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THE ENGLAND OF SHAKSPEARE.
By Nicholas Waterhouse Esq., Hon. Sec.
(READ 10TH NOVEMBER, 1864.)
DURING the present year, the tercentenary of Shakspeare's birth, I presume we have all of us paid a more than usual attention to the works of the great bard of Avon : and I think whilst reading his plays, the question must have occurred to many—Who were his masters ? Where did he acquire the wonderful power of depicting the many forms and phases of the mind of man? Where did the boy from a country grammar school, who married before he was twenty, and whose early life was immersed in the labour of supporting a family-where did he gain those poetic powers, which have made his name one of the glories of our country ? Were Shakspeare's works inspired, or perhaps I should say, were they the results of intuition ? I think when we look at his principal characters we may say that such was the case. For instance, the great master has determined to delineate a royal scapegrace repenting and assuming the duties of his station, and immediately the character of Henry V, imbued with all the nobleness and majesty of birth, arises from his magio touch. Again he wishes to depict a king fitted for the cloister, not for the troubles of a crown, and there appears the gentle monarch Henry VI, singing the praises of a lowly life even amid the din of battle. In the character of Wolsey, Shakspeare has drawn the portrait of a proud, ambitious Churchman. In Richard III, the personification of guile,
seeming a saint when most he played the devil." In Jaques, the musings of a melancholy, contemplative man. In Shylock, the all-absorbing love of money. In Othello, of jealousy. In Cassius, the conspirator with lean and hungry look. In Falstaff, the career of a man who lived by his wits and his vices. In Romeo and Juliet, the tale that “true love
never did run smooth,” not even amid the orange-groves and balmy air of sunny Italy. In Macbeth, the horrible path cut out by unscrupulous ambition. And in Hamlet, the man of noble aspirations, feeling the dreadful circumstances of his lot in life, and moralizing on the deepest instincts of our being. I think we cannot regard these in any other light than as the results of intuition; they rose so naturally under his pencil that he never thought there was anything extraordinary about them; he never attempted to preserve them in a collected form; he seems to have written them because he could not help it. Yet if we leave the great characters out of sight for a time, I think we cannot avoid coming to the conclusion, that the minor parts of his plays were derived from what he saw around him, the every-day life of the men and women of the sixteenth century, and that much of his poetry was inspired by the scenes of his boyhood, the merry greenwood of Warwickshire, and from the birds and the flowers and the country life of Old England. On the latter subject, I do not at present intend to dwell; but I purpose, though it may be in a meagre and incomplete manner, to bring before you the ENGLAND OF SHAKSPEARE, believing that we may thus learn something of the character of the times, and also of the man Shakspeare himself, and of his sympathies, differing in some respects from those of the present age.
As Shakspeare was born in an inland county, let us first note down his ideas of country life. I do not think it was the life he loved ; nor is this unnatural, when we consider that
he was driven to the metropolis by necessity or by the desire of getting on in the world, and that there he flourished. He does not seem to have liked the solitude of the country: when Rosalind and Celia, in As You Like It, make their way to the forest, the country is spoken of as a desert place; the farmer whose possessions they buy, is said to be
Of churlish disposition,
All through that beautiful woodland play, we hear of the hard fare of the country and the scarcity of food. Still there is much in praise of lowly life—the nobility of honest labour comes out as fully as in any poem of the present time. Perhaps no where more strongly than in the contrast between Orlando rejoicing in his youth and strength and gentle birth, and his old servant Adam. When the latter gives him the five hundred crowns, the thrifty hire saved under his father, Orlando thus thanks him
O good old man; how well in thee appears
Corin, in the same play, gives a very simple account of himself: "I am a true labourer ; I earn that I eat, get that “I wear ; owe no man hate, envy no man's happiness ; glad “ of other men's good, content with my harm: and the
greatest of my pride is, to see my ewes graze, and my lambs “suck."I This certainly speaks of the contentedness of a labourer's life, and I think the general impression to be derived from Shakspeare is that the labouring classes led
+ Ibid., Act ii, Scene 3.
• As You Like It, Act ii, Scene 4. Ibid., Act iii, Scene 2.
hard lives, but not miserable ones. I do not know any passages which would make us believe that there were any large masses of people in England, at the close of the sixteenth century, in the state of abject want which philanthropists and writers of fiction have found existing in the garrets of London and our large towns, in the rural villages of our southern counties, and in the cabins of the Scotch Highlands and of Ireland, during the prosperous days of our present Queen. Lord Macaulay is perhaps right in asserting that the mass of artizans and labourers are better off at present than they were two centuries ago—but have we not now social grades much lower than any which then existed ?
Shakspeare makes even a king extol the happiness of a shepherd's life
His cold thin drink out of his leather bottle,
The upper classes of the rural population find no favour with our great poet. The country squires, the Shallows and Slenders are held up for our ridicule, they are foiled in their love affairs, they are governed even by their own serving men, and their money is abstracted by the courtier who knows how to fool them according to their bent. Their pride of birth is laughed at in a most unmerciful manner—“A gentleman " born, master parson ; who writes himself armigero ; in any “bill, warrant, quittance, or obligation, armigero. All his "successors, gone before him, have done't; and all his
ancestors, that come after him, may: they may give the
* Henry VI, Act ii, Scene 5.
dozen white luces in their coat."* It is curious to contrast this with the manner in which the New England poet of the present day describes his hero, the leader of the Puritan band of the seventeenth century
He was a gentleman born, could trace his pedigree plainly
It is evident from many passages that in Shakspeare's days, every man with any pretension to good breeding made his way to the metropolis,-at any rate for a portion of his life.
How different is the tone of the great poet of the present age; how vast is the distance between master Shallow, and the portrait which Tennyson has drawn of Sir Walter Vivian of Vivian Place
No little lily-handed Baronet he,
But if the squirearchy of Warwickshire formed subjects for Shakspeare's mirth, the “hempen home-spuns” of the country town-Bottom the weaver, Quince the carpenter, Snug the joiner, Flute the bellows-mender, Snout the tinker, and Starveling the tailor-receive exactly the same treatment: there is no attempt at making heroes of these “rude me"chanicals.” Indeed they are partly used by Shakspeare to set
• Merry Wives of Windsor, Act i, Scene 1. + Longfellow's Miles Standish.