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KING JOHN. CHAKESPEARE has probably done more to diffuse a w knowledge of English history than all the historians put together; our liveliest and best impressions of " merry England in the olden time” being generally drawn from his pages. Though we seldom think of referring to him as authority in matters of fact, yet we are apt to make him our standard of old English manners and character and life, reading other historians by his light, and trying them by his measures, without being distinctly conscious of it.
It scarce need be said that the Poet's labours in this kind are as far as possible from being the unsouled political diagrams of history; they are, in the right and full sense of the term, dramatic revivifications of the Past, wherein the shades of departed things are made to live their life over again, to repeat themselves, as it were, under our eye; so that they have an interest for us such as no mere narrative of events can possess. If there are any others able to give us as just notions, provided we read them, still there are none who come near him in the art of causing themselves to be read. And the further we push our historical researches, the more we are brought to recognize the substantial justness of his representations. Even when he makes free with chronology, and varies from the actual order of things, it is commonly in quest of something higher and better than chronological accuracy; and the result is in
most cases favourable to right conceptions; the persons and events being thereby so knit together in a sort of vital harmony as to be better understood than if they were ordered with literal exactness of time and place. He never fails to hold the mind in natural intercourse and sympathy with living and operative truth. Kings and princes and the heads of the State, it is true, figure prominently in his scenes ; but this is done in such a way as to set us face to face with the real spirit and sense of the people, whose claims are never sacrificed, to make an imposing pageant or puppet-show of political automatons. If he brings in fictitious persons and events, mixing them up with real ones, it is that he may set forth into view those parts and elements and aspects of life which lie without the range of common history; enshrining in representative ideal forms the else neglected substance of actual character.
But the most noteworthy point in this branch of the theme is, that out of the materials of an entire age and nation he so selects and uses a few as to give a just conception of the whole; all the lines and features of its life and action, its piety, chivalry, wisdom, policy, wit, and profligacy, being gathered up and wrought out in fair proportion and clear expression. Where he deviates most from all the authorities known to have been consulted by him, there is a large, wise propriety in his deviations, such as might well prompt the conjecture of his having written from some traditionary matter which the historians had failed to chronicle. And indeed some of those deviations have been remarkably verified by the researches of later times; as if the Poet had exercised a sort of prophetic power in his dramatic retrospections. So that our latest study and ripest judgment in any historical matter handled by him will be apt to fall in with and confirm the impressions at first derived from him ; that which in the outset approved itself to the imagination as beautiful, in the end approving itself to the reason as true.
These remarks, however, must not be taken as in dispar
agement of other forms of history. It is important for us to know much which it was not the Poet's business to teach, and which if he had attempted to teach, we should probably learn far less from him. Nor can we be too much on our guard against resting in those vague general notions of the Past which are so often found ministering to conceit and flippant shallowness. For, in truth, however we may exult in the free soarings of the spirit beyond the bounds of time and sense, one foot of the solid ground of Facts, where our thoughts must needs be limited by the matter that feeds them, is worth far more than acres upon acres of cloud-land glory where, as there is nothing to bound the sight, because nothing to be seen, so a man may easily credit himself with “gazing into the abysses of the infinite." And perhaps the best way to keep off all such conceit is by holding the mind down to the specialties of local and particular truth. These specialties, however, it is not for poetry to supply; nay, rather, it would cease to be poetry, should it go about to supply them. And it is enough that Shakespeare, in giving us what lay within the scope of his art, facilitates and furthers the learning of that which lies out of it; working whatever matter he takes into a lamp to light our way through that which he omits. This is indeed to make the Historical Drama what it should be, a “concentration of history”; setting our thoughts at the point where the several lines of truth converge, and from whence we may survey the field of his subject both in its unity and its variety.
All this is to be understood as referring specially to the Poet's dramas in English history; though much of it holds good also in regard to the Roman tragedies.* Of those dramas, ten in number, King John comes first in the historical order of time. And in respect of this piece the foregoing remarks are subject to no little abatement or qualification. As a work of art, the play has indeed considerable merit; but as a piece of historical portraiture its claims may easily be overstated. In such a work, diplomatic or documentary exactness is not altogether possible, nor is it even desirable any further than will run smooth with the conditions of the dramatic form. For, to be truly an historical drama, a work should not adhere to the literal truth of history in such sort as to hinder the proper dramatic life; that is, the laws of the Drama are here paramount to the facts of history; which infers that, where the two cannot stand together, the latter are to give way. Yet, when and so far as they are fairly compatible, neither ought to be sacrificed; at least, historical fidelity is so far essential to the perfection of the work. And Shakespeare's mastery of his art is especially apparent from the degree in which he has reconciled them. And the historical inferiority of King John, as will be shown hereafter, lies mainly in this, that, taking his other works in the same line as the standard, the facts of history are disregarded much beyond what the laws of Art seem to require.
* The dramas derived from the English history, ten in number, form one of the most valuable of Shakespeare's works, and are partly the fruit of his maturest age. I say advisedly one of his works ; for the Poet evidently intended them to form one great whole. It is, as it were, an historical heroic poem in the dramatic form, of which the several plays constitute the rhapsodies. The main features of the events are set forth with such fidelity; their causes, and even their secret springs, are placed in so clear a light ; that we may gain from them a knowledge of history in all its truth ; while the living picture makes an impression on the imagination which can never be effaced. But this series of dramas is designed as the vehicle of a much higher and more general instruction; it furnishes examples of the political course of the world, applicable to all times. This mirror of kings should be the manual of princes: from it they may learn the intrinsic dignity of their hereditary vocation; but they will also learn the difficulties of their situation, the dangers of usurpation, the inevitable fall of tyranny, which buries itself under its attempts to obtain a firmer foundation; lastly, the ruinous consequences of the weaknesses, errors, and crimes of kings, for whole nations, and many subsequent generations. Eight of these plays, from Richard the Second to Richard the Third, are linked together in uninterrupted successions, and embrace a most eventful period of nearly a century of English history. The events portrayed in them not only follow each other, but are linked together in the closest and most exact connection; and the cycle of revolts, parties, civil and foreign wars, which began with the deposition of Richard the Second, first ends with the accession of Henry the Seventh to the throne. – SCHLEGEI..