Зображення сторінки
PDF
ePub

after they were written. And among these, if the most instant and conscious were Milton and Wordsworth, the most persistent and universal has probably been the almost unconscious Shakespeare. For in this matter, as in others, the more open nature and wider sympathies of Shakespeare have opened doors to him that were closed to the sterner and narrower natures of the two poets of deliberate and self-dedicated patriotism.

Shakespeare's influence in this field has of course been mainly exercised through his historical plays. These cover a long stretch of our history, the whole period from the accession of Richard II to the death of Richard III, more than a hundred years; and there is one play dealing with the brief reign of King John, a century earlier than Richard II, and one with Henry VIII who died only seventeen years before Shakespeare was born. Not all these plays are entirely the work of Shakespeare. A very large part of Henry VI, the earliest, and a large part of Henry VIII, the latest, are almost certainly by other hands. The historical play was no invention of Shakespeare's. On the contrary, as Sir Sidney Lee says, that kind of drama was already 'rousing immense enthusiasm in English audiences ’; and in this matter, as in others, Shakespeare took what he found, gave what was asked for, and converted what came to him from hack dramatists and the crude tastes of raw playgoers into a product of genius and a possession for all time. Indeed, he was a hack dramatist himself. His plays were written to order, in the common way of theatrical business, with no higher immediate object than that of filling a house or pleasing the queen and court; only that Shakespeare, in finding the asses he was sent to seek and was no doubt resolved to find, could not but, being what he was, also find the kingdom which he no more than Saul had sought or dreamt of; could not but half consciously stumble upon that inheritance of immortality which is the kingdom of genius.

The whole of Shakespeare's plays were probably written in the course of only twenty years ; and all the historical plays but one-Henry VIII, probably the last play which he touched-belong to the first decade of his activity. By the time that he had finished Henry V, the most famous and the most national of them all, he must have felt that he had exhausted the material provided for the stage by the history of England, even if his mind had not already begun to turn more and more to other subjects. There were dangers in coming nearer to his own time : when he did take up the reign of Henry VIII it was not till after Henry's daughter had ceased to reign. The Norman period was perhaps too remote for history ; and of the Plantagenet he had already done the reign of John, and others had done the only other two which could tempt him, those of Edward II and Edward III. The first subject had been dealt with by Marlowe in the play which is his masterpiece : and Shakespeare would have felt at once that this was not a play of the order of those which he tore to pieces and re-shaped to make his King John and Henry V. He had probably worked with Marlowe on Henry VI ; and other plays, notably Richard III and The Merchant of Venice, owe very visible debts to the creator of Tamburlaine and The Jew of Malta. It was already certain before Marlowe's premature death that the genius of Shakespeare must leave him, had indeed already left him, far behind. That event took place in 1593, and if, as some believe, Romeo and Juliet was written in 1591 or 1592, Shakespeare had already produced a play which in its single splendour of poetry, pathos, and humour utterly outshines and outvalues the whole work of Marlowe. Still, of the dramatists whom Shakespeare found in possession of the stage, Marlowe is the only one whose genius retains an independent value when placed in the presence of his ; and Shakespeare would have felt at once that the subject of Edward II, on which

Marlowe had lavished his full powers, was one that had been handled once for all. If he was to challenge Marlowe's treatment of it he would do it indirectly in his rendering of a similar story, that of Richard II, where he carries beyond the possibilities known to Marlowe the beauty and pathos that may attach themselves to the fall from greatness even of an empty and vicious trifler, if we can be made to know him as a human being and see his tragedy with his own eyes, as he saw it himself. On the other possible subject for an historical play, the reign of Edward III, there was also a play already in existence. Its authorship is uncertain, and part or all of it has been ascribed to Shakespeare with varying degrees of confidence by several good critics, including Tennyson, the fineness of whose literary judgements has never yet received the recognition which his poetry once received in such lavish measure and has now partially and for a moment lost. It was he who first discovered the now generally accepted presence of the hand of Fletcher in Henry VIII, and his belief that that of Shakespeare is to be found in Edward III is not to be lightly set aside. But whether this is or is not so, it is likely enough that Shakespeare felt that the victories in France, the only thing in Edward III's reign which would greatly attract him, were only a rehearsal for those of his hero Henry V, and that for him the one subject forbade his giving his full strength to the other.

This long series of plays stretches, as we have seen, across a period of over three hundred and fifty years of English history. There are large gaps in it. We get nothing about the long reign, so critical and important in our political development, of Henry III, the only English sovereign whose name is mentioned by Dante who mentions so many of France, Germany and his own country. But Henry III does not perhaps lend himself very well to the purposes of the theatre. He has neither the vices of John nor the

weaknesses and misfortunes of Edward II and Richard II ; non is he a successful adventurer like Henry IV, a hero like Henry V, or a monster like Richard III. His son, too, the greatest of English kings, is another and somewhat more surprising gap. But the great administrator and lawgiver was not for the stage; and one would like to think, though possibly without any justification, that Shakespeare preferred to avoid glorifying a king who, whatever his services to England, had left a detested name both in conquered Wales and unconquered Scotland.

What are we to say of Shakespeare's treatment of the national history ? The first answer is that he treated history as he treated everything else, in the manner and fashion of his time; infinitely uplifting and ennobling that fashion, but not setting it aside. His historical plays are conceived often on the general lines of their predecessors : for instance, they are rather fragments or chronicles than dramas proper : and the dramatist in him shows itself rather in the new power and life-like truth of the characters than in any such linking of them together as would have converted a succession of episodes into a single dramatic action. All through his career, indeed, unity, perhaps the first of all essentials in drama, is the one least valued by the greatest of all dramatists; and of course this indifference is most conspicuous in the Histories, where art and imagination were partly hampered and limited by known facts which could not be altogether re-shaped at a poet's will. He had to take these facts and make the best he could out of them. Not that here or elsewhere Shakespeare ever gives the impression of the pained artist struggling with intractable material, and reluctantly accepting something less than the perfect creation which he could not but see while he renounced it. That is Milton, all but the something less and the renunciation, and Keats including it; but it is not Shakespeare. Of him we feel that he can always do what he likes,

and do it with ease, and that he is content with what he has done. It is not the facts of history that prevented him from making perfect dramas of the story of the English kings. It is simply that he found the following of the old plays and chronicles the ready way to his hand, and the way expected by his public: and he followed it, and made the best of it, a best no one before him had so much as conceived to be possible.

And, of course, he also accepted the conceptions of history which were prevalent in his day and long after. The modern historian commonly devotes his chief attention to the social, economic, and political changes of the period with which he is dealing, treating them as they affect the whole nation, and not from the point of view of the fortunes of rival sovereigns; and he often prefers the study of peace to the chronicles of war. But these were not the ways of those who thought about history in the days of Elizabeth. The history of England was then, as indeed it remained in the popular books till quite lately, the story of the doings and sufferings of the royal house, and especially of its wars at home and abroad. This is exactly what it is in Shakespeare's plays. And there is no reason to suppose that Shakespeare wished to change the current conceptions of history, or thought or cared much about any other kind than that which he found in possession. He was not a man born before his time, and anticipating the thoughts of future centuries, in this or other respects. On the contrary he was a man in one sense purely of his own age, in another of no single age, but of all, and above them all. It was not for him to say or even see that Magna Charta, of which he takes no notice, was more important than the loss of Normandy or the claims of Arthur, out of which he makes his King John : nor that the Black Death and the social changes to which it led were more important than the quarrels between Richard II and his uncles, and the disappearance of the feudal nobility than the struggle between

« НазадПродовжити »