Page images
PDF
EPUB

THE ENGLISH HISTORIES.

1

success.

In the original arrangement of the Dramatic Writings of Shakespeare there are ten Plays, which are designated neither Comedies nor Tragedies, but Histories; a species of dramatic composition which few poets have attempted, and in which very few except Shakespeare can be said to have had much

It seems as if in the Elizabethan age there was a complete series of English Histories, beginning with the Conquest and continued to the very reign in which they were acted; by means of which there was what may be called popular instruction in English History given to the multitude in a manner the most attractive, while, at least when in the hands of Shakespeare, there was a grace and spirit given to veritable characters and events, and in the main no shocking departures from the actual truth of history, which made them an acceptable offering to the more cultivated and better informed parts of the community.

The play of King Henry the Eighth is hardly to be accounted part of the series. It was produced, as I mean to shew, on a special occasion and for a special purpose. King John also seems of a somewhat different cast from those which are obviously in series and, with hardly any break, consecutive. Without going into the question of the share which other poets of the time had in all or any of the historical plays classed as Shakespeare's, we have the history of nearly a century in these plays, commencing with the reign of King

Richard the Second and ending with the Battle of Bosworth, the conclusion of what in the Poet's age would be accounted the heroic period of English history.

It need not be observed how many are the bold spirits of those troubled times to whom the Poet's pen has given a deathless life: how the Cliffords, the Talbots, and the Nevilles, value their nobility and splendid descent the more, because the names and deeds of their ancestors are here married to immortal verse. A line from Shakespeare in which an historical name is found is a perfect treasure to those who descend from him, and is eagerly seized upon by the patient investigator of genealogical sequences to give life and animation to his story. It is like the Garter: those who have it stand prominently forth before the already illustrious class to which they belong.

Shakespeare is in the main an historian who takes a just view of the characters of whom he has to speak. Perhaps it might be said that no writer of history has presented more faithful delineations of historical personages. After all the labour which has been bestowed upon the question, the Prince of Wales remains the same unbridled youth who kept company with Falstaff and Poins. After all the attempts to give a different colouring to the character of Gloucester, he still remains the same ambitious, murderous, and unnatural person which Shakespeare has presented to us. The same may be said of characters less prominent or less fully delineated. Shakespeare is usually borne out in his delineations by what can be collected concerning them from the pages of the chroniclers, or from those of men who have written on English history in a more philosophic spirit. No doubt there has been more of generalization applied to the struggles of the fifteenth century, and by the philosopher may have been discerned the influence of the jealousy of the legitimate and illegitimate lines issuing from John of Gaunt on the events of the time; still when all is done Beaufort will remain Beaufort and Margaret Margaret, little, if anything, removed from the characters as they are presented in the scenes of Shakespeare.

Shakespeare had to discharge the duty of the dramatist as well as of the historian : and hence it is that he is more to be praised for the skill and force with which he has delineated character, than for the exact accordance of his facts and the arrangement of them with the veritable testimony of history. Not but that in the main the occurrences are truly exhibited ; but this qualification in the main, becomes of importance when we hear him held up as a great teacher of historic truth, and as if his testimony was of importance when a critic in English history sits down to the investigation of the occurrences of that dark period of which Shakespeare wrote. He is not, nor did he pretend to be, a critic in history, or over-exact in the arrangement of the occurrences. He even sometimes compounds an historical personage out of two. He had no clear idea, for instance, of the Montacutes. Such kind of knowledge was of more difficult attainment in his time than now; for he wrote before the works were printed of Mill, Brooke, or Vincent, in which the attempt was first made at defining the æras of the most eminent persons in early English history, and assigning to each the events which belong to them.

A person may justly be suspected of knowing but little of history, who professes to have got all his knowledge of it from Shakespeare; but, at the same time, the most critical student in the history of the period may contemplate, even for the purpose of understanding the history, the scenes of Shakespeare with advantage. Original conceptions of such a mind as his no one would think of despising. Flashes of light would sometimes present themselves piercing through the gloom, which the duller spirit of the mere historical critic would not have struck for itself. At least, the suggestion of such a mind as Shakespeare's would deserve a respectful consideration.

For his facts, he followed the old English Chroniclers in the main, and especially Hollinshead. Much pains have been taken in the illustration of the history as he has exhibited it. Malone and Ritson, of the earlier critics, and Mr. T. P. Courtenay of the later, have done the most in this department. They have indeed done more than enough: for it is quite beside the purpose of legitimate annotation to enter into the discussion of disputed points of history, because the dramatic poet has touched upon those points. Such kind of annotation belongs to the chronicler, whom the poet followed, not to the poet himself: and to introduce such discussions, what is it but to make the annotating Shakespeare an excuse for writing (at last superficially) de omni scibile et de quibusdam aliis. There is, indeed, hardly anything in the whole range of history, politics, morals, superstitions, manners, usages, popular opinions, for which an excuse might not be found for intruding it on the margin of the works of this great author, so multifarious are the subjects on which he has touched, so vast the extent of his knowledge; sed de his non est locus.

In another department of criticism, this is the great fault of Mr. Douce's Illustrations. But then he placed honestly in the title-page that his book had a twofold object : it was intended to illustrate Shakespeare's writings, but it was intended to illustrate ancient manners also.

In the remarks on the Histories I mean here to regard them as so many poems, and to treat them accordingly; and by no means as if they were in the proper sense of the word historical writings, the statements requiring to be tested, and either

« PreviousContinue »