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I FANCY every reader, when he ends this play, cries out with Desdemona, “O most lame and impotent conclusion!” As this play was not, to our knowledge, divided into acts by the author, I could be content to conclude it with the death of Henry the Fourth :
“In that Jerusalem shall Harry die.” These scenes, which now make the fifth act of Henry the Fourth, might then be the first of Henry the Fifth; but the truth is, that they do not unite very commodiously to either play. When these plays were represented, I believe they ended as they are now ended in the books; but Shakspeare seems to have designed that the whole series of action, from the beginning of Richard the Second to the end of Henry the Fish, should be considered by the reader as one work upon one plan, only broken into parts by the necessity of exhibition.
None of Shakspeare's plays are more read than the First and Second Parts of Henry The Fourth. Perhaps no author has ever, in two plays, afforded so much delight. The great events are interesting, for the fate of kingdoms depends upon them; the slighter occurrences are diverting, and, except one or two, sufficiently probable; the incidents are multiplied with wonderful fertility of invention, and the characters diversified with the utmost nicety of discernment, and the profoundest skill in the nature of man.
The prince, who is the hero both of the comic and tragic part, is a young man of great abilities and violent passions, whose sentiments are right, though his actions are wrong; whose virtues are obscured by negligence, and whose understanding is dissipated by levity. In his idle hours he is rather loose than wicked; and when the occasion forces out his latent qualities, he is great without effort, and brave without tumult. The trifler is roused into a hero, and the hero again reposes in the trifler. The character is great, original, and just.
Percy is a rugged soldier, choleric and quarrelsome, and has only the soldier's virtues, generosity and courage.
But Falstaff, unimitated, unimitable Falstaff, how shall I describe thee? Thou compound of sense and vice; of sense which may be admired, but not esteemed; of vice which may be despised, but hardly detested. Falstaff is a character loaded with faults, and with those faults which naturally produce contempt. He is a thief and a glutton, a coward and a boaster, always ready to cheat the weak, and prey upon the poor; to terrify the timorous, and insult the defenceless. At once obsequious and malignant, he satirizes in their absence those whom he lives by flattering. He is familiar with the prince only as an agent of vice; but of this familiarity he is so proud, as not only to be supercilious and haughty with common men, but to think his interest of importance to the duke of Lancaster. Yet the man, thus corrupt, thus despicable, makes himself necessary to the prince that despises him, by the most pleasing of all qualities, perpetual gayety; by an unfailing power of exciting laughter; which is the more freely indulged, as his wit is not of the splendid or ambitious kind, but consists in easy scapes and sallies of levity, which make sport, but raise no envy. It must be observed, that he is stained with no enormous or sanguinary crimes, so that his licentiousness is not so offensive but that it may be borne for his mirth.
The moral to be drawn from this representation is, that no man is more dangerous than he that, with a will to corrupt, hath the power to please; and that neither wit nor honesty ought to think themselves safe with such a companion, when they see Henry seduced by Falstaff.
KING HENRY THE FIFTH.
The transactions comprised in this play commence about the latter end of the first, and terminate in the eighth year of this king's reign; when he married Katharine, princess of France, and closed up the differences betwixt England and that crown.
This play, in the quarto edition of 1608, is styled The Chronicle History of Henry, &c., which seems to have been the title appropriated to all Shakspeare's historical dramas. Thus in The Antipodes, a comedy by R. Brome :
“ These lads can act the emperor's lives all over,
And Shakspeare's Chronicled Histories to boot." The players, likewise, in the folio of 1623, rank these pieces under the title of Histories.
It is evident that a play on this subject had been performed before the year 1592.
Nash, in his Pierce Penniless, dated in that year, says, « What a glorious thing it is to have Henry the Fift represented on the stage, leading the French king prisoner, and forcing both him and the Dolphin to sweare fealtie!” Perhaps this same play was thus entered on the books of the Stationers' Company :-" Thomas Strode] May 2, 1594. A booke entituled The famous Victories of Henry the Fift, containing the honourable Battle of Agincourt." There are two more entries of a play of King Henry V., viz. between 1596 and 1615, and one August 14, 1600. Malone had an edition printed in 1598; and Steevens had two copies of this play, one without date, and the other dated 1617, both printed by Bernard Alsop: from one of these it was reprinted, in 1778, among "Six Old Plays on which Shakspeare founded,” &c., published by Mr. Nichols. It is thought that this piece is prior to Shakspeare's King
Henry V., and that it is the very “displeasing play" alluded to in the i epilogue to the Second Part of King Henry IV., "for Oldcastle died a
martyr,” &c. Oldcastle is the Falstaff of the piece, which is despicable, and full of ribaldry and impiety. Shakspeare seems to have taken not a few hints from it; for it comprehends, in some measure, the story of the two parts of King Henry IV. as well as of King Henry V.; and no ignorance could debase the gold of Shakspeare into such dross, though no chemistry, but that of Shakspeare, could exalt such base metal into gold. This piece must have been performed before the year 1588, Tarlton, the comedian, who played both the parts of the chief justice and the clown in it, having died in that year.
This anonymous play of King Henry V. is neither divided into acts or scenes, is uncommonly short, and has all the appearance of having been imperfectly taken down during the representation. VOL. IV.
There is a play called Sir John Oldcastle, published in 1600, with the name of William Shakspeare prefixed to it. The prologue serves to show that a former piece, in which the character of Oldcastle was introduced, had given great offence:
“ The doubtful title (gentlemen) prefixt
Shakspeare's play, according to Malone, seems to have been written in the middle of the year 1599. There were three quarto editions in the Poet's lifetime—1600, 1602, and 1608. In all of them the choruses are omitted, and the play commences with the fourth speech of the second
“ King Henry the Fifth is visibly the favorite hero of Shakspeare in English history. He portrays him endowed with every chivalrous and kingly virtue ; open, sincere, affable, yet still disposed to innocent raillery, as a sort of reminiscence of his youth, in the intervals between his dangerous and renowned achievements. To bring his life, after his ascent to the crown, on the stage was, however, attended with great difficulty. The conquests in France were the only distinguished events of his reign; and war is much more an epic than a dramatic object. If we would have dramatic interest, war must only be the means by which something else is accomplished, and not the last aim and substance of the whole.” In King Henry the Fifth, no opportunity was afforded Shakspeare of rendering the issue of the war dramatic ; but he has availed himself of other circumstances attending it, with peculiar care. “ Before the battle of Agincourt, he paints in the most lively colors the light-minded impatience of the French leaders for the moment of battle, which to them seemed infallibly the moment of victory ; on the other hand, he paints the uneasiness of the English king and his army, from their desperate situation, coupled with the firm determination, if they are to fall, at least to fall with honor. He applies this as a general contrast between the French and English national characters; contrast which betrays a partiality for his own nation, certainly excusable in a poet, especially when he is backed with such a glorious document as that of the memorable battle in question. He has surrounded the general events of the war with a fulness of individual characteristic, and even sometimes comic features. A heavy Scotchman, a hot Irishman, a well-meaning, honorable, pedantic Welshman, all speaking in their peculiar dialects. But all this variety still seemed to the Poet insufficient to animate a play of which the object was a conquest, and nothing but a conquest. He has, therefore, tacked a prologue (in the technical language of that day, a chorus) to the beginning of each act. These prologues, which unite epic pomp and solemnity with lyrical sublimity, and among which the description of the two camps before the battle of Agincourt forms a most admirable night-piece, are intended to keep the spectators constantly in mind that the peculiar grandeur of the actions there described cannot be developed on a narrow stage; and that they must supply the deficiencies of the representation from their own imaginations. As the subject was not properly dramatic, in the form, also, Shakspeare chose rather to wander beyond the bounds of the species, and to sing as a poetic herald, what he could not represent to the eye, than to cripple the progress of the action by putting long speeches in the mouths of the persons of the drama.
“ However much Shakspeare celebrates the French conquest of king Henry, still he has not omitted to hint to us, after his way, the secret springs of this undertaking. Henry was in want of foreign wars to secure himself on the throne; the clergy also wished to keep him employed abroad, and made an offer of rich contributions to prevent the passing of a law which would have deprived them of the half of their revenues. His learned bishops are consequently as ready to prove to him his undisputed right to the crown of France, as he is to allow his conscience to be tranquillized by them. They prove that the Salic law is not, and never was, applicable to France; and the matter is treated in a more succinct and convincing manner than such subjects usually are in manifestoes. After his renowned battles, Henry wished to secure his conquests by marriage with a French princess; all that has reference to this is intended for irony in the play. The fruit of this union, from which two nations promised to themselves such happiness in future, was that very feeble Henry the Sixth, under whom every thing was so miserably lost. It must not, therefore, be imagined that it was without the knowledge and will of the Poet that an heroic drama turns out a comedy in his hands; and ends, in the manner of comedy, with a marriage of convenience.” *
King HENRY THE FIFTH.
Duke of Bedford
; } Brothers to the King.
Duke of Exeter, Uncle to the King.
Officers in King Henry's
Soldiers in the same.
formerly Servants to Falstaff, now Soldiers BARDOLPH,
in the same.
CHARLES THE Sixth, King of France.
Isabel, Queen of France.
Messengers, and Attendants.
The SCENE, at the beginning of the Play, lies in Eng
land; but afterwards wholly in France.