HOT-SPUR, HENRY V., RICHARD III.
The conclusions we have already reached, will be borne out and
strengthened in unexpected ways by the study of Hotspur--Shakespeare's
master picture of the man of action. The setting sun of chivalry falling
on certain figures threw gigantic shadows across Shakespeare's path, and
of these figures no one deserved immortality better than Harry Percy.
Though he is not introduced in "The Famous Victories of Henry V.," the
old play which gave Shakespeare his roistering Prince and the first
faint hint of Falstaff, Harry Percy lived in story and in oral
tradition. His nickname itself is sufficient evidence of the impression
he had made on the popular fancy. And both Prince Henry when mocking
him, and his wife when praising him, bear witness to what were, no
doubt, the accepted peculiarities of his character. Hotspur lived in the
memory of men, we may be sure, with thick, hasty speech, and hot,
impatient temper, and it is easy, I think, even at this late date, to
distinguish Shakespeare's touches on the traditional portrait. It is for
the reader to say whether Shakespeare blurred the picture, or bettered
Hotspur's first words to the King in the first act are admirable; they
bring the brusque, passionate soldier vividly before us; but I am sure
Shakespeare had the fact from history or tradition.
"My liege, I did deny no prisoners.
But, I remember, when the fight was done,
When I was dry with rage and extreme toil,
Breathless and faint, leaning upon my sword,
Came there a certain lord, neat, trimly dressed,
Fresh as a bridegroom."
Hotspur's picture of this "popinjay" with pouncet-box in hand, and
"perfumed like a milliner," is splendid self-revelation:
"he made me mad,
To see him shine so brisk and smell so sweet,
And talk so like a waiting gentlewoman."
But immediately afterwards Hotspur's defence of Mortimer shows the poet
Shakespeare rather than the rude soldier who hates nothing more than
"mincing poetry." The beginning is fairly good:
"<i>Hot<i>. Revolted Mortimer!
He never did fall off, my sovereign liege,
But by the chance of war: to prove that true,
Needs no more but one tongue for all those wounds,
Those mouthed wounds which valiantly he took,
When on the gentle Severn's sedgy bank."
This "gentle Severn's sedgy bank" is too poetical for Hotspur; but what
shall be said of his description of the river?
"Who then, affrighted with their bloody looks,
Ran fearfully among the trembling reeds,
And hid his crisp head in the hollow bank
Blood-stained with these valiant combatants."
Shakespeare was still too young, too much in love with poetry to confine
himself within the nature of Hotspur. But the character of Hotspur was
so well known that Shakespeare could not long remain outside it. When
the King cuts short the audience with the command to send back the
prisoners, we find the passionate Hotspur again:
"And if the devil come and roar for them,
I will not send them.--I will after straight,
And tell him so: for I will ease my heart,
Although it be with hazard of my head."
The last line strikes a false note; such a reflection throws cold water
on the heat of passion, and that is not intended, for though reproved by
his father Hotspur storms on:
"Speak of Mortimer!
'Zounds! I will speak of him; and let my soul
Want mercy, if I do not join with him...."
The next long speech of Hotspur is mere poetic slush; he begins:
"Nay, then, I cannot blame his cousin king,
That wish'd him on the barren mountains starve...."
and goes on for thirty lines to reprove the conspirators for having put
down "Richard, that sweet lovely rose," and planted "this thorn,
Bolingbroke." This long speech retards the action, obscures the
character of Hotspur, and only shows Shakespeare poetising without a
flash of inspiration. Then comes Hotspur's famous speech about honour:
"By heaven, methinks it were an easy leap,
To pluck bright honour from the pale-faced moon;
Or dive into the bottom of the deep ..."
And immediately afterwards a speech in which his uncontrollable
impatience and the childishness which always lurks in anger, find
perfect expression. To soothe him, Worcester says he shall keep his
prisoners; Hotspur bursts out:
"Nay, I will: that's flat.
He said, he would not ransom Mortimer;
Forbad my tongue to speak of Mortimer;
But I will find him when he lies asleep,
And in his ear I'll holla--'Mortimer!' Nay,
I'll have a starling shall be taught to speak
Nothing but 'Mortimer,' and give it him,
To keep his anger still in motion."
No wonder Lord Worcester reproves him, and his father chides him as "a
wasp-stung and impatient fool," who will only talk and not listen. But
again Hotspur breaks forth, and again his anger paints him to the life:
"Why, look you, I am whipped and scourged with rods,
Nettled and stung with pismires, when I hear
Of this vile politician, Bolingbroke.
In Richard's time,--what do you call the place?--
A plague upon 't--it is in Glostershire;--
'Twas where the madcap duke his uncle kept,--..."
The very ecstasy of impatience and of puerile passionate temper has
never been better rendered.
His soliloquy, too, in the beginning of scene iii, when he reads the
letter which throws the cold light of reason on his enterprise, is
excellent, though it repeats qualities we already knew in Hotspur, and
does not reveal new ones:
'"The purpose you undertake is dangerous';--why,
that's certain: 'tis dangerous to take a cold, to sleep, to
drink; but I tell you, my lord fool, out of this nettle
danger, we pluck this flower safety.... What a frosty-spirited
rogue is this!... O, I could divide myself and
go to buffets, for moving such a dish of skimmed milk
with so honourable an action! Hang him! Let him tell
the King: we are prepared. I will set forward to-night."
But the topmost height of self-revealing is reached in the scene with
his wife which immediately follows this. Lady Percy enters, and Hotspur
"How now, Kate? I must leave you within these two hours."
The lady's reply is too long and too poetical. Hotspur interrupts her by
calling the servant and giving him orders. Then Lady Percy questions,
and Hotspur avoids a direct answer, and little by little Shakespeare
works himself into the characters till even Lady Percy lives for us:
"<i>Lady</i>. Come, come, you paraquito, answer me
Directly unto this question that I ask.
In faith, I'll break thy little finger, Harry,
An if thou wilt not tell me true.
Away, you trifler!--Love?--I love thee not,
I care not for thee, Kate; this is no world
To play with mammets and to tilt with lips...."
It shows a certain immaturity of art that Hotspur should introduce the
theme of "love," and not Lady Percy; but, of course, Lady Percy seizes
on the word:
"<i>Lady</i>. Do you not love me? do you not, indeed,
Well, do not then; for since you love me not,
I will not love myself. Do you not love me?
Nay, tell me, if you speak in jest or no?
<i>Hot</i>. Come, wilt thou see me ride?
And when I am o' horseback, I will swear
I love thee infinitely...."
All this is superb; Hotspur's coarse contempt of love deepens our sense
of his soldier-like nature and eagerness for action; but though the
qualities are rendered magically the qualities themselves are few:
Shakespeare still harps upon Hotspur's impatience; but even a soldier is
something more than hasty temper, and disdain of love's dalliance. But
the portrait is not finished yet. The first scene in the third act
between Hotspur and Glendower is on this same highest level; Hotspur's
impatience of Glendower's bragging at length finds an unforgetable
"<i>Glend</i>. I can call spirits from the vasty deep.
<i>Hot</i>. Why, so can I, or so can any man;
But will they come when you do call for them?"
Then Hotspur disputes over the division of England; he wants a larger
share than that allotted to him; the trait is typical, excellent; but
the next moment Shakespeare effaces it. As soon as Glendower yields,
"I do not care; I'll give thrice so much land
Away to any well-deserving friend;
But in the way of bargain, mark ye me,
I'll cavil on the ninth part of a hair...."
This large generosity is a trait of Shakespeare and not of Hotspur; the
poet cannot bear to lend his hero a tinge of meanness, or of avarice,
and yet the character needs a heavy shadow or two, and no shadow could
be more appropriate than this, for greed of land has always been a
characteristic of the soldier-aristocrat.
Shakespeare is perfectly willing to depict Hotspur as scorning the arts.
When Glendower praises poetry, Hotspur vows he'd "rather be a kitten and
cry mew ... than a metre ballad-monger. ..." Nothing sets his teeth on
edge "so much as mincing poetry": and a little later he prefers the
howling of a dog to music. When he is reproved by Lord Worcester for
"defect of manners, want of government, ... pride, haughtiness,
disdain," his reply is most characteristic:
"Well, I am schooled: good manners be your speed,
Here come our wives, and let us take our leave."
He is too old to learn, and his self-assurance is not to be shaken; but
though he hates schooling he will school his wife:
"Swear me, Kate, like a lady as thou art,
A good mouth-filling oath; and leave, 'in sooth,'
And such protest of pepper-gingerbread
To velvet guards and Sunday citizens."
This is merely a repetition of the trait shown in his first speech when
he sneered at the popinjay-lord for talking in "holiday and lady terms."
But not only does Shakespeare repeat well-known traits in Hotspur, he
also uses him as a mere mouthpiece again and again, as he used him at
the beginning in the poetic description of the Severn. The fourth act
opens with a speech of Hotspur to Douglas, which is curiously
illustrative of this fault:
"<i>Hot.</i>. Well said, my noble Scot, if speaking truth
In this fine age were not thought flattery,
Such attribution should the Douglas have,
As not a soldier of this season's stamp
Should go so general current through the world.
By God, I cannot flatter; I defy
The tongues of soothers; but a braver place
In my heart's love hath no man than yourself.
Nay, task me to my word; approve me, lord."
In the first five lines of this skimble-skamble stuff I hear Shakespeare
speaking in his cheapest way; with the oath, however, he tries to get
into the character again, and succeeds indifferently.
Immediately afterwards Hotspur is shocked by the news that his father is
sick and has not even sent the promised assistance; struck to the heart
by the betrayal, the hot soldier should now reveal his true character;
one expects him to curse his father, and rising to the danger, to cry
that he is stronger without traitors and faint-heart friends. But
Shakespeare the philosopher is chiefly concerned with the effect of such
news upon a rebel camp, and again he speaks through Hotspur:
"Sick now! droop now! this sickness doth infect
The very life-blood of our enterprise;
'Tis catching hither, even to our camp."
Then Shakespeare pulls himself up and tries to get into Hotspur's
character again by representing to himself the circumstance:
"He writes me here, that inward sickness--
And that his friends by deputation could not
So soon be drawn; nor did he think it meet--"
and so forth to the question: "...What say you to it?"
"<i>Wor</i>. Your father's sickness is a maim to us.
<i>Hot</i>. A perilous gash, a very limb lopped off:--"
Shakespeare sees that he cannot go on exaggerating the injury--that is
not Hotspur's line, is indeed utterly false to Hotspur's nature; and so
he tries to stop himself and think of Hotspur:
"And yet, in faith, it's not; his present want
Seems more than we shall find it: were it good
To set the exact wealth of all our states
All at one cast? to set so rich a main
On the nice hazard of one doubtful hour?
It were not good; for therein should we read
The very bottom and the soul of hope,
The very list, the very utmost bound
Of all our fortunes."
After the first two lines, which Hotspur might have spoken, we have the
sophistry of the thinker poetically expressed, and not one word from the
hot, high-couraged soldier. Indeed, in the last four lines from the
bookish "we read" to the end, we have the gentle poet in love with
desperate extremities. The passage must be compared with Othello's--
"Here is my journey's end, here is my butt,
And very sea-mark of my utmost sail."
But at length when Worcester adds fear to danger Hotspur half finds
"<i>Hot</i>, You strain too far.
I rather of his absence make this use:--
It lends a lustre, and more great opinion,
A larger dare to our great enterprise,
Than if the earl were here; for men must think,
If we, without his help can make a head
To push against the kingdom; with his help
We shall o'erturn it topsy-turvy down.--
Yet all goes well, yet all our joints are whole."
And this is all. The scene is designed, the situation constructed to
show us Hotspur's courage: here, if anywhere, the hot blood should
surprise us and make of danger the springboard of leaping hardihood. But
this is the best Shakespeare can reach--this fainting, palefaced "Yet
all goes well, yet all our joints are whole." The inadequacy, the
feebleness of the whole thing is astounding. Milton had not the courage
of the soldier, but he had more than this: he found better words for his
Satan after defeat than Shakespeare found for Hotspur before the battle:
"What though the field be lost?
All is not lost; the unconquerable will,
And study of revenge, immortal hate,
And courage never to submit or yield,
And what is else not to be overcome;
That glory never shall his wrath or might
Extort from me."
When Shakespeare has to render Hotspur's impatience he does it superbly,
when he has to render Hotspur's courage he fails lamentably.
In the third scene of this fourth act we have another striking instance
of Shakespeare's shortcoming. Sir Walter Blount meets the rebels "with
gracious offers from the King," whereupon Hotspur abuses the King
through forty lines; this is the kind of stuff:
"My father and my uncle and myself
Did give him that same royalty he wears;
And when he was not six and twenty strong,
Sick in the world's regard, wretched and low,
A poor unminded outlaw sneaking home,
My father gave him welcome to the shore; ..."
and so on and on, like Hamlet, he unpacks his heart with words, till
"Tut, I came not to hear this."
Hotspur admits the reproof, but immediately starts off again:
"<i>Hot</i>. Then to the point.
In short time after he deposed the king;
Soon after that, deprived him of his life,"
and so forth for twenty lines more, till Blount pulls him up again with
the shrewd question:
"Shall I return this answer to the king?"
"Not so, Sir Walter; we'll withdraw awhile.
Go to the king.....
And in the morning early shall mine uncle
Bring him our purposes; and so farewell."
And yet this Hotspur who talks interminably when he would do much better
to keep quiet, assures us a little later that he has not well "the gift
of tongue," and again declares he's glad a messenger has cut him short,
for "I profess not talking."
The truth is the real Hotspur did not talk much, but Shakespeare had the
gift of the gab, if ever a man had, and Hotspur was a mouthpiece. It is
worth noting that though the dramatist usually works himself into a
character gradually, Hotspur is best presented in the earlier scenes:
Shakespeare began the work with the Hotspur of history and tradition
clear in his mind; but as he wrote he grew interested in Hotspur and
identified himself too much with his hero, and so almost spoiled the
portrait. This is well seen in Hotspur's end; Prince Henry has said he'd
crop his budding honours and make a garland for himself out of them, and
this is how the dying Hotspur answers him:
"O Harry, thou hast robbed me of my youth!
I better brook the loss of brittle life
Than those proud titles thou hast won of me;
They wound my thoughts worse than thy sword my flesh:--
But thought's the slave of life, and life time's fool,
And time, that takes survey of all the world,
Must have a stop. O, I could prophesy,
But that the earthy and cold hand of death
Lies on my tongue:--no, Percy, thou art dust,
And food for ----"
Of course, Prince Henry concludes the phrase, and continues the
Hamlet-like philosophic soliloquy:
"<i>P. Henry</i>. For worms, brave Percy: fare thee well,
Ill-weaved ambition, how much art thou shrunk!
When that this body did contain a spirit,
A kingdom for it was too small a bound;
But now two paces of the vilest earth
Is room enough: ..."
I have tried to do justice to this portrait of Hotspur, for Shakespeare
never did a better picture of a man of action, indeed, as we shall soon
see, he never did as well again. But take away from Hotspur the
qualities given to him by history and tradition, the hasty temper, and
thick stuttering speech, and contempt of women, and it will be seen how
little Shakespeare added. He makes Hotspur hate "mincing poetry," and
then puts long poetic descriptions in his mouth; he paints the soldier
despising "the gift of tongue" and forces him to talk historic and
poetic slush in and out of season; he makes the aristocrat greedy and
sets him quarrelling with his associates for more land, and the next
moment, when the land is given him, Hotspur abandons it without further
thought; he frames an occasion calculated to show off Hotspur's courage,
and then allows him to talk faint-heartedly, and finally, when Hotspur
should die mutely, or with a bitter curse, biting to the last,
Shakespeare's Hotspur loses himself in mistimed philosophic reflection
and poetic prediction. Yet such is Shakespeare's magic of expression
that when he is revealing the qualities which Hotspur really did
possess, he makes him live for us with such intensity of life that no
number of false strokes can obliterate the impression. It is only the
critic working <i>sine ira et studio</i> who will find this portrait
blurred by the intrusion of the poet's personality.
It is the companion picture of Prince Henry that shows as in a glass
Shakespeare's poverty of conception when he is dealing with the
distinctively manly qualities. In order to judge the matter fairly we
must remember that Shakespeare did not create Prince Henry any more than
he created Hotspur. In the old play entitled "The Famous Victories of
Henry V.," and in the popular mouth, Shakespeare found roistering Prince
Hal. The madcap Prince, like Harry Percy, was a creature of popular
sympathy; his high spirits and extravagances, the vigorous way in which
he had sown his wild oats, had taken the English fancy, the historic
personage had been warmed to vivid life by the popular emotion.
Shakespeare was personally interested in this princely hero. As we have
seen, he dims Hotspur's portrait by intrusion of his own peculiarities;
and in the case of Harry Percy, this temptation will be stronger.
The subject of the play, a young man of noble gifts led astray by loose
companions, was a favourite subject with Shakespeare at this time; he
had treated it already in "Richard II."; and he handled it here again
with such zest that we are almost forced to believe in the tradition
that Shakespeare himself in early youth had sown wild oats in unworthy
company. Helped by a superb model, and in full sympathy with his theme,
Shakespeare might be expected to paint a magnificent picture. But Prince
Henry is anything but a great portrait; he is at first hardly more than
a prig, and later a feeble and colourless replica of Hotspur. It is very
curious that even in the comedy scenes with Falstaff Shakespeare has
never taken the trouble to realize the Prince: he often lends him his
own word-wit, and now and then his own high intelligence, but he never
for a moment discovers to us the soul of his hero. He does not even tell
us what pleasure Henry finds in living and carousing with Falstaff. Did
the Prince choose his companions out of vanity, seeking in the Eastcheap
tavern a court where he might throne it? Or was it the infinite humour
of Falstaff which attracted him? Or did he break bounds merely out of
high spirits, when bored by the foolish formalities of the palace?
Shakespeare, one would have thought, would have given us the key to the
mystery in the very first scene. But this scene, which paints Falstaff
to the soul, tells us nothing of the Prince; but rather blurs a figure
which everyone imagines he knows at least in outline. Prince Henry's
first speech is excellent as description; Falstaff asks him the time
of day; he replies:
"Thou art so fat-witted, with drinking of old sack, and
unbuttoning thee after supper, and sleeping upon benches
after noon, that thou hast forgotten to demand that truly
which thou wouldst truly know...."
This helps to depict Falstaff, but does not show us the Prince, for
good-humoured contempt of Falstaff is universal; it has nothing
individual and peculiar in it.
Then comes the speech in which the Prince talks of himself in Falstaff's
strain as one of "the moon's men" who "resolutely snatch a purse of gold
on Monday night," and "most dissolutely spend it on Tuesday morning." A
little later he plays with Falstaff by asking: "Where shall we take a
purse to-morrow, Jack?" It looks as if the Prince were ripe for worse
than mischief. But when Falstaff wants to know if he will make one of
the band to rob on Gadshill, he cries out, as if indignant and
<i>P. Hen</i>. Who, I rob? la thief? Not I, by my faith.
<i>Fal</i>. There's neither honesty, manhood, nor good fellowship
in thee, nor thou earnest not of the blood royal,
if thou darest not stand for ten shillings.
<i>P. Hen</i>. Well then, once in my days I'll be a madcap.
<i>Fal</i>. Why, that's well said.
<i>P. Hen</i>. Well, come what will, I'll tarry at home.
He is only persuaded at length by Poins's proposal to rob the robbers.
It may be said that these changes of the Prince are natural in the
situation: but they are too sudden and unmotived; they are like the
nodding of the mandarin's head--they have no meaning; and surely, after
the Prince talks of himself as one of "the moon's men," it would be more
natural of him, when the direct proposal to rob is made, not to show
indignant surprise, which seems forced or feigned; but to talk as if
repenting a previous folly. The scene, in so far as the Prince is
concerned, is badly conducted. When he yields to Poins and agrees to rob
Falstaff, his words are: "Yea, but I doubt they will be too hard for
us,"--a phrase which hardly shows wild spirits or high courage, or even
the faculty of judging men, and the soliloquy which ends the scene
lamely enough is not the Prince's, but Shakespeare's, and unfortunately
Shakespeare the poet, and not Shakespeare the dramatist:
"<i>P. Hen</i>. I know you all and will awhile uphold
The unyoked humour of your idleness.
Yet herein will I imitate the sun,
Who doth permit the base contagious clouds
To smother up his beauty from the world,
That, when he please again to be himself,
Being wanted, he may be more wondered at,
By breaking through the foul and ugly mists
Of vapours, that did seem to strangle him. ..."
If we could accept this stuff we should take Prince Henry for the prince
of prigs; but it is impossible to accept it, and so we shrug our
shoulders with the regret that the madcap Prince of history is not
illuminated for us by Shakespeare's genius. In this "First Part of Henry
IV.," when the Prince is not calling names with Falstaff, or playing
prig, he either shows us a quality of Harry Percy or of Shakespeare
himself. Everyone remembers the scene when Falstaff, carrying Percy's
corpse, meets the Princes, and tells them he has killed Percy:
<i>P. John</i>. This is the strangest tale that e'er I heard.
<i>P. Hen</i>. This is the strangest fellow, brother John.--
Come, bring your luggage nobly on your back:
For my part, if a lie may do thee grace,
I'll gild it with the happiest terms I have."
Both in manner and in matter these last two lines are pure Shakespeare,
and Shakespeare speaks to us, too, when Prince Henry gives up Douglas to
his pleasure "ransomless and free." But not only does the poet lend the
soldier his own sentiments and lilt of phrase, he also presents him to
us as a shadowy replica of Hotspur, even during Hotspur's lifetime. We
have already noticed Hotspur's admirable answer when Glendower brags
that he can call spirits from the vasty deep:
"<i>Hot</i>. Why, so can I, or so can any man;
But will they come, when you do call for them?"
The same love of truth is given to Prince Henry in the previous act:
"<i>Fal</i>. Owen, Owen,--the same;--and his son-in-law,
Mortimer; and old Northumberland; and that sprightly
Scot of Scots, Douglas, that runs o' horseback up a hill
<i>P. Hen</i>. He that rides at high speed, and with his
pistol kills a sparrow flying.
<i>Fal</i>. You have hit it.
<i>P. Hen</i>. So did he never the sparrow."
But this frank contempt of lying is not the only or the chief
characteristic possessed by Hotspur and Harry Percy in common. Hotspur
disdains the Prince:
"<i>Hot</i>. Where is his son,
The nimble-footed mad-cap Prince of Wales,
And his comrádes that daffed the world aside
And bid it pass?"
and the Prince mimics and makes fun of Hotspur:
"<i>P. Hen.</i> He that kills me some six or seven dozen
of Scots at a breakfast, washes his hands and says to his
wife, 'Fie upon this quiet life! I want work.'"
Then Hotspur brags of what he will do when he meets his rival:
"<i>Hot.</i> Once ere night
I will embrace him with a soldier's arm,
That he shall shrink under my courtesy."
And in precisely the same strain Prince Henry talks to his father:
"<i>P. Hen.</i> The time will come
That I shall make this northern youth exchange
His glorious deeds for my indignities."
It is true that Prince Henry on more than one occasion praises Hotspur,
while Hotspur is content to praise himself, but the differentiation is
too slight to be significant: such as it is, it is well seen when the
two heroes meet.
"<i>Hot.</i> My name is Harry Percy.
<i>P. Hen.</i> Why, then I see
A very valiant rebel of that name."
but Prince Henry immediately doffs this kingly mood to imitate Hotspur.
He goes on:
"I am the Prince of Wales, and think not, Percy,
To share with me in glory any more;
Two stars keep not their motion in one sphere,
Nor can our England brook a double reign
Of Harry Percy and the Prince of Wales ..."
And so the bombast rolls, and one brags against the other like systole
and diastole which balance each other in the same heart. But the worst
of the matter is, that Prince Henry and Hotspur, as we have already
noticed, have both the same soul and the same inspiring motive in love
of honour. They both avow this again and again, though Hotspur finds the
finer expression for it when he cries that he will "pluck bright honour
from the pale-faced moon."
To the student of the play it really looks as if Shakespeare could not
imagine any other incentive to noble or heroic deeds but this love of
glory: for nearly all the other serious characters in the play sing of
honour in the same key. King Henry IV. envies Northumberland
"A son who is the theme of honour's tongue,"
and declares that Percy hath got "never-dying honour against renownéd
Douglas." The Douglas, too, can find no other word with which to praise
Hotspur--"thou art the king of honour": even Vernon, a mere secondary
character, has the same mainspring: he says to Douglas:
"If well-respected honour bid me on,
I hold as little counsel with weak fear
As you or any Scot that this day lives."
Falstaff himself declares that nothing "pricks him on but honour," and
bragging Pistol admits that "honour is cudgelled" from his weary limbs.
The French, too, when they are beaten by Henry V. all bemoan their shame
and loss of honour, and have no word of sorrow for their ruined
homesteads and outraged women and children. The Dauphin cries:
"Reproach and everlasting shame
Sits mocking in our plumes."
And Bourbon echoes him:
"Shame and eternal shame, nothing but shame."
It is curious that Bourbon falls upon the same thought which animated
Hotspur. Just before the decisive battle Hotspur cries:
"O, gentlemen! the time of life is short;
To spend that shortness basely were too long."
And when the battle turns against the French, Bourbon exclaims:
"The devil take order now! I'll to the throng:
Let life be short; else shame will be too long."
As Jaques in "As You Like It" says of the soldier: they are "jealous in
honour" and all seek "the bubble reputation, even in the cannon's
It is only in Shakespeare that men have no other motive for brave deeds
but love of honour, no other fear but that of shame with which to
overcome the dread of death. We shall see later that the desire of fame
was the inspiring motive of his own youth.
In the "Second Part of King Henry IV." there is very little told us of
Prince Henry; he only appears in the second act, and in the fourth and
fifth; and in all he is the mouthpiece of Shakespeare and not the
roistering Prince: yet on his first appearance there are traces of
characterization, as when he declares that his "appetite is not
princely," for he remembers "the poor creature, small beer," whereas in
the last act he is merely the poetic prig. Let us give the best scene
|"<i>P. Hen</i>. Shall
||I tell thee one thing, Poins?
||* * *
|<i>P. Hen</i>. Marry,
||I tell thee,--it is not meet that I should
|be sad, now my father
||is sick: albeit I could tell to thee--as
|to one it pleases me,
||for fault of a better, to call my
|friend--I could be sad, and sad, indeed, too.
<i>Poins</i>. Very hardly upon such a subject.
<i>P. Hen.</i> By this hand, thou think'st me as far in the
devil's book as thou and Falstaff for obduracy and persistency:
let the end try the man. But I tell thee, my
heart bleeds inwardly that my father is so sick; and keeping
such vile company as thou art hath in reason taken
from me all ostentation of sorrow.
<i>Poins</i>. The reason?
<i>P. Hen</i>. What would'st thou think of me if I should
<i>Poins</i>. I would think thee a most princely hypocrite.
<i>P. Hen</i>. It would be every man's thought; and thou
art a blessed fellow to think as every man thinks; never
a man's thought in the world keeps the roadway better
than thine: every man would think me an hypocrite indeed.
And what accites your most worshipful thought to
<i>Poins</i>. Why, because you have been so lewd, and so
much engraffed to Falstaff."
By far the best thing in this page--the contempt for every man's thought
as certain to be mistaken--is, I need hardly say, pure Shakespeare.
Exactly the same reflection finds a place in "Hamlet"; the
student-thinker tells us of a play which in his opinion, and in the
opinion of the best judges, was excellent, but which was only acted
once, for it "pleased not the million; 'twas caviare to the general."
Very early in life Shakespeare made the discovery, which all men of
brains make sooner or later, that the thoughts of the million are
worthless, and the judgment and taste of the million are execrable.
There is nothing worthy to be called character-drawing in this scene;
but there's just a hint of it in the last remark of Poins. According to
his favourite companion the Prince was very "lewd," and yet Shakespeare
never shows us his lewdness in action; does not "moralize" it as Jaques
or Hamlet would have been tempted to do. It is just mentioned and passed
over lightly. It is curious, too, that Shakespeare's <i>alter ego</i>,
Jaques, was also accused of lewdness by the exiled Duke; Vincentio, too,
another incarnation of Shakespeare, was charged with lechery by Lucio;
but in none of these cases does Shakespeare dwell on the failing.
Shakespeare seems to have thought reticence the better part in regard to
certain sins of the flesh. But it must be remarked that it is only when
his heroes come into question that he practises this restraint: he is
content to tell us casually that Prince Henry was a sensualist; but he
shows us Falstaff and Doll Tearsheet engaged at lips' length. To put it
briefly, Shakespeare attributes lewdness to his impersonations, but will
not emphasize the fault by instances. Nor will Shakespeare allow his
"madcap Prince" even to play "drawer" with hearty goodwill. While
consenting to spy on Falstaff in the tavern, the Prince tells Poins that
"from a Prince to a prentice" is "a low transformation," and scarcely
has the fun commenced when he is called to the wars and takes his leave
in these terms:
"<i>P. Hen.</i> By Heaven, Poins, I feel me much to blame,
So idly to profane the precious time
When tempest of commotion, like the south
Borne with black vapour, doth begin to melt
And drop upon our bare, unarmed heads."
The first two lines are priggish, and the last three mere poetic
balderdash. But it is in the fourth act, when Prince Henry is watching
by the bedside of his dying father, that Shakespeare speaks through him
"Why doth the crown lie there upon his pillow
Being so troublesome a bedfellow?
O polished perturbation! golden care!
That keep'st the ports of slumber open wide
To many a watchful night!--Sleep with it now,
Yet not so sound and half so deeply sweet
As he whose brow with homely biggin bound
Snores out the watch of night."
In the third act we have King Henry talking in precisely the same way:
"O sleep, O gentle sleep,
Nature's soft nurse, how have I frighted thee?...
* * * * *
Wilt thou upon the high and giddy mast
Seal up the ship-boy's eyes, and rock his brains
In cradle of the rude imperious surge."...
The truth is that in both these passages, as in a hundred similar ones,
we find Shakespeare himself praising sleep as only those tormented by
insomnia can praise it.
When his father reproaches him with "hunger for his empty chair," this
is how Prince Henry answers:
"O pardon me, my liege, but for my tears,
The moist impediments unto my speech,
I had forestalled this dear and deep rebuke.
Ere you with grief had spoke and I had heard
The course of it so far."...
It might be Alfred Austin writing to Lord Salisbury--"the moist
impediments," forsooth--and the daredevil young soldier goes on like
this for forty lines.
The only memorable thing in the fifth act is the new king's contemptuous
dismissal of Falstaff: I think it appalling at least in matter:
"I know thee not, old man: fall to thy prayers;
How ill white hairs become a fool and jester!
I have long dreamed of such a kind of man,
So surfeit-swelled, so old and so profane;
But being awake I do despise my dream.
* * * * *
Reply not to me with a fool-born jest,
Presume not that I am the thing I was;
* * * * *
Till then, I banish thee on pain of death,
As I have done the rest of my misleaders,
Not to come near our person by ten mile."
In the old play, "The Famous Victories," the sentence of banishment is
pronounced; but this bitter contempt for the surfeit-swelled, profane
old man is Shakespeare's. It is true that he mitigates the severity of
the sentence in characteristic generous fashion: the King says:
"For competence of life I will allow you
That lack of means enforce you not to evil:
And as we hear you do reform yourselves,
We will, according to your strength and qualities,
Give you advancement."
There is no mention in the old play of this "competence of life." But in
spite of this generous forethought the sentence is painfully severe, and
Shakespeare meant every word of it, for immediately afterwards the Chief
Justice orders Falstaff and his company to the Fleet prison; and in
"King Henry V." we are told that the King's condemnation broke
Falstaff's heart and made the old jester's banishment eternal. To find
Shakespeare more severe in judgement than the majority of spectators and
readers is so astonishing, so singular a fact, that it cries for
explanation. I think there can be no doubt that the tradition which
tells us that Shakespeare in his youth played pranks in low company
finds further corroboration here. He seems to have resented his own
ignominy and the contemptuous estimate put upon him by others somewhat
"Presume not that I am the thing I was;"
--is a sentiment put again and again in Prince Henry's mouth; he is
perpetually assuring us of the change in himself, and the great results
which must ensue from it. It is this distaste for his own loose past and
"his misleaders," which makes Shakespeare so singularly severe towards
Falstaff. As we have seen, he was the reverse of severe with Angelo in
"Measure for Measure," though in that case there was better ground for
harshness. "Measure for Measure," it is true, was written six or seven
years later than "Henry IV.," and the tragedy of Shakespeare's life
separates the two plays. Shakespeare's ethical judgement was more
inclined to severity in youth and early manhood than it was later when
his own sufferings had deepened his sympathies, and he had been made
"pregnant to good pity," to use his own words, "by the art of knowing
and feeling sorrows." But he would never have treated old Jack Falstaff
as harshly as he did had he not regretted the results, at least, of his
own youthful errors. It looks as if Shakespeare, like other weak men,
were filled with a desire to throw the blame on his "misleaders." He
certainly exulted in their punishment.
It is difficult for me to write at length about the character of the
King in "Henry V.," and fortunately it is not necessary. I have already
pointed out the faults in the painting of Prince Henry with such
fullness that I may be absolved from again dwelling on similar weakness
where it is even more obvious than it was in the two parts of "Henry
IV." But something I must say, for the critics in both Germany and
England are agreed that "'Henry V.' must certainly be regarded as
Shakespeare's ideal of manhood in the sphere of practical achievement."
Without an exception they have all buttered this drama with extravagant
praise as one of Shakespeare's masterpieces, though in reality it is one
of the worst pieces of work he ever did, almost as bad as "Titus
Andronicus" or "Timon" or "The Taming of the Shrew." Unfortunately for
the would-be judges, Coleridge did not guide their opinions of "Henry
V."; he hardly mentioned the play, and so they all write the absurdest
nonsense about it, praising because praise of Shakespeare has come to be
the fashion, and also no doubt because his bad work is more on the level
of their intelligence than his good work.
It can hardly be denied that Shakespeare identified himself as far as he
could with Henry V. Before the King appears he is praised extravagantly,
as Posthumus was praised, but the eulogy befits the poet better than the
soldier. The Archbishop of Canterbury says:
... "When he speaks,
The air, a charter'd libertine, is still,
And the mute wonder lurketh in men's ears
To steal his sweet and honey'd sentences."
the Bishop of Ely goes even further in excuse:
..."The prince obscured his contemplation
Under the veil of wildness."
And this is how the soldier-king himself talks:
"My learned lord, we pray you to proceed
And justly and religiously unfold
Why the law Salique that they have in France
Or should, or should not bar us in our claim;
And God forbid, my dear and faithful lord,
That you should fashion, wrest, or bow your reading ..."
All this is plainly Shakespeare and Shakespeare at his very worst; and
there are hundreds of lines like these, jewelled here and there by an
unforgetable phrase, as when the Archbishop calls the bees: "The singing
masons building roofs of gold." The reply made by the King when the
Dauphin sends him the tennis balls has been greatly praised for
manliness and modesty; it begins:
"We are glad the Dauphin is so pleasant with us;
His present and your pains we thank you for:
When we have match'd our rackets to these balls,
We will, in France, by God's grace, play a set
Shall strike his father's crown into the hazard."
The first line is most excellent, but Shakespeare found it in the old
play, and the bragging which follows is hardly bettered by the pious
Nor does the scene with the conspirators seem to me any better. The
soldier-king would not have preached at them for sixty lines before
condemning them. Nor would he have sentenced them with this
extraordinary mixture of priggishness and pious pity:
"<i>K. Hen</i>. God quit you in his mercy. Hear your
|* * *
|Touching our person seek we
|But we our kingdom's safety
|Whose ruin you have sought,
|We do deliver you. Get you therefore hence,
Poor miserable wretches, to your death,
The task whereof, God of His mercy give
You patience to endure, and true repentance
Of all your dear offences!"
This "poor miserable wretches" would go better with a generous pardon,
and such forgiving would be more in Shakespeare's nature. Throughout
this play the necessity of speaking through the soldier-king embarrasses
the poet, and the infusion of the poet's sympathy and emotion makes the
puppet ridiculous. Henry's speech before Harfleur has been praised on
all hands; not by the professors and critics merely, but by those who
deserve attention. Carlyle finds deathless valour in the saying: "Ye,
good yeomen, whose limbs were made in England," and not deathless valour
merely, but "noble patriotism" as well; "a true English heart breathes,
calm and strong through the whole business ... this man (Shakespeare)
too had a right stroke in him, had it come to that." I find no valour in
it, deathless or otherwise; but the make-believe of valour, the
completest proof that valour was absent. Here are the words:
"<i>K. Hen</i>. Once more unto the breach, dear friends,
Or close the wall up with our English dead.
In peace there's nothing so becomes a man
As modest stillness and humility:
But when the blast of war blows in our ears,
Then imitate the action of the tiger;
Stiffen the sinews, summon up the blood,
Disguise fair nature with hard-favour'd rage;
Then lend the eye a terrible aspect,
Let it pry through the portage of the head
Like the brass cannon; let the brow o'erwhelm it
As fearfully as doth a galled rock
O'erhang and jutty his confounded base...."
And so on for another twenty lines. Now consider this stuff: first comes
the reflection, more suitable to the philosopher than the man of action,
"in peace there's nothing so becomes a man..."; then the soldier-king
wishes his men to "imitate" the tiger's looks, to "disguise fair
nature," and "lend the eye a terrible aspect." But the man who feels the
tiger's rage tries to control the aspect of it: he does not put on the
frown--that's Pistol's way. The whole thing is mere poetic description
of how an angry man looks and not of how a brave man feels, and that it
should have deceived Carlyle, surprises me. The truth is that as soon as
Shakespeare has to find, I will not say a magical expression for
courage, but even an adequate and worthy expression, he fails
absolutely. And is the patriotism in "Ye, good yeomen, whose limbs were
made in England" a "noble patriotism"? or is it the simplest, the
crudest, the least justifiable form of patriotism? There is a noble
patriotism founded on the high and generous things done by men of one's
own blood, just as there is the vain and empty self-glorification of
"limbs made in England," as if English limbs were better than those made
In the third scene of the fourth act, just before the battle, Henry
talks at his best, or rather Shakespeare's best: and we catch the true
accent of courage. Westmoreland wishes
..."That we now had here
But one ten thousand of those men in England
That do no work to-day!"
but Henry lives on a higher plane:
If we are marked to die, we are enow
To do our country loss; and if to live,
The fewer men the greater share of honour."
But this high-couraged sentiment is taken almost word for word from
Holinshed. The rest of the speech shows us Shakespeare, as a splendid
rhetorician, glorifying glory; now and then the rhetoric is sublimated
"We few, we happy few, we band of brothers,
For he to-day that sheds his blood with me
Shall be my brother; be he ne'er so vile,
This day shall gentle his condition."
Shakespeare's chief ambition about this time was to get a coat of arms
for his father, and so gentle his condition. In all the play not one
word of praise for the common archers, who won the battle; no mention
save of the gentle.
Again and again in Henry V. the dissonance of character between the poet
and his soldier-puppet jars upon the ears, and this dissonance is
generally characteristic. For example, in the third act Shakespeare,
through King Henry, expressly charges his soldiers that "there be
nothing compelled from the villages, nothing taken but paid for, none of
the French upbraided or abused in disdainful language; for when lenity
and cruelty play for a kingdom, the gentler gamester is the soonest
winner." Wise words, not yet learned even by statesmen; drops of
wisdom's life-blood from the heart of gentle Shakespeare. But an act
later, when the battle is over, on the mere news that the French have
reinforced their scattered men, Henry V., with tears in his eyes for the
Duke of York's death, gives orders to kill the prisoners:
"Then every soldier kill his prisoners;
Give the word through."
The puppet is not even human: mere wood!
In the fifth act King Henry takes on the voice and nature of buried
Hotspur. He woos Katherine exactly as Hotspur talked to his wife: he
cannot "mince" it in love, he tells her, in Hotspur's very words; but is
forthright plain; like Hotspur he despises verses and dancing; like
Hotspur he can brag, too; finds it as "easy" to conquer kingdoms as to
speak French; can "vault into his saddle with his armour on his back";
he is no carpet-soldier; he never "looks in his glass for love of
anything he sees there," and to make the likeness complete he disdains
those "fellows of infinite tongue, that can rhyme themselves into
ladies' favours ... a speaker is but a prater; a rhyme is but a ballad."
But if Shakespeare had had any vital sympathy for soldiers and men of
action he would not have degraded Henry V. in this fashion, into a
feeble replica of the traditional Hotspur. In those narrow London
streets by the river he must have rubbed shoulders with great
adventurers; he knew Essex; had bowed to Raleigh at the Court; must have
heard of Drake: inclination was lacking, not models. He might even have
differentiated between Prince Henry and Hotspur without going outside
his history-books; but a most curious point is that he preferred to
smooth away their differences and accentuate the likeness. As a mere
matter of fact Hotspur was very much older than Prince Henry, for he
fought at Otterbourne in 1388, the year of the prince's birth; but
Shakespeare purposely and explicitly makes them both youths. The King,
speaking of Percy to Prince Henry, says:
"And being no more in debt to years than thou."...
It would have been wiser, I cannot but think, and more dramatic for
Shakespeare to have left the hot-headed Percy as the older man who, in
spite of years, is too impatient-quick to look before he leaps, while
giving the youthful Prince the calm reflection and impersonal outlook
which necessarily belong to a great winner of kingdoms. The dramatist
could have further differentiated the rivals by making Percy greedy; he
should not only have quarrelled with his associates over the division of
the land, but insisted on obtaining the larger share, and even then have
grumbled as if aggrieved; the soldier aristocrat has always regarded
broad acres as his especial reward. On the other hand, Prince Henry
should have been open-handed and carelessly-generous, as the patron of
Falstaff was likely to be. Further, Hotspur might have been depicted as
inordinately proud of his name and birth; the provincial aristocrat
usually is, whereas Henry, the Prince, would surely have been too
certain of his own qualities to need adventitious aids to pride. Percy
might have been shown to us raging over imaginary slights; Worcester
says he was "governed by a spleen"; while the Prince should have been
given that high sense of honour and insatiate love of fame which were
the poles of chivalry. Finally, the dramatist might have painted
Hotspur, the soldier, as disdainful of women and the arts of music
and poetry, while gracing Prince Henry with a wider culture and sympathy.
If I draw attention to such obvious points it is only to show how
incredibly careless Shakespeare was in making the conqueror a poor copy
of the conquered. He was drawn to Hotspur a little by his quickness and
impatience; but he was utterly out of sympathy with the fighter, and
never took the trouble even to think of the qualities which a leader of
men must possess.