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THE ENGLISH HISTORIES
SHAKSPEARE is a territory so vast that the reader who desires to take possession of it requires to parcel it out into provinces and conquer these one by one. The great divisions are obvious: the plays divide themselves into Histories, Comedies and Tragedies; and the Sonnets, with the miscellaneous poems, may be reckoned as a fourth division. Some at least of these divisions would, however, require to be subdivided. Thus the Histories naturally fall into the English and the Ancient; and the Comedies may be divided into the Gayer and the Graver.
A very important question for the beginner is, with which of the great divisions he ought to commence. In most editions, if I am not mistaken, the Comedies are printed first, and with these the conscientious and unsophisticated reader is accordingly apt to begin. This, however, is a mistake. A great deal of Shakspeare's poorest work is in the Comedies; and, besides, these are far more difficult to read than the other plays, being full of obsolete words and phrases, of which the beginner can make little or nothing. I can still
remember how, as a boy, I was put out and discouraged by these obscurities; and many are, I believe, permanently alienated from this study by trying to enter by the wrong door.
It seems to me that by far the best way to begin is with the English Histories. Here you get at once, in King John, a poem of the highest excellence, brilliant in diction and easily intelligible; and the four plays which immediately follow are also simple in language and yet, both in conception and execution, up almost to the author's highest level.
This, however, is not the only reason for placing the English Histories first. They were the first section of his work which the author completed. He did not, indeed, write them quite continuously: a few of the Comedies and one or two of the Tragedies were mixed up with them: but, with the single exception of Henry the Eighth, which belongs to the very close of his career, the English Histories were early work, and the whole set was finished when the other two series were little more than begun.
It would hardly be too much to say that the English Histories made Shakspeare. It is natural for a poet to open his career with subjects belonging to the domain of pure fancy, where the characters and the incidents are of his own invention and he is at perfect liberty to shape everything according to his own will, as long as he keeps within the bounds of probability.
But there is danger of lingering too long in this region. It is too shadowy and impalpable, and it converts the poet into a dreamer, lost to the sympathies of common men. Shelley is an example of a poet who inhabited this dreamland of fancy too long. In his earliest productions Shakspeare also dwelt in this ideal world; but happily at an early period his star led him to the task of dramatizing the reigns of the sovereigns of his country. Here he was brought into close contact with the actual. The outlines of the plot were supplied to him by the record of events, and his fancy had to keep within the bounds thus prescribed. The incidents, at least in their main body and succession, had actually taken place; the dramatis persone were real men and women. Thus the young poet was kept to reality and learned to know the passions, the ambitions and the sorrows of the heart, not only as these might be conceived in the imagination but as they had actually been embodied in historical events. This was the right education for a mind like his; the fidelity with which he clung to his chosen task proves that he felt it to be so; and in the results, as they lie before us, we can still trace the rapid and marvellous development which, under this discipline, his powers underwent.
The English Histories are ten in number, but there is a marked difference in value between the first five and the last five. The latest of all, Henry the Eighth,
1 That is, as they are now printed.
being so far separated from the rest in the time of its composition, stands by itself; and, if the first of all, King John, be also put by itself, there is a great and instructive contrast between the first four and the last four of the eight which remain.
It would appear that, before Shakspeare arrived in London, to begin the work of his life, there already existed dramatizations of several portions of English history, which were popular with the public. Who their authors were is now uncertain; the manuscripts were the property of the theatre; and the proprietors, or those employed by them, could at pleasure add to or take from what had been written, to suit the exigencies of time or the tastes of their customers. Probably the very first work which Shakspeare had to do as a writer was the adaptation of some of these plays. Being himself one of the actors, he could see, as he was playing, how they might be improved ; and his employers gave the requisite permission.
In the three plays which appear in his works as the First, the Second and the Third Parts of Henry the Sixth, it is believed, we possess specimens of this renovating process-dramas by old hands which the young playwright remodelled--and it is a fine task for literary critics to determine how much is his and how much is old. They have not lacked confidence; and they tell us that “out of 6043 lines, 1771 were written by some author preceding Shakspeare, 2373
by him on the foundation laid by his predecessors; and 1899 were entirely his own”.! Of course such estimates are largely conjectural; but it is impossible to read the three parts of Henry the Sixth without feeling how inferior everything is to the Histories written later : the verse is comparatively unmusical and the thinking thin ; few passages tempt to quotation; the representation lacks subtlety; and the plot plods laboriously after the details of the history. If this is Shakspeare at all, you say, it is only his “'prentice hand”.
But this work had interested the young poet; the public interest may also have spurred him on; besides, the three plays represented a series of events which they left incomplete ; and, accordingly, he was induced to write a new drama completing them. This was Richard the Third, which is the first of the historical plays entirely his own. It is a powerful piece and has always enjoyed a great popularity. It is the picture of a villain, who stalks through blood and crime to the object of his ambition; and in it Shakspeare for the first time handles the great subject of conscience, which was subsequently to play a marked part in his work. Everyone remembers how, on the night before the fatal battle of Bosworth, the ghosts of those whom he has murdered come, one after another, into Richard's tent and summon him, in his dreams, to
1 EMERSON, Representative Men,