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And of it left his son imperial lord.
Henry the Sixth, in infant bands crown'd King
That they lost France and made his England bleed:
These words seem intended to refer to the three parts, and to their popularity on the stage. But some critics see nothing here beyond a reference to this popularity.
That Shakespeare was at this date (1590-1591) known as a historical or heroical writer may be inferred from the lines in Spenser's Colin Clout's Come Home Again (1591), which undoubtedly refer to him-from the quibbling on the name :And there, though last not least is Aetion,
A gentler shepheard may no where be found:
Shakespeare had written nothing at this date to which these words could apply so well as to Henry VI. The dispute about the date of Spenser's poem need be only referred to as a needless one, arising out of one interpolation.
This is the earliest reference to Shakespeare in Ingleby's Centurie of Prayse.
In view of the extreme interest of this quotation it may be excusable to enforce the sense of "heroically sound" from Spenser himself:
Yet gold al is not that doth golden seeme
Ne all good knights that shake well speare and shield.
(Faerie Queene, 11. viii. 14.)
(Faerie Queene, III. i. 7.)
And shivering speare in bloody field first shooke.
And from Spenser's constant follower, Peele :
Now, brave John Baliol...
And King of Scots shine with thy golden head;
(Edward I. 386, a, Routledge.)
Thus long, I say, sat Sydney and beheld
The shivers fly of many a shaken spear. (Polyhymnia, 1590.)
And from Marlowe, Tamburlaine, Part I. IV. i. p. 25, b:—
Five hundred thousand footmen threatening shot,
There is one evidence against Shakespeare's authorship from an external source, that must be mentioned. It is of no positive decisiveness. It is that of Francis Meres (Wits Treasury, 1598) whose enumeration of the plays at that date does not include Henry VI. "For tragedy his Richard the 2, Richard the 3, Henry the 4, King Iohn, Titus Andronicus and his Romeo and Juliet." Meres may have regarded Henry the VI. as joint compositions; he may have forgotten them for the moment; but what is most probable is that as he was laying stress on Shakespeare's most deserving work, he purposely passed these plays by. It was an unfortunate omission for future critics.
Meres affects a "pedantic parallelism of numbers" (as Brinsley Nicholson called it) in order to bring about his juxtaposition of English against classical and foreign names that somewhat detracts from his worth as an accurate critic.
Greene's well known virulent attack on Shakespeare in 1592, properly belongs to Part III.; or to the whole group. Its consideration must be deferred for the present with the remark that it betrays Greene's extreme irritation, apparently at Shakespeare's having made use of work of his and of others, in some fashion with such success for the stage. We have no evidence that Part I. is a revision except internal evidence-but we shall show presently that there is in it much that recalls Greene's known work.
We are left now to the consideration of the play itself, with the foregoing evidence that it is in some degree or other Shakespeare's. All critics, all readers, will probably agree or have agreed that it is one of the least poetical and also one of the dullest of all the plays in the Folio. It is redeemed by few passages of merit-its verse is unmusical, its situations are usually poorly developed-and were it not for the essential interest of the subject-matter, to any English reader it would be unreadable. But even there it is blameworthy, since the history it contains is jumbled and falsified in perplexing and unnecessary ways.
Nevertheless there is an easy story-telling method about the writing that is freer from bombast and pedantry than the usual efforts of the date-it is devoid of brutality and horrors for the most part, such as disfigure that revolting play Titus Andronicus, which is regarded, or was regarded, as Shakespeare's first play and the only one preceding that under notice. Titus bears ample evidence, however, of authorship other than Shakespeare's, and is now given by some competent critics a later date, and even removed entirely from his name.
We are at liberty to place Part I., in so far as it is Shakespeare's, as his earliest work with a date of about 1589-90. There is thus a certain space of time in hand for the development of power and experience before the production of Parts II. and III. (1591-2) which are both, especially the last-named, of a higher class in all respects.
Are we to believe then, or try to believe, that the play before us is of that date? Or that our version is built (by Shakespeare) on a lost and earlier play? I incline to the former opinion. I believe that a close examination of the language itself makes that date imperative in so many cases that we are bound to grant it; and the converse is even more the case; that any later date, even for parts of it in any considerable extent, would be revealed by the same study of the language were it existent. There are no such staggering difficulties with regard to this date, in the text, as confront one, for example, when accepting the 1590-1591 date for Love's Labour's Lost. No painful necessity for viewing whole speeches, and several topical allusions, as belonging to a period two to three years later-painful only to the student chronologically, for no doubt they would shine forth in bright relief from the surrounding level of hardly mitigated dulness.
I see no reason, therefore, to look for an imaginary earlier completed play. I am aware that I am in conflict here with the views of some critics of importance, but other views than my own will be dealt with later.
There is one confusing result arrived at after a prolonged examination. Although we find Greene's methods of expression in so many places, the general style is not that of Greene, it is much toned down and tamer. Still less does the poetry recall Marlowe; it is devoid of his special grandeur, or inflation,
or rant, whichever one chooses to call it—it is seldom worthy of him, and anything of Marlowe in this play is more easily regarded as due to his influence, often apparent in Shakespeare's early work, or to imitation of him, most natural in an aspiring dramatist who aimed at such successes as the author of Tamburlaine had recently achieved.
Assuredly, however, Greene had a hand in the composition. And if his many excrescences of style were toned down by his co-operators as the work proceeded, I believe that Peele and Shakespeare formed the syndicate. Since these views arose from adjusting the parallels amongst the authors concerned, I will proceed at once to lay them out in order. One observation I will venture on here (and I propose to prove it later, here or elsewhere); it is this: Spenser's influence on the plays of this date has not received sufficient attention. Marlowe and Peele made use of him wholesale, and Shakespeare shows his familiarity with him very often. Oddly enough Greene seems to have had less admiration for the greatest of all poets since the days of Chaucer. Perhaps "Palin worthie of great praise" who envied Spenser's “rustick quill" (Colin Clout's Come Home Again, 392) was Greene. Even where Spenser's style appears in Greene, it comes possibly at second hand, sometimes through Marlowe or Peele it may be.
Such collaboration as appears to have taken place was quite usual. The hands of Greene and Peele will be found at work together both in Selimus and Locrine, while Marlowe may have assisted in the former. The latter is either imitated or was himself at work in Richard III., and he certainly gave help in the Contention on which the second part of Henry VI. is built. Peele again helped largely in Titus Andronicus, in company with Greene, as Mr. Robertson has shown, and as could be still further demonstrated. To Marlowe's short career it is not easy to add more work, but excellent critics like Mr. Charles Crawford find him in evidence in several plays other than those known to be his. Any work by Marlowe intended to catch popularity would at this date, however, be attributed to him. His name was one to conjure with. As Greene died in September, 1592, and Marlowe in the June of the following year (tragedies both unsurpassed in any of their plays), we have absolute dates and data in limitation of our inquiry. Peele survived
them both, but was dead in 1598. He wrote several plays that are lost besides those we have, and no doubt had a share in much anonymous or otherwise attributed work. He was the author of one of the earliest of the historical plays derived from the chroniclers, Edward the First, wherein however he departs widely from history.
To Peele may be credited also a foretaste of a more agreeable and good-natured kind of humour than belongs to any other of the dramatists of the time, saving Shakespeare himself. Marlowe and Greene had none or so little and of so poor a quality that it is little better than none—especially Greene. The latter also tried his hand at chronicle-playwriting-in James the Fourth of Scotland. But his authorities are unknown. Both of these may have preceded Henry VI, Peele's play almost certainly did.
Marlowe's play of this kind, Edward the Second, is of later date, probably his last piece of work. For more about Peele and Marlowe, see Introductions to Parts II. and III. respectively.
These remarks pave the way to the consideration and allotment of their shares, and show inherent probability that such joint work would have taken place. We can imagine very easily that Shakespeare was invited to lend a hand to Greene and Peele, and equally easily the idea presents itself that in smoothing away much of Greene's turgidity and iteration as the work progressed the toes of the older dramatist were often trodden upon, that the feeling of rancour increased with the success of "harey VI." and that at length it culminated and found expression in the famous death-bed attack on Shakespeare.
In an excellent criticism of an edition of Greene's works by Mr. Greg in The Modern Language Review (April, 1906)—the edition by J. Churton Collins-a review to which my friend, Mr. Francis Woollett, directed my attention-I find some valuable remarks about Greene's play dates. From a passage in the preface to Perimedes (dated 1588), says Mr. Greg, it is evident Greene had been scoffed at on the stage for some failure connected therewith. This failure may be assigned to Alphonsus as being apparently the earliest by Greene we have, following immediately upon Marlowe's Tamburlaine (1587).