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A History of England Principally in the Seventeent

Shakspeare is one of the intellectual powers of nature


appear only in private life,

break the continuity of the political action, and thus obtain a twofold dramatic influence. But if deviations from fact are found in individual points, yet the choice of events to be brought upon the stage shows a deep sense of what is historically great. These are almost always situations and entanglements of the most important character: the interference of the spiritual power in an intestine political quarrel in King John: the sudden fall of a firmly seated monarchy as soon as ever it departs from the strict path of right in Richard III: the opposition which a usurping prince, Henry IV, meets with at the hands of the great vassals who have placed him on the throne, and which brings him by incessant anxiety and mental labour to a premature grave: the happy issue of a successful foreign enterprise, the course of which we follow from the determination to prepare for it, to the risk of battle and to final victory; and then again in Henry V and Henry VI, the unhappy position into which a prince not formed by nature to be a ruler falls between violent contending parties, until he envies the homely swain who tends his flocks and lets the years run by in peace: lastly the path of horrible crime which a king's son not destined for the throne has to tread in order to ascend it: all these are great elements in the history of states, and are not only important for England, but are symbolic for all people and their sovereigns. The poet touches on parliamentary or religions questions extremely
seldom; and it may be observed that in King John the great movements which led to Magna Charta are as good as left out of sight; on the contrary he lives and moves among the personal contrasts offered by the feudal system, and its mutual rights and duties. Bolingbroke's feeling that though his cousin is King of England yet he is Duke of Lancaster reveals the conception of these rights in the middle ages. The speech which Shakspeare puts into the mouth of the Bishop of Carlisle is applicable to all times. The crown that secures the highest independence appears to the poet the most desirable of all possessions, but the honoured gold consumes him who wears it by the restless care which it brings with it.

Shakspeare depicts the popular storms which are wont to accompany a free constitution in the plots of some of his Roman dramas: of these Plutarch instead of Holinshed furnishes the basis. He is right in taking them from a foreign country: for events nearer to his audience would have roused an interest of a different kind, and yet would not have had so universal a meaning. What could be more dramatic, for example, and at the same time more widely applicable than the contrast between the two speeches, by the first of which Caesar's murder is justified, while by the second the memory of his services is revived? The conception of freedom which the first brings to life is set in opposition to the thought of the virtues and services of the possessor of absolute power, and thrust by them into the background; but these same feelings are the deepest and most active in all ages and among all nations.

But the attested traditions of ancient and modern times do not satisfy the poet in his wish to lay bare the depths of human existence. He takes us into the cloudy regions of British and Northern antiquity only known to fable, in which other contrasts between persons and in public affairs make their appearance. A king comes on the stage who in the plenitude of enjoyment and power is brought by overhasty confidence in his nearest kin to the extremest wretchedness into which men can fall. We see the heir to a throne who, dispossessed of his rights by his own mother and his father's murderer, is directed by mysterious influences to take revenge. We have before us a great nobleman, who by atrocious murders has gained possession of the throne, and is slain in fighting for it: the poet brings us into immediate proximity with the crime, its execution, and its recoil: it seems like an inspiration of hell and of its deceitful prophecies: we wander on the confines of the visible world and of that other world which lies on the other side, but extends over into this, where it forms the border-land between conscious sense and unconscious madness: the abysses of the human breast are opened to view, in which men are chained down and brought to destruction by powers of nature that dwell there unknown to them: all questions about existence and non-existence; about heaven, hell, and earth; about freedom and necessity, are raised in these struggles for the crown. Even the tenderest feelings that rivet human souls to one another he loves to display upon a background of political life. Then we follow him from the cloudy North into sunny Italy. Shakspeare is one of the intellectual powers of nature; he takes away the veil by which the inward springs of action are hidden from the vulgar eye. The extension of the range of human vision over the mysterious being of things which his works offer constitutes them a great historical fact.


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