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The innocent and beauteous Arthur, rendered doubly attractive by the sweetness of his disposition and the severity of his fate, is thus described by his doating mother:
When he is captured, therefore, and imprisoned by John, and consequently, sealed for destruction, who but Shakspeare could have done justice to the agonising sorrows of the parents? Her invocation to death, and her address to Pandulph, paint maternal despair with a force which no imagination can augment, and of which the tenderness and pathos have never been exceeded:
"Death, death:-O amiable lovely death!-
O, come to me!" &c.
Act iii. sc. 4.
Independent of the scenes which unfold the striking characters of Constance and Faulconbridge, there are two others in this play which may vie with any thing that Shakspeare has produced; namely, the scene between John and Hubert, and that between Hubert and Arthur. The former, where the usurper obscurely intimates to Hubert his bloody wishes, is conducted in so masterly a manner, that we behold the dark and turbulent soul of John lying naked before us in all its deformity, and shrinking with fear even from the enunciation of its own vile purpose; "it is one of the scenes," as Mr. Steevens has well observed, "to which may be promised a lasting commendation. Art could add little to its perfection; and time itself can take nothing from its beauties."
The scene with Hubert and the executioners, where the hapless Arthur supplicates for mercy, almost lacerates the heart itself; and is only rendered supportable by the tender and alleviating impression which the sweet innocence and artless eloquence of the poor child fix with indelible influence on the mind. Well may it be said, in the language of our poet, that he who can behold this scene without the gushing tribute of a tear,
"Is fit for treasons, stratagems, and spoils;
Let no such man be trusted."
As for the character of John, which, from its meanness and imbecility, seems not well calculated for dramatic representation, Shakspeare has contrived, towards the close of the drama, to excite in his behalf some degree of interest and commiseration; especially in the dying scene, where the fallen monarch, in answer to the enquiry of his son as to the state of his feelings, mournfully exclaims,—
Poison'd,―ill fare;-dead, forsook, cast off."
17. ALL'S WELL THAT ENDS WELL: 1598. There does not appear any sufficient reason for altering the date assigned to this play by Mr. Malone, whom we have, therefore, followed in preference to Mr. Chalmers, who has fixed on the succeeding year; a decision to which we have been particularly induced, independent of other circumstances, by the apparent notice of this drama by Meres, under the title of Love's Labour's Wonne, an appellation which very accurately applies to this, but to no other of our author's productions with any similar degree of pertinency. We have reason, therefore, to conclude, as nothing has hitherto been brought forward to invaliate the assumption, that Meres's title was the original designation of this comedy, and was intended by the poet as a countertitle to Love's Labour's Lost. What induced him to dismiss the first, and to adopt the present proverbial appellation, cannot positively be ascertained; but the probability is, as Mr. Malone has remarked, that the alteration was suggested in consequence of the adage itself being found in the body of the play.
The noblest character in this comedy, which, though founded on a story somewhat too improbable, abounds both in interest and entertainment, is the good old Countess of Rousillon. Shakspeare seems to have drawn this portrait con amore, and we figure to ourselves for this amiable woman, a countenance beaming with dignity, sweetness, and sensibility, emanations from a heart which had ever responded to the impulses of love and charity. In short, her maternal affection for the gentle Helen, her piety, sound sense, and candour, call for our warmest reverence and esteem, which accompany her to the close of the representation, and follow her departure with regret. *
Helen, the romantic, the love-dejected Helen, must excite in every feeling bosom a high degree of sympathy; patient suffering in the female sex, especially when resulting from ill-requited attachment, and united with modesty and beauty, cannot but be an object of interest and commiseration, and in the instance before us, these are admirably blended in
but who, unfortunately, has to struggle against the prejudices of birth, rank, and unfeeling pride, in the very man who is the object of her idolatry, and who, even after the most sacred of bonds should have cemented their destiny, flies with scorn from her embraces.
If in the infancy of her passion the error of indiscretion be attributable to Helen, how is it atoned for by the most engaging humility, by the most bewitching tenderness of heart: "Be not offended," she tells her noble patroness,
But when the wife of Bertram, with a resignation and self-devotedness worthy of the highest praise, she deserts the house of her mother-in-law, knowing that whilst she is sheltered there her husband will not return, how does she, becoming thus an unprotected wanderer, a pilgrim bare-foot plodding the cold ground for him who has contemned her, rise to the tone of exalted truth and heroism!
It was necessary, in order to place the character of Helen in its most interesting point of view, that Bertram should be represented as arrogant, profligate, and unfeeling; a coxcomb who to family-consequence hesitates not to sacrifice all that is manly, just, and honourable. The picture is but too true to nature, and, since the poet found such a delineation essential to the construction of his story, he has very properly taken care, though Bertram, out of tenderness to the Countess and Helena, meets not the punishment he merits, that nothing in mitigation of his folly should be produced.
To the comic portion of this drama too much praise can scarcely be given; it is singularly rich in all that characterises the wit, the drollery, and the humour of Shakspeare. The Clown is the rival of Touchstone in As You Like It; and
"Of all the characters of Shakspeare," remarks Mr. Felton, "none more resemble his best female advocate (Mrs. Montagu) than the Countess of Rousillon."-Imperfect Hints, part i. p. 65.
Parolles, in the power of exciting laughter and ludicrous enjoyment, is only secondary to Falstaff.
18. KING HENRY THE FIFTH: 1599. The chorus at the commencement of the fifth act, and the silence of Meres, too plainly point out the era of the composition of this play, to admit of any alteration depending on the bare supposition of subsequent interpolation, or on allusions too vague and general to afford any specific application.
No character has been pourtrayed more at length by our poet than that of Henry the Fifth, for we trace him acting a prominent part through three plays. In Henry the Fourth, until the battle of Shrewsbury, we behold him in all the effervescence of his madcap revelry; occasionally, it is true, affording us glimpses of the native mightiness of his mind, but first bursting upon us with heroic splendour on that celebrated field. In every situation, however, he is evidently the darling offspring of his bard, whether we attend him to the frolic orgies in Eastcheap, to his combat with the never-daunted Percy, or, as in the play before us, to the immortal plains of Agincourt.
The fire and animation which inform the soul of Henry when he rushes to arms in defence of his father's throne, are supported with unwearied vigour, with a blaze which never falters, throughout the whole of his martial achievements in France. Nor has Shakspeare been content with representing him merely in the light of a noble and chivalrous hero, he has endowed him with every regal virtue; he is magnanimous, eloquent, pious, and sincere; versed in all the arts of government, policy, and war; a lover of his country and of his people, and a strenuous protector of their liberties and rights.
Of the various instances which our author has brought forward for the exemplification of these virtues and acquirements, it may be necessary to notice two or three. Thus the detection of the treason of Cambridge, Gray, and Scroop, who had conspired to assassinate Henry previous to his embarkation, exhibits a rich display of the mental greatness and emphatic oratory of this warlike monarch. After reprobating the treachery of Cambridge and Gray, he suddenly turns upon Scroop, who had been his bosom-friend, with the following pathetic and soulharrowing appeal:
What shall I say to thee, lord Scroop?
Thou, that did'st bear the key of all my counsels," &c.
Act ii. sc. 2.
Nor can we forbear distinguishing the dismissal of these traitors, as a striking example of magnanimity, and of justice tempered with dignified compassion:"God quit you in his mercy!
Touching our person, seek we no revenge;
Act ii. sc. 2.
In the fourth act, what a masterly picture of the cares and solicitudes of royalty is drawn by Henry himself, in his noble soliloquy on the morning of the battle, especially towards the close, where he contrasts the gorgeous but painful ceremonies of a crown with the profitable labour and the balmy rest of the peasant, who
"from the rise to set,
Sweats in the eye of Phœbus, and all night
But the prayer which immediately follows is unrivalled for its power of impression, presenting us with the most lively idea of the amiability, piety, and devotional fervour of the monarch:
"O God of battles! steel my soldiers' hearts!
O not to-day, think not upon the fault
Act iv. sc. 1.
Of the picturesque force of an epithet, there is not in the records of poetry a more remarkable instance than what is here produced by the adoption of the term withered, through which the scene starts into existence with a boldness of relief that vies with the noblest creations of the pencil.
The address to Westmoreland, on his wishing for more men from England, is a fine specimen of military eloquence, possessing that high tone of enthusiasm and exhilaration, so well calculated to inflame the daring spirit of the soldier. It is in perfect keeping with the historical character of Henry, nor can we agree with Dr. Johnson in thinking that its reduction "to about half the number of lines," would have added, either to its force or weight of sentiment; so far, indeed, are we from coalescing with this decision, that we feel convinced not a clause could be withdrawn without material injury to the animation and effect of the whole.
Instances of the same impressive and energising powers of elocution, will be found in the King's exhortation to his soldiers before the gates of Harfleur act iii. sc. 1); in his description of the horrors attendant on a city taken by storm act iii. sc. 3); and in his replies to the Herald Montjoy; all of which spring naturally from, and are respectively adapted to, the circumstances of the scene.
Nor, amid all the dangers and unparalleled achievements of the Fifth Henry, do we altogether lose sight of the frank and easy gaiety which distinguished the Prince of Wales. His winning condescension in sympathising with the cares and pleasures of his soldiers, display the same kindness and affability of temper, the same love of raillery and humour, reminiscences, as it were, of his youthful days, and which, in his intercourse with Williams and Fluellen, produce the most pleasing and grateful relief.
These touches of a frolic pencil'are managed with such art and address, that they derogate nothing from the dignity of the monarch and the conqueror; what may be termed the truly comic portion of the play, being carried on apart from any immediate connection with the person of the sovereign.
As the events of warfare and the victories of Henry form the sole subjects of the serious parts of this piece, it was necessary for the sake of variety and dramatic effect, and in order to satisfy the audience of this age, that comic characters and incidents should be interspersed; and, though we are disappointed in not seeing Falstaff, according to the poet's promise, again on the scene, we once more behold his associates, Bardolph, Pistol, and Hostess Quickly, pursuing their pleasant career with unfailing eccentricity and humour. The description of the death of Falstaff by the last of this fantastic trio, is executed with peculiar felicity, for while it excites a smile verging on risibility, it calls forth, at the same time, a sigh of pity and regret.
Of the general conduct of this play, it may be remarked, that the interest turns altogether upon the circumstances which accompany a single battle; consequently the poet has put forth all his strength in colouring and contrasting the situation of the two armies; and so admirably has he succeeded in this attempt, by opposing the full assurance of victory, on the part of the French, their boastful clamour, and impatient levity, to the conscious danger, calm valour, and self-devotedness of the English, that we wait the issue of the combat with an almost breathless anxiety. And, in order that the heroism of Henry might not want any decoration which poetry could afford, the epic and lyric departments have been laid under contribution, for the purpose of supplying what the very confined limits of the stage, then in the infancy of its mechanism, had no means of unfolding. A preliminary chorus, therefore, is attached to each act, impressing vividly on the imagination what could not be addressed to the senses, and adding to a subject, in itself more epic than dramatic, all the requisite grandeur and sublimity of description.
19. MUCH ADO ABOUT NOTHING: 1599. The allusion, in the opening scene of this comedy, to a circumstance attending the campaign of the Earl of Essex in Ireland, during the summer of 1599, which was first noticed by Mr. Chalmers, and which seems corroborated by the testimony of Camden and Moryson, has induced
us to adopt the chronology dependent on this apparent reference, the only note of time, indeed, which has hitherto been discovered in the play.
This very popular production, which appears to have originally had the title of Benedick and Beatrice, and is, in its leading incidents, to be traced to one of the tales of Bandello, * possesses, both with respect to its fable and characters, a vivacity, richness, and variety, together with a happiness of combination, which delight as much as they astonish.
The two plots are managed with uncommon skill; the first, involving the temporary disgrace and the recognition of Hero, includes a vast range of emotions, and abounds both in pathos and humour. The accusation of the innocent Hero by the man whom she loved, and at the very moment too, when she was about to be united to him for life, excites a most powerful impression; but is surpassed by the scene which restores her to happiness, where Claudio, supposing himself about to be united, in obedience to the will of Leonato, to a relation of his former beloved, and, as he concludes, deceased mistress, on unveiling the bride, beholds the features of her whom he had injured, and whom he had lamented as no more.
It is no small proof of the ingenuity of our poet, that through the means by which the iniquity practised against Hero is developed, we are furnished with a fund of the most ludicrous entertainment; the charge of Dogberry to the Watch, and the arrest and examination of Conrade and Borachio, throwing all the muscles of risibility into action.
Nor is the second plot in any respect inferior to the first; indeed, there is reason to believe, that, to the masterly delineations of Benedick and Beatrice, "the most sprightly characters that Shakspeare ever drew," and to their mutual entrapment in the meshes of love, a great part of the popularity which has ever accompanied this comedy, is in justice to be ascribed. Fault, however, has been found with the mode by which the reciprocal affection of these sworn foes to love has been secured : "the second contrivance," observes Mr. Steevens, "is less ingenious than the first-or, to speak more plainly, the same incident is become stale by repetition. I wish some other method had been found to entrap Beatrice, than that very one which before had been successfully practised on Benedick ;" an objection which has been censured with some severity by Schlegel, who justly remarks, that the drollery of this twice-used artifice" lies in the very symmetry of the deception." It may be added, that the conversation of the gentleman and the wit, in Shakspeare's days, may be pretty well ascertained from the part of Benedick in this play, and from that of Mercutio in Romeo and Juliet ; both presenting us, after some allowance for a license of allusion too broad for the decorum of the present day, with a favourable picture of the accomplishments of polished society in the reign of Elizabeth.
20. AS YOU LIKE IT: 1600. Though this play, with the exception of the disguise and self-discovery of Rosalind, may be said to be destitute of plot, it is yet one of the most delightful of the dramas of Shakspeare. There is something in
expressibly wild and interesting both in the characters and in the scenery; the former disclosing the moral discipline and the sweets of adversity, the purest emotions of love and friendship, of gratitude and fidelity, the melancholy of genius, and the exhilaration of innocent mirth, as opposed to the desolating effects of malice, envy, and ambition; and the latter unfolding, with the richest glow of fancy, landscapes to which, as objects of imitation, the united talents of Ruysdale, Claude and Salvator Rosa, could alone do justice.
From the forest of Arden, from that wild wood of oaks,
"whose boughs were moss'd with age,
And hight tops bald with dry antiquity,"
It is most probable that Shakspeare derived his materials from a version of Belleforest, who copied Bandello. The story forms the 22d tale of the first part of Bandello, and the 18th history of the 3d volume of Belleforest.
† Schlegel on Dramatic Literature, vol, ii. p. 166.