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Red Rose and White which brought it about. He was not
merely a man of his own age, he was a poet and an artist ; - that is, one driven at once by interest and by temperament
to take the personal view of history. For poetry, painting, sculpture, above all for drama, it is certain that no body of men can ever challenge the interest of an individual. It is as impossible to make a hero of a parliament or a people as it is to paint a people's portrait. Constance and Arthur may have had no influence over the fate of England, but their own fates have been followed for three hundred years with breathless interest by readers and spectators whom no conceivable picture of Magna Charta would have moved at all. It is to this day a great political advantage of Monarchy that it provides a person for imagination and loyalty to concentrate upon. All experience shows how much more easily they are roused, and how much more tenaciously they cling, when the object offered to them is no mere abstraction or institution but a man; and how this is still more true if the man be the son and grandson of men who have been loved and honoured, or even merely accepted as part of the established order of things, by the fathers and grandfathers of those who find him ruling them in his turn. Hereditary sovereignty obviously has disadvantages as well as advantages ; but the world will be a good deal older before it takes as much interest in a County Council as it does in a king. And this is still more certain of the great men whose greatness is not inherited but of their own making. It is curious how few there are in the Shakespearean Histories : scarcely any whom one at once remembers except Wolsey; and he, oddly enough, occurs in a doubtful play, and may not come from Shakespeare's hand at all. There could not be a stronger proof of how entirely Shakespeare acquiesced in the royal chronicle point of view of the history of England. It was left for later generations to concentrate attention rather upon real greatness than upon the merely hereditary or official. But for the purposes of the drama, which demands free action of the individual will, just what is unattainable in any kind of committee, that does not greatly matter. For it, inherited greatness, even if it be inherited by a fool or a criminal, a Richard II or a Richard III, is as effective as the natural greatness of Wolsey. All that it asks is a human being, alive and free, taking or losing the opportunities life brings, exhibiting the character which for himself and others is destiny, and suffering in his own person and theirs the resultant fate. Even if Tolstoy's view of the unimportance of the individual in human affairs could be accepted by history, it is certain that it could never be accepted by the drama.
Yet, though Shakespeare's histories are more royal than national, more personal than political, that is a long way from being all they are. They are no mere pageants of kingship in war and peace. Certainly they are no courtier's history of England. No republican could demand a better text for a sermon against personal monarchy than he can find in scene after scene in every one of Shakespeare's histories. What incompetence, treachery, cruelty, indifference to any interest but their own, the kings again and again exhibit! And was there ever such a procession of faithlessness as is to be found in Shakespeare's Histories ? One cannot keep up with it : it is positively bewildering to the modern reader. Philip is all for Arthur and Constance, and on the loftiest grounds, one moment; and the next he has deserted them and is in alliance with John. He and Austria have no sooner betrayed Arthur than they betray John. The marriage of Lewis and Blanche is no sooner made than broken. Pandulph betrays Philip, and then John. Lewis betrays first Arthur, then Blanche, and then the English Lords. John is now ready to defy and denounce the Pope ; and before the reader has recovered from his surprise, whether of pleasure or indignation, at
Thou canst not, cardinal, devise a name
To charge me to an answer, as the pope, he finds John ready to hold his kingdom as the Pope's vassal! Indeed the whole play is a carnival of treachery, and but for its grimness might almost read like a comedy of political errors of which the realist Bastard writes the epitaph :
Mad world ! mad kings ! mad composition ! and the romantic Constance the just judgement and sentence :
Arm, arm, you heavens, against these perjured Kings ! It is the same in all the Histories. The English kings were no worse than other men of their day, no doubt, except so far as great place has great temptations and deprives its occupants of those saving checks by which other men are protected against themselves. But there they are, set on the awful hill of Shakespeare's genius ; the usurping and conscience-stricken John, the idle and empty Richard, the crafty founder of the House of Lancaster and its hardly human destroyer and ultimate victim! The ugly list is scarcely relieved by the heroic victor of Agincourt whose conquests were so purposeless and so shortlived, or by the saintly weakness of his son.
And it is not merely the kings. The plays scarcely provide more material for the indictment of monarchy than for that of aristocracy. No doubt, when every man is playing a game in which his own head is one of the stakes, it is not to be wondered at that oaths are broken and friendships forgotten in a moment at a changing breath of fortune. It is the same everywhere. The nobles in King John have hardly sworn their faith to Lewis before they transfer it back to John. The nobles in Richard II are neither loyal to the king nor to each other. Mowbray confesses that he had attempted Gaunt's life and Gaunt that he had a share
in Woodstock's death ; Aumerle lies to Bolingbroke, Richard to Gaunt; they all lie about Gloucester's death; everybody is false to everybody else, except the Bishop of Carlisle and the poor groom who went to the prison wishing to see his master's face again and told the tale of 'roan Barbary’. So in Henry IV : the treachery of the king is rewarded by treachery, and that treachery is tricked to its punishment by a peculiarly base breach of honour on the part of the virtuous Prince John. Even Henry V has its prelude of treachery in the almost purposeless conspiracy of Cambridge, Scroop, and Grey. Henry VI has all the treacheries of the Roses, especially those of Warwick and Clarence and those of the devil whose very nature was treachery and murder. Even in the play which bears that devil's name and is filled with his abominations the poet, or his story, finds room for the falsehood of Hastings and Buckingham by the side of their master's grosser crimes. And so in Henry VIII Buckingham is betrayed by treachery and Wolsey is tyrant at least, if not half traitor, before he is victim.
It almost makes the history of England a chronicle of royal and noble crimes. So Shakespeare received it and so he was content to tell it. One might almost expect it to be as dull as a continuous course of police reports. And Henry VI, especially the First Part, is nearly that; indeed it is more dull than criminal, a chronicle which has not yet begun to be turned into a play and remains a mere succession of rather lifeless episodes in which hardly any of the actors make a pretence of being alive. Happily we need not give Shakespeare the credit or discredit of it. The change begins in Part II, though even this has nothing whatever of a drama in it except that its very first scene gives us the marriage with Margaret and the claim of York, and thus strikes the prelude of the war which is its subject. The play is all a proud, high-spirited business ; full of feudal boasting, violence, treachery, insecurity; often told with the high eloquence which Marlowe and Shakespeare, both of whose hands are thought to be seen in it, had always at command. But there was something else at Shakespeare's command. And it appears here in the Jack Cade scene, where Shakespeare shows for the first time, but not for the last, the merciless clearsightedness which is mingled with his quick and understanding sympathy for the common people. Every word Jack Cade and his folk say has the stamp of truth, and many have the stamp of humour which always means at least a measure of sympathy. The work of Shakespeare was to turn stage puppets into human beings ; and though kings and nobles are his chief actors his humanizing touch is not more conspicuous in them than in their servants. Indeed, the servants and clowns are often more living than their masters : and of course constantly more amusing. Shakespeare evidently takes a personal pleasure in Maria and Feste, in Lance and Lancelot Gobbo and all his company of Fools ; he not only understands but likes, almost loves, them. They are the raw stuff of humanity, with blood coursing visibly in their veins and the light of laughter playing in their eyes, and none of Henry V's 'ceremony' to conceal either. In his handling of them Shakespeare shows all the positive and none of the negative meaning of Burns's 'a man 's a man for a' that’. Burns's democratic outbursts are partly a reaction against the flattery and desertion he had experienced from Edinburgh society. Shakespeare never reacted. In spite of the Sonnets we may be quite sure that his cool head was never turned. He accepted his patrons, and used them ; for one of them he evidently had a passionate affection ; but he was not the man to let young nobles charm him away from his business, which was to do his work and make his way in the world. So he had nothing to react from ; nothing to make him see nobles blacker or plain men whiter than they actually were ; nothing to close his