|Illustration used as cover image for G&S|
The title of the story is "the beginning of the story about sprites and goblins which Mamilius...was telling to his mother" when she was dragged off to prison. This is from "The Winter's Tale," Act II, Scene 1, and here is the dialogue:
Hermione. What wisdom stirs amongst you? Come, sir, now
I am for you again: pray you, sit by us,
And tell 's a tale.
Mamillius. Merry or sad shall't be?
Hermione. As merry as you will.
Mamillius. A sad tale's best for winter: I have one
Of sprites and goblins.
Hermione. Let's have that, good sir.
Come on, sit down: come on, and do your best
To fright me with your sprites; you're powerful at it.
Mamillius. There was a man—
Hermione. Nay, come, sit down; then on.
Mamillius. Dwelt by a churchyard: I will tell it softly;
Yond crickets shall not hear it.
Hermione. Come on, then,
And give't me in mine ear.
Whether James is really giving us the story Mamilius would have told, I suppose no one but Shakespeare knows, but it's a nifty way to introduce his tale.
The story itself tells about John Poole, who lives next to a churchyard and keeps an eye on the burials. He is watching when an old woman reputed to be a witch is buried, and the priest drops the money she gave him into the coffin, since he thinks it's tainted gold. Poole has no such scruples and digs up the grave to get the money, but that isn't a very clever thing to do.
Ever since I read this story, I've been walking around with an echo of "Who has got my golden arm?" playing in my head. Am I the only one?