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The evidences of an agonised conscience are so thickly strewn throughout his works, that we might almost quote at random :
“I, as his host
“Oh, my offence is rank, it smells to Heaven, It hath the primal eldest curse upon it."
“Now doth he feel His secret murders sticking on his hands."
“ Better be the dead Whom we, to gain our peace, have sent to peace."
“And all our yesterdays Have lighted fools to dusty death."
“ What if this cursed hand Were thicker than itself with brother's blood."
" Oh wretched state, Oh bosom black as death,” &c., &c.
Anyone who reads the tragedies of "Macbeth," "Hamlet," “ Titus Andronicus,” &c., with this story in his mind, will see that it is true.
Many women would have been utterly crushed by such a disclosure: some would have fled from him immediately, and exposed and denounced the crime. Mrs. Shakspere did neither. She would neither leave her husband nor betray him ; nor would she for one moment justify his sin, and hence came thirty-two years of convulsive struggle, in which sometimes for a time the good angel appeared to gain ground, and then the evil one returned with sevenfold vehemence.
His eldest daughter, Susannah, for whom his preference is so plainly shown in his will, became the partner of his guilt. Mr. Shakspere argued his case with her, with his noble wife, and with himself, with all the sophistries of his powerful mind,
“Do what you will, to you it doth belong
Yourself to pardon of self-doing crime."
"'Tis better to be vile, than vile esteemed."
“I will acquaintance strangle, and look strange."
tinually to allude to them in his writings, could not entirely blind him, even in his most conscience-stricken moments, to the danger of being too explicit. At a later period, when Mr. Shakspere removed to New Place, the guilty secret was hidden beneath a mulberry tree.
“No more be grieved at that which thou hast done :
Roses have thorns, and silver fountains mud ;
These devilish sophistries, though unable to shake his lofty-minded wife, were ruinous to the unfortunate child of sin, born with a curse upon her, over whose wayward nature Mrs. Shakspere watched with a mother's tenderness; though the task was a difficult one, from the strange abnormal propensity to murder inherited by the object of her cares.
But though he could thus warp this young soul, his divine wife followed him through all his sophistical reasonings with a keener reason. She besought and implored him in the name of his better nature and by all the glorious things he was capable of being and doing; and she had just power enough to convulse and agonize; but not power enough to subdue.
These thirty-two years, during which Mrs. Shakspere was struggling to bring her husband back to his better self, were a series of passionate convulsions. Towards the last she and her husband saw less and less of each other, and he came more decidedly under evil influences, and seemed to acquire a sort of hatred to her.
“ If ere I loved her, all that love is gone;
My heart to her but as in guest-wise sojourn'd."
He had tried his strength with her fully: he had attempted to confuse her sense of right and wrong, and bring her into the ranks of those convenient women who regard marriage as a sort of friendly alliance to cover murder on both sides. When her husband described to her the Continental cities where midnight assassinations were habitual things, and the dark marriages in which complaisant couples mutually agreed to form the cloak for each other's murders, and gave her to understand that in this way alone could she have a peaceful and friendly life with him, she simply said, “Master Shakspere, I am too truly thy friend to do this.”
Mr. Shakspere's treatment of his wife during the sensitive periods that preceded the births of her three children, was always marked by paroxysms of unmanly brutality, for which the only possible charity on her part was the supposition of insanity. He himself alludes to it, with his usual sophistry, where he speaks of “his eye in a fine
phrensy rolling." Rowe sheds a significant light on these periods, by telling us that about those times, Shakspere was drunk day after day with Ben Jonson, Marlowe, &c.
A day or two after the birth of her first child, Susannah, Mr. Shakspere came suddenly into Mrs. Shakspere's room, and told her that her mother, good Mistress Hathaway, was dead. A day or two after the birth of the second child, Hamnet, he came with still greater suddenness into her room, and toll her that her father, the venerable Master Hathaway, was dead; and a day or two after the birth of the third child, Judith, he came with greater suddenness than ever into the chamber, and harrowed her feelings by announcing the death of worthy Master John à Combe.
Never has more divine strength of love existed in a woman. Her conduct in these trying circumstances displays the breadth of Mrs. Shakspere's mind, and, above all, her clear divining, moral discrimination ; never mistaking wrong for right in the slightest degree; fully alive to the criminality of Mr. Shakspere and his guilty daughter's murderous proceedings ; yet with a mercifulness that made allowance for every weakness and pitied every sin. On one occasion, after their removal to New Place, she came upon him, sitting with the partner of his guilt, beneath the fatal mulberry tree. She went up to them, and he, looking down upon the grave among the nettles, with a sarcastic smile, said : “When will those three down there meet us again?”
She answered, “Not in Heaven, I fear.”
During all this trial, strange to say, her belief that the good in Mr. Shakspere would finally conquer, remained unshaken. She forgave him even the cruelty with which he strove to make her ridiculous in the eyes of the world, by his constant allusions to her being older than himself, and his false and unmanly attacks upon her disposition :
All these and more ribald and unmanly insults and obscenity fell at her pitying feet unheeded.
It has been thought by some friends who have read the proof sheets of the foregoing pages, that the author should give more specifically her authority for these statements.
The great great grandmother of the present writer was one of those pilgrim mothers, devoted companions of certain less widely known but surely not less deserving pilgrim fathers, who were dispatched at the expense of an effete mother country to assist in colonising the British possessions of the American continent. The writer's venerable ancestor and namesake, Mistress Harriet B. Cherstow, had occasion, before quitting her native land, to visit Warwickshire, and the circumstances which led her there at that time, originated a friendship and correspondence with Mistress Shakspere, which was always regarded as one of the greatest acquisitions of that visit. She there received a letter from Mrs. Shakspere, indicating that she wished to have some private, confidential communication upon important subjects, and inviting her for that purpose to spend a day with her at her country seat near Stratford.
Mrs. B. Cherstow went, and spent a day with Mrs. Shakspere alone, and the object of the invitation was explained to her. Mrs. Shakspere was in such a state of health that her physician, worthy Dr. Hall (the husband of the abnormal offspring “born in bitterness and nurtured in convulsion "), had warned her that she had very little time to live. She was engaged in those duties and retrospections, which every thoughtful person finds necessary when coming deliberately and with open eyes to the boundaries of this mortal life.
At that period some cheap performances of Mr. Shakspere's plays at the Globe Theatre were in contemplation, intended to bring his works before the eyes of the masses.
Under these circumstances, some of Mrs. Shakspere's friends had proposed the question to her whether she had not a responsibility to society for the truth; whether she did right to allow those dramas to gain influence over the popular mind, by giving a silent consent to what she knew to be utter falsehoods.
Mrs. Shakspere's whole life had been passed in the most heroic self-abnegation and self-sacrifice, and she had now to consider whether one more act of self-denial was not required of her before leaving this world-namely, to declare the absolute truth, no matter at what expense to her feelings.
For this reason it was her desire to recount the whole history to a person, wholly out of the sphere of theatrical or local feelings, which might be supposed to influence those belonging to the county, or to the profession in life in which the events really happened ; in order that she might be helped by such a person's views in making up an opinion as to her own duty.
The interview had almost the solemnity of a death-bed avowal. Mrs. Shakspere stated the facts which have been embodied above, and gave to the writer's revered ancestor,--the first to bear the henceforth immortal name of Harriet B. Cherstow,-a brief memorandum of the whole with the dates affixed.
The words and actions of Mrs. Shakspere during the last part of her life seemed more like those of a blessed being, detached from earth, than those of an ordinary mortal. What impressed Mrs. B. Cherstow more strongly than anything else was, Mrs. Shakspere's conviction that Mr. Shakspere was now a redeemed spirit, and that he looked back with shame and regret on the immense destruction of human life of which he had been guilty; and that if he could speak or act in the case, he would desire to prohibit the representation of those dangerous dramas, the seductive poetry of which he had made the vehicle of his morbid love of slaughter, and unworthy passion for burying his fellow playwrights beneath the mulberry tree.
Mrs. Shakspere's strongly philosophical mind had become satisfied that Mr. Shakspere was one of those unfortunately constituted persons in whom the balance of nature is so critically hung that it is always in danger of dipping towards insanity, and that in certain periods of his life he was so far under the influence of mental disorder as not to be fully responsible for his actions.
She went over, with a brief and clear analysis, the history of his whole life as she had thought it out in the lonely musings of her widowhood. She went through the mismanagement of his infancy, how he was allowed to mule and puke in his nurse's arms; of his neglected childhood, whining, and creeping like snail unwillingly to school ; yet so precocious in deceit, as when there to show a shining morning face. She sketched boldly and clearly the mixture of ferocity and hypocrisy characterising the internal life of the youth in his father's slaughter-house; where, as Old Aubrey tells us," he exercised his father's trade, and when he killed a calf, would do it in high style, and make a speech." She dwelt on the account given by Davis of his being “much given to all unluckiness in stealing venison and rabbits,” and showed how habits, which with less susceptible fibre and coarser strength of nature, were tolerable for his companions, were deadly to him ; unhinging his nervous system, which she con