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self that "naught but himself can be his conqueror.” If he be overmatched, it is not so much by the strength or skill of his antagonists, as from his being persuaded, seemingly against his will and for the pleasure of others, into a line of adventure where he is not qualified to thrive. His incomparable art of turning adversities into commodities; the good-humoured strategy whereby he manages to divert off all unpleasant feeling of his vices and frailties ; the marvellous agility and aptness of wit which, with a vesture of odd and whimsical constructions, at once hides the offensive and discovers the comical features of his conduct; the same towering impudence and sublime effrontery, which so lift him aloft in his subsequent exploits; and the overpowering eloquence of exaggeration, with which he delights to set off and heighten whatsoever is most ludicrous in his own person or situation ; – all these qualities, though not in their full bloom and vigour, are here to be seen in triumphant exercise.
Upon the whole, however, this bringing forth of Sir John more for exposure than for exhibition is not altogether grateful to those whom he has so often convulsed into health : though he still gives us wholesome shakings, we feel that it costs him too much : the rare exhilaration he affords us elsewhere, and even here, invests him with a sort of humorous reverence; insomuch that we can hardly help pitying even while we approve his merited, yet scarcely merited, shames and failures; and we would fain make out some excuse for him on the score of these slips' occurring earlier in his life, when experience had not yet disciplined away the natural vanity which may sometimes lead a man of genius to fancy himself the object of the tender passion. And in like manner we are apt to apologize for the Poet's exposure of his and our favourite, on the ground that, being to represent him in an enterprise where he could not deserve success, nor even work for it but by knavery, he was under a strong moral necessity of causing him not only to be thwarted, but to become the laughing-stock of those who thwart him, and, which is especially galling to one so wit-proud as Sir John, " to stand at the taunt of one that makes fritters of English.” And we are the more disposed to leniency towards Falstaff amid his unparalleled swampings, forasmuch as his merry persecutors are but a sort of decorous, respectable, common-place people, who borrow their chief importance from the victim of their mischievous sport; and if they are not so bad as to make us wish him success, neither are they so good that we like to see them grow at his expense. But on this point Mr. Verplanck has spoken so aptly, that mere justice to the subject bids us quote him: “Our choler would rise, despite of us, against Cleopatra herself, should she presume to make a dupe and tool of regal old Jack, the natural lord and master of all about him ; and, though not so atrociously immoral as to wish he had succeeded with the Windsor gypsies, we plead guilty to the minor turpitude of sympathy, when he tells his persecutors, with brightening visage and exultant twinkle of eye, - I am glad, though you have ta'en a special stand to strike at me, that your arrow hath glanc’d.'”
A further account of this huge magazine of comedies must be deferred till we encounter him at the noon of his glory, stealing, drinking, lying, recruiting, warring, and discoursing of wine, wit, valour, and honour, with Prince Hal at his side to wrestle forth the prodigies of his big-teeming brain.
Sir John's followers are under the cloud with him, being little more than the shadows of what they appear when their master is fully himself: the light of Bardolph's nose is not well kindled yet; Pistol, ancient Pistol's tongue has not yet learned to strut with such potent impotence as it elsewhere waxes great withal. Quickly, however, is altogether herself as far as she goes, and she lets off some brilliancies that would not discredit her maturity in the more congenial atmosphere of Eastcheap; though of course we may not expect her to be the woman now that she will be when she has known Sir John “these twenty-nine years, come peascod time.” Acting here in the capacity of a matchmaker and go-between, her perfect impartiality towards all of Anne Page's suitors, both in the service she renders and in the return she accepts, finely exemplifies the indefatigable benevolence of that class of worthies towards themselves, and is so true to the life of a certain perpetual sort of people, as almost to make one believe in the transmigration of souls. Mine Host of the Garter" is indeed a model of a host : up to any thing, and brimful of fun, so that it runs out at the ends of his fingers, nothing suits him so well as to uncork the wit-holders of his guests, unless, peradventure, it be to uncork his wine-holders for them. His exhilarating conceit of practical shrewdness, —“Am I politic ? am I subtle ? am I a Machiavel ?" - which serves as oil to make the wheels of his mind run smooth and glib, is richly characteristic, both of himself individually and of the class he represents. - Sir Hugh Evans is an odd marriage of the ludicrous and the respectable. In his officious simplicity he moralizes the play much better, doubtless, than a wiser man could do it. The scene where, in expectation of the fight with the French doctor, he is full of “ cholers,” and “trempling of mind,” and “ melancholies," and has " a great dispositions to cry," and strikes up a lullaby to the palpitations of his heart without seeming to know it, while those palpitations in turn scatter his memory and discompose his singing, is replete with a quiet delicacy of humour, hardly to be surpassed. It is quite probable, as hath been said, that both he and Doctor Caius are delineations, slightly caricatured, of what the Poet had seen and conversed with ; there being a portrait-like reality and effect about them, with just enough infusion of the ideal to lift them into the region of art.
Hazlitt boldly pronounces Shakespeare “ the only writer who
was as great in describing weakness as strength.” However this may be, we are pretty sure, that after Falstaff there is not a greater piece of work in the play than Master Abraham Slender, cousin to Robert Shallow Esquire,- dainty sprout, or rather sapling, of provincial gentry, who, once seen, is never to be forgotten. In his consequential verdancy, his aristocratic official boobyism, and his lean-witted, lack-brain originality, this pithless hereditary squireling is altogether inimitable and irresistible; a tall though slender specimen of most effective imbecility, whose manners and character must needs be all from within, because he lacks force of nature enough to shape or dress himself by any model. Mr. Hallam, whose judgment in such things is not often at fault, thinks Slender was intended as “a satire on the brilliant youth of the provinces,” such as they were “ before the introduction of news. papers and turnpike roads; awkward and boobyish among civil people, but at home in rude sports, and proud of exploits at which the town would laugh, yet perhaps with more courage and goodnature than the laughers.”
Ford's jealousy is managed with great skill so as to help on the plot, bringing out a series of the richest incidents, and drawing the most savoury issues from the mellow, juicy old sinner upon whom he is practising. The means whereby he labours to justify his passion, spreading temptations and then concerting surprises, are quite as wicked as any thing Falstaff does, and have, besides, the further crime of exceeding meanness; but both their meanness and their wickedness are of the kind that rarely fail to be their own punishment. The way in which his passion is made to sting and lash him into reason, and the crafty discretion of his wife in glutting his disease and thereby making an opportunity to show him what sort of stuff it lives on, are admirable instances of the wisdom with which the Poet delights to underpin his most fantastical creations. The counter-plottings, also, of Page and his wife to sell their daughter against her better sense, are about as far from virtue as the worst purposes of Sir John ; though their sins are of a more respectable kind than to expose them to ridicule. But we are the more willing to forget their unhandsome practices herein, because of their good-natured efforts at last to make Falstaff forget his sad miscarriages, and to compose whatsoever vexations and disquietudes still remain, in a well-crowned cup of social merriment. — Anne Page is but an average specimen of discreet, placid, innocent mediocrity, yet with a mind of her own, in whom we can feel no such interest as a rich father causes to be felt by those about her. In her and Fenton a slight dash of romance is given to the play; their love forming a barely audible undertone of poetry in the grand chorus of comicalities, as if on purpose that while the sides are shaken the heart may not be left altogether untouched. VOL. I.
Sir John FalstAFF.
two Gentlemen dwelling at Windsor.
Servants to Page, Ford, &c.
SCENE, Windsor, and the Parts adjacent.
MERRY WIVES OF WINDSOR.
SCENE I. Windsor. Before Page's House.
Enter Justice SHALLOW, SLENDER, and
Sir Hugh EVANS.
Shal. Sir Hugh,' persuade me not; I will make a Star-chamber? matter of it: if he were twenty Sir John Falstaffs, he shall not abuse Robert Shallow, Esquire.
Slen. In the county of Gloster, justice of peace, and coram.
Shal. Ay, cousin Slender, and cust-alorum.
Sir was formerly applied to the inferior clergy as well as to knights. Fuller in his Church History says : “ Such priests as have Sir before their Christian name were men not graduated in the university ; being in orders, but not in degrees; while others, entitled “masters,' had commenced in the arts." Besides Sir Hugh, Shakespeare has Sir Oliver Mar-text, the Vicar, in As You Like It, Sir Topas in Twelfth Night, and Sir Nathaniel, the Curate, in Love's Labour's Lost.
2 The old court of Star-Chamber had cognizance of such cases. Thus in Jonson's Magnetic Lady, Act iii. sc. 3: “ There is a court above, of the Star-chamber, to punish routs and riots."
3 Coram is a corruption of quorum. A justice of quorum was so called from the words in the commission, Quorum A. unum esse volumus ; and as there could be no quorum, that is, nothing could be done, without him, of course he had greater dignity than the others. Cust-alorum, in the next line, is the sapient Shallow's abbreviation of custos rotulorum, keeper of the rolls or records. Slender, not understanding this, adds, “and ratolorum too.” Shallow's official attestation was, Coram me, Roberto Shallow, armigero; and his slender nephew, speaking by the book, puts the ablative, armigero, for the nominative, armiger, esquire. n.