Page images

but listened in vain, for,

“Whilst this muddy vesture of decay

Doth grossly close it in, we cannot hear it."*
There was another most valued book, which told how,

“In olde dayis of the king Artour,
Of which that Bretons speken gret honour,
All was this lond full filled of faerie;
The elf-queene, with her jolly compagnie,

Danced full oft in many a grene mede.”+ Here was the ground-work of 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 council by the light of the glowworm ; who kept the cankers from the rosebuds, and silenced the hootings of the owl. But from Chaucer the youth must have acquired many high things—the highest things in poetry—besides his glimpses of the fairies. We believe that Shakspere was the pupil of Chaucer ; we imagine that the fine bright folio of 1542, whose bold black letter seems the proper dress for the rich antique thought, was his closet companion. The boy would delight in his romance ; the poet would, in a few years, learn from him what stores lay hidden of old traditions and fables, legends that had travelled from one nation to another, gathering new circumstances as they became clothed in a new language, the property of every people, related in the peasant's cabin, studied in the scholar's cell; and Chaucer would teach him that these were the best materials for a poet to work upon, for their universality proved that they were akin to man's inmost nature and feelings. The time would arrive when, in his solitary walks, unbidden tears would come into his eyes as he recollected some passage of matchless pathos; or irrepressible laughter arise at those touches of genial humour which glance like sunbeams over the page. Finally, the matured judgment would learn from Chaucer the possibility of delineating individual character with the minutest accuracy, without separating the individual from the permanent and the universal; and Chaucer would show how a high morality might still consist with freedom of thought and even laxity of expression, and how all that is holy and beautiful might be loved without such scorn or hatred of the impure and the evil as would exclude them from human sympathy. An early familiarity with such a poet as Chaucer must have been a loadstar to one like Shakspere, who was launching into the great ocean of thought without a chart.

But as yet “the realms of gold” were dimly seen. At that hearth, in Henley Street, if the youth began to speak of witches, there would be fear and silence. For did not Mary Shakspere 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 ?f It was unsafe even to talk of them. But the youth would have met with the history of the murder of Duncan, King of Scotland, in a chronicler older than Holinshed ; and he might tell softly, so that “yon crickets shall not hear it,”—that as Macbeth and * “Merchant of Venice.”

† Chaucer : “Wife of Bath's Tale." [ See Scot's “Discovery of Witchcraft," 1584.

Banquo journeyed from Forres, sporting by the way together, when the warriors came in the midst of a laund, three wierd 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 might 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 might aver 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 would call to their mind that there was security far more to be relied on than charms of herb or horseshoe—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 trust. And to that Power this household would address themselves ; and the night would be without fear, and their sleep pleasant.

[graphic][ocr errors][ocr errors][ocr errors][subsumed][ocr errors][subsumed][ocr errors][ocr errors][ocr errors][merged small]
[graphic][ocr errors][ocr errors][ocr errors][merged small]
[graphic][ocr errors]

(Stratford Church, and Mill. From an original drawing at the beginning of the last century.)



We have endeavoured to fill up, with some imperfect forms and feeble colours, the very meagre outline which exists of the schoolboy life of William Shakspere. He is now, we will assume, of the age of fourteen—the year 1578; a year which has been held to furnish decisive evidence as to the worldly condition of his father and his family. The first who attempted to write “Some Account of the Life of William Shakspeare," Rowe, says, “ His father, who was a considerable dealer in wool, had so large a family, ten children in all, that, though he was his eldest son, he could give him no better education than his own employment. He had bred him, it is true, for some time at a free-school, where, it is probable, he acquired what Latin he was master of : but the narrowness of his circumstances, and the want of his assistance at home, forced his father to withdraw him from thence, and unhappily prevented his further proficiency in that language." This statement, be it remembered, was written one hundred and thirty years after the event which it professes to recordthe early removal of William Shakspere from the free-school to which he had been sent by his father. It is manifestly based upon two assumptions, both of which are incorrect :—The first, that his father had a large family of ten children, and was so narrowed in his circumstances that he could not spare even the time of his eldest son, he being taught for nothing ; and, secondly, that the son, by his early removal from the school where he acquired “what Latin he was master of," was prevented

« PreviousContinue »