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SHAKSPERE'S Comedy is, in its way, supreme as his tragedy is supreme, and if but a single specimen of it is given, there is more than one reason for omission. The chief one is that his best scenes are too well known; another is that, as Mr. Swinburne happily says, in Shakspere's plays 'comedy is as inextricably blended with tragedy as it is in real life. They cannot be separated. A further reason is, that so much of his comedy is so exquisitely imbued with a poetic spirit, that a mere reader-not one of an audience—may well forget the playwright in the poet; and this circumstance-if the rigid definition of comedy with which my introduction sets out is to hold good-would remove Shakspere into a different and a higher sphere than that occupied by the mere comic dramatist.
KING HENRY IV.-PART FIRST
THE passage selected for quotation follows upon that
scene where Prince Hal's practical jest upon Falstaff has expanded into Falstaff's famous history of his prowess against the men in buckram.' The imposture has been exposed. Falstaff has admitted that he did run away from his sham assailants-he is disconcerted, but not outwitted. He had his reason: he did so upon an instinct that told him it was the king's son who was attacking him. Why, thou knowest I am as valiant as Hercules; but beware instinct: the lion will not touch the true prince. Instinct is a great matter, I was a coward on instinct.' The boon companions are now again carousing at the Boar's Head. The scene which follows is a play within a play. Reading it critically one cannot but wonder at finding such breadth and fulness of humour never deviating into farce, at the excellence of the wit, and at the perfection of the stage-craft.
The Boar's Head Tavern in Eastcheap. Prince HENRY, POINS, BARDOlph, GadshilL, PETO, Hostess.
How now, my sweet creature of bombast! How long is 't ago, Jack, since thou sawest thine own knee?
Falstaff. My own knee! When I was about thy years, Hal, I was not an eagle's talon in the waist; I could have crept into any alderman's thumb-ring. A plague of sighing and grief! it blows a man up like a bladder. There's villanous news abroad: here was Sir John Bracy from your father: you must to the court in the morning. That same mad fellow of the north, Percy, and he of Wales, that gave Amaimon the bastinado. . . and swore the devil his true liegeman upon the cross of a Welsh hook-what a plague call you him?
Poins. O! Glendower.
Falstaff. Owen, Owen; the same; and his sonin-law Mortimer, and old Northumberland; and that sprightly Scot of Scots, Douglas, that runs o' horseback up a hill perpendicular.
Prince. He that rides at high speed and with his pistol kills a sparrow flying.
Falstaff. You have hit it.
Prince. So did he never the sparrow.
Falstaff. Well, that rascal hath good mettle in him; he will not run.
Prince. Why, what a rascal art thou then, to praise him so for running!
Falstaff. O' horseback, ye cuckoo! but afoot he
will not budge a foot.
Prince. Yes, Jack, upon instinct.
Falstaff. I grant ye, upon instinct. Well, he is
there too, and one Mordake, and a thousand blue-caps more. Worcester is stolen away to-night; thy father's beard is turned white with the news: you may buy land now as cheap as stinking mackerel. . . . But tell me, Hal, art thou not horrible afeard? thou being heir apparent, could the world pick thee out three such enemies again as that fiend Douglas, that spirit Percy, and that devil Glendower? Art thou not horribly afraid? doth not thy blood thrill at it?
Prince. Not a whit, i' faith; I lack some of thy instinct.
Falstaff. Well, thou wilt be horribly chid to-morrow when thou comest to thy father: if thou love me, practise an answer.
Prince. Do thou stand for my father, and examine me upon the particulars of my life.
Falstaff. Shall I? content: this chair shall be my state, this dagger my sceptre, and this cushion my
Prince. Thy state is taken for a joint-stool, thy golden sceptre for a leaden dagger, and thy precious rich crown for a pitiful bald crown!
Falstaff. Well, an the fire of grace be not quite out of thee, now shalt thou be moved. Give me a cup of sack to make mine eyes look red, that it may be thought I have wept; for I must speak in passion, and I will do it in King Cambyses' vein.
Prince. Well, here is my leg.