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And certain stars shot madly from their spheres,
The most remarkable of the shows of Kenilworth were associated with the mythology and the romance of lakes and seas. “ Triton, in likeness of a mermaid, came toward's the Queen's Majesty.” “Arion appeared sitting on a dolphin's back.” So the quaint and really poetical George Gascoigne, in his “Brief Rehearsal, or rather a true Copy of as much as was presented before her Majesty at Kenilworth.” But the diffuse and most entertaining coxcomb Laneham describes a song of Arion with an ecstacy which may justify the belief that the “dulcet and harmonious breath” of “the sea-maid's music” might be the echo of the melodies heard by the young poet as he stood beside the lake at Kenilworth :—“Now, Sir, the ditty in metre so aptly endited to the matter, and after by voice deliciously delivered ; the song, by a skilful artist into his parts so sweetly sorted; each part in his instrument so clean and sharply touched ; every instrument again in his kind so excellently tunable ; and this in the evening of the day, resounding from the calm
waters, where the presence of her Majesty, and longing to listen, had utterly damped all noise and din, the whole harmony conveyed in time, tune, and temper thus incomparably melodious; with what pleasure (Master Martin), with what sharpness of conceit, with what lively delight this might pierce into the hearers' hearts, I pray ye imagine yourself, as ye may.” If Elizabeth be the "fair vestal throned by the west,” of which there can be no reasonable doubt, the most appropriate scene of the mermaid's song would be Kenilworth, and “that very time” the summer of 1575.
Percy, believing that the boy Shakspere was at Kenilworth, has remarked, with his usual taste and judgment, that “the dramatic cast of many parts of that superb entertainment must have had a very great effect upon a young imagination, whose dramatic powers were hereafter to astonish the world.” Without assuming with Percy that “our young bard gained admittance into the castle” on the evening when “after supper was there a play of a very good theme presented; but so set forth, by the actors' well handling, that pleasure and mirth made it seem very short, though it lasted two good hours and more ;"* yielding not our consent to Tieck's fiction, that the boy performed the part of “Echo” in Gascoigne's address to the Queen, and was allowed to see the whole of the performances by the especial favour of her Majesty,—we may believe there were parts of that entertainment, which, without being a favoured spectator, William Shakspere with his friends might have beheld; and which“ must have had a very great effect upon a young imagination," assisting, too, in giving it that dramatic tendency which, as we have endeavoured already to point out, was a peculiar characteristic of the simplest and the commonest festivals of his age.
And yet it is difficult to imagine anything more tedious than the fulsome praise, the mythological pedantries, the obscure allusions to Constancy and Deep-Desire, which were poured into the ears of Elizabeth during the nineteen days of Kenilworth. There was not, according to the historians of this visit, one fragment of our real old poetry produced, to gratify the Queen of a nation that had the songs and ballads of the chivalrous times still fresh upon its lips. There were no Minstrels at Kenilworth ; the Harper was unbidden to its halls. The old English spirit of poetry was dead in a scheming court. It was something higher that in a few years called up Spenser and Shakspere. Yet there was one sport, emanating from the people, which had heart and reality in it. Laneham describes this as a “good sport presented in an historical cue by certain good-hearted men of Coventry, my lord's neighbours there.” They “ made petition that they might renew now their old storial show : of argument how the Danes, whilom here in a troublous season, were for quietness borne withal and suffered in peace ; that anon, by outrage and unsupportable insolency, abusing both Ethelred the King, then, and all estates everywhere beside, at the grievous complaint and counsel of Huna, the King's chieftain in wars, on Saint Brice's night Anno Dom. 1012 (as the book says, that falleth yearly on the thirteenth of November), were all despatched, and the realm rid. And for because that the matter mentioneth how valiantly our Englishwomen, for love of their country, behaved themselves, expressed in action and rhymes after their manner, they thought it might move some mirth to her Majesty the rather. The thing, said they, is grounded in story, and for pastime wont to be played in our city yearly, without ill example of manners, papistry, or any superstition; and else did so occupy the heads of a number, that likely enough would have had worse meditations; had an ancient beginning and a long continuance, till now of late laid down, they knew no cause why, unless it was by the zeal of certain of their preachers, men very commendable for their behaviour and learning, and sweet in their sermons, but somewhat too sour in preaching away their pastime.” The description by Laneham is the only precise account which remains to us of the “old storial show," the "sport presented in an historical cue.” It was a show not to be despised; for it told the people how their Saxon ancestors had arisen to free themselves from “outrage and unsupportable insolency,” and “how valiantly our Englishwomen, for love of their country, behaved themselves.” Laneham, in his accustomed style, is more intent upon describing “ Captain Cox," an odd man of Coventry, “ mason, ale-conner, who hath great oversight in matters of story," than upon giving us a rational account of this spectacle. We find, however, that there were the Danish lance-knights on horseback, and then the English ; that they had furious encounters with spear and shield, with sword and target ; that there were footmen, who fought in rank and squadron ; and that “twice the Danes had the better, but at the last conflict beaten down, overcome, and many led captive for triumph by our Englishwomen.” The court historian adds,—“This was the effect of this show, that as it was handled made much matter of good pastime, brought all indeed into the great court, even under her Highness's window, to have seen." But her Highness, having pleasanter occupation within, “saw but little of the Coventry play, and commanded it therefore on the Tuesday following to have it full out, as accordingly it was presented.” This repetition of the Hock-play in its completeness, full out, necessarily leads to the conclusion that the action was somewhat more complicated than the mere repetition of a mock-combat. Laneham, in his general description of the play, says, “expressed in action and rhymes." That he has preserved none of the rhymes, and has given
us a very insufficient account of the action, is characteristic of the man and of the tone of the courtiers. The Coventry clowns came there, not to call up any patriotic feeling by their old traditionary rhymes and dumb-show, but to be laughed at for their awkward movement and their earnest declamation. It appears to us that the conclusion is somewhat hasty which says of this play of Hock Tuesday, “ It seems to have been merely a dumb-show."* Percy, resting upon the authority of Laneham, says that the performance “ seems on that occasion to have been without recitation or rhymes, and reduced to mere dumb-show.” Even this we doubt. But certainly it is difficult to arrive at any other conclusion than that of Percy, that the
play, as originally performed by the men of Coventry, "expressed in action and rhymes after their manner," —representing a complicated historical event,—the insolence of tyranny, the indignation of the oppressed, the grievous complaint of one injured chieftain, the secret counsels, the plots, the conflicts, the triumph,—must have offered us “a regular model of a complete drama.” If the young Shakspere were a witness to the performance of this drama, his imagination would have been more highly and more worthily excited than if he had been the favoured spectator of all the shows of Tritons, and Dianas, and Ladies of the Lake that proceeded from " the conceit so deep in casting the plot ” of his lordship of Leicester. It would be not too much to believe that this storial show might first suggest to him how English history might be dramatized; how a series of events, terminating in some remarkable catastrophe, might be presented to the eye ; how fighting-men might be marshalled on a mimic field ; how individual heroism might stand out from amongst the mass, having its own fit expression of thought and passion ; how the wife or the 'mother, the sister or the mistress, might be there to uphold the hero, even as the Englishwomen assisted their warriors; and how all this might be made to move the hearts of the people, as the old ballads had once moved them. Such a result would have repaid a visit to Kenilworth by William Shakspere. Without this, he, his father, and their friends, might have retired from the scene of Dudley's magnificence, as most thinking persons in all probability retired, with little satisfaction. There I was lavish expense ; but, according to the most credible accounts, the possessor of Kenilworth was the oppressor of his district. We see him not delighting to show his Queen a happy tenantry, such as the less haughty and ambitious nobles and Esquires were anxious to cultivate. The people came under the windows of Elizabeth as objects of ridicule. Slavish homage would be there to Leicester from the gentlemen of the county. They would replenish his butteries with their gifts ; they would ride upon his errands; they would wear his livery. There was one gentleman in Warwickshire who would not thus do Leicester homage-Edward Arden, the head of the great house of Arden, the cousin of William Shakspere's mother. But the mighty favourite was too powerful for him : “Which Edward, though a gentleman not inferior to the rest of his ancestors in those virtues wherewith they were adorned, had the hard hap to come to an untimely death in 27 Eliz., the charge laid against him being no less than high treason against the Queen, as privy to some foul intentions that Master Somerville, his son-in-law (a Roman Catholic), had towards her person : For which he was prosecuted with so great rigour and violence, by the Earl of Leicester's means, whom he had irritated in some particulars (as I have credibly heard), partly in disdaining to wear his livery, which many in this county, of his rank, thought, in those days, no small honour to them ; but chiefly for galling him by certain harsh expressions, touching his private accesses to the Countess of Essex before she was his wife ; that through the testimony of one Hall, a priest, he was found guilty of the fact, and lost his life in Smithfield.”+ The Rev. N. J. Halpin,
* Collier : “ Annals of the Stage,” vol. i., p. 234.
† Dugdale's “ Warwickshire," p. 681.
who has contributed a most interesting tract to the publications of “The Shakespeare Society” on the subject of “ Oberon's Vision in the Midsummer Night's Dream," has explained the allusions in that exquisite passage with far more success than the belief of Warburton that the Queen of Scots was pointed at, or of Mr. Boaden that Amy Robsart was the “little western flower.” He considers that Edward Arden, a spectator of those very entertainments at Kenilworth, discovered Leicester's guilty
accesses to the Countess of Essex;" that the expression of Oberon, “That very time, I saw, but thou couldst not,” referred to this discovery ; that when “the Imperial Votaress passed on,” he“ marked where the bolt of Cupid fell ;” that “the little western flower,” pure, “milk-white” before that time, became spotted,“ purple with love's wound.” We may add that there is bitter satire in what follows" that flower,” retaining the original influence, “will make or man or woman madly dote," as Lettice, Countess of Essex, was infatuated by Leicester. The discovery of Edward Arden, and his "harsh expressions” concerning it, might be traditions in Shakspere's family, and be safely allegorized by the poet in 1594 when Leicester was gone to his account.