Folk-lore of Shakespeare, by T.F. Thiselton Dyer, , at sacred-texts.com
As every period of human life has its peculiar rites and ceremonies, its customs and superstitions, so has that ever all-eventful hour which heralds the birth of a fresh actor upon the world's great stage. From the cradle to the grave, through all the successive epochs of man's existence, we find a series of traditional beliefs and popular notions, which have been handed down to us from the far-off distant past. Although, indeed, these have lost much of their meaning in the lapse of years, yet in many cases they are survivals of primitive culture, and embody the conceptions of the ancestors of the human race. Many of these have been recorded by Shakespeare, who, acting upon the great principle of presenting his audience with matters familiar to them, has given numerous illustrations of the manners and superstitions of his own country, as they existed in his day. Thus, in "Richard III.," (iii. 1), when he represents the Duke of Gloucester saying
he alludes to the old superstition, still deeply rooted in the minds of the lower orders, that a clever child never lives long. In Bright's "Treatise of Melancholy," (1586, p. 52), we read,—"I have knowne children languishing of the splene, obstructed and altered in temper, talke with gravity and wisdom surpassing those tender years, and their judgments carrying a marvellous imitation of the wisdome of the ancient, having after a sort attained that by disease, which others have by course of yeares; whereof I take it the proverb ariseth, that 'they be of shorte life who are of wit so pregnant.'" There are sundry superstitious notions relating to
the teething of children prevalent in our own and other countries. In "3 Henry VI.," (v. 6), the Duke of Gloucester, alluding to the peculiarities connected with his birth relates how—
It is still believed, for instance, in many places, that if a child's first tooth appears in the upper jaw, it is an omen of its dying in infancy; and when the teeth come early, it is regarded as indication that there will soon be another baby. In Sussex there is a dislike to throwing away the cast teeth of children, from a notion that should they be found and gnawed by any animal, the child's new tooth would be exactly like the animal's that had bitten the old one. In Durham, when the first teeth come out, the cavities must be filled with salt, and each tooth burned, while the following words are repeated,—
In the above passage, then, Shakespeare simply makes the Duke of Gloucester refer to that extensive folk-lore associated with human birth, showing how careful an observer he was in noticing the whims and oddities of his countrymen.
Again, one of the foremost dangers supposed to hover round the new born infant, was the propensity of witches and fairies, to steal the most beautiful and well-favoured children, and to leave in their places such as were ugly and stupid. These were usually called "changelings." Shakespeare alludes to this notion in "A Midsummer Night's Dream" (ii. 1), where Puck says:—
And further on in the same scene Oberon says:—
As a fairy is in each case the speaker, the changeling in this case denotes the child taken by them. So, too, in the "Winter's Tale" (iii. 3), in the passage where the shepherd relates:—"It was told me I should be rich by the fairies: This is some changeling open’t." As the child here found was a beautiful one, the changeling must naturally mean the child stolen by the fairies, especially as the gold left with it, is conjectured to be fairy gold. The usual signification, however, of the term changeling, is thus marked by Spenser ("Faerie Queene" I. x. 65):—
Occasionally, fairies played pranks with new-born children by exchanging them. To this notion Henry the Fourth refers ("1 Henry IV." i. 1), when, speaking of Hotspur compared with his own profligate son, he exclaims:—
To induce the fairies to restore the stolen child, it was customary in Ireland, either to put the one supposed of being a changeling on a hot shovel, or to torment it in some other way. It seems that, in Denmark, the mother heats the oven, and places the changeling on the peel, pretending to put it in, or whips it severely with a rod, or throws it into the water. In the Western Isles of Scotland, idiots are supposed to be the fairies’ changelings, and, in order to regain the lost child, parents have recourse to the following device. They place the changeling on the beach, below high-water mark, when the tide is out, and pay no heed to its screams, believing that the fairies, rather than suffer their offspring to be drowned by the rising water, will convey it away and restore the child they had stolen. The sign that this has been done is the cessation of the child's screaming. The most effectual preservative, however, against fairy influence
is supposed to be baptism, and hence among the superstitious this rite is performed as soon as possible.
A form of superstition very common in days gone by was the supposed influence of the "Evil eye;" being designated by the terms "o’erlooked," "forelooked," or "eye-bitten," certain persons being thought to possess the power of inflicting injury by merely looking on those whom they wished to harm. Even the new-born child was not exempt from this danger, and various charms were practised to avert it. In the "Merry Wives of Windsor" (v. 5), Pistol says of Falstaff—
This piece of folk-lore may be traced back to the time of the Romans, and in the late Professor Conington's translation of the "Satires of Persius" it is thus spoken of:—"Look here! a grandmother or a superstitious aunt has taken baby from his cradle, and is charming his forehead against mischief by the joint action of her middle-finger and her purifying spittle; for she knows right well how to check the evil eye." 1 It is again alluded to in the "Merchant of Venice" (iii. 2), where Portia, expressing to Bassanio her feelings of regard, declares:—
and in "Titus Andronicus" (ii. 1), Aaron speaks of Tamora as—
This superstition, however, is not yet obsolete, but lingers on in many country places.
We may also compare a similar phrase made use of by "Cleopatra" (iii. 7), in answer to Enobarbus:—"Thou hast forspoke my being in these wars," the word forespeak having anciently had the meaning of charm or bewitch, like forbid in "Macbeth" (i. 3); "he shall live a man forbid." 2
Among the numerous customs associated with the birth of a child, may be mentioned the practice of giving presents at the announcement of this important event. In "King Henry VIII." (v. 1), on the old lady's making known to the king the happy tidings of the birth of a princess, he says to Lovell:—
The old lady, however, resents what she considers a paltry sum:—
It was an ancient custom—one which is not quite out of use—for the sponsors at christenings to offer silver or gilt spoons as a present to the child. These were called "apostle spoons," because the extremity of the handle was formed into the figure of one or other of the apostles. Such as were opulent and generous gave the whole twelve; those who were moderately rich or liberal escaped at the expense of the four evangelists, or even sometimes contented themselves with presenting one spoon only, which exhibited the figure of any saint, in honour of whom the child received its name. In "King Henry VIII." (v. 2), it is in allusion to this custom that, when Cranmer professes to be unworthy of being a sponsor to the young princess, Shakespeare makes the king reply—
A story is related of Shakespeare promising spoons to one of Ben Jonson's children in a collection of anecdotes, entitled "Merry Passages and Jests," compiled by Sir Nicholas L’Estrange (MSS. Harl. 6395):—"Shakespeare was godfather to one of Ben Jonson's children, and after the christ’ning, being in a deepe study, Jonson came to cheere him up, and ask’t him why he was so melancholy. 'No faith, Ben (sayes he), not I; but I have been considering a great while what should be the fittest gift for me to bestow upon my godchild, and I have resolv’d at last.' 'I pr’y thee, what?' sayes he. 'I’ faith, Ben, I’le e’en give him a douzen good Latin spoones,
and thou shalt translate them.'" "Shakespeare," says Mr Thoms, 1 "willing to show his wit, if not his wealth, gave a dozen spoons, not of silver, but of latten, a name formerly used to signify a mixed metal resembling brass, as being the most appropriate gift to the child of a father so learned." In Middleton's "Chaste Maid of Cheapside," 1620—
And Beaumont and Fletcher in the "Noble Gentleman" (v. I)—
The gossip's feast, held in honour of those who were associated in the festivities of a christening, was a very ancient English custom, and is frequently mentioned by dramatists of the Elizabethan age. The term gossip or godsip, a Saxon word signifying cognata ex parte dei, or godmother, is well defined by Richard Verstegan, in his "Restitution of Decayed Intelligence." He says: "Our Christian ancestors, understanding a spiritual affinity to grow between the parents and such as undertooke for the child at baptism, called each other by the name of godsib, which is as much as to say that they were sib together, that is, of kin together through God. And the childe, in like manner, called such his godfathers or godmothers."
As might be expected, it is often alluded to by Shakespeare. Thus, in the "Comedy of Errors" (v. 1), we read—
[paragraph continues] And again in "A Midsummer Night's Dream" (ii. 1), the mischievous Puck says:—
And once more, we find Capulet in "Romeo and Juliet" (iii. 5), saying to the Nurse:—
Referring to entertainments at christenings, we find the following in the "Batchelor's Banquet," 1603 [attributed to Dekker]:—"What cost and trouble it will be to have all things fine against the Christening Day; what store of sugar, biskets, comphets, and caraways, marmalet, and marchpane, with all kinds of sweet-suckers and superfluous banqueting stuff, with a hundred other odd and needless trifles, which at that time must fill the pockets of dainty dames," by which it appears the ladies not only eat what they pleased, but pocketed likewise. Upon this and the falling off of the custom of giving "apostle spoons" at the christening, we read in "Shipman's Gossip," 1666:—
Strype tells us that in 1559 the son of Sir Thomas Chamberlayne was baptised at St. Benet's Church, Paul's Wharf, when "the Church was hung with cloth of arras, and after the christening were brought wafers, comfits, and divers banqueting dishes, and hypocras and Muscadine wine, to entertain the guests."
"In Henry VIII." (v. 4), the Porter says:—
A term formerly in use for the name given at baptism was
[paragraph continues] "Christendom;" an allusion to which we find in "All's well that ends Well" (i. 1) where Helena says:—
the meaning evidently being a number of pretty fond adopted appellations or christian names to which blind Cupid stands godfather. The expression is often used for baptism by old writers; and Singer 1 quotes from "King John" (iv. 1):—
Steevens observes that in the puritanical times it was usual to christen children from the titles of moral and religious virtues—a practice to which allusion seems to be made in the "Tempest" (ii. 1), by Antonio:—
So Taylor, the water-poet, in his description of a strumpet says:—
In days gone a "Christom-Child" was one who had recently been baptized, and died within the month of birth,—the term having originated in the "face-cloth, or piece of linen put upon the head of a child newly baptised." The word "chrisom" was formed from the chrism, that is, the anointing which formed a part of baptism before the Reformation. Thus, in "King Henry V." (ii. 3), the hostess, Mrs Quickly, means "chrisom child" in the following passage, where she speaks of Falstaff's death:—"'A made a finer end, and went away an’ it had been any christom child." In a beautiful passage of Bishop Taylor's "Holy Dying" (chap. i. sec. 2), this custom is thus spoken of:—"Every morning creeps out of a dark cloud, leaving behind it an ignorance and silence deep as midnight, and undiscerned as are the phantoms that made a chrisom-child to smile." Referring to the use of the chrisom-cloth in connection with baptism, it appears that
after the usual immersion in water, the priest made a cross on the child's head with oil, after which the chrisom was put on, the priest asking at the same time the infant's name, and saying,—"Receive this white, pure, and holy vestment, which thou shalt wear before the tribunal of our Lord Jesus Christ, that thou mayest inherit eternal life. Amen." It was to be worn seven days; but after the Reformation, however, the use of oil was omitted, and the chrisom was worn by the child till the mother's churching, when it was returned to the church. If the child died before the churching, it was buried in the chrisom, and hence it may be that the child itself was called a chrisom or chrisomer. 1 Thus, it will be seen that Dame Quickly simply compares the manner of Falstaff's death to that of a young infant. In Registers and Bills of Mortality we find infants alluded to under the term "Chrisoms." Burn, in his "History of Parish Registers," (1862, p. 127), gives the subjoined entry from a register of Westminster Abbey,—"The Princess Ann's child a chrissome, bu. in ye vault, Oct. 22, 1687."
In Graunt's "Bills of Mortality," cited in Johnson's "Dictionary," we read,—"When the convulsions were but few, the number of chrisoms and infants was greater." The "bearing cloth" was the mantle which generally covered the child when it was carried to the font. It is noticed in "The Winter's Tale," (iii. 3), by the shepherd, who, on the discovery of Paulina, says to the clown,—"Here's a sight for thee; look thee, a bearing-cloth for a squire's child! look thee here; take up, take up, boy; open’t." In Stow's "Chronicle," (1631, p. 1039), we are told that about this time it was not customary "for godfathers and godmothers generally to give plate at the baptisme of children, but only to give "christening shirts," with little bands and cuffs, wrought either with silk or blue thread. The best of them, for chief persons, were edged with a small lace of black silk and gold, the highest price of which for great men's children was seldom above a noble, and the common sort, two, three, or four, and six shillings a piece."
315:1 See Douce's "Illustrations of Shakspeare," p. 383; Brand's "Popular Antiquities," 1849, iii. pp. 44–46, 326.
315:2 See Napier's "Folk-lore of West of Scotland," 1879. pp. 34–40. Keightley's "Fairy Mythology;" Brand's "Popular Antiquities," 1849, iii. pp. 73, 74.
317:1 "Anecdotes and Traditions," 1839, p. 3.
319:1 "Shakespeare," 1875, iv. p. 314.
320:1 Douce's. "Illustrations of Shakspeare," 1859, pp. 299, 300; Nares's "Glossary," i. p. 160; see Brand's "Pop. Antiq.," 1849, ii. pp. 84, 85.