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Folk-lore of Shakespeare, by T.F. Thiselton Dyer, [1883], at

p. 340



From a very early period there has existed a belief in the existence of a power of prophecy at that period which precedes death. It took its origin in the assumed fact that the soul becomes divine in the same ratio as its connection with the body is loosened. It has been urged in support of this theory that at the hour of death the soul is, as it were, on the confines of two worlds, and may possibly at the same moment possess a power which is both prospective and retrospective. Shakespeare, in "Richard II." (ii. 1), makes the dying Gaunt exclaim, alluding to his nephew, the young and self-willed king—

"Methinks I am a prophet new inspired
 And thus expiring do foretell of him."

Again, the brave Percy, in "1 Henry IV." (v. 4), when in the agonies of death, expresses the same idea—

                    "O, I could prophesy,
But that the earthy and cold hand of death
Lies on my tongue."

   We may also compare what Nerissa says of Portia's father in "Merchant of Venice" (i. 2), "Your father was ever virtuous; and holy men at their death have good inspirations."

   Curious to say this notion may be traced up to the time of Homer. Thus Patroclus prophesies the death of Hector ("Iliad," π. 852):—"You yourself are not destined to live long, for even now death is drawing nigh unto you, and a violent fate awaits you—about to be slain in fight by the hands of Achilles." Aristotle tells us that the soul, when on the point of death, foretells things about to happen. Others have

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sought for the foundation of this belief in the 49th chapter of Genesis:—"And Jacob called his sons, and said, Gather yourselves together, that I may tell you that which shall befall you in the last days. And when Jacob had made an end of commanding his sons, he gathered up his feet into his bed, and yielded up the ghost, and was gathered unto his people." Whether, however, we accept this origin or not, at any rate it is very certain that the notion in question has existed from the earliest times, being alluded to also by Socrates, Xenophon, and Diodorus Siculus. It still lingers on in Lancashire and other parts of England.

   Among other omens of death may be mentioned high spirits, which have been supposed to presage impending death. Thus, in "Romeo and Juliet" (v. 3), Romeo exclaims—

"How oft when men are at the point of death
 Have they been merry! which their keepers call
 A lightning before death."

   This idea is noticed by Ray, who inserts it as a proverb, "It's a lightening before death;" and adds this note: "This is generally observed of sick persons, that a little before they die their pains leave them, and their understanding and memory return to them—as a candle just before it goes out gives a great blaze." It was also a superstitious notion that unusual mirth was a forerunner of adversity. Thus, in the last act of "Romeo and Juliet" (1), Romeo comes on saying—

"If I may trust the flattering truth of sleep,
 My dreams presage some joyful news at hand:
 My bosom's lord sits lightly in his throne;
 And all this day an unaccustom’d spirit
 Lifts me above the ground with cheerful thoughts."

Immediately, however, a messenger enters to announce Juliet's death.

   In "King Richard III." (iii. 2), Hastings is represented as rising in the morning in unusually high spirits. Stanley says—

"The lords at Pomfret, when they rode from London,
 Were jocund, and supposed their state was sure,
 And they indeed had no cause to mistrust;
 But yet, you see, how soon the day o’ercast."

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[paragraph continues] This idea, it may be noted, runs throughout the whole scene. Before dinner-time, Hastings was beheaded.

   Once more, in "2 Henry IV." (iv. 2), the same notion is alluded to in the following dialogue:—

"Westmoreland. Health to my lord and gentle cousin,
    Mowbray. Mowbray. You wish me health in very happy season;
 For I am, on the sudden, something ill.
    Arch. Against ill chances men are ever merry;
 But heaviness foreruns the good event.
    West. Therefore be merry, coz; since sudden sorrow
 Serves to say thus, 'Some good thing comes to-morrow.'
    Arch. Believe me, I am passing light in spirit.
    Mowb. So much the worse, if your own rule be true."

   Tytler, in his "History of Scotland," thus speaks of the death of King James I.—"On this fatal evening (Feb. 20, 1436), the revels of the Court were kept up to a late hour. The prince himself appears to have been in unusually gay and cheerful spirits. He even jested, if we may believe the contemporary manuscript, about a prophecy which had declared that a king that year should be slain." Shelley strongly entertained this superstition—"During all the time he spent in Leghorn, he was in brilliant spirits, to him a sure prognostic of coming evil."

   Again, it is a very common opinion that death announces its approach by certain mysterious noises, a notion, indeed, which may be traced up to the time of the Romans, who believed that the genius of death announced his approach by some supernatural warning. In "Troilus and Cressida" (iv. 4), Troilus says—

"Hark! you are call’d: some say, the Genius so
 Cries 'come' to him that instantly must die."

This superstition was frequently made use of by writers of bygone times, and often served to embellish, with touching pathos, their poetic sentiment. Thus Flatman, in some pretty lines, has embodied this thought—

"My soul, just now about to take her flight,
 Into the regions of eternal night,
 Methinks I hear some gentle spirit say,
 Be not fearful, come away."

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   Pope speaks in the same strain—

"Hark! they whisper, angels say,
 Sister spirit, come away."

   Shakespeare, too, further alludes to this idea in "Macbeth" 3), where, it may be remembered, Lennox graphically describes how, on the awful night in which Duncan is so basely murdered—

"Our chimneys were blown down; and, as they say,
 Lamentings heard i’ the air; strange screams of death,
 And prophesying with accents terrible
 Of dire combustion and confused events,
 New hatch’d to the woeful time."

   As in Shakespeare's day, so, too, at the present time, there is perhaps no superstition so deeply rooted in the minds of many people as the belief in what are popularly termed "death-warnings." Modern folk-lore holds either that a knocking or rumbling in the floor is an omen of a death about to happen, or that dying persons themselves announce their dissolution to their friends in such strange sounds. 1 Many families are supposed to have particular warnings, such as the appearance of a bird, the figure of a tall woman, etc. Such, moreover, are not confined to our own country, but in a variety of forms are found on the continent. According to another belief, it was generally supposed that when a man was on his death-bed, the devil or his agents tried to seize his soul, if it should happen that he died without receiving the sacrament of the eucharist, or without confessing his sins. Hence, in "2 Henry VI." (iii. 3), the king says:—

"O, beat away the busy meddling fiend
 That lays strong siege unto this wretch's soul,
 And from his bosom purge this black despair."

   In the old office books of the church, these "busy meddling fiends" are often represented with great anxiety besieging the dying man; but on the approach of the priest and his attendants, they are shown to display symptoms

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of despair at their impending discomfiture. Douce 1 quotes from an ancient manuscript book of devotion, written in the reign of Henry the Sixth, the following prayer to St George:—"Judge for me whan the moste hedyous and damnable dragons of helle shall be redy to take my poore soule and engloute it in to theyr infernall belyes."

   Some think that the "passing bell," which was formerly tolled for a person who was dying, was intended to drive away the evil spirit that might be hovering about to seize the soul of the deceased. 2* Its object, however, was probably to bespeak the prayers of the faithful, and to serve as a solemn warning to the living. Shakespeare has given several touching allusions to it. Thus, in his seventy-first sonnet he says—

"No longer mourn for me when I am dead
 Than you shall hear the surly sullen bell
 Give warning to the world that I am fled
 From this vile world."

In "2 Henry IV." (i. 1), Northumberland speaks in the same strain—

"Yet the first bringer of unwelcome news
 Hath but a losing office, and his tongue
 Sounds ever after as a sullen bell,
 Remember’d tolling a departing friend."

We may quote a further allusion in "Venus and Adonis" (701)—

"And now his grief may be compared well
 To one sore sick that hears the passing bell."

   In a statute passed during the reign of Henry VIII., it is ordered "that clarks are to ring no more than the passing bell for poare people, nor less for an honest householder, and he be a citizen; nor for children, maydes, journeymen, apprentices, daylabourers, or any other poare person." In 1662, the Bishop of Worcester 3* asks in his visitation charge:—"Doth the parish clerk or sexton take care to admonish the living, by tolling of a passing-bell of any that are dying,

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thereby to meditate of their own deaths, and to commend the other's weak condition to the mercy of God." It was, also, called the "soul-bell," upon which Bishop Hall remarks—"We call it the soul-bell because it signifies the departure of the soul, not because it helps the passage of the soul." Ray in his "Collection of Proverbs" has the following couplet—

"When thou dost hear a toll or knell
 Then think upon thy passing bell."

It was formerly customary to draw away the pillow from under the heads of dying persons, so as to accelerate their departure—an allusion to which we find in "Timon of Athens" (iv. 3), where Timon says

"Pluck stout men's pillows from below their heads."

This, no doubt, originated in the notion that a person cannot die happily on a bed with pigeons’ feathers. Grose says:—"It is impossible for a person to die whilst resting on a pillow stuffed with the feathers of a dove; but that he will struggle with death in the most exquisite torture. The pillows of dying persons are therefore frequently taken away when they appear in great agonies, lest they may have pigeon's feathers in them." Indeed, in Lancashire, this practice is carried to such an extent that some will not allow dying persons to lie on a feather bed, because they hold that it very much increases their pain and suffering, and actually retards their departure. 1

   The departure of the human soul from this world, and its journey to its untried future, have become interwoven with an extensive net-work of superstitions, varying more or less in every country and tribe. Shakespeare has alluded to the numerous destinations of the disembodied spirit, enumerating the many ideas prevalent in his time on the subject. In "Measure for Measure" (iii. 1), Claudio thus speaks:—

"Ay, but to die, and go we know not where;
 To lie in cold obstruction and to rot;

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[paragraph continues]  This sensible warm motion to become
 A kneaded clod; and the delighted spirit
 To bathe in fiery floods, or to reside
 In thrilling region of thick-ribbed ice;
 To be imprison’d in the viewless winds,
 And blown with restless violence round about
 The pendent world." 1

We may compare also the powerful language of Othello (v. 2):—

"This look of thine will hurl my soul from heaven,
 And fiends will snatch at it. Cold, cold, my girl!
 Even like thy chastity. O cursed slave!
 Whip me, ye devils.
 From the possession of this heavenly sight!
 Blow me about in winds! Roast me in sulphur!
 Wash me in steep-down gulfs of liquid fire!
 O Desdemona! Desdemona! dead!"

Douce 2 says that in the former passage it is difficult to decide whether Shakespeare is alluding to the pains of hell or purgatory. Both passages are obscure, and have given rise to much criticism. It seems probable, however, that whilst partly referring to the notions of the time, relating to departed souls, Shakespeare has in a great measure incorporated the ideas of what he had read in books of Catholic divinity. The passages quoted above remind us of the legend of St. Patrick's purgatory, where mention is made of a lake of ice and snow into which persons were plunged up to their necks; and of the description of hell, given in the "Shepherd's Calendar"

"—a great froste in a water rounes
 And after a bytter wynde comes
 Which gothe through the soules with eyre;
 Fends with pokes pulle theyr flesshe ysondre,
 They fight and curse, and eche on other wonder."

We cannot here enter, however, into the mass of mystic details respecting "the soul's dread journey 3 by caverns and rocky paths and weary plains, over steep and slippery mountains, by frail bank or giddy bridge, across gulfs or

p. 347

rushing rivers, abiding the fierce onset of the soul-destroyer or the doom of the stern guardian of the other world." Few subjects indeed have afforded greater scope for the imagination than the hereafter of the human soul, and hence, as might be expected, numerous myths have been invented in most countries to account for its mysterious departure in the hour of death, from the world of living men to its unseen, unknown home in the distant land of Spirits.

   Shakespeare several times uses the word "limbo" in a general signification for hell, as in "Titus Andronicus" (iii. 1)—

"As far from help as Limbo is from bliss."

And in "All's Well That Ends Well" (v. 3), Parolles says—"For indeed he was mad for her, and talked of Satan, and of Limbo, and of Furies, and I know not what." In "Henry VIII." (v. 4), "In Limbo Patrum" is jocularly put for a prison; and again, in "Comedy of Errors" (iv. 2), "He's in Tartar limbo." "According to the schoolmen, Limbus Patrum was the place, bordering on hell, where the souls of the patriarchs and saints of the Old Testament remained till the death of Christ, who, descending into hell, let them free." 1

   One of the punishments invented of old for the covetous and avaricious in hell was to have melted gold poured down their throats, to which allusion is made by Flaminius in "Timon of Athens" (iii. 1), who, denouncing Lucullus for his mean insincerity towards his friend Timon, exclaims, on rejecting the bribe offered him to tell his master that he had not seen him—

"May these add to the number that may scald thee!
 Let molten coin be thy damnation."

   In the "Shepherd's Calendar," Lazarus declares himself to have seen covetous men and women in hell dipped in caldrons of molten lead. Malone quotes the following from an old black-letter ballad of "The Dead Man's Song"—

"Ladles full of melted gold
 Were poured down their throats."

Crassus was so punished by the Parthians. 2

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   There is possibly a further allusion to this imaginary punishment in "Antony and Cleopatra" (ii. 5), where Cleopatra says to the Messenger—

          "But, sirrah, mark, we use
To say the dead are well; bring it to that,
The gold I give thee will I melt and pour
Down thy ill-uttering throat."

   According to a well-known superstition among sailors, it is considered highly unlucky to keep a corpse on board, in case of a death at sea. Thus, in "Pericles" (iii. 1), this piece of folk-lore is alluded to—

"1 Sail. Sir, your queen must overboard; the sea works high, the wind is loud, and will not lie till the ship be cleared of the dead.
    Per. That's your superstition.
    1 Sail. Pardon us, sir; with us at sea it hath been still observed; and we are strong in custom. Therefore briefly yield her; for she must overboard straight."

   It was also a popular opinion that death is delayed until the ebb of the tide—a superstition to which Mrs Quickly refers, in "Henry V." (ii. 3), speaking of Falstaff's death, she says—"’A made a finer end and went away an it had been any christom child; ’a parted even just between twelve and one, even at the turning o’ the tide." Hence, in cases of sickness, many pretended that they could foretell the hour of the soul's departure. It may be remembered how Mr Peggotty explained to David Copperfield, by poor Barkis's bedside, that "people can't die along the coast except when the tide's pretty nigh out. They can't be born unless it's pretty nigh in—not properly born till flood. He's agoing out with the tide—he's agoing out with the tide. It's ebb at half-arter three, slack-water half-an-hour. If he lives till it turns he'll hold his own till past the flood, and go out with the next tide." Mr Henderson 1 quotes from the parish register of Heslidon, near Hartlepool, the subjoined extracts of old date, in which the state of the tide at the time of death is mentioned—

   "The xith daye of Maye, A.D. 1595, at vi. of ye clocke in the morninge, being full water, Mr Henrye Mitford, of

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[paragraph continues] Hoolam, died at Newcastel, and was buried the xvith daie, being Sondaie, at evening prayer, the hired preacher maid ye sermon."

   "The xviith daie of Maie, at xii. of ye clock at noon, being lowe water, Mrs Barbara Mitford died, and was buried the xviiith daie of Maie, at ix of the clocke. Mr Holsworth maid ye sermon."

   According to Mr Henderson, this belief is common along the east coast of England, from Northumberland to Kent. It has been suggested that there may be "some slight foundation for this belief in the change of temperature, which undoubtedly takes place on the change of tide, and which may act on the flickering spark of life, extinguishing it as the ebbing sea recedes."

   We may compare, too, the following passage in "2 Henry IV." (iv. 4), where Clarence, speaking of the approaching death of the king, says—

"The river hath thrice flow’d, no ebb between;
 And the old folk, time's doting chronicles,
 Say it did so a little time before
 That our great grandsire, Edward, sick’d and died."

   This was an historical fact, having happened on October 12th, 1411.

   The prayers of the Church which are used for the recovery of the sick were, in the olden time, also supposed to have a morbific influence, to which Gloucester attributes the death of the king in "1 Henry VI." (i. 1)—

"The church! where is it? Had not churchmen pray’d,
 His thread of life had not so soon decay’d."

Once more, the custom of closing the eyes at the moment of death is touchingly referred to in "Antony and Cleopatra" (v. 2), where Charmian may be supposed to close Cleopatra's eyes—

             "Downy windows, close;
And golden Phœbus never be beheld
Of eyes again so royal."

   Passing on from that solemn moment in human life when the soul takes its flight from the fragile tenement of clay that

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contained it during its earthly existence, we find that even among the lowest savages there has generally been a certain respect paid to the dead body; and consequently various superstitious rites have from time to time been associated with its burial, which has been so appropriately termed "the last act." Whilst occasionally speaking of death, Shakespeare has not only pictured its solemnity in the most powerful and glowing language, but, as opportunity allowed, given us a slight insight into those customs that formerly prevailed in connection with the committal of the body to its final resting place in the grave. At the present day, when there is an ever-growing tendency to discard and forget as irrational and foolish the customs of by-gone years, it is interesting to find chronicled for all future time in the immortal pages of our illustrious poet those superstitious rites and social usages which may be said to have been most intimately identified with the age to which they belonged. One custom, perhaps, that will always retain its hold amongst us—so long as we continue to bury the remains of our departed ones—is the scattering of flowers on their graves, a practice indeed which may be traced up to Pagan times. It is frequently mentioned by Shakespeare in some of his superb passages, as, for instance, in "Cymbeline" (iv. 2), where Arviragus says—

                          "With fairest flowers,
Whilst summer lasts, and I live here, Fidele,
I'll sweeten thy sad grave: thou shalt not lack
The flower that's like thy face, pale primrose, nor
The azured hare-bell, like thy veins; no, nor
The leaf of eglantine, whom not to slander,
Out-sweeten’d not thy breath.
    .     .     .     .     .     .     .     .     .     .
Yea, and furr’d moss besides, when flowers are none,
To winter-ground thy corse."

In "Hamlet" (iv. 5), the poor bewildered Ophelia sings—

"Larded with sweet flowers;
Which bewept to the grave did go
     With true-love showers."

Then further on (v. 1) there is the affecting flower-strewing

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scene, where the Queen, standing over the grave of Ophelia, bids her a long farewell—

"Sweets to the sweet, farewell!
 I hoped thou shouldst have been my Hamlet's wife;
 I thought thy bride-bed to have deck’d, sweet maid,
 And not have strew’d thy grave."

   In "Romeo and Juliet" (iv. 5), Capulet says—

"Our bridal flowers serve for a buried corse."

And further on (v. 3) the Page says—

"He came with flowers to strew his lady's grave." 1

Once more, in "Pericles" (iv. 1), Marina is introduced, entering with a basket of flowers, uttering these sad words—

"No, I will rob Tellus of her weed,
 To strew thy green with flowers; the yellows, blues,
 The purple violets, and marigolds,
 Shall as a carpet hang upon thy grave,
 While summer-days do last."

   Flowers, which so soon droop and wither, are indeed sweet emblems of that brief life which is the portion of mankind in this world; while, at the same time, their exquisite beauty is a further type of the glory that awaits the redeemed hereafter, when, like fair flowers, they shall burst forth in unspeakable grandeur on the resurrection morn. There is a pretty custom observed in South Wales on Palm Sunday, of spreading fresh flowers upon the graves of friends and relatives,—the day being called Flowering Sunday.

   The practice of decorating the corpse is mentioned by many old writers. In "Romeo and Juliet," (iv. 5), Friar Laurence says,—

"Dry up your tears, and stick your rosemary
 On this fair corse; and, as the custom is,
 In all her best array bear her to church."

   Queen Katharine, in "Henry VIII.," (iv. 2), directs,—

            "When I am dead, good wench,
Let me be used with honour: strew me over
With maiden flowers."

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   It was formerly customary, in various parts of England, to have a garland of flowers and sweet herbs carried before a maiden's coffin, and afterwards to suspend it in the church. In allusion to this practice the priest in "Hamlet" (v. 1), says:

"Yet here she is allow’d her virgin crants,
 Her maiden strewments and the bringing home
 Of bell and burial."

—crants 1 meaning garlands. It may be noted that no other instance has been found of this word in English. These garlands are thus described by Gay:—

"To her sweet mem’ry flow’ry garlands strung,
 On her now empty seat aloft were hung."

   Nichols, in his "History of Lancashire," (ii., pt. i. 382), speaking of Waltham in Framland Hundred, says: "In this Church, under every arch, a garland is suspended, one of which is customarily placed there whenever any young unmarried woman dies." Brand 2 tells us he saw in the churches of Wolsingham and Stanhope, in the County Durham, specimens of these garlands; the form of a woman's glove, cut in white paper, being hung in the centre of each of them.

   The funerals of knights and persons of rank were in Shakespeare's day performed with great ceremony and ostentation. Sir John Hawkins observes that "the sword, the helmet, the gauntlet, spens, and tabard are still hung over the grave of every knight." In "Hamlet," (iv. 5), Laertes speaks of this custom:—

"His means of death, his obscure burial,
 No trophy, sword, nor hatchment o’er his bones,
 No noble rite, nor formal ostentation—
 Cry to be heard, as ’twere from heaven to earth
 That I must call’t in question."

   Again, in "2 Henry VI.," (iv. 10), Iden says:—

"Is’t Cade that I have slain, that monstrous traitor?
 Sword, I will hallow thee for this thy deed,
 And hang thee o’er my tomb when I am dead."

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   The custom of bearing the dead body in its ordinary habiliments, and with the face uncovered—a practice referred to in "Romeo and Juliet," (iv. 1),—appears to have been peculiar to Italy,—

"Then, as the manner of our country is,
 In thy best robes uncover’d on the bier
 Thou shalt be borne to that same ancient vault
 Where all the kindreds of the Capulets lie."

   In Coryat's "Crudities" (1776, ii. p. 27), the practice is thus described:—"The burials are so strange, both in Venice and all other cities, towns, and parishes of Italy, that they differ not only from England, but from all other nations whatever in Christendom. For they carry the corse to church with the face, hands, and feet all naked, and wearing the same apparel that the person wore lately before it died, or that which it craved to be buried in; which apparel is interred together with their bodies. 1 Singer 2 says that Shakespeare no doubt had seen this custom particularly described in the "Tragicall History of Romeus and Juliet,"—

"Another use there is, that whosoever dies,
 Borne to the Church, with open face upon the bier he lies,
 In wonted weed attir’d, not wrapt in winding sheet."

He alludes to it again in Ophelia's song in "Hamlet" (iv. 5):—

"They bore him barefaced on the bier."

It was in bygone times customary to bury the Danish kings in their armour—hence the remark of Hamlet (i. 4), when addressing the Ghost:—

             "What may this mean,
That thou, dead corse, again in complete steel
Revisit’st thus the glimpses of the moon,
Making night hideous."

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[paragraph continues] Shakespeare was probably guilty of an anachronism in "Coriolanus" (v. 6), when he makes one of the lords say:—

             "Bear from hence his body;
And mourn you for him: let him be regarded
As the most noble corse that ever herald
Did follow to his urn,"

the allusion being to the public funerals of English Princes, at the conclusion of which a herald proclaimed the style of the deceased.

   We may compare what Queen Katharine says in "King Henry VIII." (iv. 2):—

"After my death I wish no other herald,
 No other speaker of my living actions,
 To keep my honour from corruption
 But such an honest chronicler as Griffith."

   It seems to have been the fashion, as far back as the thirteenth century, to ornament the tombs of eminent persons with figures and inscriptions on plates of brass; hence in "Love's Labour's Lost" (i. 1), the King says:—

"Let fame, that all hunt after in their lives,
 Live register’d upon our brazen tombs."

   In "Much ado about Nothing" (v. 1), Leonato speaking of his daughter's death says:—

"Hang her an epitaph upon her tomb,
 And sing it to her bones, sing it to-night."

And also in a previous scene (iv. 1), this graceful custom is noticed:—

"Maintain a mourning ostentation
 And on your family's old monument
 Hang a mournful epitaph."

It was also the custom, in years gone by, on the death of an eminent person, for his friends to compose short laudatory verses, epitaphs, &c., and to affix them to the hearse or grave with pins, wax, paste, &c. Thus in "Henry V." (i. 2), Henry declares:—

"Either our history shall with full mouth
 Speak freely of our acts, or else our grave,

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[paragraph continues]  Like Turkish mute, shall have a tongueless mouth,
 Not worshipp’d with a waxen epitaph,"

meaning, says Gifford, "I will either have my full history recorded with glory, or lie in an undisturbed grave; not merely without an inscription sculptured in stone, but un-worshipped, unhonoured, even by a waxen epitaph." 1

   We may also compare what Lucius says in "Titus Andronicus" (i. 1):—

"There lie thy bones, sweet Mutius, with thy friends,
 Till we with trophies do adorn thy tomb."

The custom was still general when Shakespeare lived; many fine and interesting examples existing in the old Cathedral of St. Paul's, and other churches of London, down to the time of the Great Fire, in the form of pensil-tables of wood and metal, painted or engraved with poetical memorials, suspended against the columns and walls.

   "Feasts of the Dead," which have prevailed in this and other countries from the earliest times are, according to some antiquarians, supposed to have been borrowed from the cæna feralis of the Romans—an offering, consisting of milk, honey, wine, olives, and strewed flowers, to the ghost of the deceased. In a variety of forms this custom has prevailed amongst most nations—the idea being that the spirits of the dead feed on the viands set before them; hence the rite in question embraced the notion of a sacrifice. In Christian times, however, these funeral offerings have passed into commemorative banquets, under which form they still exist amongst us. In allusion to these feasts, Hamlet (i. 2), speaking of his mother's marriage, says:—

             "The funeral baked meats
Did coldly furnish forth the marriage tables."

   Again, in "Romeo and Juliet" (iv. 5), Capulet narrates how—

"All things that we ordained festival,
 Turn from their office to black funeral;
 Our instruments to melancholy bells,
 Our wedding cheer to a sad burial feast."

   Mr Tylor, 2 in discussing the origin of funeral feasts, and

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in tracing their origin back to the savage and barbaric times of the institution of feast of departed souls, says we may find a lingering survival of this old rite in the doles of bread and drink given to the poor at funerals, and "soul-mass cakes" which peasant girls beg for at farmhouses with the traditional formula,—

"Soul, soul, for a soul cake,
 Pray you, mistress, a soul cake." 1

   In the North of England, the funeral feast is called an "arval," and the loaves that are sometimes distributed among the poor are termed "arval bread."

   Among other funeral customs mentioned by Shakespeare, may be mentioned his allusion to the burial service. Originally, before the reign of Edward VI., it was the practice for the priest to throw earth on the body in the form of a cross, and then to sprinkle it with holy water. Thus, in the "Winter's Tale," (iv. 4), the Shepherd says,—

"Some hangman must put on my shroud and lay me
 Where no priest shovels in dust,"

—implying, "I must be buried as a common malefactor, out of the pale of consecrated ground, and without the usual rites of the dead,"—a whimsical anachronism, as Mr Douce 2 points out, when it is considered that the old Shepherd was a pagan, a worshipper of Jupiter and Apollo.

   In "Antony and Cleopatra," (i. 3), we find an allusion to the lachrymatory vials filled with tears, which the Romans were in the habit of placing in the tomb of a departed friend. Cleopatra sorrowfully exclaims,—

"O most false love!
Where be the sacred vials thou shouldst fill
With sorrowful water? Now I see, I see,
In Fulvia's death, how mine received shall be."

   This is another interesting instance of Shakespeare's knowledge of the manners of distant ages, showing how varied and extensive his knowledge was, and his skill in applying it whenever occasion required.

p. 357

   The winding or shrouding-sheet, in which the body was wrapped previous to its burial, is alluded to in "Hamlet," (v. 1), in the song of the clown,—

"A pick-axe, and a spade, a spade,
   For and a shrouding sheet:
 O, a pit of clay for to be made
   For such a guest is meet."

   Again, in "A Midsummer Night's Dream," (v. 1), Puck says,—

"The screech owl, screeching loud,
 Puts the wretch that lies in woe
 In remembrance of a shroud."

   Ophelia speaks of the shroud as white as the mountain snow ("Hamlet," iv. 5). The following song, too, in "Twelfth Night," (ii. 4), mentions the custom of sticking yew in the shroud,—

"Come away, come away, death,
   And in sad cypress let me be laid;
 Fly away, fly away, breath:
   I am slain by a fair cruel maid."

"My shroud of white, stuck all with yew,
   O prepare it!
 My part of death, no one so true
   Did share it!"

To quote two further illustrations, Desdemona ("Othello," iv. 2) says to Emilia, "Lay on my bed my wedding-sheets," and when in the following scene Emilia answers—

"I have laid those sheets you bade me on the bed"

Desdemona adds—

"If I do die before thee, pr’ithee, shroud me
 In one of those same sheets."

—a wish, indeed, which her cruel fate so speedily caused to be realised.

   And in "3 Henry VI." (i. 1), we have King Henry's powerful words—

"Think’st thou that I will leave my kingly throne,
 Wherein my grandsire and my father sat?
 No: first shall war unpeople this my realm;

p. 358

[paragraph continues]  Ay, and their colours, often borne in France,
 And now in England to our heart's great sorrow
 Shall be my winding-sheet."

   The custom still prevalent of carrying the dead to the grave with music—a practice which existed in the primitive church—to denote that they have ended their spiritual warfare, and are become conquerors, formerly existed very generally in this country. 1 In "Cymbeline" (iv. 2), Arviragus says—

"And let us, Polydore, though now our voices
 Have got the mannish crack, sing him to the ground,
 As once our mother; use like note and words,
 Save that Euriphile must be Fidele."

   The tolling of bells at funerals is referred to in "Hamlet" (v. 1), where the priest says of Ophelia—

                "—She is allow’d her virgin crants,
Her maiden strewments, and the bringing home
Of bell and burial."

   It has been a current opinion for centuries, that places of burial are haunted with spectres and apparitions—a notion, indeed, that prevailed as far back as the times of heathenism. Ovid speaks of ghosts coming out of their sepulchres and wandering about; and Virgil, quoting the popular opinion of his time, tells us how Moeris could call the ghosts out of their sepulchres ("Bucol." viii. 98):—

"Mœrim, sæpe animas imis excire sepulcris,
 Atque satas alio vidi traducere messes."

Indeed, the idea of the ghost remaining near the corpse is of world-wide prevalence; and as Mr Tylor 2 points out, "through all the changes of religious thought from first to last in the course of human history, the hovering ghosts of the dead make the midnight burial-ground a place where men's flesh creeps with terror." In "A Midsummer Night's Dream" (v. 1), Puck declares—

"Now it is the time of night
   That the graves all gaping wide,
 Every one lets forth his sprite,
   In the church-way paths to glide."

p. 359

[paragraph continues] In the same play, too, (iii. 2) Puck speaking of "Aurora's harbinger," says—

"At whose approach, ghosts, wandering here and there,
 Troop home to churchyards: damned spirits all,
 That in cross ways and floods have burial,
 Already to their wormy beds are gone;
 For fear lest day should look their shames upon."

In this passage two curious superstitions are described;—the ghosts of self-murderers, who are buried in cross-roads; and of those who have been drowned at sea, being said to wander for a hundred years, owing to the rites of sepulture having never been properly bestowed on their bodies.

   We may further compare Hamlet's words (iii. 2)—

"’Tis now the very witching time of night;
 When churchyards yawn and hell itself breathes out
 Contagion to this world."

   From the earliest period much importance has been attached to the position of the grave, the popular direction being from east to west, that from north to south being regarded not only dishonourable but unlucky. Thus, in "Cymbeline" (iv. 2), Guiderius, when arranging about the apparently dead body of Imogen, disguised in man's apparel, says—

"Nay, Cadwal, we must lay his head to the east;
 My father had a reason for’t."

   Indeed, the famous antiquary Hearne had such precise views in this matter that he left orders for his grave to be made straight by a compass, due east and west. This custom was practised by the ancient Greeks, and thus, as Mr Tylor points out, 1 it is not to late and isolated fancy, but to the carrying on of ancient and widespread solar ideas, that we trace the well-known legend that the body of Christ was laid with the head towards the west, thus looking eastward, and the Christian usage of digging graves east and west which prevailed through mediæval times, and is not yet forgotten. The rule of laying the head to the west, and its meaning that the dead shall rise looking towards the east, are perfectly stated in the following passage from an ecclesiastical treatise

p. 360

of the 16th century 1:—"Debet autem quis sic sepeliri ut capite ad occidentem posito, pedes dirigat ad Orientem, in quo quasi ipsa positione orat: et innuit quod promptus est, ut de occasu festinet ad ortum: de mundo ad seculum." 2

   Within old monuments and receptacles for the dead perpetual lamps were supposed to be lighted up, an allusion to which is made by Pericles (iii. 1), who, deploring the untimely death of Thaisa at sea, and the superstitious demand made by the sailors that her corpse should be thrown overboard, says—

                       "Nor have I time
To give thee hallow’d to thy grave, but straight
Must cast thee, scarcely coffin’d, in the ooze;
Where, for a monument upon thy bones,
And e’er-remaining lamps, the belching whale
And humming water must o’erwhelm thy corpse,
Lying with simple shells."

Again, in "Troilus and Cressida" (iii. 2), we find a further reference in the words of Troilus—

"O that I thought it could be in a woman,
 To feed for aye her lamp and flames of love."

Pope, too, in his "Eloisa to Abelard," has a similar allusion (1. 261–2)—

"Ah, hopeless lasting flames, like those that burn
 To light the dead, and warm th’ unfruitful urn!"

   D’Israeli, in his "Curiosities of Literature," thus explains this superstition—"It has happened frequently that inquisitive men, examining with a flambeau ancient sepulchres which have just been opened, the fat and gross vapours engendered by the corruption of dead bodies, kindled as the flambeau approached them, to the great astonishment of the spectators, who frequently cried out a miracle! This sudden inflammation, although very natural, has given room to believe that these flames proceeded from perpetual lamps,

p. 361

which some have thought were placed in the tombs of the ancients, and which, they said, were extinguished at the moment that these tombs opened, and were penetrated by the exterior air." Mr Dennis, however, in his "Cities and Cemeteries of Etruria" (1878, ii. p. 404), says that the use of sepulchral lamps by the ancients is well known, and gave rise to the above superstition. Sometimes lamps were kept burning in sepulchres long after the interment, as in the case of the Ephesian widow, described by Petronius ("Satyr," c. 13), who replaced the lamp placed in her husband's tomb.

   A common expression formerly applied to the dead occurs in the "Winter's Tale" (v. 1), where Dion asks—

                  "What were more holy,
Than to rejoice the former queen is well?"

So in "Antony and Cleopatra" (ii. 5)—

"Mess. First, madam, he is well.
Cleo. Why, there's more gold.
But, sirrah, mark, we use
To say the dead are well." 1

   Lastly, commentators have differed as to the meaning of the words of Julia, in the "Two Gentlemen of Verona" (i. 2)—

"I see you have a month's mind to them."

Douce says she refers to the mind or remembrance days of our Popish ancestors; persons in their wills having often directed that in a month, or at some other specific time, some solemn office, as a mass or a dirge, should be performed for the repose of their souls. Thus Ray quotes a proverb, "To have a month's mind to a thing," and quotes the above custom. For a further and not improbable solution of this difficulty, the reader may consult Dyce's "Glossary" (p. 277).


343:1 Tylor's "Primitive Culture," 1873, i. p. 145.

344:1 "Illustrations of Shakspeare," 1829, pp. 324–326.

344:2 See Brand's "Pop. Antiq." 1849, ii. p. 202.

344:3 "Annals of Worcester," 1845.

345:1 Harland and Wilkinson's "Lancashire Folk-Lore," 1869, p. 268; see "English Folk-Lore," 1878, pp. 99, 100; also "Notes and Queries," 1 s. iv. p. 133.

346:1 Cf. Milton's "Paradise Lost," v. 595–683.

346:2 See "Illustrations of Shakspeare," 1839, pp 82, 83.

346:3 Tylor's "Primitive Culture," ii. p. 46.

347:1 Dyce's "Glossary," p. 246.

347:2 Singer's "Shakespeare," 1875, viii. p. 291.

348:1 "Folk-Lore of Northern Counties," 1880, p. 58.

351:1 Cf. "Winter's Tale," iv. 4.

352:1 The word in German is kranz, in other Teutonic dialects krants, krans, and crance,—the latter being Lowland Scotch,—and having cransies for plural. Clark and Wright's "Hamlet," 1876, 216.

352:2 "Popular Antiquities," ii. p. 303

353:1 See Staunton's "Shakespeare," 1864, i.. p. 305.

353:2 Singer's "Shakespeare," 1895, ix. pp. 209, 210.

355:1 Notes on "Jonson's Works," ix. p. 58.

355:2 "Primitive Culture," ii. p. 43.

356:1 See "British Popular Customs," p. 404; "Brand's "Pop. Antiq.," 1849, ii. pp. 237, 246; Douce's "Illustrations of Shakspeare," 1839, p. 439.

356:2 See Douce's "Illustrations of Shakspeare," 1839, p. 222.

358:1 See Brand's "Pop. Antiq.," 1849, ii. pp. 267–270.

358:2 "Primitive Culture," ii. p. 30.

359:1 "Primitive Culture," 2873, ii. p. 423.

360:1 Durandus, "De Officio Mortuorum," lib. vii. chap. 35–39.

360:2 Dr Johnson thought the words of the clown in "Hamlet" (v. 1), "make her grave straight," meant, "make her grave from east to west, in a direct line parallel to the church." This interpretation seems improbable, as the word straight in the sense of immediately occurs frequently in Shakespeare's plays.

361:1 See Malone's Note, Variorum edition, xiv. 400.

Next: Chapter XV. Rings and Precious Stones