Page images
PDF
EPUB

may vie with any thing that Shakspeare has produced ; namely, the scene between John and Hubert, and that between Hubert and Arthur. The former, where the usurper obscurely intimates to Hubert his bloody wishes, is conducted in so masterly a manner, that we behold the dark and turbulent soul of John lying naked before us in all its deformity, and shrinking with fear even from the enunciation of its own vile purpose; “ it is one of the scenes," as Mr. Steevens has well observed, “ to which may be promised a lasting commendation. Art could add little to its perfection ; and time itself can take nothing from its beauties.” *

The scene with Hubert and the executioners, where the hapless Arthur supplicates for mercy, almost lacerates the heart itself; and is only rendered supportable by the tender and alleviating impression which the sweet innocence and artless eloquence of the poor child fix with indelible influence on the mind. Well may

Well may it be said, in the language of our poet, that he who can behold this scene without the gushing tribute of a tear,

“ Is fit for treasons, stratagems, and spoils ; —

Let no such man be trusted.”

As for the character of John, which, from its meanness and imbecillity, seems not well calculated for dramatic representation, Shakspeare has contrived, towards the close of the drama, to excite in his behalf some degree of interest and commiseration ; especially in the dying scene, where the fallen monarchi, in answer to the enquiry of his son as to the state of his feelings, mournfully exclaims, –

[blocks in formation]

17. All's Well that Ends WELL: 1598. There does not appear any sufficient reason for altering the date assigned to this play by Mr. Malone, whom we have, therefore, followed in preference to Mr. Chalmers, who has fixed on the succeeding year; a decision to

* Reed's Shakspeare, vol. x. p. 447. note 9.

*

which we have been particularly induced, independent of other circumstances, by the apparent notice of this drama by Meres, under the title of Love's Labour's Wonne, an appellation which very accurately applies to this, but to no other of our author's productions with any similar degree of pertinency. We have reason, therefore, to

. conclude, as nothing has hitherto been brought forward to invalidate the assumption, that Meres's title was the original designation of this comedy, and was intended by the poet as a counter-title to Love's Labour's Lost. What induced him to dismiss the first, and to adopt the present proverbial appellation, cannot positively be ascertained; but the probability is, as Mr. Malone has remarked, that the alteration was suggested in consequence of the adage itself being found in the body of the play.

The noblest character in this comedy, which, though founded on a story somewhat too improbable, abounds both in interest and entertainment, is the good old Countess of Rousillon. Shakspeare seems to have drawn this portrait con amore, and we figure to ourselves for this amiable woman, a countenance beaming with dignity, sweetness, and sensibility, emanations from a heart which had ever responded to the impulses of love and charity. In short, her maternal affection for the gentle Helen, her piety, sound sense, and candour, call for our warmest reverence and esteem, which accompany her to the close of the representation, and follow her departure with regret. †

Helen, the romantic, the love-dejected Helen, must excite in every feeling bosom a high degree of sympathy; patient suffering in the female sex, especially when resulting from ill-requited attachment, and united with modesty and beauty, cannot but be an object of interest and commiseration, and, in the instance before us, these are admirably blended in

a

“ a maid too virtuous For the contempt of empire,

* Reed's Shakspeare, vol. ii. p. 290.

† “ Of all the characters of Shakspeare,” remarks Mr. Felton, “ none more resemble his best female advocate (Mrs. Montagu) than the Countess of Rousillon.” — Imperfect Hints, part i. p. 65.

but who, unfortunately, has to struggle against the prejudices of birth, rank, and unfeeling pride, in the very man who is the object of her idolatry, and who, even after the most sacred of bonds should have cemented their destiny, flies with scorn from her embraces.

If in the infancy of her passion the error of indiscretion be attributable to Helen, how is it atoned for by the most engaging humility, by the most bewitching tenderness of heart : “ Be not offended,” she tells her noble patroness,

[ocr errors]

“ Be not offended; for it hurts not him,

That he is lov'd of me: I follow him not
By any token of presumptuous suit;
Nor would I have him, till I do deserve him;
Yet never know how that desert should be

thus, Indian-like,
Religious in mine error, I adore
The sun, that looks upon his worshipper,

,
But knows of him no more.'

But when the wife of Bertram, with a resignation and self-devotedness worthy of the highest praise, she deserts the house of her mother-in-law, knowing that whilst she is sheltered there her husband will not return, how does she, becoming thus an unprotected wanderer, a pilgrim bare-foot plodding the cold ground for him who has contemned her, rise to the tone of exalted truth and heroism !

.66 Poor lord ! is't I
That chase thee from thy country, and expose
Those tender limbs of thine to the event
Of the none-sparing war ? and is it I
That drive thee from the sportive court, where thou
Wast shot at with fair eyes, to be the mark
Of smoky muskets?

No, come thou home, Rousillon :
I will be

gone:
My being it is, that holds thee hence :
Shall I stay here to do't? no, no, although
The air of paradise did fan the house,

* Reed's Shakspeare, vol. viii. pp. 248, 249.

Act i. sc. 3.

And angels offic'd all: I will be gone;
That pitiful rumour may report my flight,
To consolate thine ear. Come, night,
For, with the dark, poor thief, I'll steal away." *

It was necessary, in order to place the character of Helen in its most interesting point of view, that Bertram should be represented as arrogant, profligate, and unfeeling; a coxcomb who to familyconsequence hesitates not to sacrifice all that is manly, just, and honourable. The picture is but too true to nature, and, since the poet found such a delineation essential to the construction of his story, he has very properly taken care, though Bertram, out of tenderness to the Countess and Helena, meets not the punishment he merits, that nothing in mitigation of his folly should be produced.

To the comic portion of this drama too much praise can scarcely be given ; it is singularly rich in all that characterises the wit, the drollery, and the humour of Shakspeare. The Clown is the rival of Touchstone in As You Like It; and Parolles, in the power of exciting laughter and ludicrous enjoyment, is only secondary to Falstaff.

18. KING HENRY THE FIFTH: 1599. The chorus at the commencement of the fifth act, and the silence of Meres, too plainly point out the era of the composition of this play, to admit of any alteration depending on the bare supposition of subsequent interpolation, or on allusions too vague and general to afford any specific application.

No character has been pourtrayed more at length by our poet than that of Henry the Fifth, for we trace him acting a prominent part through three plays. In Henry the Fourth, until the battle of Shrewsbury, we behold him in all the effervescence of his mad-cap revelry; occasionally, it is true, affording us glimpses of the native mightiness of his mind, but first bursting upon us with heroic splendour on that celebrated field, In every situation, however, he is evidently the

* Reed's Shakspeare, vol. viii. pp. 313. 315. Act iii. sc. 2.

[blocks in formation]

a

darling offspring of his bard, whether we attend him to the frolic orgies in Eastcheap, to his combat with the never-daunted Percy, or, as in the play before us, to the immortal plains of Agincourt.

The fire and animation which inform the soul of Henry when he rushes to arms in defence of his father's throne, are supported with unwearied vigour, with a blaze which never falters, throughout the whole of his martial achievements in France. Nor has Shakspeare been content with representing him merely in the light of a noble and chivalrous hero, he has endowed him with every regal virtue; he is magnanimous, eloquent, pious, and sincere ; versed in all the arts of government, policy, and war ; a lover of his country and of his people, and a strenuous protector of their liberties and rights.

Of the various instances which our author has brought forward for the exemplification of these virtues and acquirements, it may be necessary to notice two or three. Thus the detection of the treason of Cambridge, Gray, and Scroop, who had conspired to assassinate Henry previous to his embarkation, exhibits a rich display of the mental greatness and emphatic oratory of this warlike monarch. After reprobating the treachery of Cambridge and Gray, he suddenly turns upon Scroop, who had been his bosom-friend, with the following pathetic and soul-harrowing appeal:

[ocr errors][merged small][ocr errors][merged small]

Nor can we forbear distinguishing the dismissal of these traitors, as

* Reed's Shakspeare, vol. xii. pp. 336.338, 339. Act ii. sc. 2.

« PreviousContinue »