Изображения страниц

bursts of battle-poetry exceeding in sublimity anything in Henry V.; but that is chiefly because they are penetrated with a dramatic passion for which in. Henry V. there was simply no room. The subject was epic, and Shakespeare fell back upon the epic poet's method. No scene in the drama paints so vividly as a few lines in the Chorus the transforming spell of the master presence, which made the handful of worn-out men a weapon of adamant against the serried ranks of chivalry :

A largess universal like the sun

His liberal eye doth give to every one,
Thawing cold fear, that mean and gentle all
Behold, as may unworthiness define,

A little touch of Harry in the night.

Henry's own character is devoid of strictly dramatic elements. It derives none of its extraordinary fascination from inner conflict. He is at one with himself. Even the inherited sin of his house, so burdensome to his father, passes completely into the background. In none of the Histories does it play so slight a part. His naïve faith in his right to France is perplexed by no scruple about his right to England. Mortimer, the legitimate heir, is never mentioned; and the conspiracy of Cambridge and Scroop and Grey on his behalf is credited to the gold of the French king.1 Before Agincourt Henry prays that the guilt of his father's usurpation may not that day be visited upon him; but his fervour is not troubled like Claudius' by any suspicion that he ought to resign the usurped throne. Not only is there no foreboding of the tragic


1 Shakespeare's hints darkly at an ulterior purpose in II. 155-157:—

For me, the gold of France did not seduce;

Although I did admit it as a motive

The sooner to effect what I intended.

In reality, Mortimer himself appears to have betrayed the plot to Henry. S. Remy's Mémoires, cit. Stone's Holinshed, p. 174.

Nemesis which the authors of Henry VI. read in the impending ruin of the house of Lancaster; we move in a world in which tragic Nemesis has no place, and another, more Shakespearean, conception of human affairs controls the action. Henry is not irrevocably bound by the guilt of his ancestors: his sheer soundness and strength of character emancipate him at once from the inherited taint and the paralysing selfdistrust; if ruin follows in the next reign, it is not the guilt of the dead but the weakness of the living that brings it on.

All the other characters serve in their degree to set off the king's; but none are even distantly his rivals. The English commanders, the prelates, the traitor nobles, are slightly sketched, and either implicitly fall in with or but faintly disturb the onward sweep of Henry's course. The conspiracy of Cambridge and Scroop was in reality a dangerous symptom of distrust: a dramatist bent upon plot-interest would have made us tremble for the king's life. Shakespeare announces it with a quiet assurance that there is no danger, for all is known, and the conspirators themselves hasten to deprecate any further anxiety by expressing their heart-felt penitence. The whole episode serves simply to exhibit Henry's bearing as man and king,-the stern Roman fortitüde humanised with Germanic pity and regret-when discharging the duty of sentencing an old comrade and friend. to death.

The one formidable rival of the king is no single figure, but the 'bad neighbour' at whom he dashes. his little force, the assembled power of France. And the French are drawn collectively, in slightly modulated shades of the same conventional hue. The brush which had painted the rival of Henry's youth, now dashes off with far less care and delicacy the foes of


his manhood. The vapouring chivalry, the fantastic self-conceit which so fatally alloyed Hotspur's sturdy Saxon strength, reappear with more of blatant flourish in men of finer wit but weaker fibre. The Dauphin, less original than Hotspur, but without a spark of his real heroism, misconstrues Henry as completely; and Shakespeare plays with visible pleasure upon the tennis-ball motive which he found in Holinshed. He makes the English envoys to the French camp deliver a special message of scorn to the Dauphin (ii. 4. 110 f.); and the Dauphin, in spite of history and his father's orders, figures in the French camp at Agincourt. But the Dauphin is only an extreme type of the fatuous intoxication which possesses the whole host, and is chiefly responsible for its overthrow. Agincourt is the duel of Shrewsbury, writ large; with the difference that there is here no counterpart to the pathos of the mourning for Hotspur. A few wild curses and cries of rage suffice to sum up the immeasurably greater tragedy of the French rout. And in

the fifth Act the French themselves seem to share in the exultation of England over their own surrender. In painting Henry's own attitude towards the enemy, however, Shakespeare's touch is not quite so firm as when he limned Prince Hal. The speeches before Harfleur to Montjoy, and after the battle, are hardly in keeping with the modesty of true valour which. makes him forbid the display of his bruised helmet and bent sword in the London streets. In his actual treatment of Harfleur he shows a humanity not recorded of the historic Henry, who allowed the town to be sacked. On the other hand, his ferocious slaughter of the prisoners at Agincourt has not a whit


1 Holinshed relates that 'the Dolphin sore desired to have been at the battell, but he was

prohibited by his father' (iii. 552).


more excuse in the play than in the chronicle. And it is hard, lastly, to resist the wonder, as we listen to the bourgeois jocularities of the last Act, that the consummate master of words and of thoughts, who had shown himself so easily equal to every situation of statecraft and war, should become so obviously the bluff, plain soldier in his wooing. In these scenes we return within a measurable distance of The Famous Victories, where Henry approaches the French princess with

How saiest thou, Kate, canst thou love the King of England? Kate. How should I love thee, which is my father's enemy? Hen. Tut, stand not upon these points,

'Tis you must make us friends.

I know, Kate, thou art not a little proud that I love thee?

No such inequality marks his bearing to his own men. The group of English soldiery in the foreground are, after Henry, by far the most detailed figures, and altogether Shakespeare's creation. They provide a new Eastcheap in which the king indulges the humanities, without the riots, of the old; and one which, in its relation to the old, gives us a subtle measure of the king's relation to his past. Pistol and Bardolph, the old victims of Falstaff's wit, reappear in their disreputable decay with a congenial third, Nym; but Bardolph promptly falls a victim to Henry's insistence on honour and discipline, and Pistol's moment of hollow triumph is but a prelude to his final humiliation; while the Boy, once a promising pupil of Bardolph's, sums up their characteristics at the outset (iij. 2.) with the honest indignation and the merciless candour of youth. Falstaff himself was deliberately excluded, and the omission is the more glaring since the historic Sir John Fastolfe actually

1 The scene between Pistol suggested by The Famous Vicand the French soldier (iv. 4.) is

accompanied the expedition, and, as Shakespeare read in Holinshed, was left by Exeter in charge of Harfleur. But with Falstaff, Shakespeare must have felt, there was no middle way between banishment and the old camaraderie. His powerful personality would have violently disturbed the focus of the play, and threatened the supremacy of Henry. In his place we have Fluellen, a less wonderful, but hardly a less finished, creation of comic genius. Falstaff's humour is a dazzling solvent of truth: Fluellen's a whimsical enforcement of it. Falstaff's finest jests are rooted in dishonour and breach of trust; Fluellen's quaint analogies from ancient history are arguments for valour, discipline, and hero-worship. It was not in irony, we may be sure, that Shakespeare let him compare Harry of Monmouth with Alexander of Macedon; and there is weighty significance in the grotesque 'parallel' by which he supports it, that 'as Alexander killed his friend Cleitus, being in his ales and his cups; so also Harry Monmouth, being in his right wits and his good judgements, turned away the fat knight with the great-belly doublet.'

1 Exeter in the play is first made governor of Harfleur and then found (i., iii. 6) defending the bridge near Agincourt. Can

the discrepancy be due to Fastolfe having originally been introduced and then omitted?

« ПредыдущаяПродолжить »