« VorigeDoorgaan »
this play has thus presented to those who were political partisans is a most remarkable testimony to Shakspere's political impartiality. He
appears to us as if he, apart, sat on a hill retired,” elevated far above the temporary opinions of his own age, or of succeeding ages. His business is with universal humanity, and not with a fragment of it. He is, indeed, the poet of a nation in his glowing and genial patriotism, but never the poet of a party. Perhaps, the most eloquent speech in this play is that of Gaunt, beginning
“ This royal throne of kings, this scepter'd isle.” It is full of such praise of our country as, taken apart from the conclusion, might too much pamper the pride of a proud nation. But the profound impartiality of the master-mind comes in at the close of this splendid description, to show us that all these glories must be founded upon just government.
It is in the same lofty spirit of impartiality which governs the general sentiments of this drama that Shakspere has conceived the mixed character of Richard. Sir Joshua Reynolds, in his admirable • Discourses' (a series of compositions which present the example of high criticism upon the art of painting, when the true principles of criticism upon poetry were neglected or misunderstood), has properly reprobated “ the difficulty as well as danger in an endeavour to concentrate in a single subject those various powers, which, rising from different points, naturally move in different directions.” He says, with reference to this subject, “ Art has its boundaries, though imagination has none." Here is the great line of distinction between poetry and painting. Painting must concentrate all its power upon the representation of one action, one expression, in the same person.
range of poetry is as boundless as the diversities of character in the same individual. Sir Joshua Reynolds has, however, properly laughed at those principles of criticism which would even limit the narrow range of pictorial expression to conventional, and therefore hackneyed, forms. He quotes a passage from Du Piles, as an example of the attempt of a false school of criticism to substitute the 66
pompous and laboured insolence of grandeur” for that dignity which, “ seeming to be natural and inherent, draws spontaneous reverence.” “ If you draw persons of high character and dignity" (says Du Piles), “they ought to be drawn in such an attitude that the portraits must seem to speak to us of themselves, and as it were to say to us, “ Stop, take notice of me; I am that invincible king, surrounded by majesty :' " I am that valiant commander who struck terror everywhere:' “I am that
great minister who knew all the springs of politics :' " I am that magistrate of consummate wisdom and probity.' Now, this is absurd enough as regards the painter; but, absurd as it is, in its limited application, it is precisely the same sort of reasoning that the French critics in the time of Voltaire, and the English who caught the infection of their school, applied to the higher range of the art of Shakspere. The criticism of Dr. Johnson, for example, upon the character of Richard II. is, for the most part, a series of such mistakes. He misinterprets Shakspere's delineation of Richard, upon a preconceived theory of his own.
Thus he says, in a note to the second scene in the third act, where Richard for a moment appears resigned
“ To bear the tidings of calamity,” “ It seems to be the design of the poet to raise Richard to esteem in his fall, and, consequently, to interest the reader in his favour. He gives him only passive fortitude, the virtue of a confessor rather than of a king. In his prosperity we saw him imperious and oppressive; but in his distress he is wise, patient, and pious.” Now this is precisely the reverse of Shakspere's representation of Richard. Instead of passive fortitude, we have passionate weakness; and it is that very weakness upon which our pity is founded. Having mistaken Shakspere's purpose in the delineation of Richard in his fall, this able but sometimes prejudiced writer flounders on in a series of carping objections to the language which Richard uses. After Richard has said,
“ Or I 'll be buried in the king's highway,
May hourly trample on their sovereigu's head,”
“ Well, well, I see I talk but idly, and you mock at me.” Now in nothing is the exquisite tact of the poet more shown than in these riots of the imagination in the unhappy king, whose mind was altogether prostrate before the cool and calculating intellect of Bolingbroke. But Johnson, quite in Du Piles' style, here says, , Shakspere is very apt to deviate from the pathetic to the ridicu
Had the speech of Richard ended at this line (May hourly trample on their sovereign's head'), it had exhibited the natural language of submissive misery, conforming its intention to the present fortune, and calmly ending its purposes in death." Now, it is most certain that Shakspere had no intention to exhibit “ the natu
ral language of submissive misery.” Such a purpose would have been utterly foreign to the great ideal truth of his conception of Richard's character. Again, in the interview with the queen,
when Richard says,
« Tell thou the lamentable fall of me,
For why, the senseless brands will sympathize,” &c.Johnson observes, “ The poet should have ended this speech with the foregoing line, and have spared his childish prattle about the fire.” Mr. Monck Mason very innocently remarks upon this comment of Johnson, “ This is certainly childish prattle, but it is of the same stamp with the other speeches of Richard after the landing of Boling broke, which are a strange medley of sense and puerility.” Of course they are so. There are probably no passages of criticism upon Shakspere that more forcibly point out to us, than these of Johnson and his followers do, the absurdity of trying a poet by laws which he had of purpose cast off and spurned. Had Johnson been applying his test of excellence to the conventional kings and heroes of the French stage, and of the English stage of his own day, he might have been nearer the truth. But Shakspere undertook to show us, not only a fallen king, but a fallen man. Richard stands before us in the nakedness of humanity, stripped of the artificial power which made his strength. The props are cut away upon which he leaned. He is,
“ in shape and mind,
Transform d and weaken’d,”— humbled to the lot of the commonest slave, to
“ feel want, taste grief,
Need friends." This is the Richard of our poet. Is it not the Richard of history? We must trespass upon the patience of the reader while we run through the play, that we may properly note the dependence of its events upon
its characters. Froissart has given us the key to two of the most remarkable and seemingly opposite traits of Richard's mind,—cunning and credulity. Speaking of his devising the death of his uncle of Gloster, Froissart says, “ King Richard of England noted well these said words, the which was showed him in secretness; and, like an imaginative prince as he was, within a season after that his uncles of Lancaster and of York were departed out of the court, then the king took more hardiness on him.” Lord Berners, the translator of Froissart, always uses “ imaginative" in the sense of deviceful,
crafty,-following his original. As to the king's credulity, the same accurate observer, who knew the characters of his own days well, thus speaks :-“ King Richard of England had a condition that, if he loved a man, he would make him so great, and so near him, that it was marvel to consider, and no man durst speak to the contrary; and also he would lightly believe sooner than any other king of remembrance before him.” Upon these historical truths is Shakspere’s Richard, in the first scenes of this drama,—the absolute Richard,—founded. But with what skill has Shakspere indicated the evil parts of Richard's character-just as much as, and no more than, is sufficient to qualify our pity for his fall. We learn from Gaunt that Richard was the real cause of Gloster's death ;-the matter is once mentioned, and there an end. We ourselves see his arbitrary bearing in the banishment of Bolingbroke and Norfolk; his moral cowardice in requiring an oath for his own safety from the two enemies that he was at that moment oppressing ; his mean.. ness in taunting Gaunt with his “
party-verdict as to his son's banishment; his levity in mitigating the sentence after it had been solemnly delivered. After this scene we have an exhibition of his cold-hearted rapacity in wishing for the death of Gaunt :
“ Now put it, Heaven, in his physician's mind
To help him to his grave immediately!
To deck our soldiers for these Irish wars." This prepares us for the just reproaches of his dying uncle in the next act;—when the dissembling king is moved from his craft to an exhibition of childish passion toward the stern but now powerless Gaunt, before whom he had trembled till he saw him on a deathbed. The
“ make pale our cheek was not a random expression. The king again speaks in this way when he hears of the defection of the Welsh under Salisbury :
“ Have I not reason to look pale and dead ?" Richard, who was of a ruddy complexion, exhibited in his cheeks the internal workings of fear or rage. This was a part of his weakness of character. The writer of the "Metrical History' twice notices the peculiarity. When the king received a defying message from the Irish chieftain, the French knight, who was present, says, “ This speech was not agreeable to the king; it appeared to me that his face grew pale with anger.” When he heard of the landing of Bolingbroke, the writer again says, 66 It seemed to me that the
king's face at this turned pale with anger.” Richard's indignation at the reproaches of Gaunt is, at once, brutal and childish :
“ And let them die that age and sullens have.” Then comes the final act of despotism, which was to be his ruin :
“ We do seize to us The plate, coin, revenues, and moveables,
Whereof our uncle Gaunt did stand possess'd.” He is amazed that York is indignant at this outrage. He is deaf to the prophetic denunciation,
“ You pluck a thousand dangers on your head.” Still, Shakspere keeps us from the point to which he might have led us, of unmitigated contempt towards Richard ;—to make us hate him was no part of his purpose.
We know that the charges of the discontented nobles against him are just ;—we almost wish success to their enterprise; but we are most skilfully held back from discovering so much of Richard's character as would have disqualified us from sympathising in his fall. It is highly probable, too, that Shakspere abstained from painting the actual king as an object to be despised, while he stood as “the symbolic, or representative, on which all genial law, no less than patriotism, de
The poet does not hesitate, when the time is past for reverencing the king or compassionating the man, to speak of Richard, by the mouth of Henry IV., with that contempt which his weakness and his frivolities would naturally excite :-
“ The skipping king, he ambled up and down
To laugh at gibing boys," &c.—(Henry IV. Part 1.)
of the speakers - in Richard II. ;' and the poetical reason for this appears obvious. Yet it is perfectly true, historically, that Richard “carded his state” by indiscriminately mixing with all sorts of favourites, who used the most degrading freedoms towards him.
Bolingbroke (then Henry IV.) thus describes himself to his
66 And then I stole all courtesy from heaven,
And ssd myself in such humility,