I think it hardly necessary to extend this review of Shakespeare's
historical plays by subjecting the Three Parts of "King Henry VI." and
"Richard III." to a detailed and minute criticism. Yet if I passed them
over without mention it would probably be assumed that they made against
my theory, or at least that I had some more pertinent reason for not
considering them than their relative unimportance. In fact, however,
they help to buttress my argument, and so at the risk of being tedious I
shall deal with them, though as briefly as possible. Coleridge doubted
whether Shakespeare had had anything to do with the "First Part of Henry
VI.," but his fellow-actors, Heminge and Condell, placed the Three Parts
of "King Henry VI." in the first collected edition of Shakespeare's
plays, and our latest criticism finds good reasons to justify this
contemporary judgement. Mr. Swinburne writes: "The last battle of Talbot
seems to me as undeniably the master's work as the scene in the Temple
Gardens, or the courtship of Margaret by Suffolk"; and it would be easy
to prove that much of what the dying Mortimer says is just as certainly
Shakespeare's work as any of the passages referred to by Mr. Swinburne.
Like most of those who are destined to reach the heights, Shakespeare
seems to have grown slowly, and even at twenty-eight or thirty years of
age his grasp of character was so uncertain, his style so little formed,
so apt to waver from blank verse to rhyme, that it is difficult to
determine exactly what he did write. We may take it, I think, as certain
that he wrote more than we who have his mature work in mind are inclined
to ascribe to him.
The "Second Part of King Henry VI." is a poetic revision of the old play
entitled "The First Part of the Contention betwixt the Two Famous Houses
of Yorke and Lancaster," and so forth. It is now generally agreed that
Shakespeare's hand can be traced in the old drama, and with especial
certainty in the comic scenes wherein Cade and his followers play the
chief parts. Notwithstanding this, the revision was most thorough. Half
the lines in the "Second Part of Henry VI." are new, and by far the
greater number of these are now ascribed to Shakespeare on good grounds.
But some of the changes are for the worse, and as my argument does not
stand in need of corroboration, I prefer to assume nothing, and shall
therefore confine myself to pointing out that whoever revised "The
Contention" did it, in the main, as we should have expected our youthful
Shakespeare to do it. For example, when Humphrey of Gloster is accused
of devising "strange torments for offenders," he answers in the old
"Why, 'tis well known that whilst I was Protector,
Pitie was all the fault that was in me,"
and the gentle reviser adds to this:
"For I should melt at an offender's tears,
And lowly words were ransom for their fault."
Besides, the reviser adds a great deal to the part of the weak King with
the evident object of making his helplessness pathetic. He gives Henry,
too, his sweetest phrases, and when he makes him talk of bewailing
Gloster's case "with sad unhelpful tears" we catch the very cadence of
Shakespeare's voice. But he does not confine his emendations to
the speeches of one personage: the sorrows of the lovers interest him as
their affection interested him in the "First Part of Henry VI.," and the
farewell words of Queen Margaret to Suffolk are especially
characteristic of our gentle poet:
"Oh, go not yet; even thus two friends condemned
Embrace and kiss and take ten thousand leaves,
Leather a hundred times to part than die.
Yet now farewell; and farewell life with thee."
This reminds me almost irresistibly of Juliet's words when parting with
Romeo, and of Imogen's words when Posthumus leaves her. Throughout the
play Henry is the poet's favourite, and in the gentle King's lament for
Gloster's death we find a peculiarity of Shakespeare's art. It was a
part of the cunning of his exquisite sensibility to invent a new word
whenever he was deeply moved, the intensity of feeling clothing itself
aptly in a novel epithet or image. A hundred examples of this might be
given, such as "The multitudinous seas incarnadine"; and so we find here
"paly lips." The passage is:
"Fain would I go to chafe his paly lips
With twenty thousand kisses and to drain
Upon his face an ocean of salt tears,
To tell my love unto his dumb deaf trunk
And with my finger feel his hand unfeeling."
It must be noticed, too, that in this "Second Part" the reviser begins
to show himself as something more than the sweet lyric poet. He
transposes scenes in order to intensify the interest, and where enemies
meet, like Clifford and York, instead of making them rant in mere blind
hatred, he allows them to show a generous admiration of each other's
qualities; in sum, we find here the germs of that dramatic talent which
was so soon to bear such marvellous fruit. No better example of
Shakespeare's growth in dramatic power and humour could be found than
the way he revises the scenes with Cade. It is very probable, as I have
said, that the first sketch was his; when one of Cade's followers
declares that Cade's "breath stinks," we are reminded that Coriolanus
spoke in the same terms of the Roman rabble. But though it is his own
work, Shakespeare evidently takes it up again with the keenest interest,
for he adds inimitable touches. For instance, in the first scene, where
the two rebels, George Bevis and John Holland, talk of Cade's rising and
his intention to set a "new nap upon the commonwealth," George's remark:
"Oh, miserable age! virtue is not regarded in handicraftsmen"--
an addition, and may be compared with Falstaff's:
"there is no virtue extant."
"The nobility think scorn to go in leather aprons,"
which is in the first sketch.
But George's reply--
"Nay, more; the King's Council are no good workmen"--
is only to be found in the revised version. The heightened humour of
that "Oh, miserable age! virtue is not regarded in handicraftsmen,"
assures us that the reviser was Shakespeare.
What is true of the "Second Part" is true in the main of the "Third Part
of King Henry VI." Shakespeare's revisions are chiefly the revisions of
a lyric poet, and he scatters his emendations about without much regard
for character. In the Third Part, as in the Second, however, he
transposes scenes, gives deeper life to the marionettes, and in various
ways quickens the dramatic interest. This Third Part resembles "King
John" in some respects and a similar inference can be drawn from it. As
in "King John" we have the sharply contrasted figures of the Bastard and
Arthur, so in this "Third Part" there are two contrasted characters,
Richard Duke of Gloster and King Henry VI., the one a wild beast whose
life is action, and who knows neither fear, love, pity, nor touch of any
scruple; the other, a saint-like King whose worst fault is gentle
weakness. In "The True Tragedie of Richard," the old play on which this
"Third Part" was founded, the character of Richard is powerfully
sketched, even though the human outlines are sometimes confused by his
devilish malignity. Shakespeare takes this character from the old play,
and alters it but very slightly. Indeed, the most splendid piece of
character-revealing in his Richard is to be found in the old play:
"I had no father, I am like no father,
I have no brother, I am like no brother;
And this word <i>Love</i>b, which greybeards call divine,
Be resident in men like one another,
And not in me:--I am myself alone."
The Satanic energy of this outburst proclaims its author, Marlowe.
[Footnote: Mr. Swinburne was the first, I believe, to attribute this
passage to Marlowe; he praises the verses, too, as they deserve; but as
I had written the above before reading his work, I let it stand.]
Shakespeare copies it word for word, only omitting with admirable art
the first line. Indeed, though he alters the speeches of Richard and
improves them, he does nothing more; he adds no new quality; his Richard
is the Richard of "The True Tragedie." But King Henry may be regarded as
Shakespeare's creation. In the old play the outlines of Henry's
character are so feebly, faintly sketched that he is scarcely
recognizable, but with two or three touches Shakespeare makes the saint
a living man. This King is happier in prison than in his palace; this is
how he speaks to his keeper, the Lieutenant of the Tower:
"Nay, be thou sure, I'll well requite thy kindness,
For that it made my imprisonment a pleasure;
Ay, such a pleasure as encagèd birds
Conceive, when, after many moody thoughts,
At last by notes of household harmony
They quite forget their loss of liberty."
Just as the bird runs a little before he springs from the earth and
takes flight, so Shakespeare often writes, as in this instance, an
awkward weak line or two before his song-wings move with freedom. But
the last four lines are peculiarly his; his the thought; his, too, the
sweetness of the words "encagèd birds" and "household harmony."
Finally, Henry is not only shown to us as gentle and loving, but as a
man who prefers quiet and the country to a King's Court and state. Even
in eager, mounting youth this was Shakespeare's own choice: Prince
Arthur in "King John" longs to be a shepherd: and this crowned saint has
the same desire. From boyhood to old age Shakespeare preferred the "life
"O God, methinks it were a happy life
To be no better than a homely swain;
To sit upon a hill, as I do now,
To carve out dials quaintly point by point,
Thereby to see the minutes how they run;
How many make the hour full complete;
How many hours bring about the day;
How many days will finish up the year;
How many years a mortal man may live.
* * * * *
So minutes, hours, days, months, and years,
Passed over to the end they were created,
Would bring white hairs unto a quiet grave."
All this it seems to me is as finely characteristic of the gentle
melancholy of Shakespeare's youth as Jaques' bitter words are of the
deeper melancholy of his manhood:
"And so from hour to hour we ripe and ripe,
And then from hour to hour we rot and rot
And thereby hangs a tale."
The "Third Part of Henry VI." leads one directly to "Richard III." It
was Coleridge's opinion that Shakespeare "wrote hardly anything of this
play except the character of Richard. He found the piece a stock play
and re-wrote the parts which developed the hero's character; he
certainly did not write the scenes in which Lady Anne yielded to the
usurper's solicitations." In this instance Coleridge's positive opinion
deserves to be weighed respectfully. At the time when "Richard III." was
written Shakespeare was still rather a lyric than a dramatic poet, and
Coleridge was a good judge of the peculiarities of his lyric style. Of
course, Professor Dowden, too, is in doubt whether "Richard III." should
be ascribed to Shakespeare. He says: "Its manner of conceiving and
presenting character has a certain resemblance, not elsewhere to be
found in Shakespeare's writings, to the ideal manner of Marlowe. As in
the plays of Marlowe, there is here one dominant figure distinguished by
a few strongly marked and inordinately developed qualities."
This faulty reasoning only shows how dangerous it is for a professor to
copy his teacher slavishly: in "Coriolanus," too, we have the "one
dominant figure," and all the rest of it. The truth seems to be that in
the "Third Part of Henry VI." Shakespeare had been working with Marlowe,
or, at least, revising Marlowe's work; in either case he was so steeped
in Marlowe's spirit that he took, as we have seen, the most splendid
piece of Richard's self-revealing directly from the older poet.
Moreover, the words of deepest characterization in Shakespeare's
"Richard loves Richard--that is, I am I,"
are manifestly a weak echo of the tremendous
"I am myself alone"
of Marlowe's Richard. At least to this extent, then, Shakespeare used
Marlowe in depicting Richard's character. But this trait, important as
it was did not carry him far, and he was soon forced to draw on his own
experience of life. Already he seems to have noticed that one
characteristic of men of action is a blunt plainness of speech; their
courage is shown in their frankness, and, besides, words stand for
realities with them, and are, therefore, used with sincerity.
Shakespeare's Richard III. uses plain speech as a hypocritical mask, but
already Shakespeare is a dramatist and in his clever hands Richard's
plain speaking is so allied with his incisive intelligence that it
appears to be now a mask, now native shamelessness, and thus the
characterization wins in depth and mystery. Every now and then, too,
this Richard sees things which no Englishman has been capable of seeing,
except Shakespeare himself. The whole of Plato's "Gorgias" is comprised
in the two lines:
"Conscience is but a word that cowards use,
Devised at first to keep the strong in awe."
The declaration of the second murderer that conscience "makes a man a
coward ... it beggars any man that keeps it; it is turned out of all
towns and cities for a dangerous thing; and every man that means to live
well endeavours to trust to himself and to live without it," should be
regarded as the complement of what Falstaff says of honour; in both the
humour of Shakespeare's characteristic irony is not to be mistaken.
The whole play, I think, must be ascribed to Shakespeare; all the
memorable words in it are indubitably his, and I cannot believe that any
other hand drew for us that marvellous, masterful courtship of Anne
which Coleridge, naturally enough, was unwilling to appreciate. The
structure of the play, however, shows all the weakness of Marlowe's
method: the interest is concentrated on the protagonist; there is not
humour enough to relieve the gloomy intensity, and the scenes in which
Richard does not figure are unattractive and feeble.
One has only to think of the two characters--Richard II. and Richard
III.--and to recall their handling in order to get a deep impression of
Shakespeare's nature. He cannot present the vile Richard II. at all; he
has no interest in him; but as soon as he thinks of Richard's youth and
remembers that he was led astray by others, he begins to identify
himself with him, and at once Richard's weakness is made amiable and his
sufferings affecting. In measure as Shakespeare lets himself go and
paints himself more and more freely, his portraiture becomes
astonishing, till at length the imprisoned Richard gives himself up to
melancholy philosophic musing, without a tinge of bitterness or envy or
hate, and every one with eyes to see, is forced to recognize in him a
younger brother to Hamlet and Posthumus. "Richard III." was produced in
a very different way. It was Marlowe's daemonic power and intensity that
first interested Shakespeare in this Richard; under the spell of
Marlowe's personality Shakespeare conceived the play, and especially the
scene between Richard and Anne; but the original impulse exhausted
itself quickly, and then Shakespeare fell back on his own experience and
made Richard keen of insight and hypocritically blunt of speech--a sort
of sketch of Iago. A little later Shakespeare either felt that the
action was unsuitable to the development of such a character, or more
probably he grew weary of the effort to depict a fiend; in any case, the
play becomes less and less interesting, and even the character of
Richard begins to waver. There is one astonishing instance of this
towards the end of the drama. On the eve of the decisive battle Richard
starts awake from his terrifying dreams, and now, if ever, one would
expect from him perfect sincerity of utterance. This is what we find:
"There is no creature loves me;
And if I die no soul shall pity me;
Nay, wherefore should they, since that I myself
Find in myself no pity to myself?"
The first two lines bespeak a loving, gentle nature, Shakespeare's
nature, the nature of a Henry VI. or an Arthur, a nature which Richard
would certainly have despised, and the last two lines are merely an
objective ethical judgement wholly out of place and very clumsily
To sum up, then, for this is not the place to consider Shakespeare's
share in "Henry VIII.," I find that in the English historical plays the
manly characters, Hotspur, Harry V., the great Bastard, and Richard
III., are all taken from tradition or from old plays, and Shakespeare
did nothing more than copy the traits which were given to him; on the
other hand, the weak, irresolute, gentle, melancholy characters are his
own, and he shows extraordinary resource in revealing the secret
workings of their souls. Even in early manhood, and when handling
histories and men of action, Shakespeare cannot conceal his want of
sympathy for the practical leaders of men; he neither understands them
deeply nor loves them; but in portraying the girlish Arthur and the
Hamlet-like Richard II., and in drawing forth the pathos of their
weakness, he is already without a rival or second in all literature.
I am anxious not to deform the truth by exaggeration; a caricature of
Shakespeare would offend me as a sacrilege, even though the caricature
were characteristic, and when I find him even in youth one-sided, a poet
and dreamer, I am minded to tell less than the truth rather than more.
He was extraordinarily sensitive, I say to myself, and lived in the
stress of great deeds; he treated Henry V., a man of action if ever
there was one, as an ideal, and lavished on him all his admiration, but
it will not do: I cannot shut my eyes to the fact; the effort is worse
than useless. He liked Henry V. because of his misled youth and his
subsequent rise to highest honour, and not because of his practical
genius. Where in his portrait gallery is the picture of a Drake, or even
of a Raleigh? The adventurer was the characteristic product of that
jostling time; but Shakespeare turned his head away; he was not
interested in him. In spite of himself, however, he became passionately
interested in the pitiful Richard II. and his untimely fate.
Notwithstanding the praise of the critics, his King Henry V. is a wooden
marionette; the intense life of the traditional madcap Prince has died
out of him; but Prince Arthur lives deathlessly, and we still hear his
childish treble telling Hubert of his love.
Those who disagree with me will have to account for the fact that, even
in the historical plays written in early manhood, all his portraits of
men of action are mere copies, while his genius shines in the portraits
of a gentle saint like Henry VI., of a weakling like Richard II., or of
a girlish youth like Arthur--all these favourite studies being alike in
pathetic helplessness and tender affection.
It is curious that no one of the commentators has noticed this
extraordinary one-sidedness of Shakespeare. In spite of his miraculous
faculty of expression, he never found wonderful phrases for the virile
virtues or virile vices. For courage, revenge, self-assertion, and
ambition we have finer words in English than any that Shakespeare
coined. In this field Chapman, Milton, Byron, Carlyle, and even Bunyan
are his masters.
Of course, as a man he had the instinct of courage, and an admiration of
courage; his intellect, too, gave him some understanding of its range.
Dr. Brandes declares that Shakespeare has only depicted physical
courage, the courage of the swordsman; but that is beside the truth: Dr.
Brandes has evidently forgotten the passage in "Antony and Cleopatra,"
when Caesar contemptuously refuses the duel with Antony and speaks of
his antagonist as an "old ruffian." Enobarbus, too, sneers at Antony's
"Yes, like enough, high-battled Caesar will
Unstate his happiness, and be staged to the show
Against a sworder."
Unhelped by memory, Dr. Brandes might have guessed that Shakespeare
would exhaust the obvious at first glance. But the soul of courage to
Shakespeare is, as we have seen, a love of honour working on quick
generous blood--a feminine rather than a masculine view of the matter.
Carlyle has a deeper sense of this aboriginal virtue. With the fanatic's
trust in God his Luther will go to Worms "though it rain devils"; and
when in his own person Carlyle spoke of the small, honest minority
desperately resolved to maintain their ideas though opposed by a huge
hostile majority of fools and the insincere, he found one of the finest
expressions for courage in all our literature. The vast host shall be to
us, he cried, as "stubble is to fire." It may be objected that this is
the voice of religious faith rather than of courage pure and simple, and
the objection is valid so far as it goes; but this genesis of courage is
peculiarly English, and the courage so formed is of the highest. Every
one remembers how Valiant-for-Truth fights in Bunyan's allegory: "I
fought till my sword did cleave to my hand; and when they were joined
together, as if a sword grew out of my arm, and when the blood ran
through my fingers, then I fought with most courage." The mere
expression gives us an understanding of the desperate resolution of
But if desperate courage is not in Shakespeare, neither are its
ancillary qualities--cruelty, hatred, ambition, revenge. Whenever he
talks on these themes, he talks from the teeth outwards, as one without
experience of their violent delights. His Gloucester rants about
ambition without an illuminating or even a convincing word. Hatred and
revenge Shakespeare only studied superficially, and cruelty he shudders
from like a woman.
It is astounding how ill-endowed Shakespeare was on the side of
manliness. His intellect was so fine, his power of expression so
magical, the men about him, his models, so brave--founders as they were
of the British empire and sea-tyranny--that he is able to use his
Hotspurs and Harrys to hide from the general the poverty of his
temperament. But the truth will out: Shakespeare was the greatest of
poets, a miraculous artist, too, when he liked; but he was not a hero,
and manliness was not his <i>forte</i>: he was by nature a neuropath and
He was a master of passion and pity, and it astonishes one to notice how
willingly he passed always to that extreme of sympathy where nothing but
his exquisite choice of words and images saved him from falling into the
silly. For example, in "Titus Andronicus," with its crude, unmotived
horrors, Titus calls Marcus a murderer, and when Marcus replies: "Alas,
my lord, I have but killed a fly," Titus answers:
"But how, if that fly had a father and mother?
How would he hang his slender gilded wings,
And buzz lamenting doings in the air?
Poor harmless fly!
That with his pretty buzzing melody,
Came here to make us merry! and thou hast killed him."
Even in his earliest plays in the noontide of lusty youth, when the heat
of the blood makes most men cruel, or at least heedless of others'
sorrows, Shakespeare was full of sympathy; his gentle soul wept with the
stricken deer and suffered through the killing of a fly. Just as Ophelia
turned "thought and affliction, passion, hell itself" to "favour and to
prettiness," so Shakespeare's genius turned the afflictions and passions
of man to pathos and to pity.