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an unjust sentence—as unjust as that pronounced by the worthy writer of the letter in the Bodleian Library, that the wittiest of all Shakspere's creations was “a buffoon,” and that he might be confounded with the fighting knight whose chief distinction was the garter on his leg. Fastolf was a respectable personage no doubt in his day, but not “sweet Jack Falstaff, kind Jack Falstaff, true Jack Falstaff, valiant Jack Falstaff, and therefore more valiant, being, as he is, old Jack Falstaff.” It appears to us, therefore, that, in the same manner as the “young gentle lady” and Dr. Richard James, somewhat ignorantly as we think, confounded Fastolf and Falstaff, so they erred in a similar way by believing that “in Shakspere's first show of Harry the Fifth the person with which he undertook to play a buffoon was not Falstaff, but Sir John Oldcastle.” Fuller, in his ‘Worthies, speaking of Sir John Falstaff, has the same complaint, as we have | seen, against “stage-poets.” Now, admitting what appears possible, that Shakspere in his “Henry IV.’ originally had the name of Old| castle where we now find that of Falstaff, is it likely that he could have meant the champion of the Reformation of Wickliff, who was cruelly put to death for heresy in the fourth year of Henry W., to have been the boon | companion of the youthful prince ; and who, before the king went to the French wars, died quietly in his bed, “e'en at the turning of the tide 7” And yet there is little doubt that, when Shakspere adopted a name familiar to the stage, he naturally raised up this species of absurd misconception, which had the remarkable fate of being succeeded by a mistake still more absurd, that Falstaff and Fastolf were one and the same. It is, however, extremely probable that there were other plays in which the character of Sir John Oldcastle was presented historically, and falsely presented ; that from this circumstance Shakspere saw the necessity of substituting another name for Oldcastle, and of making the declaration “Oldcastle died a martyr, and this is not the man ;” and that the authors of the play before us, ‘The First Part of Sir John Oldcastle, adopted a subject with which the public mind was at that
time familiar, and presented Sir John Oldcastle upon the stage, in a manner that would be agreeable to “personages descended from his title,” and to the great body of the people “who ought to have him in honourable memory.” Whether the reputation of Oldcastle derived much benefit from their labours remains to be seen.
The play opens with a quarrel in the street of Hereford between Lord Herbert, Lord Powis, and their followers; which is put down by the judges, who are holding the assize in the town. The commencement of the conflict, in which blood was shed, is thus described :—
“Lord Powis detracted from the power of
Affirming Wickliff's doctrine to be true,
The second scene introduces us to the Bishop of Rochester, denouncing Lord Cobham (Oldcastle), as an heretic, to the Duke of Suffolk. The bishop is supported by Sir John of Wrotham, whose zeal is so boisterous as to receive the following rebuke from the Duke :—
“Oh, but you must not swear; it ill becomes One of your coat to rap out bloody oaths.”
The king appears, to hear the complaint of the churchman ; and he promises to send for Oldcastle “ and school him privately.” In the third scene we have Lord Cobham and an aged servant, and Lord Powis arrives in disguise, and is concealed by Cobham. In the second act we have a comic scene, amusing enough, but anything but original ; a summer arrives to cite Lord Cobham before the Ecclesiastical Court, and the old servant of the noble reformer makes the officer eat the citation. Nashe tells us in his ‘Pierce Pennylesse’ that he once saw Robert Greene “make an apparitor eat his citation, wax and all, very handsomely served 'twixt two dishes.” We have something like the same incident in the play of the ‘Pinner of Wakefield.’ The scene changes to London, where we have an assembly of rebels, who give out that Oldcastle will be their general. In the next scene, which is probably the best sustained of the play, we have Henry and Lord Cobham in conference:— “K. Henry. 'T is not enough, Lord Cobham, to submit ; You must forsake your gross opinion. The bishops find themselves much injured; And though, for some good service you have done, We for our part are pleased to pardon you, Yet they will not so soon be satisfied. Cob. My gracious lord, unto your majesty, Next unto my God, I do owe my life; And what is mine, either by nature's gift, Or fortune's bounty, all is at your service. But for obedience to the pope of Rome, I owe him none; nor shall his shaveling priests, That are in England, alter my belief. If out of Holy Scripture they can prove That I am in an error, I will yield, And gladly take instruction at their hands: But otherwise I do beseech your grace My conscience may not be encroach’d upon. R. Henry. We would be loth to press our subjects' bodies, Much less their souls, the dear redeemed part Of Him that is the ruler of us all : Yet let me counsel you, that might command. Do not presume to tempt them with ill words, Nor suffer any meetings to be had Within your house; but to the uttermost Disperse the flocks of this new gathering sect. Cob. My liege, if any breathe, that dares come forth, And say, my life in any of these points Deserves the attainder of ignoble thoughts, Here stand I, craving no remorse at all, But even the utmost rigour may be shown.” The Bishop of Rochester appears, and denounces Cobham for the contempt shown to his citation; the king reproves the bishop, and dismisses Oldcastle in safety. It is evident that the dramatic capabilities of such a scene furnish an occasion for the dis
play of high poetical power. The interview between Henry and his faithful friend and adherent ; the anxiety of the reformer to vindicate himself from disloyalty, whilst he honestly supported his own opinions; the natural desire of the king to resist innovation, whilst he respected the virtues of the innovator, points like these would have been handled by Shakspere, or one imbued with his spirit, in a manner that would have lived and abided in our memories. The lines that we have quoted, which are the best in the scene, furnish a sufficient proof that the subject was in feeble hands.
The third act opens to us the conspiracy of Cambridge, Scroop, and Grey. The conspirators meet Lord Cobham. The mode in which they introduce their purpose is spirited and dramatic. Cobham has invited them to his house, and promises them hunters’ fare and a hunt. Cambridge thus replies, before he presents the paper which discloses the plot:
“Cam. Nay, but the stag which we desire to strike, Lives not in Cowling : if you will consent, And go with us, we'll bring you to a forest Where runs a lusty herd; among the which There is a stag superior to the rest, A stately beast, that, when his fellows run, He leads the race, and beats the sullen earth, As though he scorn'd it with his trampling hoofs; Aloft he bears his head, and with his breast, Like a huge bulwark, counterchecks the wind : And, when he standeth still, he stretcheth forth His proud ambitious neck, as if he meant To wound the firmament with forked horns. Cob. 'T is pity such a goodly beast should die. Cam. Not so, sir John ; for he is tyrannous, And gores the other deer, and will not keep Within the limits are appointed him. Of late he's broke into a several, Which doth belong to me, and there he spoils Both corn and pasture. Two of his wild race, Alike for stealth and covetous encroaching, Already are removed; if he were dead, I should not only be secure from hurt, But with his body make a royal feast.”
Cobham then dissembles, and asks—
They offer to swear fidelity; but he requires them only to subscribe the writing. The time and place of mecting are appointed, and they part. Cobham puts the paper in his pocket, and goes off to betray them to the king. The state-morality of the age of Elizabeth might perhaps have made this incident more palatable to an audience of that day than to ourselves; but we doubt whether Shakspere would have put this burthen upon the soul of one whom he wished to represent as a hero and a martyr. We have more scenes of the rebels; followed by the scene which we have already noticed of the parson robbing the king. The same worthy divine is afterwards found in the king's camp, dicing with his majesty; and then the robbery is discovered, and the robber pardoned. The rebels who were in the field, headed by Sir Roger Acton, are routed. The Bishop of Rochester affirms that they were incited by Cobham, who arrives at the moment of the accusation to prove his loyalty by denouncing Scroop, Grey, and Cambridge. The king is satisfied; but subsequently the Bishop of Rochester seizes Cobham, and confines him in the Tower, from which he very soon escapes. With the exception of a scene in which Cambridge and the other conspirators are seized by the king, the whole of the fifth act is occupied by the wanderings of Cobham and his wife, their disguises and their escapes. The following scene is prettily imagined, and gracefully expressed :—
Extremities admit no better choice, And, were it not for thee, say froward time Imposed a greater task, I would esteem it As lightly as the wind that blows upon us: But in thy sufferance I am doubly task'd; Thou wast not wont to have the earth thy stool, Nor the moist dewy grass thy pillow, nor Thy chamber to be the wide horizon. L. Cob. How can it seem a trouble, having you A partner with me in the worst I feel? No, gentle lord, your presence would give ease To death itself, should he now seize upon me. [She produces some bread and cheese, and a bottle. Behold, what my foresight hath underta'en, For fear we faint; they are but homely cates; Yet, sauced with hunger, they may seem as Sweet As greater dainties we were wont to taste. Cob. Praise be to Him whose plenty sends both this And all things else our mortal bodies need Nor scorn we this poor feeding, nor the state We now are in ; for what is it on earth, Nay, under heaven, continues at a stay? Ebbs not the sea, when it hath overflow'd Follows not darkness when the day is gone? And see we not sometimes the eye of heaven Dimm'd with o'er-flying clouds! There's not that work : Of careful nature or of cunning art, How strong, how beauteous, or how rich it be, But falls in time to ruin. Here, gentle madam, In this one draught I wash my sorrow down. [Drinks.” The persecuted pair fall asleep; and, a murdered body being found near them, they are apprehended as the murderers, and conducted to trial. They are discharged through the discovery of the real murderer, and fly with Lord Powis into Wales. It will be evident from this analysis that ‘The First Part of Sir John Oldcastle” is entirely deficient in dramatic unity. Shakspere in representing a series of historical events did not of course attempt to sustain that unity of idea which we see so strikingly in his best tragedies and comedies. We have not one great action, but a succession of actions; and yet, through his wonderful power of characterization, and his skill in grouping a series of events round one leading event, we have a principle upon which the mind can determinately rest, and rightly comprehend the whole dramatic movement. In the play before us there is no distinct relation between one scene and another. We forget the connection between Oldcastle and the events in which he is implicated; and, when he himself appears on the scene, the
development of character, in which a real poet would have luxuriated, is made subordinate to the hurry of the perplexed though monotonous movement of the story. Thoroughly to understand the surpassing power of Shakspere in the management of the historical drama, it might be desirable to compare “King John, or ‘Richard II.,’ or ‘Richard III, or “Henry VIII, with this play; but, after all, the things do not admit of comparison.
CHAPTER III. THOMAS LORD CROMWELL.
THE first edition of this play was published in 1602, under the title of “The Chronicle History of Thomas Lord Cromwell.” No name or initials of an author appear in the titlepage. In 1613 appeared “The true Chronicle Historie of the whole life and death of Thomas Lord Cromwell. As it hath beene sundry times publikely Acted by the Kings Majesties Seruants. Written by W. S. In 1602 the registers of the Stationers' Company had the entry of ‘A Booke called the Lyfe and Deathe of the Lord Cromwell, as yt was lately acted by the Lord Chamberleyn his servants.’ It appears, therefore, that the play was originally performed, and continued to be performed, by the company in which Shakspere was a chief proprieter. Beyond the initials W. S. there is no external evidence whatever to attribute the play to the great dramatizer of English history. Schlegel, as we have seen, calls “Sir John Oldcastle,” and “Thomas Lord Cromwell,’ “biographical dramas and models in this species.” We have no hesitation in affirming that a biographical drama, especially such a drama as “Thomas Lord Cromwell,’ is essentially undramatic. “Oldcastle' takes a portion only of the life of its hero; but ‘Cromwell” gives us the story of the man from his boyhood to his execution. The resemblance which it bears to any play of Shakspere's is solely in the structure of the
title; and that parallel holds good only with regard to one play, ‘Lear,’ according to its original title, the “True Chronicle Historie of the Life and Death of King Lear and his three Daughters.” In the folio collection of 1623 we have indeed ‘The Life and Death of King John,’ ‘The Life and Death of Richard II,’ ‘The Life of King Henry W.,’ ‘The Life and Death of Richard III., and ‘The Life of King Henry VIII.’ So in the same edition we have ‘The Life and Death of Julius Caesar.” But our readers are perfectly aware that in all these dramas a very small portion of the life of the hero of each is included in the action. Shakspere knew his art too well to attempt to teach history dramatically by connecting a series of isolated events solely by their relation to a principal agent, without any other dependence. Nothing, for example, can be more complete in itself than the action of ‘Richard II, or that of ‘Henry W.,’ of ‘Richard III.,’ and of ‘Henry VIII. We have in these pieces nearly all the condensation which pure tragedy requires. But in “Thomas Lord Cromwell, on the contrary, what Shakspere would have told in a few words, reserving himself for an exhibition of character in the more striking situations, is actually presented to us in a succession of scenes that have no relation to any action of deepening interest—chapter upon chapter which might have been very well spared, if one chapter, that of the elevation and fall of Cromwell, had occupied a space proportioned to its importance.
We begin the drama in the shop of old Cromwell, the blacksmith, at Putney, where young Cromwell, with a want of sense that ill accords with his future advancement, insists that his father's men shall leave off work because their noise disturbs his study. His father comes, and like a sensible and honest man reproves his son for his vagaries; and then the ambitious youth, who proclaims the purpose of his presaging soul, that he will build a palace
“As fine as is King Henry's house at Sheen,” thus soliloquizes:–
“Crom. Why should my birth keep down my mounting spirit! Are not all creatures subject unto time— To time, who doth abuse the cheated world, And fills it full of hodge-podge bastardy? There's legions now of beggars on the earth That their original did spring from kings; And many monarchs now, whose fathers were The riffraff of their age: for time and fortune Wears out a noble train to beggary; And from the dunghill millions do advance To state and mark in this admiring world. This is but course, which in the name of fate Is seen as often as it whirls about. The river Thames, that by our door doth pass, His first beginning is but small and shallow; Yet keeping on his course grows to a sea. And likewise Wolsey, the wonder of our age, His birth as mean as mine, a butcher's son; Now who within this land a greater man? Then, Cromwell, cheer thee up, and tell thy soul,
That thou mayst live to flourish and control.”
The young man, who despises work, immediately gets employment without seeking it, to be secretary to the English merchants at Antwerp. Then commences the secondary action of the drama, which consists of the adventures of one Banister, an English merchant, who is persecuted by Bagot, a usurer, and relieved by a foreign merchant. It is by no means clear what this has to do with Thomas Lord Cromwell; but it may be satisfactory to know that eventually the
usurer is hanged and the merchant is restored to competence. It would have been difficult, with all the author's contempt for unity of action, to have contrived to have told the whole story of Cromwell dramatically; and so he occasionally gives us a chorus. The second act thus opens:– “Now, gentlemen, imagine that young Cromwell's In Antwerp, leiger for the English merchants; And Banister, to shun this Bagot's hate, Hearing that he hath got some of his debts, Is fled to Antwerp, with his wife and children; Which Bagot hearing is gone after them, And thither sends his bills of debt before, To be revenged on wretched Banister. What doth fall out, with patience sit and see, A just requital of false treachery.”
Cromwell has nothing to do with this “just ||
requital of false treachery,”—which requital consists in the usurer being arrested for purchasing the king's stolen jewels. Cromwell gets as tired of keeping accounts as he previously was of the din of his father's smithy; so all in a moment he throws up his commission and sets off upon his travels to Italy, having very opportunely met in Antwerp with Hodge, his father's man. And so we get through the second act. In the third act the capricious lad and his servant are standing penniless upon the bridge at Florence, and their immediate necessities are relieved by the generous Italian merchant who was succouring the distress of the Englishman in the first act. Cromwell is always moving; and he sets off for Bononia, where he rescues, by a stratagem, Russell the Earl of Bedford from the agents of the French king. We have the chorus again in the middle of the act:
“Thus far you see how Cromwell's fortune pass'd.
The Earl of Bedford, being safe in Mantua,