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During the time of the civil wars of York and Lancaster, England was a perfect bear-garden, and Shakspeare has given us a very lively picture of the scene.
The three parts of Henry VI. convey a picture of very little else : and are inferiour to the other historical plays. They have brilliant passages; but the general groundwork is comparatively poor and meagre, the style “ flat and unraised." There are few lines like the following
“Glory is like a circle in the water ;
The first part relates to the wars in France after the death of Henry V. and the story of the Maid of Orleans. She is here almost as scurvily treated as in Voltaire's Pucelle. Talbot is a very magnificent sketch : there is something as formidable in this portrait of him, as there would be in a monumental figure of him, or in the sight of the
armour which he wore. The scene in which he visits the Countess of Auvergne, who seeks to entrap him, is a very spirited one, and his description of his own treatment while a prisoner to the French not less remarkable.
“ Salisbury. Yet tell'st thou not how thou wert entertain'd.
Talbot. With scoffs and scorns, and contumelious taunts,
The second part relates chiefly to the contests between the nobles during the minority of Henry, and the death of Gloucester, the good Duke Humphrey. The character of Cardinal Beaufort is the most prominent in the group : the account of his death is one of our author's masterpieces. So is the speech of Gloucester to the nobles on the loss of the provinces of France by the king's marriage with Margaret of Anjou. The pretensions and growing ambition of the Duke of York, the father of Richard III. are also very ably developed. Among
the episodes, the tragi-comedy of Jack Cade, and the detection of the impostor Simcox are truly edifying.
The third part describes Henry's loss of his crown : his death takes place in the last act, which is usually thrust into the common acting play of Richard III. The character of Gloucester, afterwards King Richard, is here very powerfully commenced, and his dangerous designs and long-reaching ambition are fully described in his soliloquy in the third act, beginning, Aye, Edward will use women honourably." Henry VI. is drawn as distinctly as his high spirited Queen, and notwithstanding the very mean figure which Kenry makes as a king, we still feel more respect for him than for his wife.
We have already observed that Shakspeare was scarcely more remarkable for the force and marked contrasts of his characters, than for the truth and subtlety with which he has distinguished those which approached the nearest to each other. For instance, the soul of Othello is hardly more distinct from that of lago, than that of Desdemona is shewn to be from Æmilia's; the ambition of Macbeth is as distinct from the ambition of Richard III. as it is from the meekness of Duncan; the real madness ef Lear is as different from the seigned madness of Edgar* as from the babbling of the fool : the constrast between wit and folly in Falstaff and Shallow is not more characteristick though more obvious than the
There is another instance of the same distinction in Hamlet and Ophelia. Hamlet's pretended madness would make a very good real nadness in any other author.
gradations of folly, loquacious or reserved, in Sballow and Silence; and again, the gallantry of Prince Henry is as little confounded with that of Hotspur as with the cowardice of Falstaff, or as the sensual and philosophick cowardice of the Knight is with the pitiful and cringing cowardice of Parolles. All these several personages were as different in Shakspeare as they would have been in themselves: his imagination borrowed from the life, and every circumstance, object, motive, passion, operated there as it would in reality, and produced a world of men and women as distinct, as true and as various as those that exist in nature. The peculiar property of Shakspeare's imagination was this truth, accompanied with the unconsciousness of nature : indeed, imagination to be perfect must be unconscious, at least in production ; for nature is so.—We shall attempt one example more in the characters of Richard II. and Henry VI.
The characters and situations of both these persons were so nearly alike, that they would have been completely confounded by a commonplace poet. Yet they are kept quite distinct in Shakspeare. Both were kings, and both unfortunate. Both lost their crowns owing to their mismapagement and imbecility; the one from a thoughtless, wilful abuse of power, the other from an indifference to it. The manner in which they bear their misfortunes corresponds exactly to the causes which led to thein. The one is always lamenting the loss of his power, which he has not the spirit to regain; the other seems only to regret that he had
ever been king, and is glad to be rid of the power, with the trouble; the effeminacy of the one is that of a voluptuary, proud, revengeful, impatient of contradiction, and inconsolable in his misfortunes ; the effeminacy of the other is that of an indolent, good-natured mind, naturally averse to the turmoils of ambition and the cares of greatness, and who wishes to pass his time in monkish indolence and contemplation.-Richard bewails the loss of the kingly power only as it was the means of gratifying his pride and luxury; Henry regards it only as a means of doing right, and is less desirous of the advantages to be derived from possessing it than afraid of exercising it wrong. In knighting a young soldier, he gives him ghostly advice
“Edward Plantagenet, arise a knight,
Richard II. in the first speeches of the play betrays his real character. Io the first alarm of his pride, on bearing of Bolingbroke’s rebellion, before his presumption has met with any check, he exclaims
“Mock not my senseless conjuration, lords :
Not all the water in the rough rude sea