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MARCH, 1903


"King Richard II."



T is a truth more curious than difficult to verify that there was a time when the greatest genius ever known among the sons of men was uncertain of the future and unsure of the task before it; when the one unequalled and unapproachable master of the one supreme art which implies and includes the mastery of the one supreme science perceptible and accessible by man stood hesitating between the impulsive instinct for dramatic poetry, the crown and consummation of all philosophies, the living incarnation of creative and intelligent godhead, and the facile seduction of elegiac and idyllic verse, of meditative and uncreative song: between the music of Orpheus and the music of Tibullus. The legendary choice of Hercules was of less moment than the actual choice of Shakespeare between the influence of Robert Greene and the influence of Christopher Marlowe.

The point of most interest in the tragedy or history of King Richard II. is the obvious evidence which it gives of the struggle between the worse and the better genius of its author. ""Tis now full tide 'tween night and day." The author of Selimus and Andronicus is visibly contending with the author of Faustus and Edward II. for the mastery of

Copyright, 1903, by Harper and Brothers. All rights reserved

Shakespeare's poetic and dramatic adolescence. Already the bitter hatred which was soon to vent itself in the raging rancor of his dying utterance must have been kindled in the unhappy heart of Greene by comparison of his original work with the few lines, or possibly the scene or two, in his unlovely though not unsuccessful tragedy of Titus Andronicus, which had been retouched or supplied by Shakespeare; whose marvellous power of transfiguration in the act of imitation was never overmatched in any early work of a Raffaelle while yet the disciple of a Perugino. There are six lines in that discomfortable play which can only have been written, if any trust may be put in the evidence of intelligent comparison, by Shakespeare; and yet they are undoubtedly in the style of Greene, who could only have written them if the spirit of Shakespeare had passed into him for five minutes or so: King, be thy thoughts imperious, like thy


Is the sun dimmed that gnats do fly in it? The eagle suffers little birds to sing,

And is not careful what they mean


Knowing that with the shadow of his wing He can at pleasure stint their melody. There is nothing so fine as that in the

Copyright, 1903, by Algernon Charles Swinburne

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elegiac or rhyming scenes or passages of King Richard II. And yet it is not glaringly out of place among the sottes monstruosités - if I may borrow phrase applied by Michelet to a more recent literary creation of the crazy and chaotic tragedy in which a writer of gentle and idyllic genius attempted to play the part which his friend Marlowe and their supplanter Shakespeare were born to originate and to sustain. To use yet another and a most admirable French phrase, the author of Titus Andronicus is evidently a mouton enragé. The mad sheep who has broken the bounds of his pastoral sheepfold has only, in his own opinion, to assume the skin of a wolf, and the tragic stage must acknowledge him as a lion. Greene, in his best works of prose fiction and in his lyric and elegiac idyls, is as surely the purest and gentlest of writers as he was the most reckless and disreputable of men. And when ambition or hunger lured or lashed him into the alien field of tragic poetry, his first and last notion of the work in hand was simply to revel and wallow in horrors after the fashion, by no means of a wild boar, but merely of a wether gone distracted.

Nevertheless, the influence of this unlucky trespasser on tragedy is too obvious in too much of the text of King Richard II. to be either questioned or overlooked. Coleridge, whose ignorance of Shakespeare's predecessors was apparently as absolute as it is assuredly astonishing in the friend of Lamb, has attempted by supersubtle advocacy to explain and excuse, if not to justify and glorify, the crudities and incongruities of dramatic conception and poetic execution which signalize this play as unmistakably the author's first attempt at historic drama: it would perhaps be more exactly accurate to say, at dramatic history. But they are almost as evident as the equally wonderful and youthful genius of the poet. The grasp of character is uncertain: the exposition of event is inadequate. The reader or spectator unversed in the byways of history has to guess at what has already happened-how, why, when, where, and by whom the prince whose murder is the matter in debate at the opening of the play has been murdered. He gets so little help or light from the

poet that he can only guess at random, with blind assumption or purblind hesitation, what may be the right or wrong of the case which is not even set before him. The scolding-match between Bolingbroke and Mowbray, fine in their primitive way as are the last two speeches of the latter declaimer, is liker the work of a pre-Marlowite than the work of Marlowe's disciple. The whole scene is merely literary, if not purely academic: and the seemingly casual interchange of rhyme and blank verse is more wayward and fitful than even in Romeo and Juliet. That the finest passage is in rhyme, and is given to a character about to vanish from the action of the play, is another sign of poetical and intellectual immaturity. The second scene has in it a breath of true passion and a touch of true pathos: but even if the subject had been more duly and definitely explained, it would still have been comparatively wanting in depth of natural passion and pungency of natural pathos. The third scene, full of beautifully fluent and plentifully inefficient writing, reveals the protagonist of the play as so pitifully mean and cruel a weakling that no future action or suffering can lift him above the level which divides and purifies pity from contempt. And this, if mortal manhood may venture to pass judgment on immortal godhead, I must say that Shakespeare does not seem to me to have seen. The theatrical trickery which masks and reveals the callous cruelty and the heartless hypocrisy of the histrionic young tyrant is enough to remove him once for all beyond reach of manly sympathy or compassion unqualified by scorn. can ever be sorry for anything that befalls so vile a sample of royalty, our sorrow must be so diluted and adulterated by recollection of his wickedness and baseness that its tribute could hardly be acceptable to any but the most pitiable example or exception of mankind. But this is not enough for the relentless persistence in spiritual vivisection that seems to guide and animate the poet's manipulation and evolution of a character which at once excites a contempt and hatred only to be superseded by the loathing and abhorrence aroused at thought of the dastardly ruffian by the death-bed of his father's noble and venerable brother.

If we


Copyright, 1903, by Harper and Brothers.


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The magnificent poetry which glorifies the opening scene of the second act, however dramatically appropriate and effective in its way, is yet so exuberant in lyric and elegiac eloquence that readers or spectators may conceivably have thought the young Shakespeare less richly endowed by nature as a dramatist than as a poet. It is not of the speaker or the hearer that we think as we read the most passionate panegyric on his country ever set to hymnal harmonies by the greatest of patriotic poets but Aeschylus alone: it is simply of England and of Shakespeare.

The bitter prolongation of the play upon words which answers the half-hearted if not heartless inquiry, "How is't with aged Gaunt?" is a more dramatic touch of homelier and nearer nature to which Coleridge has done no more than exact justice in his admirable comment:-"A passion there is that carries off its own excess by plays on words as naturally, and therefore as appropriately to drama, as by gesticulations, looks, or tones." And the one thoroughly noble and nobly coherent figure in the poem disappears as with a thunderclap or the sound of a trumpet calling to judgment a soul too dull in its baseness, too decrepit in its degradation, to hear or understand the summons.

in the kinsman who could inspire and retain such constancy of regard in a spirit so much manlier than his own. But the figure is too roughly and too thinly sketched to be thoroughly memorable as a man's: and his father's is an incomparable, an incredible, an unintelligible and a monstrous nullity. Coleridge's attempt to justify the ways of York to man

to any man of common sense and common sentiment-is as amusing in Coleridge as it would be amazing in any other and therefore in any lesser commentator.

In the scene at Windsor Castle between the queen and her husband's minions the idyllic or elegiac style again supplants and supersedes the comparatively terse and dramatic manner of dialogue between the noblemen whom we have just seen lashed into disgust and goaded into revolt by the villainy and brutality of the rascal king. The dialogue is beautiful and fanciful: it makes a very pretty eclogue: none other among the countless writers of Elizabethan eclogues could have equalled it. But if we look for anything more or for anything higher than this, we must look elsewhere: and we shall not look in vain if we turn to the author of Edward the Second. When the wretched York creeps in, we have undoubtedly such a living and drivelling picture of hysterical impotence on the downward.

Live in thy shame, but die not shame with grade to dotage and distraction as none


These words hereafter thy tormentors be!

But the poor mean spirit of the hearer is too narrow and too shallow to feel the torment which a nobler soul in its adversity would have recognized by the revelation of remorse.

With the passing of John of Gaunt the moral grandeur of the poem passes finally away. Whatever of interest we may feel in any of the surviving figures is transitory, intermittent, and always qualified by a sense of ethical inconsistency and intellectual inferiority. There is not a man among them: unless it be the Bishop of Carlisle: and he does but flash across the action for an ineffectual instant. There is often something attractive in Aumerle: indeed, his dauntless and devoted affection for the king makes us sometimes feel as though there must be something not unpitiable or unlovable

but Shakespeare could have painted. When Bolingbroke reappears and Harry Percy appears on the stage of the poet who has bestowed on him a generous portion from the inexhaustible treasure of his own immortal life, we find ourselves again among men, and are comforted and refreshed by the change. The miserable old regent's histrionic attempt to play the king and rebuke the rebel is so admirably pitiful that his last unnatural and monstrous appearance in the action of the play might possibly be explained or excused on the score of dotage-an active and feverish fit of impassioned and demented dotage.

The inspired effeminacy and the fanciful puerility which dunces attribute to the typical character of a representative poet never found such graceful utterance as the greatest of poets has given to the unmanliest of his creatures when Richard lands in Wales. Coleridge credits the

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