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It is the twenty-third of April, and the birthday of William Shakspere is a general holiday at Stratford. It is Saint George's day. There is high feasting at Westminster 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 coat-armour; 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
• See Nichols’s ‘Progresses of Elizabeth,' vol. i., p. 88.
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 :* 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 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 some 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, in which bodily activity and mental readiness might be required ; 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
* The armour for the horse's head, with a long projecting spike, so as to make the horse resemble an unicorn.
+ 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.
to him who was to become in the most eminent degree the poct 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 the day of gladness arrives—a joy which even the great eye of the natural world was to make manifest. Surely there was something exquisitely beautiful in the old custom of going forth into the fields before the sun had risen on Easter-day, to see him mounting over the hills with a tremulous motion, as if it were an animate thing bounding in sympathy with the redeemed of mankind. The young poet might have joined his simple neighbours on this cheerful morning, and yet have thought with Sir Thomas Browne, “We shall not, I hope, disparage the Resurrection of our Redeemer if we say that the sun doth not dance on Easter-day.” But one of the most glorious images of one of his early plays has given life and movement to the sun :
“Night's candles are burnt out, and jocund day
Stands tiptoe on the misty mountain's tops." Saw he not the sun dance-heard he not the expression of the undoubting belief that the sun danced-as he went forth into Stratford meadows in the early twilight of Easter-day?
On the road to Henley-in-Arden, about two or three hundred yards from the house in Henley Street where John Shakspere once dwelt, there stands even now a very ancient boundary-tree-an elm which is recorded in a Presentment of the Perambulation of the boundaries of the Borough of Stratford, on the 7th of April, 1591, as “The Elme at the Dovehouse-Close end.”+ The boundary from that elm in the Henley road continued in another direction to “the two elms in Evesham highway.” Such are the boundaries of the borough at this day. At a period, then, when it was usual for the boys of Grammar Schools to attend the annual perambulations in Rogation-week of the clergy, the magis
# The original is in the possession of R. Wheler, Esq., of Stratford.
trates and public officers, and the inhabitants, of parishes and towns,* would William Shakspere be found, in gleeful companionship, under this old boundary elm. There would be assembled the parish priest and the schoolmaster, the bailiff and the church wardens. Banners would wave, poles crowned with garlands would be carried by old and young. Under each Gospel-tree, of which this Dovehouse-Close Elm would be one, a passage from Scripture would be read, a collect recited, a psalm sung. With more pomp at the same season might the Doge of Venice espouse the Sea in testimony of the perpetual domination of the Republic, but not with more heartfelt joy than these the people of Stratford traced the boundaries of their little sway. The Reformation left us these parochial processions. In the 7th year of Elizabeth (1565) the form of devotion for the “Rogation days of Procession ” was prescribed,
without addition of any superstitious ceremonies heretofore used;" and it was subsequently ordered that the curate on such occasions “shall admonish the people to give thanks to God in the beholding of God's benefits,” and enforce the scriptural denouncements against those who removed their neighbours' landmarks. Beautifully has Walton described how Hooker encouraged these annual ceremonials :—“He would by no means omit the customary time of procession, persuading all, both rich and poor, if they desired the preservation of love and their parish rights and liberties, to accompany him in his perambulation ; and most did so: in which perambulation he would usually express more pleasant discourse than at other times, and would then always drop some loving and facetious observations, to be remembered against the next year, especially by the boys and young people; still inclining them, and all his present parishioners, to meekness and mutual kindnesses and love, because love thinks not evil, but covers a multitude of infirmities.” And so, perhaps, listening to the gentle words of some venerable Hooker of his time, would the young Shakspere walk the bounds of his native parish. One day would not suffice to visit its numerous Gospel-trees. Hours would be spent in reconciling differences amongst the cultivators of the common-fields; in largesses to the poor ; in merry-making at convenient halting-places. A wide parish is this of Stratford, including eleven villages and hamlets. A district of beautiful and varied scenery is this parish—hill and valley, wood and water. Following the Avon upon the north bank, against the stream, for some two miles, the processionists would walk through low and fertile meadows, unenclosed pastures then in all likelihood. A little brook falls into the river, coming down from the marshy uplands of Ingon, where, in spite of modern improvement, the frequent bog attests the accuracy of Dugdale's description. The brook is traced upwards into the hills of Welcombe ; and then for nearly three miles from Welcombe Greenhill the boundary lies along a wooded ridge, opening prospects of surpassing beauty. There may the distant spires of Coventry be seen peeping above the intermediate hills, and the nearer towers of Warwick lying cradled in their surrounding woods. In another direction a cloud-like spot in the
See Brand's ' Popular Antiquities,' by Sir H. Ellis, edit. 1841, vol. i., p. 123.
+ See p. 29.
extreme distance is the far-famed Wrekin ; and turning to the north-west are the noble hills of Malvern, with their well-defined outlines. The Cotswolds lock-in the landscape on another side ; while in the middle distance the bold Bredon-hill looks down upon the vale of Evesham.
the vale of Evesham. All around is a country of unrivalled fertility, with now and then a plain of considerable extent; but more commonly a succession of undulating hills, some wood-crowned, but all cultivated. At the northern extremity of this high land, which principally belongs to the estate of Clopton, and which was doubtless a park in early times, we have a panoramic view of the valley in which Stratford lies, with its hamlets of Bishopton, Little Wilmecote, Shottery, and Drayton. As the marvellous boy of the Stratford grammar-school then looked upon that plain, how little could he have foreseen the course of his future life! For twenty years of his manhood he was to have no constant dwelling-place in that his native town; but it was to be the home of his affections. He would be gathering fame and opulence in an almost untrodden path, of which his young ambition could shape no definite image; but in the prime of his life he was to bring his wealth to his own Stratford, and become the proprietor and the contented cultivator of some of the loved fields that he now saw mapped out at his feet. Then, a little while, and an early tomb under that grey tower—a tomb so to be honoured in all ages to come,
“ That kings for such a tomb would wish to die.” For some six miles the boundary runs from north to south, partly through land which was formerly barren, and still known as Drayton Bushes and Drayton Wild Moor. Here,
“ Far from her nest the lapwing cries away." * The green bank of the Avon is again reached at the western extremity of the boundary, and the pretty hamlet of Luddington, with its cottages and old trees standing high above the river sedges, is included. The Avon is crossed where the Stour unites with it; and the boundary extends considerably to the southeast, returning to the town over Clopton's Bridge. Where once were quiet pastures there is now the Stratford Railway for the conveyance of coal and corn—a thing undreamt of by the perambulators.
But there is a greater marvel of modern science associated with the name of Shakspere. The cliff at Dover, whose base was inaccessible except to
“ The fishermen that walk upon the beach,” is now pierced through by the tunnel of a railway. A few centuries, a thousand years
, and the arches of the tunnel may be fallen in, its mouth choked with shingle and sea-weed, and some solitary antiquarian poking with his small lantern amongst its rubbish. But the rock itself will be unchanged; and so will be the memorable description of “ its high and bending head.” And he who wrote that description, and painted the awful turmoil of human passion and misery associated with that rock, is at the time of which we speak a happy
Comedy of Errors.