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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 conic 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, original, 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 gaiety; 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.
THE FABLE AND COMPOSITION
KING HENRY V.
This play was writ (as appears from a passage in the chorus to the fifth act) at the time of the earl of Essex's commanding the forces in Ireland in the reign of Queen Elizabeth, and not till after Henry the Sixth had been played, as may be seen by the conclusion of this play.
Pope. The transactions comprised in this historical 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
THEOBALD. This play, in the quarto edition, 1608, is styled The Chronicle History of Henry &c. which seems to have been the title anciently appropriated to all Shakspeare's historical dramas. So, in The Antipodes, a comedy, by R. Brome, 1638:
" These lads can act the emperors' lives all over,
“ And Shakspeare's Chronicled Histories to boot.” The players likewise in the folio edition, 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 Pierce Penniless his Supplication to the Devil, dated 1592, says : what a glorious thing it is to have Henry the Fift represented on the stage, leading the VOL, IV.
French king prisoner, and forcing both him and the Dolphin to sweare fealtie."
STEEVENS. The piece to which Nash alludes, is the old anonymous play of King Henry V. which had been exhibited before the year 1580, Tarlton, the comedian, who performed in it both the parts of the Chief Justice and the Clown, having died in that year. It was entered on the Stationers' books in 1594, and, I believe, printed in that year, though I have not met with a copy of that date. An edition of it, printed in 1598, was in the valuable collection of Dr. Wright.
The play before us appears to have been written in the middle of the year 1599.
The old King Henry V. may be found among Six old Plays on which Shakspeare founded, &c. printed for S. Leacroft, 1778.
MALONE. This play has many scenes of high dignity, and many of easy merriment. The character of the king is well supported, except in his courtship, where he has neither the vivacity of Hal, nor the grandeur of Henry. The humour of Pistol is very happily continued : his character has perhaps been the model of all the bullies that have yet appeared on the English stage.
The lines given to the Chorus have many admirers; but the truth is, that in them a little may be praised, and much must be forgiven; nor can it be easily discovered why the intelligence given by the Chorus is more necessary in this play than in many others where it is omitted. The great defect of this play is the emptiness and narrowness of the last act, which a very little diligence might have easily avoided,