A Study of Shakespeare - Part 5

Part 5

Returning to our text, we find in the short speech of the King with which the first act is wound up yet another couplet which has the very ring in it of Shakespeare's early notes--the catch at words rather than play on words which his tripping tongue in youth could never resist:

Countess, albeit my business urgeth me, It shall attend while I attend on thee.

And with this pretty little instance of courtly and courteous euphuism we pa.s.s from the first to the second and most important act in the play.

Any reader well versed in the text of Shakespeare, and ill versed in the work of his early rivals and his later pupils, might surely be forgiven if on a first reading of the speech with which this act opens he should cry out with Capell that here at least was the unformed hand of the Master perceptible and verifiable indeed. The writer, he might say, has the very glance of his eye, the very trick of his gait, the very note of his accent. But on getting a little more knowledge, such a reader will find the use of it in the perception to which he will have attained that in his early plays, as in his two early poems, the style of Shakespeare was not for the most part distinctively his own. It was that of a crew, a knot of young writers, among whom he found at once both leaders and followers to be guided and to guide. A mere glance into the rich lyric literature of the period will suffice to show the dullest eye and teach the densest ear how nearly innumerable were the Englishmen of Elizabeth's time who could sing in the courtly or pastoral key of the season, each man of them a few notes of his own, simple or fantastic, but all sweet, clear, genuine of their kind:--

Facies non omnibus una, Nec diversa tamen:

and yet so close is the generic likeness between flower and flower of the same lyrical garden that the first half of the quotation seems but half applicable here. In Bird's, Morley's, Dowland's collections of music with the words appended--in such jewelled volumes as _England's Helicon_ and _Davison's Poetical Rhapsody_--their name is Legion, their numbers are numberless. You cannot call them imitators, this man of that, or all of any; they were all of one school, but it was a school without a master or a head. And even so it was with the earliest sect or gathering of dramatic writers in England. Marlowe alone stood apart and above them all--the young Shakespeare among the rest; but among these we cannot count, we cannot guess, how many were wellnigh as competent as he to continue the fluent rhyme, to prolong the facile echo, of Greene and Peele, their first and most famous leaders.

No more docile or capable pupil could have been desired by any master in any art than the author of _David and Bethsabe_ has found in the writer of this second act. He has indeed surpa.s.sed his model, if not in grace and sweetness, yet in taste or tact of expression, in continuity and equality of style. Vigour is not the princ.i.p.al note of his manner, but compared with the soft effusive ebullience of his master's we may fairly call it vigorous and condensed. But all this merit or demerit is matter of mere language only. The poet--a very pretty poet in his way, and doubtless capable of gracious work enough in the idyllic or elegiac line of business--shows about as much capacity to grasp and handle the fine intimacies of character and the large issues of circ.u.mstance to any tragic or dramatic purpose, as might be expected from an idyllic or elegiac poet who should suddenly a.s.sume the buskin of tragedy. Let us suppose that Moschus, for example, on the strength of having written a sweeter elegy than ever before was chanted over the untimely grave of a friend and fellow-singer, had said within himself, "Go to, I will be Sophocles"; can we imagine that the tragic result would have been other than tragical indeed for the credit of his gentle name, and comical indeed for all who might have envied the mild and modest excellence which fashion or hypocrisy might for years have induced them to besprinkle with the froth and slaver of their promiscuous and pointless adulation?

As the play is not more generally known than it deserves to be,--or perhaps we may say it is somewhat less known, though its claim to general notice is faint indeed compared with that of many a poem of its age familiar only to special students in our own--I will transcribe a few pa.s.sages to show how far the writer could reach at his best; leaving for others to indicate how far short of that not inaccessible point he is too generally content to fall and to remain.

The opening speech is spoken by one Lodowick, a parasite of the King's; who would appear, like Francois Villon under the roof of his Fat Madge, to have succeeded in reconciling the professional duties--may I not say, the generally discordant and discrepant offices?--of a poet and a pimp.

I might perceive his eye in her eye lost, His ear to drink her sweet tongue's utterance; And changing pa.s.sion, like inconstant clouds, That, rackt upon the carriage of the winds, Increase, and die, in his disturbed cheeks.

Lo, when she blushed, even then did he look pale; As if her cheeks by some enchanted power Attracted had the cherry blood from his: {245a} Anon, with reverent fear when she grew pale, His cheeks put on their scarlet ornaments; But no more like her oriental red Than brick to coral, or live things to dead. {245b} Why did he then thus counterfeit her looks?

If she did blush, 'twas tender modest shame, Being in the sacred presence of a king; If he did blush, 'twas red immodest shame To vail his eyes amiss, being a king; If she looked pale, 'twas silly woman's fear To bear herself in presence of a king; If he looked pale, it was with guilty fear To dote amiss, being a mighty king.

This is better than the insufferable style of _Locrine_, which is in great part made up of such rhymeless couplets, each tagged with an empty verbal ant.i.thesis; but taken as a sample of dramatic writing, it is but just better than what is utterly intolerable. Dogberry has defined it exactly; it is most tolerable--and not to be endured.

The following speech of King Edward is in that better style of which the author's two chief models were not at their best incapable for awhile under the influence and guidance (we may suppose) of their friend Marlowe.

She is grown more fairer far since I came hither; Her voice more silver every word than other, Her wit more fluent. What a strange discourse Unfolded she of David and his Scots!

_Even thus_, quoth she, _he spake_--and then spake broad, With epithets and accents of the Scot; But somewhat better than the Scot could speak: _And thus_, quoth she--and answered then herself; For who could speak like her? but she herself Breathes from the wall an angel's note from heaven Of sweet defiance to her barbarous foes.

When she would talk of peace, methinks her tongue Commanded war to prison; {246} when of war, It wakened Caesar from his Roman grave To hear war beautified by her discourse.

Wisdom is foolishness, but in her tongue; Beauty a slander, but in her fair face; There is no summer but in her cheerful looks, Nor frosty winter but in her disdain.

I cannot blame the Scots that did besiege her, For she is all the treasure of our land; But call them cowards that they ran away, Having so rich and fair a cause to stay.

But if for a moment we may fancy that here and there we have caught such an echo of Marlowe as may have fallen from the lips of Shakespeare in his salad days, in his period of poetic pupilage, we have but a very little way to go forward before we come upon indisputable proof that the pupil was one of feebler hand and fainter voice than Shakespeare. Let us take the pa.s.sage on poetry, beginning--

Now, Lodowick, invocate {247} some golden Muse To bring thee hither an enchanted pen;

and so forth. No scholar in English poetry but will recognise at once the flat and futile imitation of Marlowe; not of his great general style alone, but of one special and transcendant pa.s.sage which can never be too often quoted.

If all the pens that ever poets held Had fed the feeling of their masters' thoughts, And every sweetness that inspired their hearts, Their minds, and muses on admired themes; If all the heavenly quintessence they still From their immortal flowers of poesy, Wherein, as in a mirror, we perceive The highest reaches of a human wit; If these had made one poem's period, And all combined in beauty's worthiness, Yet should there hover in their restless heads One thought, one grace, one wonder, at the least, Which into words no virtue can digest. {248}

Infinite as is the distance between the long roll of these mighty lines and the thin tinkle of their feeble imitator's, yet we cannot choose but catch the ineffectual note of a would-be echo in the speech of the King to his parasite--

For so much moving hath a poet's pen, etc., etc.

It is really not worth while to transcribe the poor meagre versicles at length: but a glance at the text will show how much fitter was their author to continue the tradition of Peele than to emulate the innovations of Marlowe. In the speeches that follow there is much pretty verbiage after the general manner of Elizabethan sonnetteers, touched here and there with something of a higher tone; but the whole scene drags, flags, halts onward at such a languid rate, that to pick out all the prettiest lines by way of sample would give a favourable impression but too likely to be reversed on further and fuller acquaintance.

Forget not to set down, how pa.s.sionate, How heart-sick, and how full of languishment, Her beauty makes me. . . . . .

Write on, while I peruse her in my thoughts.

Her voice to music, or the nightingale: To music every summer-leaping swain Compares his sunburnt lover when she speaks; And why should I speak of the nightingale?

The nightingale sings of adulterate wrong; And that, compared, is too satirical: For sin, though sin, would not be so esteemed; But rather virtue sin, sin virtue deemed.

Her hair, far softer than the silkworm's twist, Like as a flattering gla.s.s, doth make more fair The yellow amber:--_Like a flattering gla.s.s_ Comes in too soon; for, writing of her eyes, I'll say that like a gla.s.s they catch the sun, And thence the hot reflection doth rebound Against my breast, and burns the heart within.

Ah, what a world of descant makes my soul Upon this voluntary ground of love!

"Pretty enough, very pretty! but" exactly as like and as near the style of Shakespeare's early plays as is the style of Constable's sonnets to that of Shakespeare's. Unless we are to a.s.sign to the Master every unaccredited song, sonnet, elegy, tragedy, comedy, and farce of his period, which bears the same marks of the same date--a date, like our own, of too prolific and imitative production--as we find inscribed on the greater part of his own early work; unless we are to carry even as far as this the audacity and arrogance of our sciolism, we must somewhere make a halt--and it must be on the near side of such an attribution as that of _King Edward III_. to the hand of Shakespeare.

With the disappearance of the poetic pimp and the entrance of the unsuspecting Countess, the style rises yet again--and really, this time, much to the author's credit. It would need a very fine touch from a very powerful hand to improve on the delicacy and dexterity of the prelude or overture to the King's avowal of adulterous love. But when all is said, though very delicate and very dexterous, it is not forcible work: I do not mean by forcible the same as violent, spasmodic, emphatic beyond the modesty of nature; a poet is of course only to be commended, and that heartily, for keeping within this bound; but he is not to be commended for coming short of it. This whole scene is full of mild and temperate beauty, of fanciful yet earnest simplicity; but the note of it, the expression, the dominant key of the style, is less appropriate to the utterance of a deep and deadly pa.s.sion than--at the utmost--of what modern tongues might call a strong and rather dangerous flirtation.

Pa.s.sion, so to speak, is quite out of this writer's call; the depths and heights of manly as of womanly emotion are alike beyond his reach.

Thought and affliction, pa.s.sion, h.e.l.l itself, He turns to favour and to prettiness.

"To favour and to prettiness"; the definition of his utmost merit and demerit, his final achievement and shortcoming, is here complete and exact. Witness the sweet quiet example of idyllic work which I extract from a scene beginning in the regular amoebaean style of ancient pastoral.

_Edward_. Thou hear'st me say that I do dote on thee.

_Countess_. If on my beauty, take it if thou canst; Though little, I do prize it ten times less: If on my virtue, take it if thou canst; For virtue's store by giving doth augment: Be it on what it will that I can give And thou canst take away, inherit it.

_Edward_. It is thy beauty that I would enjoy.

_Countess_. O, were it painted, I would wipe it off, And dispossess myself to give it thee: But, sovereign, it is soldered to my life; Take one and both; for like an humble shadow It haunts the sunshine of my summer's life.

_Edward_. But thou mayst lend it me to sport withal.

_Countess_. As easy may my intellectual soul Be lent away, and yet my body live, As lend my body, palace to my soul, Away from her, and yet retain my soul.

My body is her bower, her court, her abbey, And she an angel, pure, divine, unspotted; If I should lend her house, my lord, to thee, I kill my poor soul, and my poor soul me.

Once more, this last couplet is very much in the style of Shakespeare's sonnets; nor is it wholly unlike even the dramatic style of Shakespeare in his youth--and some dozen other poets or poeticules of the time. But throughout this part of the play the recurrence of a faint and intermittent resemblance to Shakespeare is more frequently noticeable than elsewhere. {252} A student of imperfect memory but not of defective intuition might pardonably a.s.sign such couplets, on hearing them cited, to the master-hand itself; but such a student would be likelier to refer them to the sonnetteer than to the dramatist. And a casual likeness to the style of Shakespeare's sonnets is not exactly sufficient evidence to warrant such an otherwise unwarrantable addition of appendage to the list of Shakespeare's plays.

A little further on we come upon the first and last pa.s.sage which does actually recall by its wording a famous instance of the full and ripened style of Shakespeare.

He that doth clip or counterfeit your stamp Shall die, my lord: and will your sacred self Commit high treason 'gainst the King of heaven, To stamp his image in forbidden metal, Forgetting your allegiance and your oath?

In violating marriage' sacred law You break a greater honour than yourself; To be a king is of a younger house Than to be married: your progenitor, Sole reigning Adam on the universe, By G.o.d was honoured for a married man, But not by him anointed for a king.

Every possible reader, I suppose, will at once bethink himself of the famous pa.s.sage in _Measure for Measure_ which here may seem to be faintly prefigured:

It were as good To pardon him that hath from nature stolen A man already made, as to remit Their saucy sweetness, that do coin heaven's image In stamps that are forbid:

and the very difference of style is not wider than the gulf which gapes between the first style of Shakespeare and the last. But men of Shakespeare's stamp, I venture to think, do not thus repeat themselves.

The echo of the pa.s.sage in _A Midsummer Night's Dream_, describing the girlish friendship of Hermia and Helena, which we find in the first act of _The Two n.o.ble Kinsmen_, describing the like girlish friendship of Emilia and Flavina, is an echo of another sort. Both, I need hardly say, are unquestionably Shakespeare's; but the fashion in which the matured poet retouches and completes the sketch of his earlier years--composes an oil painting, as it were, from the hints and suggestions of a water-colour sketch long since designed and long since half forgotten--is essentially different from the mere verbal and literal trick of repet.i.tion which sciolists might think to detect in the present instance.

Again we must needs fall back on the inevitable and indefinable test of style; a test which could be of no avail if we were foolish enough to appeal to scholiasts and their attendant dunces, but which should be of some avail if we appeal to experts and their attentive scholars; and by this test we can but remark that neither the pa.s.sage in _A Midsummer Night's Dream_ nor the corresponsive pa.s.sage in _The Two n.o.ble Kinsmen_ could have been written by any hand known to us but Shakespeare's; whereas the pa.s.sage in _King Edward III_. might as certainly have been written by any one out of a dozen poets then living as the answering pa.s.sage in _Measure for Measure_ could a.s.suredly have been written by Shakespeare alone.

As on a first reading of the _Hippolytus_ of Euripides we feel that, for all the grace and freshness and lyric charm of its opening scenes, the claim of the poem to our ultimate approval or disapproval must needs depend on the success or failure of the first interview between Theseus and his calumniated son; and as on finding that scene to be feeble and futile and prosaic and verbose we feel that the poet who had a woman's spite against women has here effectually and finally shown himself powerless to handle the simplest elements of masculine pa.s.sion, of manly character and instinct; so in this less important case we feel that the writer, having ventured on such a subject as the compulsory temptation of a daughter by a father, who has been entrapped into so shameful an undertaking through the treacherous exaction of an equivocal promise unwarily confirmed by an inconsiderate oath, must be judged by the result of his own enterprise; must fail or stand as a poet by its failure or success. And his failure is only not complete; he is but just redeemed from utter discomfiture by the fluency and simplicity of his equable but inadequate style. Here as before we find plentiful examples of the gracefully conventional tone current among the lesser writers of the hour.

_Warwick_. How shall I enter on this graceless errand?

I must not call her child; for where's the father That will in such a suit seduce his child?

Then, _Wife of Salisbury_;--shall I so begin?

No, he's my friend; and where is found the friend That will do friendship such endamagement?--{255} Neither my daughter, nor my dear friend's wife, I am not Warwick, as thou think'st I am, But an attorney from the court of h.e.l.l; That thus have housed my spirit in his form To do a message to thee from the king.

This beginning is fair enough, if not specially fruitful in promise; but the verses following are of the flattest order of commonplace. Hay and gra.s.s and the spear of Achilles--of which tradition