Home  »  Volume V: English THE DRAMA TO 1642 Part One  »  § 12. Shakespeare’s share in Henry VI, Henry IV

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

§ 12. Shakespeare’s share in Henry VI, Henry IV

As was above observed, the part due to Shakespeare in Henry VI cannot be minutely discussed here. It seems to the present writer to be probably large. There is, at least, no doubt that many of the passages which it used to be the fashion to dole out to the university wits, like beef bones at a buttery door in ancient days, are quite like those in Shakespeare’s plays of the period which we have already surveyed. And it may seem to some that many scenes—some of them, no doubt, not wholly or originally from his pen—many of the battle pieces, French and English; the starting of the rose dispute; the quarrel of Winchester and Gloucester and the deaths of both; all, as has been said, of the scenes where Margaret appears; much of the Cade part; the deaths, again, of York and Clifford; of prince Edward and king Henry—smack of Shakespeare in their altered forms. But it would be altogether uncritical to be positive here. It may be sufficient to say that Part I exhibits least change; Part II most; and Part III somewhat less than Part II, but still a very considerable amount; while, independently of positive changes, the whole composition of Part I is very much less Shakespearean, even as compared with his earliest probable work, than that of the other two. At any rate, we may safely return to the position that, in this chronicle work, Shakespeare had new and admirable opportunities for developing his grasp of character and for getting into complete working order that remarkable and, in fact, unique, conception of the loose, many-centred drama kept together by character itself, which was to be his—and ours.

Last of the Meres-warranted batch comes Henry IV, like the others worked up from an earlier production, The Famous Victories of Henry the fifth, but more remarkable than any of them, if not for passages of pure poetry (for which its theme gives but rare opportunity), for complete transformation of the merest brute material into magnificent art. The first assignment of the world-famous part of Falstaff—one of the very greatest of dramatic creations, and practically a creation, in the precise sense of the word—to the luckless Lollard Oldcastle was a mistake; but it was speedily rectified—though not without further protest on the part of the prosaic in favour of the actual warrior Fastolf. The actual play (for its two parts are practically one) is, undoubtedly, with the reservation above stated, one of Shakespeare’s very greatest achievements; and, seeing that he had already proved himself able to supply pure poetry in unlimited quantities and in any required degree of strength, no drawback or shortcoming could possibly be urged. The entwining and enforcing of the purely historical part receives, and, probably, has always received, less attention from readers and spectators; but it is wonderful in itself. The prince (the famous key-soliloquy, “I know you all” and the other on the crown excepted) is designedly kept undeveloped in his public capacity. But the king, the Percies, Glendower, the younger princes and wiser noblemen, are all vivified and spirited up in the inscrutable Shakespearean manner. Still, “the general” are not wrong in preferring to dwell on the Bohemian society of which the prince is the rather Mephistophelian centre, but of which Falstaff is the real master and king. Not a member of it, male or female, but has the certain vital touches. “Bowdlerising” is seldom less justified of its works than when it here prevents readers from appreciating the curious and universal humanity of Shakespeare’s portraiture, and its contrast with the artificial efforts of modern realism. The supremacy of Falstaff does not disparage the exemplary virtue of Pistol or the modest adequacy of Bardolph and of Nym; and, in the same way, Nell and Doll make each the other deformitate formosam videri. Everyone has noticed how, in this most genial, if not most poetical, of his cycles (anticipating, for a moment, The Merry Wives), Shakespeare has been prodigal of home memories—of Warwickshire and Gloucestershire detail. But everybody, perhaps, has not noticed the singular fashion in which, once more, this yoking of almost domestic minutiae with public affairs passes itself off, in contrast with the strident discord of Poetaster and The Mayor of Quinborough. Shallow, immortal in his own way, is a planet in a greater system only; and all the parts combine to work this out.