« PreviousContinue »
Coventry ; fill me a bottle of sack : our soldiers shall march through: we'll to Sutton Cophill to-night.”* Shakspere, it seems to us, could scarcely resist the temptation of showing the Prince in Warwickshire :-“ What, Hal? How now, mad wag ? What a devil dost thou in Warwickshire ?” A word or two tells us that the poet had seen the field of Shrewsbury :
“How bloodily the sun begins to peer
Above yon busky hill!" The Chronicle informs us that Henry had marched with a great army towards Wales to encounter Percy and Douglas, who were coming from the north to join with Glendower; and then, “ The King, hearing of the Earls' approaching, thought it policy to encounter with them before that the Welshman should join with their army, and so include him on both parts, and therefore returned suddenly to the town of Shrewsbury. He was scantly entered into the town, but he was by his posts advertised that the Earls, with banners displayed and battles ranged, were coming toward him, and were so hot and so courageous that they with light horses began to skirmish with his host. The King, perceiving their doings, issued out, and encamped himself without the east gate of the town. The Earls, nothing abashed although their succours them deceived, embattled themselves not far from the King's army." There was a night of watchfulness ; and then, “the next day in the morning early, which was the vigil of Mary Magdalen, the King, perceiving that the battle was nearer than he either thought or looked for, lest that long tarrying might be a minishing of his strength, set his battles in good order.” The scene of this great contest is well defined ; the King has encamped himself without the east gate of Shrewsbury. The poet, by one of his magical touches, shows us the sun rising upon the hostile armies ; but he is more minute than the chronicler. The King is looking eastward, and he sees the sun rising over a wooded hill. This is not only poetical, but it is true. He who stands upon the plain on the east side of Shrewsbury, the Battle Field as it is now called, waiting, not “a long hour by Shrewsbury clock," but waiting till the minute
“when the morning sun shall raise his car
Above the border of this horizon,” t will see that sun rise over a “busky hill,” Haughmond Hill. We may well believe, therefore, from this accuracy, that Shrewsbury had lent a local interest in the mind of Shakspere to the dramatic conception of the death-scene of the gallant Percy. Insurrection was not crushed at Shrewsbury; but the course of its action does not lie in the native district of the poet. Yet his Falstaff has an especial affection for these familiar scenes, and perhaps through him the poet described some of the “old familiar faces." Shallow and Silence, assuredly they were his good neighbours. We think there was a tear in his eye when he wrote, “ And is old Double dead ?" Mouldy, and Shadow, and Wart, and Feeble—were they not the representatives of I the valiant men of Stratford, upon whom the corporation annually expended large sums for Harness ? Bardolph and Fluellen were real men, living at Stratford in 1592. After the treacherous putting down of rebellion at Gualtree Forest, Falstaff casts a longing look towards the fair seat of “Master Robert Shallow, Esquire.” “ My lord, I beseech you give me leave to go through Gloucestershire." We are not now far out of the range of Shakspere's youthful journeys around Stratford. Shallow will make the poor carter answer it in his wages “about the sack he lost the other
* All the old copies of The First Part of " Henry IV.” have Cop-hill. There is no doubt that Sutton Coufield, as it is now spelt, was meant by Cop-hill; but the old printers, we believe, improperly introduced the hyphen; for Dugdale, in his map, spells the word Cofeild; and it is easy to see how the com.aon pronunciation would be Cophill or Cofill.
"Henry VI.," Part III., Act Iv., Scene vri.
day at Hinckley Fair.” “William Visor of Wincot,” that arrant knave who, according to honest and charitable Davy, “ should have some countenance at his friend's request," was he a neighbour of Christopher Sly's “fat ale-wife of Wincot ;” and did they dwell together in the Wincot of the parish of Aston-Clifford, or the Wilmecote of the parish of Aston-Cantlow? The chroniclers are silent upon this point; and they tell us nothing of the history of “ Clement Perkes of the Hill.” The chroniclers deal with less happy and less useful sojourners on the earth. Even “Goodman Puff of Barson," one of “the greatest men in the realm,” has no fame beyond the immortality which Master Silence has bestowed upon him.
The four great historical dramas which exhibit the fall of Richard II., the triumph of Bolingbroke, the inquietudes of Henry IV., the wild career of his son ending in a reign of chivalrous daring and victory, were undoubtedly written after the four other plays of which the great theme was the war of the Roses. The local associations which might have influenced the young poet in the choice of the latter subject would be concentrated, in a great degree, upon Warwick Castle. The hero of these wars was unquestionably Richard Neville. It was a Beauchamp who fought at Agincourt in that goodly company who were to be remembered“ to the ending of the world,”—
“Harry the King, Bedford and Exeter,
He ordained in his will that in his chapel at Warwick "three masses every day should be sung as long as the world might endure." The masses have long since ceased ; but his tomb still stands, and he has a memorial that will last longer than
his tomb. The chronicler passes over his fame at Agincourt, but the dramatist records it. Did the poet's familiarity with those noble towers in which the Beauchamp had lived suggest this honour to his memory? But here, at any rate was the stronghold of the Neville. Here, when the land was at peace in the dead sleep of weak government, which was to be succeeded by fearful action, the great Earl dwelt with more than a monarch's pomp, having his own officer-at-arms called Warwick herald, with hundreds of friends and dependants bearing about his badge of the ragged staff; for whose boundless hospitality there was daily provision made as for the wants of an army; whose manors and castles and houses were to be numbered in almost every county ; and who not only had pre-eminence over every Earl in the land, but, as Great Captain of the Sea, received to his own use the King's tonnage and poundage. When William Shakspere looked upon this castle in his youth, a peaceful Earl dwelt within it, the brother of the proud Leicester—the son of the ambitious Northumberland who had suffered death in the attempt to make Lady Jane Grey queen, but whose heir had been restored in blood by Mary. Warwick Castle, in the reign of Elizabeth, was peaceful as the river which glided by it, the most beautiful of fortress palaces. No prisoners lingered in its donjon keep; the beacon blazed not upon its battlements, the warder looked not anxiously out to see if all was quiet on the road from Kenilworth ; the drawbridge was let down for the curious stranger, and he might refresh himself in the buttery without suspicion. Here, then, might the young poet gather from the old servants of the house some of the traditions of a century previous, when the followers of the great Earl were ever in fortress or in camp, and for a while there seemed to be no king in England, but the name of Warwick was greater than that of king.
In the connected plays which form the Three Parts of Henry VI., the Earl of Warwick, with some violation of chronological accuracy, is constantly brought | forward in a prominent situation. The poet has given Warwick an early importance which the chroniclers of the age do not assign to him. He is dramatically correct in so doing ; but, at the same time, his judgment might in some degree have been governed by the strength of local associations. Once embarked in the great quarrel, Warwick is the presiding genius of the scene :
“Now, by my father's badge, old Nevil's crest,
The rampant bear chain’d to the ragged staff,
The sword is first unsheathed in that battle-field of St. Albans. After three or four years of forced quiet it is again drawn. The “she-wolf of France" plunges her fangs into the blood of York at Wakefield, after Warwick has won the great battle of Northampton. The crown is achieved by the son of York at the field of Towton, where
“Warwick rages like a chafed bull."
The poet necessarily hurries over events which occupy a large space in the narratives of the historian. The rash marriage of Edward provokes the resentment of Warwick, and his power is now devoted to set up the fallen house of Lancaster. Shakspere is then again in his native localities. He has dramatized the scene of Edward's capture at Wolvey, on the borders of Leicestershire. Edward escapes from Middleham Castle, and, after a short banishment, lands again with a few followers in England, to place himself a second time upon the throne, by a movement which has only
* "Henry VI.," Part II., Act v., Scene III.
one parallel in history.* Shakspere describes his countrymen, in the speech which the great Earl delivers for the encouragement of Henry :
"In Warwickshire I have true-hearted friends,
Not mutinous in peace, yet bold in war ;
Henry is again seized by the Yorkists. Warwick, “ the great-grown traitor," is at the head of his native forces. The local knowledge of the poet is now rapidly put forth in the scene upon the walls of Coventry :
“ War. Where is the post that comes from valiant Oxford ? How far hence is thy lord, mine honest fellow?
1 Mess. By this at Dunsmore, marching thitherward.
War. How far off is our brother Montague ?
2 Mess. By this at Daintry, with a puissant troop.
Enter Sir John SOMERVILLE.
Som. Ai Southam I did leave him with his forces,
Som. It is not his, my lord ; here Southam lies ;
The chronicler tells the great event of the encounter of the two leaders at Coventry, which the poet has so spiritedly dramatized :-“In the mean season King Edward came to Warwick, where he found all the people departed, and from thence with all diligence advanced his power toward Coventry, and in a plain by the city he pitched his field. And the next day after that he came thither, his men were set forward and marshalled in array, and he valiantly bade the Earl battle: which, mistrusting that he should be deceived by the Duke of Clarence, as he was indeed, kept himself close within the walls. And yet he had perfect word that the Duke of Clarence came forward toward him with a great army. King Edward, being also thereof informed, raised his camp, and made toward the Duke. And lest that there might be thought some fraud to be cloaked between them, the King set his battles in an order, as though he would fight without any longer delay; the Duke did likewise.”I Then “a fraternal amity was concluded and proclaimed,” which was the ruin of Warwick and of the House of Lancaster. Ten years before these events, in the Parliament held in this same city of Coventry-a city which had received great benefits from Henry VI.—York, and Salisbury, and Warwick had been attainted. And now Warwick held the city for him who had in that same city denounced him as a traitor. With store of ordnance, and warlike equipments, had the great Captain lain in this city for a few weeks ; and he was honoured as one greater than either of the rival Kings—one who could bestow a crown and who could take a crown away; and he sate in state in the old halls of Coventry, and prayers went up for his cause in its many churches, and the proud city's municipal officers were as his servants. He marched out of the city with his forces, after Palm Sunday; and on
* The landing of Bonaparte from Elba, and Edward at Ravenspurg, are remarkably similar in their rapidity and their boldness, though very different in their final consequences.
† “ Henry VI.,” Part III., Act v., Scene I. I Hall.
Easter Day the quarrel between him and the perjured Clarence and the luxurious Edward was settled for ever upon Barnet Field :
“Thus yields the cedar to the axe's edge,
Whose arms gave shelter to the princely eagle ;
The Battle of Barnet was fought on the 14th of April, 1471. Sir John Paston, a stout Lancastrian, writes to his mother from London on the 18th of April :-“As for other tidings, it is understood here that the Queen Margaret is verily landed, and her son, in the west country, and I trow that as to-morrow, or else the next day, the King Edward will depart from hence to her ward to drive her out again.”+ Sir John Paston, himself in danger of his head, seems to hint that the landing of Queen Margaret will again change the aspect of things. In sixteen days the Battle of Tewksbury was fought. This is the great crowning event of the terrible struggle of sixteen years; and the scenes at Tewksbury are amongst the most spirited of these dramatic pictures. We may readily believe that Shakspere had looked upon the "fair park adjoining to the town,” where the Duke of Somerset "pitched his field, against the will and consent of many other captains which would that he should have drawn aside ;” and that he had also thought of the unhappy end of the gallant Prince Edward, as he stood in "the church of the Monastery of Black Monks in Tewksbury," where “his body was homely interred with the other simple corses.” I
There were twelve years of peace between the Battle of Tewksbury and the death of Edward IV. Then came the history which Hall entitles, “The Pitiful Life of King Edward the Fifth,” and “The Tragical Doings of King Richard the Third." The last play of the series which belongs to the wars of the Roses is unquestionably written altogether with a more matured power than those which preceded it; yet the links which connect it with the other three plays of the series are so unbroken, the treatment of character is so consistent, and the poetical conception of the whole so uniform, that we speak of them all as the plays of Shakspere, and of Shakspere alone. Matured, especially in its wonderful exhibition of character, as the Richard III. is, we cannot doubt that the subject was very early familiar to the young poet's mind. The Battle of Bosworth Field was the great event of his own locality, which for a century had fixed the government of England. The course of the Reformation, and especially the dissolution of the Monasteries, had produced great social changes, which were in operation at the time in which Shakspere was born; whose effects, for good and for evil, he must have seen working around him, as he grew from year to year in knowledge and experience. But those events were too recent, and indeed of too delicate a nature, to assume the poetical aspect in his mind. They abided still in the region of prejudice and controversy. It was dangerous to speak of the great religious divisions of the kingdom with a tolerant impartiality. History could scarcely deal with these opinions in a spirit of justice. Poetry, thus, which has regard to what is permanent and universal, has passed by these matters, important as they are. But the great event which placed the Tudor family on the throne, and gave England a stable government, however occasionally distracted by civil and religious division, was an event which would seize fast upon such a mind as that of | Shakspere. His ancestor, there can be little doubt, had been an adherent of the Earl of Richmond. For his faithful services to the conqueror at Bosworth he was rewarded, as we are assured, by lands in Warwickshire. That field of Bosworth
* “Henry VI.,” Part III., Act v., Scene 11.