« PreviousContinue »
SPOKEN BY A DANCER.
First, my fear; then, my court'sy; last, my speech. My fear is, your displeasure; my court'sy, my duty; and my speech, to beg your pardons. If you look for a good speech now, you undo me; for what I have to say, is of mine own making ; and what, indeed, I should say, will, I doubt, prove mine own marring. But to the purpose, and so to the venture.—Be it known to you, (as it is very well,) I was lately here in the end of a displeasing play, to pray your patience for it, and to promise you a better. I did mean, indeed, to pay you with this; which, if, like an ill venture, it come unluckily home, I break, and you, my gentle creditors, lose. Here, I promised you, I would be, and here I commit my body to your mercies: bate me some, and I will pay you some, and, as most debtors do, promise you infinitely.
If my tongue cannot entreat you to acquit me, will you command me to use my legs? and yet that were but light payment,—to dance out of your debt. But a good conscience will make any possible satisfaction, and so will I. All the gentlewomen here have forgiven me; if the gentlemen will not, then the gentlemen do not agree with the gentlewomen, which was never seen before in such an assembly.
One word more, I beseech you. If you be not too much cloyed with fat meat, our humble author will continue the story, with sir John in it, and make you merry with fair Katharine of France; where, for any thing I know, Falstaff shall die of a sweat, unless already he be killed with your hard opinions; for Oldcastle died a martyr, and this is not the man. tongue is weary; when my legs are too, I will bid you good night: and so kneel down before you :—but, indeed, to pray for the queen.
" 1 Most of the ancient interludes conclude with a prayer for the king or queen. Hence, perhaps, the Vivant Rex et Regina, at the bottom of our modern play bills.
I FANCY every reader, when he ends this play, cries out with Desdemona, “O most lame and impotent conclusion!” As this play was not, to our knowledge, divided into acts by the author, I could be content to conclude it with the death of Henry the Fourth :
“In that Jerusalem shall Harry die." These scenes, which now make the fifth act of Henry the Fourth, might then be the first of Henry the Fifth; but the truth is, that they do not unite very commodiously to either play. When these plays were represented, I believe they ended as they are now ended in the books; but Shakspeare seems to have designed that the whole series of action, from the beginning of Richard the Second to the end of Henry the Fifth, should be considered by the reader as one work upon one plan, only broken into parts by the necessity of exhibition.
None of Shakspeare'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 comic and tragic 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. The character is great, origina! and just.
Percy is a rugged soldier, choleric 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 a 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 gayety ; 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.
KING HENRY THE FIFTH.
The transactions comprised in this play commence about the latter end of the first, and terminate in the eighth year of this king's reign; when he married Katharine, princess of France, and closed up the differences betwixt England and that crown.
This play, in the quarto edition of 1608, is styled The Chronicle History of Henry, &c., which seems to have been the title appropriated to all Shakspeare's historical dramas. Thus in The Antipodes, a comedy by R. Brome :
“These lads can act the emperor's lives all over,
And Shakspeare's Chronicled Histories to boot.” The players, likewise, in the folio of 1623, rank these pieces under the title of Histories.
It is evident that a play on this subject had been performed before the year 1592. Nash, in his Pierce Penniless, dated in that year, says, “What a glorious thing it is to have Henry the Fift represented on the stage, leading the French king prisoner, and forcing both him and the Dolphin to sweare fealtie!” Perhaps this same play was thus entered on the books of the Stationers' Company :“Thomas Strode) May 2, 1594. A booke entituled The famous Victories of Henry the Fift, containing the honourable Battle of Agincourt.” There are two more entries of a play of King Henry V., viz. between 1596 and 1615, and one August 14, 1600. Malone had an edition printed in 1598; and Steevens had two copies of this play, one without date, and the other dated 1617, both printed by Bernard Alsop: from one of these it was reprinted, in 1778, among “Six Old Plays on which Shakspeare founded,” &c., published by Mr. Nichols. It is thought that this piece is prior to Shakspeare's King Henry V., and that it is the very “displeasing play" alluded to in the epilogue to the Second Part of King Henry IV., "for Oldcastle died a martyr,” &c. Oldcastle is the Falstaff of the piece, which is despicable, and full of ribaldry and impiety. Shakspeare seems to have taken not a few hints from it; for it comprehends, in some measure, the story of the two parts of King Henry IV. as well as of King Henry V.; and no ignorance could debase the gold of Shakspeare into such dross, though no chemistry, but that of Shakspeare, could exalt such base metal into gold. This piece must have been performed before the year 1588, Tarlton, the comedian, who played both the parts of the chief justice and the clown in it, having died in that year.
This anonymous play of King Henry V. is neither divided into acts or scenes, is uncommonly short, and has all the appearance of having been imperfectly taken down during the representation.