Зображення сторінки

an ever-flowing stream of sack. Shakespeare at least has no doubt of the king having done right, and puts a humorous defence of his conduct into the mouth of that honest Welsh hero Fluellen ; Henry is a greater man than Alexander, for Alexander got drunk and killed his best friend ; Henry kept sober and turned away his worst friend whose very name Fluellen has forgotten and takes no note of when he is told it.

But we are not like Fluellen in that respect. Fluellen had not had our advantage or disadvantage of seeing Falstaff through the magnifying glasses of Shakespeare's genius. We cannot but be hurt in Falstaff's hurting. Our minds and consciences know him to be an old ruffian of whom the king is well rid ; but our hearts are more powerful than our consciences, and they owe him so much that we cannot even think that we are well rid of him. That is Shakespeare's fault. He did not mean us to condemn Henry, and we do not when we stop to think. But with Falstaff before us we are always too busy enjoying to have time for thinking. Shakespeare has for once over-reached himself. Falstaff grew under his creative hand till he became capable of that * inexplicable touch of infinity '—the phrase is Mr. Bradley's -which we are to see again, in such different forms, in Hamlet and Lear and Cleopatra, but which we do not see in Henry V, for all his victorious strength and virtue. The poet had in fact 'created so extraordinary a being and fixed him so firmly on his intellectual throne, that when he sought to dethrone him he could not'. And we must perforce follow him in his inconsistency. Let Falstaff stay king of our senses, and at least the weaker part of our hearts. But he must not deprive Henry of the loyal allegiance of their stronger part as well as of our judgements and consciences.

The three great plays in which Henry and Falstaff dominate the stage are the crown of Shakespeare's achievement in history. When he touches it again it is in a

[merged small][ocr errors]

perfunctory way, in conjunction with another man, and in a manner which is not his own. Henry VIII is as much a masque as a history. It lives by the two great figuresWolsey the victim of ambition, Katharine the victim of policy, tyranny, and lust. The Reformation, which for us is the important event of the reign, is scarcely mentioned. So far as the play is Shakespeare's we may say that Shakespeare remained to the end faithful to his royal and personal conception of history. He wrote his Histories at the end of the reign of the most popular of all English sovereigns, the last of our strongest royal house. When Henry VIII was added to the series the throne was already occupied by the first of the weak family who were to lose it and leave for their successors something slowly dwindling into the Hereditary Presidency of to-day. The old royal England ends with Elizabeth, the last sovereign to be worshipped and obeyed. The English people fought and defeated the Stuarts ; ignored and half despised the first Georges ; hated, respected, and then pitied George III; used, reverenced, and loved, but neither feared nor in any very literal sense obeyed Queen Victoria. Shakespeare saw the great chapter of kingship as it closed ; and he gave to it his gift of life. As it came from his hands it is far from being all beauty, victory or wisdom ; quite the contrary ; it is mainly a record of crime and folly. But he has given it his indefinable touch of greatness ; and as we look back on his picture of it, we see our kings and ourselves as realities, living and sinning, plotting and fighting, suffering and dying ; and we see again and again, through and behind them all, the figure of England, slowly shaping herself for our rejoicing admiration, loyalty, and love.

[ocr errors]


THE story of Prometheus is the subject of dramas by three of the very greatest poets of the world, as well as by several others of humbler rank. It has also given, not its name but things much more important than a name, to two of the greatest creations of Milton. His Satan and his Samson both bear very obvious marks of the influence of the Prometheus of Aeschylus. A subject which is in itself so sublime, and has been handled by such poets as Aeschylus and Milton, Goethe and Shelley, can hardly fail to provide matter of interest, both in the way of contrast and in the way of parallel, to those who occupy themselves with the study of poetry. Art is at once discipline and freedom, acceptance and revolt, law and life. There is no life for it outside law and none that is wholly within. Artists, like the rest of us, are at once the children of necessity and the children of free will : and, as neither principle by itself expresses life, so neither by itself expresses art. The poet receives a tradition, accepts and uses it, imposes himself upon it and varies it. The drama of Shakespeare is what it is both because he sat at Marlowe's feet and because he turned his back upon Marlowe. The Faery Queen .could not have been without Ariosto, but still less could it have been without Spenser. The working of this double law of acceptance and innovation is nowhere better seen than where many artists or poets deal with the same subject. The hieratic stupidity of so much Egyptian art is due to the fact that generations of artists continue to repeat every detail of a scene, like seminarists taught to say the offices or perform ceremonial acts after their masters without using their own minds at all. For centuries the same king appears

on Egyptian reliefs in exactly the same attitude punishing the same prostrate enemies in the same way. The making of such reliefs had evidently become a mere form or ritual in which the only thing that mattered was to do the thing exactly as it had always been done. But mere ceremonial conservatism is perhaps an even surer way of death for art than anarchical freedom; partly because it is so much easier to practise. The rebel in the arts is always much more traditional than he supposes. He owes much more than he knows to his predecessors; he unconsciously reproduces them much more. Whitman fancied he owed nothing to anybody ; fancied he could set and was setting all the laws and traditions of poetry at defiance. But he often falls back on more or less traditional forms; and it is with the assistance of these forms, and not in naked independence of them, that his genius achieved the sublime things by which it will live. But we need not travel so far as to Whitman for the contrast to Egyptian monotony. He, like Wordsworth, was deliberately attempting new poetic subjects : and for them a certain originality of manner was obvious and inevitable. The real contrast to Egypt is found in Greece or Italy : the same Centaurs and Lapiths, the same Apollos and Aphrodites, the same Nativities and Walks to Emmaus. How content the artists of Europe have been with the subjects given them by tradition ! How obedient they have been, generation after generation! And yet how unhampered their freedom has been! What a free spiritual journey there is between the Apollo of Tenea and the Apollo Belvedere, between a Nativity by Raphael and one by Rembrandt, between the Supper at Emmaus as once conceived at Venice by Paul Veronese and now by Forain at Paris to-day ! And of course the same counterworking of acceptance and divergence may be seen all through the history of poetry. Virgil writes an Epic obviously uniting the Iliad and Odyssey of Homer : like both and yet very unlike. Horace learns

what he has it in him to learn of Pindar, and Catullus of Sappho : each adds himself to his model. The Greek tragedians handle again and again the same legends, at once following and departing from the tale that had already been. so often told. Shakespeare invents no plots, nor Molière : yet who ever had a freer genius, or gave it freer play, than, in their different ways, these two ?

But to come back to Prometheus. There is nowhere any better example of what I have been saying. No poetic subject has had the consecration of so much genius. None has better exhibited the fertility and variety that may be found in a great ancient story. 'Shall not the Judge of all the earth do right ?' Abraham's question is the question asked in the Prometheus of Aeschylus, in the Prometheus of Shelley, in the book of Job. It is the question again and again suggested in the Paradise Lost. But there it is mainly the reader who asks it. In the dramas it is asked by a great rebel. And in each of them it is the rebel, not the Judge, who is the hero of the drama. At the root of each of them, and of Goethe's drama too, is the sublime conception of the passage from slavery to freedom ; of the spirit which refuses any longer to remain the unquestioning slave of the caprices of a tyrant and demands to obey no power but that which is the embodiment of law and justice, that whose service is perfect freedom and the fullness of life. Milton said that the object of his epic was to justify the ways of God to men. Whether he succeeds or not is not here the point. His poem throughout asks the question which Job asks of God, which the Prometheus of Aeschylus, Goethe, and Shelley asks of Zeus. Shakespeare asks something very like it through the mouth of Lear: 'I am a man more sinn'd against than sinning.' Lear feels the need of finding a way to show the heavens more just'. Still with him this is only a momentary vision of the universal : once or twice, in the tremendous lightning-flashes of that awful night, he

« НазадПродовжити »