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النشر الإلكتروني

94

VIII.

STUDYING THE LAW.

It would be strange if Shakespeare, who observed everything, had taken no note of the uses of the law, the balance which regulates all the relations of life. And, in fact, no expectation that might be formed on this point could exceed the reality. Even jurists are astonished at the extent of his legal knowledge, and it has been thought to show that some period of his life was passed in a lawyer's office. This conjecture was originated by Malone; Mr. Collier came to the same conclusion; and it was more recently affirmed by an authority as high in law as in literature, no less a person than the late Lord Chancellor of England.

From such a judgment there would seem to be no appeal. When the oracle recognized the wisdom of Socrates, it was acknowledged by all Greece. None will dispute Shakespeare's law, when it is endorsed by a Lord Chancellor ! We accept it as from a Daniel come to judgment. What the woolsack pronounces unimpeachable, can be no “crowner's quest law," no Brummagem notions : it must be “the laws and statutes."' 3

But, while joining issue on this point, we demur to the rule that this proficiency was acquired in a lawyer's office; and claim to show cause why it should not be made absolute.

Though there may seem to be no association between

1 Lord Campbell's . Letter to J. P. Collier, Esq.' : Hamlet,' act v.' 3 Comedy of Errors,' act v. 1.

law and poetry-between hard matter-of-fact and the ideal, the atmosphere of the lawyer's office has not proved ungenial to the Muses. It was a spoilt lawyer's sonnets to his mistress that awoke Europe from the sleep of the dark ages, as Shakespeare describes the lark singing at heaven's gate at the first dawn; and Chaucer, the father of English poetry, received the same initiation in legal mysteries as Petrarch. The lawyer's office gave us also the two greatest poets of modern times—Goethe and Walter Scott. Poor Chatterton was a lawyer's clerk, and drew from the jargon of legal documents the fine old Saxon words, which enabled him to forge his antique ballads. There was nothing, then, in such a situation to repress Shakespeare's poetic instincts. His “natural wit” could not find a better soil; for a lawyer and wit are correlative terms, and there is no limit to the vivacity of lawyers' clerks. They are but the stone-breakers of the law, indeed; but, in paving the road for its decrees, they strike many a bright spark from the flints.

All this, however, does not bring home a legal novitiate to Shakespeare. The conjecture may satisfy believers, but it is not, like the compact of Fortinbras, “ well ratified by law and heraldry.” Neither record nor tradition afford it the smallest warrant. “ Mr. Beeston," who was acquainted with Shakespeare's early life, gave no hint of such a fact to Aubrey; the parish clerk never mentioned it to Dowdall; Betterton did not report it to Rowe. Nearly a hundred years intervened before it was put forward hesitatingly as a surmise by Malone. He was led to the impression by what he conceived to be the internal evidence in Shakespeare's works, and the only colour of testimony adduced from a contemporary source is an allusion by Nash, which has been quoted threadbare. It occurs in an epistle in Greene's • Xenophon,' published in 1589, and is too obscure

1. Hamlet,' act i. 1.

97

for the application to be understood in the present day. The passage refers to a set of scapegraces—"a sort of shifting companions," who seem to have been in literature what in the middle ages the free companions were in war, as they are said to "run through every art and thrive by none.” They even had the presumption to make a raid on the drama, which Nash and his friend Greene regarded as their private domain; and we are told that they busied themselves “ with the endeavours of art,” instead of pursuing their own calling. This is sarcastically described as “the trade of noverint,” which, being a word usually found at the beginning of old deeds, is supposed to mean a lawyer's clerk. It is not surprising that such intrusion made Nash and Co. gnash their teeth, particularly when we hear that the “shifting companions could scarcely latinize their neck-verse if they had need,” which fortunately they had not, as the audiences of the day cherished a vulgar preference for English. So far there is nothing to suggest a reference to Shakespeare, unless we imagine a thrust at his small Latin. But the application of the passage may be thought to lie in the close, as the sting in the wasp's tail. “Yet English Seneca, read by candlelight, yields many good sentences, as “Blood is a beggar,' and so forth; and if you entreat him fair in a frosty morning, he will afford you whole Hamlets, I should say handfuls of tragical speeches.” But this burst of sound and fury signifies nothing in connection with Shakespeare. His plays, indeed, are often read by candlelight, and sometimes even by firelight, if this be what is meant by “ the fair entreaty of a frosty morning”—for Walter Scott relates that firelight helped him, when a boy, to his first look at their pages. But, with all their abundance of “good sentences,” they nowhere tell us that “Blood

Sir Walter Scott's “Autobiographical Fragment.'

is a beggar.” Old Kent says, “I am a gentleman of blood ” of “ blood and breeding;" and such he approves himself. Nor do their tragical speeches come either in handfuls or mouthfuls, but “trippingly on the tongue. The comparison with 'Hamlet,' then, must be regarded merely as a passing sneer at Shakespeare, not implying that he was a noverint, but that the noverints were Shakespeares.

The poet's knowledge of the law is, in truth, easily explained—more easily than most of his acquirements. Though not brought up in a lawyer's office, he was not without legal preceptors, and we can tell their very names. They were the firm of Snare and Fang, the familiars of Sir John Falstaff; and still represented in the profession by John Doe and Richard Roe. Their system of instruction was painful, but impressive, and what was learnt in the cold shade of the world's neglect, in privation, anxiety, and sorrow, stamped itself on Shakespeare's memory. He was in constant apprehension of seeing his father dragged to prison. The writ was out, exercising the subtlety of Snare and Fang; and, in fact, their scent was so keen that John Shakespeare could only avoid a gaol by shutting himself up at home. He was even afraid to venture once a month to appear in his place at church on Sunday, which was the test of orthodoxy prescribed by law; and, in the returns made by the commissioners, he was more than once reported as absenting himself, pleading in excuse that he " came not to church for fear of process for debt." 3 How it can be contended, in the face of such evidence, that he had not fallen into poverty, we are unable to conjecture.

1 'King Lear,' act iii. 1. 2 • Hamlet,' act iii. 2.

3 A Report containing the name of John Shakespeare was found by Mr. Collier in the State Paper Office. It is dated 1592, but it gives“ the names of all such recusants as have been heretofore presented,” so that it proves that the sword of the sheriff had been hanging over him for a long time.

The unfortunate alderman made a stout struggle to maintain his credit. For some years he propped himself up by shifts, sacrificing portions of his property, or placing them in jeopardy, to obtain momentary aid, and these supplies, by meeting the most pressing demands, kept him afloat when he was really insolvent. He seems to have hoped that he might eventually right himself, by adroitly playing stake against stake, redeeming one security with another just before it became forfeit. Such a situation brings into view every possible source of relief, however remote, as every chance of succour is estimated by a beleagured garrison ; and John Shakespeare, besieged by Snare and Fang, could not forget that he would be put in possession of additional property by the death of his wife's stepmother, who was now very old, and in declining health. Mary Shakespeare was then to succeed to a share in the land at Snitterfield, held for life by Agnes Arden, and her husband's arrangements were evidently influenced by this expectation, which might be realized at any moment, but which continually broke down.

To derive advantage from this property in the bush without disposing of his interest in it, John Shakespeare had risked what was actually in his possession ; and in 1578 pledged his wife's farm at Ashbies to Edmund Lambert, his brother-in-law, for forty pounds, covenanting that it was to be forfeited at Michaelmas, 1580, if not previously redeemed. In the interim, his circumstances, instead of improving, became worse. We have seen him presented as a defaulter in 1579, apparently for the first time; and his urgent need of money increased as the year advanced ; for on the 15th of October, he and his wife joined in an indenture, by which they sold to Robert Webb,

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