« PreviousContinue »
Cobham then dissembles, and asks—
They offer to swear fidelity; but he requires them only to subscribe the writing. The time and place of meeting are appointed, and they part. Cobham puts the paper in his pocket, and goes off to betray them to the king. The state-morality of the age of Elizabeth might perhaps have made this incident more palatable to an audience of that day than to ourselves; but we doubt whether Shakspere would have put this burthen upon the soul of one whom he wished to represent as a hero and a martyr. We have more scenes of the rebels; followed by the scene which we have already noticed of the parson robbing the king. The same worthy divine is afterwards found in the king's camp, dicing with his majesty; and then the robbery is discovered, and the robber pardoned. The rebels who were in the field, headed by Sir Roger Acton, are routed. The Bishop of Rochester affirms that they were incited by Cobham, who arrives at the moment of the accusation to prove his loyalty by denouncing Scroop, Grey, and Cambridge. The king is satisfied; but subsequently the Bishop of Rochester seizes Cobham and confines him in the Tower, from which he very soon escapes. With the exception of a scene in which Cambridge and the other conspirators are seized by the king, the whole of the fifth act is occupied by the wanderings of Cobham and his wife, their disguises and their escapes. The following scene is happily imagined and gracefully expressed:—
“Cob. Come, madam, happily escap'd. Here let us sit;
D. Cob. But where, my lord,
Cob. No matter, love;
t As lightly as the wind that blows upon us:
L. Cob. How can it seem a trouble, having you
[She produces some bread and cheese, and a bottle.
Behold, what my foresight hath underta'en,
Cob. Praise be to Him whose plenty sends both this
The persecuted pair fall asleep; and, a murdered body being found near them, they are apprehended as the murderers and conducted to trial. They are discharged through the discovery of the real murderer, and fly with Lord Powis into Wales. It will be evident from this analysis that “The First Part of Sir John Oldcastle' is entirely deficient in dramatic unity. Shakspere in representing a series of historical events did not of course attempt to sustain that unity of idea which we see so strikingly in his best tragedies and comedies. We have not one great action, but a succession of actions; and yet, through his wonderful power of characterization, and his skill in grouping a series of events round one leading event, we have a principle upon which the mind can determinately rest, and rightly comprehend the whole dramatic movement. In the play before us there is no distinct relation between one scene and another. We forget the connexion between Oldcastle and the events in which he is implicated; and, when he himself appears on the scene, the development of character, in which a real poet would have luxuriated, is made subordinate to the hurry of the perplexed though monotonous movement of the story. Thoroughly to understand the surpassing power of Shakspere in the management of the historical drama, it might be desirable to compare ‘King John,' or ‘Richard II.,’ or ‘Richard III.’ or “Henry VIII.,’ with this play; but, after all, the things do not admit of comparison. The first edition of this play was published in 1602, under the title of “The Chronicle History of Thomas Lord Cromwell.” No name or initials of an author appear in the title-page. In 1613 appeared * The true Chronicle Historie of the whole life and death of Thomas Lord Cromwell. As it hath beene sundry times publikely Acted by the Kings Majesties Seruants. Written by W. S.’ In 1602 the registers of the Stationers’ Company had the entry of ‘A Booke called the Lyfe and Deathe of the Lord Cromwell, as yt was lately acted by the Lord Chamberleyn his servants.’ It appears, therefore, that the play was originally performed, and continued to be performed, by the company in which Shakspere was a chief proprietor. In the Introductory Notice to “Henry VIII.' we have attempted to show that Shakspere produced that play as a new play in 1613. It is easy to understand why in 1613 it might 1ecommend the sale of “Thomas Lord Cromwell’ to put W. S. on the title-page, whether those initials represented the real writer or were meant to imply that the writer was William Shakspere. Beyond these initials there is no external evidence whatever to attribute the play to the great dramatizer of English history. Schlegel, as we have seen, calls “Sir John Oldcastle” and “Thomas Lord Cromwell’ “biographical dramas and models in this species.” We have no hesitation in affirming that a biographical drama, especially such a drama as “Thomas Lord Cromwell,’ is essentially undramatic. “Oldcastle” takes a portion only of the life of its hero; but “Cromwell’ gives us the story of the man from his boyhood to his execution. The resemblance which it bears to any play of Shakspere's is solely in the structure of the title; and that parallel holds good only with regard to one play, ‘Lear,’ according to its original title, the “True Chronicle Historie of the Life and Death of King Lear and his three Daughters.’ In the folio collection of 1623 we have indeed ‘The Life and Death of King John,' “The Life and Death of Richard II.,’ ‘The Life of King Henry V.,’ “The Life and Death of Richard III,’ and “The Life of King Henry VIII.’ So in the same edition we have “The Life and Death of Julius Caesar.” But our readers are perfectly aware that in all these dramas a very small portion of the life of the hero of each is included in the action. Shakspere knew his art too well to attempt to teach history dramatically by connecting a series of isolated events solely by their relation to a principal agent, without any other dependence. Nothing, for example, can be more complete in itself than the action of ‘Richard II.,’ or that of ‘Henry V.,’ of “Richard III.,’ and of ‘Henry VIII.' We have in these pieces nearly all the condensation which pure tragedy requires. But in “Thomas Lord Cromwell,” on the contrary, what Shakspere would have told in a few words, reserving himself for an exhibition of character in the more striking situations, is actually presented to us in a succession of scenes that have no relation to any action of deepening interest—chapter upon chapter which might have been very well spared, if one chapter, that of the elevation and fall of Cromwell, had occupied a space proportioned to its importance. We begin the drama in the shop of old Cromwell, the blacksmith, at Putney, where young Cromwell, with a want of sense that ill accords with his future advancement, insists that his father’s men shall leave off work because their noise disturbs his study. His father comes, and like a sensible and honest man reproves his son for his
vagaries; and then the ambitious youth, who proclaims the purpose of his presaging soul, that he will build a palace
“Crom. Why should my birth keep down my mounting spirit?
The young man, who despises work, immediately gets employment without seeking it, to be secretary to the English merchants at Antwerp. Then commences the secondary action of the drama, which consists of the adventures of one Banister, an English merchant, who is persecuted by Bagot, a usurer, and relieved by a foreign merchant. It is by no means clear what this has to do with Thomas Lord Cromwell; but it may be satisfactory to know that eventually the usurer is hanged and the merchant is restored to competence. It would have been difficult, with all the author's contempt for unity of action, to have contrived to have told the whole story of Cromwell dramatically; and so he occasionally gives us a chorus. The second act thus opens:— “Now, gentlemen, imagine that young Cromwell's In Antwerp, leiger for the English merchants; And Banister, to shun this Bagot's hate, Hearing that he hath got some of his debts, Is fled to Antwerp, with his wife and children; Which Bagot hearing is gone after them, And thither sends his bills of debt before, To be reveng'd on wretched Banister. What doth fall out, with patience sit and see, A just requital of false treachery.”