Algernon Charles Swinburne.

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if Shakespeare had completed the work himself he would surely not have
let slip the occasion to introduce one of the most famous and popular of
all court fools in the person of Will Summers, who might have given life
and relief to the action of many scenes now unvaried and unbroken in
their gravity of emotion and event. Shakespeare, one would say, might
naturally have been expected to take up and remodel the well-known figure
of which his humble precursor could give but a rough thin outline, yet
sufficient it should seem to attract the tastes to which it appealed; for
this or some other quality of seasonable attraction served to float the
now forgotten play of Samuel Rowley through several editions. The
central figure of the huge hot-headed king, with his gusts of stormy good
humour and peals of burly oaths which might have suited "Garagantua's
mouth" and satisfied the requirements of Hotspur, appeals in a ruder
fashion to the survival of the same sympathies on which Shakespeare with
a finer instinct as evidently relied; the popular estimate of the bluff
and brawny tyrant "who broke the bonds of Rome" was not yet that of later
historians, though doubtless neither was it that of the writer or writers
who would champion him to the utterance. Perhaps the opposite verdicts
given by the instinct of the people on "bluff King Hal" and "Bloody Mary"
may be understood by reference to a famous verse of Juvenal. The
wretched queen was sparing of noble blood and lavish of poor men's
lives - _cerdonibus timenda_; and the curses under which her memory was
buried were spared by the people to her father, _Lamiarum caede madenti_.
In any case, the humblest not less than the highest of the poets who
wrote under the reign of his daughter found it safe to present him in a
popular light before an audience of whose general prepossession in his
favour William Shakespeare was no slower to take advantage than Samuel

The two plays we have just discussed have one quality of style in common
which has already been noted; that in them rhetoric is in excess of
action or passion, and far in excess of poetry. They are not as yet
perfect examples of his second manner, though far ahead of his first
stage in performance as in promise. Compared with the full and living
figure of Katherine or of Constance, the study of Margaret of Anjou is
the mere sketch of a poet still in his pupilage: John and Henry,
Faulconbridge and Wolsey, are designs beyond reach of the hand which drew
the second and third Richard without much background or dramatic
perspective. But the difficulties inherent in either subject are not
surmounted throughout with absolute equality of success; the very point
of appeal to the sympathy and excitement of the time may have been
something of a disturbing force in the composition of the work - a
loadstone rock indeed, of tempting attraction to the patriot as well as
to the playwright, but possibly capable of proving in some measure a rock
of offence to the poet whose ship was piloted towards it. His perfect
triumph in the field of patriotic drama, coincident with the perfect
maturity of his comic genius and his general style, has now to show

The great national trilogy which is at once the flower of Shakespeare's
second period and the crown of his achievements in historic drama - unless
indeed we so far depart from the established order and arrangement of his
works as to include his three Roman plays in the same class with these
English histories - offers perhaps the most singular example known to us
of the variety in fortune which befell his works on their first
appearance in print. None of these had better luck in that line at
starting than _King Henry IV_.; none had worse than _King Henry V_. With
_Romeo and Juliet_, the _Merry Wives of Windsor_, and _Hamlet_, it shares
the remarkable and undesirable honour of having been seized and boarded
by pirates even before it had left the dockyard. The masterbuilder's
hands had not yet put the craft into seaworthy condition when she was
overhauled by these Kidds and Blackbeards of the press. Of those four
plays, the two tragedies at least were thoroughly recast, and rewritten
from end to end: the pirated editions giving us a transcript, more or
less perfect or imperfect, accurate or corrupt, of the text as it first
came from the poet's hand; a text to be afterwards indefinitely modified
and incalculably improved. Not quite so much can be said of the comedy,
which certainly stood in less need of revision, and probably would not
have borne it so well; nevertheless every little passing touch of the
reviser's hand is here also a noticeable mark of invigoration and
improvement. But _King Henry V_., we may fairly say, is hardly less than
transformed. Not that it has been recast after the fashion of _Hamlet_,
or even rewritten after the fashion of _Romeo and Juliet_; but the
corruptions and imperfections of the pirated text are here more flagrant
than in any other instance; while the general revision of style by which
it is at once purified and fortified extends to every nook and corner of
the restored and renovated building. Even had we, however, a perfect and
trustworthy transcript of Shakespeare's original sketch for this play,
there can be little doubt that the rough draught would still prove almost
as different from the final masterpiece as is the soiled and ragged
canvas now before us, on which we trace the outline of figures so
strangely disfigured, made subject to such rude extremities of defacement
and defeature. There is indeed less difference between the two editions
in the comic than in the historic scenes; the pirates were probably more
careful to furnish their market with a fair sample of the lighter than of
the graver ware supplied by their plunder of the poet; Fluellen and
Pistol lose less through their misusage than the king; and the king
himself is less maltreated when he talks plain prose with his soldiers
than when he chops blank verse with his enemies or his lords. His rough
and ready courtship of the French princess is a good deal expanded as to
length, but (if I dare say so) less improved and heightened in tone than
we might well have wished and it might well have borne; in either text
the Hero's addresses savour rather of a ploughman than a prince, and his
finest courtesies are clownish though not churlish. We may probably see
in this rather a concession to the appetite of the groundlings than an
evasion of the difficulties inherent in the subject-matter of the scene;
too heavy as these might have been for another, we can conceive of none
too hard for the magnetic tact and intuitive delicacy of Shakespeare's
judgment and instinct. But it must fairly and honestly be admitted that
in this scene we find as little of the charm and humour inseparable from
the prince as of the courtesy and dignity to be expected from the king.

It should on the other hand be noted that the finest touch in the comic
scenes, if not the finest in the whole portrait of Falstaff, is
apparently an afterthought, a touch added on revision of the original
design. In the first scene of the second act Mrs. Quickly's remark that
"he'll yield the crow a pudding one of these days" is common to both
versions of the play; but the six words following are only to be found in
the revised edition; and these six words the very pirates could hardly
have passed over or struck out. They are not such as can drop from the
text of a poet unperceived by the very dullest and horniest of human
eyes. "The king has killed his heart." Here is the point in Falstaff's
nature so strangely overlooked by the man of all men who we should have
said must be the first to seize and to appreciate it. It is as grievous
as it is inexplicable that the Shakespeare of France - the most infinite
in compassion, in "conscience and tender heart," of all great poets in
all ages and all nations of the world - should have missed the deep
tenderness of this supreme and subtlest touch in the work of the greatest
among his fellows. Again, with anything but "damnable" iteration, does
Shakespeare revert to it before the close of this very scene. Even
Pistol and Nym can see that what now ails their old master is no such
ailment as in his prosperous days was but too liable to "play the rogue
with his great toe." "The king hath run bad humours on the knight": "his
heart is fracted, and corroborate." And it is not thus merely through
the eclipse of that brief mirage, that fair prospect "of Africa, and
golden joys," in view of which he was ready to "take any man's horses."
This it is that distinguishes Falstaff from Panurge; that lifts him at
least to the moral level of Sancho Panza. I cannot but be reluctant to
set the verdict of my own judgment against that of Victor Hugo's; I need
none to remind me what and who he is whose judgment I for once oppose,
and what and who am I that I should oppose it; that he is he, and I am
but myself; yet against his classification of Falstaff, against his
definition of Shakespeare's unapproached and unapproachable masterpiece
in the school of comic art and humouristic nature, I must and do with all
my soul and strength protest. The admirable phrase of "swine-centaur"
(_centaure du porc_) is as inapplicable to Falstaff as it is appropriate
to Panurge. Not the third person but the first in date of that divine
and human trinity of humourists whose names make radiant for ever the
Century of their new-born glory - not Shakespeare but Rabelais is
responsible for the creation or the discovery of such a type as this.
"_Suum cuique_ is our Roman justice"; the gradation from Panurge to
Falstaff is not downward but upward; though it be Victor Hugo's very self
who asserts the contrary. {108} Singular as may seem the collocation of
the epithet "moral" with the name "Falstaff," I venture to maintain my
thesis; that in point of feeling, and therefore of possible moral
elevation, Falstaff is as undeniably the superior of Sancho as Sancho is
unquestionably the superior of Panurge. The natural affection of Panurge
is bounded by the self-same limits as the natural theology of Polyphemus;
the love of the one, like the faith of the other, begins and ends alike
at one point;

And this great belly, first of deities;

(in which line, by the way, we may hear as it were a first faint prelude
of the great proclamation to come - the hymn of praise and thanksgiving
for the coronation day of King Gaster; whose laureate, we know, was as
lovingly familiar with the Polyphemus of Euripides as Shakespeare with
his own Pantagruel.) In Sancho we come upon a creature capable of
love - but not of such love as kills or helps to kill, such love as may
end or even as may seem to end in anything like heartbreak. "And now
abideth Rabelais, Cervantes, Shakespeare, these three; but the greatest
of these is Shakespeare."

I would fain score yet another point in the fat knight's favour; "I have
much to say in the behalf of that Falstaff." Rabelais, evangelist and
prophet of the Resurrection of the Flesh (so long entombed, ignored,
repudiated, misconstrued, vilified, by so many generations and ages of
Galilean preachers and Pharisaic schoolmen) - Rabelais was content to
paint the flesh merely, in its honest human reality - human at least, if
also bestial; in its frank and rude reaction against the half brainless
and wholly bloodless teachers whose doctrine he himself on the one hand,
and Luther on the other, arose together to smite severally - to smite them
hip and thigh, even till the going down of the sun; the mock sun or
marshy meteor that served only to deepen the darkness encompassing on
every side the doubly dark ages - the ages of monarchy and theocracy, the
ages of death and of faith. To Panurge, therefore, it was unnecessary
and it might have seemed inconsequent to attribute other gifts or
functions than are proper to such intelligence as may accompany the
appetites of an animal. That most irreverend father in God, Friar John,
belongs to a higher class in the moral order of being; and he much rather
than his fellow-voyager and penitent is properly comparable with
Falstaff. It is impossible to connect the notion of rebuke with the sins
of Panurge. The actual lust and gluttony, the imaginary cowardice of
Falstaff, have been gravely and sharply rebuked by critical morality; we
have just noted a too recent and too eminent example of this; but what
mortal ever dreamed of casting these qualities in the teeth of his
supposed counterpart? The difference is as vast between Falstaff on the
field of battle and Panurge on the storm-tossed deck as between Falstaff
and Hotspur, Panurge and Friar John. No man could show cooler and
steadier nerve than is displayed in either case - by the lay as well as
the clerical namesake of the fourth evangelist. If ever fruitless but
endless care was shown to prevent misunderstanding, it was shown in the
pains taken by Shakespeare to obviate the misconstruction which would
impute to Falstaff the quality of a Parolles or a Bobadil, a Bessus or a
Moron. The delightful encounter between the jester and the bear in the
crowning interlude of _La Princesse d'Elide_ shows once more, I may
remark, that Moliere had sat at the feet of Rabelais as delightedly as
Shakespeare before him. Such rapturous inebriety or Olympian
incontinence of humour only fires the blood of the graver and less
exuberant humourist when his lips are still warm and wet from the well-
spring of the _Dive Bouteille_.

It is needless to do over again the work which was done, and well done, a
hundred years since, by the writer whose able essay in vindication and
exposition of the genuine character of Falstaff elicited from Dr. Johnson
as good a jest and as bad a criticism as might have been expected. His
argument is too thoroughly carried out at all points and fortified on all
hands to require or even to admit of corroboration; and the attempt to
appropriate any share of the lasting credit which is his due would be
nothing less than a disingenuous impertinence. I may here however notice
that in the very first scene of this trilogy which introduces us to the
ever dear and honoured presence of Sir John, his creator has put into the
mouth of a witness no friendlier or more candid than Ned Poins the
distinction between two as true-bred cowards as ever turned back and one
who will fight no longer than he sees reason. In this nutshell lies the
whole kernel of the matter; the sweet, sound, ripe, toothsome, wholesome
kernel of Falstaff's character and humour. He will fight as well as his
princely patron, and, like the prince, as long as he sees reason; but
neither Hal nor Jack has ever felt any touch of desire to pluck that
"mere scutcheon" honour "from the pale-faced moon." Harry Percy is as it
were the true Sir Bedivere, the last of all Arthurian knights; Henry V.
is the first as certainly as he is the noblest of those equally daring
and calculating statesmen-warriors whose two most terrible, most perfect,
and most famous types are Louis XI. and Caesar Borgia. Gain,
"commodity," the principle of self-interest which never but in word and
in jest could become the principle of action with Faulconbridge, - himself
already far more "a man of this world" than a Launcelot or a Hotspur, - is
as evidently the mainspring of Henry's enterprise and life as of the
contract between King Philip and King John. The supple and shameless
egotism of the churchmen on whose political sophistries he relies for
external support is needed rather to varnish his project than to reassure
his conscience. Like Frederic the Great before his first Silesian war,
the future conqueror of Agincourt has practically made up his mind before
he seeks to find as good reason or as plausible excuse as were likewise
to suffice the future conqueror of Rosbach. In a word, Henry is
doubtless not the man, as old Auchindrane expresses it in the noble and
strangely neglected tragedy which bears solitary but sufficient witness
to the actual dramatic faculty of Sir Walter Scott's genius, to do the
devil's work without his wages; but neither is he, on the like
unprofitable terms, by any manner of means the man to do God's. No
completer incarnation could be shown us of the militant
Englishman - _Anglais pur sang_; but it is not only, as some have seemed
to think, with the highest, the purest, the noblest quality of English
character that his just and far-seeing creator has endowed him. The
godlike equity of Shakespeare's judgment, his implacable and impeccable
righteousness of instinct and of insight, was too deeply ingrained in the
very core of his genius to be perverted by any provincial or
pseudo-patriotic prepossessions; his patriotism was too national to be
provincial. Assuredly no poet ever had more than he: not even the king
of men and poets who fought at Marathon and sang of Salamis: much less
had any or has any one of our own, from Milton on to Campbell and from
Campbell even to Tennyson. In the mightiest chorus of _King Henry V_. we
hear the pealing ring of the same great English trumpet that was yet to
sound over the battle of the Baltic, and again in our later day over a
sea-fight of Shakespeare's own, more splendid and heart-cheering in its
calamity than that other and all others in their triumph; a war-song and
a sea-song divine and deep as death or as the sea, making thrice more
glorious at once the glorious three names of England, of Grenville, and
of Tennyson for ever. From the affectation of cosmopolitan indifference
not AEschylus, not Pindar, not Dante's very self was more alien or more
free than Shakespeare; but there was nothing of the dry Tyrtaean twang,
the dull mechanic resonance as of wooden echoes from a platform, in the
great historic chord of his lyre. "He is very English, too English,
even," says the Master on whom his enemies alone - assuredly not his most
loving, most reverent, and most thankful disciples - might possibly and
plausibly retort that he was "very French, too French, even"; but he
certainly was not "too English" to see and cleave to the main fact, the
radical and central truth, of personal or national character, of typical
history or tradition, without seeking to embellish, to degrade, in either
or in any way to falsify it. From king to king, from cardinal to
cardinal, from the earliest in date of subject to the latest of his
histories, we find the same thread running, the same link of honourable
and righteous judgment, of equitable and careful equanimity, connecting
and combining play with play in an unbroken and infrangible chain of
evidence to the singleness of the poet's eye, the identity of the
workman's hand, which could do justice and would do no more than justice,
alike to Henry and to Wolsey, to Pandulph and to John. His typical
English hero or historic protagonist is a man of their type who founded
and built up the empire of England in India; a hero after the future
pattern of Hastings and of Clive; not less daringly sagacious and not
more delicately scrupulous, not less indomitable or more impeccable than
they. A type by no means immaculate, a creature not at all too bright
and good for English nature's daily food in times of mercantile or
military enterprise; no whit more if no whit less excellent and radiant
than reality. _Amica Britannia, sed magis amica veritas_. The master
poet of England - all Englishmen may reasonably and honourably be proud of
it - has not two weights and two measures for friend and foe. This
palpable and patent fact, as his only and worthy French translator has
well remarked, would of itself suffice to exonerate his memory from the
imputation of having perpetrated in its evil entirety _The First Part of
King Henry VI_.

There is, in my opinion, somewhat more of internal evidence than I have
ever seen adduced in support of the tradition current from an early date
as to the origin of the _Merry Wives of Windsor_; a tradition which
assigns to Queen Elizabeth the same office of midwife with regard to this
comedy as was discharged by Elwood with reference to _Paradise Regained_.
Nothing could so naturally or satisfactorily explain its existence as the
expression of a desire to see "Falstaff in love," which must have been
nothing less than the equivalent of a command to produce him under the
disguise of such a transfiguration on the boards. The task of presenting
him so shorn of his beams, so much less than archangel (of comedy)
ruined, and the excess of (humorous) glory obscured, would hardly, we
cannot but think and feel, have spontaneously suggested itself to
Shakespeare as a natural or eligible aim for the fresh exercise of his
comic genius. To exhibit Falstaff as throughout the whole course of five
acts a credulous and baffled dupe, one "easier to be played on than a
pipe," was not really to reproduce him at all. The genuine Falstaff
could no more have played such a part than the genuine Petruchio could
have filled such an one as was assigned him by Fletcher in the luckless
hour when that misguided poet undertook to continue the subject and to
correct the moral of the next comedy in our catalogue of Shakespeare's.
_The Tamer Tamed_ is hardly less consistent or acceptable as a sequel to
the _Taming of the Shrew_ than the _Merry Wives of Windsor_ as a
supplement to _King Henry IV_.: and no conceivable comparison could more
forcibly convey, how broad and deep is the gulf of incongruity which
divides them.

The plea for once suggested by the author in the way of excuse or
extenuation for this incompatibility of Falstaff with Falstaff - for the
violation of character goes far beyond mere inconsistency or the natural
ebb and flow of even the brightest wits and most vigorous intellects - will
commend itself more readily to the moralist than to the humanist; in
other words, to the preacher rather than to the thinker, the sophist
rather than the artist. Here only does Shakespeare show that he feels
the necessity of condescending to such evasion or such apology as is
implied in the explanation of Falstaff's incredible credulity by a
reference to "the guiltiness of his mind" and the admission, so
gratifying to all minds more moral than his own, that "wit may be made a
Jack-a-Lent, when 'tis upon ill employment." It is the best excuse that
can be made; but can we imagine the genuine, the pristine Falstaff
reduced to the proffer of such an excuse in serious good earnest?

In the original version of this comedy there was not a note of poetry
from end to end; as it then appeared, it might be said to hold the same
place on the roll of Shakespeare's plays as is occupied by _Bartholomew
Fair_ on the roll of Ben Jonson's. From this point of view it is curious
to contrast the purely farcical masterpieces of the town-bred schoolboy
and the country lad. There is a certain faint air of the fields, the
river, and the park, even in the rough sketch of Shakespeare's
farce - wholly prosaic as it is, and in no point suggestive of any
unlikelihood in the report which represents it as the composition or
rather as the improvisation of a fortnight. We know at once that he must
have stroked the fallow greyhound that was outrun on "Cotsall"; that he
must - and perhaps once or twice at least too often - have played truant
(some readers, boys past or present, might wish for association's sake it
could actually have been Datchet-wards) from under the shadow of good Sir
Hugh's probably not over formidable though "threatening twigs of birch,"
at all risks of being "preeches" on his return, in fulfilment of the
direful menace held out to that young namesake of his over whose
innocence Mrs. Quickly was so creditably vigilant. On the other hand, no
student of Jonson will need to be reminded how closely and precociously
familiar the big stalwart Westminster boy, Camden's favoured and grateful
pupil, must have made himself with the rankest haunts and most unsavoury
recesses of that ribald waterside and Smithfield life which he lived to
reproduce on the stage with a sometimes insufferable fidelity to details
from which Hogarth might have shrunk. Even his unrivalled proficiency in
classic learning can hardly have been the fruit of greater or more
willing diligence in school hours than he must have lavished on other
than scholastic studies in the streets. The humour of his huge
photographic group of divers "humours" is undeniably and incomparably
richer, broader, fuller of invention and variety, than any that
Shakespeare's lighter work can show; all the five acts of the latter

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Online LibraryAlgernon Charles SwinburneA Study of Shakespeare → online text (page 6 of 17)