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The Cambridge History of English and American Literature in 18 Volumes (1907–21).
Volume IV. Prose and Poetry: Sir Thomas North to Michael Drayton.

VIII. Shakespeare: Life and Plays

§ 11. Early Chronicle Plays: Richard II, King John, Richard III

The chronicle plays, King John, Richard II and III and Henry IV, which are certainly early because mentioned by Meres, introduce a new division of Shakespeare’s work, to which we shall take the liberty of adding Henry VI pro tanto. In the opinion of the present writer, the tantum is considerable; but something has already been said in the preceding chapter as to the authorship of The Contention and The True Tragedie, on which Parts II and III of Henry VI were based. In the case of all these plays, with the possible exception of Richard II (both the Richards were actually published in 1597), there were previously existing pieces on the subject; whether in all cases these were the actual pieces that we have is another question. But in no kind of drama would the specially Shakespearean method find better exercise than in the chronicle history. That remarkable species, though it was to receive its perfect development only in England, and (in absolute perfection) only at the hands of Shakespeare himself, had, as has been seen, made its appearance as a modernised and practicalised development of the mystery and morality, much earlier in the sixteenth century. The advantages of the species, when it discards allegory altogether and at least affects to be frankly historical, are obvious: subjects that “come home,” copiousness and variety of interest, given outlines of striking figures, and the like. Its dangers—hardly less obvious—are those of the prosaic and the promiscuous; of a mere decoction of chronicle facts and speeches, fortified by bombast and frothed with stock horseplay. And those are abundantly exemplified in the earliest Elizabethan specimens, while they are by no means absent from the curious later attempts of Dekker, Middleton and others to combine a more or less historical mainplot with a purely fictitious underplot, romantic or classical. Now, Shakespeare’s two greatest gifts, that of sheer poetic expression and that of character creation, were exactly what was needed to turn these “formless agglomerations” into real organisms, possessing life and beauty. If Richard II be quite original (which, as has been hinted, it would not be wise to assume too absolutely) it must be a good deal earlier than its publication, but later than Titus Andronicus, with which, however, it may be classed as exhibiting the Marlowe influence more strongly than anything else, save some parts of Henry VI, which one would be inclined to place between them. In yet other respects, Richard II makes a very fair pair with Romeo and Juliet in its far different division. The curious immature splendour of the conception of the title part is like nothing else in Shakespeare. The parallel with, and the suggestion given by, Marlowe’s Edward II are, of course, unmistakable. But, where Marlowe has given three Edwards, not perhaps irreconcilable with each other but not actually reconciled, Shakespeare’s Richard sibi constat throughout, in weakness as in strength—he is sincere in his insincerity. Still, the part is not well supported—even of “time-honoured Lancaster” it may be said that he rather makes great speeches than is a great character; and so of others. The chronicle sequence, encroaching rather on dramatic connection, is also noticeable; as is the fact (especially to be considered in view of Titus Andronicus and Marlowe) that there is practically no comic element whatever. Of the extreme beauty of the poetry (almost always, however, of the “purple patch” or “fringe” kind and, it would seem, purposely so) in the king’s part, it is almost unnecessary to speak.

King John and Richard III, on the other hand, are examples—documented, as we may say, and almost acknowledged—of adaptation, of the working up of existing materials. But not many impartial and competent critics will adopt Greene’s very unkind simile of the crow and the feathers. It is much rather a case of grafting the fairest and most luscious fruit on a crab-tree or a sloe, though no metaphor of the kind can be satisfactory. The processes and results of the adaptation, however, are rather different in the two cases. In King John, Shakespeare took and kept more of the original; but he heightened the presentation incomparably. The famous part of Constance is almost wholly his own; he has done much to the king, not a little to the bastard, hardly less to Arthur and Hubert. Above all, he has (to quote an absurd boast of another person a century later) “made it a play”—a piece of life and not a sample of chronicling. Hardly anywhere will the student find better examples of Shakespeare’s craftsmanship in verse and phrase—of the way in which, by slightly adding, cancelling, smoothing, inspiriting, he turns a lame line or passage into a beautiful one—than in King John, compared with its original.

Richard III, on the other hand, bears very much less resemblance to its predecessor, The True Tragedie of Richard III, and some have regarded it as almost an independent following of Marlowe’s Edward II. It certainly resembles that play in bursts of poetry of a somewhat rhetorical kind, in the absence of purely comic episodes or scenes and in the concentration of character interest on the hero. Not quite, however, in this latter point. For the character of Margaret (which seems to the present writer to be definitely connected with the Angevin princess’s part in Henry VI, and Shakespearean throughout) is greater than any secondary part in Edward II. Richard III, too, in the famous wooing scene, has a scene of character, as distinguished from a mere display of it, which is unmatched elsewhere. And, perhaps, as a whole, the play has been too much and too commonly regarded as a mere melodrama or popular blood-and-thunder piece, with Clarence’s dream and some other placebos thrown in. It is, at any rate, full of life—with nothing in it either of the peculiar dream quality of Marlowe or of the woodenness of certain other early playwrights.