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STATE AND HISTORY OF THE TEXT-INTERVAL BETWEEN HENRY
VIII. AND THE PREVIOUS ENGLISH HISTORICAL DRAMAS-ITS
STYLE, VERSIFICATION, ETC. — OPINIONS OF COMMENTATORS
HIS play is first found in the folio collection of 1623, where it
appears as the last in the division of “Histories," with the title of “ The Famous History of the Life of King Henry the Eight.” No trace of any prior separate division has been discovered, and the reprints
of the folio offer no variations from the first text. The aid of an earlier separate edition, so useful in some of the plays, and so desirable in others, is here missed only from the light it might throw upon the internal literary history of the drama, its precise date of composition, and the alterations and additions, if any, that it may have received from its author. Otherwise we may well be contented with the single old edition, as it appears to have been printed from a carefully made copy, and evidently one that had been prepared for theatrical use, as is shown by the elaborate minuteness of the stage-directions. Although there are some ten or twelve errors of the press or the manuscript, and several of them of difficult solution, yet those are not such as seriously to affect the sense or the poetic expression of the passages, where they occur, or to make us very solicitoys in the choice between the several conjectural emendations that have been suggested. The modern reprints, however, have been very generally deformed (as Mr. Knight first pointed out) by more recent verbal errors, which have been transferred from one edition to another. Thus, in the song in the third act, the passage, which in the old copies stands thus
To his music, plants and flowers
There had made a lasting spring,
There had been a lasting spring. The careful collation of Messrs. Knight and Collie -, in their respective editions, has enabled the present editor w avoid those errors. In the correction of the older misprints or obscurities, he has followed his own judgment, varying as little as possible from the original edition, but differing often from cne or other, and once or twice from all of his predecessors.
We have had occasion to show that Shakespeare's several English “ Histories" did not correspond, in the order of composition, with the chronological succession. But HENRY VIII., as it closes the historical scenes, was as certainly written the last of them. All the indications of style and thought concur with external proof to show that there was a considerable interval between its production and the latest of the other English histories. The critics differ a good deal as to the precise period of its first representation ; but taking the earliest date assigned, (about 1602,) that interval was the period of the most rapid development of the peculiarities as well as of the power of Shakespeare's genius—being marked by the production of two or three of his most brilliant coinedies, as well as of OTHELLO, and of the enlargement and improvement of HAMLET, from a mere drama of scenic interest and effect, to a tragedy of high poetry and philosophy. In my own view, HENRY VIII. manifests itself to be of a still later date, and to have been written in later years, when the great Poet's genius, prolific as ever, was yet inclined to repose alike from the merriment of his youthful comedies, and the stern meditation or the wild passion of Macbeth and Lear—to portray man more in his social and political relations, or to moralize his scene with calmer contemplation,-in short, in the epoch of the Tempest, and the Roman tragedies.
The subject was, probably enough, primarily selected as a suitable vehicle for theatrical pomp, at some period when the popular taste happened to demand that sort of gratification. But it also afforded a proper sequel to the preceding scenes of " Histories," as exhibiting England in a state of peace, its chiefs and rulers assuming habits and manners widely differing from the Warwicks and Hotspurs of the preceding generations, and the fluctuations of political fortune, the rise and downfall of the great, produced by quite other causes than warlike resolution. As there was no pervading interest to give a tragic unity to the piece, the author is contented to paint the vicissitudes of fortune in Henry's court, as history had given him the outline, and as his own observation of similar characters and occurrences enabled him to fill up that outline with life and truth. Thus this dramn naturally approximates to grave ethical comedy, and, though it presents scenes of pathos and of death, it may yet be designated as a high historical comedy, just as in Richard III. we find the historical tragedy, and in Henry IV. the historical tragi-comedy. Its interest as well as its ethical teaching are such as would naturally occur to an author who had looked long upon political changes and cabals, such as an observer might have watched, in the days of Leicester, and Essex, and Raleigh. Although all the characters are given with spirit and life-like effect, yet as Henry could
not be made a hero, and would not be allowed to be exhibited as the hateful tyrant of the drama, the interest as well as the moral lesson of the whole consists in the varying, yet always purifying and elevating effects of overwhelming misfortune, upon widely different characters-upon Buckingham, honest, brave, and accomplished, but haughty and insolent, with all the faults of such a character brought out by high station,-upon Wolsey, a man of talent and learning, who has risen by base arts, and used power selfishly and arrogantly,—upon Katharine, gentle and true-hearted, in her prosperity sympathizing with the wrongs of the humble, and bold in indignation against the powerful wrong-doer. The proud noble and the ambitious priest are both of them made wiser and better by affliction, while the virtues of Katharine are raised, by the same purifying process, into a saintly holiness and elevation. Scarcely any play of Shakespeare's contains so many passages and expressions, which have become familiar to every reader, as occur in these scenes. The rest of the play is of feebler interest, and is read as a graphic display of the habits and manners of the times; but it derives its main value from being the necessary frame to the three exquisite cabinet pictures of the falls of Buckingham, of Wolsey, and of Katharine.
The language, far less bold and hazardous than the great tragedies in efforts to crowd a mass of thought into the briefest and most burning words, yet so far partakes of that character as to indicate that this play belongs to the same or a later period, and not to that of the author's earlier style. It is singularly elliptical, so as often to suggest the general sense clearly, while the precise construction of the sentence is perplexing. Its peculiarities of versification have also been often remarked, as carefully avoiding the pause at the end of lines, and overflowing the regular rhythm with added syllables,—not as in other plays, in a single line or two, here and there, but in long passages, and apparently on some system. The explanation of this peculiarity has been given, with admirable taste and acuteness, by a critic in the Pictorial edition, whose own words it would be unjust not to extract:
“ The Roman plays, decidedly among the latest of his productions, possess a colloquial freedom of versification which in some cases approaches almost to ruggedness. But in the HENRY VIII. this freedom is carried much further. We have repeated instances in which the lines are so constructed that it is impossible to read them with the slightest pause at the end of each line :—the sentence must be run together, so as to produce more the effect of measured prose than of blank-verse. As an example of what we mean, we will write a sentence of fourteen lines as if it had been printed as prose :
Hence I took a thought this was a judgment on me; that my kingdom, well worthy the best heir of the world, should not be gladded in 't by me: Then follows, that I weigh'd the danger which my realms stood in by this my issue's fail : and that gave to me many a groaning throe. Thus hulling in the wild sea of my conscience, I did steer toward this remedy, whereupon we are now present here together ; that's to say, I meant to rectify my conscience,,which I then did feel full sick, and yet not well, by all the reverend fathers of the land, and doctors learn'd.
“ If the reader will turn to the passage, (act ii. scene 1,) he will see that many of the lines end with particles. and that scarcely one of the lines is marked by a pause at the termination. Many other passages could be pointed out with this peculiarity. A theory has been set up that Jonson · tampered' with the versification. We hold this notion to be utterly untenable ; for there is no play of Shakespeare's which has a more decided character of unity-no one from which any passage could be less easily struck out. We believe that Shakespeare worked in this particular upon a principle of art which he had proposed to himself to adhere to, wherever the nature of the scene would allow. The elliptical construction, and the license of versification, brought the dialogue, whenever the speaker was not necessarily rhetorical, closer to the language of common life. of all his historical plays, the HENRY VIII. is the nearest in its story to his own times. It professed to be a 'truth.' It belongs to his own country. It has no poetical indistinctness about it, either of time or place: all is defined. If the diction and the versification had been more artificial it would have been less a reality.”
It has been above mentioned that different opinions have been maintained by the commentators, as to the precise date of the first production of this play. There are three classes of opinions on this point, and this controversy includes another collateral question, as to the theory maintained by Stevens, Malone, and others, that the prologue, parts of Cranmer's speech in the last scene, and possibly some other passages, were written by Ben Jonson, when the play was revived, in 1613, it having been originally written by Shakespeare, and acted before the death of Queen Elizabeth. This first theory is that of Dr. Johnson, Stevens, Malone, and most of the English commentators of the last century, who assign the date of Henry VIII. to the later years of Elizabeth, before 1602, and the added lines to a revival in 1613. Collier maintains another theory, denying the agency of Ben Jonson, or any other dramatist than the original author, in any part of it, (which is indeed utterly without evidence,) and assigns the whole play to the first years of James I., about 1604. The last opinion, which I do not doubt to be the correct one, is that formerly maintained by Chalmers, and since very elaborately and, in my judgment, conclusively argued by Knight, that this drama was one of Shakespeare's later works, of the epoch of CORIOLANUS, Julius Cæsar, and ANTONY AND CLEOPATRA—that it was originally represented precisely in its present form, and that neither Ben Jonson nor any other dramatist than Shakespeare had a hand in any part of it. The reader who is desirous of examining more particularly into the question, which is one of the most interesting of the minor Shakespearian controversies, will find the substance of the several arguments of the older critics, of Collier and of Knight, in an abridged form, at the end of the play.
The chief primary source of the incidents, and much of the dialogue of this play, was Cavendish's “ Life of Wolsey." He was a faithful follower of the Cardinal's, whom Henry had the magnanimity not only to pardon, but to reward for his fidelity to his fallen patron. To this simply eloquent narrative, Shakespeare was largely indebted, though he knew it only at second hand, and in an imperfect form. It was not printed as the author left it, in his time, but had been embodied, in substance, by Hollingshed and Stowe, in their chronicles, from the
manuscript. It has since been separately printed,—first imperfectly, in 1641; but the most complete edition is that published in 1825, by Mr. Singer. Hall himself is also an original authority, having been a barrister, and in parliament under Henry VIII. Hollingshed contains nearly the same matter. The Poet has closely followed these anthorities in the incidents, and often in the language. This play contains a striking proof that Shakespeare, in collecting his materials, did not confine himself to any single author, and fully refutes the notion of the critics of the last century who believed that he was too idle or too ignorant to look beyond Hollingshed for English history. Much of the last act is drawn from the “ Acts and Monuments of the Church,” by Fox-better known as Fox's “ Book of Martyrs,”—which was first printed in folio, in 1663, and was a popular book, in spite of its size, in the Poet's youth. He has deviated from history in placing the birth of Queen Elizabeth after Queen Katharine's death, for in fact Elizabeth was christened in 1533, and Katharine did not die till 1536. This has been accounted for by some of those critics who suppose the play to have been written and reprinted in Elizabeth's time, as arising from a desire to prevent any idea of doubtful legitimacy in the future queen, as having been born while the sovereign's former wife still lived; yet, as Anne Bullen's marriage is made to precede Katharine's death, this would seem an over-refined thought. It is more likely, that this being a play of character, rather than of passion, the author felt that it was nearer to grave comedy than to proper tragedy, and transposed his incident so as to leave a final impression of splendour and joy, rather than one of solemnity, such as would have been produced had the piece ended with Katharine's placid death.
It may also be considered as something like a variance from historic truth, that the incidents are brought into much closer apparent connection, as to time, than history warrants; for the drama comprises a period of twelve years, commencing in the twelfth year of King Henry VIII., (1521,) and ending with the christening of Elizabeth, in 1533.
ARCHITECTURE, COSTUME, AND DECORATIONS. The reign of Henry VIII. is admirably fitted for a drama of show and splendour, as well in magnificence and variety of costume and decoration, as in architectural and scenic embellishments. The play was probably originally written with a view to this very purpose, and it has kept its place on the English stage by continual revivals. always with increased cost and splendour. The ancient English stage, as we learn from many sources, was not deficient in its means of show in dress and costume; and in this respect is probably excelled by the Kemble and Macready school of decoration far more in historic accuracy than in mere pomp. Its power of scenic display, in the ordinary theatres, we know to have been but humble, and almost every thing was left to the imaginations of spectators—a circumstance, by the way, to which we are probably indebted for many exquisite descriptive passages in the old dramatists, prompted originally by the necessity of aiding the imaginations of the audience, where the modern author would now depend on the aid of the scene-painter. Yet when plays were presented at court, (as this of HENRY VIII. was,) the taste and skill of such an artist as the famous architect, Inigo Jones, who discharged such duties under James I., was able, as we learn from many old writers, to give the scene nearly as much effect of illusion, and to leave as little to the imagination, as in the gigantic theatres of modern days. Henry VIII.'s reign was, in all circumstances of parade, a gorgeous epoch. The noblest remains of medæval architecture, which still adorn England, indeed mostly date from an anterior period; but all the grand creations of that wonderful development of architectural taste and science, so far above the times, then existed in perfect beauty; and the beautiful decorated ecclesiastical and collegiate edifices, which had been planned and begun under the rival houses of the latter Plantagenets and Henry VII., were either just finished, or were completed under Henry VIII. The peaceful reign of Henry VII. had also led to an improved and more palatial style of residence for the king and his nobles than the old sullen castles where the Plantagenets and the Warwicks had kept their state. Such were the royal palace at Richmond, Wolsey's at Hampton Court, and others.
Henry VIII., with more talent, more energy, and power of will, yet resembled his successor, George IV., in many points; and among them in his taste for pageantry and gorgeous parade-in“ his palaces, his ladies, and his pomp." His nobles partook of, or imitated his tastes. Commerce, manufactures, and the arts, which had received a rapid impulse during the preceding century, supplied the means for such display, far beyond any thing within the reach of the kings and barons of England, of former generations, perhaps quite as fond of parade, but more limited in their means of gratifying their tastes. Some commercial wealth had grown up in London, and its rich citizens, on occasions of civic pomp, imitated or vied with the show of the nobles.
Yet there still remained much the same external difference between the conditions, habits, dress, dwellings, etc., of the humbler class and those of their glittering superiors, that marked the preceding reigns. The comfortless collages of the farming population, and the narrow, filthy streets and wooden houses of the metropolis, still presented a squalid contrast to the magnificence of the contiguous cathedrals, castles, convents, or palaces.
Mr. Planché gives us the following curious notices of the costume of the characters of this drama :
“ The male costume of this reign has been rendered familiar to children by the portraits of • Bluff King Hal, copied from the paintings by Holbein, and the female costume scarcely less so by those of his six wives. Henry VIII. was thirty years of age at the period at which the play opens (the impeachment of Buckingham having taken place in 1521,) and forty-two at the time it is supposed to close. The best authorities for the dress of the monarch and his nobles at the commencement of this play would be the old painting of the meeting of Henry and Francis, preserved at Windsor Castle, and the bas-reliefs representing the same occurrence, at Rouen. The profusion of feathers in the latter—a fashion of the previous reign, and still raging in 1520-adds to the picturesque effect of the general costume. For the later period, the full-length by Holbein engraved in Lodge's Portraits, or the print by Vertue, in which Henry is seen granting a charter to the barber-surgeons, are preferable. Of Wolsey there is a painting by Holbein at Oxford, engraved in Lodge's work. Cavendish, in his “Life of Wolsey,' describes hiin as issuing out in his cardinal's habit of fine scarlet or crimson satin, his cap being of black velvet: and in a MS. copy of that work, are three very curious drawings, representing—1st, The cardinal's progress on his way to France, with his archers, spearmen, cross, pillar, and purse bearers, etc. ; 2ndly, The cardinal surrendering the great seal to the dukes of Norfolk and Suffolk; and 3rdly, Dr. Butts sent by the king and Anne Bullen to the sick cardinal with tokens of favour. The gentlemen in the cardinal's train wore black velvet livery-coats, the most part with great chains of gold about their necks; and all his yeomen following were clad in French tawny livery-coats, having embroidered upon the backs and breasts of ihe said coats the letters T and C under the cardinal's hat.
“ In Lodge's beautiful work, portraits will be found of the dukes of Suffolk and Norfolk, Cromwell, Sir Thomas More, and Sir Anthony Denny, by Holbein ; and Cranmer by Flick. There is also a portrait of the accomplished Henry Earl of Surrey, by Titian, who represented him in a magnificent suit of armour, giving a splendid specimen of the military costume of the period. The sumptuary law passed in the twenty-fourth year of Henry's reign, shows the materials of which the dresses were made, which were, indeed, at this time of the most costly kind. The royal family alone were permitted to use the fur of the black jennet; and sables could only be wom by noblemen above the rank of a viscount. Crimson or blue velvet, embroidered apparel, or garments bordered
with gold sunken work,' were forbidden to any person beneath the quality of a baron or knight's son or heir; and velvet dresses of any colour, furs of martens, chains, bracelets, and collars of gold, were prohibited to all persons possessing less than two hundred marks per annum. The sons and heirs of such persons were permitted the use of black velvet or damask, and tawny-coloured russet or camlet. Satin and damask gowns were confined to the use of persons possessing at least one hundred marks per annum; and the wearing of plaited shirts, garnished with gold, silver, or silk, was permitted to none below the rank of knighthood. The hair was cut remarkably close, a peremptory order having been issued by Henry to all his attendants and courtiers to “poll their heads.' Beards and moustaches were worn at pleasure.
“ The portraits of Anne Bullen and Queen Katharine convey a sufficient idea of the costume of ladies of rank at this period. The jewelled cap and feather with which Holbein has represented Anne, are picturesque and