Elizabethan and Jacobean Studies

By Frank Percy Wilson | Go to book overview

Shakespeare's use of Popular Song

FREDERICK W. STERNFELD

THE Elizabethan playwright was wont to make use of the treasury of popular song whenever it suited the humour of his plot. An allusion by title or first line; the quotation of one or more stanzas with, perhaps, minor variations suited to the occasion; even the refashioning of a well-known model almost, but never entirely, beyond recognition--these were the alternative means by which ballad and song might play their parts in the repertoire and so achieve an added immortality.

Of these three methods, the second is well known. Annotated editions of Shakespeare's plays illuminate the background of the lyrics of Ophelia, Lear's fool, and Autolycus. But the extremes of Shakespeare's range--mere allusion or significant variation--are less easily detected. An example of each is the subject of the present essay: the allusion to an Irish ballad and the parody of a popular Elizabethan song.1

Shakespeare Henry V has been a favourite hunting ground for commentators for well over two centuries. The emendation of a number of passages in the Folio text has been vexatious, the more so when the phrase in question does not occur in any of the quartos; but the perspicacity of certain eighteenth-century editors elicits our admiration, in particular that brilliant emendation of. IV. iv. 4 by Malone, worthy to be compared with Theobald's 'and a' babbled of green fields'.

Theobald's correction of an obscure phrase is justly famous both for its ingenuity and its illumination of a pathetic passage in which the popular figure of Falstaff is put into its grave. A similar enigma confronts us when the French soldier's 'Vous estes le Gentilhome de bon quahtee' evokes Pistol's disdainful: 'Qualtitie calmie custure me.' This championship of the native tongue is echoed in the Satiromastix when Asinius must swear not to 'carry Lattin poets about you, till you can write and read English at most'. Dekker's thrust at Ben Jonson is without ambiguity, but the scene in Henry V

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1
Both allusion and parody appear in the Folio of 1623 only, not in the quartos.

-150-

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