« PreviousContinue »
scarcely exceeds the rules of legitimate translation; and the introduction and repetition of the French preposition, indicates that the coincidence was intentional, and stands as an acknowledgment of the imitation. Mr. Capel Lofft has, perhaps, very fairly estimated the extent of Shakspeare's literary acquirements: "He had what would now be considered a very reasonable proportion of Latin; he was not wholly ignorant of Greek; he had a knowledge of the French so as to read it with ease; and I believe not less of the Italian He was habitually conversant in the chronicles of his country. He had deeply imbibed the Scriptures." And again, in speaking of his Venus and Adonis and the Rape of Lucrece, which were the first published efforts of Shakspeare's genius, Mr. Lofft continues: "I think it not easy, with due attention to these poems, to doubt of his having acquired, when a boy, no ordinary facility in the classic language of Rome; and, when Jonson said he had less Greek,' had it been true that he had none, it would have been as easy for the verse as for the sentiment, to have said 'no Greek.""
With these qualifications for the task, Shakspeare applied himself to the labor of tuition. But both the time and the habits of his life, rendered him peculiarly unfit for the situation. The gaiety of his disposition naturally inclined him to society; and the thoughtlessness of youth prevented his being sufficiently scrupulous about the conduct and the characters of his associates. "He had by a misfortune, common enough to young fellows, fallen into ill company," says Rowe; and the excesses into which they seduced him, were by no means consistent with that seriousness of deportment and behavior which is expected to accompany the occupation that he had adopted. The following anecdote of these days of his riot, is still current at Stratford, and the neighboring village of Bidford. I give it in the words of the author from whom it is taken. Speaking of Bidford, he says, there were anciently two societies of village-yeomanry in this place, who frequently met under the appellation of Bidford topers. It was a custom of these heroes to challenge any of their neighbors, famed for the love of good ale, to a drunken combat: among others, the people of Stratford were called out
to a trial of strength, and in the number of their champions, as the traditional story runs, our Shakspeare, who forswore all thin potations, and addicted himself to ale as lustily as Falstaff to his sack, is said to have entered the lists. In confirmation of this tradition, we find an epigram written by Sir Aston Cockayn, and published in his poems in 1658, p. 124; it runs thus:
TO MR. CLEMENT FISHER, OF WINCOT.
And drink ourselves merry in sober sadness.
"When the Stratford lads went over to Bidford, they found the topers were gone to Evesham fair; but were told, if they wished to try their strength with the sippers, they were ready" for the contest. This being acceded to, our bard and his companions were staggered at the first outset, when they thought it advisable to sound a retreat, while the means of retreat were practicable; and they had scarce marched half a mile, before they were all forced to lay down more than their arms, and encamp in a very disorderly and unmilitary form, under no better covering than a large crab-tree; and there they rested till morning.
"This tree is yet standing by the side of the road. If, as it has been observed by the late Mr. T. Warton, the meanest hovel to which Shakspeare has an allusion interests curiosity, and acquires an importance, surely the tree which has spread its shade over him, and sheltered him from the dews of the night, has a claim to our attention.
"In the morning, when the company awakened our bard, the story says, they entreated him to return to Bidford, and renew the charge; but this he declined, and looking round
upon the adjoining villages, exclaimed, No! I have had enough; I have drank with
Piping Pebworth, Dancing Marston,
Dudging Exhall, Papist Wicksford,
Beggarly Broom, and Drunken Bidford.'
"Of the truth of this story, I have very little doubt; it is certain that the crab-tree is known all around the country by the name of Shakspeare's crab; and that the villages to which the allusion is made, all bear the epithets here given them: the people of Pebworth are still famed for their skill on the pipe and tabor; Hillborough is now called Haunted Hillborough; and Grafton is notorious for the poverty of its soil."
The above relation, if it be true, presents us with a most unfavorable picture of the manners and morals prevalent among the youth of Warwickshire, in the early years of Shakspeare; and it fills us with regret, to find our immortal poet, with faculties so exalted, competing the bad preeminence in such abominable contests. It is some relief to know that, though he erred in uniting himself with such gross associations, he was the first to retreat from them in disgust.
We can scarcely, at the present day, form a correct and impartial judgment of a subsequent offence, in which these mischievous connexions involved him as a party. The transgression, weighty as it would now be considered, appears to admit of great extenuation, on account of the manners and sentiments that prevailed at the time; and when we contemplate the consequences to which it led, we find it difficult to condemn, with much severity of censure, the occasion by which Shakspeare was removed from the intercourse of such unworthy companions, and by which those powerful energies of intelleet were awakened in one, who might otherwise, perhaps, have been degraded in the course of vulgar sensualities, to an equality with his associates, or have attained to no higher distinction than the applauses of a country town. One of the favorite amusements of the wild companions
with whom Shakspeare had connected himself, was the stealing of "deer and conies." This violation of the rights of property, must not, however, be estimated with the rigor which would at the present day attach to a similar offence. In those ruder ages, the spirit of Robin Hood was yet abroad, and deer and coney-stealing classed, with robbing orchards, among the more adventurous but ordinary levities of youth. It was considered in the light of an indiscretion, rather than of a criminal offence; and in this particular, the young men of Stratford were countenanced by the practice of the students of the Universities. In these hazardous exploits, Shakspeare was not backward in accompanying his comrades. The person in whose neighborhood, perhaps on whose property, these encroachments were made, was of all others the individual from whose hands they were least likely to escape with impunity in case of detection. Sir Thomas Lucy was a Puritan; and the severity of manners which has always characterized this sect, would teach him to extend very little indulgence to the excesses of Shakspeare and his wilful companions. He was besides a game preserver: in his place, as a member of parliament, he had been an active instrument in the formation or the game laws: and the tresspasses of our poet, whether committed on the demesne of himself or others, were as offensive to his predilections as to his principles. Shakspeare and his compeers were discovered, and fell under the rigid lash of Sir Thomas Lucy's authority and resentment. The knight attacked the poet with the penalties of the law; and the poet revenged himself by sticking the following satirical copy of verses on the knight's park.
COPY OF THE VERSES ON SIR THOMAS LUCY.
"A parliement member, a justice of peace,
At home a poore scarecrowe, in London an asse;
He thinks hymself greate, yct an asse in hys state
He's a haughty proud insolent knighte of the shire,
To the sessions he went, and dyd sorely complain,
His parke had been rob'd, and his deer they were slain ;
Synge Lowsie Lucy whatever befall it.
He sayd 'twas a ryot, his men had been beat,
Soe haughty was he when the fact was confess'd,
Though Lucies a dozen he paints in his coat,
If a iuvenile frolick he cannot forgive,
We'll synge Lowsie Lucy as long as we live ;
We'll synge Lowsie Lucy whatever befall it."
It would appear that the above song, the first effort we have received of our author's poetical talents, was not his only attempt at this kind of retaliation. It is said, in a book called a Manuscript History of the Stage, which is supposed by Malone to have been written between 1727 and 1730, "that the learned Mr. Joshua Barnes, late Greek professor of the University of Cambridge, baiting about forty years ago at an inn in Stratford, and hearing an old woman singing part of the abovesaid song, such was his respect for Mr. Shakspeare's genius, that he gave her a new gown for the two following stanzas in it; and could she have said it all, he would (as he often said in company, when any discourse has casually arose about him) have given her ten guineas.