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tale “my lord: ‘it is not so, nor 'twas not so, but, indeed, God forbid it should be so’—Like the old,” MUCH ADO ABOUT NOTHING, i. 1. 186. “I believe none of the commentators have understood this; it is an allusion, as the speaker says, to an old tale, which may perhaps be still extant in some collections of such things, or which Shakespeare may have heard, as I have, related by a great-aunt, in his childhood.
“Once upon a time, there was a young lady (called Lady Mary in the story), who had two brothers. One summer they all three went to a country-seat of theirs, which they had not before visited. Among the other gentry in the neighbourhood who came to see them was a Mr. Fox, a bachelor, with whom they, particularly the young lady, were much pleased. He used often to dine with them, and frequently invited Lady Mary to come and see his house. One day that her brothers were absent elsewhere, and she had nothing better to do, she determined to go thither; and accordingly set out unattended. When she arrived at the house, and knocked at the door, no one answered. At length she opened it, and went in; over the portal of the hall was written ‘Be bold, be bold, but not too bold:’ she advanced; over the staircase, the same inscription: she went up; over the entrance of a gallery, the same: she proceeded; over the door of a chamber ‘Be bold, be bold, but not too bold, lest that your heart's blood should run cold.’ She opened it: it was full of skeletons, tubs full of blood, etc. She retreated in haste: coming down stairs, she saw out of a window Mr. Fox advancing towards the house, with a drawn sword in one hand, while with the other he dragged along a young lady by her hair. Lady Mary had just time to slip down, and hide herself under the stairs, before Mr. Fox and his victim arrived at the foot of them. As he pulled the young lady up stairs, she caught hold of one of the banisters with her hand, on which was a rich bracelet. Mr. Fox cut it off with his sword: the hand and bracelet fell into Lady Mary's lap, who then contrived to escape unobserved, and got home safe to her brother's house. After a few days, Mr. Fox came to dine with them as usual (whether by invitation, or of his own accord, this deponent saith not). After dinner, when the guests began to amuse each other with extraordinary anecdotes, Lady Mary at length said, she would relate to them a remarkable dream she had lately had. I dreamt, said she, that as you, Mr. Fox, had often invited me to your house, I would go there one morning. When I came to the house, I knocked, etc., but no one answered. When I opened the door, over the hall was written ‘Be bold, be bold, but not too bold.’ But, said she, turning to Mr. Fox, and smiling, ‘It is not so, nor it was not so;’ then she pursues the rest of the story, concluding at every turn with ‘It is not so, nor it was not so,’ till she comes to the room full of dead bodies, when Mr. Fox took up the burden of the tale, and said ‘It is not so, nor it was not so, and God forbid it should be so:’ which he continues to repeat at every subsequent turn of the dreadful story, till she came to the circumstance of his cutting off the young lady's hand, when, upon his saying as usual, ‘It is not so, nor it was not so, and God forbid it should be so,’ Lady Mary retorts, ‘But it is so, and it was so, and here the hand I have to show,’ at the same time producing the hand and bracelet from her lap: whereupon the guests drew their swords, and instantly cut Mr. Fox into a thousand pieces.
“Such is the old tale to which Shakespeare evidently alludes, and which has often ‘froze my young blood,’ when I was a child, as, I dare say, it had done his before me. I will not apologize for repeating it, since it is manifest that such old wives' tales often prove the best elucidation of this writer's meaning” (BLAKEWAY) .
The above may really be a modernized version of “the old tale” alluded to by Shakespeare; but Blakeway was not aware that one of the circumstances in the good lady's narrative is borrowed from Spenser's description of what Britomart saw in the castle of Busyrane:
“Tho, as she backward cast her busie eye
To search each secrete of that goodly sted,
Over the dore thus written she did spy
Bee bold: she oft and oft it over-red,
Yet could not find what sence it figured:
But whatso were therein or writ or ment,
She was no whit thereby discouraged
From prosecuting of her first intent,
But forward with bold steps into the next roome went.
And as she lookt about, she did behold
How over that same dore was likewise writ
Be bolde, be bolde, and every where Be bolde;
That much she muz'd, yet could not construe it
By any ridling skill or commune wit.
At last she spyde at that rowmes upper end
Another yron dore, on which was writ
Be not too bold; whereto though she did bend
Her earnest minde, yet wist not what it might intend.”
The Faerie Queene, B. iii. B. xi. stanzas 50, 54.
Another illustration of the present passage of Shakespeare is supplied to me by my friend, the Rev. Canon Harness. “My nurse,” he says,“used, with considerable dramatic effect, to tell me in my childhood the following story. A very wicked king had killed his beautiful daughter. The act, from beginning to end, was overseen by one of his courtiers. This person took occasion to relate, as fiction, all the circumstances of the transaction to his master, continually interrupting the tale, as he perceived the conscience of the murderer excited, by the words, ‘But it is not so, and it was not so, and God forbid it should be so.’ At last, having brought his tale to its conclusion, he exclaimed, at the same time stabbing the wicked king to the heart, ‘But it is so, and it was so; and you are the man that made it so.’—It is very nearly seventy years since I heard this story, and I may have confused it in some respects with others, of which old nurse had a glorious collection. My impression is—but of that I am not certain— that the wicked king killed his daughter by shutting her up and leaving her to starve inside a Golden Bull which he had made, and that The Golden Bull was the name of the story.”

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