Pagina-afbeeldingen
PDF
ePub

him the tennis balls has been greatly praised for manliness and modesty; it begins:

“We are glad the Dauphin is so pleasant with us;

His present and your pains we thank you for:
When we have match'd our rackets to these balls,
We will, in France, by God's grace, play a set
Shall strike his father's crown into the hazard.”

The first line is most excellent, but Shakespeare found it in the old play, and the bragging which follows is hardly bettered by the pious imprecation.

Nor does the scene with the conspirators seem to me any better. The soldier-king would not have preached at them for sixty lines before condemning them. Nor would he have sentenced them with this extraordinary mixture of priggishness and pious pity: K. Hen. God quit you in his mercy.

sentence.

Hear your

[ocr errors]

Touching our person seek we no revenge;
But we our kingdom's safety must so tender,
Whose ruin you have sought, that to her laws
We do deliver you.

Get
you

therefore hence,
Poor miserable wretches, to your death,
The task whereof, God of His mercy give
You patience to endure, and true repentance
Of all your dear offences ! ”

This “poor miserable wretches ” would go better with a generous pardon, and such forgiving would be more in Shakespeare's nature. Throughout this play the necessity of speaking through the soldierking embarrasses the poet, and the infusion of the poet's sympathy and emotion makes the puppet ridiculous. Henry's speech before Harfleur has been praised on all hands; not by the professors and critics merely, but by those who deserve attention. Carlyle finds deathless valour in the saying: “Ye, good yeomen, whose limbs were made in England,” and not deathless valour merely, but “noble patriotism »

as well; “ a true English heart breathes, calm and strong through the whole business ... this man (Shakespeare) too had a right stroke in him, had it come to that." I find no valour in it, deathless or otherwise; but the make-believe of valour, the completest proof that valour was absent. Here are the words:

K. Hen. Once more unto the breach, dear friends,

once more; Or close the wall up with our English dead. In

peace there's nothing so becomes a man As modest stillness and humility: But when the blast of war blows in our ears, Then imitate the action of the tiger; Stiffen the sinews, summon up the blood, Disguise fair nature with hard-favour'd rage; Then lend the eye a terrible aspect, Let it pry through the portage of the head Like the brass cannon; let the brow o’erwhelm it As fearfully as doth a galled rock O’erhang and jutty his confounded base.

.

[ocr errors]

'; then

And so on for another twenty lines. Now consider this stuff: first comes the reflection, more suitable to the philosopher than the man of action, “ in peace there's nothing so becomes a man the soldier-king wishes his men to “imitate” the tiger's looks, to “ disguise fair nature,” and “ lend the eye a terrible aspect.” But the man who feels the tiger's rage tries to control the aspect of it: he does not put on the frown-that's Pistol's way. The whole thing is mere poetic description of how an angry man looks and not of how a brave man feels, and that it should have deceived Carlyle, surprises me. The truth is that as soon as Shakespeare has to find, I will not say a magical expression for courage, but even an adequate and worthy expression, he fails absolutely. And is the patriotism in “Ye, good yeomen, whose limbs were made in England” a “noble patriotism”? or is it the simplest, the crudest, the least justifiable form of patriotism? There is a noble patriotism founded on the high and generous things done by men of one's own blood, just as there is the vain and empty self-glorification of “limbs made in England," as if English limbs were better than those made in Timbuctoo.

In the third scene of the fourth act, just before the battle, Henry talks at his best, or rather Shakespeare's best: and we catch the true accent of courage.

Westmoreland wishes

That we now had here
But one ten thousand of those men in England
That do no work to-day!”

but Henry lives on a higher plane:

[ocr errors]

No, my fair cousin:
If we are marked to die, we are enow
To do our country loss; and if to live,
The fewer men the greater share of honour.”

But this high-couraged sentiment is taken almost word for word from Holinshed. The rest of the speech shows us Shakespeare, as a splendid rhetorician, glorifying glory; and now and then the rhetoric is sublimated into poetry:

"We few, we happy few, we band of brothers,

For he to-day that sheds his blood with me
Shall be my brother; be he ne'er so vile,
This day shall gentle his condition.”

Shakespeare's chief ambition about this time was to get a coat of arms for his father, and so gentle his condition. In all the play not one word of praise for the common archers, who won the battle, no mention save of the gentle.

Again and again in Henry V. the dissonance of character between the poet and his soldier-puppet jars upon the ears, and this dissonance is generally characteristic. For example, in the third act Shakespeare, through King Henry, expressly charges his soldiers that “ there be nothing compelled from the villages, nothing taken but paid for, none of the French upbraided or abused in disdainful language; for when lenity and cruelty play for a kingdom, the gentler gamester is the soonest winner.” Wise words, not yet learned even by statesmen; drops of wisdom's life-blood from the heart of gentle Shakespeare. But an act later, when the battle is over, on the mere news that the French have reinforced their scattered men, Henry V., with tears in his eyes for the Duke of York's death, gives orders to kill the prisoners :

Then every soldier kill his prisoners;
Give the word through.”

[ocr errors]

The puppet is not even human: mere wood!

In the fifth act King Henry takes on the voice and nature of buried Hotspur. He woos Katharine exactly as Hotspur talked to his wife: he cannot“ mince” it in love, he tells her, in Hotspur's very words; but is forthright plain; like Hotspur

66

vours

[ocr errors]

he despises verses and dancing; like Hotspur he can brag, too; finds it as “ easy” to conquer kingdoms as to speak French; can vault into his saddle with his armour on his back”; he is no carpet-soldier; he never “ looks in his glass for love of anything he sees there," and to make the likeness complete he disdains those “ fellows of infinite tongue, that can rhyme themselves into ladies' fa

a speaker is but a prater; a rhyme is but a ballad.” But if Shakespeare had had any vital sympathy for soldiers and men of action he would not have degraded Henry V. in this fashion, into a feeble replica of the traditional Hotspur. In those narrow London streets by the river he must have rubbed shoulders with great adventurers; he knew Essex; had bowed to Raleigh at the Court; must have heard of Drake: inclination was lacking, not models. He might even have differentiated between Prince Henry and Hotspur without going outside his history-books; but a most curious point is that he preferred to smooth away their differences and accentuate the likeness. As a mere matter of fact Hotspur was very much older than Prince Henry, for he fought at Otterbourne in 1388, the year of the prince's birth; but Shakespeare purposely and explicitly makes them both youths. The King, speaking of Percy to Prince Henry, says:

“ And being no more in debt to years than thou.”

It would have been wiser, I cannot but think, and more dramatic for Shakespeare to have left the hotheaded Percy as the older man who, in spite of years, is too impatient-quick to look before he leaps, while giving the youthful Prince the calm reflection and impersonal outlook which necessarily belong

« VorigeDoorgaan »