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FIRST AND SECOND PARTS OF KING HENRY IV.
“NONE of Shakespeare's plays are more read than the First and Second Parts of Henry the Fourth. Perhaps no author has ever in two plays afforded so much delight. The great events are interesting, for the fate of kingdoms depends upon them; the slighter occurrences are diverting, and, except one or two, sufficiently probable: the incidents are multiplied with wonderful fertility of invention, and the characters diversified with the utmost nicety of discernment, and the profoundest skill in the nature of man.
“ The prince, who is the hero both of the comick and tragick part, is a young man of great abilities and violent passions, whose sentiments are right, though his actions are wrong ; whose virtues are obscured by negligence, and whose understanding is dissipated by levity. In his idle hours he is rather loose than wicked ; and when the occasion forces out his latent qualities, he is great without effort, and brave without tumult. The trifler is roused into a hero, and the hero again reposes in the trifler. This character is great, original, and just.
“Percy is a rugged soldier, cholerick, and quarrelsome, and has only the soldier's virtues, generosity and courage.
“But Falstaff, unimitated, unimitable Falstaff, how shall I describe thee? Thou compound of sense and vice ; of sense which may be admired, but not esteemed; of vice which may be despised, but hardly detested. Falstaff is & character loaded with faults, and with those faults which naturally produce contempt. He is a thief and a glutton, a coward and a boaster, always ready to cheat the weak, and prey upon the poor; to terrify the timorous, and insult the defenceless. At once obsequious and malignant, he satirizes in their absence those whom he lives by flattering. He is familiar with the prince only as an agent of vice, but of this familiarity he is so proud, as not only to be supercilious and haughty with common men, but to think his interest of importance to the duke of Lancaster. Yet the man thus corrupt, thus despicable, makes himself necessary to the prince that despises him, by the most pleasing of all qualities, perpetual gaiety; by an unfailing power of exciting laughter, which is the more freely indulged, as his wit is not of the splendid or ambitious kind, but consists in easy scapes and sallies of levity, which make sport, but raise no envy. It must be observed, that he is stained with no enormous or sanguinary crimes, so that his licentiousness is not so offensive but that it may be borne for his mirth.
“ The moral to be drawn from this representation is, that no man is more dangerous than he that, with a will to corrupt, hath the power to please ; and that neither wit nor honesty ought to think themselves safe with such a companion, when they see Henry seduced by Falstaff.”—JOHNSON.
“ The first part of Henry the Fourth is particularly brilliant in the serious scenes, from the contrast between two young heroes, Prince Henry and Percy (with the characteristical name of Hotspur). All the amiability and attractiveness is certainly on the side of the prince: however familiar he makes himself with bad company, we can never mistake him for one of them: the ignoble does indeed touch, but it does not contaminate him ; and his wildest freaks appear merely as witty tricks, by which his restless mind sought to burst through the inactivity to which he was constrained, for on the first occasion which wakes him out of his unruly levity he distinguishes himself without effort in the most chivalrous guise. Percy's boisterous valour is not without a mixture of rude manners, arrogance, and boyish obstinacy; but these errors, which prepare for him an early death, cannot disfigure the majestic image of his noble youth; we are carried away by his fiery spirit at the very moment we would most censure it. Shakspeare has admirably shown why so formidable a revolt against an unpopular and really an illegitimate prince was not attended with success : Glendower's superstitious fancies respecting himself, the effeminacy of the young Mortimer, the ungovernable disposition of Percy, who will listen to no prudent counsel, the irresolution of his older friends, the want of unity of plan and motive, are all characterized by delicate but unmistakable traits. After Percy has departed from the scene, the splendour of the enterprise is, it is true, at an end ; there remain none but the subordinate participators in the revolts, who are reduced by Henry IV., more by policy than by warlike achievements. To overcome this dearth of matter, Shakspeare was in the Second Part obliged to employ great art, as he never allowed himself to adorn history with more arbitrary embellishments than the dramatic form rendered indispensable. The piece is opened by confused rumours from the field of battle: the powerful impression produced by Percy's fall, whose name and reputation were peculiarly adapted to be the watchword of a bold enterprise, make him in some degree an acting personage after his death. The last acts are occupied with the dying king's remorse of conscience, his uneasiness at the behaviour of the prince, and lastly, the clearing up of the misunderstanding between father and son, which make up several most affecting scenes. All this, however, would still be inadequate to fill the stage, if the serious events were not interrupted by a comedy which runs through both parts of the play, which is enriched from time to time with new figures, and which first comes to its catastrophe at the conclusion of the whole, namely, when Henry V., immediately after ascending the throne, banishes to a proper distance the companions of his youthful excesses, who had promised to themselves a rich harvest from his kingly favour.
“ Falstaff is the crown of Shakspeare's comic invention. He has, without exhausting himself, continued this character throughout three plays, and exhibited him in every variety of situation; the figure is drawn so definitely and individually, that even to the mere reader it conveys the clear impression of personal acquaintance. Falstaff is the most agreeable and entertaining knave that ever was portrayed. His contemptible qualities are not disguised: old, lecherous, and dissolute; corpulent beyond measure, and always intent upon cherishing his body with eating, drinking, and sleeping ; constantly in debt, and anything but conscientious in his choice of means by which money is to be raised; a cowardly soldier, and a lying braggart; a flatterer of his friends before their face, and a satirist behind their backs; and yet we are never disgusted with him. We see that his tender care of himself is without any mixture of malice towards others; he will only not be disturbed in the pleasant repose of his sensuality, and this he obtains through the activity of his understanding. Always on the alert, and good-humoured, ever ready to crack jokes on others, and to enter into those of which he is himself the subject, so that he justly boasts he is not only witty himself, but the cause of wit in others, he is an admirable companion for youthful idleness and levity. Under a helpless exterior, he conceals an extremely acute mind; he has always at command some dexterous turn whenever any of his free jokes begin to give displeasure ; he is shrewd in his distinctions, between those whose favour he has to win and those over whom he may assume a familiar authority. He is so convinced that the part which he plays can only pass under the cloak of wit, that even when alone he is never altogether serious, but gives the drollest colouring to his love-intrigues, his intercourse with others, and to his own sensual philosophy. Witness his inimitable soliloquies on honour, on the influence of wine on bravery, his descriptions of the beggarly vagabonds whom he enlisted, of Justice Shallow, &c. Falstaff has about him a whole court of amusing caricatures, who by turns make their appearance, without ever throwing him into the shade. The adventure, in which the Prince, under the disguise of a robber, compels him to give up the spoil which he had just taken; the scene where the two act the part of the King and the Prince; Falstaff's behaviour in the field, his mode of raising recruits, his patronage of Justice Shallow, which afterwards takes such an unfortunate turn :-all this forms a series of characteristic scenes of the most original description, full of pleasantry, and replete with nice and ingenious observation, such as could only find a place in a historical play like the present."-SCHLEGEL.
MERRY WIVES OF WINDSOR.
PRELIMINARY NOTICE. “A Most pleasaunt and excellent conceited Comedie, of Syr Iohn Falstaffe, and the merrie Wives of Windsor. Entermixed with sundrie variable and pleasing humors, of Syr Hugh the Welch Knight, Iustice Shallow, and his wise Cousin M. Slender. With the swaggering vaine of Auncient Pistoll, and Corporall Nym. By William Shakespeare. As it hath bene diuers times Acted by the right Honorable my Lord Chamberlaines seruants. Both before her Maiestie, and else-where. London: Printed by T. C. for Arthur Iohnson, and are to be sold at his shop in Powles Church-yard, at the signe of the Flower de Leuse and the Crowne, 1602.” Such is the title of the earliest edition of this play, the entry of which on the Registers of the Stationers' Company is as follows:
“ 18 Jan., 1601–2.
“John Busby.] An excellent and pleasant conceited Commedie of Sir John Faulstof, and the Merry Wyves of Windesor.
“Arth. Johnson.] By assignement from John Busbye a book, An excellent and pleasant conceited comedie of Sir John Faulstafe and the merry wyves of Windsor."
A second edition of this quarto was published by Arthur Johnson, in 1619:—"A most pleasant and excellent conceited Comedy, of Sir John Falstaffe and the Merry Wives of Windsor. With the swaggering vaine of Ancient Pistoll and Corporall Nym. Written by W. Shakespeare.” Of the original version of the Merry Wives of Windsor, Mr. Collier says,
"It has been universally admitted that the 4to, 1602, was piratical, and our conviction is, that like the first edition of Henry IV.,' in 1600, it was made up, for the purpose of sale, partly from notes taken at the theatre, and partly from memory, without even the assistance of any of the parts as delivered by the copyist of the theatre to the actors.”
Mr. Halliwell and Mr. Knight take a very different view of this edition, which, with the earlier editors, they conceive to have been a transcript of the play as first produced, and the basis of the complete and admirable Comedy as it stands in the folio of 1623. With this opinion most people who have well examined the quarto, 1602, will probably concur, though few we apprehend are likely to agree with these gentlemen in assigning it to a period as early as 1592, upon so slender a foundation as the supposed connexion between the visit of the Duke of Würtenburg to England in that year, and the imposition practised upon the Host of the Garter by some German travellers. If any allusion to a visitor received by the Court with so much distinction, were intended, an offensive one would hardly have been ventured during the life-time of the Queen. Another forbidding consideration to this theory is, its involving the conclusion that “ The Merry Wives of Windsor” was written and acted before even the First Part of “Henry IV.," and that the fat humorist, whose love adventures afford so much entertainment, was Oldcastle, and not Falstaff. But the most serious objection to it is, that it strikes at the root of the long-cherished tradition, of Elizabeth being so well pleased with the Falstaff of “Henry IV.,” that she commanded a play to be written, in which the knight should be exhibited in love, and was so eager to see it acted, that she directed it should be finished in fourteen days. We can by no means afford to part with this tradition: it accounts for the many evidences of haste observable in the first draft of the piece, and reconciles all the difficulties which are experienced in attempting to determine whether the incidents are to be taken as occurring before the historical plays of “Henry IV.,” Parts I. and II., and “Henry V.," or between any two of them, or after the whole. The title of the original sketch, “Syr John Falstaff,” &c., the “Merry Wives" being at first considered subordinate attractions only, and the delineation of Falstaff and his satellites, both in that and in the finished version, are to us conclusive as to these characters being old favourites with the public; and if we accept the pleasant tradition of their revival at the bidding of the Queen, there need be no hesitation in receiving them “without regard to their situations and catastrophes in former plays.”
An excellent reprint of the first edition of “The Merry Wives of Windsor," was made by Mr. Halliwell for the Shakespeare Society in 1842, in the appendix to which he has given the tales from which a few of the incidents in this comedy are thought to be derived. These consist, I. of a story from “Le tredici piacevoli notti del S. Gio. Francesco Straparola,” 870. Vineg. 1569, vol. i. fol. 47. II. A tale from “Il Pecorone di Ser Giovanni Fiorentino,” 4to. Trevig. 1640, fol. 7. III. A story from a scarce collection of early English tales, entitled “The Fortunate, the Deceived, and the Unfortunate Lovers,” 4to. Lond. 1632. IV. Another