groat; their matters being for the most part stories of old time, as "The Tale of Sir Topas,' Bevis of Southampton,' 'Guy of Warwick,' 'Adam Bell and Clymme of the Clough,' and such other old romances or historical rhymes, made purposely for the recreation of the common people.”+ A bold fellow, who is full of queer stories and cant phrases, strikes a few notes upon his gittern, and the lads and
See the “Northumberland Household Book.”
† Puttenham's “Art of Poetry," 1589.
lasses are around him ready to dance their country measures. He is thus described in the year 1564, in a tract by William Bulleyn : “Sir, there is one lately come into this hall, in a green Kendal coat, with yellow hose, a beard of the same colour, only upon the upper lip ; a russet hat, with a great plume of strange feathers, and a brave scarf about his neck, in cut buskins. He is playing at the trey-trip with our host's son: he playeth trick upon the gittern, and dances "Trenchmore' and 'Heie de Gie,' and telleth news from Terra Florida." Upon this strange sort of indigenous troubadour would the schoolboy gaze, for he would seem to belong to a more knowing race than dwelt on Avon's side. His “news from Terra Florida" tells us of an age of newstongues, before newspapers were. Doubtless such as he had many a story of home wonders ; he had seen London perhaps ; he could tell of Queens and Parliaments; might have seen a noble beheaded, or a heretic burnt; he could speak, we may fancy, of the wonders of the sea ; of ships laden with rich merchandize, unloading in havens far from this inland region ; of other ships wrecked on inhos
pitable coasts, and poor men made rich by the ocean's spoils. At the fair, too, would be the poor old minstrel, with his gown of Kendal green, not tattered though somewhat tarnished. The harp laid by his side upon the bench tells his profession. There was a time when he was welcomed at every hall, and he might fitly wear starched ruffs, and a chain of pewter as bright as silver, and have the rest of his harp jauntily suspended by a green lace. Those times are past. He scarcely now dares to enter worshipful men's houses ; and at the fairs a short song of love or good fellowship, or a dance to the gittern, are preferred by most to his tedious legends. For many a long “fitte" had he, which told of doughty deeds of Arthur and his chivalry, Sir Bevis, Sir Gawain, Sir Launfal, and Sir Isenbras ; and, after he had preluded with his harp, the minstrel would begin each in stately wise with “ Listen, lordings, and hold you still,” or “Listen to me a little stond.” He might maunder on, neglected by most, though one youth might treasure up his words. | There are many traces in the works of Shakspere of his familiarity with old
romances and old ballads ; but like all his other acquirements, there is no reproduction of the same thing under a new form. Rowe fancied that Shakspere's knowledge of the learned languages was but small, because “it is without controversy that in his works we scarce find any traces of anything that looks like an imitation of the ancients.” It is for inferior men to imitate. It was for Shakspere to subject his knowledge to his original power of thought, so that his knowledge and his invention should become “one entire and perfect chrysolite;" and thus the minute critic, who desires to find the classical jewels set in the English gold, proclaims that they are not there, because they were unknown and unappreciated by the uneducated poet. So of the traditionary lore with which Shakspere must have been familiar from his very boyhood. That lore is not in his writings in any very palpable shape, but its spirit is there. The simplicity, the vigour, the pathos, the essential dramatic power, of the ballad poetry stood out in Shakspere's boyhood in remarkable contrast to the drawling pedantry of the moral plays of the early stage. The ballads kept the love and the knowledge of real poetry in the hearts of the people. There was something high, and generous, and tolerant, in those which were most popular ; something which demonstratively told they belonged to a nation which admired courage, which loved truth, which respected misfortune. Percy, speaking of the more ancient ballad of “Chevy Chase,” says—“One may also observe a generous impartiality in the old original bard, when in the conclusion of his tale he represents both nations as quitting the field without any reproachful reflection on either ; though he gives to his own countrymen the credit of being the smaller number.” The author of that ballad was an Englishman ; and we may believe this “impartiality" to have been an ingredient of the old English patriotism. At any rate it entered into the patriotism of Shakspere.
It is the twenty-third of April, and the birthday of William Shakspere is a general holiday at Stratford. It is St. George's day. There is high feasting at Westminstor or at Windsor. The green rushes are strewn in the outward courts of the Palace ; the choristers lift up the solemn chants of the Litany as a procession advances from the Queen's Hall to her Chapel; the Heralds move on gorgeously in their coatarmour; the Knights of the Garter and the Sovereign glitter in their velvet robes ; the Yeomen of the Guard close round in their richest liveries.* At Stratford there is humbler pageantry. Upon the walls of the Chapel of the Holy Cross there was a wondrous painting of a terrible dragon pierced through the neck with a spear; but he has snapped the weapon in two with his fearful talons, and a gallant knight in complete armour is uplifting his sword, whilst the bold horse which he bestrides rushes upon the monster with his pointed champfrein :t in the background is a crowned lady with a lamb; and on distant towers a king and queen watching the combat. This story of Saint George and the delivery of the Princess of Silene from the power of the dragon was, on the twenty-third of April, wont to be dramatized at Stratford. From the altar of Saint George was annually taken down an ancient
* See Nichols's “ Progresses of Elizabeth,” vol. i., p. 88.
† The armour for the horse's head, with a long projecting spike, so as to make the horse resemble an unicorn.
suit of harness, which was duly scoured and repaired; and from some storehouse was produced the figure of a dragon, which had also all needful annual reparation. Upon the back of a sturdy labourer was the harness fitted, and another powerful man had to bear the dragon, into whose body he no doubt entered. Then, all the dignitaries of the town being duly assembled, did Saint George and the Dragon march along, amidst the ringing of bells and the firing of chambers, and the shout of the patriotic population of “Saint George for England."* Here is the simplest of dramatic exhibitions, presented through a series of years to the observing eyes of a boy in whom the dramatic power of going out of himself to portray some incident, or character, or passion with incomparable truth, was to be developed and matured in the growth of his poetical faculty. As he looked upon that rude representation of a familiar legend, he may first have conceived the capability of exhibiting to the eye a moving picture of events, and of informing it with life by appropriate dialogue. But in truth the essentially dramatic spirit of the ancient church had infused itself thoroughly into the popular mind; and thus, long after the Reformation had swept away most of the ecclesiastical ceremonials that were held to belong to the superstitions of Popery, the people retained this principle of personation in their common festivals ; and many were the occasions in which the boy and the man, the maiden and the matron were called upon to enact some part, that might require bodily activity and mental readiness ; in which something of grace and even of dignity might be called forth ; in which a free but good-tempered wit might command the applause of uncritical listeners; and a sweet or mellow voice, pouring forth our nation's songs, would receive the exhilarating homage of a jocund chorus. Let us follow the boy William Shakspere, now, we will suppose, some ten or eleven years old, through the annual course of the principal rustic holidays, in which the yeoman and the peasant, the tradesman and the artisan, with their wives and children, were equally ready to partake. We may discover in these familiar scenes not only those peculiar forms of a dramatic spirit in real manners which might in some degree have given a direction to his genius, but, what is perhaps of greater importance, that poetical aspect of common life which was to supply materials of thought and of imagery to him who was to become in the most eminent degree the poet of humanity in all its imaginative relations.
The festivities of Christmas are over. The opening year calls the husbandman again to his labours ; and Plough Monday, with its plough dragged along to rustic music, and its sword-dance, proclaims that wassail must give place to work. The rosemary and the bays, the misletoe and the holly, are removed from the porch and the hall, and the delicate leaves of the box are twined into the domestic garland.+ The Vigil of Saint Agnes has rewarded or disappointed the fateful charm of the village maiden. The husbandman has noted whether Saint Paul's day “be fair and clear,” to guide his presages of the year's fertility. “Cupid's Kalendere” has been searched on the day of “Seynte Valentine,” as Lydgate tells. The old English chorus, which Shakspere himself has preserved, has been duly sung
“ 'Tis merry in hall, when beards wag all,
And welcome merry Shrove-tide." Easter is come, after a season of solemnity. The ashes were no longer blessed at the beginning of Lent, nor the palms borne at the close ; yet there was strong devotion in the reformed church-real penitence and serious contemplation. But
* It appears from accounts which are given in fac-simile in Fisher's Work on the Chapel of the Guild that this procession repeatedly took place in the reign of Henry VIII.; and other accounts show that it was continued as late as 1579.