Tuesday, December 13, 2005

The Bard via Ackroyd

I’ve just begun Peter Ackroyd’s enormous new Shakespeare: A Biography, not so much because I am interested in Shakespeare’s life as because I will read pretty much anything Ackroyd writes. His histories and biographies are compulsively readable, full of the clutter and detail and incidental stuffs of everyday life—exactly my kind of history, revealing, as much as possible, what it was actually like to be in the midst of the eras he’s writing about. He’s above all else a master weaver, pulling from countless sources, grabbing a detail here, another there, reminding the reader constantly that there is an astonishing amount that we really can know about the past, how many of life’s bare facts have long been recorded, and how valuable is the work of lesser-known scholars and their obscure monographs. And he’s never in a hurry. If an etymology or anecdote or description is interesting, he’ll be sure to include it.

The brief introductory chapter of Shakespeare is a good example of Ackroyd’s technique. If you like the follwing passage, you’ll like Ackroyd.
When he emerged from the womb into the world of time, with the assistance of a midwife, an infant of the sixteenth century was washed and then “swaddled” by being wrapped tightly in soft cloth. Then he was carried downstairs in order to be presented to the father. After this ritual greeting, he was taken back to the birth-chamber, still warm and dark, where he was laid beside the mother. She was meant to “draw to her all the diseases from the child,” before her infant was put in a cradle. A small portion of butter and honey was usually placed in the baby’s mouth. It was the custom in Warwickshire to give the suckling child hare’s brains reduced to jelly.
The infant Shakespeare was carried by his father from his birthplace in Henley Street down the High Street and Church Street in to the church itself. The mother was never present at the baptism. John Shakespeare and his newborn son would have been accompanied by the godparents, who were otherwise known as “god-sips” or “gossips.” On this occasion, the godfather was William Smith, a haberdassher and neighbour in Henley Street, The name of the infant was given before he was dipped in the font and the sign of the cross marked upon his forehead. At the font the gossips were exhorted to make sure that William Shakespeare heard sermons and learned the creed as well as the Lord’s Prayer “in the English tongue.” After the baptism a piece of white linen cloth was placed on the head of the child, and remained there until the mother had been “churched” or purified; it was called the “chrisom cloth” and, if the infant died within a month, was used as a shroud. The ceremony of the reformed Anglican faith, in the time of Elizabeth, still favored the presentation of apostle-spoons or christening shirts to the infant, given by the gossips, and the consumption of a christening cake in celebration. They were, after all, celebrating the saving of young William Shakespeare for eternity.

He goes on to tell about the Arden forest—and how it was named by Celtic tribes, the same ones who named the Ardennes forest—and how many trees it took to build a house of the time in Stratford (sixty to eighty) and how many people died of the plague in Stratford in the year of Shakespeare’s birth (237). And that's all in the first four pages! I can’t tear myself away—can you?

PS After reading even a couple of pages of writing featuring archaic English spellings, words that have retained some of their oddities of spelling stand out—tongue, for example, tripped me up temporarily in that passage.

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