SHAKESPEARE'S MEN OF ACTION: THE BASTARD, ARTHUR, AND KING RICHARD II.
It is time now, I think, to test my theory by considering the converse
of it. In any case, the attempt to see the other side, is pretty sure to
make for enlightenment, and may thus justify itself. In the mirror which
Shakespeare held up to human nature, we not only see Romeo, and Jaques,
Hamlet, Macbeth and Posthumus; but also the leonine, frank face of the
Bastard, the fiery, lean, impatient mask of Hotspur, and the cynical,
bold eyes of Richard III. Even if it were admitted that Shakespeare
preferred the type of the poet-philosopher, he was certainly able, one
would say, to depict the man of action with extraordinary vigour and
success. He himself then must have possessed a certain strength of
character, certain qualities of decision and courage; he must have had,
at least, "a good stroke in him," as Carlyle phrased it. This is the
universal belief, a belief sanctioned by Coleridge and Goethe, and
founded apparently on plain facts, and yet, I think, it is mistaken,
demonstrably untrue. It might even be put more plausibly than any of its
defenders has put it. One might point out that Shakespeare's men of
action are nearly all to be found in the historical plays which he wrote
in early manhood, while the portrait of the philosopher-poet is the
favourite study of his riper years. It would then be possible to suggest
that Shakespeare grew from a bold roistering youth into a melancholy,
thoughtful old age, touching both extremes of manhood in his own
development. But even this comforting explanation will not stand: his
earliest impersonations are all thinkers.
Let us consider, again, how preference in a writer is established.
Everyone feels that Sophocles prefers Antigone to Ismene; Ismene is a
mere sketch of gentle feminine weakness; while Antigone is a great
portrait of the <i>revoltée<i>, the first appearance indeed in
literature of the "new woman," and the place she fills in the drama, and
the ideal qualities attributed to her girlhood--alike betray the
personal admiration of the poet. In the same way Shakespeare's men of
action are mere sketches in comparison with the intimate detailed
portrait of the aesthete-philosopher-poet with his sensuous, gentle,
melancholy temperament. Moreover, and this should be decisive,
Shakespeare's men of action are all taken from history, or tradition, or
story, and not from imagination, and their characteristics were supplied
by the chroniclers and not invented by the dramatist. To see how far
this is true I must examine Shakespeare's historical plays at some
length Such an examination did not form a part of my original purpose.
It is very difficult, not to say impossible, to ascertain exactly how
far history and verbal tradition helped Shakespeare in his historical
portraits of English worthies. Jaques, for instance, is his own creation
from top to toe; every word given to him therefore deserves careful
study; but how much of Hotspur is Shakespeare's, and how much of the
Bastard? Without pretending, however, to define exactly the sources or
the limits of the master's inspiration, there are certain indications in
the historical plays which throw a flood of light on the poet's nature,
and certain plain inferences from his methods which it would be folly
not to draw.
Let us begin with "King John," as one of the easiest and most helpful to
us at this stage, and remembering that Shakespeare's drama was evidently
founded on the old play entitled "The Troublesome Raigne of King John,"
let us from our knowledge of Shakespeare's character forecast what his
part in the work must have been. A believer in the theory I have set
forth would guess at once that the strong, manly character of the
Bastard was vigorously sketched even in the old play, and just as surely
one would attribute the gentle, feminine, pathetic character of Arthur
to Shakespeare. And this is precisely what we find: Philip Fauconbridge
is excellently depicted in the old play; he is called:
"A hardy wildehead, tough and venturous,"
and he talks and acts the character to the life. In "The Troublesome
Raigne," as in "King John," he is proud of his true father, the
lion-hearted Richard, and careless of the stain of his illegitimate
birth; he cries:
"The world 's in my debt,
There's something owing to Plantaginet.
I, marrie Sir, let me alone for game
He act some wonders now I know my name;
By blessed Marie He not sell that pride
For England's wealth and all the world beside."
Who does not feel the leaping courage and hardihood of the Bastard in
these lines? Shakespeare seizes the spirit of the character and renders
it, but his emendations are all by way of emphasis: he does not add a
new quality; his Bastard is the Bastard of "The Troublesome Raigne." But
the gentle, pathetic character of Arthur is all Shakespeare's. In the
old play Arthur is presented as a prematurely wise youth who now urges
the claims of his descent and speaks boldly for his rights, and now begs
his vixenish mother to
"Wisely winke at all
Least further harmes ensue our hasty speech."
Again, he consoles her with the same prudence:
"Seasons will change and so our present griefe
May change with them and all to our reliefe."
This Arthur is certainly nothing like Shakespeare's Arthur. Shakespeare,
who had just lost his only son Hamnet, [Footnote: Some months before
writing "King John" Shakespeare had visited Stratford for the first time
after ten years absence and had then perhaps learned to know and love
young Hamnet.] in his twelfth year, turns Arthur from a young man into a
child, and draws all the pathos possible from his weakness and
suffering; Arthur's first words are of "his powerless hand," and his
advice to his mother reaches the very fount of tears:
"Good my mother, peace!
I would that I were low laid in my grave;
I am not worth this coil that's made for me."
When taken prisoner his thought is not of himself:
"O, this will make my mother die with grief."
He is a woman-child in unselfish sympathy.
The whole of the exquisitely pathetic scene between Hubert and Arthur
belongs, as one might have guessed, to Shakespeare, that is, the whole
pathos of it belongs to him.
In the old play Arthur thanks Hubert for his care, calls him "curteous
keeper," and, in fact, behaves as the conventional prince. He has no
words of such affecting appeal as Shakespeare puts into Arthur's mouth:
I were your son, so you would love me, Hubert."
This love and longing for love is the characteristic of Shakespeare's
Arthur; he goes on:
"Are you sick, Hubert? You look pale to-day.
In sooth, I would you were a little sick,
That I might sit all night and watch with you:
I warrant, I love you more than you do me."
A girl could not be more tender, more anxious for love's assurance. In
"The Troublesome Raigne," when Hubert tells Arthur that he has bad news
for him, tidings of "more hate than death," Arthur faces the unknown
with a man's courage; he asks:
"What is it, man? if needes be don,
Act it, and end it, that the paine were gon."
It might be the Bastard speaking, so hardy-reckless are the words. When
this Arthur pleads for his eyesight, he does it in this way:
"I speake not only for eyes priviledge,
The chiefe exterior that I would enjoy:
But for thy perill, farre beyond my paine,
Thy sweete soules losse more than my eyes vaine lack."
Again at the end he says:
"Delay not, Hubert, my orisons are ended,
Begin I pray thee, reave me of my sight."
And when Hubert relents because his "conscience bids him desist," Arthur
"Hubert, if ever Arthur be in state
Looke for amends of this received gift."
In all this there is neither realization of character nor even sincere
emotion. But Shakespeare's Arthur is a masterpiece of soul-revealing,
and moves us to pity at every word:
"Will you put out mine eyes?
These eyes that never did, nor never shall,
So much as frown on you?"
And then the child's imaginative horror of being bound:
"For heaven's sake, Hubert, let me not be bound.
Nay, hear me, Hubert: drive these men away,
And I will sit as quiet as a lamb;
I will not stir, nor wince, nor speak a word."
When Hubert relents, Shakespeare's Arthur does not promise reward, he
simply breathes a sigh of exquisite affection:
"O, now you look like Hubert: all this while
You were disguised."
And finally, when Hubert promises never to hurt him, his words are:
"O heaven! I thank you, Hubert."
Arthur's character we owe entirely to Shakespeare, there is no hint of
his weakness and tenderness in the original, no hint either of the
pathos of his appeal--these are the inventions of gentle Shakespeare,
who has manifestly revealed his own exceeding tenderness and sweetness
of heart in the person of the child Prince. Of course, there are faults
in the work; faults of affectation and word-conceit hardly to be
endured. When Hubert says he will burn out his eyes with hot irons,
"Ah, none, but in this iron age, would do it! The iron of itself, though
and so forth. ... Nor does this passage of tinsel stand alone. When the
iron cools and Hubert says he can revive it, Arthur replies with
"An if you do you will but make it blush, And glow with shame at your
and so forth. The faults are bad enough; but the heavenly virtues carry
them all off triumphantly. There is no creation like Arthur in the whole
realm of poetry; he is all angelic love and gentleness, and yet neither
mawkish nor unnatural; his fears make him real to us, and the horror of
his situation allows us to accept his exquisite pleading as possible. We
need only think of Tennyson's May Queen, or of his unspeakable Arthur,
or of Thackeray's prig Esmond, in order to understand how difficult it
is in literature to make goodness attractive or even credible. Yet
Shakespeare's art triumphs where no one else save Balzac and Tourgenief
has achieved even a half-success.
I cannot leave this play without noticing that Shakespeare has shown in
it a hatred of murder just as emphatically as he has revealed his love
of gentleness and pity in the creation of Arthur. In spite of the
loyalty which the English nobles avow in the second scene of the fourth
act, which is a quality that always commends itself to Shakespeare,
Pembroke is merely their mouthpiece in requesting the King to
"enfranchise Arthur." As soon as John tells them that Arthur is dead
they throw off their allegiance and insult the monarch to his face. Even
John is startled by their indignation, and brought as near remorse as is
possible for him:
There is no sure foundation set on blood;
No certain life achieved by others' death--"
--which reads like a reflection of Shakespeare himself. When the Bastard
asks the nobles to return to their allegiance, Salisbury finds an
astonishing phrase to express their loathing of the crime:
"The King hath dispossess'd himself of us;
We will not line his thin bestained cloak
With our pure honours, <i>nor attend the foot
That leaves the print of blood where'er it walks</i>."
In all literature there is no more terrible image: Shakespeare's horror
of bloodshed has more than Aeschylean intensity. When the dead body of
Arthur is found each of the nobles in turn expresses his abhorrence of
the deed, and all join in vowing instant revenge. Even the Bastard calls
"A damned and bloody work,
The graceless action of a heavy hand,"
and a little later the thought of the crime brings even this tough
adventurer to weakness:
"I am amazed, methinks, and lose my way
Among the thorns and dangers of this world."
--a phrase that suits the weakness of Richard II. or Henry VI. or
Shakespeare himself better than it suits the hardy Bastard. Even as a
young man Shakespeare hated the cruelty of ambition and the savagery of
war as much as he loved all the ceremonies of chivalry and observances
of gentle courtesy.
Very similar inferences are to be drawn from a study of Shakespeare's
"King Richard II.," which in some respects is his most important
historical creation. Coleridge says: "I know of no character drawn by
our great poet with such unequalled skill as that of Richard II." Such
praise is extravagant; but it would have been true to say that up to
1593 or 1594, when Shakespeare wrote "King Richard II.," he had given us
no character so complex and so interesting as this Richard. Coleridge
overpraised the character-drawing probably because the study of
Richard's weakness and irresolution, and the pathos resulting from such
helplessness, must have seemed very like an analysis of his own nature.
Let us now examine "Richard II.," and see what light it casts on
Shakespeare's qualities. There was an old play of the same title, a play
which is now lost, but we can form some idea of what it was like from
the description in Forman's Diary. Like most of the old history-plays it
ranged over twenty years of Richard's reign, whereas Shakespeare's
tragedy is confined to the last year of Richard's life. It is probable
that the old play presented King Richard as more wicked and more
deceitful than Shakespeare imagines him. We know that in the "Confessio
Amantis," Gower, the poet, cast off his allegiance to Richard: for he
cancelled the dedication of the poem to Richard, and dedicated it
instead to Henry. William Langland, too, the author of the "Vision of
Piers Plowman," turned from Richard at the last, and used his deposition
as a warning to ill-advised youth. It may be assumed, then, that
tradition pictured Richard as a vile creature in whom weakness nourished
crime. Shakespeare took his story partly from Holinshed's narrative, and
partly either from the old play or from the traditional view of
Richard's character. When he began to write the play he evidently
intended to portray Richard as even more detestable than history and
tradition had presented him. In Holinshed Richard is not accused of the
murder of Gloster, whereas Shakespeare directly charges him with it, or
rather makes Gaunt do so, and the accusation is not denied, much less
disproved. At the close of the first act we are astonished by the
revelation of Richard's devilish heartlessness. The King hearing that
his uncle, John of Gaunt, is "grievous sick," cries out:
"Now put it, God, in his physician's mind,
To help him to his grave immediately!
The lining of his coffers shall make coats
To deck our soldiers for these Irish wars.
Come, gentlemen, let's all go visit him:
Pray God we may make haste and come too late."
This mixture of greed and cold cruelty decked out with blasphemous
phrase is viler, I think, than anything attributed by Shakespeare to the
worst of his villains. But surely some hint of Richard's incredible
vileness should have come earlier in the play, should have preceded at
least his banishment of Bolingbroke, if Shakespeare had really meant to
present him to us in this light.
In the first scene of the second act, when Gaunt reproves him, Richard
turns on him in a rage, threatening. In the very same scene York
reproves Richard for seizing Gaunt's money and land, and Richard
"Think what you will: we seize into our hands
His plate, his goods, his money, and his lands."
But when York blames him to his face and predicts that evil will befall
him and leaves him, Richard in spite of this at once creates:
"Our uncle York, Lord Governor of England;
For he is just, and always loved us well."
This Richard of Shakespeare is so far, I submit, almost
incomprehensible. When reproved by Gaunt and warned, Richard rages and
threatens; when blamed by York much more severely, Richard rewards York:
the two scenes contradict each other. Moreover, though his callous
selfishness, greed and cruelty are apparently established, in the very
next scene of this act our sympathy with Richard is called forth by the
praise his queen gives him. She says:
"I know no cause
Why I should welcome such a guest as grief,
Save bidding farewell to so sweet a guest
As my sweet Richard."
And from this scene to the end of the play Shakespeare enlists all our
sympathy for Richard. Now, what is the reason of this right-about-face
on the part of the poet?
It appears to me that Shakespeare began the play intending to present
the vile and cruel Richard of tradition. But midway in the play he saw
that there was no emotion, no pathos, to be got out of the traditional
view. If Richard were a vile, scheming, heartless murderer, the loss of
his crown and life would merely satisfy our sense of justice, but this
outcome did not satisfy Shakespeare's desire for emotion, and
particularly his desire for pathos, [Footnote: In the last scene of the
last act of "Lear," Albany says:
"This judgement of the heavens, that makes us tremble
Touches us not with pity."]
and accordingly he veers round, says nothing more of Richard's
vileness, lays stress upon his weakness and sufferings, discovers, too,
all manner of amiable qualities in him, and so draws pity from us for
his dethronement and murder.
The curious thing is that while Shakespeare is depicting Richard's
heartlessness, he does his work badly; the traits, as I have shown, are
crudely extravagant and even contradictory; but when he paints Richard's
gentleness and amiability, he works like a master, every touch is
infallible: he is painting himself.
It was natural for Shakespeare to sympathize deeply with Richard; he was
still young when he wrote the play, young enough to remember vividly how
he himself had been led astray by loose companions, and this formed a
bond between them. At this time of his life this was Shakespeare's
favourite subject: he treated it again in "Henry IV.," which is at once
the epilogue to "Richard II." and a companion picture to it; for the
theme of both plays is the same--youth yielding to unworthy
companions--though the treatment in the earlier play is incomparably
feebler than it became in "King Henry IV." Bushy, Bagot, and Green, the
favourites of Richard, are not painted as Shakespeare afterwards painted
Falstaff and his followers. But partly because he had not yet attained
to such objective treatment of character, Shakespeare identified himself
peculiarly with Richard; and his painting of Richard is more intimate,
more subtle, more self-revealing and pathetic than anything in "Henry
As I have already said, from the time when Richard appoints York as
Regent, and leaves England, Shakespeare begins to think of himself as
Richard, and from this moment to the end no one can help sympathizing
with the unhappy King. At this point, too, the character-drawing
becomes, of a sudden, excellent. When Richard lands in England, he is
given speech after speech, and all he says and does afterwards throws
light, it seems to me, on Shakespeare's own nature. Let us mark each
trait First of all Richard is intensely, frankly emotional: he "weeps
for joy" to be in England again; "weeping, smiling," he greets the earth
of England, and is full of hope. "The thief, the traitor," Bolingbroke,
will not dare to face the light of the sun; for "every man that
Bolingbroke has in his pay," he cries exultantly, God hath given Richard
a "glorious angel; ... Heaven still guards the right." A moment later he
hears from Salisbury that the Welshmen whom he had relied upon as allies
are dispersed and fled. At once he becomes "pale and dead." From the
height of pride and confidence he falls to utter hopelessness.
"All souls that will be safe fly from my side;
For time hath set a blot upon my pride."
Aumerle asks him to remember who he is, and at once he springs from
dejection to confidence again. He cries:
"Awake, thou sluggard majesty! thou sleepest.
Is not the king's name forty thousand names?"
The next moment Scroop speaks of cares, and forthwith fitful Richard is
in the dumps once more. But this time his weakness is turned to
resignation and sadness, and the pathos of this is brought out by the
"Strives Bolingbroke to be as great as we?
Greater he shall not be; if he serve God
We'll serve him, too, and be his fellow so.
Revolt our subjects? that we cannot mend;
They break their faith to God, as well as us.
Cry woe, destruction, ruin, loss, decay;
The worst is death, and death will have his day."
Who does not hear Hamlet speaking in this memorable last line? Like
Hamlet, too, this Richard is quick to suspect even his friends' loyalty.
He guesses that Bagot, Bushy, and Green have made peace with
Bolingbroke, and when Scroop seems to admit this, Richard is as quick as
Hamlet to unpack his heart with words:
"O villains, vipers, damned without redemption!
Dogs, easily won to fawn on any man!
and so forth.
But as soon as he learns that his friends are dead he breaks out in a
long lament for them which ranges over everything from worms to kings,
and in its melancholy pessimism is the prototype of those meditations
which Shakespeare has put in the mouth of nearly all his favourite
characters. Who is not reminded of Hamlet's great monologue when he
"For within the hollow crown,
That rounds the mortal temples of a king,
Keeps Death his court: and there the antic sits
Scoffing his state, and grinning at his pomp;
Allowing him a breath, a little scene
To monarchize, be fear'd and kill with looks;
Infusing him with self and vain conceit,
As if this flesh, which walls about our life,
Were brass impregnable; and, humour'd thus,
Comes at the last, and with a little pin
Bores through his castle wall, and--farewell, King!"
[Footnote 1: In Hamlet's famous soliloquy the pin is a "bodkin."]
Let us take another two lines of this soliloquy:
"For God's sake, let us sit upon the ground
And tell sad stories of the death of kings."
In the second scene of the third act of "Titus Andronicus" we find Titus
saying to his daughter:
"I'll to thy closet; and go read with thee
Sad stories chancèd in the times of old."
Again, in the "Comedy of Errors," Ægeon tells us that his life was
"To tell sad stories of my own mishaps."
The similarity of these passages shows that in the very spring of life
and heyday of the blood Shakespeare had in him a certain romantic
melancholy which was developed later by the disappointments of life into
the despairing of Macbeth and Lear.
When the Bishop calls upon Richard to act, the King's weathercock mind
veers round again, and he cries:
"This ague fit of fear is over-blown,
An easy task it is to win our own."
But when Scroop tells him that York has joined with Bolingbroke, he
believes him at once, gives up hope finally, and turns as if for comfort
to his own melancholy fate:
"Beshrew thee, cousin, which didst lead me forth
Of that sweet way I was in to despair!"
That "sweet way" of despair is Romeo's way, Hamlet's, Macbeth's and
In the next scene Richard meets his foes, and at first plays the king.
Shakespeare tells us that he looks like a king, that his eyes are as
"bright as an eagle's"; and this poetic admiration of state and place
seems to have got into Richard's blood, for at first he declares that
Bolingbroke is guilty of treason, and asserts that:
"My master, God omnipotent,
Is mustering in his clouds, on our behalf,
Armies of pestilence."
Of course, he gives in with fair words the next moment, and the next
rages against Bolingbroke; and then comes the great speech in which the
poet reveals himself so ingenuously that at the end of it the King he
pretends to be, has to admit that he has talked but idly. I cannot help
transcribing the whole of the passage, for it shows how easily
Shakespeare falls out of this King's character into his own:
"What must the King do now? Must he submit?
The King shall do it. Must he be depos'd?
The King shall be contented: must he lose
The name of king? O! God's name, let it go:
I'll give my jewels for a set of beads;
My gorgeous palace for a hermitage;
My gay apparel for an alms-man's gown;
My figur'd goblets for a dish of wood;
My sceptre for a palmer's walking staff;
My subjects for a pair of carved saints;
And my large kingdom for a little grave,
A little, little grave, an obscure grave:--
Or I'll be buried in the King's highway,
Some way of common trade, where subjects' feet
May hourly trample on their sovereign's head:
For on my heart they tread, now whilst I live;
And, buried once, why not upon my head?--
Aumerle, thou weep'st; my tender-hearted cousin!--
We'll make foul weather with despised tears;
Our sighs, and they, shall lodge the summer corn,
And make a dearth in this revolting land.
Or shall we play the wantons with our woes,
And make some pretty match with shedding tears?
As thus:--To drop them still upon one place,
Till they have fretted us a pair of graves
Within the earth; and, therein laid,--There lies
Two kinsmen digg'd their graves with weeping eyes.
Would not this ill do well?--Well, well, I see
I talk but idly, and you mock at me.--
Most mighty prince, my lord Northumberland,
What says King Bolingbroke? will his majesty
Give Richard leave to live till Richard die?
You make a leg, and Bolingbroke says ay."
Every one will admit that the poet himself speaks here, at least, from
the words "I'll give my jewels" to the words "Would not this ill do
well?" But the melancholy mood, the pathetic acceptance of the
inevitable, the tender poetic embroidery now suit the King who is
fashioned in the poet's likeness.
The next moment Richard revolts once more against his fate:
"Base court, where kings grow base,
To come at traitors' calls, and do them grace."
And when Bolingbroke kneels to him he plays upon words, as Gaunt did a
little earlier in the play misery making sport to mock itself. He says:
"Up, cousin, up; your heart is up, I know,
Thus high at least, although your knee be low"--
and then he abandons himself to do "what force will have us do."
The Queen's wretchedness is next used to heighten our sympathy with
Richard, and immediately afterwards we have that curious scene between
the gardener and his servant which is merely youthful Shakespeare, for
such a gardener and such a servant never yet existed. The scene
[Footnote: Coleridge gives this scene as an instance of Shakespeare's
"wonderful judgement"; the introduction of the gardener, he says,
"realizes the thing," and, indeed, the introduction of a gardener would
have this tendency, but not the introduction of this pompous, priggish
philosopher togged out in old Adam's likeness. Here is the way this
gardener criticises the King:
"All superfluous branches
We lop away, that bearing boughs may live;
Had he done so, himself had borne the crown,
Which waste of idle hours hath quite thrown down."]
shows the extravagance of Shakespeare's love of hierarchy, and shows
also that his power of realizing character is as yet but slight. The
abdication follows, when Richard in exquisite speech after speech
unpacks his heavy heart. To the very last his irresolution comes to show
as often as his melancholy. Bolingbroke is sharply practical:
"Are you contented to resign the crown?"
"Ay, no; no, ay;--for I must nothing be;
Therefore, no, no, for I resign to thee."
When he is asked to confess his sins in public, he moves us all to pity:
"Must I do so? and must I ravel out
My weaved up follies? Gentle Northumberland,
If thy offences were upon record,
Would it not shame thee, in so fair a troop,
To read a lecture of them?"
His eyes are too full of tears to read his own faults, and sympathy
brings tears to our eyes also. Richard calls for a glass wherein to see
his sins, and we are reminded of Hamlet, who advises the players to hold
the mirror up to nature. He jests with his grief, too, in quick-witted
retort, as Hamlet jests:
"Rich. Say that again.
The shadow of my sorrow? Ha! let's see:--
'Tis very true, my grief lies all within;
And these external manners of lament
Are merely shadows to the unseen grief,
That swells with silence in the tortur'd soul."
Hamlet touches the self-same note:
"'Tis not alone my inky cloak, good mother,
Nor customary suits of solemn black,
* * * * *
But I have that within which passeth show;
These but the trappings and the suits of woe."
In the fifth act, the scene between the Queen and Richard is used simply
to move our pity. She says he is "most beauteous," but all too mild, and
he answers her:
"I am sworn brother, sweet,
To grim necessity; and he and I
Will keep a league till death."
He bids her take,
"As from my death-bed, my last living leave,"
and for her consolation he turns again to the telling of romantic
"In winter's tedious nights, sit by the fire
With good old folks; and let them tell thee tales
Of woeful ages long ago betid:
And, ere thou bid good night, to quit their grief,
Tell thou the lamentable fall of me,
And send the hearers weeping to their beds,
For why; the senseless brands will sympathize
The heavy accent of thy moving tongue."
I cannot copy this passage without drawing attention to the haunting
music of the third line.
The scene in which York betrays his son to Bolingbroke and prays the
king not to pardon but "cut off" the offending member, is merely a
proof, if proof were wanted, of Shakespeare's admiration of kingship and
loyalty, which in youth, at least, often led him to silliest
The dungeon scene and Richard's monologue in it are as characteristic of
Shakespeare as the similar scene in "Cymbeline" and the soliloquy of
"<i>K. Rich</i>., I have been studying how I may compare
This prison where I live unto the world:
And for because the world is populous,
And here is not a creature but myself,
I cannot do it; yet I'll hammer it out,
My brain I'll prove the female to my soul
My soul the father; and these two beget
A generation of still breeding thoughts,
And these same thoughts people this little world,
In humours like the people of this world,
For no thought is contented...."
Here we have the philosopher playing with his own thoughts; but soon the
Hamlet-melancholy comes to tune the meditation to sadness, and
Shakespeare speaks to us directly:
"Thus play I in one person many people,
And none contented: sometimes am I king;
Then treasons make me wish myself a beggar,
And so I am: then crushing penury
Persuades me I was better when a king;
Then am I king'd again; and by and by
Think, that I am unking'd by Bolingbroke,
And straight am nothing; but whate'er I be,
Nor I nor any man that but man is
With nothing shall be pleased, till he be eased
With being nothing."
Later, one hears Kent's lament for Lear in Richard's words:
"How these vain weak nails
May tear a passage through the flinty ribs
Of this hard world, my ragged prison walls."
To Richard music is "sweet music," as it is to all the characters that
are <i>merely</i> Shakespeare's masks, and the scene in which Hamlet
asks Guildenstern to "play upon the pipe" is prefigured for us in
"And here have I the daintiness of ear,
To check time broke in a disordered string;
But for the concord of my state and time,
Had not an ear to hear my true time broke."
In the last three lines of this monologue which I am now about to quote,
I can hear Shakespeare speaking as plainly as he spoke in Arthur's
appeals; the feminine longing for love is the unmistakable note:
"Yet blessing on his heart that gives it me!
For 'tis a sign of love; and love to Richard
Is a strange brooch in this all-hating world."
And at the last, by killing the servant who assaults him, this Richard
shows that he has the "something desperate" in him of which Hamlet
The murderer's praise that this irresolute-weak and loving Richard is
"as full of valour as of royal blood" is nothing more than an excellent
instance of Shakespeare's self-illusion. He comes nearer the fact in
"Measure for Measure," where the Duke, his other self, is shown to be
"an unhurtful opposite" too gentle-kind to remember an injury or punish
the offender, and he rings the bell at truth's centre when, in "Julius
Caesar," his mask Brutus admits that he
"... carries anger as the flint bears fire
Who much enforcèd shows a hasty spark
And straight is cold again."
If a hasty blow were proof of valour then Walter Scott's Eachin in "The
Fair Maid of Perth" would be called brave. But courage to be worth the
name must be founded on stubborn resolution, and all Shakespeare's
incarnations, and in especial this Richard, are as unstable as water.
The whole play is summed up in York's pathetic description of Richard's
entrance into London:
"No man cried, God save him;
No joyful tongue gave him his welcome home:
But dust was thrown upon his sacred head;
Which with such gentle sorrow he shook off--
His face still combating with tears and smiles,
The badges of his grief and patience--
That had not God, for some strong purpose, steel'd
The hearts of men, they must perforce have melted,
And barbarism itself have pitied him."
This passage it seems to me both in manner and matter is as truly
characteristic of Shakespeare as any that can be found in all his works:
his loving pity for the fallen, his passionate sympathy with "gentle
sorrow" were never more perfectly expressed.
Pity, indeed, is the note of the tragedy, as it was in the Arthur-scenes
in "King John," but the knowledge of Shakespeare derived from "King
John" is greatly widened by the study of "King Richard II." In the
Arthur of "King John" we found Shakespeare's exquisite pity for
weakness, his sympathy with suffering, and, more than all, his
girlish-tender love and desire of love. In "Richard II.," the weakness
Shakespeare pities is not physical weakness, but mental irresolution and
incapacity for action, and these Hamlet-weaknesses are accompanied by a
habit of philosophic thought, and are enlivened by a nimble wit and
great lyrical power. In Arthur Shakespeare is bent on revealing his
qualities of heart, and in "Richard II." his qualities of mind, and that
these two are but parts of the same nature is proved by the fact that
Arthur shows great quickness of apprehension and felicity of speech,
while Richard once or twice at least displays a tenderness of heart and
longing for love worthy of Arthur.
It appears then that Shakespeare's nature even in hot, reckless youth
was most feminine and affectionate, and that even when dealing with
histories and men of action he preferred to picture irresolution and
weakness rather than strength, and felt more sympathy with failure
than with success.