« PreviousContinue »
HE precise dates at which Shakespeare first came before the world as a player and as a playwright are alike unknown; nor has it ever been pretended that either of these dates must necessarily be associated with the production of "Henry VI," or of any Part of the trilogy, upon the stage. Strictly speaking, no biographical fact concerning him is known to us between May, 1583, when his eldest child was born, and February, 1585 (N.s.), when her twin brother and sister were christened at Stratford, and March 3, 1592 (N.S.), when a play which is at least possibly identifiable with the "First Part of Henry VI" was performed in London. Between these dates, as is well known, erudite and imaginative conjecture have combined to crowd a variety of experiences as multitudinous as are the houses of London town itself; but we are all agreed that before the summer of this year he had been for some time connected with the London theatre. For it was about this date
that either as an actor or, more probably, as a playwright, he was vituperated by the unhappy Greene-in what may surely be called the unhappiest moment of the writer's literary life. Thus with “ Henry VI”. except on the absolutely untenable supposition that the "Shakescene" of the "Groatsworth of Wit" is a different personage from Shakespeare — the master-spirit of the English drama first enters into some sort of ascertained connexion with it or with its ordinary vehicle, the English stage. For, whether or not he had a hand in "Titus Andronicus "— a question which the present is not the occasion for discussing-no play of that name was performed till 1594, though a "Titus and Vespacia" was acted some years earlier.
This fact, then, gives to "Henry VI," which Shakespeare's friends and associates, the editors of the First Folio, chose to include as a whole within the canon of his plays, a priority of place in the whole series from the point of view of date, and thereby an interest of its kind unique. In the second place, I do not think that, whatever critical judgment may be formed of "Henry VI" in its entirety, any doubt can be entertained but that, taken as a whole, this trilogy in its dramatic and in its general literary qualities stands very much nearer to the rest of the great series of Shakespearean Histories, among which a place was assigned to it by Hemynge and Condell, than to the Chronicle Histories, from whose species it cannot be regarded as having altogether emerged. Together with a very few other plays among which we may safely class Marlowe's "Troublesome Raigne and Lamentable Death of Edward II" (1590-1), Peele's more or less contemporary but more rudimentary "Famous Chronicle of Edward I, and (in part) Greene's "Scottish Historie of James IV, slaine
at Flodden," together with the very remarkable anonymous "Sir Thomas More," probably quite as early in date as the preceding - "Henry VI" may thus be regarded as marking the transition from unfree beginnings, and from the Chronicle History pure and simple, to one of the most characteristic as well as most memorable of the developments of the English drama. For our national historical drama, as its conception unfolded itself in Shakespeare, corresponds in its historical continuity to that of our national life at large, which may safely be described as the feature more than any other differentiating it from the life of other nations. Thus "Henry VI" has a position hardly less notable in the general history of the English drama than in the series of Shakespeare's plays. Finally, I think that, whatever may be held to be the relations to each other of the several Parts of "Henry VI," and their comparative dramatic and literary merits, it is undeniable that the whole work is conceived on a grand scale and in a grand way, and that, though it cannot be set down as a masterpiece, its theme ❝contains matter, and not common things." Without entering at present into the details of his criticism, I cannot refrain at the outset of this Introduction from citing some words of the Nestor of English Shakespeare scholars, Dr. Furnivall,' because it is above all things desirable that in discussing these plays the great possibilities of their argument, which the execution has at least gone some way to meet, should not be as it were by accident overlooked.
"There are few things," writes Dr. Furnivall, as usual putting his own ideas in his own way, "I regret more in Shakespeare's career
1.66 New Shakspere Society's Transactions," 1876, p. 284.
than this: that he did n't turn back to the superb subject of these Henry VI plays and write a fresh set on it. . . . The reproduction of the Lancelot and Guinevere love in Suffolk and Queen Margaret, though with a bitterer end, gives a strange interest in the drama. And, when the thread is woven with the others of Margaret's ambition, cutting down Gloster, the sole support of her and her husband's throne; the working out of her punishment for this, through the quarrels of the nobles and the insidious Richard's schemes; when one sees the Queen of 'peerless feature . . . valiant courage and undaunted spirit' robbd of her love, her kingdom and her child; the current of her being changed; the woman turned into a demon and a fury; then, dethroned, uttering the dread curse of Fate and Vengeance on the crafty cynical Richard in the pride of his success, and then witnessing the fulfilment of that curse on him defiant, fearing Death as little as he feard Sin . . . you have a combination of personal and political motives which, had Shakespeare gone back to it later in life, would have given the world the finest historical dramas it will ever own."
In order that he may see light through the quite inevitably lengthy and not less inevitably complicated discussion which must be inflicted on the reader, as to the still-vext subject of "Henry VI" and of the originals on which the larger portion of this trilogy were beyond dispute founded, the dates of the early editions of the several plays in question should in the first instance be remembered. The "First Part of Henry VI," then, was so far as is known first printed in the First Folio (Hemynge and Condell's), where it appeared in conjunction with the Second and Third Parts in 1623. Now, as already indicated, Henslowe mentions in his " Diary" a play which he calls, first Henery the VI" and then "Hary VI," as performed at the Rose, on March 3, 1592 (N.S.), and as repeated at least fifteen times. And, in his "Pierce Pennilesse his Supplication," Nashe refers to a play in which "brave Talbot (the terror of the French)" was, "after he had lain
two hundred years in his tomb," made to "triumph again on the stage, and have his bones new embalmed with the tears of ten thousand spectators at least (at several times)." On this twofold hint Mr. Fleay 1 says, without further hesitation: "On March 3, 1592, Lord Strange's players acted Henry VI,' a re-fashioning by Shakespeare of an old Queen's play, into which he introduced the Talbot scenes alluded to by Nashe"; adding as a conjecture that in 1599 this play passed to the Lord Chamberlain's servants, whence the reference, of which more anon, in the Epilogue to" Henry V." But we are not able to go quite so fast. It is quite true that Nashe's description, so far as Talbot is concerned, fits the" First Part of Henry VI"; and also that the popularity ascribed to the play by Nashe fits the play mentioned by Henslowe as having been performed by Lord Strange's men and having had so good a run. especially as the success of a play at one house was quite as likely in the Elizabethan age as it is in our own to lead to the production at another house of a second play on the same theme, the " First Part of Henry VI" was very likely neither the play mentioned by Henslowe nor that to which reference is made by Nashe. This is all we know or can conjecture as to the history of the "First Part of Henry VI," which was never printed separately before its inclusion in the First Folio under the title of "The first part of King Henry the Sixt."
"The case is altered" (to use one of the many proverbial expressions which occur in " Henry VI") with regard to the Second and Third Parts, or, as they are superscribed in the First Folio, "The second part of King Henry the Sixt, with the death of the Good Duke Humfry," and "The third part of King Henry the Sixt, with the death of the 1 "Life of Shakespeare,” p. 260.