Story type: Essay
By Charles Dudley Warner
Queen Elizabeth being dead about ten o’clock in the morning, March 24, 1603, Sir Robert Cary posted away, unsent, to King James of Scotland to inform him of the “accident,” and got made a baron of the realm for his ride. On his way down to take possession of his new kingdom the king distributed the honor of knighthood right and left liberally; at Theobald’s he created eight-and-twenty knights, of whom Sir Richard Baker, afterwards the author of “A Chronicle of the Kings of England,” was one. “God knows how many hundreds he made the first year,” says the chronicler, “but it was indeed fit to give vent to the passage of Honour, which during Queen Elizabeth’s reign had been so stopped that scarce any county of England had knights enow to make a jury.”
Sir Richard Baker was born in 1568, and died in 1645; his “Chronicle” appeared in 1641. It was brought down to the death of James in 1625, when, he having written the introduction to the life of Charles I, the storm of the season caused him to “break off in amazement,” for he had thought the race of “Stewards” likely to continue to the “world’s end”; and he never resumed his pen. In the reign of James two things lost their lustre–the exercise of tilting, which Elizabeth made a special solemnity, and the band of Yeomen of the Guard, choicest persons both for stature and other good parts, who graced the court of Elizabeth; James “was so intentive to Realities that he little regarded shows,” and in his time these came utterly to be neglected. The virgin queen was the last ruler who seriously regarded the pomps and splendors of feudalism.
It was characteristic of the age that the death of James, which occurred in his fifty-ninth year, should have been by rumor attributed to “poyson”; but “being dead, and his body opened, there was no sign at all of poyson, his inward parts being all sound, but that his Spleen was a little faulty, which might be cause enough to cast him into an Ague: the ordinary high-way, especially in old bo’dies, to a natural death.”
The chronicler records among the men of note of James’s time Sir Francis Vere, “who as another Hannibal, with his one eye, could see more in the Martial Discipline than common men can do with two”; Sir Edward Coke; Sir Francis Bacon, “who besides his profounder book, of Novum Organum, hath written the reign of King Henry the Seventh, in so sweet a style, that like Manna, it pleaseth the tast of all palats”; William Camden, whose Description of Britain “seems to keep Queen Elizabeth alive after death”; “and to speak it in a word, the Trojan Horse was not fuller of Heroick Grecians, than King James his Reign was full of men excellent in all kindes of Learning.” Among these was an old university acquaintance of Baker’s, “Mr. John Dunne, who leaving Oxford, lived at the Innes of Court, not dissolute, but very neat; a great Visitor of Ladies, a great frequenter of Playes, a great writer of conceited Verses; until such times as King James taking notice of the pregnancy of his Wit, was a means that he betook him to the study of Divinity, and thereupon proceeding Doctor, was made Dean of Pauls; and became so rare a Preacher, that he was not only commended, but even admired by all who heard him.”
The times of Elizabeth and James were visited by some awful casualties and portents. From December, 1602, to the December following, the plague destroyed 30,518 persons in London; the same disease that in the sixth year of Elizabeth killed 20,500, and in the thirty-sixth year 17,890, besides the lord mayor and three aldermen. In January, 1606, a mighty whale came up the Thames within eight miles of London, whose body, seen divers times above water, was judged to be longer than the largest ship on the river; “but when she tasted the fresh water and scented the Land, she returned into the sea.” Not so fortunate was a vast whale cast upon the Isle of Thanet, in Kent, in 1575, which was “twenty Ells long, and thirteen foot broad from the belly to the backbone, and eleven foot between the eyes. One of his eyes being taken out of his head was more than a cart with six horses could draw; the Oyl being boyled out of his head was Parmacittee.” Nor the monstrous fish cast ashore in Lincolnshire in 1564, which measured six yards between the eyes and had a tail fifteen feet broad; “twelve men stood upright in his mouth to get the Oyl.” In 1612 a comet appeared, which in the opinion of Dr. Bainbridge, the great mathematician of Oxford, was as far above the moon as the moon is above the earth, and the sequel of it was that infinite slaughters and devastations followed it both in Germany and other countries. In 1613, in Standish, in Lancashire, a maiden child was born having four legs, four arms, and one head with two faces–the one before, the other behind, like the picture of Janus. (One thinks of the prodigies that presaged the birth of Glendower.) Also, the same year, in Hampshire, a carpenter, lying in bed with his wife and a young child, “was himself and the childe both burned to death with a sudden lightning, no fire appearing outwardly upon him, and yet lay burning for the space of almost three days till he was quite consumed to ashes.” This year the Globe playhouse, on the Bankside, was burned, and the year following the new playhouse, the Fortune, in Golding Lane, “was by negligence of a candle, clean burned down to the ground.” In this year also, 1614, the town of Stratford-on-Avon was burned. One of the strangest events, however, happened in the first year of Elizabeth (1558), when “dyed Sir Thomas Cheney, Lord Warden of the Cinque Ports, of whom it is reported for a certain, that his pulse did beat more than three quarters of an hour after he was dead, as strongly as if he had been still alive.” In 1580 a strange apparition happened in Somersetshire–three score personages all clothed in black, a furlong in distance from those that beheld them; “and after their appearing, and a little while tarrying, they vanished away, but immediately another strange company, in like manner, color, and number appeared in the same place, and they encountered one another and so vanished away. And the third time appeared that number again, all in bright armour, and encountered one another, and so vanished away. This was examined before Sir George Norton, and sworn by four honest men that saw it, to be true.” Equally well substantiated, probably, was what happened in Herefordshire in 1571: “A field of three acres, in Blackmore, with the Trees and Fences, moved from its place and passed over another field, traveling in the highway that goeth to Herne, and there stayed.” Herefordshire was a favorite place for this sort of exercise of nature. In 1575 the little town of Kinnaston was visited by an earthquake: “On the seventeenth of February at six o’clock of the evening, the earth began to open and a Hill with a Rock under it (making at first a great bellowing noise, which was heard a great way off) lifted itself up a great height, and began to travel, bearing along with it the Trees that grew upon it, the Sheep-folds, and Flocks of Sheep abiding there at the same time. In the place from whence it was first moved, it left a gaping distance forty foot broad, and fourscore Ells long; the whole Field was about twenty Acres. Passing along, it overthrew a Chappell standing in the way, removed an Ewe-Tree planted in the Churchyard, from the West into the East; with the like force it thrust before it High-wayes, Sheep-folds, Hedges, and Trees, made Tilled ground Pasture, and again turned Pasture into Tillage. Having walked in this sort from Saturday in the evening, till Monday noon, it then stood still.” It seems not improbable that Birnam wood should come to Dunsinane.
It was for an age of faith, for a people whose credulity was fed on such prodigies and whose imagination glowed at such wonderful portents, that Shakespeare wrote, weaving into the realities of sense those awful mysteries of the supernatural which hovered not far away from every Englishman of his time.
Shakespeare was born in 1564, when Elizabeth had been six years on the throne, and he died in 1616, nine years before James I., of the faulty spleen, was carried to the royal chapel in Westminster, “with great solemnity, but with greater lamentation.” Old Baker, who says of himself that he was the unworthiest of the knights made at Theobald’s, condescends to mention William Shakespeare at the tail end of the men of note of Elizabeth’s time. The ocean is not more boundless, he affirms, than the number of men of note of her time; and after he has finished with the statesmen (“an exquisite statesman for his own ends was Robert Earl of Leicester, and for his Countries good, Sir William Cecill, Lord Burleigh”), the seamen, the great commanders, the learned gentlemen and writers (among them Roger Askam, who had sometime been schoolmaster to Queen Elizabeth, but, taking too great delight in gaming and cock-fighting, lived and died in mean estate), the learned divines and preachers, he concludes: “After such men, it might be thought ridiculous to speak of Stage-players; but seeing excellency in the meanest things deserve remembring, and Roscius the Comedian is recorded in History with such commendation, it may be allowed us to do the like with some of our Nation. Richard Bourbidge and Edward Allen, two such actors as no age must ever look to see the like; and to make their Comedies compleat, Richard Tarleton, who for the Part called the Clowns Part, never had his match, never will have. For Writers of Playes, and such as have been players themselves, William Shakespeare and Benjamin Johnson have especially left their Names recommended to posterity.”
Richard Bourbidge (or Burbadge) was the first of the great English tragic actors, and was the original of the greater number of Shakespeare’s heroes–Hamlet, Othello, Lear, Shylock, Macbeth, Richard III., Romeo, Brutus, etc. Dick Tarleton, one of the privileged scapegraces of social life, was regarded by his contemporaries as the most witty of clowns and comedians. The clown was a permitted character in the old theatres, and intruded not only between the acts, but even into the play itself, with his quips and antics. It is probable that he played the part of clown, grave-digger, etc., in Shakespeare’s comedies, and no doubt took liberties with his parts. It is thought that part of Hamlet’s advice to the players–“and let those that play your clowns speak no more than is set down for them,” etc.–was leveled at Tarleton.
The question is often asked, but I consider it an idle one, whether Shakespeare was appreciated in his own day as he is now. That the age, was unable to separate him from itself, and see his great stature, is probable; that it enjoyed him with a sympathy to which we are strangers there is no doubt. To us he is inexhaustible. The more we study him, the more are we astonished at his multiform genius. In our complex civilization, there is no development of passion, or character, or trait of human nature, no social evolution, that does not find expression somewhere in those marvelous plays; and yet it is impossible for us to enter into a full, sympathetic enjoyment of those plays unless we can in some measure recreate for ourselves the atmosphere in which they were written. To superficial observation great geniuses come into the world at rare intervals in history, in a manner independent of what we call the progress of the race. It may be so; but the form the genius shall take is always determined by the age in which it appears, and its expression is shaped by the environments. Acquaintance with the Bedouin desert life of today, which has changed little for three thousand years, illumines the book of Job like an electric light. Modern research into Hellenic and Asiatic life has given a new meaning to the Iliad and the Odyssey, and greatly enhanced our enjoyment of them. A fair comprehension of the Divina Commedia is impossible without some knowledge of the factions that rent Florence; of the wars of Guelf and Ghibelline; of the spirit that banished Dante, and gave him an humble tomb in Ravenna instead of a sepulchre in the pantheon of Santa Croce. Shakespeare was a child of his age; it had long been preparing for him; its expression culminated in him. It was essentially a dramatic age. He used the accumulated materials of centuries. He was playwright as well as poet. His variety and multiform genius cannot otherwise be accounted for. He called in the coinage of many generations, and reissued it purified and unalloyed, stamped in his own mint. There was a Hamlet probably, there were certainly Romeos and Juliets, on the stage before Shakespeare. In him were received the imaginations, the inventions, the aspirations, the superstitions, the humors, the supernatural intimations; in him met the converging rays of the genius of his age, as in a lens, to be sent onward thenceforth in an ever-broadening stream of light.
It was his fortune to live not only in a dramatic age, but in a transition age, when feudalism was passing away, but while its shows and splendors could still be seriously comprehended. The dignity that doth hedge a king was so far abated that royalty could be put upon the stage as a player’s spectacle; but the reality of kings and queens and court pageantry was not so far past that it did not appeal powerfully to the imaginations of the frequenters of the Globe, the Rose, and the Fortune. They had no such feeling as we have in regard to the pasteboard kings and queens who strut their brief hour before us in anachronic absurdity. But, besides that he wrote in the spirit of his age, Shakespeare wrote in the language and the literary methods of his time. This is not more evident in the contemporary poets than in the chroniclers of that day. They all delighted in ingenuities of phrase, in neat turns and conceits; it was a compliment then to be called a “conceited” writer.
Of all the guides to Shakespeare’s time, there is none more profitable or entertaining than William Harrison, who wrote for Holinshed’s chronicle “The Description of England,” as it fell under his eyes from 1577 to 1587. Harrison’s England is an unfailing mine of information for all the historians of the sixteenth century; and in the edition published by the New Shakespeare Society, and edited, with a wealth of notes and contemporary references, by Mr. Frederick J. Furnivall, it is a new revelation of Shakespeare’s England to the general reader.
Harrison himself is an interesting character, and trustworthy above the general race of chroniclers. He was born in 1534, or, to use his exactness of statement, “upon the 18th of April, hora ii, minut 4, Secunde 56, at London, in Cordwainer streete, otherwise called bowe-lane.” This year was also remarkable as that in which “King Henry 8 polleth his head; after whom his household and nobility, with the rest of his subjects do the like.” It was the year before Anne Boleyn, haled away to the Tower, accused, condemned, and executed in the space of fourteen days, “with sigheing teares” said to the rough Duke of Norfolk, “Hither I came once my lord, to fetch a crown imperial; but now to receive, I hope, a crown immortal.” In 1544, the boy was at St. Paul’s school; the litany in the English tongue, by the king’s command, was that year sung openly in St. Paul’s, and we have a glimpse of Harrison with the other children, enforced to buy those books, walking in general procession, as was appointed, before the king went to Boulogne. Harrison was a student at both Oxford and Cambridge, taking the degree of bachelor of divinity at the latter in 1569, when he had been an Oxford M.A. of seven years’ standing. Before this he was household chaplain to Sir William Brooke, Lord Cobham, who gave him, in 1588-89, the rectory of Radwinter, in Essex, which he held till his death, in 1593. In 1586 he was installed canon of Windsor. Between 1559 and 1571 he married Marion Isebrande,–of whom he said in his will, referring to the sometime supposed unlawfulness of priests’ marriages, “by the laws of God I take and repute in all respects for my true and lawful wife.” At Radwinter, the old parson, working in his garden, collected Roman coins, wrote his chronicles, and expressed his mind about the rascally lawyers of Essex, to whom flowed all the wealth of the land. The lawyers in those days stirred up contentions, and then reaped the profits. “Of all that ever I knew in Essex,” says Harrison, “Denis and Mainford excelled, till John of Ludlow, alias Mason, came in place, unto whom in comparison these two were but children.” This last did so harry a client for four years that the latter, still called upon for new fees, “went to bed, and within four days made an end of his woeful life, even with care and pensiveness.” And after his death the lawyer so handled his son “that there was never sheep shorn in May, so near clipped of his fleece present, as he was of many to come.” The Welsh were the most litigious people. A Welshman would walk up to London bare-legged, carrying his hose on his neck, to save wear and because he had no change, importune his countrymen till he got half a dozen writs, with which he would return to molest his neighbors, though no one of his quarrels was worth the money he paid for a single writ.
The humblest mechanic of England today has comforts and conveniences which the richest nobles lacked in Harrison’s day, but it was nevertheless an age of great luxury and extravagance; of brave apparel, costly and showy beyond that of any Continental people, though wanting in refined taste; and of mighty banquets, with service of massive plate, troops of attendants, and a surfeit of rich food and strong drink.
In this luxury the clergy of Harrison’s rank did not share. Harrison was poor on forty pounds a year. He complains that the clergy were taxed more than ever, the church having become “an ass whereon every man is to ride to market and cast his wallet.” They paid tenths and first-fruits and subsidies, so that out of twenty pounds of a benefice the incumbent did not reserve more than L 13 6s. 8d. for himself and his family. They had to pay for both prince and laity, and both grumbled at and slandered them. Harrison gives a good account of the higher clergy; he says the bishops were loved for their painful diligence in their calling, and that the clergy of England were reputed on the Continent as learned divines, skillful in Greek and Hebrew and in the Latin tongue.
There was, however, a scarcity of preachers and ministers in Elizabeth’s time, and their character was not generally high. What could be expected when covetous patrons canceled their debts to their servants by bestowing advowsons of benefices upon their bakers, butlers, cooks, grooms, pages, and lackeys–when even in the universities there was cheating at elections for scholarships and fellowships, and gifts were for sale! The morals of the clergy were, however, improved by frequent conferences, at which the good were praised and the bad reproved; and these conferences were “a notable spur unto all the ministers, whereby to apply their books, which otherwise (as in times past) would give themselves to hawking, hunting, tables, cards, dice, tipling at the ale house, shooting, and other like vanities.” The clergy held a social rank with tradespeople; their sons learned trades, and their daughters might go out to service. Jewell says many of them were the “basest sort of people” unlearned, fiddlers, pipers, and what not. “Not a few,” says Harrison, “find fault with our threadbare gowns, as if not our patrons but our wives were the causes of our woe.” He thinks the ministers will be better when the patrons are better, and he defends the right of the clergy to marry and to leave their goods, if they have any, to their widows and children instead of to the church, or to some school or almshouse. What if their wives are fond, after the decease of their husbands, to bestow themselves not so advisedly as their calling requireth; do not duchesses, countesses, and knights’ wives offend in the like fully so often as they? And Eve, remarks the old philosopher of Radwinter–“Eve will be Eve, though Adam would say nay.”
The apparel of the clergy, at any rate, was more comely and decent than it ever was in the popish church, when the priests “went either in divers colors like players, or in garments of light hue, as yellow, red, green, etc.; with their shoes piked, their hair crisped, their girdles armed with silver; their shoes, spurs, bridles, etc., buckled with like metal; their apparel (for the most part) of silk, and richly furred; their caps laced and buttoned with gold; so that to meet a priest, in those days, was to behold a peacock that spreadeth his tail when he danceth before the hen.”
Hospitality among the clergy was never better used, and it was increased by their marriage; for the meat and drink were prepared more orderly and frugally, the household was better looked to, and the poor oftener fed. There was perhaps less feasting of the rich in bishops’ houses, and “it is thought much peradventure, that some bishops in our time do come short of the ancient gluttony and prodigality of their predecessors;” but this is owing to the curtailing of their livings, and the excessive prices whereunto things are grown.
Harrison spoke his mind about dignitaries. He makes a passing reference to Thomas a Becket as “the old Cocke of Canturburie,” who did crow in behalf of the see of Rome, and the “young cockerels of other sees did imitate his demeanour.” He is glad that images, shrines, and tabernacles are removed out of churches. The stories in glass windows remain only because of the cost of replacing them with white panes. He would like to stop the wakes, guilds, paternities, church-ales, and brides-ales, with all their rioting, and he thinks they could get on very well without the feasts of apostles, evangelists, martyrs, the holy-days after Christmas, Easter, and Whitsuntide, and those of the Virgin Mary, with the rest. “It is a world to see,” he wrote of 1552, “how ready the Catholicks are to cast the communion tables out of their churches, which in derision they call Oysterboards, and to set up altars whereon to say mass.” And he tells with sinful gravity this tale of a sacrilegious sow: “Upon the 23rd of August, the high altar of Christ Church in Oxford was trimly decked up after the popish manner and about the middest of evensong, a sow cometh into the quire, and pulled all to the ground; for which heinous fact, it is said she was afterwards beheaded; but to that I am not privy.” Think of the condition of Oxford when pigs went to mass! Four years after this there was a sickness in England, of which a third part of the people did taste, and many clergymen, who had prayed not to live after the death of Queen Mary, had their desire, the Lord hearing their prayer, says Harrison, “and intending thereby to give his church a breathing time.”
There were four classes in England–gentlemen, citizens, yeomen, and artificers or laborers. Besides the nobles, any one can call himself a gentleman who can live without work and buy a coat of arms–though some of them “bear a bigger sail than his boat is able to sustain.” The complaint of sending abroad youth to be educated is an old one; Harrison says the sons of gentlemen went into Italy, and brought nothing home but mere atheism, infidelity, vicious conversation, and ambitious, proud behavior, and retained neither religion nor patriotism. Among citizens were the merchants, of whom Harrison thought there were too many; for, like the lawyers, they were no furtherance to the commonwealth, but raised the price of all commodities. In former, free-trade times, sugar was sixpence a pound, now it is two shillings sixpence; raisins were one penny, and now sixpence. Not content with the old European trade, they have sought out the East and West Indies, and likewise Cathay and Tartary, whence they pretend, from their now and then suspicious voyages, they bring home great commodities. But Harrison cannot see that prices are one whit abated by this enormity, and certainly they carry out of England the best of its wares.
The yeomen are the stable, free men, who for the most part stay in one place, working the farms of gentlemen, are diligent, sometimes buy the land of unthrifty gentlemen, educate their sons to the schools and the law courts, and leave them money to live without labor. These are the men that made France afraid. Below these are the laborers and men who work at trades, who have no voice in the commonwealth, and crowds of young serving-men who become old beggars, highway-robbers, idle fellows, and spreaders of all vices. There was a complaint then, as now, that in many trades men scamped their work, but, on the whole, husbandmen and artificers had never been so good; only there were too many of them, too many handicrafts of which the country had no need. It appears to be a fault all along in history that there are too many of almost every sort of people.
In Harrison’s time the greater part of the building in cities and towns was of timber, only a few of the houses of the commonalty being of stone. In an old plate giving a view of the north side of Cheapside, London, in 1638, we see little but quaint gable ends and rows of small windows set close together. The houses are of wood and plaster, each story overhanging the other, terminating in sharp pediments; the roofs projecting on cantilevers, and the windows occupying the whole front of each of the lower stories. They presented a lively and gay appearance on holidays, when the pentices of the shop fronts were hung with colored draperies, and the balconies were crowded with spectators, and every pane of glass showed a face. In the open country, where timber was scarce, the houses were, between studs, impaneled with clay-red, white, or blue. One of the Spaniards who came over in the suite of Philip remarked the large diet in these homely cottages: “These English,” quoth he, “have their houses made of sticks and dirt, but they fare commonly so well as the king.” “Whereby it appeareth,” comments Harrison, “that he liked better of our good fare in such coarse cabins, than of their own thin diet in their prince-like habitations and palaces.” The timber houses were covered with tiles; the other sort with straw or reeds. The fairest houses were ceiled within with mortar and covered with plaster, the whiteness and evenness of which excited Harrison’s admiration. The walls were hung with tapestry, arras-work, or painted cloth, whereon were divers histories, or herbs, or birds, or else ceiled with oak. Stoves had just begun to be used, and only in some houses of the gentry, “who build them not to work and feed in, as in Germany and elsewhere, but now and then to sweat in, as occasion and need shall require.” Glass in windows, which was then good and cheap, and made even in England, had generally taken the place of the lattices and of the horn, and of the beryl which noblemen formerly used in windows. Gentlemen were beginning to build their houses of brick and stone, in stately and magnificent fashion. The furniture of the houses had also grown in a manner “passing delicacy,” and not of the nobility and gentry only, but of the lowest sort. In noblemen’s houses there was abundance of arras, rich hangings of tapestry, and silver vessels, plate often to the value of one thousand and two thousand pounds. The knights, gentlemen, and merchants had great provision of tapestry, Turkie work, pewter, brass, fine linen, and cupboards of plate worth perhaps a thousand pounds. Even the inferior artificers and many farmers had learned also to garnish their cupboards with plate, their joined beds with silk hangings, and their tables with fine linen–evidences of wealth for which Harrison thanks God and reproaches no man, though he cannot see how it is brought about, when all things are grown to such excessive prices.
Old men of Radwinter noted three things marvelously altered in England within their remembrance. The first was the multitude of chimneys lately erected; whereas in their young days there were not, always except those in the religious and manor houses, above two or three chimneys in most upland towns of the realm; each one made his fire against a reredos in the hall, where he dined and dressed his meat. The second was the amendment in lodging. In their youth they lay upon hard straw pallets covered only with a sheet, and mayhap a dogswain coverlet over them, and a good round log for pillow. If in seven years after marriage a man could buy a mattress and a sack of chaff to rest his head on, he thought himself as well lodged as a lord. Pillows were thought meet only for sick women. As for servants, they were lucky if they had a sheet over them, for there was nothing under them to keep the straw from pricking their hardened hides. The third notable thing was the exchange of treene (wooden) platters into pewter, and wooden spoons into silver or tin. Wooden stuff was plenty, but a good farmer would not have above four pieces of pewter in his house; with all his frugality, he was unable to pay his rent of four pounds without selling a cow or horse. It was a time of idleness, and if a farmer at an alehouse, in a bravery to show what he had, slapped down his purse with six shillings in it, all the rest together could not match it. But now, says Harrison, though the rent of four pounds has improved to forty, the farmer has six or seven years’ rent, lying by him, to purchase a new term, garnish his cupboard with pewter, buy three or four feather-beds, coverlets, carpets of tapestry, a silver salt, a nest of bowls for wine, and a dozen spoons. All these things speak of the growing wealth and luxury of the age. Only a little before this date, in 1568, Lord Buckhurst, who had been ordered to entertain the Cardinal de Chatillon in Queen Elizabeth’s palace at Sheen, complains of the meanness of the furniture of his rooms. He showed the officers who preceded the cardinal such furniture and stuff as he had, but it did not please them. They wanted plate, he had none; such glass vessels as he had they thought too base. They wanted damask for long tables, and he had only linen for a square table, and they refused his square table. He gave the cardinal his only unoccupied tester and bedstead, and assigned to the bishop the bedstead upon which his wife’s waiting-women did lie, and laid them on the ground. He lent the cardinal his own basin and ewer, candlesticks from his own table, drinking-glasses, small cushions, and pots for the kitchen. My Lord of Leicester sent down two pair of fine sheets for the cardinal and one pair for the bishop.
Harrison laments three things in his day: the enhancing of rents, the daily oppression of poor tenants by the lords of manors, and the practice of usury–a trade brought in by the Jews, but now practiced by almost every Christian, so that he is accounted a fool that doth lend his money for nothing. He prays the reader to help him, in a lawful manner, to hang up all those that take cent. per cent. for money. Another grievance, and most sorrowful of all, is that many gentlemen, men of good port and countenance, to the injury of the farmers and commonalty, actually turn Braziers, butchers, tanners, sheep-masters, and woodmen. Harrison also notes the absorption of lands by the rich; the decay of houses in the country, which comes of the eating up of the poor by the rich; the increase of poverty; the difficulty a poor man had to live on an acre of ground; his forced contentment with bread made of oats and barley, and the divers places that formerly had good tenants and now were vacant, hop-yards and gardens.
Harrison says it is not for him to describe the palaces of Queen Elizabeth; he dare hardly peep in at her gates. Her houses are of brick and stone, neat and well situated, but in good masonry not to be compared to those of Henry VIII’s building; they are rather curious to the eye, like paper-works, than substantial for continuance. Her court is more magnificent than any other in Europe, whether you regard the rich and infinite furniture of the household, the number of officers, or the sumptuous entertainments. And the honest chronicler is so struck with admiration of the virtuous beauty of the maids of honor that he cannot tell whether to award preeminence to their amiable countenances or to their costliness of attire, between which there is daily conflict and contention. The courtiers of both sexes have the use of sundry languages and an excellent vein of writing. Would to God the rest of their lives and conversation corresponded with these gifts! But the courtiers, the most learned, are the worst men when they come abroad that any man shall hear or read of. Many of the gentlewomen have sound knowledge of Greek and Latin, and are skillful in Spanish, Italian, and French; and the noblemen even surpass them. The old ladies of the court avoid idleness by needlework, spinning of silk, or continual reading of the Holy Scriptures or of histories, and writing diverse volumes of their own, or translating foreign works into English or Latin; and the young ladies, when they are not waiting on her majesty, “in the mean time apply their lutes, citherns, pricksong, and all kinds of music.” The elders are skillful in surgery and the distillation of waters, and sundry other artificial practices pertaining to the ornature and commendation of their bodies; and when they are at home they go into the kitchen and supply a number of delicate dishes of their own devising, mostly after Portuguese receipts; and they prepare bills of fare (a trick lately taken up) to give a brief rehearsal of all the dishes of every course. I do not know whether this was called the “higher education of women” at the time.
In every office of the palaces is a Bible, or book of acts of the church, or chronicle, for the use of whoever comes in, so that the court looks more like a university than a palace. Would to God the houses of the nobles were ruled like the queen’s! The nobility are followed by great troops of serving-men in showy liveries; and it is a goodly sight to see them muster at court, which, being filled with them, “is made like to the show of a peacock’s tail in the full beauty, or of some meadow garnished with infinite kinds and diversity of pleasant flowers.” Such was the discipline of Elizabeth’s court that any man who struck another within it had his right hand chopped off by the executioner in a most horrible manner.
The English have always had a passion for gardens and orchards. In the Roman time grapes abounded and wine was plenty, but the culture disappeared after the Conquest. From the time of Henry IV. to Henry VIII. vegetables were little used, but in Harrison’s day the use of melons, pompions, radishes, cucumbers, cabbages, turnips, and the like was revived. They had beautiful flower-gardens annexed to the houses, wherein were grown also rare and medicinal herbs; it was a wonder to see how many strange herbs, plants, and fruits were daily brought from the Indies, America and the Canaries. Every rich man had great store of flowers, and in one garden might be seen from three hundred to four hundred medicinal herbs. Men extol the foreign herbs to the neglect of the native, and especially tobacco, “which is not found of so great efficacy as they write.” In the orchards were plums, apples, pears, walnuts, filberts; and in noblemen’s orchards store of strange fruit-apricots, almonds, peaches, figs, and even in some oranges, lemons, and capers. Grafters also were at work with their artificial mixtures, “dallying, as it were, with nature and her course, as if her whole trade were perfectly known unto them: of hard fruits they will make soft, of sour sweet, of sweet yet more delicate; bereaving also some of their kernels, others of their cores, and finally endowing them with the flavor of musk, amber, or sweet spices at their pleasure.” Gardeners turn annual into perpetual herbs, and such pains are they at that they even used dish-water for plants. The Gardens of Hesperides are surely not equal to these. Pliny tells of a rose that had sixty leaves on one bud, but in 1585 there was a rose in Antwerp that had one hundred and eighty leaves; and Harrison might have had a slip of it for ten pounds, but he thought it a “tickle hazard.” In his own little garden, of not above three hundred square feet, he had near three hundred samples, and not one of them of the common, or usually to be had.
Our kin beyond sea have always been stout eaters of solid food, and in Elizabeth’s time their tables were more plentifully laden than those of any other nation. Harrison scientifically accounts for their inordinate appetite. “The situation of our region,” he says, “lying near unto the north, does cause the heat of our stomachs to be of somewhat greater force; therefore our bodies do crave a little more ample nourishment than the inhabitants of the hotter regions are accustomed withal, whose digestive force is not altogether so vehement, because their internal heat is not so strong as ours, which is kept in by the coldness of the air, that from time to time (specially in winter) doth environ our bodies.” The north Britons in old times were accustomed often to great abstinence, and lived when in the woods on roots and herbs. They used sometimes a confection, “whereof so much as a bean would qualify their hunger above common expectation”; but when they had nothing to qualify it with, they crept into the marsh water up to their chins, and there remained a long time, “only to qualify the heat of their stomachs by violence.”
In Harrison’s day the abstemious Welsh had learned to eat like the English, and the Scotch exceeded the latter in “over much and distemperate gormandize.” The English eat all they can buy, there being no restraint of any meat for religion’s sake or for public order. The white meats–milk, butter, and cheese–though very dear, are reputed as good for inferior people, but the more wealthy feed upon the flesh of all sorts of cattle and all kinds of fish. The nobility (“whose cooks are for the most part musical-headed Frenchmen and strangers “) exceed in number of dishes and change of meat. Every day at dinner there is beef, mutton, veal, lamb, kid, pork, conie, capon, pig, or as many of these as the season yielded, besides deer and wildfowl, and fish, and sundry delicacies “wherein the sweet hand of the seafaring Portingale is not wanting.” The food was brought in commonly in silver vessels at tables of the degree of barons, bishops, and upwards, and referred first to the principal personage, from whom it passed to the lower end of the table, the guests not eating of all, but choosing what each liked; and nobody stuffed himself. The dishes were then sent to the servants, and the remains of the feast went to the poor, who lay waiting at the gates in great numbers.
Drink was served in pots, goblets, jugs, and bowls of silver in noblemen’s houses, and also in Venice glasses. It was not set upon the table, but the cup was brought to each one who thirsted; he called for such a cup of drink as he wished, and delivered it again to one of the by-standers, who made it clean by pouring out what remained, and restored it to the sideboard. This device was to prevent great drinking, which might ensue if the full pot stood always at the elbow. But this order was not used in noblemen’s halls, nor in any order under the degree of knight or squire of great revenue. It was a world to see how the nobles preferred to gold and silver, which abounded, the new Venice glass, whence a great trade sprang up with Murano that made many rich. The poorest even would have glass, but home-made–a foolish expense, for the glass soon went to bits, and the pieces turned to no profit. Harrison wanted the philosopher’s stone to mix with this molten glass and toughen it.
There were multitudes of dependents fed at the great houses, and everywhere, according to means, a wide-open hospitality was maintained. Froude gives a notion of the style of living in earlier times by citing the details of a feast given when George Neville, brother of Warwick the king-maker, was made archbishop of York. There were present, including servants, thirty-five hundred persons. These are a few of the things used at the banquet: three hundred quarters of wheat, three hundred tuns of ale, one hundred and four tuns of wine, eighty oxen, three thousand geese, two thousand pigs,–four thousand conies, four thousand heronshaws, four thousand venison pasties cold and five hundred hot, four thousand cold tarts, four thousand cold custards, eight seals, four porpoises, and so on.
The merchants and gentlemen kept much the same tables as the nobles, especially at feasts, but when alone were content with a few dishes. They also desired the dearest food, and would have no meat from the butcher’s but the most delicate, while their list of fruits, cakes, Gates, and outlandish confections is as long as that at any modern banquet. Wine ran in excess. There were used fifty-six kinds of light wines, like the French, and thirty of the strong sorts, like the Italian and Eastern. The stronger the wine, the better it was liked. The strongest and best was in old times called theologicum, because it was had from the clergy and religious men, to whose houses the laity sent their bottles to be filled, sure that the religious would neither drink nor be served with the worst; for the merchant would have thought his soul should have gone straightway to the devil if he had sent them any but the best. The beer served at noblemen’s tables was commonly a year old, and sometimes two, but this age was not usual. In households generally it was not under a month old, for beer was liked stale if it were not sour, while bread was desired as new as possible so that it was not hot.
The husbandman and artificer ate such meat as they could easiest come by and have most quickly ready; yet the banquets of the trades in London were not inferior to those of the nobility. The husbandmen, however, exceed in profusion, and it is incredible to tell what meat is consumed at bridals, purifications, and such like odd meetings; but each guest brought his own provision, so that the master of the house had only to provide bread, drink, houseroom, and fire. These lower classes Harrison found very friendly at their tables–merry without malice, plain without Italian or French subtlety–so that it would do a man good to be in company among them; but if they happen to stumble upon a piece of venison or a cup of wine or very strong beer, they do not stick to compare themselves with the lord-mayor–and there is no public man in any city of Europe that may compare with him in port and countenance during the term of his office.
Harrison commends the great silence used at the tables of the wiser sort, and generally throughout the realm, and likewise the moderate eating and drinking. But the poorer countrymen do babble somewhat at table, and mistake ribaldry and loquacity for wit and wisdom, and occasionally are cup-shotten; and what wonder, when they who have hard diet and small drink at home come to such opportunities at a banquet! The wealthier sort in the country entertain their visitors from afar, however long they stay, with as hearty a welcome the last day as the first; and the countrymen contrast this hospitality with that of their London cousins, who joyfully receive them the first day, tolerate them the second, weary of them the third, and wish ’em at the devil after four days.
The gentry usually ate wheat bread, of which there were four kinds, and the poor generally bread made of rye, barley, and even oats and acorns. Corn was getting so dear, owing to the forestallers and middlemen, that, says the historian, “if the world last a while after this rate, wheat and rye will be no grain for poor men to feed on; and some catterpillers [two-legged speculators] there are that can say so much already.”
The great drink of the realm was, of course, beer (and it is to be noted that a great access of drunkenness came into England with the importation much later of Holland gin) made from barley, hops, and water, and upon the brewing of it Harrison dwells lovingly, and devotes many pages to a description of the process, especially as “once in a month practiced by my wife and her maid servants.” They ground eight bushels of malt, added half a bushel of wheat meal, half a bushel of oat meal, poured in eighty gallons of water, then eighty gallons more, and a third eighty gallons, and boiled with a couple of pounds of hops. This, with a few spices thrown in, made three hogsheads of good beer, meet for a poor man who had only forty pounds a year. This two hundred gallons of beer cost altogether twenty shillings; but although he says his wife brewed it “once in a month,” whether it lasted a whole month the parson does not say. He was particular about the water used: the Thames is best, the marsh worst, and clear spring water next worst; “the fattest standing water is always the best.” Cider and perry were made in some parts of England, and a delicate sort of drink in Wales, called metheglin; but there was a kind of “swish-swash” made in Essex from honey-combs and water, called mead, which differed from the metheglin as chalk from cheese.
In Shakespeare’s day much less time was spent in eating and drinking than formerly, when, besides breakfast in the forenoon and dinners, there were “beverages” or “nuntion” after dinner, and supper before going to bed –“a toie brought in by hardie Canutus,” who was a gross feeder. Generally there were, except for the young who could not fast till dinnertime, only two meals daily, dinner and supper. Yet the Normans had brought in the habit of sitting long at the table–a custom not yet altogether abated, since the great people, especially at banquets, sit till two or three o’clock in the afternoon; so that it is a hard matter to rise and go to evening prayers and return in time for supper.
Harrison does not make much account of the early meal called “breakfast”; but Froude says that in Elizabeth’s time the common hour of rising, in the country, was four o’clock, summer and winter, and that breakfast was at five, after which the laborers went to work and the gentlemen to business. The Earl and Countess of Northumberland breakfasted together and alone at seven. The meal consisted of a quart of ale, a quart of wine, and a chine of beef; a loaf of bread is not mentioned, but we hope (says Froude) it may be presumed. The gentry dined at eleven and supped at five. The merchants took dinner at noon, and, in London, supped at six. The university scholars out of term ate dinner at ten. The husbandmen dined at high noon, and took supper at seven or eight. As for the poorer sort, it is needless to talk of their order of repast, for they dined and supped when they could. The English usually began meals with the grossest food and ended with the most delicate, taking first the mild wines and ending with the hottest; but the prudent Scot did otherwise, making his entrance with the best, so that he might leave the worse to the menials.
I will close this portion of our sketch of English manners with an extract from the travels of Hentzner, who visited England in 1598, and saw the great queen go in state to chapel at Greenwich, and afterwards witnessed the laying of the table for her dinner. It was on Sunday. The queen was then in her sixty-fifth year, and “very majestic,” as she walked in the splendid procession of barons, earls, and knights of the garter: “her face, oblong, fair, but wrinkled; her eyes small, yet black and pleasant; her nose a little hooked; her lips narrow, and her teeth black (a defect the English seem subject to from their great use of sugar). She had in her ears two pearls with very rich drops; she wore false hair, and that red; upon her head she had a small crown, reported to be made of some of the gold of the celebrated Lunebourg table. Her bosom was uncovered, as all the English ladies have it till they marry; and she had on a necklace of exceeding fine jewels; her hands were small, her fingers long, and her stature neither small nor low; her air was stately, her manner of speaking mild and obliging. That day she was dressed in white silk, bordered with pearls of the size of beans, and over it a mantle of black silk, shot with silver threads; her train was very long, and the end of it borne by a marchioness; instead of a chain she had an oblong collar of gold and jewels.” As she swept on in this magnificence, she spoke graciously first to one, then to another, and always in the language of any foreigner she addressed; whoever spoke to her kneeled, and wherever she turned her face, as she was going along, everybody fell down on his knees. When she pulled off her glove to give her hand to be kissed, it was seen to be sparkling with rings and jewels. The ladies of the court, handsome and well shaped, followed, dressed for the most part in white; and on either side she was guarded by fifty gentlemen pensioners with gilt battle-axes. In the ante-chapel, where she graciously received petitions, there was an acclaim of “Long live Queen Elizabeth!” to which she answered, “I thank you, my good people.” The music in the chapel was excellent, and the whole service was over in half an hour. This is Hentzner’s description of the setting out of her table:
“A gentleman entered the room bearing a rod, and along with him another who had a table-cloth, which, after they had both kneeled three times, he spread upon the table; and after kneeling again they both retired. Then came two others, one with the rod again, the other with a salt-cellar, a plate, and bread; and when they had kneeled as the others had done, and placed what was brought upon the table, they two retired with the same ceremonies performed by the first. At last came an unmarried lady (we were told she was a countess) and along with her a married one, bearing a tasting-knife; the former was dressed in white silk, who, when she had prostrated herself three times, in the most graceful manner approached the table, and rubbed the plates with bread and salt, with as much awe as if the Queen had been present. When they had waited there a little while the Yeomen of the Guard entered, bare-headed, clothed in scarlet, with a golden rose upon their backs, bringing in at each turn a course of twenty-four dishes, served in plate, most of it gilt; these dishes were received by a gentleman in the same order they were brought, and placed upon the table, while the Lady Taster gave to each of the guard a mouthful to eat, of the particular dish he had brought, for fear of, any poison. During the time that this guard, which consists of the tallest and stoutest men that can be found in all England, being carefully selected for this service, were bringing dinner, twelve trumpets and two kettle-drums made the hall ring for half an hour together. At the end of all this ceremonial, a number of unmarried ladies appeared, who with particular solemnity lifted the meat off the table and conveyed it into the Queen’s inner and more private chamber, where, after she had chosen for herself, the rest goes to the Ladies of the court.”
The queen dined and supped alone, with very few attendants. II
We now approach perhaps the most important matter in this world, namely, dress. In nothing were the increasing wealth and extravagance of the period more shown than in apparel. And in it we are able to study the origin of the present English taste for the juxtaposition of striking and uncomplementary colors. In Coryat’s “Crudities,” 1611, we have an Englishman’s contrast of the dress of the Venetians and the English. The Venetians adhered, without change, to their decent fashion, a thousand years old, wearing usually black: the slender doublet made close to the body, without much quilting; the long hose plain, the jerkin also black–but all of the most costly stuffs Christendom can furnish, satin and taffetas, garnished with the best lace. Gravity and good taste characterized their apparel. “In both these things,” says Coryat, “they differ much from us Englishmen. For whereas they have but one color, we use many more than are in the rainbow, all the most light, garish, and unseemly colors that are in the world. Also for fashion we are much inferior to them. For we wear more fantastical fashions than any nation under the sun doth, the French only excepted.” On festival days, in processions, the senators wore crimson damask gowns, with flaps of crimson velvet cast over their left shoulders; and the Venetian knights differed from the other gentlemen, for under their black damask gowns, with long sleeves, they wore red apparel, red silk stockings, and red pantofles.
Andrew Boord, in 1547, attempting to describe the fashions of his countrymen, gave up the effort in sheer despair over the variety and fickleness of costume, and drew a naked man with a pair of shears in one hand and a piece of cloth in the other, to the end that he should shape his apparel as he himself liked; and this he called an Englishman. Even the gentle Harrison, who gives Boord the too harsh character of a lewd popish hypocrite and ungracious priest, admits that he was not void of judgment in this; and he finds it easier to inveigh against the enormity, the fickleness, and the fantasticality of the English attire than to describe it. So unstable is the fashion, he says, that today the Spanish guise is in favor; tomorrow the French toys are most fine and delectable; then the high German apparel is the go; next the Turkish manner is best liked, the Morisco gowns, the Barbary sleeves, and the short French breeches; in a word, “except it were a dog in a doublet, you shall not see any so disguised as are my countrymen in England.”
This fantastical folly was in all degrees, from the courtier down to the tarter. “It is a world to see the costliness and the curiosity, the excess and the vanity, the pomp and the bravery, the change and the variety, and finally the fickleness and the folly that is in all degrees; insomuch that nothing is more constant in England than inconstancy of attire. So much cost upon the body, so little upon souls; how many suits of apparel hath the one, or how little furniture hath the other!” “And how men and women worry the poor tailors, with endless fittings and sending back of garments, and trying on!” “Then must the long seams of our hose be set with a plumb line, then we puff, then we blow, and finally sweat till we drop, that our clothes may stand well upon us.”
The barbers were as cunning in variety as the tailors. Sometimes the head was polled; sometimes the hair was curled, and then suffered to grow long like a woman’s locks, and many times cut off, above or under the ears, round as by a wooden dish. And so with the beards: some shaved from the chin, like the Turks; some cut short, like the beard of the Marquis Otto; some made round, like a rubbing-brush; some peaked, others grown long. If a man have a lean face, the Marquis Otto’s cut makes it broad; if it be platterlike, the long, slender beard makes it seem narrow; “if he be weasel-beaked, then much hair left on the cheeks will make the owner look big like a bowdled hen, and so grim as a goose.” Some courageous gentlemen wore in their ears rings of gold and stones, to improve God’s work, which was otherwise set off by monstrous quilted and stuffed doublets, that puffed out the figure like a barrel.
There is some consolation, though I don’t know why, in the knowledge that writers have always found fault with women’s fashions, as they do today. Harrison says that the women do far exceed the lightness of the men; “such staring attire as in time past was supposed meet for light housewives only is now become an habit for chaste and sober matrons.” And he knows not what to say of their doublets, with pendant pieces on the breast full of jags and cuts; their “galligascons,” to make their dresses stand out plumb round; their farthingales and divers colored stockings. “I have met,” he says, “with some of these trulls in London so disguised that it hath passed my skill to determine whether they were men or women.” Of all classes the merchants were most to be commended for rich but sober attire; “but the younger sort of their wives, both in attire and costly housekeeping, cannot tell when and how to make an end, as being women indeed in whom all kind of curiosity is to be found and seen.” Elizabeth’s time, like our own, was distinguished by new fashionable colors, among which are mentioned a queer greenish-yellow, a pease-porridge-tawny, a popinjay of blue, a lusty gallant, and the “devil in the hedge.” These may be favorites still, for aught I know.
Mr. Furnivall quotes a description of a costume of the period, from the manuscript of Orazio Busino’s “Anglipotrida.” Busino was the chaplain of Piero Contarina, the Venetian ambassador to James I, in 1617. The chaplain was one day stunned with grief over the death of the butler of the embassy; and as the Italians sleep away grief, the French sing, the Germans drink, and the English go to plays to be rid of it, the Venetians, by advice, sought consolation at the Fortune Theatre; and there a trick was played upon old Busino, by placing him among a bevy of young women, while the concealed ambassador and the secretary enjoyed the joke. “These theatres,” says Busino, “are frequented by a number of respectable and handsome ladies, who come freely and seat themselves among the men without the slightest hesitation . . . . Scarcely was I seated ere a very elegant dame, but in a mask, came and placed herself beside me . . . . She asked me for my address both in French and English; and, on my turning a deaf ear, she determined to honor me by showing me some fine diamonds on her fingers, repeatedly taking off no fewer than three gloves, which were worn one over the other . . . . This lady’s bodice was of yellow satin, richly embroidered, her petticoat–[It is a trifle in human progress, perhaps scarcely worth noting, that the “round gown,” that is, an entire skirt, not open in front and parting to show the under petticoat, did not come into fashion till near the close of the eighteenth century.]–of gold tissue with stripes, her robe of red velvet with a raised pile, lined with yellow muslin with broad stripes of pure gold. She wore an apron of point lace of various patterns; her headtire was highly perfumed, and the collar of white satin beneath the delicately wrought ruff struck me as exceedingly pretty.” It was quite in keeping with the manners of the day for a lady of rank to have lent herself to this hoax of the chaplain.
Van Meteren, a Netherlander, 1575, speaks also of the astonishing change or changeableness in English fashions, but says the women are well dressed and modest, and they go about the streets without any covering of mantle, hood, or veil; only the married women wear a hat in the street and in the house; the unmarried go without a hat; but ladies of distinction have lately learned to cover their faces with silken masks or vizards, and to wear feathers. The English, he notes, change their fashions every year, and when they go abroad riding or traveling they don their best clothes, contrary to the practice of other nations. Another foreigner, Jacob Rathgeb, 1592, says the English go dressed in exceeding fine clothes, and some will even wear velvet in the street, when they have not at home perhaps a piece of dry bread. “The lords and pages of the royal court have a stately, noble air, but dress more after the French fashion, only they wear short cloaks and sometimes Spanish caps.”
Harrison’s arraignment of the English fashions of his day may be considered as almost commendative beside the diatribes of the old Puritan Philip Stubbes, in “The Anatomie of Abuses,” 1583. The English language is strained for words hot and rude enough to express his indignation, contempt, and fearful expectation of speedy judgments. The men escape his hands with scarcely less damage than the women. First he wreaks his indignation upon the divers kinds of hats, stuck full of feathers, of various colors, “ensigns of vanity,” “fluttering sails and feathered flags of defiance to virtue”; then upon the monstrous ruffs that stand out a quarter of a yard from the neck. “As the devil, in the fullness of his malice, first invented these ruffs, so has he found out two stays to bear up this his great kingdom of ruffs–one is a kind of liquid matter they call starch; the other is a device made of wires, for an under-propper. Then there are shirts of cambric, holland, and lawn, wrought with fine needle-work of silk and curiously stitched, costing sometimes as much as five pounds. Worse still are the monstrous doublets, reaching down to the middle of the thighs, so hard quilted, stuffed, bombasted, and sewed that the wearer can hardly stoop down in them. Below these are the gally-hose of silk, velvet, satin, and damask, reaching below the knees. So costly are these that now it is a small matter to bestow twenty nobles, ten pound, twenty pound, fortie pound, yea a hundred pound of one pair of Breeches. (God be merciful unto us!) To these gay hose they add nether-socks, curiously knit with open seams down the leg, with quirks and clocks about the ankles, and sometimes interlaced with gold and silver thread as is wonderful to behold. Time has been when a man could clothe his whole body for the price of these nether-socks. Satan was further let loose in the land by reason of cork shoes and fine slippers, of all colors, carved, cut, and stitched with silk, and laced on with gold and silver, which went flipping and flapping up and down in the dirt. The jerkins and cloaks are of all colors and fashions; some short, reaching to the knee; others dragging on the ground; red, white, black, violet, yellow, guarded, laced, and faced; hanged with points and tassels of gold, silver, and silk. The hilts of daggers, rapiers, and swords are gilt thrice over, and have scabbards of velvet. And all this while the poor lie in London streets upon pallets of straw, or else in the mire and dirt, and die like dogs!”
Stubbes was a stout old Puritan, bent upon hewing his way to heaven through all the allurements of this world, and suspecting a devil in every fair show. I fear that he looked upon woman as only a vain and trifling image, a delusive toy, away from whom a man must set his face. Shakespeare, who was country-bred when he came up to London, and lived probably on the roystering South Side, near the theatres and bear-gardens, seems to have been impressed with the painted faces of the women. It is probable that only town-bred women painted. Stubbes declares that the women of England color their faces with oils, liquors, unguents, and waters made to that end, thinking to make themselves fairer than God made them–a presumptuous audacity to make God untrue in his word; and he heaps vehement curses upon the immodest practice. To this follows the trimming and tricking of their heads, the laying out their hair to show, which is curled, crisped, and laid out on wreaths and borders from ear to ear. Lest it should fall down it is under-propped with forks, wires, and what not. On the edges of their bolstered hair (for it standeth crested round about their frontiers, and hanging over their faces like pendices with glass windows on every side) is laid great wreaths of gold and silver curiously wrought. But this is not the worst nor the tenth part, for no pen is able to describe the wickedness. “The women use great ruffs and neckerchers of holland, lawn, camerick, and such cloth, as the greatest thread shall not be so big as the least hair that is: then, lest they should fall down, they are smeared and starched in the Devil’s liquor, I mean Starch; after that dried with great diligence, streaked, patted and rubbed very nicely, and so applied to their goodly necks, and, withall, under-propped with supportasses, the stately arches of pride; beyond all this they have a further fetch, nothing inferior to the rest; as, namely, three or four degrees of minor ruffs, placed gradatim, step by step, one beneath another, and all under the Master devil ruff. The skirts, then, of these great ruffs are long and side every way, pleted and crested full curiously, God wot.”
Time will not serve us to follow old Stubbes into his particular inquisition of every article of woman’s attire, and his hearty damnation of them all and several. He cannot even abide their carrying of nosegays and posies of flowers to smell at, since the palpable odors and fumes of these do enter the brain to degenerate the spirit and allure to vice. They must needs carry looking-glasses with them; “and good reason,” says Stubbes, savagely, “for else how could they see the devil in them? for no doubt they are the devil’s spectacles [these women] to allure us to pride and consequently to destruction forever.” And, as if it were not enough to be women, and the devil’s aids, they do also have doublets and jerkins, buttoned up the breast, and made with wings, welts, and pinions on the shoulder points, as man’s apparel is, for all the world. We take reluctant leave of this entertaining woman-hater, and only stay to quote from him a “fearful judgment of God, shewed upon a gentlewoman of Antwerp of late, even the 27th of May, 1582,” which may be as profitable to read now as it was then: “This gentlewoman being a very rich Merchant man’s daughter: upon a time was invited to a bridal, or wedding, which was solemnized in that Toune, against which day she made great preparation, for the pluming herself in gorgeous array, that as her body was most beautiful, fair, and proper, so her attire in every respect might be correspondent to the same. For the accomplishment whereof she curled her hair, she dyed her locks, and laid them out after the best manner, she colored her face with waters and Ointments: But in no case could she get any (so curious and dainty she was) that could starch, and set her Ruffs and Neckerchers to her mind wherefore she sent for a couple of Laundresses, who did the best they could to please her humors, but in any wise they could not. Then fell she to swear and tear, to curse and damn, casting the Ruffs under feet, and wishing that the Devil might take her when she wear any of those Neckerchers again. In the meantime (through the sufference of God) the Devil transforming himself into the form of a young man, as brave and proper as she in every point of outward appearance, came in, feigning himself to be a wooer or suitor unto her. And seeing her thus agonized, and in such a pelting chase, he demanded of her the cause thereof, who straightway told him (as women can conceal nothing that lieth upon their stomachs) how she was abused in the setting of her Ruffs, which thing being heard of him, he promised to please her mind, and thereto took in hand the setting of her Ruffs, which he performed to her great contentation and liking, in so much as she looking herself in a glass (as the Devil bade her) became greatly enamoured of him. This done, the young man kissed her, in the doing whereof she writhe her neck in, sunder, so she died miserably, her body being metamorphosed into black and blue colors, most ugglesome to behold, and her face (which before was so amorous) became most deformed, and fearful to look upon. This being known, preparence was made for her burial, a rich coffin was provided, and her fearful body was laid therein, and it covered very sumptuously. Four men immediately assayed to lift up the corpse, but could not move it; then six attempted the like, but could not once stir it from the place where it stood. Whereat the standers-by marveling, caused the coffin to be opened to see the cause thereof. Where they found the body to be taken away, and a black Cat very lean and deformed sitting in the coffin, setting of great Ruffs, and frizzling of hair, to the great fear and wonder of all beholders.”
Better than this pride which forerunneth destruction, in the opinion of Stubbes, is the habit of the Brazilian women, who “esteem so little of apparel” that they rather choose to go naked than be thought to be proud.
As I read the times of Elizabeth, there was then greater prosperity and enjoyment of life among the common people than fifty or a hundred years later. Into the question of the prices of labor and of food, which Mr. Froude considers so fully in the first chapter of his history, I shall not enter any further than to remark that the hardness of the laborer’s lot, who got, mayhap, only twopence a day, is mitigated by the fact that for a penny he could buy a pound of meat which now costs a shilling. In two respects England has greatly changed for the traveler, from the sixteenth to the eighteenth century–in its inns and its roads.
In the beginning of Elizabeth’s reign travelers had no choice but to ride on horseback or to walk. Goods were transported on strings of pack-horses. When Elizabeth rode into the city from her residence at Greenwich, she placed herself behind her lord chancellor, on a pillion. The first improvement made was in the construction of a rude wagon a cart without springs, the body resting solidly on the axles. In such a vehicle Elizabeth rode to the opening of her fifth Parliament. In 1583, on a certain day, Sir Harry Sydney entered Shrewsbury in his wagon, “with his trompeter blowynge, verey joyfull to behold and see.” Even such conveyances fared hard on the execrable roads of the period. Down to the end of the seventeenth century most of the country roads were merely broad ditches, water-worn and strewn with loose stones. In 1640 Queen Henrietta was four weary days dragging over the road from Dover to London, the best in England. Not till the close of the sixteenth century was the wagon used, and then rarely. Fifty years later stage-wagons ran, with some regularity, between London and Liverpool; and before the close of the seventeenth century the stagecoach, a wonderful invention, which had been used in and about London since 1650, was placed on three principal roads of the kingdom. It averaged two to three miles an hour. In the reign of Charles II. a Frenchman who landed at Dover was drawn up to London in a wagon with six horses in a line, one after the other. Our Venetian, Busino, who went to Oxford in the coach with the ambassador in 1617, was six days in going one hundred and fifty miles, as the coach often stuck in the mud, and once broke down. So bad were the main thoroughfares, even, that markets were sometimes inaccessible for months together, and the fruits of the earth rotted in one place, while there was scarcity not many miles distant.
But this difficulty of travel and liability to be detained long on the road were cheered by good inns, such as did not exist in the world elsewhere. All the literature of the period reflects lovingly the homelike delights of these comfortable houses of entertainment. Every little village boasted an excellent inn, and in the towns on the great thoroughfares were sumptuous houses that would accommodate from two to three hundred guests with their horses. The landlords were not tyrants, as on the Continent, but servants of their guests; and it was, says Harrison, a world to see how they did contend for the entertainment of their guests–as about fineness and change of linen, furniture of bedding, beauty of rooms, service at the table, costliness of plate, strength of drink, variety of wines, or well-using of horses. The gorgeous signs at their doors sometimes cost forty pounds. The inns were cheap too, and the landlord let no one depart dissatisfied with his bill. The worst inns were in London, and the tradition has been handed down. But the ostlers, Harrison confesses, did sometimes cheat in the feed, and they with the tapsters and chamberlains were in league (and the landlord was not always above suspicion) with highwaymen outside, to ascertain if the traveler carried any valuables; so that when he left the hospitable inn he was quite likely to be stopped on the highway and relieved of his money. The highwayman was a conspicuous character. One of the most romantic of these gentry at one time was a woman named Mary Frith, born in 1585, and known as Moll Cut-Purse. She dressed in male attire, was an adroit fencer, a bold rider, and a staunch royalist; she once took two hundred gold jacobuses from the Parliamentary General Fairfax on Hounslow Heath. She is the chief character in Middleton’s play of the “Roaring Girl”; and after a varied life as a thief, cutpurse, pickpocket, highwayman, trainer of animals, and keeper of a thieves’ fence, she died in peace at the age of seventy. To return to the inns, Fyner Morrison, a traveler in 1617, sustains all that Harrison says of the inns as the best and cheapest in the world, where the guest shall have his own pleasure. No sooner does he arrive than the servants run to him–one takes his horse, another shows him his chamber and lights his fire, a third pulls off his boots. Then come the host and hostess to inquire what meat he will choose, and he may have their company if he like. He shall be offered music while he eats, and if he be solitary the musicians will give him good-day with music in the morning. In short, “a man cannot more freely command at home, in his own house, than he may do in his inn.”
The amusements of the age were often rough, but certainly more moral than they were later; and although the theatres were denounced by such reformers as Stubbes as seminaries of vice, and disapproved by Harrison; they were better than after the Restoration, when the plays of Shakespeare were out of fashion. The Londoners went for amusement to the Bankside, or South Side of the Thames, where were the famous Paris Gardens, much used as a rendezvous by gallants; and there were the places for bear and bull baiting; and there were the theatres–the Paris Gardens, the Swan, the Rose, the Hope, and the Globe. The pleasure-seekers went over usually in boats, of which there were said to be four thousand plying between banks; for there was only one bridge, and that was crowded with houses. All distinguished visitors were taken over to see the gardens and the bears baited by dogs; the queen herself went, and perhaps on Sunday, for Sunday was the great day, and Elizabeth is said to have encouraged Sunday sports, she had been (we read) so much hunted on account of religion! These sports are too brutal to think of; but there are amusing accounts of lion-baiting both by bears and dogs, in which the beast who figures so nobly on the escutcheon nearly always proved himself an arrant coward, and escaped away as soon as he could into his den, with his tail between his legs. The spectators were once much disgusted when a lion and lioness, with the dog that pursued them, all ran into the den, and, like good friends, stood very peaceably together looking out at the people.
The famous Globe Theatre, which was built in 1599, was burned in 1613, and in the fire it is supposed were consumed Shakespeare’s manuscripts of his plays. It was of wood (for use in summer only), octagon shaped, with a thatched roof, open in the centre. The daily performance here, as in all theatres, was at three o’clock in the afternoon, and boys outside held the horses of the gentlemen who went in to the play. When theatres were restrained, in 1600, only two were allowed, the Globe and the Fortune, which was on the north side, on Golden Lane. The Fortune was fifty feet square within, and three stories high, with galleries, built of wood on a brick foundation, and with a roof of tiles. The stage was forty-three feet wide, and projected into the middle of the yard (as the pit was called), where the groundlings stood. To one of the galleries admission was only twopence. The young gallants used to go into the yards and spy about the galleries and boxes for their acquaintances. In these theatres there was a drop-curtain, but little or no scenery. Spectators had boxes looking on the stage behind the curtain, and they often sat upon the stage with the actors; sometimes the actors all remained upon the stage during the whole play. There seems to have been great familiarity between the audience and the actors. Fruits in season, apples, pears, and nuts, with wine and beer, were carried about to be sold, and pipes were smoked. There was neither any prudery in the plays or the players, and the audiences in behavior were no better than the plays.
The actors were all men. The female parts were taken usually by boys, but frequently by grown men, and when Juliet or Desdemona was announced, a giant would stride upon the stage. There is a story that Kynaston, a handsome fellow, famous in female characters, and petted by ladies of rank, once kept Charles I. waiting while he was being shaved before appearing as Evadne in “The Maid’s Tragedy.” The innovation of women on the stage was first introduced by a French company in 1629, but the audiences would not tolerate it, and hissed and pelted the actresses off the stage. But thirty years later women took the place they have ever since held; when the populace had once experienced the charm of a female Juliet and Ophelia, they would have no other, and the rage for actresses ran to such excess at one time that it was a fashion for women to take the male parts as well. But that was in the abandoned days of Charles II. Pepys could not control his delight at the appearance of Nell Gwynne, especially “when she comes like a young gallant, and hath the motions and carriage of a spark the most that ever I saw any man have. It makes me, I confess, admire her.” The acting of Shakespeare himself is only a faint tradition. He played the ghost in “Hamlet,” and Adam in “As You Like It.” William Oldys says (Oldys was an antiquarian who was pottering about in the first part of the eighteenth century, picking up gossip in coffee-houses, and making memoranda on scraps of paper in book-shops) Shakespeare’s brother Charles, who lived past the middle of the seventeenth century, was much inquired of by actors about the circumstances of Shakespeare’s playing. But Charles was so old and weak in mind that he could recall nothing except the faint impression that he had once seen “Will” act a part in one of his own comedies, wherein, being to personate a decrepit old man, he wore a long beard, and appeared so weak and drooping and unable to walk that he was forced to be supported and carried by another person to a table, at which he was seated among some company who were eating, and one of them sang a song. And that was Shakespeare!
The whole Bankside, with its taverns, play-houses, and worse, its bear pits and gardens, was the scene of roystering and coarse amusement. And it is surprising that plays of such sustained moral greatness as Shakespeare’s should have been welcome.
The more private amusements of the great may well be illustrated by an account given by Busino of a masque (it was Ben Jonson’s “Pleasure Reconciled to Virtue”) performed at Whitehall on Twelfthnight, 1617. During the play, twelve cavaliers in masks, the central figure of whom was Prince Charles, chose partners, and danced every kind of dance, until they got tired and began to flag; whereupon King James, “who is naturally choleric, got impatient, and shouted aloud, ‘Why don’t they dance? What did you make me come here for? Devil take you all, dance!’ On hearing this, the Marquis of Buckingham, his majesty’s most favored minion, immediately sprang forward, cutting a score of lofty and very minute capers, with so much grace and agility that he not only appeased the ire of his angry sovereign, but moreover rendered himself the admiration and delight of everybody. The other masquers, being thus encouraged, continued successively exhibiting their powers with various ladies, finishing in like manner with capers, and by lifting their goddesses from the ground . . . . The prince, however, excelled them all in bowing, being very exact in making his obeisance both to the king and his partner; nor did we ever see him make one single step out of time–a compliment which can scarcely be paid to his companions. Owing to his youth, he has not much wind as yet, but he nevertheless cut a few capers very gracefully.” The prince then went and kissed the hand of his serene parent, who embraced and kissed him tenderly. When such capers were cut at Whitehall, we may imagine what the revelry was in the Bankside taverns.
The punishments of the age were not more tender than the amusements were refined. Busino saw a lad of fifteen led to execution for stealing a bag of currants. At the end of every month, besides special executions, as many as twenty-five people at a time rode through London streets in Tyburn carts, singing ribald songs, and carrying sprigs of rosemary in their hands. Everywhere in the streets the machines of justice were visible-pillories for the neck and hands, stocks for the feet, and chains to stretch across, in case of need, and stop a mob. In the suburbs were oak cages for nocturnal offenders. At the church doors might now and then be seen women enveloped in sheets, doing penance for their evil deeds. A bridle, something like a bit for a restive horse, was in use for the curbing of scolds; but this was a later invention than the cucking-stool, or ducking-stool. There is an old print of one of these machines standing on the Thames’ bank: on a wheeled platform is an upright post with a swinging beam across the top, on one end of which the chair is suspended over the river, while the other is worked up and down by a rope; in it is seated a light sister of the Bankside, being dipped into the unsavory flood. But this was not so hated by the women as a similar discipline–being dragged in the river by a rope after a boat.
Hanging was the common punishment for felony, but traitors and many other offenders were drawn, hanged, boweled, and quartered; nobles who were traitors usually escaped with having their heads chopped off only. Torture was not practiced; for, says Harrison, our people despise death, yet abhor to be tormented, being of frank and open minds. And “this is one cause why our condemned persons do go so cheerfully to their deaths, for our nation is free, stout, hearty, and prodigal of life and blood, and cannot in any wise digest to be used as villains and slaves.” Felony covered a wide range of petty crimes–breach of prison, hunting by night with painted or masked faces, stealing above forty shillings, stealing hawks’ eggs, conjuring, prophesying upon arms and badges, stealing deer by night, cutting purses, counterfeiting coin, etc. Death was the penalty for all these offenses. For poisoning her husband a woman was burned alive; a man poisoning another was boiled to death in water or oil; heretics were burned alive; some murderers were hanged in chains; perjurers were branded on the forehead with the letter P; rogues were burned through the ears; suicides were buried in a field with a stake driven through their bodies; witches were burned or hanged; in Halifax thieves were beheaded by a machine almost exactly like the modern guillotine; scolds were ducked; pirates were hanged on the seashore at low-water mark, and left till three tides overwashed them; those who let the sea-walls decay were staked out in the breach of the banks, and left there as parcel of the foundation of the new wall. Of rogues-that is, tramps and petty thieves-the gallows devoured three to four hundred annually, in one place or another; and Henry VIII. in his time did hang up as many as seventy-two thousand rogues. Any parish which let a thief escape was fined. Still the supply held out.
The legislation against vagabonds, tramps, and sturdy beggars, and their punishment by whipping, branding, etc., are too well known to need comment. But considerable provision was made for the unfortunate and deserving poor–poorhouses were built for them, and collections taken up. Only sixty years before Harrison wrote there were few beggars, but in his day he numbers them at ten thousand; and most of them were rogues, who counterfeited sores and wounds, and were mere thieves and caterpillars on the commonwealth. He names twenty-three different sorts of vagabonds known by cant names, such as “ruffers,” “uprightmen,” “priggers,” “fraters,” “palliards,” “Abrams,” “dummerers “; and of women, “demanders for glimmer or fire,” “mortes,” “walking mortes,” “doxes,” “kinching coves.”
London was esteemed by its inhabitants and by many foreigners as the richest and most magnificent city in Christendom. The cities of London and Westminster lay along the north bank in what seemed an endless stretch; on the south side of the Thames the houses were more scattered. But the town was mostly of wood, and its rapid growth was a matter of anxiety. Both Elizabeth and James again and again attempted to restrict it by forbidding the erection of any new buildings within the town, or for a mile outside; and to this attempt was doubtless due the crowded rookeries in the city. They especially forbade the use of wood in house-fronts and windows, both on account of the danger from fire, and because all the timber in the kingdom, which was needed for shipping and other purposes, was being used up in building. They even ordered the pulling down of new houses in London, Westminster, and for three miles around. But all efforts to stop the growth of the city were vain.
London, according to the Venetian Busino, was extremely dirty. He did not admire the wooden architecture; the houses were damp and cold, the staircases spiral and inconvenient, the apartments “sorry and ill connected.” The wretched windows, without shutters, he could neither open by day nor close by night. The streets were little better than gutters, and were never put in order except for some great parade. Hentzner, however, thought the streets handsome and clean. When it rained it must have been otherwise. There was no provision for conducting away the water; it poured off the roofs upon the people below, who had not as yet heard of the Oriental umbrella; and the countryman, staring at the sights of the town, knocked about by the carts, and run over by the horsemen, was often surprised by a douche from a conduit down his back. And, besides, people had a habit of throwing water and slops out of the windows, regardless of passers-by.
The shops were small, open in front, when the shutters were down, much like those in a Cairo bazaar, and all the goods were in sight. The shopkeepers stood in front and cried their wares, and besought customers. Until 1568 there were but few silk shops in London, and all those were kept by women. It was not till about that time that citizens’ wives ceased to wear white knit woolen caps, and three-square Minever caps with peaks. In the beginning of Elizabeth’s reign the apprentices (a conspicuous class) wore blue cloaks in winter and blue gowns in summer; unless men were threescore years old, it was not lawful to wear gowns lower than the calves of the legs, but the length of cloaks was not limited. The journeymen and apprentices wore long daggers in the daytime at their backs or sides. When the apprentices attended their masters and mistresses in the night they carried lanterns and candles, and a great long club on the neck. These apprentices were apt to lounge with their clubs about the fronts of shops, ready to take a hand in any excitement –to run down a witch, or raid an objectionable house, or tear down a tavern of evil repute, or spoil a playhouse. The high-streets, especially in winter-time, were annoyed by hourly frays of sword and buckler-men; but these were suddenly suppressed when the more deadly fight with rapier and dagger came in. The streets were entirely unlighted and dangerous at night, and for this reason the plays at the theatres were given at three in the afternoon.
About Shakespeare’s time many new inventions and luxuries came in: masks, muffs, fans, periwigs, shoe-roses, love-handkerchiefs (tokens given by maids and gentlewomen to their favorites), heath-brooms for hair-brushes, scarfs, garters, waistcoats, flat-caps; also hops, turkeys, apricots, Venice glass, tobacco. In 1524, and for years after, was used this rhyme
“Turkeys, Carpes, Hops: Piccarel, and beers,
Came into England: all in one year.”
There were no coffee-houses as yet, for neither tea nor coffee was introduced till about 1661. Tobacco was first made known in England by Sir John Hawkins in 1565, though not commonly used by men and women till some years after. It was urged as a great medicine for many ills. Harrison says, 1573, “In these days the taking in of the smoke of the Indian herb called ‘Tabaco,’ by an instrument formed like a little ladle, whereby it passeth from the mouth into the head and stomach, is greatly taken up and used in England, against Rewmes and some other diseases engendered in the lungs and inward parts, and not without effect.” It’s use spread rapidly, to the disgust of James I. and others, who doubted that it was good for cold, aches, humors, and rheums. In 1614 it was said that seven thousand houses lived by this trade, and that L 399,375 a year was spent in smoke. Tobacco was even taken on the stage. Every base groom must have his pipe; it was sold in all inns and ale-houses, and the shops of apothecaries, grocers, and chandlers were almost never, from morning till night, without company still taking of tobacco.
There was a saying on the Continent that “England is a paradise for women, a prison for servants, and a hell or purgatory for horses.” The society was very simple compared with the complex condition of ours, and yet it had more striking contrasts, and was a singular mixture of downrightness and artificiality; plainness and rudeness of speech went with the utmost artificiality of dress and manner. It is curious to note the insular, not to say provincial, character of the people even three centuries ago. When the Londoners saw a foreigner very well made or particularly handsome, they were accustomed to say, “It is a pity he is not an ENGLISHMAN.” It is pleasant, I say, to trace this “certain condescension” in the good old times. Jacob Rathgeb (1592) says the English are magnificently dressed, and extremely proud and overbearing; the merchants, who seldom go unto other countries, scoff at foreigners, who are liable to be ill-used by street boys and apprentices, who collect in immense crowds and stop the way. Of course Cassandra Stubbes, whose mind was set upon a better country, has little good to say of his countrymen.
“As concerning the nature, propertie, and disposition of the people they be desirous of new fangles, praising things past, contemning things present, and coveting after things to come. Ambitious, proud, light, and unstable, ready to be carried away with every blast of wind.” The French paid back with scorn the traditional hatred of the English for the French. Perlin (1558) finds the people “proud and seditious, with bad consciences and unfaithful to their word in war unfortunate, in peace unfaithful”; and there was a Spanish or Italian proverb: “England, good land, bad people.” But even Perlin likes the appearance of the people: “The men are handsome, rosy, large, and dexterous, usually fair-skinned; the women are esteemed the most beautiful in the world, white as alabaster, and give place neither to Italian, Flemish, nor German; they are joyous, courteous, and hospitable (de bon recueil).” He thinks their manners, however, little civilized: for one thing, they have an unpleasant habit of eructation at the table (car iceux routent a la table sans honte & ignominie); which recalls Chaucer’s description of the Trumpington miller’s wife and daughter:
“Men might her rowtyng hearen a forlong,
The wenche routeth eek par companye.”
Another inference as to the table manners of the period is found in Coryat’s “Crudities” (1611). He saw in Italy generally a curious custom of using a little fork for meat, and whoever should take the meat out of the dish with his fingers–would give offense. And he accounts for this peculiarity quite naturally: “The reason of this their curiosity is, because the Italian cannot by any means indure to have his dish touched with fingers, seeing all men’s fingers are not alike cleane.” Coryat found the use of the fork nowhere else in Christendom, and when he returned, and, oftentimes in England, imitated the Italian fashion, his exploit was regarded in a humorous light. Busino says that fruits were seldom served at dessert, but that the whole population were munching them in the streets all day long, and in the places of amusement; and it was an amusement to go out into the orchards and eat fruit on the spot, in a sort of competition of gormandize between the city belles and their admirers. And he avers that one young woman devoured twenty pounds of cherries, beating her opponent by two pounds and a half.
All foreigners were struck with the English love of music and drink, of banqueting and good cheer. Perlin notes a pleasant custom at table: during the feast you hear more than a hundred times, “Drink iou” (he loves to air his English), that is to say, “Je m’en vois boyre a toy.” You respond, in their language, “Iplaigiu”; that is to say, “Je vous plege.” If you thank them, they say in their language, “God tanque artelay”; that is, “Je vous remercie de bon coeur.” And then, says the artless Frenchman, still improving on his English, you should respond thus: “Bigod, sol drink iou agoud oin.” At the great and princely banquets, when the pledge went round and the heart’s desire of lasting health, says the chronicler, “the same was straight wayes knowne, by sound of Drumme and Trumpet, and the cannon’s loudest voyce.” It was so in Hamlet’s day:
“And as he drains his draughts of Rhenish down,
The kettle-drum and trumpet thus bray out
The triumph of his pledge.”
According to Hentzner (1598), the English are serious, like the Germans, and love show and to be followed by troops of servants wearing the arms of their masters; they excel in music and dancing, for they are lively and active, though thicker of make than the French; they cut their hair close in the middle of the head, letting it grow on either side; “they are good sailors, and better pyrates, cunning, treacherous, and thievish;” and, he adds, with a touch of satisfaction, “above three hundred are said to be hanged annually in London.” They put a good deal of sugar in their drink; they are vastly fond of great noises, firing of cannon, beating of drums, and ringing of bells, and when they have a glass in their heads they go up into some belfry, and ring the bells for hours together, for the sake of exercise. Perlin’s comment is that men are hung for a trifle in England, and that you will not find many lords whose parents have not had their heads chopped off.
It is a pleasure to turn to the simple and hearty admiration excited in the breasts of all susceptible foreigners by the English women of the time. Van Meteren, as we said, calls the women beautiful, fair, well dressed, and modest. To be sure, the wives are, their lives only excepted, entirely in the power of their husbands, yet they have great liberty; go where they please; are shown the greatest honor at banquets, where they sit at the upper end of the table and are first served; are fond of dress and gossip and of taking it easy; and like to sit before their doors, decked out in fine clothes, in order to see and be seen by the passers-by. Rathgeb also agrees that the women have much more liberty than in any other place. When old Busino went to the Masque at Whitehall, his colleagues kept exclaiming, “Oh, do look at this one–oh, do see that! Whose wife is this?–and that pretty one near her, whose daughter is she?” There was some chaff mixed in, he allows, some shriveled skins and devotees of S. Carlo Borromeo, but the beauties greatly predominated.
In the great street pageants, it was the beauty and winsomeness of the London ladies, looking on, that nearly drove the foreigners wild. In 1606, upon the entry of the king of Denmark, the chronicler celebrates “the unimaginable number of gallant ladies, beauteous virgins, and other delicate dames, filling the windows of every house with kind aspect.” And in 1638, when Cheapside was all alive with the pageant of the entry of the queen mother, “this miserable old queen,” as Lilly calls Marie de’ Medicis (Mr. Furnivall reproduces an old cut of the scene), M. de la Serre does not try to restrain his admiration for the pretty women on view: only the most fecund imagination can represent the content one has in admiring the infinite number of beautiful women, each different from the other, and each distinguished by some sweetness or grace to ravish the heart and take captive one’s liberty. No sooner has he determined to yield to one than a new object of admiration makes him repent the precipitation of his judgment.
And all the other foreigners were in the like case of “goneness.” Kiechel, writing in 1585, says, “Item, the women there are charming, and by nature so mighty pretty as I have scarcely ever beheld, for they do not falsify, paint, or bedaub themselves as in Italy or other places;” yet he confesses (and here is another tradition preserved) “they are somewhat awkward in their style of dress.” His second “item” of gratitude is a Netherland custom that pleased him–whenever a foreigner or an inhabitant went to a citizen’s house on business, or as a guest, he was received by the master, the lady, or the daughter, and “welcomed” (as it is termed in their language); “he has a right to take them by the arm and to kiss them, which is the custom of the country; and if any one does not do so, it is regarded and imputed as ignorance and ill-breeding on his part.” Even the grave Erasmus, when he visited England, fell easily into this pretty practice, and wrote with untheological fervor of the “girls with angel faces,” who were “so kind and obliging.” “Wherever you come,” he says, “you are received with a kiss by all; when you take your leave you are dismissed with kisses; you return, kisses are repeated. They come to visit you, kisses again; they leave you, you kiss them all round. Should they meet you anywhere, kisses in abundance in fine, wherever you move there is nothing but kisses”–a custom, says this reformer, who has not the fear of Stubbes before his eyes, “never to be sufficiently commended.”
We shall find no more convenient opportunity to end this part of the social study of the age of Shakespeare than with this naive picture of the sex which most adorned it. Some of the details appear trivial; but grave history which concerns itself only with the actions of conspicuous persons, with the manoeuvres of armies, the schemes of politics, the battles of theologies, fails signally to give us the real life of the people by which we judge the character of an age.
When we turn from France to England in, the latter part of the sixteenth and the beginning of the seventeenth century, we are in another atmosphere; we encounter a literature that smacks of the soil, that is as varied, as racy, often as rude, as human life itself, and which cannot be adequately appreciated except by a study of the popular mind and the history of the time which produced it.
“Voltaire,” says M. Guizot, “was the first person in France who spoke of Shakespeare’s genius; and although he spoke of him merely as a barbarian genius, the French public were of the opinion that he had said too much in his favor. Indeed, they thought it nothing less than profanation to apply the words genius and glory to dramas which they considered as crude as they were coarse.”
Guizot was one of the first of his nation to approach Shakespeare in the right spirit–that is, in the spirit in which he could hope for any enlightenment; and in his admirable essay on “Shakespeare and His Times,” he pointed out the exact way in which any piece or period of literature should be studied, that is worth studying at all. He inquired into English civilization, into the habits, manners, and modes of thought of the people for whom Shakespeare wrote. This method, this inquiry into popular sources, has been carried much further since Guizot wrote, and it is now considered the most remunerative method, whether the object of study is literature or politics. By it not only is the literature of a period for the first time understood, but it is given its just place as an exponent of human life and a monument of human action.
The student who takes up Shakespeare’s plays for the purpose of either amusement or cultivation, I would recommend to throw aside the whole load of commentary, and speculation, and disquisition, and devote himself to trying to find out first what was the London and the England of Shakespeare’s day, what were the usages of all classes of society, what were the manners and the character of the people who crowded to hear his plays, or who denounced them as the works of the devil and the allies of sin. I say again to the student that by this means Shakespeare will become a new thing to him, his mind will be enlarged to the purpose and scope of the great dramatist, and more illumination will be cast upon the plays than is received from the whole race of inquisitors into his phrases and critics of his genius. In the light of contemporary life, its visions of empire, its spirit of adventure, its piracy, exploration, and warlike turmoil, its credulity and superstitious wonder at natural phenomena, its implicit belief in the supernatural, its faith, its virility of daring, coarseness of speech, bluntness of manner, luxury of apparel, and ostentation of wealth, the mobility of its shifting society, these dramas glow with a new meaning, and awaken a profounder admiration of the poet’s knowledge of human life.
The experiences of the poet began with the rude and rural life of England, and when he passed into the presence of the court and into the bustle of great London in an age of amazing agitation, he felt still in his veins the throb of the popular blood. There were classic affectations in England, there were masks and mummeries and classic puerilities at court and in noble houses–Elizabeth’s court would well have liked to be classical, remarks Guizot–but Shakespeare was not fettered by classic conventionalities, nor did he obey the unities, nor attempt to separate on the stage the tragedy and comedy of life–“immense and living stage,” says the writer I like to quote because he is French, upon which all things are represented, as it were, in their solid form, and in the place which they occupied in a stormy and complicated civilization. In these dramas the comic element is introduced whenever its character of reality gives it the right of admission and the advantage of opportune appearance. Falstaff appears in the train of Henry V., and Doll Tear-Sheet in the train of Falstaff; the people surround the kings, and the soldiers crowd around their generals; all conditions of society, all the phases of human destiny appear by turns in juxtaposition, with the nature which properly belongs to them, and in the position which they naturally occupy. . . .
“Thus we find the entire world, the whole of human realities, reproduced by Shakespeare in tragedy, which, in his eyes, was the universal theatre of life and truth.”
It is possible to make a brutal picture of the England of Shakespeare’s day by telling nothing that is not true, and by leaving out much that is true. M. Taine, who has a theory to sustain, does it by a graphic catalogue of details and traits that cannot be denied; only there is a great deal in English society that he does not include, perhaps does not apprehend. Nature, he thinks, was never so completely acted out. These robust men give rein to all their passions, delight in the strength of their limbs like Carmen, indulge in coarse language, undisguised sensuality, enjoy gross jests, brutal buffooneries. Humanity is as much lacking as decency. Blood, suffering, does not move them. The court frequents bull and bear baitings; Elizabeth beats her maids, spits upon a courtier’s fringed coat, boxes Essex’s ears; great ladies beat their children and their servants. “The sixteenth century,” he says, “is like a den of lions. Amid passions so strong as these there is not one lacking. Nature appears here in all its violence, but also in all its fullness. If nothing has been softened, nothing has been mutilated. It is the entire man who is displayed, heart, mind, body, senses, with his noblest and finest aspirations, as with his most bestial and savage appetites, without the preponderance of any dominant passion to cast him altogether in one direction, to exalt or degrade him. He has not become rigid as he will under Puritanism. He is not uncrowned as in the Restoration.” He has entered like a young man into all the lusty experiences of life, every allurement is known, the sweetness and novelty of things are strong with him. He plunges into all sensations. “Such were the men of this time, Raleigh, Essex, Elizabeth, Henry VIII himself, excessive and inconstant, ready for devotion and for crime, violent in good and evil, heroic with strange weaknesses, humble with sudden changes of mood, never vile with premeditation like the roisterers of the Restoration, never rigid on principle like the Puritans of the Revolution, capable of weeping like children, and of dying like men, often base courtiers, more than once true knights, displaying constantly, amidst all these contradictions of bearing, only the overflowing of nature. Thus prepared, they could take in everything, sanguinary ferocity and refined generosity, the brutality of shameless debauchery, and the most divine innocence of love, accept all the characters, wantons and virgins, princes and mountebanks, pass quickly from trivial buffoonery to lyrical sublimities, listen alternately to the quibbles of clowns and the songs of lovers. The drama even, in order to satisfy the prolixity of their nature, must take all tongues, pompous, inflated verse, loaded with imagery, and side by side with this vulgar prose; more than this, it must distort its natural style and limits, put songs, poetical devices in the discourse of courtiers and the speeches of statesmen; bring on the stage the fairy world of opera, as Middleton says, gnomes, nymphs of the land and sea, with their groves and meadows; compel the gods to descend upon the stage, and hell itself to furnish its world of marvels. No other theatre is so complicated, for nowhere else do we find men so complete.”
M. Taine heightens this picture in generalizations splashed with innumerable blood-red details of English life and character. The English is the most warlike race in Europe, most redoubtable in battle, most impatient of slavery. “English savages” is what Cellini calls them; and the great shins of beef with which they fill themselves nourish the force and ferocity of their instincts. To harden them thoroughly, institutions work in the same groove as nature. The nation is armed. Every man is a soldier, bound to have arms according to his condition, to exercise himself on Sundays and holidays. The State resembles an army; punishments must inspire terror; the idea of war is ever present. Such instincts, such a history, raises before them with tragic severity the idea of life; death is at hand, wounds, blood, tortures. The fine purple cloaks, the holiday garments, elsewhere signs of gayety of mind, are stained with blood and bordered with black. Throughout a stern discipline, the axe ready for every suspicion of treason; “great men, bishops, a chancellor, princes, the king’s relations, queens, a protector kneeling in the straw, sprinkled the Tower with their blood; one after the other they marched past, stretched out their necks; the Duke of Buckingham, Queen Anne Boleyn, Queen Catherine Howard, the Earl of Surrey, Admiral Seymour, the Duke of Somerset, Lady Jane Grey and her husband, the Duke of Northumberland, the Earl of Essex, all on the throne, or on the steps of the throne, in the highest ranks of honor, beauty, youth, genius; of the bright procession nothing is left but senseless trunks, marred by the tender mercies of the executioner.”
The gibbet stands by the highways, heads of traitors and criminals grin on the city gates. Mournful legends multiply, church-yard ghosts, walking spirits. In the evening, before bedtime, in the vast country houses, in the poor cottages, people talk of the coach which is seen drawn by headless horses, with headless postilions and coachmen. All this, with unbounded luxury, unbridled debauchery, gloom, and revelry hand in hand. “A threatening and sombre fog veils their mind like their sky, and joy, like the sun, pierces through it and upon them strongly and at intervals.” All this riot of passion and frenzy of vigorous life, this madness and sorrow, in which life is a phantom and destiny drives so remorselessly, Taine finds on the stage and in the literature of the period.
To do him justice, he finds something else, something that might give him a hint of the innate soundness of English life in its thousands of sweet homes, something of that great force of moral stability, in the midst of all violence and excess of passion and performance, which makes a nation noble. “Opposed to this band of tragic figures,” which M. Taine arrays from the dramas, “with their contorted features, brazen fronts, combative attitudes, is a troop (he says) of timid figures, tender before everything, the most graceful and love-worthy whom it has been given to man to depict. In Shakespeare you will meet them in Miranda, Juliet, Desdemona, Virginia, Ophelia, Cordelia, Imogen; but they abound also in the others; and it is a characteristic of the race to have furnished them, as it is of the drama to have represented them. By a singular coincidence the women are more of women, the men more of men, here than elsewhere. The two natures go to its extreme–in the one to boldness, the spirit of enterprise and resistance, the warlike, imperious, and unpolished character; in the other to sweetness, devotion, patience, inextinguishable affection (hence the happiness and strength of the marriage tie), a thing unknown in distant lands, and in France especially a woman here gives herself without drawing back, and places her glory and duty in obedience, forgiveness, adoration, wishing, and pretending only to be melted and absorbed daily deeper and deeper in him whom she has freely and forever chosen.” This is an old German instinct. The soul in this race is at once primitive and serious. Women are disposed to follow the noble dream called duty. “Thus, supported by innocence and conscience, they introduce into love a profound and upright sentiment, abjure coquetry, vanity, and flirtation; they do not lie, they are not affected. When they love they are not tasting a forbidden fruit, but are binding themselves for their whole life. Thus understood, love becomes almost a holy thing; the spectator no longer wishes to be malicious or to jest; women do not think of their own happiness, but of that of the loved ones; they aim not at pleasure, but at devotion.”
Thus far M. Taine’s brilliant antitheses–the most fascinating and most dangerous model for a young writer. But we are indebted to him for a most suggestive study of the period. His astonishment, the astonishment of the Gallic mind, at what he finds, is a measure of the difference in the literature of the two races as an expression of their life. It was natural that he should somewhat exaggerate what he regards as the source of this expression, leaving out of view, as he does, certain great forces and currents which an outside observer cannot feel as the race itself feels. We look, indeed, for the local color of this English literature in the manners and habits of the times, traits of which Taine has so skillfully made a mosaic from Harrison, Stubbes, Stowe, Holinshed, and the pages of Reed and Drake; but we look for that which made it something more than a mirror of contemporary manners, vices, and virtues, made it representative of universal men, to other causes and forces-such as the Reformation, the immense stir, energy, and ambition of the age (the result of invention and discovery), newly awakened to the sense that there was a world to be won and made tributary; that England, and, above all places on the globe at that moment, London, was the centre of a display of energy and adventure such as has been scarcely paralleled in history. And underneath it all was the play of an uneasy, protesting democracy, eager to express itself in adventure, by changing its condition, in the joy of living and overcoming, and in literature, with small regard for tradition or the unities.
When Shakespeare came up to London with his first poems in his pocket, the town was so great and full of marvels, and luxury, and entertainment, as to excite the astonishment of continental visitors. It swarmed with soldiers, adventurers, sailors who were familiar with all seas and every port, men with projects, men with marvelous tales. It teemed with schemes of colonization, plans of amassing wealth by trade, by commerce, by planting, mining, fishing, and by the quick eye and the strong hand. Swaggering in the coffee-houses and ruffling it in the streets were the men who had sailed with Frobisher and Drake and Sir Humphrey Gilbert, Hawkins, and Sir Richard Granville; had perhaps witnessed the heroic death of Sir Philip Sidney, at Zutphen; had served with Raleigh in Anjou, Picardy, Languedoc, in the Netherlands, in the Irish civil war; had taken part in the dispersion of the Spanish Armada, and in the bombardment of Cadiz; had filled their cups to the union of Scotland with England; had suffered shipwreck on the Barbary Coast, or had, by the fortune of war, felt the grip of the Spanish Inquisition; who could tell tales of the marvels seen in new-found America and the Indies, and, perhaps, like Captain John Smith, could mingle stories of the naive simplicity of the natives beyond the Atlantic, with charming narratives of the wars in Hungary, the beauties of the seraglio of the Grand Turk, and the barbaric pomp of the Khan of Tartary. There were those in the streets who would see Raleigh go to the block on the scaffold in Old Palace Yard, who would fight against King Charles on the fields of Newbury or Naseby, Kineton or Marston Moor, and perchance see the exit of Charles himself from another scaffold erected over against the Banqueting House.
Although London at the accession of James I.(1603) had only about one hundred and fifty thousand inhabitants–the population of England then numbering about five million–it was so full of life and activity that Frederick, Duke of Wurtemberg, who saw it a few years before, in 1592, was impressed with it as a large, excellent, and mighty city of business, crowded with people buying and selling merchandise, and trading in almost every corner of the world, a very populous city, so that one can scarcely pass along the streets on account of the throng; the inhabitants, he says, are magnificently appareled, extremely proud and overbearing, who scoff and laugh at foreigners, and no one dare oppose them lest the street boys and apprentices collect together in immense crowds and strike to right and left unmercifully without regard to persons.
There prevailed an insatiable curiosity for seeing strange sights and hearing strange adventures, with an eager desire for visiting foreign countries, which Shakespeare and all the play-writers satirize. Conversation turned upon the wonderful discoveries of travelers, whose voyages to the New World occupied much of the public attention. The exaggeration which from love of importance inflated the narratives, the poets also take note of. There was also a universal taste for hazard in money as well as in travel, for putting it out on risks at exorbitant interest, and the habit of gaming reached prodigious excess. The passion for sudden wealth was fired by the success of the sea-rovers, news of which inflamed the imagination. Samuel Kiechel, a merchant of Ulm, who was in London in 1585, records that, “news arrived of a Spanish ship captured by Drake, in which it was said there were two millions of uncoined gold and silver in ingots, fifty thousand crowns in coined reals, seven thousand hides, four chests of pearls, each containing two bushels, and some sacks of cochineal–the whole valued at twenty-five barrels of gold; it was said to be one year and a half’s tribute from Peru.”
The passion for travel was at such a height that those who were unable to accomplish distant journeys, but had only crossed over into France and Italy, gave themselves great airs on their return. “Farewell, monsieur traveler,” says Shakespeare; “look, you lisp, and wear strange suits; disable all the benefits of your own country; be out of love with your nativity, and almost chide God for making you that countenance you are, or I will scarce think you have swam in a gondola.” The Londoners dearly loved gossip, and indulged in exaggeration of speech and high-flown compliment. One gallant says to another: “O, signior, the star that governs my life is contentment; give me leave to interre myself in your arms.”–“Not so, sir, it is too unworthy an enclosure to contain such preciousness!”
Dancing was the daily occupation rather than the amusement at court and elsewhere, and the names of dances exceeded the list of the virtues–such as the French brawl, the pavon, the measure, the canary, and many under the general titles of corantees, jigs, galliards, and fancies. At the dinner and ball given by James I. to Juan Fernandez de Velasco, Constable of Castile, in 1604, fifty ladies of honor, very elegantly dressed and extremely beautiful, danced with the noblemen and gentlemen. Prince Henry danced a galliard with a lady, “with much sprightliness and modesty, cutting several capers in the course of the dance”; the Earl of Southampton led out the queen, and with three other couples danced a brando, and so on, the Spanish visitors looking on. When Elizabeth was old and had a wrinkled face and black teeth, she was one day discovered practicing the dance step alone, to the sound of a fiddle, determined to keep up to the last the limberness and agility necessary to impress foreign ambassadors with her grace and youth. There was one custom, however, that may have made dancing a labor of love: it was considered ill manners for the gentleman not to kiss his partner. Indeed, in all households and in all ranks of society the guest was expected to salute thus all the ladies a custom which the grave Erasmus, who was in England in the reign of Henry VIII., found not disagreeable.
Magnificence of display went hand in hand with a taste for cruel and barbarous amusements. At this same dinner to the Constable of Castile, the two buffets of the king and queen in the audience-chamber, where the banquet was held, were loaded with plate of exquisite workmanship, rich vessels of gold, agate, and other precious stones. The constable drank to the king the health of the queen from the lid of a cup of agate of extraordinary beauty and richness, set with diamonds and rubies, praying his majesty would condescend to drink the toast from the cup, which he did accordingly, and then the constable directed that the cup should remain in his majesty’s buffet. The constable also drank to the queen the health of the king from a very beautiful dragon-shaped cup of crystal garnished with gold, drinking from the cover, and the queen, standing up, gave the pledge from the cup itself, and then the constable ordered that the cup should remain in the queen’s buffet.
The banquet lasted three hours, when the cloth was removed, the table was placed upon the ground–that is, removed from the dais–and their majesties, standing upon it, washed their hands in basins, as did the others. After the dinner was the ball, and that ended, they took their places at the windows of a roam that looked out upon a square, where a platform was raised and a vast crowd was assembled to see the king’s bears fight with greyhounds. This afforded great amusement. Presently a bull, tied to the end of a rope, was fiercely baited by dogs. After this tumblers danced upon a rope and performed feats of agility on horseback. The constable and his attendants were lighted home by half an hundred halberdiers with torches, and, after the fatigues of the day, supped in private. We are not surprised to read that on Monday, the 30th, the constable awoke with a slight attack of lumbago.
Like Elizabeth, all her subjects were fond of the savage pastime of bear and bull baiting. It cannot be denied that this people had a taste for blood, took delight in brutal encounters, and drew the sword and swung the cudgel with great promptitude; nor were they fastidious in the matter of public executions. Kiechel says that when the criminal was driven in the cart under the gallows, and left hanging by the neck as the cart moved from under him, his friends and acquaintances pulled at his legs in order that he might be strangled the sooner.
When Shakespeare was managing his theatres and writing his plays London was full of foreigners, settled in the city, who no doubt formed part of his audience, for they thought that English players had attained great perfection. In 1621 there were as many as ten thousand strangers in London, engaged in one hundred and twenty-one different trades. The poet need not go far from Blackfriars to pick up scraps of German and folk-lore, for the Hanse merchants were located in great numbers in the neighborhood of the steel-yard in Lower Thames Street.
Foreigners as well as contemporary chronicles and the printed diatribes against luxury bear witness to the profusion in all ranks of society and the variety and richness in apparel. There was a rage for the display of fine clothes. Elizabeth left hanging in her wardrobe above three thousand dresses when she was called to take that unseemly voyage down the stream, on which the clown’s brogan jostles the queen’s slipper. The plays of Shakespeare, Jonson, Beaumont and Fletcher, and of all the dramatists, are a perfect commentary on the fashions of the day, but a knowledge of the fashions is necessary to a perfect enjoyment of the plays. We see the fine lady in a gown of velvet (the foreigners thought it odd that velvet should be worn in the street), or cloth of gold and silver tissue, her hair eccentrically dressed, and perhaps dyed, a great hat with waving feathers, sometimes a painted face, maybe a mask or a muffler hiding all the features except the eyes, with a muff, silk stockings, high-heeled shoes, imitated from the “chopine” of Venice, perfumed bracelets, necklaces, and gloves–“gloves sweet as damask roses”–a pocket-handkerchief wrought in gold and silver, a small looking-glass pendant at the girdle, and a love-lock hanging wantonly over the shoulder, artificial flowers at the corsage, and a mincing step. “These fashionable women, when they are disappointed, dissolve into tears, weep with one eye, laugh with the other, or, like children, laugh and cry they can both together, and as much pity is to be taken of a woman weeping as of a goose going barefoot,” says old Burton.
The men had even greater fondness for finery. Paul Hentzner, the Brandenburg jurist, in 1598, saw, at the Fair at St. Bartholomew, the lord mayor, attended by twelve gorgeous aldermen, walk in a neighboring field, dressed in a scarlet gown, and about his neck a golden chain, to which hung a Golden Fleece. Men wore the hair long and flowing, with high hats and plumes of feathers, and carried muffs like the women; gallants sported gloves on their hats as tokens of ladies’ favors, jewels and roses in the ears, a long love-lock under the left ear, and gems in a ribbon round the neck. This tall hat was called a “capatain.” Vincentio, in the “Taming of the Shrew,” exclaims: “O fine villain! A silken doublet! A velvet hose! A scarlet cloak! And a capatain hat!” There was no limit to the caprice and extravagance. Hose and breeches of silk, velvet, or other rich stuff, and fringed garters wrought of gold or silver, worth five pounds apiece, are some of the items noted. Burton says, “‘Tis ordinary for a gallant to put a thousand oaks and an hundred oxen into a suit of apparel, to wear a whole manor on his back.” Even serving-men and tailors wore jewels in their shoes.
We should note also the magnificence in the furnishing of houses, the arras, tapestries, cloth of gold and silver, silk hangings of many colors, the splendid plate on the tables and sideboards. Even in the houses of the middle classes the furniture was rich and comfortable, and there was an air of amenity in the chambers and parlors strewn with sweet herbs and daily decked with pretty nosegays and fragrant flowers. Lights were placed on antique candelabra, or, wanting these at suppers, there were living candleholders. “Give me a torch,” says Romeo; “I’ll be a candle-holder, and look on.” Knowledge of the details of luxury of an English home of the sixteenth century will make exceedingly vivid hosts of allusions in Shakespeare.
Servants were numerous in great households, a large retinue being a mark of gentility, and hospitality was unbounded. During the lord mayor’s term in London he kept open house, and every day any stranger or foreigner could dine at his table, if he could find an empty seat. Dinner, served at eleven in the early years of James, attained a degree of epicureanism rivaling dinners of the present day, although the guests ate with their fingers or their knives, forks not coming in till 1611. There was mighty eating and swigging at the banquets, and carousing was carried to an extravagant height, if we may judge by the account of an orgy at the king’s palace in 1606, for the delectation of the King and Queen of Denmark, when the company and even their majesties abandoned discretion and sobriety, and “the ladies are seen to roll about in intoxication.”
The manners of the male population of the period, says Nathan Drake, seem to have been compounded from the characters of the two sovereigns. Like Elizabeth, they are brave, magnanimous, and prudent; and sometimes, like James, they are credulous, curious, and dissipated. The credulity and superstition of the age, and its belief in the supernatural, and the sumptuousness of masques and pageants at the court and in the city, of which we read so much in the old chronicles, are abundantly reflected in the pages of Jonson, Shakespeare, and other writers.
The town was full of public-houses and pleasure-gardens, but, curiously enough, the favorite place of public parading was the middle aisle of St. Paul’s Cathedral–“Paul’s Walk,” as it was called–which was daily frequented by nobles, gentry, perfumed gallants, and ladies, from ten to twelve and three to six o’clock, to talk on business, politics, or pleasure. Hither came, to acquire the fashions, make assignations, arrange for the night’s gaming, or shun the bailiff, the gallant, the gamester, the ladies whose dresses were better than their manners, the stale knight, the captain out of service. Here Falstaff purchased Bardolph. “I bought him,” say’s the knight, “at Paul’s.” The tailors went there to get the fashions of dress, as the gallants did to display them, one suit before dinner and another after. What a study was this varied, mixed, flaunting life, this dance of pleasure and license before the very altar of the church, for the writers of satire, comedy, and tragedy!
But it is not alone town life and court life and the society of the fine folk that is reflected in the English drama and literature of the seventeenth century, and here is another wide difference between it and the French literature of the same period; rural England and the popular life of the country had quite as much to do in giving tone and color to the writings of the time. It is necessary to know rural England to enter into the spirit of this literature, and to appreciate how thoroughly it took hold of life in every phase. Shakespeare knew it well. He drew from life the country gentleman, the squire, the parson, the pedantic schoolmaster who was regarded as half conjurer, the yeoman or farmer, the dairy maids, the sweet English girls, the country louts, shepherds, boors, and fools. How he loved a fool! He had talked with all these persons, and knew their speeches and humors. He had taken part in the country festivals-May Day, Plow Monday, the Sheep Shearing, the Morris Dances and Maud Marian, the Harvest Home and Twelfth Night. The rustic merrymakings, the feasts in great halls, the games on the greensward, the love of wonders and of marvelous tales, the regard for portents, the naive superstitions of the time pass before us in his pages. Drake, in his “Shakespeare and his Times,” gives a graphic and indeed charming picture of the rural life of this century, drawn from Harrison and other sources.
In his spacious hall, floored with stones and lighted by large transom windows, hung with coats of mail and helmets, and all military accoutrements, long a prey to rust, the country squire, seated at a raised table at one end, held a baronial state and dispensed prodigal hospitality. The long table was divided into upper and lower messes by a huge salt-cellar; and the consequence of the guests was marked by their seats above or below the salt. The distinction extended to the fare, for wine frequently circulated only above the salt, and below it the food was of coarser quality. The literature of the time is full of allusions to this distinction. But the luxury of the table and good cooking were well understood in the time of Elizabeth and James. There was massive eating done in those days, when the guests dined at eleven, rose from the banquet to go to evening prayers, and returned to a supper at five or six, which was often as substantial as the dinner. Gervase Markham in his “English Housewife,” after treating of the ordering of great feasts, gives directions for “a more humble feast of an ordinary proportion.” This “humble feast,” he says, should consist for the first course of “sixteen full dishes, that is, dishes of meat that are of substance, and not empty, or for shew–as thus, for example: first, a shield of brawn with mustard; secondly, a boyl’d capon; thirdly, a boyl’d piece of beef; fourthly, a chine of beef rosted; fifthly, a neat’s tongue rosted; sixthly, a pig rosted; seventhly, chewets bak’d; eighthly, a goose rosted; ninthly, a swan rosted; tenthly, a turkey rosted; the eleventh, a haunch of venison rosted; the twelfth, a pasty of venison; the thirteenth, a kid with a pudding in the belly; the fourteenth, an olive-pye; the fifteenth, a couple of capons; the sixteenth, a custard or dowsets. Now to these full dishes may be added sallets, fricases, ‘quelque choses,’ and devised paste; as many dishes more as will make no less than two and thirty dishes, which is as much as can conveniently stand on one table, and in one mess; and after this manner you may proportion both your second and third course, holding fullness on one half the dishes, and shew in the other, which will be both frugal in the splendor, contentment to the guest, and much pleasure and delight to the beholders.” After this frugal repast it needed an interval of prayers before supper.
The country squire was a long-lived but not always an intellectual animal. He kept hawks of all kinds, and all sorts of hounds that ran buck, fox, hare, otter, and badger. His great hall was commonly strewn with marrow-bones, and full of hawks’ perches, of hounds, spaniels, and terriers. His oyster-table stood at one end of the room, and oysters he ate at dinner and supper. At the upper end of the room stood a small table with a double desk, one side of which held a church Bible, the other Fox’s “Book of Martyrs.” He drank a glass or two of wine at his meals, put syrup of gilly-flower in his sack, and always had a tun-glass of small beer standing by him, which he often stirred about with rosemary. After dinner, with a glass of ale by his side he improved his mind by listening to the reading of a choice passage out of the “Book of Martyrs.”
This is a portrait of one Henry Hastings, of Dorsetshire, in Gilpin’s “Forest Scenery.” He lived to be a hundred, and never lost his sight nor used spectacles. He got on horseback without help, and rode to the death of the stag till he was past fourscore.
The plain country fellow, plowman, or clown, is several pegs lower, and described by Bishop Earle as one that manures his ground well, but lets himself lie fallow and untitled. His hand guides the plow, and the plow his thoughts. His mind is not much disturbed by objects, but he can fix a half-hour’s contemplation on a good fat cow. His habitation is under a poor thatched roof, distinguished from his barn only by loop-holes that let out the smoke. Dinner is serious work, for he sweats at it as much as at his labor, and he is a terrible fastener on a piece of beef. His religion is a part of his copyhold, which he takes from his landlord and refers it wholly to his discretion, but he is a good Christian in his way, that is, he comes to church in his best clothes, where he is capable only of two prayers–for rain and fair weather.
The country clergymen, at least those of the lower orders, or readers, were distinguished in Shakespeare’s time by the appellation “Sir,” as Sir Hugh, in the “Merry Wives,” Sir Topas, in “Twelfth Night,” Sir Oliver, in “As You Like It.” The distinction is marked between priesthood and knighthood when Vista says, “I am one that would rather go with Sir Priest than Sir Knight.” The clergy were not models of conduct in the days of Elizabeth, but their position excites little wonder when we read that they were often paid less than the cook and the minstrel.
There was great fondness in cottage and hall for merry tales of errant knights, lovers, lords, ladies, dwarfs, friars, thieves, witches, goblins, for old stories told by the fireside, with a toast of ale on the hearth, as in Milton’s allusion
“—to the nut-brown ale,
With stories told of many a feat”
A designation of winter in “Love’s Labour’s Lost” is
“When roasted crabs hiss in the bowl.”
To “turne a crab” is to roast a wild apple in the fire in order to throw it hissing hot into a bowl of nutbrown ale, into which had been put a toast with some spice and sugar. Puck describes one of his wanton pranks:
“And sometimes I lurk in a gossip’s bowl,
In very likeness of a roasted crab,
And when she drinks against her lips I bob:”
I love no roast, says John Still, in “Gammer Gurton’s Needle,”
“I love no rost, but a nut-browne torte,
And a crab layde in the fyre;
A lytle bread shall do me stead,
Much bread I not desire.”
In the bibulous days of Shakespeare, the peg tankard, a species of wassail or wish-health bowl, was still in use. Introduced to restrain intemperance, it became a cause of it, as every drinker was obliged to drink down to the peg. We get our expression of taking a man “a peg lower,” or taking him “down a peg,” from this custom.
In these details I am not attempting any complete picture of the rural life at this time, but rather indicating by illustrations the sort of study which illuminates its literature. We find, indeed, if we go below the surface of manners, sober, discreet, and sweet domestic life, and an appreciation of the virtues. Of the English housewife, says Gervase Markham, was not only expected sanctity and holiness of life, but “great modesty and temperance, as well outwardly as inwardly. She must be of chaste thoughts, stout courage, patient, untired, watchful, diligent, witty, pleasant, constant in friendship, full of good neighborhood, wise in discourse, but not frequent therein, sharp and quick of speech, but not bitter or talkative, secret in her affairs, comportable in her counsels, and generally skillful in the worthy knowledges which do belong to her vocation.” This was the mistress of the hospitable house of the country knight, whose chief traits were loyalty to church and state, a love of festivity, and an ardent attachment to field sports. His well-educated daughter is charmingly described in an exquisite poem by Drayton:
He had, as antique stories tell,
He had, as antique stories tell,
A daughter cleaped Dawsabel,
A maiden fair and free;
And for she was her father’s heir,
Full well she ycond the leir
Of mickle courtesy.
“The silk well couth she twist and twine,
And make the fine march-pine,
And with the needle work:
And she couth help the priest to say
His matins on a holy day,
And sing a psalm in Kirk.
“She wore a frock of frolic green
Might well become a maiden queen,
Which seemly was to see;
A hood to that so neat and fine,
In color like the columbine,
Ywrought full featously.
“Her features all as fresh above
As is the grass that grows by Dove,
And lythe as lass of Kent.
Her skin as soft as Lemster wool,
As white as snow on Peakish Hull,
Or swan that swims in Trent.
“This maiden in a morn betime
Went forth when May was in the prime
To get sweet setywall,
The honey-suckle, the harlock,
The lily, and the lady-smock,
To deck her summer hall.”
How late such a simple and pretty picture could have been drawn to life is uncertain, but by the middle of the seventeenth century the luxury of the town had penetrated the country, even into Scotland. The dress of a rich farmer’s wife is thus described by Dunbar. She had “a robe of fine scarlet, with a white hood, a gay purse and gingling keys pendant at her side from a silken belt of silver tissue; on each finger she wore two rings, and round her waist was bound a sash of grass-green silk, richly embroidered with silver.”
Shakespeare was the mirror of his time in things small as well as great. How far he drew his characters from personal acquaintances has often been discussed. The clowns, tinkers, shepherds, tapsters, and such folk, he probably knew by name. In the Duke of Manchester’s “Court and Society from Elizabeth to Anne” is a curious suggestion about Hamlet. Reading some letters from Robert, Earl of Essex, to Lady Rich, his sister, the handsome, fascinating, and disreputable Penelope Devereaux, he notes, in their humorous melancholy and discontent with mankind, something in tone and even language which suggests the weak and fantastic side of Hamlet’s mind, and asks if the poet may not have conceived his character of Hamlet from Essex, and of Horatio from Southampton, his friend and patron. And he goes on to note some singular coincidences. Essex was supposed by many to have a good title to the throne. In person he had his father’s beauty and was all that Shakespeare has described the Prince of Denmark. His mother had been tempted from her duty while her noble and generous husband was alive, and this husband was supposed to have been poisoned by her and her paramour. After the father’s murder the seducer had married the guilty mother. The father had not perished without expressing suspicion of foul play against himself, yet sending his forgiveness to his faithless wife. There are many other agreements in the facts of the case and the incidents of the play. The relation of Claudius to Hamlet is the same as that of Leicester to Essex: under pretense of fatherly friendship he was suspicious of his motives, jealous of his actions; kept him much in the country and at college; let him see little of his mother, and clouded his prospects in the world by an appearance of benignant favor. Gertrude’s relations with her son Hamlet were much like those of Lettice with Robert Devereaux. Again, it is suggested, in his moodiness, in his college learning, in his love for the theatre and the players, in his desire for the fiery action for which his nature was most unfit, there are many kinds of hints calling up an image of the Danish Prince.
This suggestion is interesting in the view that we find in the characters of the Elizabethan drama not types and qualities, but individuals strongly projected, with all their idiosyncrasies and contradictions. These dramas touch our sympathies at all points, and are representative of human life today, because they reflected the human life of their time. This is supremely true of Shakespeare, and almost equally true of Jonson and many of the other stars of that marvelous epoch. In England as well as in France, as we have said, it was the period of the classic revival; but in England the energetic reality of the time was strong enough to break the classic fetters, and to use classic learning for modern purposes. The English dramatists, like the French, used classic histories and characters. But two things are to be noted in their use of them. First, that the characters and the play of mind and passion in them are thoroughly English and of the modern time. And second, and this seems at first a paradox, they are truer to the classic spirit than the characters in the contemporary French drama. This results from the fact that they are truer to the substance of things, to universal human nature, while the French seem to be in great part an imitation, having root neither in the soil of France nor Attica. M. Guizot confesses that France, in order to adopt the ancient models, was compelled to limit its field in some sort to one corner of human existence. He goes on to say that the present “demands of the drama pleasures and emotions that can no longer be supplied by the inanimate representation of a world that has ceased to exist. The classic system had its origin in the life of the time; that time has passed away; its image subsists in brilliant colors in its works, but can no more be reproduced.” Our own literary monuments must rest on other ground. “This ground is not the ground of Corneille or Racine, nor is it that of Shakespeare; it is our own; but Shakespeare’s system, as it appears to me, may furnish the plans according to which genius ought now to work. This system alone includes all those social conditions and those general and diverse feelings, the simultaneous conjuncture and activity of which constitute for us at the present day the spectacle of human things.”
That is certainly all that any one can claim for Shakespeare and his fellow-dramatists. They cannot be models in form any more than Sophocles and Euripides; but they are to be followed in making the drama, or any literature, expressive of its own time, while it is faithful to the emotions and feeling of universal human nature. And herein, it seems to me, lies the broad distinction between most of the English and French literature of the latter part of the sixteenth and the beginning of the seventeenth centuries. Perhaps I may be indulged in another observation on this topic, touching a later time. Notwithstanding the prevalent notion that the French poets are the sympathetic heirs of classic culture, it appears to me that they are not so imbued with the true classic spirit, art, and mythology as some of our English poets, notably Keats and Shelley.
Ben Jonson was a man of extensive and exact classical erudition; he was a solid scholar in the Greek and Roman literatures, in the works of the philosophers, poets, and historians. He was also a man of uncommon attainments in all the literary knowledge of his time. In some of his tragedies his classic learning was thought to be ostentatiously displayed, but this was not true of his comedy, and on the whole he was too strong to be swamped in pseudo-classicism. For his experience of men and of life was deep and varied. Before he became a public actor and dramatist, and served the court and fashionable society with his entertaining, if pedantic, masques, he had been student, tradesman, and soldier; he had traveled in Flanders and seen Paris, and wandered on foot through the length of England. London he knew as well as a man knows his own house and club, the comforts of its taverns, the revels of lords and ladies, the sports of Bartholomew Fair, and the humors of suburban villages; all the phases, language, crafts, professions of high and low city life were familiar to him. And in his comedies, as Mr. A. W. Ward pertinently says, his marvelously vivid reproduction of manners is unsurpassed by any of his contemporaries. “The age lives in his men and women, his country gulls and town gulls, his imposters and skeldering captains, his court ladies and would-be court ladies, his puling poetasters and whining Puritans, and, above all, in the whole ragamuffin rout of his Bartholomew Fair. Its pastimes, fashionable and unfashionable, its games and vapors and jeering, its high-polite courtships and its pulpit-shows, its degrading superstitions and confounding hallucinations, its clubs of naughty ladies and its offices of lying news, its taverns and its tobacco shops, its giddy heights and its meanest depths–all are brought before us by our author.”
No, he was not swamped by classicism, but he was affected by it, and just here, and in that self-consciousness which Shakespeare was free from, and which may have been more or less the result of his classic erudition, he fails of being one of the universal poets of mankind. The genius of Shakespeare lay in his power to so use the real and individual facts of life as to raise in the minds of his readers a broader and nobler conception of human life than they had conceived before. This is creative genius; this is the idealist dealing faithfully with realistic material; this is, as we should say in our day, the work of the artist as distinguished from the work of the photographer. It may be an admirable but it is not the highest work of the sculptor, the painter, or the writer, that does not reveal to the mind–that comes into relation with it something before out of his experience and beyond the facts either brought before him or with which he is acquainted.
What influence Shakespeare had upon the culture and taste of his own time and upon his immediate audience would be a most interesting inquiry. We know what his audiences were. He wrote for the people, and the theatre in his day was a popular amusement for the multitude, probably more than it was a recreation for those who enjoyed the culture of letters. A taste for letters was prevalent among the upper class, and indeed was fashionable among both ladies and gentlemen of rank. In this the court of Elizabeth set the fashion. The daughter of the duchess was taught not only to distill strong waters, but to construe Greek. When the queen was translating Socrates or Seneca, the maids of honor found it convenient to affect at least a taste for the classics. For the nobleman and the courtier an intimacy with Greek, Latin, and Italian was essential to “good form.” But the taste for erudition was mainly confined to the metropolis or the families who frequented it, and to persons of rank, and did not pervade the country or the middle classes. A few of the country gentry had some pretension to learning, but the majority cared little except for hawks and hounds, gaming and drinking; and if they read it was some old chronicle, or story of knightly adventure, “Amadis de Gaul,” or a stray playbook, or something like the “History of Long Meg of Westminster,” or perhaps a sheet of news. To read and write were still rare accomplishments in the country, and Dogberry expressed a common notion when he said reading and writing come by nature. Sheets of news had become common in the town in James’s time, the first newspaper being the English Mercury, which appeared in April, 1588, and furnished food for Jonson’s satire in his “Staple of News.” His accusation has a familiar sound when he says that people had a “hunger and thirst after published pamphlets of news, set out every Saturday, but made all at home, and no syllable of truth in them.”
Though Elizabeth and James were warm patrons of the theatre, the court had no such influence over the plays and players as had the court in Paris at the same period. The theatres were built for the people, and the audiences included all classes. There was a distinction between what were called public and private theatres, but the public frequented both. The Shakespeare theatres, at which his plays were exclusively performed, were the Globe, called public, on the Bankside, and the Blackfriars, called private, on the City side, the one for summer, the other for winter performances. The Blackfriars was smaller than the Globe, was roofed over, and needed to be lighted with candles, and was frequented more by the better class than the more popular Globe. There is no evidence that Elizabeth ever attended the public theatres, but the companies were often summoned to play before her in Whitehall, where the appointments and scenery were much better than in the popular houses.
The price of general admission to the Globe and Blackfriars was sixpence, at the Fashion Theatre twopence, and at some of the inferior theatres one penny. The boxes at the Globe were a shilling, at the Blackfriars one-and-six. The usual net receipts of a performance were from nine to ten pounds, and this was about the sum that Elizabeth paid to companies for a performance at Whitehall, which was always in the evening and did not interfere with regular hours. The theatres opened as early as one o’clock and not later than three in the afternoon. The crowds that filled the pit and galleries early, to secure places, amused themselves variously before the performance began: they drank ale, smoked, fought for apples, cracked nuts, chaffed the boxes, and a few read the cheap publications of the day that were hawked in the theatre. It was a rough and unsavory audience in pit and gallery, but it was a responsive one, and it enjoyed the acting with little help to illusion in the way of scenery. In fact, scenery did not exist, as we understand it. A board inscribed with the name of the country or city indicated the scene of action. Occasionally movable painted scenes were introduced. The interior roof of the stage was painted sky-blue, or hung with drapery of that tint, to represent the heavens. But when the idea of a dark, starless night was to be imposed, or tragedy was to be acted, these heavens were hung with black stuffs, a custom illustrated in many allusions in Shakespeare, like that in the line,
“Hung be the heavens in black, yield day to night”
To hang the stage with black was to prepare it for tragedy. The costumes of the players were sometimes less niggardly than the furnishing of the stage, for it was an age of rich and picturesque apparel, and it was not difficult to procure the cast-off clothes of fine gentlemen for stage use. But there was no lavishing of expense. I am recalling these details to show that the amusement was popular and cheap. The ordinary actors, including the boys and men who took women’s parts (for women did not appear on the stage till after the Restoration) received only about five or six shillings a week (for Sundays and all), and the first-class actor, who had a share in the net receipts, would not make more than ninety pounds a year. The ordinary price paid for a new play was less than seven pounds; Oldys, on what authority is not known, says that Shakespeare received only five pounds for “Hamlet.”
The influence of the theatre upon politics, contemporary questions that interested the public, and morals, was early recognized in the restraints put upon representations by the censorship, and in the floods of attacks upon its licentious and demoralizing character. The plays of Shakespeare did not escape the most bitter animadversions of the moral reformers. We have seen how Shakespeare mirrored his age, but we have less means of ascertaining what effect he produced upon the life of his time. Until after his death his influence was mainly direct, upon the play-goers, and confined to his auditors. He had been dead seven years before his plays were collected. However the people of his day regarded him, it is safe to say that they could not have had any conception of the importance of the work he was doing. They were doubtless satisfied with him. It was a great age for romances and story-telling, and he told stories, old in new dresses, but he was also careful to use contemporary life, which his hearers understood.
It is not to his own age, but to those following, and especially to our own time, that we are to look for the shaping and enormous influence upon human life of the genius of this poet. And it is measured not by the libraries of comments that his works have called forth, but by the prevalence of the language and thought of his poetry in all subsequent literature, and by its entrance into the current of common thought and speech. It may be safely said that the English-speaking world and almost every individual of it are different from what they would have been if Shakespeare had never lived. Of all the forces that have survived out of his creative time, he is one of the chief.