1902 Encyclopedia > William Shakespeare > Shakespeare's Country: Influence of Local Traditions

William Shakespeare
(Part 8)


Influence of Local Traditions

But,whether any of his ancestors fought at Bosworth Field or not, Shakespeare would be sure in his youth to hear, almost at first hand, a multitude of exciting stories and stirring incidents connected with so memorable and far-reaching a victory. After the battle Henry VII had slept at Coventry, and was entertained by the citizens and presented with handsome gifts. He seems there also to have first exercised his royal power by conferring knighthood on the mayor of the town. The battle was fought only eighty years before Shakespeare's birth, and public events of importance are vividly transmitted by local tradition for more than double that length of time. At this hour the quiet farmsteads of Mid Somerset abound with stories and traditions Monmouth and his soldiers, and of the events that preceded and followed the battle of Sedgemoor. And a century earlier local traditions possessed still more vitality and power. In the 16th century, indeed, the great events of the nation's life, as well as more important local incidents, were popularly preserved and transmitted by means of oral tradition and scenic display. Only a small and cultured class could acquire their knowledge of them through literary chronicles and learned records. The popular mind was of necessity largely fed and stimulated by the spoker narratives of the rustic festival and the winter fireside. And a quiet settled neighbourhood like Stratford, out of the crush, but near the great centres of national activity, would be peculiarly rich in these stored-up materials of unwritten history. The very fact that within eight miles of Shakespeare's birthplace arose from their cedared slopes the halls and towers of the great earl who for more than a quarter of a century wielded a political and military power mightier than any subject had wielded before would give the district an exceptional prominence in the national annals, which would be locally reflected in an answering wealth of historic tradition.

In Shakespeare's day Warwickshire thus supplied the materials of a liberal elementary training in the heroic annals of the past, and especially in the great events of the recent past that had established the Tudors on the throne, consolidated the permanent interests of the Government and the country, and helped directly to promote the growing unity and strength, prosperity and renown, of the kingdom.

The special value of Shakespeare's dramatic interpretation of this period, arising from his early familiarity with the rich and pregnant materials of unwritten history, has recently been insisted on afresh by one of our most careful and learned authorities. In the preface to his work on The Houses of Lancaster and York, Mr. James Gairdner says:-- "For this period of English history we are fortunate in possessing an unrivalled interpreter in our great dramatic poet Shakespeare. A regular sequence of historical plays exhibits to us, not only the general character of each successive reign, but nearly the whole chain of leading events from the days of Richard II to the death of Richard Ill at Bosworth. Following the guidance of such a master mind, we realize for ourselves the men and actions of the period in a way we cannot do in any other epoch. And this is the more important as the age itself, especially towards the close, is one of the most obscure in English history. During the period of the Wars of the Roses we have, comparatively speaking, very few contemporary narratives of what took place, and anything like a general history of the times was not written till a much later date. But the doings of that stormy age, -- the sad calamities endured by kings -- the sudden changes of fortune in great men -- the glitter of chivalry and the horrors of civil war, all left a deep impression upon the mind of the nation, which was kept alive by vivid traditions of the past at the time that our great dramatist wrote. Hence, notwithstanding the scantiness of records and the meagreness of ancient chronicles, we have singularly little difficulty in understanding the spirit and character of the times."

Familiar as he must have been in his youth with the materials that enabled him to interpret so stirring a period, it is not surprising that even amidst the quiet hedgerows and meadows of Stratford Shakespeare's pulse should have beat high with patriotic enthusiasm, or that when launched on his new career in the metropolis he should have sympathized to the full extent on his larger powers with the glow of loyal feeling that, under Elizabeth's rule, and especially in the conflict with Spain, thrilled the nation's heart with an exulting sense of full political life, realized national power, and gathering European fame.

In the interval that elapsed between the battle of Bosworth Field and the birth of Shakespeare Warwickshire continued to be visited by the reigning monarch and members of the royal family. The year after his accession to the crown Henry VIII, with Queen Catherine, visited Coventry in state, and witnessed there a series of magnificent pageants. In 1525 the Princess Mary spent two days at the priory, being entertained with the usual sports and shows, and presented by the citizens on her departure with hand-some presents. The year after Shakespeare's birth Queen Elizabeth made a state visit to Coventry, Kenilworth, and Warwick, the young queen being received at every point of her progress with unusually splendid demonstrations of loyalty and devotion. And nine years before Shakespeare's birth King Edward VI, in the last months of his reign, had specially interested himself in the re-establishment by royal charter of the free grammar school of the guild at Stratford, which had been suppressed at the dissolution of religious houses during his father's reign.

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