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Nothing can be more idle or frivolous than to draw comparisons between the
historical plays of Shakspere, and such as, being founded on tales or legends which attracted his attention by their seeming aptness for his purpose, are evidences of the amazing fertility of his genius. In the construction of his plays of the latter class, he had sometimes a wild fable to regulate ; always dull, soulless agents to vivify and discriminate, so that they might become human beings, and characters; and very frequently—to give fullness, propriety, and completeness to his design-he had absolutely new characters to conceive. No title can be pleaded for the creatures of fiction in support or in preservation of their individuality. The fancy of one may alter what the fancy of another has made or suggested ; and Shakspere taking advantage of a license whereby he escaped the drudgery of his art, reanimated scenes and circumstances of the most extraordinary and sometimes of a preternatural description; making the great and the small take their share therein- live and move and have their being in them-all profoundly steeped in the depths of human nature, that thereby they might live for ever.
His sole purpose in writing these romantic dramas was to give delight to his audience by the presentment of an interesting story, evolved by the agency of natural characters.
But, in forming his historical plays, Shakspere had a very different end in view. His purpose was, to produce in a dramatic form a succession of real
events, set forth in the very truth, and fraught with the philosophic lessons and warnings of history. Historical plays were no novelties. For several years before Shakspere appeared, they had been a favourite amusement of the people; albeit they were, with one cxception (Marlowe's “ EDWARD II.,” which is of a higher strain, and of a defined purpose), very crude productions, little better than servile transcripts from the old chronicles, embellished by no art, and illustrated by no attempt at character.
Plays had been previously written, and were familiar to the audience, on most of the historical subjects chosen by Shakspere. What of that? He saw,—meagre though they were,—that they were delightful to the spectators, because they were representations, however imperfect, of real events that had occurred in their common country. Not withheld by a sickly dread of being charged with plagiarism or presumption, or by a morbid ambition to be deemed altogether original, he took them in hand, designing to remodel them, so that they might be indeed pictures painted, not wretched reprints, from history. In effect, he re-wrote these plays, closely following Hall, Holinshed, Stowe, and other chroniclers, not only in the conduct of their history, but sometimes in their very expressions; and, here and there, he extracted a few lines from the old plays on the same subject. But in all that constitutes the essence of a play, they are as entirely his own as “LEAR,” or “Othello," or “ THE TEMPEST."
We have already seen, in his historical plays of “ Coriolanus,” “Julius CÆSAR,” and “ANTONY AND CLEOPATRA," with what fidelity he adhered to Plutarch. The same integrity of intellect presided at his scenes drawn from English history. If he would not wittingly alter the events, or even their order of succession, still less would he, for the sake of " dramatic effect," or what not, tamper with the historical personages. Such as they appeared to him by the lights of history to be-such as they might be inferred to have been-even so were they drawn, with an unflinching, inflexible pen, with an inexorable truth. Shakspere, indeed, sometimes introduces fictitious characters into his historical plays; but, if they delay, they never divert the main action; and where they mingle with it, they on no occasion interrupt, but ever co-operate with it.
These few general remarks are ventured as introductory to the magnificent series of Shaksperian dramas derived from English history. Particular mention of the play of “ King John” will be found at the conclusion of the Notes.
Bretagne (the elder Brother of KING JORN).
King Richard the First.
ELINOR, the Widow of King Henry II., and Mother of
KING JOHN. CONSTANCE, Mother to ARTHUH. BLANCH, Daughter to Alphonso. King of Castile, and Niece to
KING JOEN. LADY FALCONBRIDGE, Mother to the Bastard and ROBERT
Lords, Ladies, Ciuzens of Angiers, Sheriff, Eeralds, Officers,
Soldiers, Messengers, and other Attendants.
SCENE. Sometimes in England, and some irres in France.
Scene I.—Northampton. A Room of State in
Enter King John, Queen ELINOR, PEMBROKE,
Essex, SALISBURY, and others, with Chatil
King John. Now, say, Chatillon, what would
France with us? Chat. Thus, after greeting, speaks the King of
France, In my behaviour, to the majesty (The borrowed majesty) of England here. Eli. A strange beginning :-“ Borrowed ma
K. John. Silence, good mother; hear the em
bassy. Chat. Philip of France, in right and true behalf Of thy deceased brother Geffrey's son, Arthur Plantagenet, lays most lawful claim To this fair island, and the territories; To Ireland, Poictiers, Anjou, Touraine, Maine: Desiring thee to lay aside the sword Which sways usurpingly these several titles, And put the same into young Arthur's hand, Thy nephew and right royal sovereign.
K. John. What follows, if we disallow of this?
Chat. The proud control of fierce and bloody war, To enforce these rights so forcibly withheld.
K. John. Here have we war for war, and blood
for blood; Controlment for controlment : so answer France. Chat. Then take my king's defiance from my
mouth; The farthest limit of my embassy. K. John. Bear mine to him, and so depart in
peace : Be thou as lightning in the eyes of France ; For ere thou canst report I will be there, The thunder of my cannon shall be heard : So, hence! Be thou the trumpet of our wrath, And sullen presage of your own decay.An honourable conduct let him have: Pembroke, look to 't.-Farewell, Chatillon.
[Exeunt Chatillon and PEMBROKE. Eli. What now, my son? have I not ever said, How that ambitious Constance would not cease, Till she had kindled France, and all the world, Upon the right and party of her son ? This might have been prevented, and made whole, With very easy arguments of love; Which now the manage of two kingdoms must With fearful bloody issue arbitrate.
K. John. Our strong possession and our right
Eli. Your strong possession, much more than
your right; Or else it must go wrong with you, and me: So much my conscience whispers in your ear: Which none but heaven, and you, and I, shall
But for the certain knowledge of that truth
Bast. I, madam ? no, I have no reason for it; That is my brother's plea, and none of mine : The which if he can prove, 'a pops me out At least from fair five hundred pounds a year. Heaven guard my mother's honour, and my
land! K. John. A good blunt fellow.-Why, being
younger born, Doth he lay claim to thine inheritance ?
Bast. I know not why, except to get the land: But once he slandered me with bastardy. But whe'r I be as true begot or no, That still I lay upon my mother's head: But that I am as well begot, my liege, (Fair fall the bones that took the pains for me!) Compare our faces, and be judge yourself. If old Sir Robert did beget us both And were our father, and this son like him,O old Sir Robert, father, on my knee I give heaven thanks I was not like to thee. K. John. Why, what a madcap hath heaven
lent us here! Eli. He hath a trick of Caur-de-lion's face; The accent of his tongue affecteth him. Do you not read some tokens of my son In the large composition of this man?
K. John. Mineeye hath well examinéd his parts, And finds them perfect Richard.-Sirrah, speak: What doth move you to claim your brother's land? Bast. Because he hath a half-face, like my
father, With that half-face would he have all
land. A half-faced groat five hundred pounds a-year ! Rob. My gracious liege, when that my
father lived Your brother did employ my father much :
Bast. Well, sir, by this you cannot get my land : Your tale must be how he employed my mother.
Rob. And once despatched him in an embassy To Germany; there, with the emperor, To treat of high affairs touching that time. The advantage of his absence took the king, And in the meantime sojourned at my father's ; Where how he did prevail, I shame to speak : But truth is truth: large lengths of seas and shores Between my father and my mother lay (As I have heard my father speak himself) When this same lusty gentleman was got. Upon his death-bed he by will bequeathed His lands to me; and took it, on his death, That this my mother's son was none of his; And if he were, he came into the world
Enter the Sheriff of Northamptonshire, who
whispers Essex. Essex. My liege, here is the strangest contro
versy, Come from the country to be judged by you, That e'er I heard : shall I produce the men ?
K. John. Let them approach. [Exit Sheriff. Our abbeys and our priories shall pay Re-enter Sheriff, with Robert FalconBRIDGE,
and Philip, his bastard Brother. This expedition's charge.-What men are you?
Bast. Your faithful subject I, a gentleman,
K. John. What art thou?
bridge. K. John. Is that the elder, and art thou the heir ? You came not of one mother then, it seems.
Bast. Most certain of one mother, mighty king; That is well known; and, as I think, one father :
Full fourteen weeks before the course of time. Then, good my liege, let me have what is mine: My father's land, as was my father's will.
K. John. Sirrah, your brother is legitimate. Your father's wife did after wedlock bear him; And if she did play false, the fault was hers : Which fault lies on the hazards of all husbands That marry wives. Tell me, how if my brother, Who, as you say, took pains to get this son, Had of your father claimed this son for his ? In sooth, good friend, your father might have kept This calf, bred from his cow, from all the world; In sooth he might: then, if he were my brother's, My brother might not claim him; nor your father, Being none of his, refuse hiin. This concludes: My mother's son did get your father's heir; Your father's heir must have your father's land.
Rob. Shall, then, my father's will be of no force, To dispossess that child which is not his ?
Bast. Of no more force to dispossess me, sir,
Bast. Madam, an if my brother had my shape,
My father gave me honour, yours gave land.-
Eli. The very spirit of Plantaganet !--
In at the window, or else o'er the hatch :
And have is have, however men do catch: Near or far off, well won is still well shot; And I am I, howe'er I was begot. K. John. Go, Falconbridge: now hast thou thy
desire ; A landless knight makes thee a landed 'squire.Come, madam, and come, Richard: we must speed For France, for France; for it is more than need.
Bast.Brother, adieu:good fortune come to thee! For thou wast got i'the way of honesty.
[Exeunt all but the Bastard. A foot of honour better than I was; But many a many foot of land the worse ! Well, now can I make any Joan a lady.“Good den, Sir Richard :"-"God-a-mercy,
fellow !”And if his name be George, I 'll call him Peter: For new-made honour doth forget men's names; 'T is too respective and too sociable For your conversion. Now your traveller, He and his toothpick at my worship's mess; And when my knightly stomach is sufficed, Why then I suck my teeth, and catechise My pickéd man of countries :-“My dear sir," (Thus, leaning on mine elbow, I begin), “I shall beseech you”—that is question now; And then comes answer like an ABC-book :“O, sir," says answer, “ at your best command; At your employment; at your service, sir:” “No, sir," says question, “I, sweet sir, at yours :" And so, ere answer knows what question would (Saving in dialogue of compliment, And talking of the Alps and Apennines, The Pyrenean, and the river Po), It draws toward supper in conclusion so. But this is worshipful society, And fits the mounting spirit, like myself : For he is but a bastard to the time, That doth not smack of observation (And so am I, whether I smack or no); And not alone in habit and device, Exterior form, outward accoutrement; But from the inward motion to deliver Sweet, sweet, sweet poison for the age's tooth : Which, though I will not practise to deceive, Yet, to avoid deceit, I mean to learn; For it shall strew the footsteps of my rising.-
And, to his shape, were heir to all this land,
chance: Your face hath got five hundred pounds a-year ; Yet sell your face for fivepence, and 't is dear.Madam, I 'll follow you unto the death.
Eli. Nay, I would have you go before me thither. Bast.Our country manners give our betters way. K. John. What is thy name?
Bast. Philip, my liege; so is my name begun : Philip, good old Sir Robert's wife's eldest son. K. John. From henceforth bear his name whose
form thou bear'st. Kneel thou down Philip, but arise more great: Arise Sir Richard, and Plantagenet. Bast. Brother, by the mother's side, give me
your hand :