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capacity to reach. He is above and we upon earth; therefore it behoveth our words to be wary and few.”
Shakespeare was born ten years later than Hooker, in 1564, and his share in founding English prose as we know it is, of course, not comparable with that of Hooker, for of Shakespeare's prose there remains for us but little. Whenever he rose to eloquence he clothed himself in verse as with an inevitable attribute, but on the rare occasions when he condescended to step down from the great line to "the other harmony of prose" he is as splendid as in all else. In Hamlet we have this sudden
“I have of late, (but wherefore I know not), lost all my mirth, foregone all custom of exercises; and indeed it goes so heavily with my disposition, that this goodly frame, the earth, seems to me a sterile promontory; this most excellent canopy the air, look you, this brave o'erhanging firmament, this majestical roof fretted with golden fire, why, it appears no other thing to me, than a foul and pestilent congregation of vapours.
“What a piece of work is man! How noble in reason! how infinite in faculty! in form and moving, how express and admirable! in action, how like an angel! in apprehension, how like a god! the beauty of the world! the paragon of animals! And yet to me what is this quintessence of dust?"
And the most beautiful letter in the world is that written by Antonio to Bassanio in The Merchant of Venice. When it is remembered that it was out of his friendship for Bassanio that Antonio entered into his bond with Shylock, the supreme exquisiteness of the few words from friend to friend render this letter unsurpassable:
“Sweet Bassanio, my ships have all miscarried, my creditors grow cruel, my estate is very low, my bond to the Jew is forfeit, and since, in paying it, it is impossible I should live, all debts are cleared between you and me if I might see you at my death; notwithstanding, use your pleasure; if your love do not persuade you to come, let not my letter."
Well did Shakespeare know that such a letter must make an instant appeal to the sweet heart of Portia: “O love!" she cries, “despatch all business, and be gone!"
All great poets are masters of a splendid prose, and had Shakespeare written some notable work of prose we may be sure it would even have surpassed the noble utterances of all his wonderful contemporaries.
It has been said that no language in the world has yet ever lasted in its integrity for over a thousand years. Perhaps printing may confer a greater stability on present languages; but whenever English is displaced, the sun of the most glorious of all days will have set.
Your loving old
MY DEAR ANTONY,
I do not think that men of letters often search through the old law reports for specimens of fine prose, but I believe that here and there, in that generally barren field, a nugget of pure gold may be discovered by an industrious student.
Much noble prose delivered from the bench down the centuries has been lost for ever, for the judges of England have often been gentlemen of taste, scholarship, and eloquence. I have found one very splendid passage that has somehow survived the wrecks of nearly four hundred years.
Lord Chief Justice Crewe, who became Chief Justice of England in 1624, delivered in the case of the Earl of Oxford the following noble tribute to the great house of De Vere: “I heard a great peer of this realm, and learned, say, when he lived, there was no king in Christendom had such a subject as Oxford. He came in with the Conqueror, Earl of Guienne; shortly after the Conquest made Great Chamberlain, above 400 years ago, by Henry I., the Conqueror's son; confirmed by Henry II. This great honour—this high and noble dignity-hath continued ever since, in the remarkable surname De Vere, by so many ages, descents, and generations, as no other kingdom can produce such a peer in one and the selfsame name and title. I find in all this time but two attainders of this noble family, and those in stormy and tempestuous time, when the government was unsettled, and the kingdom in competition. I have laboured to make a covenant with myself, that affection may not press upon judgment, for I suppose that there is no man that hath any apprehension of gentry or nobleness, but his affection stands to the continuance of so noble a name and fame, and would take hold of a twig or twinethread to uphold it. And yet Time hath his revolutions: there must be an end to all temporal