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AD GULIELMUM SHAKESPEARE.
We have no doubt that by the Richard of this epigram the author meant to imply the play of Richard the Third, which, according to our arrangement, was the immediately succeeding tragedy to Romeo, and may be said to have been almost promised by the poet in the two concluding scenes of the Last Part of King Henry the Sixth, a The character of Richard the Third, which had been opened in so masterly a manner in the Concluding Part of Henry the Sixth, is, in this play, developed in all its horrible grandeur.
a promise which, as we believe, was carried into execution after an interval of three years. †
* Anecdotes of Literature and Scarce books, vol. vi. pp. 156. 158, 159.
“ Glo. Clarence, beware : thou keep’st me from the light;
Henry VI. Pt. III. act v. sc. 6.
yet I am not look'd on in the world.
Ibid. act v. sc. 7.
It is, in fact, the picture of a demoniacal incarnation, moulding the passions and foibles of mankind, with super-human precision, to its own iniquitous purposes. Of this isolated and peculiar state of being Richard himself seems sensible, when he declares
« I have no brother, I am like no brother :
And this word love, which grey-beards call divine,
From a delineation like this Milton must have caught many of the most striking features of his Satanic portrait. The same union of unmitigated depravity, and consummate intellectual energy, characterises both, and renders what would otherwise be loathsome and disgusting, an object of sublimity and shuddering admiration.
Richard, stript as he is of all the softer feelings, and all the common charities, of humanity, possessed of
“ neither pity, love, nor fear," +
and loaded with every dangerous and dreadful vice, would, were it not for his unconquerable powers of mind, be insufferably revolting. But, though insatiate in his ambition, envious, and hyprocritical in his disposition, cruel, bloody, and remorseless in all his deeds, he displays such an extraordinary share of cool and determined courage, such alacrity and buoyancy of spirit, such constant self-possession, such an intuitive intimacy with the workings of the human heart, and such matchless skill in rendering them subservient to his views, as so far to subdue our detestation and abhorrence of his villany, that we, at length, contemplate this fiend in human shape with a mingled sensation of intense curiosity and grateful terror.
Reed's Shakspeare, vol. xiv. p. 206. Henry VI. Pt. III. act v. sc. 6. + Ibid. vol. xiv. p. 205.
The task, however, which Shakspeare undertook was, in one instance, more arduous than that which Milton subsequently attempted; for, in addition to the hateful constitution of Richard's moral character, he had to contend also against the prejudices arising from personal deformity, from a figure
“ curtail'd of it's fair proportion,
and yet, in spite of these striking personal defects, which were considered, also, as indicatory of the depravity and wickedness of his nature, the poet has contrived, through the medium of the high mental endowments just enumerated, not only to obviate disgust, but to excite extraordinary admiration.
One of the most prominent and detestable vices indeed, in Richard's character, his hypocrisy, connected, as it always is, in his person, with the most profound skill and dissimulation, has, owing to the various parts which it induces him to assume, most materially contributed to the popularity of this play, both on the stage, and in the closet. He is one who can
“ frame his face to all occasions," +
and accordingly appears, during the course of his career, under the contrasted forms of a subject and a monarch, a politician and a wit, a soldier and a suitor, a sinner and a saint; and in all with such apparent case and fidelity to nature, that while to the explorer of the human mind he affords, by his penetration and address, a subject of peculiar interest and delight, he offers to the practised performer a study well calculated to call forth his fullest and finest exertions. He, therefore, whose histrionic powers are adequate to the just exhibition of this character, may be said to have attained the highest honours of his profession; and, consequently, the popularity of Richard the Third, notwithstanding the moral enormity of its hero, may be readily accounted for, when we recollect, that the versatile and consummate hypocrisy of the tyrant has been embodied by the talents of such masterly performers as Garrick, Kemble, Cook, and Kean.
* Reed's Shakspeare, vol. xiv. p. 272. Act i. sc. 1. + Ibid. vol. xiv. p. 116.
So overwhelming and exclusive is the character of Richard, that the comparative insignificancy of all the other persons of the drama may be necessarily inferred; they are reflected to us, as it were, from his mirror, and become more or less important, and more or less developed, as he finds it necessary to act upon them; so that our estimate of their character is entirely founded on his relative conduct, through which we may very correctly appreciate their strength or weakness.
The only exception to this remark is in the person of Queen Margaret, who, apart from the agency of Richard, and dimly seen in the darkest recesses of the picture, pours forth, in union with the deep tone of this tragedy, the most dreadful curses and imprecations; with such a wild and prophetic fury, indeed, as to involve the whole scene in tenfold gloom and horror.
We have to add that the moral of this play is great and impressive. Richard, having excited a general sense of indignation, and a general desire of revenge, and, unaware of his danger from having lost, through familiarity with guilt, all idea of moral obligation, becomes at length the victim of his own enormous crimes; he falls not unvisited by the terrors of conscience, for, on the eve of danger and of death, the retribution of another world is placed before him ; the spirits of those whom he had murdered, reveal the awful sentence of his fate, and his bosom heaves with the infliction of eternal torture.
11. KING RICHARD THE SECOND: 1596. Our great poet having been induced to improve and re-compose the Dramatic History of Henry the Sixth, and to continue the character of Gloucester to the close of his usurpation, in the drama of Richard the Third, very natu
rally, from the success which had crowned these efforts, reverted to the prior part of our national story for fresh subjects, and, led by a common principle of association, selected for the commencement of a new series of historical plays, which should form an unbroken chain with those that he had previously written, the reign of Richard the Second. On this account, therefore, and from the intimation of time, noticed by Mr. Chalmers, towards the conclusion of the first *act, we are led to coincide with this gentleman in assigning the composition of Richard the Second to the
1596. Of the character of this unfortunate young prince, Shakspeare has given us a delineation in conformity with the general tone of history, but heightened by many exquisite and pathetic touches. Richard was beautiful in his person, and elegant in his mannerst; affectionate, generous, and faithful in his attachments, and though intentionally neglected in his education, not defective in understanding. Accustomed, by his designing uncles, to the company of the idle and the dissipated, and to the unrestrained indulgence of his passions, we need not wonder that levity, ostentation, and prodigality, should mark his subsequent career, and should ultimately lead him to destruction.
Though the errors of his misguided youth are forcibly depicted in. the drama, yet the poet has reserved his strength for the period of adversity. Richard, descending from his throne, discovers the unexpected virtues of humility, fortitude, and resignation, and becomes not only an object of love and pity, but of admiration; and there is nothing in the whole compass of our author's plays better calculated
Supplemental Apology, p. 308. + “ This prince," observes Mr. Godwin, “ is universally described to us as one of the most beautiful youths that was ever beheld; and from the portrait of him still existing in Westminster Abbey, however imperfect was the art of painting in that age, connoisseurs
, have inferred that his person was admirably formed, and his features cast in a mould of the most perfect symmetry. His appearance and manner were highly pleasing, and it was difficult for any one to approach him without being prepossessed in his favour.”—Life of Chaucer, vol. iii. p. 170. 8vo. edit.