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was to sneer at Jasper Heywood, Alexander Nevil, John Studley, Thomas Nuce, and Thomas Newton, one or more of them, — whose Seneca, his Tenne Tragedies translated into Englysh, was published in 1581. It is a very grievous performance; and Shakespeare, who had read it thoroughly, made sport of it in A Midsummer Night's Dream. Indeed, Nash introduces the passage above given by this paragraph, which has been hitherto omitted in noticing the subject : "I will turn my back to my first text of studies of delight, and talk a little in friendship with a few of our trivial translators.”
Upon the leaving of law* for dramatic literature the passage in question is plainly of general application. Such a change of occupation Nash says was common; and his testimony accords with all that we know of the social and literary history of that age. There was no regular army in Elizabeth's time; and the younger sons of gentlemen not rich and of well-to-do yeomen flocked to the church and to the bar; and as the former had ceased to be a stepping-stone to power and wealth while the latter was gaining in that regard, most of these young men became attorneys or barristers. But then, as now, the early years of professional life were seasons of sharp trial and
* Attorneys were called noverints because of the phrase Noverint universi per presentes (Know all men by these presents) with which many legal instruments then began.
bitter disappointment. Necessity pressed sorely, or pleasure wooed resistlessly; and the slender purse wasted rapidly away while the young lawyer awaited the employment that did not come. He knew then, as now he knows, the heart sickness that waits on hope deferred; nay, he felt, as now he sometimes feels, the tooth of hunger gnawing through the principles and firm resolves that partition a life of honor and self-respect from one darkened by conscious loss of rectitude, if not by
Happy (yet, it may be, o unhappy) he who now in such a strait can wield the pen of a ready writer! For the press, perchance, may afford him a support which, though temporary and precarious, will hold him up until he can stand upon more stable ground. But in the reigns of Good Queen Bess and Gentle Jamie there was no press.
There was, however, an incessant demand for new plays. Play-going was the chief intellectual recreation of that day for all classes, high and low. It is not extravagant to say that there were then more new plays produced in London in one month, than there are now in both Great Britain and the United States in a
To play-writing, therefore, the needy and gifted young lawyer turned his hand at that day, as he does now to journalism ; and of those who had been successful in their dramatic efforts, how inevitable it was that many would give themselves up
to play-writing, and that thus the language of the plays of that time should show such a remarkable infusion of law phrases ! To what, then, must we attribute the fact, that of all the plays that have survived of those written between 1580 and 1620 Shakespeare's are most noteworthy in this respect ? For no dramatist of the time, not even Beaumont, who was a younger son of a Judge of the Common Pleas, and who, after studying in the Inns of Court, abandoned law for the drama, used legal phrases with Shakespeare's readiness and exact
And the significance of this fact is heightened by another, — that it is only to the language of the law that he exhibits this inclination. The phrases peculiar to other occupations serve him on rare occasions by way of description, comparison, or illustration, generally when something in the scene suggests them ; but legal phrases flow from his pen as part of his vocabulary and parcel of his thought. The word "purchase," for instance, which in ordinary use meant, as now it means, to acquire by giving value, applies in law to all legal modes of obtaining property, except inheritance or descent. And in this peculiar sense the word occurs five times in Shakespeare's thirtyfour plays, but only in a single passage in the fiftyfour plays of Beaumont and Fletcher. And in the first scene of the Midsummer Night's Dream the father of Hermia begs the ancient privilege of Athens, that he may dispose of his daughter either to Demetrius or to death, —
"according to our law Immediately provided in that case.” He pleads the statute; and the words run off his tongue in heroic verse as if he were reading them
from a paper.
As the courts of law in Shakespeare's time occupied public attention much more than they do now, their terms having regulated “the season of London society,* —it has been suggested that it was in attendance upon them that he picked up his legal vocabulary. But this supposition not only fails to account for Shakespeare's peculiar freedom and exactness in the use of that phraseology,– it does not even place him in the way of learning those terms his use of which is most remarkable; which are not such as he would have heard at ordinary proceedings at nisi prius, but such as refer to the tenure or transfer of real property, — “fine and recovery," "statutes merchant," “purchase,” “indenture,” “tenure,” “ double voucher,” “ fee simple," "fee farm,” “remainder,” “reversion,” “ forfeiture,” &c. This conveyancer's jargon could not have been picked up by hanging round the courts of law in London two hundred and fifty years ago, when suits as to the title to real property were comparatively so rare. And beside, Shakespeare uses his law just as freely in his early plays, written in his first London years, as in those
* Falstaff, for instance, speaks of “the wearing out of six fashions, which is four terms or two actions."
produced at a later period.* Just as exactly too; for the correctness and propriety with which these terms are introduced have compelled the admiration of a Chief Justice and Lord Chancellor. Again, bearing in mind that genius, although it reveals general truth, and facilitates all acquirement, does not impart facts or acquaintance with technical terms, how can we account for the fact that, in an age when it was the common practice for young lawyers to write plays, one playwright left upon his plays a stronger, sharper legal stamp than appears upon those of any of his contemporaries, and that the characters of this stamp are those of the complicated law of real property?
* Thus, in Henry the Sixth, Part II., Jack Cade says, “Men shall hold of me in capite : and we charge and command that wives be as free as heart can wish or tongue can tell” ;-words which indicate acquaintance with very ancient and uncommon tenures of land. In the Comedy of Errors, when Dromio of Syracuse says, “There's no time for a man to recover his hair that grows bald by nature,” (wise words, and fatal to many hopes,) his master replies, “May he not do it by fine and recovery ?” Fine and recovery was a process by which, through a fictitious suit, a transfer was made of the title in an entailed estate. In Love's Labor's Lost, almost without a doubt the first comedy that Shakespeare wrote, on Boyet's offering to kiss Maria (Act II. Sc. I), she declines the salute, and says, “My lips are no common, though several they be.” Maria's allusion is plainly to tenancy in common by several (i. e. divided, distinct) title.
† These are Lord Campbell's words: “While novelists and dramatists are constantly making mistakes as to the law of marriage, of wills, and of inheritance, to Shakespeare's law, lavishly as he propounds it, there can neither be demurrer, nor bill of exceptions, nor writ of error.”