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represented by the Chroniclers as a mere virago, a bold and shameless trull, a monster, a witch ;- because they adopted the vulgar view of her character,—the view, in truth, of those to whom she was opposed. They were rough soldiers, with all the virtues and all the vices of their age; the creatures of brute force; the champions, indeed, of chivalry, but with the brand upon them of all the selfish passions with which the highest deeds of chivalry were too invariably associated. The wonderful thing about The First Part of Henry VI.' is, that these men, who stood in the same relation of time to Shakspere's age as the men of Anne do to ours, should have been painted with a pencil at once so vigorous and so true. The English Chroniclers, in all that regards the delineation of characters and manners, give us abundant materials upon which we may form an estimate of actions, and motives, and instruments; • but they do not show us the instruments moving in their own forms of vitality; they do not lay bare their motives; and hence we have no real key to their actions. Froissart is, perhaps, the only contemporary writer who gives us real portraits of the men of mail. But Shakspere marshalled them upon his stage, in all their rude might, their coarse ambition, their low jealousies, their factious hatreds,—-mixed up with their thirst for glory, their indomitable courage, their warm friendships, their tender natural affections, their love of country. They move over his scene, displaying alike their grandeur and their littleness. He arrays them, equally indifferent whether their faults or their excellences be most prominent. The “ terrible Talbot” denounces his rival Fastolf with a bitterness unworthy a companion in arms; enters into a fierce war of words with the Pucelle, in which her power of understanding leaves him almost contemptible; and fights onward from scene to scene as if there was nothing high in man except the power of warring against his fellows: but he weeps like a lover over the fruitless gallantry of his devoted son; and he folds his dead boy in his rough arms, even as the mother, perishing with her child, takes the cold clay of the dear one to her bosom. This is the truth which Shakspere substituted for the vague delineations of the old stage. These are the pictures of manners which he gave to the people, when other poets adopted the easier expedient of separating the imaginative from the vulgar view of human actions and passions, only by rejecting whatever was real. He gave to his audiences new characters and new manners, simply because he presented to them the characters and manners of the ages which he undertook to delineate. Other men were satisfied to find the new in what never had an existence.
But with all this truth of characterization and of costume, the scattered events, the multifarious details, the alternations from factions at home to wars abroad, would have never hung together as a dramatic whole, had the poet not supplied a principle of cohesion, by which what is distant either in time or space, or separated in the natural progression of events, is bound together. We feel in the First Part of the “Henry VI.' that some unseen principle is in operation by which the action still moves onward to a fixed point. One by one the great soldiers of Henry V. fade from the scenethe Salisburys, and Bedfords, and Talbots, who held France as their hunting-ground. Other actors come upon the busy stage more distinctly associated with the scenes of factious strife which are to follow. The beginnings of those strifes are heard even amidst the din of the battle-fields of France; and, surrounded by terrible slaughter and fruitless victories, we have an unstable peace and a marriage without hope--an imbecile king and a discontented nobility. Amidst all this involvement the poet disdains, as it were, to illuminate the thick darkness beyond with a single ray. We see only the progression of events without their consequences; and the belief produced upon the mind is, that a fate presides over their direction. The effect is achieved by the masterly skill with which the future is linked to the present-felt, but not seen.
It appears to us that one of the most decisive proofs that Shakspere was the original author of the three Parts of · Henry VI.' is to be derived from the evidence which these plays present of the gradual increase of power in the writer. We say this without reference to the passages which have been added to “The Contention;' for all the real dramatic power is most thoroughly developed in the original plays that have grown into the Second and Third Parts of the · Henry VI.' The succeeding process to which they were subjected was simply one of technical elaboration and refinement. We have no doubt at all that “The First Part of Henry VI.' originally existed in a rougher form. Whoever compares it critically with the two Parts of The Contention' will perceive that much of the ruggedness which belongs to those dramas has no place in this first drama of the series. For instance, it has very few Alexandrines; the use of old words, such as “ belike,” is very rare, that word being frequently found in “ The Contention ;' and the versification altogether, though certainly more monotonous, is what we may call more correct, than that of The Contention.' How it could ever have been held that this play has undergone no repair, is to us one of the many marvellous things that belong to the ordi• nary critical estimation of it. Be the changes it has passed through
few or many, it is evident to us that all the material parts of the original structure are still to be found. But whatever rapidity of action, truth of characterization, and correctness of style it may possess, in a pre-eminent degree, as compared with other plays of the period, it is not, in all the higher essentials of dramatic excellence, to be placed in the same scale as the two Parts of · The Contention. It wants, speaking generally, the high poetry of those plays—not the mere poetry of description, but the teeming thought, the figurative expression, the single word that conveys a complex idea with more distinctness and much more force than the periphrasis of ordinary writers. It results from this very defect that " The First Part of Henry VI.' has far less obscurity than the succeeding parts. We may venture to say that there is no play of the whole number received as Shakspere's which exhibits so few passages of doubtful meaning; and this we hold to be a consequence of its being one of his very earliest performances. All the very early plays possess this attribute, more or less. We can understand how a poet of Shakspere's extraordinary judgment—the quality which we hold to be as remarkable in him as his invention-should, surrounded as he was with dramatic productions teeming with extravagance and unreality of every description, first endeavour to be correct and to be intelligible. We have already noticed that “The Two Gentlemen of Verona' possesses this distinctive character. “ This comedy has, to our minds, a very modern air. The thoughts are natural and obvious, the images familiar and general. The most celebrated passages have a character of grace rather than of beauty; the elegance of a youthful poet aiming to be correct, instead of the splendour of the perfect artist, subjecting every crude and apparently unmanageable thought to the wonderful alchemy of his all-penetrating genius."* But of what other author, who belonged to the transition-state of the drama, can it be said that intelligibility was a characteristic? Who else has attempted to give us the familiar without the vapid or the gross, and the dignified without the inflated ? Who, in a word, of our dramatic writers between 1585 and 1590, trusted to the power of the real ?
The value of any work of art is to be tested rather by its effect as a whole than by the effect of particular parts. And this especi. ally applies to a work of dramatic art; for parts even fine in themselves may, with reference to the entire effect of a drama, be blemishes instead of beauties. No writer that ever lived has approached Shakspere in the skill by which the whole is made to produce its entire and undisturbed effect. He is, thus, of all poets, the least to be appreciated from the study alone of “ specimens.” For although these may be sufficient to place him in the highest rank, in comparison with the “ specimens" of other writers, yet, separated from the parts by which they are naturally surrounded, they furnish no idea of the extraordinary harmony with which they are blended with all that has preceded and all that follows them. Shakspere, beyond every other dramatic writer, possesses the power of sustaining a continuous idea, which imparts its own organization and vitality to the most complete and apparently incongruous action, - to the most diversified and seemingly isolated characters.
* Introductory Notice to · Two Gentlemen of Verona.'
Without understanding the paramount idea, the manufacturers of acting plays have proceeded to the abridgment and transposition of Shakspere's scenes, and have produced such monsters as Dave. nant's • Tempest' and Tate's Lear.' It is in the same spirit that the critics upon the · Henry VI.' hold that these dramas are greatly inferior to Shakspere's other performances; and hence the theory of their spuriousness. But, as we have partially shown, the informing idea in all its dramatic power and unity runs through the entire series of these plays; and, as we think, is most especially manifest in the two parts of The Contention. For what is the effect which the poet intended in these two dramas to produce on the minds of his audience? There was to be shown a dark chaotic mass of civil tumult, of factious strifes, of fierce and bloody hatreds, of desperate ambition, of political profligacy, of popular ignorance, of weak government. The struggle was to be continued, while each faction had its alternations of success; each was to exhibit the same demoralising effects of the same frenzied ambition which drove them onward; the course of events was sometimes to be determined by energy and sometimes by accident; weakness was to throw away what power and good fortune had won; alliances were to be broken by causeless quarrels, and cemented by motiveless treachery; and, lastly, when the ever-present fate which seemed to dominate over this wild and fearful confusion gave the final battle to the feeble, and hurled down the mighty from the car of victory, there was to be superfluous guilt in the hour of success, and the conquerors were to march to thrones with their hands red with murder. But what principle was to hold together all these apparently incongruous elements ? How were the separate scenes, each so carelessly, as it were, linked with the other, to produce one overwhelming interest,
stimulate one prevailing curiosity, satisfy one irresistible craving in the spectators ? The stern majesty of justice was made to preside over the course of these wild and mysterious events—sometimes dimly seen, sometimes wholly hidden, but rising up ever and anon out of thick clouds and darkness, to assert the overruling power of some government of events, more equal, more enduring, more mighty, and more fearful, than the direction which they received from human energy, and passion, and intellect, and guilt. Shakspere has never chosen to exhibit this tremendous agency after that unnatural manner which we are accustomed to call poetical justice --he develops the progress of that real justice which sometimes, for inscrutable purposes, permits the good to be forsaken, to be humiliated, to be crushed, to perish; but which invariably follows the guilty with some dismal retribution, more striking if it be seen,more terrible if it be hidden from all eyes, and revealed only in the innermost heart of the peace-abandoned. He never distorts and vulgarises the manifest workings of a providential arbitrement of human actions, by heaping every calamity upon the good man,searing his heart with tortures which leave the wheel and the stake but little to inflict,—and then-hey presto—turning the dirge into a dance—the prison into a palace,—whilst the tyrant and the villain has his profitable account settled with a stab or an execution. Poetical justice is “ your only jig-maker.” But Shakspere never forgets that in the general course of actual events there is a slow but unerring retribution that follows the violation of justice, evolved, not by the shifting of a scene, but out of the natural consequences of the events themselves. Let us endeavour to trace how this paramount idea is brought out in the dramas before us.
Sir Walter Scott somewhere speaks, through one of his characters, of the “ Lancastrian prejudices” of Shakspere. The great novelist had probably in his mind the delineation of Richard. But it would be difficult, we think, to have conducted the entire chronicle history of The Contention between the two famous Houses of York and Lancaster with more rigid impartiality. This just and tolerant view of human events and characters constitutes one of the most remarkable peculiarities of the mind of Shakspere; and its manifestation in the dramas before us furnishes one of the many proofs, and to us not the least convincing, that they could alone. have emanated from that mind. For, let us turn to the very first scenes of these dramas, and we shall find the character of the Lancastrian Margaret gradually displaying itself in an aptitude for bold and dangerous intrigue, founded upon her pride and impatience of