Stories from Old English Poetry/Sketch of William Shakespeare

with preamble Sketch of William Shakespeare

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IN the year 1564, a little more than three hundred years ago, an infant was born in the town of Stratford, in England, who grew to be one of the most wonderful men who has ever lived. Stratford was a quiet little town on the banks of the river Avon, and none of the people there were very rich or grand. The child of whom we write was called Will Shakespeare; and though his father was a very respectable man and in thriving business, it does not appear that he was rich, and, what seems hard to believe nowadays, he did not know how to write even his own name.

It is not very likely that John Shakespeare, Will's father, thought very much of learning, since he had got along so well himself with so little, and it does not seem that Will had much encouragement to study. But no doubt he was one of those boys to whom everything in Nature is a teacher. He could find—

"Tongues in trees, books in the running brooks,
Sermons in stones, and good in everything."

He went to the parish school for a short time and learned English, some scraps of Greek and Latin, and a little mathematics. He read everything, too, which came within his eager grasp.

Of course there were not as many books made in many years then as are printed now every year in New York; but there were places in London where were published little pamphlets in paper covers, which were sold quite cheaply for the times. These tracts, or pamphlets, were generally translations from French and Italian tales, or legends, chronicles extracted from old English history, and sometimes translations from Greek or Latin poetry. These books, which look very coarse and rude in their paper and printing, if we see them to-day and compare them with our beautiful books, were the popular reading of the people of that age. They were called chapbooks (cheap-books), and the men who sold them were chap-men, which is the same, very likely, as our word shop-man.

It is very probable that some of these books found their way to Stratford, and that little Will Shakespeare occasionally got one to read. Perhaps some travelling peddler, who came there to tell his wares, had a few such stray copies in his pack, or the parish schoolmaster may have owned a few odd volumes. What a delight it must have been to Will to get such prizes into his possession, and to go off to read by himself. When by chance he may have have obtained the wonderful poem of “Romeus and Juliet,” [1] how glad he must have been to carry it off with him to the shade of some clustering trees, through which the lovely river Avon flowed, and there to read it aloud till he wept at the cruel fate of the two lovers.

All these things, however, must be partly guessed at, for no one dreamed that this boy would become so great a poet, and no one of that day has taken the trouble to tell us anything about him when he was a child. He lived in Stratford till he was about eighteen, and then he married a farmer’s daughter in the neighborhood, named Anne Hathaway. She was a young woman much older than himself, and no doubt it was a foolish act of his to marry so young. It is to be feared he found it hard work to take care of his family, for in two or three years after his marriage he set out for the great city of London, Jike a boy in a fairy tale, to seek his fortune. And a wonderful fortune it was, greater than Dick Whittington’s, or that of any other unfriended youth who ever came, solitary and unknown, to a great busy city.

When he got to London he found that nearly everybody in the town was interested in the theatre. The Queen and her court often went to see the plays. Some of the rich noblemen kept a large company of players for their private amusement; and many of the most elegant and accomplished men of that time wrote plays which were performed in the theatres.

Of course Shakespeare heard of all these things, and so he haunted the doors to the playhouse, hoping to get a peep at the wonders inside. It has been said that he even held horses outside the building for some of the gallant gentlemen and courtiers who went in to see the play, and that he did his work so well, and had at last so many horses to hold, that he hired other youths to help him, and shared with them the pennies and sixpences which he received. This could not have lasted long, for he soon joined a company of players, and commenced in a very humble way to be an actor. One of the comic actors, in the company which he joined, was a fellow-townsman of his, and he may have been instrumental in getting Will a place among the players. It was not long after he had become an actor that he commenced writing plays.

These plays of Shakespeare are the most wonderful of anything in the English language. They were so great that the people of that age hardly understood their value, and it was only after a century had passed that they began to be appreciated. Out of some of the old tales and legends which he had heard, the lowly bred country youth wove the most exquisite tissues of poetry and romance that the world has ever read. The forgotten creatures of some Italian story became like living, real people by the magic of his pen.

He stayed in the theatre a good many years. During that time he wrote about forty plays, and as he seems to have been more prudent and saving than most poets have been, he became quite prosperous and well off in worldly matters. He bought a share of the play-house, and for some years was manager of it. When he was a little past middle age he retired to a comfortable estate in his native town of Stratford, and there he died when he was just fifty-two years old.

The first of the stories from Shakespeare which I have to tell you has its principal scenes laid in fairy-land, and is called—


The king and queen of the fairies had quarreled, and all fairy-land was in the dumps. Queen Titania sat pouting all day in her most retired bower, and would hardly stir abroad for fear of meeting King Oberon; while he, attended by the mischief-loving Puck, spent his time in devising plots to tease his dainty consort.

Thus it was that the dew forgot to fall; the fairy circles, no longer used for moonlight revels, had overgrown with rank weeds; the thick air breathed pestilent vapors; the moon shone with watery light; and all the months, missing their guardian fairies, were out of humor, so that stately August wept like changeful April, and merry May was as rude and boisterous as March.

The cause of the quarrel was trifling enough. Titania had a changeling,—one of those charming earth children whom the elves sometimes steal from their cradles, leaving in their stead some sprite from fairy-land, to tease the human parents with its goblin ways. Only Titania had not stolen this earth child, who was her charge. It was the offspring of an Indian princess who had died; and dying, preferred to give her boy to the fairy queen, rather than leave it to the mercies of the cold world. So Titania kept him tenderly, and loved him as dearly as if he were a fairy. But Oberon, who was both jealous and exacting,—as much so as an earth-born lord,—saw she boy, and coveted him to be his cup-bearer, to bring him dew in flower-cups, or to gather him sweets from the heavy loaded cups of the wild honeysuckle. In truth, he was envious of the caresses Titania lavished on the dimpled, frolicsome little fellow, and wanted to take him from her. And as she steadily refused, they go to so grave a pass, that they had not been on speaking terms for months.

To make it more unfortunate, some splendid wedding festivities were preparing, which needed all the combined good taste of the king and queen of fairy-land, to be celebrated properly.

Hippolyta, Queen of the Amazons,—she who wore on her round, supple arm, a shield worthy of the stoutest warrior; who, with bared shoulder, white as dazzling snow, went out to war against the mighty Theseus, Duke of Athens and, being conquered by him, conquered in her turn, so that the warrior yielded, and laid all his arms under her buskined foot,—Hippolyta was to be married to this very Theseus.

Already were the nuptial train come to Athens, to the grand palace of the Duke. Among them were Demetrius and Lysander, two Grecian knights, who had borne arms with Duke Theseus. Demetrius, a fickle gallant, who had, before this, wooed the blue-eyed Helena, now had turned his ready flatteries to the unwilling ear of nut-brown Hermia, the only daughter of the old Egeus. But Hermia scorned with all her might his suit, and loved instead the young Lysander, tall and fair-haired. Alas for these two lovers! old Egeus did not like his daughter's choice, but favored the suit of Demetrius, and would not let Hermia marry where she wished.

In these happy days of fairies and Amazons, it faired ill with lovers whose fathers were not of their minds, for the maiden who loved so unwisely, had but three alternatives,—either to wed a man of her father’s choice, or to be put to death, or to retire into the order of Diana’s priestesses, and forever adjure marriage. In her desperation, Hermia appealed to Theseus, who could do nothing but quote the law, and Egeus bore her home in triumph, swearing she should wed Demetrius;—not till she had spoken a few secret words to Lysander, though, and in these brief words, Hermia agreed to run away that night to a wood near Athens, and there, meeting with Lysander, they were to fly to some happier clime for lovers.

Helena, the neglected love of Demetrius, was the dearest friend of Hermia, and to her did she confide her intended flight. And Helena, who was glad to gain a minute’s speech with her renegade lover, even though he unblushingly scorned her, and praised Hermia in her presence, went very perfidiously and told Demetrius of the plot of the two lovers, and the wood where they were to meet.

In one of the fairy circles of this wood, near Athens, Oberon met, at eventide, his ready follower, the goblin Puck, whose merry pranks had set all the country round in an uproar. He it was who had stolen the thick cream from flowing pans; had plaited elf-locks in the tresses of the maids; had charmed the churn so that it would not yield its stores of yellow butter to the vexed housewife, and was the eager furtherer of all sorts of mischief. Now he waited to do the bidding of the angry Oberon.

The fairy king told him of a magic flower, purple in hue, which grew in rare places, known to none but himself, of which the juice, squeezed upon the sleeping eyes of lovers, should compel them to doat upon whomever their first waking glance should fall on. He would squeeze some of this fateful juice on the drowsy lids of Titania when she slept in her bower close by, and place before her some hideous monster whom her waking eyes should fix upon, and, so enchanted should love. Then the scheming Oberon would obtain Titania’s changeling while she was engrossed with this new passion, and, after that, release her from this injurious spell. Instructed how to find it, Puck sped on fleet wings after the flower.

While Oberon stood awaiting his return, Demetrius entered the wood in pursuit of the lovers, of whose flight Helena had told him. Close following him, struggling, with her delicate feet, to keep up with his striding pace, came the silly Helena. In vain she implored him to look back and see how her tired feet were bleeding from the rude thorn bushes. He answered her with anger, and flouted her for loving him. Then she reminded him how once he thought her blue eyes the sweetest ever seen, as now he praised the sparkling glances of Hermia.

So they passed by the listening Oberon into the deepening shadows of the forest.

When Puck returned, bearing the purple flower, Oberon divided it, and bade him seek two lovers in Athenian garb, and weave them in a magic web of slumber, and then, anointing with its juice the eyelids of the scornful lover, make him doat upon the maid who followed him. Then the king hid himself to witness Titania’s hour of retiring.

As twilight deepened, the fairy train came in. Titania rode in high state. “Her chariot was an empty hazel-nut; the cover, of the wings of grass-hoppers; the traces, of the smallest spider’s web; her whip, of cricket’s bone; the lash, of film;” and her coachman was a small gnat, in gray livery slashed with gold lace, who sat erect and dignified on his tiny box, as proud as any coachman could be of his gay turn-out. When her footman had helped the queen to alight, and she was ready to seek her couch, all respectfully retired, except only a few attendants who were to lull her to rest. Her bed was a hammock of web-lace, woven by a spider of great repute, who furnished all the royal laces. It was hung on the thorns of a sweet-brier, and swayed to and fro in the soft breezes, as she lay dreamily within. Then, daintily tucked up in rose leaves, her eyes shut together to the music of this fairy lullaby,—

You spotted snakes, with double tongue,
Thorny hedgehogs, be not seen;
Newts and blind worms, do no wrong;
Come not near our fairy queen.


—Philomel, with melody

Sing in our sweet lullaby;
Lulla, lulla, lullaby; lulla, lulla, lullaby;
Never harm, nor spell, nor charm,
Come our lovely lady nigh;
So good-night, with lullaby.”

When her rosy lids had lightly closed, all the attending fairies went to their beds in flower-cups, and Oberon, with stealthy step, approached, and dropped some of the baleful juice upon her eyes.

Just at twilight, at the hour agreed on, Lysander met Hermia on the borders of the forest, He had planned to take his lady-love to the protection of an aunt of his, who lived in a place not subject to the laws of Athens, and who would not refuse her aid to their unhappy love. But unfortunately, night overtook them wandering in the mazes of the forest; and, tired with their flight, they lay down at the foot of some old trees, at a little distance from each other, to sleep. Thus Puck, skirting the forest in search of the Athenians his master had described, came upon them, and stopped to gaze. The rosy cheek of Hermia pressed the moss-covered earth which was her pillow, and her breast rose and fell with the deep breath of slumber. Near by lay Lysander, with his drawn sword by his side, ready to protect his love from any danger. He also slept a deep, unconscious sleep.

The obedient Puck fancied this was the unhappy lady whose love was scorned by the Athenian knight, and squeezed the purple flower upon Lysander’s eyelids. This would have wrought no harm if, a moment after, Helena had not happened to pass that way, still in search of Demetrius; and awaking at her footstep, Lysander first fixed his eyes on her. Under the influence of the fatal charm, he forgot his loyalty, forgot the sleeping Hermia, and poured forth protestations of love to Helena. She, imagining Lysander did but mock her, ran away, and he pursued, leaving Hermia forgotten on the damp ground.

That self-same evening, in another part of this same wood, a party of mechanics, some of the hard-handed men of Athens, had met to rehearse a play which they hoped to perform at the Duke’s nuptial festivities.

There was Flute, the bellows-mender; Starveling, the tailor; Snout, the tinker; Quince, the carpenter; and among the rest, stout old Bottom, the weaver,—Bully Bottom, as his comrades called him. He was, in his own conceit, the best actor of them all; the best for tragedy, comedy, or tragical comical. “Seneca was not too heavy, nor Plautus too light,” for old Bottom, and he would have taken all parts in the play at once, with great cheerfulness.

These jolly fellows had rehearsed their play, and Bottom, in his character of lover, had spoken all the tender speeches to Flute, the bellows-mender, who was to play the lady of the piece, when Puck entered. His love for sport was never quiet; so, when he saw poor Bottom a little separated from his companions, he fixed on his shoulders an ass’s head, with long ears. This odd head-dress fitted the self-satisfied weaver so well, that he wore it without dreaming he had anything unusual on his head. But his amazed companions ran away at the strange sight, crying out that Bottom was certainly enchanted. Alas for Titania! This noise awoke her; and rising from her bed, she beheld the stout figure of Bottom thus frightfully crowned. To see was only to love, because her lids were heavy with the charmed flower-juice, and she alighted from her swaying couch, and ran quickly to the weaver.

Then, with sweet words and delicate caresses, the tiny queen led the huge monster to her bower, and summoned her attendant fairies to do him reverence. The astonished weaver yielded himself up to the strange enchantment, and the elves, hovering about him, prepared to do his bidding, as their gracious mistress had desired.

When Hermia awoke from her deep slumber, and missed Lysander, she was seized with the greatest affright. Starting up, she ran wildly through the forest, till she encountered Demetrius, and accused him of slaying her lost lover, that he might have no rival to her love. When Demetrius denied this, she ran on, calling, in agonizing tones, upon her lost Lysander. Oberon saw their meeting, heard his tender words to Hermia, and remembering how Demetrius had scorned sweet Helena, he saw that Puck had not yet anointed his eyes with the flower. So, throwing the knight into an enchanted sleep, he sprinkled some drops from the flowers upon his eyelids, and went off to lead in Helena. Soon she came to the tree under which Demetrius lay sleeping. Close after her came the recreant Lysander, besieging her with vows of love. Then Demetrius, awaking, saw before him the lady he had scorned, and falling at her feet, he begged forgiveness. Lysander opposed his passion, and offered to relinquish Hermia to him. But now Demetrius refused her, and declared only Helena had had, and should have, his heart and his allegiance. The puzzled Helena knew not what to believe. Could they be playing on her foolish fondness? So she stood incredulous, longing, yet fearing to believe in the protestations of Demetrius, when Hermia approached. She, poor little one, seeing Lysander again, was flying to him, all tears and smiles, when he repulsed her with fury, called her harsh names, and bade her leave him, since he no longer cared for her. Then the unhappy maiden saw both her former lovers at Helena’s feet, contending for Helena’s smiles, as, one little hour ago, they had quarreled for her favor.

She could not restrain the rage which she felt against Helena at this sight. That this pale-faced, dove-eyed girl, who had been her friend,—her sister almost,—who had shared her childish games and girlish confidences, should now become her rival in Lysander’s love, should have beguiled him with her tall figure, her grace, and her sweet, pleading manners, was too much. She would gladly have resigned Demetrius to her, but that she should come, like a thief, to steal her loved Lysander, was too bitter to be borne. So she upbraids her fiercely; and Helena, seeing her jealousy, can no longer doubt the sincerity of her two lovers.

Fortunately, Oberon, invisible, heard this dispute, and angrily summoning Puck, he accused him of making all this mischief. He bade him lead the two knights, who have already drawn their swords to combat for the possession of Helena, through bogs and tangled pathways, by his magic arts, till, wearied by such tiresome travel, they should sink to sleep again. Then, by putting a new love-charm on Lysander’s eyes, he should be made to return to his loyalty and Hermia’s love.

Obeying Oberon’s commands, the nimble Puck flitted through bush and brake, now calling Demetrius in one direction with the voice of Lysander, and anon summoning Lysander an opposite way with the tongue of Demetrius, so that the two gentlemen, pursuing the sounds, foundered in bogs, and tore through briers, till it was near morning. Then, one after the other, Puck led all the four lovers through the thick darkness of the wood, to the group of gnarled trees, where Lysander and Hermia first reclined to rest. There each lay down to sleep, unconscious that the others were so near. Whilst they slept, Puck bedewed the eyes of Lysander with a new charm that Oberon had given him, which should heal his sick fancy, and turn him again to Hermia.

So, at early morning, when Duke Theseus and Hippolyta sallied out with their hounds and horns to hunt in this forest, they came upon the four, sleeping thus upon the ground. So steeped in slumber were they, that a full blast of horns could scarcely rouse them. But in waking, Lysander’s eyes seek Hermia first, and all the memory of this sudden gust of fancy for Helena is as a troubled and uncertain dream. While Demetrius, professing penitence for his inconstancy to Helena, claimed her as his first and dearest love, and begged Theseus that their nuptials might be celebrated at the same time with his.

The old Egeus consenting, Lysander takes Hermia, and Demetrius his gentle Helena, and all the lovers return to the palace.

’Twas now the day of the nuptial festivities, and Oberon began to repent himself of his cruelty to Titania. In the shadiest nook of the dewy forest, the tiny queen had had a bower woven for Bottom, and sat there beside him crowning his misshapen head with the rarest and most fragrant flowers. All around him, at her command, were her most delicate attendants,—the white-robed Moth, the graceful Peaseblossom, the aërial Cobweb, and the pert little Mustard-seed, all fairies of noble birth and royal manners. These brought him dews from violets’ eyes, the overflowing sacs of the honey-bee, and the sweetest nut-kernels from the squirrels’ hoard. Even Oberon could not look on such a sight without relenting; and when he asked for and obtained the changeling boy from Titania, he awaited eagerly the time for her noontide nap. As soon as she was asleep, he applied to her eyes the charmed herb which would cure her of her unnatural passion. Then he bade Puck remove the monstrous head from Bottom’s shoulders, who, being released from this enchantment, went quickly home to join his companions, and study over his part in the play, which must be performed that night before the Duke.

When evening came, the Amazon Queen and the two Grecian maidens were led as brides to Hymen’s altar, gayly decorated with offerings of flowers. Neither mortals nor fairies were then lacking in respect to the joyous occasion. While the clumsy but well-meaning artisans made the wedding-train laugh at their tragedy in the great hall of the palace, the fairies trooped it overhead in the bridal chambers, scattering sweet perfumes and invoking blessings on the houses of the newly wedded pairs.

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  1. Written by Arthur Brooke, printed in 1662.