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I. A SHAKESPEARIAN PLAY
What is a play, and how is it different from a story? A story is written for you to read, a play to be acted on the stage; and these scenes from old plays will show you the difference. You will find out still more clearly if you ever try to write a scene yourself. You have often, I suppose, written accounts of great things which have been done in English history: if it was the story of a battle, you have explained who fought it and where, who won and how, and perhaps you have said why it was fought; and if that day one man on either side—but especially on the English-played a noble part, standing up against great odds, or rallying his side when it seemed likely to lose, or dying for his country, you took care to write a full account of his brave deeds. Now a battle on the stage is very hard to manage; even Shakespeare, great as he was, felt that; but let us suppose that you tried to make a battle scene—something, that is, which you and the class could act if you dressed up like the real people. You would have to make two sets of men meet, talk, move about, and fight quite naturally, and, at the same time, in a way which would interest the people in your theatre. You would have a hero, of course, and you would make him the great man in the fight; and we should be so interested in him that we should forget about the other soldiers, and watch him all the time as if the battle was only where we saw his sword flash or his white plume wave. But if you carried the scene through, and there was great applause when the curtain fell, even this would not be enough. We should want to know more about your hero than you could tell us in one scene, however good it was : we should ask, 'Who is this man? What brought him to the battle ?'
and (if he did not die there), 'Did he behave as bravely ay
afterwards ?' To satisfy our curiosity about him you would have to begin at the beginning and go on to the end; and then you would find, when you had made the extra scenes,
had written a play. First, you would make up your mind what sort of a man you meant your hero to be; then you would work out the story (or plot, as we call it in a play) so as to suit him. Out of all the things which he ever did you would pick only those which best showed what he was like; each of these would make one scene. You would take care to fit all these scenes together so that they followed one another quite easily ; and in this way you would tell us what we wanted to know about your hero.
You may imagine, then, when one so great as Shakespeare makes a play about a hero, how wonderful the writing is. You can begin to read Shakespeare and get some idea of him by taking the scenes in this book. Many of them are from his plays about people in history—and you will know about some of these already. Then there are scenes from his comedies, or amusing playswhich will help you to see how he could write in quite another way ; you will soon make friends with Dogberry and Falstaff. And because in the time of Queen Elizabeth and James I many other good writers besides Shakespeare were making plays, a few of their scenes are put in too. Remember, all through this book there are only small parts of plays; but you can easily go to a book which has all Shakespeare in, if you wish to know more about him. Nothing is given here from the greatest of all his plays.
Let us look at the pieces which come from history. These are either English or Roman, and we know the history books which Shakespeare read. For English history he went to the Chronicles of Raphael Holinshed, published in the reign of Elizabeth ; Shakespeare used the second edition, printed in 1587. For Roman history he went to an old Greek writer who wrote the Lives of famous Greeks and Romans; Shakespeare had an English translation by Sir Thomas North, published in 1579. It is very interesting to look at these old books now and see how Shakespeare used them; he got from them the facts for his plots, but he worked these out in his own way, so that he makes all these dead people seem alive again and as real to us as the men and women whom we see to-day.
We will take a passage from old Holinshed and see what Shakespeare did with it. Look at the fine scene (VI,scene 2 in this book) in which King Henry IV is seized with sudden illness, and his son, thinking him dead, takes away the crown; when he has gone, the old King wakes and misses it. Holinshed tells us that the King
in this last sickness caused the crown (as some write) to be set on a pillow at his bed's head; and suddenly his pangs so sore troubled him that he lay as though his life had departed from him. Such as were about him, thinking verily that he had died, covered his face with a linen cloth. The Prince his son, being told hereof, entered the chamber, took away the crown, and departed. The father, being suddenly revived, quick perceived the loss of his crown; and, having knowledge that the Prince his son had taken it away, caused him to come before him, requiring of him what he meant so to misuse himself. The Prince with a good audacity answered, “Sir, to mine and all men's judgements you seemed dead in this world ; wherefore I, as your next heir, took that as mine own, and not as yours. • Well, fair son,” said the King with a great sigh, “what right I had to it, God knoweth.” “Well," said the Prince, “if you die king, I will have the garland, and trust to keep it with the sword against all mine enemies, as you have done." Then said the King, “I commit all to God; and remember you to do well.” With that he turned himself in his bed, and shortly after departed to God in a chamber of the abbots of Westminster called Jerusalem, the twentieth day of March, in the year 1413, and in the year of his age fortysix, when he had reigned thirteen years, five months, and odd days, in great perplexity and little pleasure.'
In the play all is life; you feel as if you heard the Prince and King talking. But you do not feel that in reading Holinshed. He is just a quiet, businesslike old gentleman, who tells his tale pleasantly and is very particular about the truth. When he winds up with the date, he is very careful about the odd days'; he worked out the sum. And how cautiously he tells us about the crown being left on the King's pillow : 'as some write', he says, evidently not quite sure about it himself. But
Shakespeare felt no doubt. Clear before his eyes there was the old King, ill and weak and weary, and troubled by his conscience. He had taken the crown wrongly, he is afraid that others may take it; he wishes to keep it by him, to see and touch it even if he cannot wear it. Holinshed says that the courtiers thought the King dead, covered up his face, and went at once to his son with the news ;
the Prince then came and took away the crown. Shakespeare changes this very finely. If the King was in his last sickness, why was the Prince away ? In the play the illness comes on suddenly, and the Prince-so one of his brothers thinks—is out hunting. He enters cheerfully after his sport, jests a little at the sight of his brother's tearful face, and is shocked to find his father dangerously ill. He takes his place at the bedside at once. Notice another point : the chronicler tells us that the King had reigned 'in great perplexity and little pleasure'. How does the poet make us feel that this is true ? The first thing which the Prince thinks about, as he watches the white, suffering face, is the 'troublesome bedfellow', the 'golden care' lying on the pillow close by as if in mockery. We must see the face as he did if we are to feel that; so Shakespeare left out the linen cloth. And that was not his only reason. Why does the Prince think that the crown belongs to him ? He notices suddenly a tiny feather resting on the King's lip; it does not stir-he must be dead ! It is then that the Prince takes away the crown. When Warwick finds him later in the next room, he is on his knees in deep grief. There is a fine change too when the Prince returns to ask his father's forgiveness. Shakespeare has worked out the hints for their talk as he found them in Holinshed, but he has added an idea of his own. In the play the King does much more than ask the Prince 'what he meant so to misuse himself'. It is not only his son's unkindness that troubles him; he has a deeper grief when he thinks of England. The Prince's wild life has made him-so his father thinks—unfit to reign ; and when he is king the country will fall back into the old bad ways and be shamed and ruined. But the Prince answers that he has already, while grieving at the thought of losing his father, vowed a 'noble change'. This is very different from the selfish way in which they both behave in the
chronicle—the King eyeing and fingering his crown like a miser, the Prince taking it without even a look at his dead father's face. The play makes us understand them and feel for them, for Shakespeare has put into them his own great love for England. It gives the sad King one moment of happiness before he dies; it is like a ray of sunshine on his deathbed.
Yes, you will say, “it is very fine ; but if the Prirce did not really see that feather, what right hadShakespeare
that he did ?' He had a poet's right; he imagined it. As he wrote that scene, he acted it over in his own mind; and it is just such touches as that little feather which make it real for us. A poet may invent as many of them as he likes so long as they fit the character. For the character is the main thing; he must fix on that first, and he must keep to it. If he takes a character from history, he must have a true idea about him and show us what sort of man he was; then he can do as he likes with the smaller points. If he interests us, we shall not mind. If it suits him, he can put into one scene what happened at more than one time and place. In Shakespeare's play of Richard II there is a sitting of Parliament, and it does in that one meeting what really happened at three different meetings. There is good reason for this : it is the scene in which Richard gives up his crown to his conqueror Henry. Seen only once in a stately procession and filling the stage as long as it remains there, the Parliament interests us; it is a fine background for the two great figures, and so it has something royal about it. But if it trooped in three times, that grand effect would be lost, and we should yawn and be glad to see the last of it. Shakespeare, who was an actor as well as a poet, knew this and took care to interest us.
Let us see how Shakespeare deals with character. We will take the case of Henry V after he became king and carried out the 'noble change' which he promised to his father. No other play of Shakespeare's makes us feel so finely his faith and pride in England. 'That battle of Agincourt', said a great writer, Thomas Carlyle,
strikes me as one of the most. perfect things in its sort we anywhere have of Shakespeare's. The description of the two hosts—the worn-out, jaded English-the dread hour, big with destiny, when the battle shall begin-and