« AnteriorContinuar »
there is a close articulation. It is made clear that in the very way in which the Lancastrian dynasty came to the throne there lay the seed and prophecy of its ultimate decline; and the reader is conscious, all through, of this predetermined fate working itself out. But, on the other hand, Shakspeare displays little apprehension of the crescent forces of English history even in the periods to which his dramas refer. In King John, for example, Magna Charta holds a very insignificant place; and no emphasis is laid anywhere on the growth of law or religious opinion or the power of the common people. In any philosophical history of England, such as Green's, the development of these forces is exhibited with far more interest than in Shakspeare; and the reason is, that to write the philosophy of history was not Shakspeare's business. It is not with the hidden principles by which history is moved that he is concerned, but with the action itself. He approaches the history from the outside and, observing as a spectator its movement, its splendour, its pathos, points out to others its significant features. What, he asks, took place in those days of old which is worthy to be remembered and to be sung? It is not in abstract forces working behind history that he is interested, but in the passions of the actors: who were the men and women who made the history? and how did the history mould and develop them?
There are four outstanding themes, which may be called the pivots round which the poet's thought revolves: these are Patriotism, Royalty, War and Character.
PATRIOTISM.-It is a common criticism that the mind of Shakspeare was so catholic and impartial-he was able so perfectly to put himself into the place of every character which he created—that it is impossible to tell what his own sentiments were. To a large extent this is true: he knew human nature in all its forms, whether great or mean, and he could enter so sympathetically into the views and feelings of king and beggar alike that, even when he is expressing an opinion with the greatest force, it is difficult to say whether he is speaking with the force of conviction or only with the borrowed passion of the person of the drama. Occasionally, however, he drops the mask, and there is an accent which betrays that his own heart is speaking
Nowhere is this so obviously the case, in these Histories, as when he is giving utterance to patriotic sentiment. Here he is as much himself as Milton in his sonnets or Burns in his songs.
The name of England always touches Shakspeare to the quick; and he cannot utter it without a rush of emotion. He calls England, in allusion to the chalk cliffs of the southern coast,
that pale, that white-faced shore Whose foot spurns back the ocean's roaring tides And coops from other lands her islanders.
England, hedged-in with the main,
The most wonderful passage of this kind is in the dying utterances of John of Gaunt. The King, his nephew, has so mismanaged the revenues that they are all pawned and bonded to creditors, and he, as his uncle tells him, is “landlord of England, not its king.” The dying noble is tortured with the shame of his country's condition, and breaks out thus :
This royal throne of kings, this sceptred isle,
For Christian service and true chivalry-
Passages like this must have roused enormous enthusiasm in the auditors who first heard them; and Shakspeare feeds their fervour by contrasting England and the English character with other nations. He is impatient of the tendency of his countrymen to copy foreign manners, such as
fashions in proud Italy,
That is not quickly buzzed into our ears? A large portion of the action of the Histories is occupied with the French wars; and he is never weary of the contrast between French and English-French bragging and English valour, French volubility and English reserve, French polish and English down
1 For the sake of facility in reading, some lines have been left out. So also at pp. 22, 23, 24, 25, 33, 34, 35, 73, 90, 92, 93, 165, 168, 169, 173, 174, 177, 234, 239, 261, 267, 271.
rightness, French lightness and English weight. He says that a single pair of English legs could carry three French bodies. An English herald thus addresses the French army, which has landed in England:
That hand which had the strength, even at your
door, To cudgel you and make you take the hatch; To dive, like buckets, in concealed wells; To crouch in litter of your stable-planks; To lie, like pawns, locked up in chests and trunks; To hug with swine; to seek sweet safety out In vaults and prisons; and to thrill and shake Even at the crying of your nation's crow, Thinking his voice an armed EnglishmanShall that victorious hand be feebled here That in your chambers gave you chastisement ? No: know, the gallant monarch is in arms, And, like an eagle, o'er his aery towers, To souse annoyance which comes near his nest.
The Welsh, Irish and Scotch characters are likewise contrasted with the English, of course to the advantage of the latter. The Welshman, all through Shakspeare's plays, is a favourite butt, with his odd way of pronouncing the English language, his pedantry and his self-esteem; and the fun was probably good at the time, though to us now it is rather heavy. Shakspeare does not make much of the Irishman: he left the