The Elizabethan People/Chapter 1
THE ELIZABETHAN PEOPLE
THE ELIZABETHAN CHARACTER
THE result of the prolonged and often superficial consideration of Shakespeare's plays during the nineteenth century has resulted in an idealisation of that dramatist which places him in an incorrect relation to his time and to all other literary artists. To assume, as some recent critics have done, that we appreciate Shakespeare truly only when we are able to prove that every detail of his work is perfectly planned and executed is equivalent to a denial of the fact that, during twenty years of writing, Shakespeare made any progress towards perfection in his art. To assert that an early play of Shakespeare's is as excellent as a later is to assume that he began his literary career a finished artist, unhumanly god-like in his perfection—a man who does, not having learned. Yet Shakespeare is of supreme value to us to-day mainly because he is so human, human in his feelings, and human in his faults. To me, one of the most delightful elements of the contemplation of Shakespeare is the recognition of that steady progress which is the result of a persistent profiting by each mistake till he attained the splendid degree of skill which enabled him to produce the series of great tragedies. Is it not time, then, to accept Shakespeare as a man? to look upon him in the rational way in which we look upon Thackeray or Browning, as men who produced some works better than others,—above all, as great men, the value of whose great work is not marred by the fact that at times their writing is not to be judged by their own high standard?
One of my own critics once asked me why I directed so much attention to matters connected but indirectly with the text of Shakespeare's plays. It was fortunate, as suggestive of an answer, that we had attended the evening before a class-day exercise at a college where my questioner was a stranger. By way of reply I asked him why every one in the hall except himself had been immensely amused by the local allusions. Of course he excused himself on the score of unfamiliarity rather than as lacking a sense of humour. It is my belief that conditions of life have so changed in three centuries, that, unless one can in some way get into the Elizabethan state of mind, view a play, so to speak, from the Elizabethan point of view, many parts of Shakespeare's dramas will be unappreciated to the same extent as were the class-day allusions by my friend.
Not only may portions fail to be understood, but also many may be understood awry. In an open discussion that followed the reading of a paper on the teaching of Shakespeare's plays, I was once attacked by an elderly lady who informed me and my hearers that she was old enough to be my mother. It soon transpired that my crime consisted of attributing to the bold, designing, unbashful Juliet a degree of delicacy and refinement that was prejudicial to the tender morality of the pupils in my care—and all this because Juliet had kissed Romeo on the first night of their acquaintance. I must, however, do my critic justice by saying that her point of view changed when I told her that kissing, under the circumstances, was a common mode of salutation. She was ill-informed, but she was liberal-minded. "I have maligned Juliet's character for thirty years," she said, "but I shall do so no longer."
Amusing as the incident has always seemed, I, nevertheless, took it seriously. If ignorance of a small detail of social usage could result in blackening the character of one of the loveliest heroines in literature, is it not fair to suppose that numerous other and similar errors could be, nay, are, made daily by critics more familiar with the text of Shakespeare than with the conditions under which those texts were written.
Shakespeare was wholly a man of the hour. Artist though he was, he never lost sight of the fact that the productions of his art were to appeal to his own people. I can hardly fancy that he thought much of posterity; but, if he did, I cannot believe that he ever catered to the understanding of later generations at the expense of his own. Doubtless, had Shakespeare lived to-day, he would have omitted the closing lines of Hamlet. But I fancy that the people who first saw that play upon the boards considered the entrance of Fortinbras and his followers not as an anti-climax but as a most ingenious device for gracefully ridding the stage of the dead bodies preparatory to the coming jig.
In the following pages I have continued an attempt, already begun, to lay before the modern reader a wide view, not too much hampered by encyclopædic detail, of how the Elizabethans lived and what they thought about things in general, hoping that this knowledge will help to set the scenes of Shakespeare and his fellow playwrights before the modern audience in a more consistent and rational simplicity.
It may be true that human nature changes but little in its fundamental characteristics from generation to generation, from century to century; yet it cannot be denied that certain changes do take place, and, whether or not they be considered fundamental or superficial, a knowledge of them materially influences our conception of a piece of literature. We should certainly consider rag-time interludes between the acts of Hamlet as, to say the least, a manifestation of bad taste; yet the buffoon scenes of the miracle plays, the admixture of serious and comic incidents in the Elizabethan drama, the jig with which a tragedy was neatly finished off, were quite in accordance with the spirit of the age. To criticise, with our own as a standard, and to conclude that such an element of an early play is in bad taste is to mistake the situation. Unity, the violation of which is one of the first points of modern attack, was, in Elizabethan times, an unknown quality, or, at least, an unnecessary if not an embarrassing one. It is easy to comprehend the reason for this state of affairs. The Elizabethans, as a nation, though brilliantly intellectual, were in many respects immature,—as if the characteristics of childhood were set in a body of manhood. Their delight in rapid changes of scene, in rapidly succeeding varied emotional sensations, above all, in their dislike of long and continuous mental strain—these are qualities peculiar to them as a nation. It was sympathy with rather than an intentional attempt to cater to this quality that produced in the individual play (the form of literature most directly addressed to the people at large) a variety of motive and emotion so different from our present conception of unity.
If one attempts to characterise the present nations of the earth, one instinctively thinks of those qualities generally shared by most of the individuals and that mark them as different from the individuals of other nations. In the present chapter there is no attempt to describe those qualities that are to be found practically unchanged in other periods of English development; rather to describe characteristics that were shared by the majority of the nation then, and not, or, at least, not so significantly, at other periods of national life. I find thus three peculiarly national characteristics: 1, Credulity; 2, Savagery; 3, Imitation.
Since the first step taken by Henry VIII. in the religious reform of the English ecclesiastical system, change had followed change with kaleidoscopic contrast. The result of the divorce of Katharine, of the destruction of the monasteries, of the new role played by "The Defender of the Faith" was, perhaps, secondarily religious, primarily political. The most far-reaching effect upon the people of these changes is to be found in the lesson it taught them regarding the extent of their own strength. Not only was the incubus of mediæval monasticism removed; it was removed in such a way that England realised herself sufficient to cope, strength against strength, with the mighty power of the Papacy. This was a great and a new idea.
The lesson taught by Henry VIII. was retaught on a far grander scale when all the influence of Rome and all the power of Spain combined in the "Invincible Armada." William the First conquered England. He superimposed upon the soil a new nation and a new language. By the time of Chaucer, however, England had swallowed up the invader and his language. England had emerged from the gloom of the long contest triumphant. May we not safely fancy a similar result had Philip II. triumphed over Howard and Drake? Again, the victory of 1588 is important politically only in the second degree. Its lasting effect is recognised to-day in the fact that by making continental travel safe, tourists were enabled to bring home precious manuscripts and a knowledge of older and more perfect learning that, when published and conned, directly gave birth to Shakespeare and his fellows.
England had learned her own strength. She was becoming master of the ancient learning with its variety of ideas. The defeat of Spain gave her time to reflect, to study, to produce. The whole intellectual horizon was crowded with the fleeing clouds of mediæval ignorance. The earth had become round. Its face was daily growing more familiar. A new map was published with "the augmentation of the Indes." Blood had begun to circulate in the veins of Harvey. All these new ideas were tending to increase the extent of the plain bounded by the mental horizon to a degree unheard of before, and with astounding rapidity.
Equally rapid and dazzling was the accession of new literature daily fed to the people. Homer appeared as a new book in English. The publication of Holinshed, together with numerous historical poems and plays nourished the growing patriotism. Epic and lyric poetry delighted mankind. Novels appeared in great numbers. Every tavern group was entertained by marvellous tales of oysters that grew upon trees, of manlike monsters, and so forth,—tales brought home by the man before the mast in the ships of Frobisher and Hawkins.
Trade, both export and import, had outgrown the fondest fancy of a generation before. The lost art of gardening had been rediscovered. Fruits and rare vegetables were being introduced from all parts of the world. New drinks, new foods, new table manners, as well as improvements in house-building and domestic conditions were imported and developed with a rapidity suggestive of the recent development of electricity.
This much has been said in order to suggest the multiplicity of new ideas thronging upon the people. Not in one but in every direction were people daily astonished by something new. Nothing was too unthought of to appear, nothing too impossible to be believed. It was this condition of affairs that gave rise to the national credulity. One needed but an imagination and an audience to obtain followers of the most intangible will-o'-the-wisps. A gull gives his name to the earliest of our Elizabethan comedies, and he remains a stock character, significant of the times, till the end of the period. A book was written for his instruction by Dekker, and Iago wound him about his finger at the suggestion of Shakespeare.
This credulity manifests itself again in the national attitude toward superstition, to be dealt with more at length in later pages. No country-fair or horse-fair is to-day a more profitable field for the operation of quacks and fakirs than were the streets of London from January to December. Let me once again suggest the danger of inferring that an Elizabethan writer lacks skill and accuracy in the drawing of character because he makes an intelligent man subject to a foolish credulity. Or, may we not more profitably say, that credulity was not then so foolish as it is to-day?
"The nature of an Englishman," says Sir Thomas Smith in 1621, "is to neglect death, to abide no torment; and therefore he will confess rather to have done anything, yea, to have killed his own father, than to suffer torment; for death, our nation is free, stout, haughty, prodigal of life no place shall you see malefactors go more constantly, more assuredly, and with less lamentation to their death than in England. The nature of our nation is free, stout, haughty, prodigal of life and blood; but contumely, beating, servitude, and servile treatment, and punishment it will not abide. So in this nature and fashion, our ancient princes and legislators have nourished them, as to make them stout hearted, courageous, and soldiers, not villains and slaves." (P.97, ed. 1621.)
"The nature of Englishmen is to neglect death." That is Sir Thomas's way of expressing disregard of life. To one of us, who may live a lifetime without seeing a man die a violent death, nothing is so difficult to comprehend as the Elizabethan callousness to bloodshed. Life with them was a rough, rude game of broil and turmoil. Every man wore commonly a sword by his side in public. When justice failed the individual did not scruple to take the law into his own hands. Here are a few illustrations taken from the old records, illustrations that show how quick every one was to shed blood upon small provocation.
"In, a man, attacked by another with a stick, drew his knife upon him and stabbed him."
"In Sussex, a man was pursued by his enemy with a bill till stopped by a garden wall, hereupon he turned and stabbed him with a dagger."
"In Cornwall one, armed only with a knife, slew his pursuer, armed with a sword, for want of breath to run any farther."
"And in London itself, in Fleet street, a citizen who was at feud with a neighbour, waited about his door, armed with a sword and buckler. When his enemy at length emerged (by a happy chance similarly armed) he found himself violently attacked; and, being impeded in his retreat by a crowd, faced his enemy and slew him in self-defence."
No man went abroad without arms; if it was after nightfall, he was accompanied by servants with arms and torches if he could afford a retinue; if not, he stayed at home, or walked quickly with his sword drawn. This fair fighting, however, this killing your man in self-defence, was not the only sign of the savagery of the time.
"A girl named Miriam, in Northamptonshire," an old record tells us, "maid-servant to a farmer, was leading a pair of horses with a harrow, walking in front of them. Her master, who was ploughing in the next field, observing that the harrow progressed slowly, stole behind the horses and suddenly belaboured them; with the result that the horses and the machine passed over the body of the unfortunate girl, inflicting a horrible death. The provocation pleaded was the lazyness of the girl, a plea that was held sufficient." (Quoted from Hubert Hall.)
It was the English archer with his cloth-yard shaft that contributed most largely to the renown of the mediæval armies of England. By the time of Elizabeth, however, archery had degenerated into a mere sport or pastime. The state passed various laws whose intent was to encourage yeomen to use the bow with their old-time skill and energy. Among these laws we find the following:
"In case any person should be wounded, or slain in these sports, with an arrow shot by one or other of the archers, he that shot the arrow shall not be sued or molested, if he had, immediately before the discharge of the weapon, cried out 'fast,' the signal usually given upon such occasions." (Stow, Strype's ed., vi. p. 250.)
For further illustrations turn to Romeo and Juliet. The opening situation, which contains the rallying cry of the London 'prentices, "Clubs, clubs!" describes such a scene as every auditor in the Globe play-house had often witnessed in the streets of London. When we come to the brawl that culminates in the death of Mercutio and Tybalt, we may pause to reflect that in such a brawl died Shakespeare's only rival for dramatic fame, Christopher Marlowe.
There are two other manifestations of this spirit of the age that are particularly illustrative. One is the severity of the laws, and the cruelty of the punishment inflicted; the other concerns certain sports and pastimes.
"The greatest and most grievous punishment used in England" writes Harrison in 1587, "for such as offend against the state, is drawing from the prison to the place of execution upon an hurdle or sled, where they are hanged till they be half dead, and then taken down, and quartered alive; after that, their members and bowels are cut from their bodies, and thrown into a fire provided near at hand and within their own sight, even for the same purpose."
In spite of Smith's testimony thirty years later, this is evidence of very brutal torment; but it must be remembered that this punishment was inflicted for treason, and for the very reason that it was repugnant to the national spirit. There were, however, other cruel punishments. If the man was guilty of murder, his right hand was cut off near where the murder was committed, after which he was dragged to the place of execution where he was allowed to hang quietly till he was dead. The common punishment for many petty violations of law was hanging. Below is a partial list of crimes so punished.
Escape from prison—hunting by night with painted faces and visors—embezzling of goods over and above forty shillings—carrying of horses and mares into Scotland—conjuring—witchcraft—digging up of crosses (i.e. stones that marked the boundary of real estate)—departure of a soldier from the field—mutilation of coins—articles taken from dead men by their servants—stealing of cattle—letting out of ponds—housebreaking—picking pockets—counterfeiting coins, etc., etc.
Pirates, and those who had committed robbery aboard ship at sea, were hanged by the water's edge at low tide and left there till three tides had washed over them. The site of Hermitage dock east of the Tower of London, was, in all probability, the place where pirates were frequently so executed. There was an element of poetic justice in such a penalty, which shows itself again in the Halifax punishment, thus described by Harrison.
"Witches are hanged or sometimes burned; but thieves are hanged generally on the gibbet or gallows, saving at Halifax where they are beheaded after a strange manner, and whereof I find this report. There is and has been of ancient time a law or rather, a custom at Halifax, that whosoever does commit any felony, and is taken with the same, or confesses the fact upon examination, if it be valued by four constables to amount to the sum of thirteen pence halfpenny, he is forthwith beheaded upon one of the next market-days (which fall usually upon Tuesdays, Thursdays, and Saturdays), or else upon the same day that he is so convicted, if market be then holden. The engine wherewith the execution be done is a square block of wood of the length of four feet and a half, which does ride up and down in a slot … between two pieces of timber, that are framed and set upright, of five yards in height. In the nether end of the sliding block is an axe, keyed or fastened with an iron into the wood, which being drawn up to the top of the frame is there fastened by a wooden pin (with a notch made into the same, after the manner of a Sampson's post) unto the midst of which pin also there is a long rope fastened that cometh down among the people, so that, when the offender hath made his confession and hath laid his neck over the nethermost block, every man there present doth either take hold of the rope (or putteth forth his arm so near to the same as he can get, in token that he is willing to see true justice executed), and, pulling out the pin in this manner, the head-block wherein the axe is fastened doth fall with such a violence that, if the neck of the transgressor were as big as that of a bull, it should be cut asunder at a stroke and roll from the body by a huge distance. If it be so that the offender be apprehended for an ox, oxen, sheep, kine, horse, or any such cattle, the self beast, or other of the same kind shall have the end of the rope tied somewhere unto them, so that they, being driven, do draw out the pin, whereby the offender is executed. Thus much of Halifax law, which I set down only to show the custom of that country in this behalf." (P. 243.)
Felons who, when apprehended, refused to speak at their arraignment were pressed to death. A sharp stone was placed under the back, and heavy weights placed upon the breast, one after another till the victim was dead. If one man poisoned another, he was boiled to death in brine or lead; but if a woman poisoned her husband she was burned alive. Heretics were also burned at the stake." Finally, such as having walls or banks near the sea, and do suffer the same to decay (after convenient admonition), whereby the water entereth and drowneth up the country, are, by a certain ancient custom, apprehended, condemned, and staked in the breech, where they remain forever as parcel of the foundation of the new wall that is to be made upon them." (Harrison, p. 245.)
Thus, though there was no torture in the characteristic sense of the word, crimes, great and small alike, were requited by death, inflicted in the most brutal manner. There were, however, lighter punishments quite as savage. Rogues and vagabonds often lost one or both of their ears; the letter P was burnt into the forehead of perjurers, who also had to stand in the pillory. The pillory and stocks were to be found in every village throughout the kingdom, and were frequently used on market days as punishment for disorderly conduct. Kent was put in the stocks for beating Osric; had he done so in Stratford-on-Avon in Shakespeare's time he would have met with the same punishment. The "cucking" stool was equally a part of the equipment of every village and town. Scolding women were always ducked in order to sweeten their tempers.
Whipping was one of the commonest punishments and carried to a cruel extreme. Every town and hamlet was provided with a whipping post; frequently the criminal was tied to the tail of a cart and lashed while it drove slowly through the town. This was the common punishment for vagrancy, and was often continued till the victim could stand up no longer.
"The 18th of December (1656) J. Naylor suffered part: and after having stood full two hours with his head in the pillory, was stripped and whipped at a cart's tail, from Palace Yard to the Old Exchange, and received 310 stripes; and the executioner would have given him one more (as he confessed to the sheriff) there being 311 kennels, but his foot slipping, the stroke fell upon his own hand, which hurt him much." (Sewell's History of the Quakers.)
It was considered proper for a man to flog a grown daughter; and youths in the university were often whipped by their tutors. " You'll ne'er lin [cease]," says Mudlin, "till I make your tutor whip you; you know how I served you once at the free-school in Paul's Churchyard" (A Chaste Maid in Cheapside, III. ii. 151.) Chamberlain, in a letter to Carleton (Feb. 12, 1612), writes:—"I know not whether you have heard … that a son of the Bishop of Bristol, his eldest, of nineteen or twenty, killed himself with a knife to avoid the disgrace of breeching, which his mother or mother-in-law (I know not whether) would need have put him to, for losing his money at tennis."
To learn the manners of the Elizabethans one must read the contemporary plays. Nothing more clearly indicates the cruel temper of the people than the incidents they tolerated in these plays. Hired murderers are common adjuncts, not alone in plays of an early setting, but in such a play of contemporary crime as Arden of Feversham, where the murderers wrangle over the amount paid, which is specified in definite terms. Titus Andronicus affords a beastly illustration of brutality. Lear's eyes are gouged out in the presence of the audience. Piero's tongue is plucked out in Antonio and Mellida. (Part 2, act V. sc. ii.) Charles is hired to kill Orlando in the daintiest of comedies; and few Elizabethans could have felt that the mad-house treatment of Malvolio was even a serious joke.
This callousness to what we should call the finer sensibilities was manifested also in the popular sports. One such pastime was bear-baiting. So popular, in fact, was this sport, that one of the objections urged begun to wane. Hentzner, who visited England in 1598, thus describes the sport.the growing vogue of the theatre was that the new sport drew the crowd away from the exhibitions at the bear-garden—the first sign that the attractiveness of baiting had
"There is a place built in the form of a theatre, which serves for baiting of bulls and bears; they are fastened behind, and then worried by great English bull-dogs; but not without risque to the dogs from the horns of the one and the teeth of the other; and it sometimes happens they are killed on the spot; fresh ones are immediately supplied in the places of those that are wounded or tired. To this entertainment there often follows that of whipping a blinded bear, which is performed by five or six men standing circularly with whips, which they exercise upon him without any mercy, as he cannot escape because of his chains; he defends himself with all his force and skill, throwing down all that come within his reach, and are not active enough to get out of it, and tearing the whips out of their hands and breaking them."
One can imagine the circular enclosure, the rough board seats, the intent and breathless crowd. Perhaps we condemn all this as wanton brutality; but the Elizabethans enjoyed the sport and appreciated its finer parts. Here is another description, written in 1575. "It was a sport very pleasant to see the bear, with his pink eyes leering after his enemies, approach; the nimbleness and wait of the dog to take his advantage; and the force and experience of the bear again to avoid his assaults if he were bitten in one place, how he would pinch in another to get free; that if he were taken once, then by what shift with biting, with clawing, with roaring, with tossing, and trembling, he would work and wind himself from them; and, when he was loose, to shake his ears twice or thrice with the blood and slaver hanging about his physiognomy."
A few additional details of the sport are given in the following contemporary description of a bull-baiting. "They tie a rope to the foot of the ox or bull, and fasten the other end of the cord to an iron ring fixed in a stake, driven into the ground; so that this cord, being 15 foot long, the bull is confined to a sphere about thirty foot diameter. Several butchers or other gentlemen who are desirous to exercise their dogs, stand round about, each holding his own by the ears; and when the sport begins, they let loose one of the dogs; the dog runs at the bull; the bull immovable looks down upon the dog with an eye of scorn, and only turns a horn to him to hinder him from coming near; the dog is not daunted at this, he runs round him and tries to get beneath his belly, in order to seize him by the muzzle, the dewlap, or the pendant glands. The bull then puts himself into a posture of defence; he beats the ground with his feet, which he joins together as closely as possible, and his chief aim is not to gore the dog with the point of his horn, but to slide one of them under the dog's belly (who creeps close to the to hinder it) and to throw him so high in the air that he may break his neck in the fall. This often happens. When the dog thinks he is sure of fixing his teeth, a turn of the horn, which seems to be done with all the negligence in the world, gives him a sprawl thirty foot high and puts him in danger of a damnable squetch when he comes down. This danger would be unavoidable if the dog's friends were not ready beneath him, some with their backs to give him a soft reception, and others with long poles which they offer him slantways, to the intent that sliding down them, it may break the force of the fall. Notwithstanding all this care, a toss generally makes him sing to a very scurvy tune and draw his phis into a very pitiful grimace. But, unless he is totally stunned with the fall, he is sure to crawl again towards the bull, with his old antipathy, come on't what will. Sometimes a second frisk into the air disables him forever from playing his old tricks. But sometimes, too, he fastens upon his old enemy, and when he has seized him with his teeth, he sticks to him like a leech, and will sooner die than leave his hold. Then the bull bellows and bounds and kicks about to shake off the dog; by his leaping the dog seems to be of no manner of weight to him, though in all appearance he puts him to great pain. In the end either the dog tears out the piece he has laid hold on, and falls, or else remains fixed to him, with an obstinacy that would never end, if they did not pull him off. To call him away would be in vain; to give him a hundred blows would be as much so; you might cut him in pieces joint by joint before he would let loose. What is to be done then? While some hold the bull, others thrust staves into the dog's mouth, and open it by main force. This is the only way to part them." (Quoted in Ashton's Fleet.)
"Anno 1604, June 3. King James taking with him the Duke of Lenox (with divers Earls and Lords) went to see the lions at the Tower. And here he caused two of them, a He lion and a She, to be put forth. And then a live Cock was cast to them: which being their natural enemy they presently killed it, and sucked the blood. Then the King caused a live Lamb to be put to them; which the Lions out of their Generosity (as having respect to its Innocency) never offered to touch, altho' the Lamb was so bold as to go close to them. Then the King caused the Lions to be taken away, and another Lion to be put forth, and two Mastiffs to be turned to him. The Mastiffs presently flew upon the Lion, and turned him upon his Back; and tho' the Lion was superior to them in Strength, yet it seems they were his match in Courage.
"There was a Spanish Dog, for some Offence or other, cast into the Lion's Den. But the Lion did not attempt to hurt him. And this Dog continued in the Den with the Lion several Years, and there died.
"This story may be subjoined. In the month of June, 1609, a Resolution was taken to make Trial of The Valour of the Lion; Which should be by turning him loose to a Bear. Which Bear had killed a Child; for which it was thought convenient he should suffer death. The Bear was brought, and turned loose in an open Yard: Then a Lion was turned out of his Den to him; but he would not assault him, but fled from him. And so was it done with other Lions, one after another; and lastly, Two together were turned to him. But none set upon him, but rather sought to return to their Dens. A stone Horse was soon after put into the Yard with the first Lion and the Bear. The Horse fell to grazing between them, after he had gazed a little upon them. Two Mastiff Dogs were let in, who boldly fought with the Lion. Afterwards Six Dogs more were let in; who flew upon the Horse, most in sight at their first entrance; and would soon have worried him to death had not Three stout Bearwards entered in and rescued the Horse, and brought away the Dogs, while the Lion and Bear stood staring upon them. At this sight were present, King James, the Queen and Prince, and divers great Lords. But tho' the Bear had so escaped this Bout, the King gave command he should be baited to Death with Dogs upon a Stage; and so he was." (Bk. 1, p. 118.)
Badgers were also baited. Cock-fighting was common, a sport to which Ascham was much addicted. A favourite boy's sport was cock-throwing. This consisted of tying a cock to a stake and throwing small billets of wood at him till he was dead. If, perchance, his legs were broken before he was killed, his body was propped up with sticks so as to prolong the amusement. A cock was often suspended over the middle of a street in an earthen vessel with open ends, and thrown at till he was killed.
Do not fancy that these are isolated instances of sports practised as rarely as cricket in this country. We read of travellers who, when they struck bargains with the post-riders who conducted them about the country, inserted a clause in the contract that enabled them to stop over in any place where there was going to be a cockfight. Every town of any pretension possessed its bear and bearward. The occasion of an entertainment of this sort was made the subject of elaborate advertisement. When a bear-baiting was to take place, the same was publicly made known, and the bearward previously paraded the streets with his bear, to excite the curiosity of the populace, and induce them to become spectators of the sport. The animal on these occasions was usually preceded by a minstrel or two, and carried a monkey or baboon upon his back.
Another game for children was to balance one piece of wood upon another like a sea-saw. A toad was placed upon one end, the other struck sharply with a stick. Then the children ran and struggled to catch the toad as it came down, often killing it in their eagerness. In the matter of practical jokes, the Elizabethans went far beyond the limits of our time. Dun is in the Mire, a game referred to in Romeo and Juliet, provoked no end of fun. Dun was a heavy log. One player tried to lug it away, but, finding himself unable to do so, he called another to his assistance. When the latter came up the former dropped the log on his companion's toes—if he could do so, for that was the game. Good, old-fashioned quarterstick was nothing more nor less than fighting with staves till blood flowed from the crown of the head. The first to draw blood won.
We are not surprised after considering all this, to find that the Elizabethans considered insanity almost as a joke. The Elizabethans were not hard-hearted; they merely did not understand the malady. It puzzled them. They believed that an insane person was possessed of a devil; literally that an evil spirit had taken up his abode in the house of clay, and that the only way to drive him out was to make his dwelling uncomfortable. Hence the frequent maltreatment of the sufferer. The treatment of Malvolio in Twelfth Night is a good example of the current usage. "We have but two sorts of people in this house, and both under the whip; that's fools and madmen." (Middleton's Changeling, i. 2.) Another illustration: "Shut the windows, darken the room, fetch whips; the fellow is mad." (Marston, What You Will, v. 1.) The patients were starved sometimes, and subjected to many other inhuman punishments.
Yet, when all is said, there is still something to be said. Cruel, callous to the sufferings of beasts, quick to draw blood, used to the sight of mutilated convicts, and corpses dangling in the gallows' chains—all this the Elizabethans were beyond a doubt. But this is only one side of the picture. The English of that age were a God-fearing people, chivalrous to women, kind to the stranger, hospitable, devoted to the Queen, and willing to die for their country. This extract from a letter written by Sir Henry Sidney to his son is typical of the high-born English gentleman of the time."Let your first action be the lifting up of your mind to Almighty God in hearty prayer, with continual meditation and thinking of him to whom you pray. … Be humble and obedient to your master [Philip was at school at Shrewsbury]; for unless you frame yourself to obey others, yea, and feel in yourself what obedience is, you shall never be able to teach others how to obey you. Be courteous of gesture and affable to all men; with diversity of reverence according to the dignity of the person. … Be modest in each assembly, and rather be rebuked of light fellows for maidenlike shamefastness; than of your sad [serious] friends for pert boldness. Think upon every word you shall speak before you utter it; and remember how nature hath rampered [walled] up, as it were, the tongue, with teeth, lips, yea, and hair without the lips; and all betoking reins or bridles for the loose use of that member.
"Above all things tell no untruth. No, not in trifles … for there cannot be a greater reproach to a gentleman, than to be accounted a liar."
Take the nation through and through, this feeling of honour and reverence pervaded it high and low. In July, 1626, an Englishman, a common sailor of Tavistock, was captured by the Spaniards. After a long series of marvellous adventures and miraculous escapes, he reached England. He published an account of his perils; this is how the narrative ends:—
"And thus endeth my Spanish pilgrimage. With thanks to my good GOD, that in this extraordinary manner preserved me amidst these desperate adventures.
"Oh my knees I thank Thee! with my tongue will I praise Thee! with my hands fight Thy quarrel! and all the days of my life serve Thee!
"Out of the red sea have I escaped; from the lion's den been delivered, aye rescued from death and snatched out of the jaws of destruction, only by Thee! O my GOD! Glory be to Thy Name for ever and ever! Amen."
This from a common mariner saved from the perils of the Inquisition!
Nor did these Elizabethans neglect the poor. An account tells us that during the great frost which lasted from before Christmas till the end of January, 1608, many persons would have starved to death or have perished from cold had it not been for the relief houses temporarily established by the corporation of London. Christ's Hospital was originally a home for the poor and fatherless; St. Thomas' and St. Bartholomew's were hospitals in our sense of the word. London was noted for its charity. Throughout all England laws were in force that provided relief for the helpless and worthy poor.
Bring what charges we may, Englishmen can look back upon this age, cruel and half-savage as it was in many respects, and thrill with pride, for it was the greatest age of modern times. There was good Queen Bess and her land; there were Sir Francis Drake, and John Hawkins, and Martin Frobisher, and Walter Raleigh, and Lord Howard of Effingham. There were the poets and the playwrights. And there was Gresham, who built the Exchange, and laid the foundation of England's commercial supremacy.
Now, leaving ancient quotations, let us come down to writing of our own time, and read a paragraph from the best recent picture of Elizabethan life and times; Kingsley's Westward Ho! Amyas Leigh, the hero of the novel, has sailed around the world with Drake, and has come back to Bideford after a three-years' absence. The time is Sunday morning.
"And what is it," says Kingsley, "which has thus sent old Bideford wild with that 'goodly joy and pious mirth,' of which we now only retain traditions in our translations of the Psalms? Why are all eyes fixed, with greedy admiration, on those four weather-beaten mariners; decked out with knots and ribbons by loving hands; and yet more on that gigantic figure who walks before them, a beardless boy, and yet with a frame and stature of a Hercules, towering, like Saul of old, a head and shoulders above all the congregation, with his golden locks flowing down over his shoulders? And why, as the five go instinctively up to the altar and there fall on their knees before the rails, are all eyes turned to the pew where Mrs. Leigh of Burrough has hid her face between her hands, and her hood rustles and shakes to her joyful sobs? Because there was fellow feeling of old in Merry England, in country and in town; and these are Devon men, and of Bideford … and they, the first of all English mariners, have sailed round the world with Francis Drake, and are come to give God thanks."
Merry England he calls it; Merry England has become a by-word, but it applies to a time long ago, before the Puritans swept away the Maypole and the Christmas revels. After all, despite the cruel punishments, the baiting of bears, cock-fighting, and the branding of criminals, the England of Elizabeth was a merry, wholesome England, hardly even to be fancied in these prosaic times.
To this credulous people, whose savage nature was undergoing a rapid progress of refinement, must be attributed the open mind and the willing heart. Not only were they ever ready to believe, but they were also always quick to do what others were doing. The very nature of their national life and character bred in them an aptness of imitation.
We find this quality illustrated in the literature of the time. Whether or not one accepts Mr. Sidney Lee's theory of regarding Shakespeare's Sonnets, one cannot deny the long array of facts cited to prove that the sonnet literature of the age of Elizabeth, taken as a whole, is a narrow mass of plagiarised imitations of foreign models. Not only is the form copied, at least so far as it was understood, but also the ideas, the mode of expression, even, at times, the very words are but a stolen translation, with no credit given to the original writer. The same facts are true, to a certain extent, of the drama. Shakespeare himself was the most persistent copyist He borrowed his plots. In many cases he borrowed the details of his dramatic technique. This is but another way of saying that when Shakespeare saw a clever device cleverly worked out upon the stage he immediately made use of it; in general, however, displaying greater skill in the manipulation. He was quick to grasp the advantage of a heroine's part played by a boy in his own clothes. Greene set an example of the merry conceit of a man falling in love with a boy disguised as a woman. Shakespeare merely turned the situation end for end when he gave us the love affair of Olivia and Viola.
The Elizabethan fondness for fads goes beyond anything known to-day. The modern linguistic imitation of certain fables in slang so familiar to us of this generation is a mere bagatelle in comparison with the imitation of the more ponderous and often meaningless phrases derived from Lyly's novel. The innumerable sonnets that go to fill up Mr. Lee's large collection were the offspring of a fad that necessitated each and every man of the time to drivel sonnets at a moment's notice in honour of his sweetheart. The sonnet cycle was itself a separate vogue to be distinguished from that of the individual sonnet habit of domestic life. And both lived the short span of life usually allotted to a fashionable fad.
In dress the Elizabethans were equally imitative. They borrowed fashions from the continent and developed them at home. A glossary of terms connected with dress would reveal instantly the continental origin of many of the most used garments.
Along with all this was a youthful exuberance of spirit that may be considered as a fourth national characteristic—or, perhaps, the one characteristic that involves all the others. We may liken it to youthfulness, to the opposite of that enervated state we name blasé. England for centuries had remained practically unchanged, or had followed the slow and ponderous march of mediæval civilisation. Suddenly, at the introduction of the new learning, England awoke with all the ardour of young blood, all the eagerness of childhood.
They were lusty wooers, those Elizabethans. They believed, with a naive effort to outdo one another in accepting without question the new and the strange. They discovered a delightful habit—as the writing of a sonnet, or the wearing of a ruff—and proceeded to carry it to an extreme almost unthought of. They fought fiercely, and they played with terrible energy. Even hospitality and philanthropy existed to a degree, certainly the former and possibly the latter, unknown even today in London, that city of free givers to the
Philip Howard, Earl of Arundel
helpless of the nation. This Is a delightful characteristic. It is a noble characteristic. It is because of this that we forget and forgive the disagreeable and the savage, and, for we sometimes meet them, the foolish characteristics of the Elizabethan. We forget and forgive all this and express our idealisation of the country of Queen Elizabeth by the phrase "In Merry England." Our recollection is not of the tavern wherein Marlowe fought and died but of the tavern wherein Keats received his inspiration.