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'Tis ten to one, this play can never please
THE play of Henry VIII. is one of those which still keeps possession of the stage by the splendor of its pageantry. The coronation, about forty years ago, drew the people together in multitudes for a great part of the winter. Yet pomp is not the only merit of this play. The meek sorrows and virtuous distress of Katharine, have furnished some scenes which may be justly numbered among the greatest efforts of tragedy. But the genius of Shakspeare comes in and goes out with Katharine. Every other part may be easily conceived and easily written.
The historical dramas are now concluded, of which the two parts of Henry IV. and Henry V. are among the happiest of our author's compositions; and King John, Richard III., and Henry VIII., deservedly stand in the second class. Those whose curiosity would refer the historical scenes to their original, may consult Holinshed, and sometimes Hall. From Holinshed, Shakspeare has often inserted whole speeches with no more alteration than was necessary to the numbers of his verse. To transcribe them into the margin was unnecessary, because the original is easily examined, and they are seldom less perspicuous in the Poet than in the historian.
To play histories, or to exhibit a succession of events by action and dialogue, was a common entertainment among our rude ancestors upon great festivities.* The parish clerks once performed at Clerkenwell a play which lasted three days, containing the History of the World.
* It appears that the tradesmen of Chester were three days emplɔyed in the representation of twenty-four Whitsun plays or mysteries. See Mr. Markland's Disquisition, prefixed to his very elegant and interesting selection from the Chester Mysteries, printed for private distribution ; which may be consulted in the third volume of the late edition of Malone's Shakspeare, by Mr. Boswell. The Coventry Mysteries must have taken up a longer time, as they were no less than forty in number.
TROILUS AND CRESSIDA.
“MR. STEEVENS informs us that Shakspeare received the greater part of the materials that were used in the construction of this play from the Troy Book of Lydgate. It is presumed that the learned commentator would have been nearer the fact, had he substituted the Troy Book, or Recueyl, translated by Caxton from Raoul Le Fevre ; which, together with a translation of Homer, supplied the incidents of the Trojan war. Lydgate's work was becoming obsolete, whilst the other was at this time in the prime of its vigor. From its first publication, to the year 1619, it had passed through six editions, and continued to be popular even in the eighteenth century. Mr. Steevens is still less accurate in stating Le Fevre's work to be a translation from Guido of Colonna; for it is only in the latter part that he has made any use of him. Yet Guido actually had a French translation before the time of Raoul; which translation, though never printed, is remaining in MS. under the whimsical title of La Vie de la pitieuse Destruction de la noble et superlative Cite de Troye le grand. Translatée en François l'an MCCCLXXX. Such part of the present play as relates to the loves of Troilus and Cressida, was most probably taken from Chaucer, as no other work, accessible to Shakspeare, could have supplied him with what was necessary.” This account is by MR. Douce, from whom also what follows on this subject is abstracted.
Chaucer, in his Troilus and Creseide, asserts that he followed Lollius, and that he translated from the Latin ; but who Lollius was, and when he lived, we have no certain indication, though Dryden boldly asserts that he was an historiographer of Urbino, in Italy, and wrote in Latin verse. Nothing can be more apparent than that the Filostrato of Boccaccio afforded Chaucer the fable and characters of his poem, and even numerous passages appear to be mere literal translations; but there are large additions in Chaucer's work, so that it is possible he may have followed a free Latin version, which may have had for its author Lollius.
Boccaccio does not give his poem as a translation, and we must therefore suppose him to have been the inventor of the fable, until we have more certain indications respecting Lollius. So much of it as relates to the departure of Cressida from Troy, and her subsequent amour with Diomed, is to be found in the Troy Book of Guido of Colonna, composed in 1287, and, as he states, from Dares Phrygius, and Dicty's Cretensis, neither of whom mention the name of Cressida. Mr. Tyrwhitt conjectured, and Mr. Douce confirmed the conjecture, that Guido's Dares was in reality an old Norman poet, named Benoit de Saint More, who wrote in the reign of our Henry the Second, and who himself made use of Dares. Guido is said to have come into England, where he found the Metrical Romance of Benoit, and translated it into Latin prose; and, following a practice too prevalent in the middle ages, he dishonestly suppressed the mention
of his real original. Benoit's work exists also in a prose French version And there is a compilation also in French prose, by Pierre de Beauvau, from the Filostrato.
Lydgate professedly followed Guido of Colonna, occasionally making use of and citing other authorities. In a short time after, Raoul le Fevre compiled, from various materials, his Recueil des Histoires de Troye, which was translated into English and published by Caxton: but neither of these authors have given any more of the story of Troilus and Cressida than any of the other romances on the war of Troy ; Lydgate contenting himself with referring to Chaucer.
Chaucer having made the loves of Troilus and Cressida famous, Shakspeare was induced to try their fortunes on the stage. Lydgate's Troy Book was printed by Pynson in 1519. In the books of the Stationers' Company, anno 1581, is entered, “ A proper Bahad dialoguewise between Troilus and Cressida.” Again, by J. Roberts, Feb.7, 1672: “ The Booke of Troilus and Cressida, as it is acted by my Lord Chamberlain's men.” And in Jan. 28, 1608, entered by Richard Bonian and Hen. Whalley: “ A Booke called the History of Troilus and Cressida.” This last entry is made by the booksellers, who published this play in 4to. in 1609. To this edition is prefixed a preface, showing that the play was printed before it had been acted; and that it was published, without the author's knowledge, from a copy that had fallen into the booksellers' hands. This preface, as bestowing just praise on Shakspeare, and showing that the original proprietors of his plays thought it their interest to keep them unprinted, is prefixed to the play in the present edition. It appears from some entries in the accounts of Henslowe the player, that a drama on this subject, by Decker and Chettle, at first called Troyelles and Cressida, but, before its production, altered in its title to The Tragedy of Agamemnon, was in existence anterior to Shakspeare's play, and that it was licensed by the master of the revels on the 3d of June, 1599. Malone places the date of the composition of Shakspeare's play in 1602; Mr. Chalmers in 1600; and Dr. Drake in 1601. They have been led to this conclusion by the supposed ridicule of the circumstance of Cressid receiving the sleeve of Troilus, and giving him her glove, in the comedy of Histriomastix, 1610. I think that the satire was pointed at the older drama of Decker and Chettle; and should certainly give a later date to the play of Shakspeare than that which has been assigned to it. If we may credit the preface to the 4to. of 1609, this play had not then appeared on the stage, and could not therefore have been ridiculed in a piece written previous to the death of queen Elizabeth.
Malone says, “Were it not for the entry in the Stationers' books (of which there is no proof that it relates to this play), I should have been led, both by the color of the style, and from this preface, to class it in the year 1608."
There is no reason for concluding, with Schlegel, that Shakspeare intended his drama as “one continued irony of the crown of all heroic tales -the tale of Troy.” The Poet abandoned the classic, and followed the Gothic or romantic authorities; and this influenced the color of his performance. The fact probably is, that he pursued the manner in which parts of the story had been before dramatized. There is an interlude on the subject of Thersites,* resembling the old mysteries in its structure, but full of the lowest buffoonery. If the drama of Decker and Chettle were now to be found, I doubt not we should see that the present play was at least founded on it, if not a mere rifaccimento.t
* This interlude, together with another not less curious, called Jack Juggler, was reprinted from a unique copy by Mr. Haslewood for the Roxburgh club.
† Mr. Tyrwhiti has observed that there are more hard, bombastical phrases in this play than can be picked out of any other six plays of Shakspeare. Would not this be an addí. tional argument that it may be a mere alteration of the older play above mentioned ?
“The whole catalogue of the Dramatis Personæ in the play of Troilus and Cressida (says Mr. Godwin), so far as they depend upon a rich and original vein of humor in the author, are drawn with a felicity which never was surpassed. The genius of Homer has been a topic of admiration to almost every generation of men since the period in which he wrote. But his characters will not bear the slightest comparison with the delineation of the same characters as they stand in Shakspeare. This is a species of honor which ought by no means to be forgotten when we are making the eulogium of our immortal Bard, a sort of illustration of his greatness which cannot fail to place it in a very conspicuous light. The dispositions of men, perhaps, had not been sufficiently unfolded in the very early period of intellectual refinement when Homer wrote; the rays of humor had not been dissected by the glass, or rendered perdurable by the rays of the poet Homer's characters are drawn with a laudable portion of variety and consistency; but his Achilles, his Ajax, and his Nestor, are, each of them, rather a species than an individual, and can boast more of the propriety of abstraction than of the vivacity of the moving scene of absolute life. The Achilles, Ajax, and the various Grecian heroes of Shakspeare, on the other hand, are absolutely men, deficient in nothing which can tend to individualize them, and already touched with the Promethean fire that might infuse a soul into what, without it, were lifeless form. From the rest, perhaps, the character of Thersites deserves to be selected, (how cold and schoolboy a sketch in Homer!) as exhibiting an appropriate vein of sarcastic humor amidst his cowardice, and a profoundness and truth in his mode of laying open the foibles of those about him, impossible to be excelled.”
“Shakspeare possessed—no man in a higher perfection-the true dignity and loftiness of the poetical afflatus, which he had displayed in many of the finest passages of his works with miraculous success. But he knew that no man ever was, or ever can be, always dignified. He knew that those subtler traits of character which identify a man, are familiar and relaxed, pervaded with passion, and not played off with an eye to external decorum. In this respect the peculiarities of Shakspeare's genius are no where more forcibly islustrated than in the play we are here considering."
“ The champions of Greece and Troy, from the hour in which their names were first recorded, had always worn a certain formality of attire, and marched with a slow and measured step. No poet, till this time, had ever ventured to force them out of the manner which their epic creator had given them. Shakspeare first supplied their limbs, took from them the classic stiffness of their gait, and enriched them with an entire set of those attributes which might render them completely beings of the same species with ourselves.” *
* Life of Chaucer, vol. 1. p. 509-12, 8vo. ed.