Imágenes de páginas

will. The leading features in the character of this consummate dictator have been thus condensed by Hazlitt with his usual apprehensiveness of faculty and charm of diction :-" Patient for occasion, and then steadily availing himself of it; seeing his advantage afar off, but only seizing on it when he has it within his reach; humble, crafty, bold, and aspiring, encroaching by regular but slow degrees, building power on opinion, and cementing opinion by power."

These are the two chief personages in the drama; and having thus briefly introduced them, I proceed to the less exalted characters.

After the king, the next in historical, though not in the present instance of dramatic consequence, is the eminent John of Gaunt, Duke of Lancaster, who was also King of Castile, by virtue of his marriage with the daughter of Peter the Cruel. Godwin, in his masterly history of the life and times of Chaucer, has gone into considerable detail in recording the progress of events as connected with the personal career of John of Gaunt, who was evidently a pet character with him; for he has exerted his patient and logical talent in exculpating his hero from all the charges brought against his political conduct; and, indeed, he may be said to have composed a eulogium on his career, rather than an impartial history of it, -as Middleton also did in his celebrated life of Cicero. The balance of opinion, however, is, I believe, opposed to Godwin in his barrister-like defence of the Duke of Lancaster : who, notwithstanding, appears to have been an intriguing, in addition to his being an inordinately-ambitious man; nor do I find that he is wholly cleared from the charge of an attempt to divert the succession of the monarchy into his own line. That he was a temporising character, is unequivocal, from his having taken the popular, not to say the factious, side in the great religious Wickliffe-controversy; encouraging the first seceder from the Roman Catholic dogmas

by his countenance and promise of support; and even at the celebrated convocation at St Paul's, in a fierce personal contest with the Bishop of London, swearing that he would drag that prelate out of the church by his beard; yet, when the hierarchical party proved too strong for Wickliffe, Gaunt suddenly fell away from him, like the latter snow, and quitting the kingdom, left him naked to the tender mercies of his priestly enemies.

It is not the object here to enter into a history of the period, but by this introduction to the character of “Old Gaunt" to show that this is precisely the light in which it was viewed by Shakespeare. With more excitability of nature than his son Bolingbroke, he displays the same compromising tendency—as witness the dialogue between him and the Duchess of Gloucester, in the 2d scene of the 1st Act, where she is endeavouring to engage him to be of her party to revenge Richard's execution of her husband, who was his own brother. The scene is too long to quote, but concludes by commending her quarrel to Heaven; adding:—

"For Heaven's substitute,

His deputy anointed in his sight

Hath caused his death: the which, if wrongfully,
Let Heaven revenge; for I may never lift

An angry, arm against his minister."

Again, his after encouragement of his son, reconciling him to the sentence of banishment passed upon him, is of the same complexion:-the advice also combines the merit of exhibiting the phlegm and indifference of cold-blooded old age. He thus calmly argues with his own son, whose face he is never more likely to see, and indeed never did see again :

"All places that the eye of Heaven visits,

Are to a wise man ports and happy havens.

Teach thy necessity to reason thus;

There is no virtue like necessity.

Think not the king did banish thee,
But thou the king: woe doth the heavier sit,
Where it perceives it is but faintly borne.
Go, say I sent thee forth to purchase honour,
And not the king exil'd thee; or suppose
Devouring pestilence hangs in our air,
And thou art flying to a fresher clime:
Look, what thy soul holds dear, imagine it

To lie that way thou go'st, not whence thou com'st:

Suppose the singing birds musicians,

The grass whereon thou tread'st the presence strew'd,
The flowers fair ladies, and thy steps no more

Than a delightful measure or a dance;
For gnarling sorrow hath less power to bite
The man that mocks at it and sets it light."

The answer which Bolingbroke makes to his father's argument has been transferred to the first scene of "Richard III.," as it is now represented on the stage, in the contemptible alteration of Colley Cibber:

66 'Oh, who can hold a fire in his hand
By thinking on the frosty Caucasus ?
Or cloy the hungry edge of appetite
By bare imagination of a feast?
Or wallow naked in December snow
By thinking on fantastic summer's heat?
Oh, no! the apprehension of the good
Gives but the greater feeling to the worse:
Fell sorrow's tooth doth never rankle more
Than when it bites, but lanceth not the sore."

Notwithstanding the unfavourable quality here alluded to and instanced, there is much stateliness and classic grandeur in Shakespeare's portraiture of John of Gaunt; and his dying scene is as sublime as the heavenward flight of some old prophet in sacred history. The tattered and dishevelled condition of his native country, under the misrule of an imbecile and luxurious monarch and his worthless minions,

suggested to the poet a noble opportunity to compliment the land of his birth, by sounding its praise in the deathless hymn of the dying son of the conqueror of France: and in the whole range of poetic diction it stands forth, distinct and alone, for sincerity and lustrous imagery, with glowing patriotism. Happy the land to be so eulogised; happy the land to deserve the eulogy; and still more happy in possessing such a laureate to hymn its fame. The passage is in the opening of the 2d Act. Speaking of his nephew Richard's wanton and reckless conduct, the dying seer breaks forth:"Methinks I am a prophet new inspired," &c.

If Gaunt is one of the most picturesque characters in this play, the Duke of York, his brother, and also uncle of Richard, is the most estimable. He is a perfect exemplar of a loyal man and upright friend-of one who has the honesty to rebuke the faults in his sovereign, and, at the same time, to maintain without compromise the prerogative of his crown, in the teeth of those very faults which have caused it to totter on his brow. He, in his erect and steady attachment to his king, forms a striking contrast to the selfseeking adherence of those sunshine courtiers and flatterers, who shroud themselves from the first flaw of adversity that rocks the structure which their rapacity has endangered.

In the character of the Duke of York is to be noticed the distinction that the poet has preserved between the prevailing qualities of the two brothers--both being bold, open-speaking


Gaunt's open-speaking betrays the bitterness of a man who has suffered personal wrong: at the same time he is too proud to manifest his sense of the injury offered to his individual self through his son's banishment. With a plausible show of magnanimity, therefore, he makes no allusion to this circumstance, which nevertheless is evidently rankling in his bosom; but, with the licence of a dying man, he vehemently

upbraids the king upon the general maladministration of his


"A thousand flatterers sit within thy crown,
Whose compass is no bigger than thy head.
And yet, encagèd in so small a verge,
The waste is no whit lesser than thy land.
Why, cousin, wert thou regent of the world,
It were a shame to let this land by lease:
But, for thy world, enjoying but this land,
Is it not more than shame to shame it so?
Landlord of England art thou, and not king:
Thy state of law is bond-slave to the law."

York, no less honest, has not the same motive for bitterness in his reproof: he therefore only deprecates his nephew's headlong injustice. How finely has the poet preserved the distinctive shades of demeanour in the two men! Before Richard enters, (who is coming to visit his dying uncle,) York endeavours to mitigate the virulence of his brother Gaunt, and says:

"The king is come; deal mildly with his youth;

For young hot colts being rag'd, do rage the more."

And upon the death of Gaunt, when Richard commands the seizure of all his "plate, coin, revenues, and movables," to the detriment of Bolingbroke, his son and heir, York only appeals to him; he does not denounce; he pleads to Richard for Richard—he protects him against himself. His eloquence is the eloquence of a sincere heart, and no eloquence reaches the heart but that which comes from it. This noble expostulation, commencing, "How long shall I be patient?" is in the Ist scene of the 2d Act. It is the language of a purely loyal and honest man; and when the weakly unjust king will not be counselled to his own honour and interest, but repeats the order for the confiscation of his kindred's wealth, York takes his leave, declaring he "will not be by the while."

« AnteriorContinuar »