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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

§ 14. Remaining Historical Plays: Henry V and Henry VIII

The first of the histories is Henry V, which was partly drawn from the same originals as Henry IV, and followed it closely. It was published (imperfectly) and “stayed” in 1600; and is supposed to have been acted the year before. The magnificent death of Falstaff almost necessitated the previous turning upon him of the king, which indeed, had been foreshadowed in Henry IV. Partly this, and partly other things, have prejudiced some critics against this “patriot king,” who, nevertheless, is one of the greatest, if not the most attractive, of Shakespeare’s creations. The fresh presentment of Pistol and the addition of Fluellen demonstrate the inexhaustibleness of the poet’s comic prosopopoeia, and, besides the fine tirades which figure in all the extract books, there are innumerable passages of literary excellence. But, in a panoramic survey of Shakespeare’s plays, Henry V, perhaps, with one exception to be dealt with presently, stands forth most conspicuously as almost the deftest of his spiritings up of chronicles—as a pattern of the difficult accomplishment of vitalising chronicle by character. Here, it is by character diffuse rather than compact—by the extraordinary vivacity of the different personages rather than by interest concentrated in a hero. So far as he is concerned, it is the triumph of Henry of England, rather than that of Harry of Monmouth, in which we rejoice.

The last remaining, and, probably, the last written, of the English group, Henry VIII, presents remarkable peculiarities; and it has been usual to take it as Shakespeare’s only in parts—Fletcher’s and, perhaps, Massinger’s, in others. A play on Henry VIII was represented in 1613 and interrupted by the burning of the playhouse. The piece which, ten years later, appeared in the folio is a loose composition (though, perhaps, not much looser than Cymbeline); and, though there are points of great and truly Shakespearean interest of character in the king, and still more, in Wolsey and queen Katharine, it cannot be said that the character in any one instance, or in all put together, unifies the play as it generally does with Shakespeare. Still, there is no doubt about his authorship in whole or part. No reasonable critic will attempt to go behind the folio as regards plays—though no such critic need accept either, “the whole folio” as regards passages or “nothing but the folio” in any way. The play is patchy, and some of the patches are inferior; while there are hardly any marks in it of that early and “first draft” character which we have detected in others.