« AnteriorContinuar »
meet them on the morrow on the battlefield; and how he starts out of sleep, crying, “Give me another horse; bind up my wounds. Have mercy, Jesu," and then, as he lies trembling, confesses:
My conscience hath a thousand several tongues,
tale condemns me for a villain.
Although, however, there is a great deal of rough power in this drama, it is, in comparison with the author's later work, a crude performance. King Richard is a conscious villain and hypocrite ; indeed, in the very first scene he declares to himself:
I am determined to prove a villain;
and, all through the play, he never attempts for a moment to mask his villainy from his own eyes. He is a monster of iniquity, such as Shakspeare would never have thought of painting in his maturity, when he had learned that even the hypocrite begins by deceiving himself. A still more unmistakable mark of juvenility is the gross manner in which woman is represented. The Lady Anne is wooed and won by Richard, the murderer of her husband, in presence of the coffin of her father-in-law, whom he has also slain; and the conduct of Queen Elizabeth is hardly less unwomanly. There could not be a greater contrast than between these representations of woman and that in the person of Queen Katharine in the latest of the Histories, Henry the Eighth.
No doubt, however, Richard the Third must have brought to the young poet immense applause, for nothing equal to its best passages had ever before been witnessed on the English stage; he had probably been bitten, too, with the interest of the history; and so he was induced to go on. In the drama which he had just completed, as in the three parts of Henry the Sixth, he had been dealing with the fall of the House of Lancaster, which involved England in the miseries of the Wars of the Roses. The study of these events obtruded on his mind the question of the origin of these wars; and so he was carried back to the rise of the House of Lancaster in the usurpation of Bolingbroke, Duke of Hereford, who dethroned Richard II. and became Henry the Fourth. In working out this phase of the history he composed four plays-Richard the Second, Henry the Fourth (in two parts) and Henry the Fifth. These are all closely connected; and in them we see the genius of the poet coming to maturity. The music of the verse, the mastery of the material, the comprehension of human motives and the development of character all advance to perfection with astonishing rapidity. The poet is now master of a diction stately, brilliant and answerable to the dignity of history; yet he handles it with perfect freedom and can modify it to suit the peculiarities of his several characters; while in the comic passages, with which the two parts of Henry the Fourth especially abound, he descends without difficulty from this exalted style and abandons himself to the licence of a brilliant prose. In the characters there is now the variety of shading exhibited by human nature; and they no longer rant in the tone of the stage but converse with the restraint of real life. Passages occur on almost every page which you feel inclined to quote—sometimes only a line or two of condensed and proverbial wisdom, sometimes a lengthy outburst of sustained eloquence, sometimes a figure of speech elaborately worked out, sometimes a scene of delicate beauty or moving pathos.
King John, the first of all the Histories in time, stands by itself, separated in its subject from these four connected dramas; but it is on the same level of excellence. Henry the Eighth, at the opposite end of the decade of dramas, is also a noble poem, remarkable not only for the fine picture, already alluded to, of an unselfish, patriotic and highminded woman in the person of Queen Katharine, but for the spectacle of Cardinal Wolsey in his splendour and his fall. In this drama, however, Shakspeare is believed to have been again working in collaboration with another dramatist, so that the work is unequal and lacks unity. On the whole, therefore, the first five Histories are
i That is, as generally printed.
those in which we see Shakspeare at his best; and the other five serve rather as a foil to make visible by what stages he advanced to perfection.
The saying of the celebrated Duke of Marlborough is well known, that he knew English history only as he had learned it from these Histories of Shakspeare. But, though this remark has often been praised, it is misleading No doubt a man might derive a deep attachment to his native country through reading these poems alone; and this is one of the best results of reading history; but he could not from Shakspeare obtain anything like so accurate an account of the facts of history as he might from the commonest schoolbook. In the first place, there are great blanks : it is only an inconsiderable number of the reigns of the English monarchs that Shakspeare has dramatized. Besides, a great deal has been left out even in the reigns with which he has dealt; and any close inquiry would discover numerous anachronisms.? Shakspeare's aim is misunderstood when, in any usual sense, he is regarded as a teacher of historical facts.
He was a poet, and selected from the materials supplied to his hand the elements which could be poetically treated. He could not depart very far from fact, for this would have excited protest in the minds of those acquainted
1 Examples in Ulrici, Shakspeare's Dramatic Art, bk. VI., ch. 11.
with the history; but he was not nervous about accuracy in details. What he had to do was to select out of the materials of a reign those which were poetically significant and build these into a structure which should be in itself a thing of beauty, and yet should sufficiently correspond with the facts to justify its name; and the marvel of the whole thing is, how he could take the common and chaotic materials presented in an ordinary chronicle and transmute them into a coherent, melodious, eloquent poem, which can thrill us with passion or make us shake with laughter or move us to tears.
Equally mistaken, in my opinion, is the attempt to find in these poems a philosophy of history. German critics have gone most astray in this direction, reading into the poet their own ideas under the pretence that they are expounding his. Ulrici, for example, in the work just quoted, tries to show that Shakspeare, having before him all the forces of the time, such as Chivalry, the Church, the Crown, the Commons, and so forth, has accurately shown their relations to one another and their interaction, making visible, so to speak, the concealed wires by which the puppets of history were moved and the ends towards which Providence was guiding the half-conscious movements
This, it seems to me, is a complete exaggeration. There is of course a certain amount of truth in it. In the eight central dramas especially