« PreviousContinue »
GENERAL CHARACTERISTICS OF THE THREE PARTS OF HENRY VI. AS CHRONICLE HIS.
TORIES”-THEIR PROBABLE EARLY DATE—MODERN DOUBTS AS TO SHAKESPEARE'S
SHARE OF AUTHORSHIP IN THEM, AND TOTAL DENIAL AS TO THE FIRST PARTMALONE'S ARGUMENT IN SUPPORT OF THAT THEORY_SLIGHTNESS OF HIS REASONS, AND THEIR INSUFFICIENCY TO OVERTHROW THE UNIVERSAL EARLIER OPINION. HE
, to the noblest forms of poetic and historic tragedy. Its first stage was the ancient " miracle play,” founded on scriptural narrative or popular sacred legends of saints and martyrs. Then succeeded the “moralities," or moralplays, which were poetical and dramatic allegories in dialogue, bearing upon the popular political or religious topics of the day, in which virtues and' vices, church and state, follies, and parties and opinions, appeared as alle gorical personages. Then, after the language had assumed nearly its present character, and English history had been made accessible to English readers by Hall and his fellow chroniclers, came the proper dramatized“ chronicle bistory.” This was an inartificial dramatic representation of popular history following the order of time in the succession of events, sometimes with a mixture of the allegorical personages of the older plays, and often made to bear on similar political feelings of the times. Such was the original “ King John" of Bishop Bale, one of the very earliest plays of this class. It was written by a Protestant reformer, and intended to excite popular feeling against the Church of Rome.
The proper chronicle history, or strict historical drama, appears to have still been very popular at the period when Shakespeare first became acquainted with the stage, although Marlowe, and Kyd, and Whetstone, had made the public familiar with tragedy in its more ambitious form of dramatic invention and splendid poetical decoration. Most of these histories were, like the “ Famous Victories of Henry V.,” of a very humble order of talent, and apparently owed their long-continued popularity to the interest of their subjects, so intimately associated with the traditions, recollections, and national or local feelings of their audiences. Others, again, like the “ King John” which immediately preceded Shakespeare's, and Marlowe's “ Edward II.,” were executed with no contemptible spirit and talent. Some of them varied their graver scenes with coarse buffoon humour. But none of them rose much above the level of the mere dramatized historical narrative, or gave to the events which they represented the effect of dramatic unity, or the deeper feeling or sustained splendour of tragic poetry. The raising this dramatized chronicle to a higher stage of art, or, rather, the creation of English historical tragedy and tragi-comedy, was reserved for Shakespeare. He first, among his countrymen, gave to represented history the unity of a pervading interest, sentiment, and object; marking all the crowded succession of characters who had figured in the great events of his country's history, with an individuality and life such as could be derived only from an intimate knowledge of general and living human nature, pouring over them and their deeds the light of moral instruction blended with the richest colours of fancy, and, at the same time, making the broadest humour and the most prolific mirthful invention the adjuncts and exponents of historical truth.
But the progress of the Poet's mind, in this as in other walks, though rapid was gradual; a fact which his critics seem constantly disposed to overlook. It was not until Henry IV., RICHARD II. and RICHARD III., and King John, (whatever may have been the precise order of their succession,) that he had acquired the full mastery of that poetic alchemy which could transmute every rude and coarse fragment of the chronicle narratives “into something rich and strange.” These three plays, representing the feeble and disastrous reign of Henry VI., unquestionably preceded this period. They are expressly referred to in the concluding Chorus to Henry V., as having been often represented before that play was produced :
Henry the Sixth, in infant bands crown'd king
Of France and England, did this king succeed;
That they lost France, and made his England bleed:
In your fair minds let this acceptance take. The first part is evidently referred to by Thomas Nash as early as 1592, in his “ Pierce Pennilesso's Supplication,” when he says: “How would it have joyed brave Talbot, the terror of the French, to think that after he had lien two hundred year in his tomb he should triumph again on the stage; and have his bones new embalmed with the tears of ten thousand spectators at least (at several times), who, in the tragedian that represents bis person, behold him fresh bleeding!" There is also an entry of its performance at the Rose in March 3, 1591. " It was so popular that it was played thirteen times in one season.
of the second and third parts, in a brief and sketchy form, bearing nearly the same analogy to the plays we now have as the first edition of HENRY V. does to that in the folio, there were editions printed as early as 1594 and 1595; and the play which was after expanded into the second part of Henry VI., was entered in the Sttioners' Register as early as March, 1593. These circumstances concurring with the equally strong indications of style, versification, and general management of the plot, unquestionably mark the three parts of Henry VI. a the first in order of composition of the series of which they constitute the centre in the order of chronology.
They were first printed in their present form, as enlarged and connected in one continuous play of successive parts, in the folio of 1623. They all obviously belong to the old fashion of the chronicle drama, before the grea: Poet had familiarized himself and his contemporaries with the idea of impressing upon such materials the spirit and interest of the higher tragedy. They are annals thrown into action, and they differ from other contemporary writings of the same class, not in being of a higher aim and more artist-like conception of the whole, but merely in the superior spirit, vigour, and congruity of the parts. The incidents, in their long succession, are depicted vaturally and vividly, the characters are every one of them marked with distinctness and consistency, and with a vivid and rapid power of portraiture, such as “the dogged York that reaches at the moon;" Suffolk's “cloudy brow and stormy hate;” Beaufort's “red sparkling eyes.” In Margaret we have a foreshadowing of Lady Macbeth finely contrasted with the meek and holy Henry, whose gentle lowliness of spirit is brought out with a prominence and beauty a good deal beyond what history alone would have suggested to the Poet; as even in the Lancastrian chronicles he appears unfitted for sovereignty, more from mere imbecility than from gentle virtues, utsuited to a station demanding “sterner stuff.” Occasionally, too, as in the Cardinal's death, York's last scene, and many of Henry's speeches, appears a power of the pathetic and of the terrible, in which, however imperfectly de veloped, we cannot mistake the future author of Lear and Macbeth. It is on that account that, while from the absence of that overflowing thought and quick-flashing fancy, which pervade the other histories, the paucity of those Shakespearian bold felicities of expression which fasten themselves upon the memory, and from the inferiority of the versification in freedom and melody, they can add nothing to the reputation of Shakespeare as : poet, they have nevertheless taken strong hold of the general mind, are familiar to all readers, and have certainly substituted their representations of the persons and incidents of the wars of York and Lancaster in popular opinion, alike to those of the sober narratives of the chroniclers, and of the philosophic inferences of modern historians. This is certainly no mean proof of the essential strength and spirit of these plays, however secondary their rank may be as poetic or dramatic compositions. Some portion of this popularity they indeed derive from their close connection with the more brilliant and original dramas which precede and follow them in the historie
But though inferior to them, they are still evidently a portion, and not an unworthy one, of the same grand composition ; they all having that congruity of character, that mutual enchainment of events, allusions, and opinions, which mark them all to have been kept in view together in the author's mind, as the several parts of one continuous plot, though not constituting a single dramatic whole.
The several parts of Henry VI. appear to have enjoyed great and long-continued popularity on the stage, haring kept possession of it in one form or other for more than thirty years—from 1591, if not sooner, until 1623. when they were first printed in full in the folio. They were then inserted in that volume by Heminge & Condell, who were not only the Poet's long-tried friends, men of character, who had undertaken to present to the world, in one collection, scattered performances, in order to keep the memory of so worthy a friend and fellow alive as was our Shakespeare," but they were also managers and proprietors of a company which had long held the copy of these plays, and often represented them, and, (as Collier adds in relation to the first part.) “ in all probability had acted with Shakespeare, and had received his instructions and directions." To that volume, the Poet's friend and rival, Ben Jonson, set his attestations in laudatory verses. At the time of this publication, very many of Shakespeare's contemporaries, authors, actors, and auditors, were still living; so that, (as Collier justly remarks,) “ the player editors, if they could have been guilty of the dishonesty, would hardly jave committed the folly, of inserting a play in this volume which was not his production, or perhaps well known to have been the work of some rival dramatist. If we imagine the frequenters of theatres to have been ignorant ou such a point, living authors and living actors must have been aware of the truth; and in the face of these, Hem: inge & Condell would not have ventured to appropriate to Shakespeare what had really come from the another." No doubt of their genuineness appears to have been expressed or entertained at that time ; and with their confessed dramatic and poetic inferiority to the rest of the series, they were received, read, quoted, and acted as Shakespeare's, as well in the age when his friends Ben Jonson, Drayton, and Chapman were living, as in those generations immediately succeeding, of Milton and of Dryden, when the traditions of the literature of the Elizabethan age were still fresh. Thus it followed of course, and very rightly, that for two centuries from their first appearance, these plays, containing the story of Henry VI., were acknowledged, and read, and acted, and printed. and reprinted, as the genuine works of Shakespeare, with a universality of acquiescence, which was scarcely interrupted by a dogmatic doubt or denial of authenticity thrown out by the feeble Theobald, the paradoxical Warbur ton, or the over-ingenious Morgann.
It may therefore surprise many readers, who may not have kept pace with the later Shakespearian criticisms, to be informed, that a majority of the later English critics have adopted or incline to an hypothesis, brought forward by Malone about sixty years ago,--" that the First Part of King Henry VI., as it now appears, (of which no quarto copy is extant,) was the entire or nearly the entire production of some unknown ancient dramatist ; that
The Whole Contention of the two Houses of York and Lancaster,' etc., written probably before the year 1590, and printed in quarto, in 1600, was also the composition of some writer who preceded Shakespeare ; and tinat