Algernon Charles Swinburne.

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abjection at the foul feet of the Church, abhorrence of his crime and
constancy to his cause for something better worth the proof of war than
his miserable sake who hardly can be roused, even by such exhortation as
might put life and spirit into the dust of dead men's bones, to bid his
betters stand and strike in defence of the country dishonoured by his
reign.

It is this new element of variety in unity, this study of the complex and
diverse shades in a single nature, which requires from any criticism
worth attention some inquisition of character as complement to the
investigation of style. Analysis of any sort would be inapplicable to
the actors who bear their parts in the comic, the tragic or historic
plays of the first period. There is nothing in them to analyse; they
are, as we have seen, like all the characters represented by Marlowe, the
embodiments or the exponents of single qualities and simple forces. The
question of style also is therefore so far a simple question; but with
the change and advance in thought and all matter of spiritual study and
speculation this question also becomes complex, and inseparable, if we
would pursue it to any good end, from the analysis of character and
subject. In the debate on which we are now to enter, the question of
style and the question of character, or as we might say the questions of
matter and of spirit, are more than ever indivisible from each other,
more inextricably inwoven than elsewhere into the one most difficult
question of authorship which has ever been disputed in the dense and
noisy school or fought out in the wide and windy field of Shakespearean
controversy.

There can be few serious students of Shakespeare who have not sometimes
felt that possibly the hardest problem involved in their study is that
which requires for its solution some reasonable and acceptable theory as
to the play of _King Henry VIII_. None such has ever yet been offered;
and I certainly cannot pretend to supply one. Perhaps however it may be
possible to do some service by an attempt to disprove what is untenable,
even though it should not be possible to produce in its stead any
positive proof of what we may receive as matter of absolute faith.

The veriest tiro in criticism who knows anything of the subject in hand
must perceive, what is certainly not beyond a schoolboy's range of
vision, that the metre and the language of this play are in great part so
like the language and the metre of Fletcher that the first and easiest
inference would be to assume the partnership of that poet in the work. In
former days it was Jonson whom the critics and commentators of their time
saw good to select as the colleague or the editor of Shakespeare; but a
later school of criticism has resigned the notion that the fifth act was
retouched and adjusted by the author of _Volpone_ to the taste of his
patron James. The later theory is more plausible than this; the primary
objection to it is that it is too facile and superficial. It is waste of
time to point out with any intelligent and imaginative child with a
tolerable ear for metre who had read a little of the one and the other
poet could see for himself - that much of the play is externally as like
the usual style of Fletcher as it is unlike the usual style of
Shakespeare. The question is whether we can find one scene, one speech,
one passage, which in spirit, in scope, in purpose, bears the same or any
comparable resemblance to the work of Fletcher. I doubt if any man more
warmly admires a poet whom few can have studied more thoroughly than I;
and to whom, in spite of all sins of omission and commission, - and many
and grievous they are, beyond the plenary absolution of even the most
indulgent among critical confessors - I constantly return with a fresh
sense of attraction, which is constantly rewarded by a fresh sense of
gratitude and delight. It is assuredly from no wish to pluck a leaf from
his laurel, which has no need of foreign grafts or stolen garlands from
the loftier growth of Shakespeare's, that I venture to question his
capacity for the work assigned to him by recent criticism. The speech of
Buckingham, for example, on his way to execution, is of course at first
sight very like the finest speeches of the kind in Fletcher; here is the
same smooth and fluent declamation, the same prolonged and persistent
melody, which if not monotonous is certainly not various; the same pure,
lucid, perspicuous flow of simple rather than strong and elegant rather
than exquisite English; and yet, if we set it against the best examples
of the kind which may be selected from such tragedies as _Bonduca_ or
_The False One_, against the rebuke addressed by Caratach to his cousin
or by Caesar to the murderers of Pompey - and no finer instances of tragic
declamation can be chosen from the work of this great master of
rhetorical dignity and pathos - I cannot but think we shall perceive in it
a comparative severity and elevation which will be missed when we turn
back from it to the text of Fletcher. There is an aptness of phrase, an
abstinence from excess, a "plentiful lack" of mere flowery and
superfluous beauties, which we may rather wish than hope to find in the
most famous of Shakespeare's successors. But if not his work, we may be
sure it was his model; a model which he often approached, which he often
studied, but which he never attained. It is never for absolute truth and
fitness of expression, it is always for eloquence and sweetness, for
fluency and fancy, that we find the tragic scenes of Fletcher most
praiseworthy; and the motive or mainspring of interest is usually
anything but natural or simple. Now the motive here is as simple, the
emotion as natural as possible; the author is content to dispense with
all the violent or far-fetched or fantastic excitement from which
Fletcher could hardly ever bring himself completely to abstain. I am not
speaking here of those tragedies in which the hand of Beaumont is
traceable; to these, I need hardly say, the charge is comparatively
inapplicable which may fairly be brought against the unassisted works of
his elder colleague; but in any of the typical tragedies of Fletcher, in
_Thierry and Theodoret_, in _Valentinian_, in _The Double Marriage_, the
scenes which for power and beauty of style may reasonably be compared
with this of the execution of Buckingham will be found more forced in
situation, more fanciful in language than this. Many will be found more
beautiful, many more exciting; the famous interview of Thierry with the
veiled Ordella, and the scene answering to this in the fifth act where
Brunhalt is confronted with her dying son, will be at once remembered by
all dramatic students; and the parts of Lucina and Juliana may each be
described as a continuous arrangement of passionate and pathetic effects.
But in which of these parts and in which of these plays shall we find a
scene so simple, an effect so modest, a situation so unforced as here?
where may we look for the same temperance of tone, the same control of
excitement, the same steadiness of purpose? If indeed Fletcher could
have written this scene, or the farewell of Wolsey to his greatness, or
his parting scene with Cromwell, he was perhaps not a greater poet, but
he certainly was a tragic writer capable of loftier self-control and
severer self-command, than he has ever shown himself elsewhere.

And yet, if this were all, we might be content to believe that the
dignity of the subject and the high example of his present associate had
for once lifted the natural genius of Fletcher above itself. But the
fine and subtle criticism of Mr. Spedding has in the main, I think,
successfully and clearly indicated the lines of demarcation undeniably
discernible in this play between the severer style of certain scenes or
speeches and the laxer and more fluid style of others; between the
graver, solider, more condensed parts of the apparently composite work,
and those which are clearer, thinner, more diffused and diluted in
expression. If under the latter head we had to class such passages only
as the dying speech of Buckingham and the christening speech of Cranmer,
it might after all be almost impossible to resist the internal evidence
of Fletcher's handiwork. Certainly we hear the same soft continuous note
of easy eloquence, level and limpid as a stream of crystalline
transparence, in the plaintive adieu of the condemned statesman and the
panegyrical prophecy of the favoured prelate. If this, I say, were all,
we might admit that there is nothing - I have already admitted it - in
either passage beyond the poetic reach of Fletcher. But on the
hypothesis so ably maintained by the editor of Bacon there hangs no less
a consequence than this: that we must assign to the same hand the
crowning glory of the whole poem, the death-scene of Katherine. Now if
Fletcher could have written that scene - a scene on which the only
criticism ever passed, the only commendation ever bestowed, by the
verdict of successive centuries, has been that of tears and silence - if
Fletcher could have written a scene so far beyond our applause, so far
above our acclamation, then the memory of no great poet has ever been so
grossly wronged, so shamefully defrauded of its highest claim to honour.
But, with all reverence for that memory, I must confess that I cannot
bring myself to believe it. Any explanation appears to me more probable
than this. Considering with what care every relic of his work was once
and again collected by his posthumous editors - even to the attribution,
not merely of plays in which he can have taken only the slightest part,
but of plays in which we know that he had no share at all - I cannot
believe that his friends would have let by far the brightest jewel in his
crown rest unreclaimed in the then less popular treasure-house of
Shakespeare. Belief or disbelief of this kind is however but a sandy
soil for conjecture to build upon. Whether or not his friends would have
reclaimed for him the credit of this scene, had they known it (as they
must have known it) to be his due, I must repeat that such a miraculous
example of a man's genius for once transcending itself and for ever
eclipsing all its other achievements appears to me beyond all critical,
beyond all theological credulity. Pathos and concentration are surely
not among the dominant notes of Fletcher's style or the salient qualities
of his intellect. Except perhaps in the beautiful and famous passage
where Hengo dies in his uncle's arms, I doubt whether in any of the
variously and highly coloured scenes played out upon the wide and
shifting stage of his fancy the genius of Fletcher has ever unlocked the
source of tears. Bellario and Aspatia were the children of his younger
colleague; at least, after the death of Beaumont we meet no such figures
on the stage of Fletcher. In effect, though Beaumont had a gift of grave
sardonic humour which found especial vent in burlesques of the heroic
style and in the systematic extravagance of such characters as Bessus,
{89} yet he was above all things a tragic poet; and though Fletcher had
great power of tragic eloquence and passionate effusion, yet his comic
genius was of a rarer and more precious quality; one _Spanish Curate_ is
worth many a _Valentinian_; as, on the other hand, one _Philaster_ is
worth many a _Scornful Lady_. Now there is no question here of Beaumont;
and there is no question that the passage here debated has been taken to
the heart of the whole world and baptized in the tears of generations as
no work of Fletcher's has ever been. That Beaumont could have written it
I do not believe; but I am wellnigh assured that Fletcher could not. I
can scarcely imagine that the most fluid sympathy, the "hysteric passion"
most easily distilled from the eyes of reader or spectator, can ever have
watered with its tears the scene or the page which sets forth, however
eloquently and effectively, the sorrows and heroisms of Ordella, Juliana,
or Lucina. Every success but this I can well believe them, as they
assuredly deserve, to have attained.

To this point then we have come, as to the crucial point at issue; and
looking back upon those passages of the play which first suggest the
handiwork of Fletcher, and which certainly do now and then seem almost
identical in style with his, I think we shall hardly find the difference
between these and other parts of the same play so wide and so distinct as
the difference between the undoubted work of Fletcher and the undoubted
work of Shakespeare. What that difference is we are fortunately able to
determine with exceptional certitude, and with no supplementary help from
conjecture of probabilities. In the play which is undoubtedly a joint
work of these poets the points of contact and the points of disunion are
unmistakable by the youngest eye. In the very last scene of _The Two
Noble Kinsmen_, we can tell with absolute certainty what speeches were
appended or interpolated by Fletcher; we can pronounce with positive
conviction what passages were completed and what parts were left
unfinished by Shakespeare. Even on Mr. Spedding's theory it can hardly
be possible to do as much for _King Henry VIII_. The lines of
demarcation, however visible or plausible, are fainter by far than these.
It is certainly not much less strange to come upon such passages in the
work of Shakespeare as the speeches of Buckingham and Cranmer than it
would be to encounter in the work of Sophocles a sample of the later and
laxer style of Euripides; to meet for instance in the _Antigone_ with a
passage which might pass muster as an extract from the _Iphigenia in
Aulis_. In metrical effects the style of the lesser English poet is an
exact counterpart of the style of the lesser Greek; there is the same
comparative tenuity and fluidity of verse, the same excess of short
unemphatic syllables, the same solution of the graver iambic into soft
overflow of lighter and longer feet which relaxes and dilutes the solid
harmony of tragic metre with notes of a more facile and feminine strain.
But in _King Henry VIII_. it should be remarked that though we not
unfrequently find the same preponderance as in Fletcher's work of verses
with a double ending - which in English verse at least are not in
themselves feminine, and need not be taken to constitute, as in
Fletcher's case they do, a note of comparative effeminacy or relaxation
in tragic style - we do not find the perpetual predominance of those
triple terminations so peculiarly and notably dear to that poet; {92} so
that even by the test of the metre-mongers who would reduce the whole
question at issue to a point which might at once be solved by the simple
process of numeration the argument in favour of Fletcher can hardly be
proved tenable; for the metre which evidently has one leading quality in
common with his is as evidently wanting in another at least as marked and
as necessary to establish - if established it can be by any such test
taken singly and, apart from all other points of evidence - the
collaboration of Fletcher with Shakespeare in this instance. And if the
proof by mere metrical similitude is thus imperfect, there is here
assuredly no other kind of test which may help to fortify the argument by
any suggestion of weight even comparable to this. In those passages
which would seem most plausibly to indicate the probable partnership of
Fletcher, the unity and sustained force of the style keep it generally
above the average level of his; there is less admixture or intrusion of
lyric or elegiac quality; there is more of temperance and proportion
alike in declamation and in debate. And throughout the whole play, and
under all the diversity of composite subject and conflicting interest
which disturbs the unity of action, there is a singleness of spirit, a
general unity or concord of inner tone, in marked contrast to the utter
discord and discrepancy of the several sections of _The Two Noble
Kinsmen_. We admit, then, that this play offers us in some not
unimportant passages the single instance of a style not elsewhere
precisely or altogether traceable in Shakespeare; that no exact parallel
to it can be found among his other plays; and that if not the partial
work it may certainly be taken as the general model of Fletcher in his
tragic poetry. On the other hand, we contend that its exceptional
quality might perhaps be explicable as a tentative essay in a new line by
one who tried so many styles before settling into his latest; and that,
without far stronger, clearer, and completer proof than has yet been or
can ever be advanced, the question is not solved but merely evaded by the
assumption of a double authorship.

By far the ablest argument based upon a wider ground of reason or of
likelihood than this of mere metre that has yet been advanced in support
of the theory which would attribute a part of this play to some weaker
hand than Shakespeare's is due to the study of a critic whose
name - already by right of inheritance the most illustrious name of his
age and ours - is now for ever attached to that of Shakespeare himself by
right of the highest service ever done and the noblest duty ever paid to
his memory. The untimely death which removed beyond reach of our thanks
for all he had done and our hopes for all he might do, the man who first
had given to France the first among foreign poets - son of the greatest
Frenchman and translator of the greatest Englishman - was only in this not
untimely, that it forbore him till the great and wonderful work was done
which has bound two deathless names together by a closer than the common
link that connects the names of all sovereign poets. Among all classic
translations of the classic works of the world, I know of none that for
absolute mastery and perfect triumph over all accumulation of obstacles,
for supreme dominion over supreme difficulty, can be matched with the
translation of Shakespeare by Francois-Victor Hugo; unless a claim of
companionship may perchance be put in for Urquhart's unfinished version
of Rabelais. For such success in the impossible as finally disproves the
right of "that fool of a word" to existence - at least in the world of
letters - the two miracles of study and of sympathy which have given
Shakespeare to the French and Rabelais to the English, and each in his
habit as he lived, may take rank together in glorious rivalry beyond
eyeshot of all past or future competition.

Among the essays appended to the version of Shakespeare which they
complete and illustrate, that which deals with the play now in question
gives as ample proof as any other of the sound and subtle insight brought
to bear by the translator upon the object of his labour and his love. His
keen and studious intuition is here as always not less notable and
admirable than his large and solid knowledge, his full and lucid
comprehension at once of the text and of the history of Shakespeare's
plays; and if his research into the inner details of that history may
seem ever to have erred from the straight path of firm and simple
certainty into some dubious byway of theory or conjecture, we may be sure
at least that no lack of learning or devotion, of ardour or intelligence,
but more probably some noble thought that was fathered by a noble wish to
do honour to Shakespeare, has led him to attribute to his original some
quality foreign to the text, or to question the authenticity of what for
love of his author he might not wish to find in it. Thus he would reject
the main part of the fifth act as the work of a mere court laureate, an
official hack or hireling employed to anoint the memory of an archbishop
and lubricate the steps of a throne with the common oil of dramatic
adulation; and finding it in either case a task alike unworthy of
Shakespeare to glorify the name of Cranmer or to deify the names of the
queen then dead and the king yet living, it is but natural that he should
be induced by an unconscious bias or prepossession of the will to
depreciate the worth of the verse sent on work fitter for ushers and
embalmers and the general valetry or varletry of Church and State. That
this fifth act is unequal in point of interest to the better part of the
preceding acts with which it is connected by so light and loose a tie of
convenience is as indisputable as that the style of the last scene
savours now and then, and for some space together, more strongly than
ever of Fletcher's most especial and distinctive qualities, or that the
whole structure of the play if judged by any strict rule of pure art is
incomposite and incongruous, wanting in unity, consistency, and coherence
of interest. The fact is that here even more than in _King John_ the
poet's hands were hampered by a difficulty inherent in the subject. To
an English and Protestant audience, fresh from the passions and perils of
reformation and reaction, he had to present an English king at war with
the papacy, in whom the assertion of national independence was incarnate;
and to the sympathies of such an audience it was a matter of mere
necessity for him to commend the representative champion of their cause
by all means which he could compel into the service of his aim. Yet this
object was in both instances all but incompatible with the natural and
necessary interest of the plot. It was inevitable that this interest
should in the main be concentrated upon the victims of the personal or
national policy of either king; upon Constance and Arthur, upon Katherine
and Wolsey. Where these are not, either apparent in person on the stage,
or felt in their influence upon the speech and action of the characters
present, the pulse of the poem beats fainter and its forces begin to
flag. In _King John_ this difficulty was met and mastered, these double
claims of the subject of the poem and the object of the poet were
satisfied and harmonised, by the effacement of John and the substitution
of Faulconbridge as the champion of the national cause and the
protagonist of the dramatic action. Considering this play in its double
aspect of tragedy and history, we might say that the English hero becomes
the central figure of the poem as seen from its historic side, while John
remains the central figure of the poem as seen from its tragic side; the
personal interest that depends on personal crime and retribution is
concentrated on the agony of the king; the national interest which he,
though the eponymous hero of the poem, was alike inadequate as a craven
and improper as a villain to sustain and represent in the eyes of the
spectators was happily and easily transferred to the one person of the
play who could properly express within the compass of its closing act at
once the protest against papal pretension, the defiance of foreign
invasion, and the prophetic assurance of self-dependent life and self-
sufficing strength inherent in the nation then fresh from a fiercer trial
of its quality, which an audience of the days of Queen Elizabeth would
justly expect from the poet who undertook to set before them in action
the history of the days of King John. That history had lately been
brought upon the stage under the hottest and most glaring light that
could be thrown on it by the fire of fanatical partisanship; _The
Troublesome Reign of King John_, weakest and most wooden of all wearisome
chronicles that ever cumbered the boards, had in it for sole principle of
life its power of congenial appeal to the same blatant and vulgar spirit
of Protestantism which inspired it. In all the flat interminable morass
of its tedious and tuneless verse I can find no blade or leaf of living
poetic growth, no touch but one of nature or of pathos, where Arthur
dying would fain send a last thought in search of his mother. From this
play Shakespeare can have got neither hint nor help towards the execution
of his own; the crude rough sketch of the Bastard as he brawls and
swaggers through the long length of its scenes is hardly so much as the
cast husk or chrysalid of the noble creature which was to arise and take
shape for ever at the transfiguring touch of Shakespeare. In the case of
_King Henry VIII_. he had not even such a blockish model as this to work
from. The one preceding play known to me which deals professedly with
the same subject treats of quite other matters than are handled by
Shakespeare, and most notably with the scholastic adventures or
misadventures of Edward Prince of Wales and his whipping-boy Ned Browne.
A fresh and wellnigh a plausible argument might be raised by the critics
who deny the unity of authorship in King Henry VIII., on the ground that


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Online LibraryAlgernon Charles SwinburneA Study of Shakespeare → online text (page 5 of 17)