Imagens das páginas
PDF
ePub

troubled the reigns of Edward VI. and Mary Tudor; less rapid and vigorous than on the continent, the Renaissance only again resumed its course under Elizabeth, and hardly completed itself until the end of her reign. The dramatic poetry of the Middle Ages had a longer life in England than on the other side of the Channel ; miracle-plays continued to be acted until the year 1598, and the first year of the seventeenth century saw the Queen present at a representation of a morality, entitled, “The Contention between Liberality and Prodigality,” in which, under the features of Liberality, Elizabeth might recognize her own portrait. This little fact deserves to be noted for the significance of its teaching ; Elizabeth made profession of a wise eclecticism in literature, and while she was friendly to the classical renaissance, she also consented to patronize with her presence the representation of a play belonging to the gothic art of mediæval times. She had the tactso rare in royal lovers of literature-not to side with either of the different schools that divided the camp of letters, presenting a marked contrast in this respect to the despotic spirit in which Richelieu bestowed his protection upon literature.

Let us picture to ourselves for a moment the learned court of Elizabeth, beginning with the Queen who was one of the best educated persons of her time. And here it is not enough to repeat the words of Roger Ascham, that the Queen read“ more Greek in a day than some prebendary of the Church doth read Latin in a whole week,” this praise being not only vague but equivocal, for a prebendary has all sorts of occupations which may prevent him from devoting many hours a week to reading Latin, and we must endeavour to fathom the depth of Elizabeth's knowledge with greater precision. Nathan Drake tells us that she wrote a commentary on Plato, translated two orations of Isocrates,

[ocr errors]
[ocr errors]

*

a play of Euripides, a treatise by Xenophon and another by Plutarch--so much for her Greek: and as for Latin, she translated the "Jugurtha” of Sallust, Horace's “Art of Poetry,” the “Consolation of Philosophy,” by Boethius, a long chorus from Seneca's “Hercules Etæus," and

( also an epistle by Seneca and another by Cicero. She could write in Latin, as her many Latin letters testify. In English she could handle verse as easily as prose; and, finally, she spoke five languages with such facility that she could apostrophize the ambassador of France in French, the envoy of Venice in Italian, the imperial nuncio in German, the Spanish attaché in Castilian, and the representative of Poland in Latin.*

Hallam, a scrupulously exact historian, relates that “an address was delivered in Greek verses to Elizabeth at Cambridge, in 1564, to which she returned thanks in the same language.” (“Introduction to the Literature of Europe,” Vol. II., p. 34.)

Elizabeth was not the only learned woman of her times, and there is more than one name worthy of a place beside hers: Lady Jane Grey; the daughters of Sir Anthony Cooke, Lady Cecil, Lady Russell, and Lady Killigrew, who was celebrated, says Craik,“ not only for her Latin and Greek, but even for her Hebrew erudition” (“Manual of English Literature "), and various others. In Shakespeare's comedy of the “ Taming of the Shrew,” it may be noted that one of the suitors of the fair Bianca sends her“ a small packet of Greek and Latin books.”

Without speaking of men of learning by profession, there were many gentlemen, courtiers, statesmen, military and naval officers, who had a remarkable amount of knowledge : as, for instance, the illustrious sailor, Sir Walter Raleigh; Thomas Sackville, the author of several works highly important in the literary history of the

* François Victor Hugo, Vol. VI., p. 40, of his translation of Shakespeare.

[ocr errors]
[ocr errors]

sixteenth century, and particularly of a tragedy of which mention will be made further on; the Earls of Oxford and of Pembroke; and the intimate friend of Shakespeare, the Earl of Southampton.

The following picture of society towards the end of Elizabeth's reign has been left us by Harrison :

“ This further is not to be omitted, to the singular commendation of both sorts and sexes of our courtiers here in England, that there are verie few of them, which have not the use and skill of sundrie speeches. . . . And to saie how many gentlewomen and ladies there are, that beside sound knowledge of the Greek and Latin toongs are thereto no less skilfull in the Spanish, Italian, and French, or in some of them, it resteth not in me."

And speaking further on of the court, he says

“ The stranger that entereth into the Court of England upon the sudden, shall rather imagine himself to come into some publike schoole of the universities where manie give ear to one that readeth, than into a prince's palace."

The taste for classical antiquity which reigned in Elizabeth's court was strongly tinged with a quaint pedantry, of which Warton in his “ History of English Poetry” gives some amusing details :

“When she paid a visit at the house of any of her nobility, at entering the hall she was saluted by the Penates, and conducted to her privy-chamber by Mercury. . . . In the afternoon, when she condescended to walk in the garden, the lake was covered with Tritons and Nereids; the pages of the family were converted into wood-nymphs, who peeped from every bower, and the footmen gambolled over the lawns in the figure of Satyrs. . When her Majesty hunted in the park, she was met by Diana, who, pronouncing our royal prude to be the brightest paragon of unspotted chastity, invited her to groves free from the intrusions of Actæon. . . . When she rode through the streets of Norwich, Cupid, at the command of the mayor and aldermen, advancing from a group of gods who had left Olympus to grace the procession, gave her a golden arrow, which under the influence of such irresistible charms was sure to wound the most obdurate heart. • A gift,' says honest Holinshed, which her Majesty, now vergiog to her fiftieth year, received very thanksullie.'”

Furniture, tapestry, everything, even down to cooking, bore the seal of this rage for mythology.

“ Even the pastry-cooks," again writes Warton, were expert mythologists. At dinner, select transformations of Ovid's metamorphoses were exhibited in confectionery; and the splendid icing of an immense historic plum-cake was embossed with a delicious bassorelievo of the destruction of Troy."

But it must not be supposed that the learning in which Elizabeth and her court rejoiced, can be taken as a fair sample of the amount of education possessed by society at large; and Hallam, who distrusts all exaggeration, does well to warn us against the ordinary mistake of considering the knowledge acquired by a few celebrated persons-celebrated just because they are exceptions as the common lot of all. Still it would be wrong to look upon the court as an absolutely unique and isolated phenomenon; it became the model that all classes of society set themselves, more or less successfully, to imitate, and it exercised a potent influence on the formation of taste and the general tone of society.

In England, as well as on the continent, knowledge in the sixteenth century was an aristocratic possessiona natural consequence of the rarity and high price of books,—but as editions of Greek and Latin authors grew more numerous, knowledge also gradually became an element in the general life of the nation. The first writers of the drama properly so-called were not all noblemen like Thomas Sackville, Lord Buckhurst, but were most of them sons of artisans or peasants; Marlowe, the greatest of them all, was the son of a shoemaker. The first thing that strikes one with surprise is the amount of their learning, and to find that nearly all of them were classical scholars, and men who had received a university education.* But their parents could only

* Craik's “Compendious Hist. Eng. Lit.” Vol. I.

[ocr errors]

have secured such teaching for them at the price of great self-sacrifice, and the contrast between their brilliant education and the obscure condition from which they sprang, testifies to the wide-spread love of learning, and to the great wish of the people to be as well taught as the upper classes.

Nathan Drake, the author of a voluminous work on Shakespeare and his Times,” relates that the editor of Saint Chrysostom's works, Rev. John Boys, during his fellowship of St. John's College, Cambridge, voluntarily gave a Greek lecture every morning in his own room at four o'clock, which was regularly attended by nearly all the fellows of his college,-a fact equalling the renowned ardour for work exhibited by Budæas, or the enthusiasm for learning with which Ronsard and Baïf were devoured during their years of study at Coqueret.

A list must here be given of the principal editions and translations of classical authors published in England before 1616, the year of Shakespeare's death; the task is a somewhat dry one, but we must needs know what sources of classical antiquity were open to him.

With the exception of some important translations of Seneca's tragedies, to which I shall return later on, English translators in the sixteenth century seem at first to have turned their attention to the Greek and Roman historians sooner (in both senses of the word) than to the poets. Between the years 1550 and 1616 all the great historians of Greece and Rome were rendered accessible to English readers, either wholly or in part: from the Greek they had the first two books of Herodotus, Thucydides, a great part of Polybius, Diodorus Siculus, Appian,

* This translation of Appian which appeared in 1578 must be especially noted. Plutarch was the great, and it may be said the only source from which Shakespeare drew for his Roman tragedies; still, the famous speech of Antony in Julius Cæsar curiously resembles in some points the one that Appian puts into his mouth in the same circumstances.

« AnteriorContinuar »