Immagini della pagina

dialogue of the Scotch and Irish captains in iii. 2. 72 f. is not represented in Qq, and the presence of a Scottish captain in Henry's army is undoubtedly surprising after the strong anti-Scottish animus exhibited in i. 2.—an animus not entirely supported by Holinshed. Simpson saw in this colloquy of the four captains-English, Scotch, Welsh, Irish-a dramatic plea for Essex's policy of composing drastic differences, and especially of uniting Scotland with England. Mr. Fleay prefers to regard the passage as an insertion for the Court performance, Christmas 1605, 'to please King James, who had been annoyed that year by depreciation of Scots on the stage.'1

In Henry V. as in Henry IV., its magnificent and long-drawn prelude, Shakespeare follows the Chronicles of Holinshed and Hall with singular fidelity, adding, as there, a few touches from The Famous Victories. The 'Harry' of the Chronicles is in substance his. Here, in a fuller sense than in any other of the Histories, Shakespeare meant to recall the actual past. It was the real Harry that he strove to paint, the real Agincourt that he bade his audience reconstruct in imagination from his 'cockpit' and 'vile and ragged foils,' 'Minding true things by what their mockeries be.' 2 But these two, the great king and the great victory, exhaust Shakespeare's interest in the reign. All personality in the play is pale beside Henry's, and all event is ancillary to the French campaign.

Even as described in Holinshed the reign was

(built by Burbage early in 1599); the fact that Meres in the Palladis Tamia, 1598, does not mention one of the most famous of Shakespeare's Histories; and the publication in 1600 of the Quarto edition, founded, as has

been seen, upon the acting


1 See note to Meas. for Meas. i. I. 68. Life and Work of Shakespeare, p. 206.

2 Chorus to Act IV.

remarkably poor in opportunities for the dramatist, and it would seem that Shakespeare deliberately made light of some that he found, in order to give his heroic subject in its magnificent simplicity full way without the distractions of intrigue and counterplot. The play is strictly no drama, but an epic in dramatic form. Shakespeare seems to hint as much by the use of the Chorus, an expedient to which he no longer resorted when dealing with the vaster distances and the more colossal warfare of Julius Cæsar and Antony and Cleopatra.

Only one other drama entirely his own-The Winter's Tale-contains a chorus; and there it serves to announce an interval of dramatic time far greater than Shakespeare has anywhere else approached. Except in a single instance (Act V.), the Chorus in Henry V. announces only trifling intervals either of space or time, a journey from London to Southampton, from Southampton to Harfleur, and so on. But the Chorus to Act IV. has no such rôle to perform; and this Chorus, the most splendid and high-wrought of all, serves to show that Shakespeare introduced this machinery not for the sake of bridging intervals of time and space, which elsewhere his audience crossed 'on imagined wings' with the utmost unconcern, but as the most obvious means of bringing home the outward semblance of an event of absorbing interest.1 In Coriolanus, in Antony and Cleopatra, there are brief

[ocr errors]

[merged small][merged small][merged small][ocr errors][merged small][ocr errors]

bursts of battle-poetry exceeding in sublimity anything in Henry V.; but that is chiefly because they are penetrated with a dramatic passion for which in Henry V. there was simply no room. The subject was epic, and Shakespeare fell back upon the epic poet's method. No scene in the drama paints so vividly as a few lines in the Chorus the transforming spell of the master presence, which made the handful of worn-out men a weapon of adamant against the serried ranks of chivalry :


A largess universal like the sun
His liberal eye doth give to every one,

Thawing cold fear, that mean and gentle all
Behold, as may unworthiness define,
A little touch of Harry in the night.

Henry's own character is devoid of strictly dramatic elements. It derives none of its extraordinary fascination from inner conflict. He is at one with himself. Even the inherited sin of his house, so burdensome to his father, passes completely into the background. In none of the Histories does it play so slight a part. His naïve faith in his right to France is perplexed by no scruple about his right to England. Mortimer, the legitimate heir, is never mentioned; and the conspiracy of Cambridge and Scroop and Grey on his behalf is credited to the gold of the French king.1 Before Agincourt Henry prays that the guilt of his father's usurpation may not that day be visited upon him; but his fervour is not troubled like Claudius' by any suspicion that he ought to resign the usurped throne. Not only is there no foreboding of the tragic

1 Shakespeare's Cambridge hints darkly at an ulterior purpose in ll. 155-157:—

For me, the gold of France did not
Although I did admit it as a motive

The sooner to effect what I intended.

In reality, Mortimer himself appears to have betrayed the plot to Henry. S. Remy's Mémoires, cit. Stone's Holinshed, p. 174.

Nemesis which the authors of Henry VI. read in the impending ruin of the house of Lancaster; we move in a world in which tragic Nemesis has no place, and another, more Shakespearean, conception of human affairs controls the action. Henry is not irrevocably bound by the guilt of his ancestors: his sheer soundness and strength of character emancipate him at once from the inherited taint and the paralysing selfdistrust; if ruin follows in the next reign, it is not the guilt of the dead but the weakness of the living that brings it on.

All the other characters serve in their degree to set off the king's; but none are even distantly his rivals. The English commanders, the prelates, the traitor nobles, are slightly sketched, and either implicitly fall in with or but faintly disturb the onward sweep of Henry's course. The conspiracy of Cambridge and Scroop was in reality a dangerous symptom of distrust a dramatist bent upon plot-interest would have made us tremble for the king's life. Shakespeare announces it with a quiet assurance that there is no danger, for all is known, and the conspirators themselves hasten to deprecate any further anxiety by expressing their heart-felt penitence. The whole episode serves simply to exhibit Henry's bearing as man and king,—the stern Roman fortitude humanised with Germanic pity and regret-when discharging the duty of sentencing an old comrade and friend. to death.

The one formidable rival of the king is no single figure, but the 'bad neighbour' at whom he dashes his little force, the assembled power of France. And the French are drawn collectively, in slightly modulated shades of the same conventional hue. The brush which had painted the rival of Henry's youth, now dashes off with far less care and delicacy the foes of

his manhood. The vapouring chivalry, the fantastic self-conceit which so fatally alloyed Hotspur's sturdy Saxon strength, reappear with more of blatant flourish in men of finer wit but weaker fibre. The Dauphin, less original than Hotspur, but without a spark of his real heroism, misconstrues Henry as completely; and Shakespeare plays with visible pleasure upon the tennis-ball motive which he found in Holinshed. He makes the English envoys to the French camp deliver a special message of scorn to the Dauphin (ii. 4. 110 f.); and the Dauphin, in spite of history and his father's orders, figures in the French camp at Agincourt. But the Dauphin is only an extreme type of the fatuous intoxication which possesses the whole host, and is chiefly responsible for its overthrow. Agincourt is the duel of Shrewsbury, writ large; with the difference that there is here no counterpart to the pathos of the mourning for Hotspur. A few wild curses and cries of rage suffice to sum up the immeasurably greater tragedy of the French rout. And in the fifth Act the French themselves seem to share in the exultation of England over their own surrender. In painting Henry's own attitude towards the enemy, however, Shakespeare's touch is not quite so firm as when he limned Prince Hal. The speeches before Harfleur to Montjoy, and after the battle, are hardly in keeping with the modesty of true valour which makes him forbid the display of his bruised helmet and bent sword in the London streets. In his actual treatment of Harfleur he shows a humanity not recorded of the historic Henry, who allowed the town to be sacked. On the other hand, his ferocious slaughter of the prisoners at Agincourt has not a whit

1 Holinshed relates that 'the Dolphin sore desired to have been at the battell, but he was

prohibited by his father' (iii. 552).

« IndietroContinua »