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bier are gathered his nobles, lamenting his perished greatness:
"England ne'er lost a king of so much value "
says Bedford, and Gloucester echoes his lament, while Exeter urges immediate action against the French. Then is heard the first ominous note of the discord which is the theme of the four plays, in a recrimination between Gloucester and Beaufort, while Bedford voices the sentiment which we feel is Shakespeare's:
Henry the fifth, thy ghost I invocate,
Prosper this realm, keep it from civil wars!
Vain words! Hardly are they spoken, when in hurries a messenger with tidings from France of defeat and disaster. Henceforth the shadows darken over England. The powers of selfishness and anarchy reign supreme, and it is not till France is free, and England a slaughter-house, that these powers prove their own destruction, and the way is cleared for a new order.
Yet the patriots, even after their royal leader has been taken from their head, acquit themselves like true Englishmen. Shakespeare could not find it in his heart to let his countrymen get a fair and downright beating from the French. Talbot is as terrible to France as Achilles was to Troy, and the French soldiers go in terror of their enemies. Alençon cries:
For none but Samsons and Goliases,
It sendeth forth to skirmish. One to ten!"
But the English have somehow got to be beaten, and so Joan of Arc has to do duty as a witch. This has not unnaturally rankled in the minds of critics, and poor Marlowe, or Kyd, has had to bear the responsibility for an episode which is considered unworthy the creator of a Portia and a Cordelia. But the homage that posterity has worthily accorded to the saint of Domremy was a thing undreamed of in Shakespeare's England. That such beings as witches
did exist was asserted as dogmatically then as it is denied now. Certainly Shakespeare was no disbeliever in it, and it furnished what must have seemed an obvious explanation of events which, whether inspired by divine or infernal agency, must always remain one of the miracles of history. The young playwright merely followed what was the universal opinion of his countrymen in accepting the latter explanation, and whether or not he is to be excused for blackening, in his ignorance, the fame of an heroic girl, need not concern us here. So, at least, did the greatest of French wits in an age of enlightenment.
The form of patriotism which holds one Englishman equal to ten Frenchmen may not be the highest that can be conceived of, but it was one which, as we know in the instance of the Revenge, Englishmen of that time were ready to translate into action. Samsons and Goliases were the heroes who went forth for Elizabeth, with an exuberance of speech and manner as spacious and splendid as any line of Marlowe's. Shakespeare could not conceive of the lion-hearted Talbot as a lesser man than Grenville, or the brave Lord Willoughby. But of the faults which rendered that courage vain he treats with no less freedom.. The English are handicapped by the selfishness of their leaders, Sir John Fastolfe twice runs away, Talbot himself, the rough, terrible hero, is caught in a trap and killed through the treachery of Somerset. At home the dissensions thicken. The good Duke of Gloucester, the Protector of the realm, is wise and loyal, but he is powerless against such ruffians as Beaufort and Suffolk. The maturity of the King only makes matters worse. Shakespeare here deals with a subtler problem than the failure of the egotist will. In Henry VI he shows how incompetent is mere individual virtue to cope with the difficulties of government. Henry's one thought is for his own soul, and for the souls of others. Instead of commanding he pleads, instead of stamping out rebellion he sends a bishop to
entreat with the rebels, instead of fighting he moralizes on the horrors of war, instead of defending his title against York, he balances pros and cons as if he were at a debating society. He has got a sort of love for his country, but it is so feeble and passive as to be well-nigh useless, and there are few such pathetic touches as where the poor crownless King steals back to have one last look at his native land, only to be taken prisoner by the two keepers. He sees that England may curse his "wretched reign," but he knows not how to make things better.
Under such a sovereign, the condition of the realm naturally goes from bad to worse. Through the agency of Suffolk is consummated the fatal marriage with Margaret, and some of our fairest French provinces are sacrificed; the first mutterings of civil war are heard in the formation of a Yorkist party; the last of the patriots, the Duke of Gloucester, is overwhelmed by the plots of the nobles and foully murdered; Beaufort and Suffolk give place to York and Somerset ; the country is naked to the wills of men who care only for themselves.
Then comes Cade's revolt, instigated by York, for along with the degradation of their natural leaders, the masses have grown wild and out of hand. We have already heard the commons clamouring at the palace doors, and it is now the turn of the lowest of the people, mad with grievances they know not how to formulate, and vaguely conscious that the honour of the country has been sold. It has escaped most of Shakespeare's critics to what an extent he understood and sympathized with the better side of a crowd. The boors who follow Cade to London are brought back to their allegiance, in the very hour of their triumph, by an appeal to their patriotism. It is Cade, and not Buckingham, who reminds them of their burdens and slavery to the nobility. But these arguments are of little avail when the Duke makes his appeal in the
name of Henry V, when he warns them of the danger of a French invasion, and exhorts them to
"Spare England, for it is your native coast,"
and unite as one man to fight for God and their King upon the plains of France. The loyalty that can ensure the success of such an appeal is wonderful and pathetic, and the magnates of the play are not so noble as these poor men of Kent.
What follows is the very crown of all the Elizabethan moralizing against civil war. In scene after scene the horrors of disunion are unfolded before us. We see the Duke of York, a really noble nature, carried away and brutalized by ambition, and coolly plotting to raise such a storm in his native land as shall be the death of ten thousand men; his sons, except in their genuine admiration for their father, are each in his own way conscienceless ruffians; in Margaret and Clifford we touch the very lowest depths of human cruelty. An innocent child is murdered callously; to stanch his father's tears a handkerchief is offered him stained in the son's blood; another son is stabbed before his mother's eyes; the poor harmless King is done to death in the Tower. In almost every scene there is a murder, and the horror rises to a climax where, on Towton field, a son kills his father and a father his son, while Henry looks on in helpless, impotent grief. The selfish will, the highest conception to which Marlowe and his school attained, is working out its own and its country's ruin. The breakingpoint is reached in the last of the four plays, the tragedy of "Richard III."
A modern playwright, who not obscurely hints that he is capable of bettering Shakespeare's instruction, takes exception to his drama because Shakespeare, as he thinks, could not depict a hero. Now the real hero, as this critic clearly indicates, is the
Superman," who is under no
illusion of duty or patriotism, and in whom the will is developed to its highest possible pitch. Just such a Superman is the hero of Marlowe and the writers of the transition, and in "Richard III" he is depicted so faithfully that the critic is compelled to evade the issue by writing down Richard as "a stage villain who smothers babies and offs with people's heads." He is nothing of the sort. He combines the will of a Moloch with the subtlety and resource of a Belial. True to the ideal of the Superman, he does not acknowledge the moral law that binds ordinary mortals. He has no love of evil for its own sake, but marches to his goal without scruples and without fear, and except in his youth, and in the extreme case of Clifford, he is not cruel nor revengeful. When York hesitates about violating his oath and claiming the crown, Richard, in the true spirit of "Zarathustra," laughs the old tables to scorn, and sweeps his scruples aside. He looks with genuine contempt upon those who allow any moral standard to hamper their wills, he puts people out of his way with as little anger or remorse as he would kill a stag; to him, as to Ibsen, the greatest man is he who stands most alone; to him, as to Nietzsche, the first commandment is to be hard; to him, as to Bernard Shaw, compassion is the fellow-feeling of the unsound, and the golden rule is that there are no golden rules.
How miserably it all fails! With matchless skill Richard advances from point to point. He seeks the fullest scope for his will, now striking with lightning swiftness as at Towton, now, with serpentine grace, acting a lover's part, now, cat-like, creeping silently upon his victims, upon Hastings and Clarence, posing by turn as a saint, as a friend, as a penitent, as a kind uncle, as a loyal brother; fearless in action, unfailing in resource, the embodiment of will-power, he is all the time in the hands of a power greater than his own. Like Napoleon in Russia, every step forward involves