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parts of Ireland; a country which, like an old coffer in the country mansion of an old fashioned family, is the exchequer of all the odds and ends and relics of modes long passed, and exploded in modern life.
I remember, in my childhood, dining at the country house of an old catholic family, where, after the chaplain had pronounced an interminable grace, the lady of the mansion rose, and bowing round graciously to her company, pronounced, “much good may it do ye,” which was always followed, at the end of the dinner, by the observation that none of her guests had eaten any thing; indicating the delicacy of their appetites, and the unworthiness of her table.
A few months back, having stopped to change horses at a road-side inn, and the horses having to be sent for to the field, we alighted, and found the family at dinner in the reception room, which was also the kitchen. A wretched man, begging his way to Dublin, half-naked, and half starved, and so faint from want, cold, and exhaustion, as to be scarcely articulate, paused at the threshold, and moving the crown of a leafless hat, said, “ Much good may it do ye, genteels!” This form of courtesy, in practice among the gentry not many years back, has now fallen to the very lowest classes of society; and this is the history of manners, as well as of phraseology. In Shakspeare's time the salutation of the modern Irish beggar to the peasant, was deemed a trait of royal courtesy.
The modern house-maid, who accompanies her lover, the footman, to the upper gallery, flushes at the coarseness of the fine ladies of Wycherley, Vanbrugh, and Farquhar; and feels her own superiority in modesty and gentility to the lovely Lady Lurewell, or even to the prudent Angelica of Sir Harry Wildair.
Tales, novels, and dramas, are the true sources from which the philosophy of manners can best be drawn, and are illustrative of the progress of society at various and successive epochs. History does nothing in this respect; and modern historians, in this point of view, are infinitely less valuable and useful, than the dryest chronicler of the middle ages. A page of Froissart is worth a volume of Hume, (who, as an historian, by the by, is daily losing ground in public estimation). The literary fiction, which gives cotemporary manners, modes, and prevailing phraseology, has a fair chance of surviving the tale which, placed in a remote epoch, creates a manner and a dialect neither illustrative of the times of which it treats, nor the times in which it is written. This is the fault of the beautiful romance of Ivanhoe, which is written with all the colouring and dialect of Queen Elizabeth's day, copied, even to set idioms and phrases, from Shakspeare and the play-writers of his time.
English was not spoken in the time of King John; the people spoke Saxon, the upper classes Norman-French. When Shakspeare wrote his play of King John, he did not affect to go back to the style and language of Henry the Fifth, because he could not employ that which was in use when his scene was supposed to take place. He therefore wrote in the language of his own times; and among the many admirable qualities of his inspired authorship, not the least admirable is, that he has given in his dramas, the very tone, accent, idioms, and manner of colloquial communication, from the court to the peasant's hut.
To know how exactly Shakspeare has copied existing forms, and to account for the rapidity with which he wrote, it is only necessary to read some of the memoirs and chronicles of Henry the Eighth's and Elizabeth's day, where dialogues on every state affair, carried on by ministers, secretaries, and Irish Lords Lieutenant, are given verbatim,all ready to go upon the stage, and to pass for a scene of Shakspeare's or Ben Jonson's,-just as a group at the Hague or Cologne, still exhibits a high toned picture of Vandervelt or Rembrandt.
I open at random a volume from the shelf of
the book-case of the dressing-room in which I write, and copy literally a scene and dialogue, meant only to be a simple narrative. It is taken from Campion's Historie of Ireland, written 1571;—the scene is a room at court, several lords sitting in commission on Gerald Fitzgerald, Earle of Kildare, “ a gentleman valiant and well spoken, yet in his latter time overtaken with vehement suspicion of sundrie treasons." The Cardinal Chancellor Wolsey is his inveterate enemy and chief accuser. It requires no great effort of imagination to conceive the place and persons of this veracious drama.
The gloomy gothic chamber, the ponderous costume of the lords, many of whom have been made familiar to posterity by the pencil of Vandyke, the sober splendour of Wolsey's habit, his scarlet hat, and glittering crucifix, the picturesque habit, and more picturesque person of the Geraldine,-his gigantic form, and stern, bold bearing, waiting in indignant silence for the accusations to be made against him, by a powerful and interested enemy. After a solemn pause, the lords
being diversly affectioned,” the Cardinal Chancellor broke forth in these words:
“ I wot well, my lord, that I am not the meetest man at this board to charge you with these treasons; because it hath pleased some of your pewfellows to report that I am a professed enemy of the Geraldines. I must have leave, notwithstanding your stale slander, to be the mouth of these honourable persons at this time, and to trumpe your treasons in your way, howsoever you take me.
66 First, You remember how the lewde Earle, your kinsman, who passeth not whom he serve, might he change his master, sent his confederates with letters of credence to Francis the French king.