Since Mrs Roth got out of hospital, I have been reading her Baron Munchausen. The first time I read this, I made the mistake of using one of the many modern bastardised editions—my copy had Ronald Searle illustrations, with a short but hyperbolic introduction by S. J. Perelman—but this time I returned to something like the original text, in a Dover reprint with the Doré plates. (The chapters are a little rearranged, but the prose is much the same.) Munchausen, written in English by a German, Raspe, and first published in 1785, is rife with grammatical peculiarities. When the Baron is posted to keep the Sultan's bees, his duties are
to drive the Sultan's bees every morning to their pasture grounds, to attend them all the day long, and against night to drive them back to their hives.'Against night'? That Middle English idiom was long dead; the OED's latest citation is Stansby's 1634 Malory, and before that, Lord Berners' archaising 1523 version of Froissart. Raspe, of course, knew it as good current German idiom—gegen Abend, 'as the evening approaches'. Raspe also seems to have had difficulty with preterites: 'In an instant I took my gun from the corner, run down stairs, and out in such a hurry. . .', 'My ball had missed them, yet the foremost pig only run away. . .' The third edition, much expanded, makes the same mistake: 'while the whale was running away with the ship she sprung a leak'. But this expansion, which contains most of the material plundered by Terry Gilliam for his film, was written by a different hand: the anonymous hack paid to continuate Raspe's adventures perpetuated his solecisms as well.
The modern reader who has already heard a few of the Munchausen tales will be startled by the casual brutality of the original narrative. A fox is literally flogged out of its skin, a wolf eats its way through a horse's body and becomes trapped in the carcase, another horse has its rear end dissevered by a falling portcullis, and keeps on running nonetheless—in the continuation, the Baron nonchalantly slaughters 'several thousand' polar bears:
I had heard an old army surgeon say a wound in the spine was instant death. I now determined to try the experiment, and had again recourse to my knife, with which I struck the largest in the back of the neck, near the shoulders, but under great apprehensions, not doubting but the creature would, if he survived the stab, tear me to pieces. However, I was remarkably fortunate, for he fell dead at my feet without making the least noise. I was now resolved to demolish them every one in the same manner, which I accomplished without the least difficulty; for although they saw their companions fall, they had no suspicion of either the cause or the effect. When they all lay dead before me, I felt myself a second Samson, having slain my thousands.
Clearly, this is not a book most parents will want to read to their children. Later, the Baron finds himself with King David's sling in his pocket, and uses it to extricate his friends from a pickle. This episode gives rise to a digression on the sling. "You wish (I can see by your countenances) I would inform you how I became possessed of such a treasure as the sling just mentioned. (Here facts must be held sacred.)" (The insistence on probity and accuracy had been a motif of the outrageous fable since Lucian's True History; at the start of Baron Munchausen, the Baron's fidelity is testified at Mansion House, the Lord Mayor's seat, 'in the absence of the Lord Mayor', by Sinbad, Aladdin and Gulliver.) In this digression, the history of the sling intersects with another body of folklore:
One of its possessors, my great-great-great-grandfather, who lived about two hundred and fifty years ago, was upon a visit to England, and became intimate with a poet who was a great deer-stealer; I think his name was Shakespeare: he frequently borrowed this sling, and with it killed so much of Sir Thomas Lucy's venison, that he narrowly escaped the fate of my two friends at Gibraltar. Poor Shakespeare was imprisoned, and my ancestor obtained his freedom in a very singular manner. Queen Elizabeth was then on the throne, but grown so indolent, that every trifling matter was a trouble to her; dressing, undressing, eating, drinking, and some other offices which shall be nameless, made life a burden to her; all these things he enabled her to do without, or by a deputy! and what do you think was the only return she could prevail upon him to accept for such eminent services? setting Shakespeare at liberty! Such was his affection for that famous writer, that he would have shortened his own days to add to the number of his friend's.Ho ho ho, said the reader of 1786, by which time the Bard's reputation had been solidified; the literate gentleman knew this bit of lore, Shakespeare the Deer-Stealer, quite well. It was Rowe, in the seminal biography he prefixed to his 1709 edition of the Works, who had given the story popular currency:
[The young Will Shakespeare] had, by a misfortune common enough to young fellows, fallen into ill company; and amongst them, some that made a frequent practice of Deer-stealing, engag'd him with them more than once in robbing a Park that belong'd to Sir Thomas Lucy of Cherlecot, near Stratford. For this he was prosecuted by that Gentleman, as he thought, somewhat too severely; and in order to revenge that ill Usage, he made a Ballad upon him. And tho' this, probably the first Essay of his Poetry, be lost, yet it is said to have been so very bitter, that it redoubled the Prosecution against him to that degree, that he was oblig'd to leave his Business and Family in Warwickshire, for some time, and shelter himself in London.Exciting, eh? The Greatest Writer of all Time™ began life as a mischievous rebel: not wicked, just naughty enough for a little frisson of insubordinacy. Mort aux vaches, indeed. Only last week was I browsing my little 1903 octavo of the Essays of Douglas Jerrold, Bard enthusiast and author of the bizarre satire, 'Shakespeare in China', when I chanced across his prose vignette, 'Shakespeare at Charlecote Park'.
One of the culprits was specially distinguished from his companions, more by the perfect beauty of his face than by the laughing unconcern that shone in it. He seemed about twenty-two years of age, of somewhat more than ordinary stature, his limbs combining gracefulness of form with manly strength. . . And as he doffed his hat to a fair head that looked mournfully at him from an upper casement, his broad forehead bared out from his dark curls in surpassing power and amplitude. It seemed a tablet writ with a new world.Shakespeare's escape, here as in Munchausen, is obscure: "The servants rushed to the cellar—but the birds were flown. How they effected their escape remaineth to this day a mystery, though it cannot be disguised that heavy suspicion fell upon four of the maids." And as with Munchausen, Jerrold insists that the story was corroborated, in this case by one 'John-a-Combes'.
The legend has become something of a totem or shibboleth among Shakespeare scholars. Thus Sam Schoenbaum, one of the most influential of the poet's biographers, dismisses it as 'a picturesque relation deriving, one expects, from local Stratford lore passed on to Rowe's informant, the actor Betterton'. Schoenbaum notes that Lucy had no park at Charlecote until 1618, two years after Shakespeare's death; the apparent evidence of a pregnant pun in The Merry Wives of Windsor is dismissed as a coincidence, and not much of one.
One wonders if the legend might not have originated in Stratford long after The Merry Wives of Windsor was written and its author dead, among locals who read the play, recollected jests about luces and louses, and interpreted the passage in accordance with their own resentment against a powerful neighbourhood family."Time plays tricks," he concludes, sounding for a moment like a smug Iain Sinclair; "events merge." But he does not deny the story's romantic appeal, quoting Sir Thomas's descendant, Alice Fairfax-Lucy: "If it were ever authoritatively disproved, children of the future would be deprived of something that for centuries has made the poet live for them." And he allows that certain respectable scholars, including A. L. Rowse, give the tale credence.
René Weis, a Romantic at heart, when he came to write his own Shakespeare biography a few years ago, concluded that there wasn't much of interest still to be said on the subject, unless one simply accepted all the stories ever told about the Bard. What if. . . ? It is an original approach, in this sceptical age, to be sure. And a fun book. Weis has an entire chapter, not unexpectedly, on the Deer-Stealer. This passage is typical of the book:
Though its credibility has been repeatedly impugned, this is the only account with roots reaching back into the seventeenth century to offer any explanation for Shakespeare's abandonment of his wife and family. At the very least it has the authority of a written source with links as far back as Shakespeare's lifetime, and unless there is a reason to think that Rowe, and with him Betterton and, possibly, Davenant, aimed to mislead posterity, there is no good reason to distrust Rowe.The argument from authority comes into its own on the next page:
Rowe had no interest in making up a scabrous piece of gossip. It is worth remembering that the greatest Shakespeare scholar and antiquarian of the nineteenth century, James Orchard Halliwell-Phillipps, and Sidney Lee, the author a classic essay [sic] on Shakespeare in the original DNB, both admired and trusted Rowe.We should trust Rowe's story, not for any intrinsic plausibility, but because two scholars of a century later admired his moral character. Sure, it's preposterous, but what else was Weis going to make of the afternoon he'd spent reading O H-P and Sidney Lee? About the deer, Weis has clearly done his homework, but his evidence never rises above the fabulously circumstantial. True, there was no deer park at Charlecote until 1618, but
There was certainly a warren, with plenty of game in it for hunting, including hare, pheasants and roe deer—the roes of Charlecote may have been in Shakespeare's mind when he wrote 'fleeter than the roe' in Taming of the Shrew. . . As a game reserve, the Lucys' warren was patrolled by several gamekeepers; they were there for a purpose, and perhaps one of them arrested the young Shakespeare.Weis does himself a disservice with all this hedging. Let our leaps be unbridled! Let our baseless assertions at least be made with some deuced conviction, like in the good old days! Damn it man, the roes of Charlecote were in Shakespeare's mind when he wrote 'fleeter than the roe'; a gamekeeper at Lucy's warren did arrest the young Shakespeare. And he was subsequently freed when an old Monkhouse solved an itchy problem for Good Queen Bess. If we would embrace a legendary of Shakespeare, the latter story is as good as the first. No, better. We live in a gelded age, my friends. Munchausen is now only ever by proxy. We no longer have tall tales; only lies, and historians.