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His honour and the greatness of his name
The interpolation is rather awkwardly managed, for the archbishop now returns to Elizabeth :“ She shall be to the happiness of England, An aged princess : many days shall see her, And yet no day without a deed to crown it. Would I had known no more! but she must die, She must—the saints must have her yet a virgin ; A most unspotted lily shall she pass To the ground, and all the world shall mourn her.”
“ The play of Henry the Eighth (says Johnson*) is one of those which still keep possession of the stage by the splendour of its pageantry. The coronation, about forty years ago, drew the people together in multitudes, for great part of the winter ; yet pomp is not the only ornament of this play. The meek sorrows and virtuous distress of Catherine, have furnished some scenes, which may be justly numbered among the greatest efforts of tragedy. But the genius of Shakspeare comes in and goes out with Catherine ; every other part may be easily conceived, and easily written.”
The critic does much less than justice to this play, which has been admired by a more modern audience, for beauties far other than those of the coronation. Much, no doubt, was owing to the splendid representation of Catherine by Siddons-splendid being here not superlative, but characteristic ;- but there is scarcely one scene in the play which may not be admired in the closet. Of the characters, that of Catherine is doubtless the most complete and true. It is taken from history, with little colouring or suppression, and it has an admirable combination of dignity, simplicity, firmness, and feminine affection.*
It may be thought, that with the character of Henry more pains are taken, in order to represent him in a favourable light; but no important incident or speech is given without warranty from the Chronicles. If, therefore, the dramatist has exercised any art, it is only in selecting from the life of his queen's father those passages which exhibit him the least unfavourably. But though the history of his divorcing his first wife is taken from the recorded speeches
* Although I do not go the whole way with Mrs. Jameson in my estimate of this character, I earnestly recommend her observations to perusal (Charact. ij. 260), as well as Catherine's letters to which she refers,
of Henry himself, Shakspeare has freely stated the insinuations of unworthy motives which prevailed among the people. The imperiousness of the king's character, too, is fairly represented on several occasions.
The character of Wolsey, or rather all that illustrates the character of Wolsey, is taken from the Chronicle, just as Shakspeare found it; and no one of the historical dramas supports, more than this, the opinion to which I have felt inclined in going through the series, that Shakspeare used very little artifice, and, in truth, had very little design, in the construction of the greater number of historical characters. He dramatised incidents and speeches, and left characters to be inferred.
Malone has alluded* to somebody, who "tampered with parts of the play so much, as to have rendered the versification of it of a different colour from all the other plays of Shakspeare ;" and the peculiar versification of this play, is the subject of an ingenious criticism by Mr. Roderick.t This gentleman observes, that more lines in this play than in any other have a redundant or eleventh syllable ; and that the pauses are
thrown nearer to the end of the verse.* I entirely agree with this critic, that a speech in Henry VIII. sounds differently to the ear from most others of Shakspeare, and I rather think that he has correctly mentioned the mechanical cause. How Shakspeare came thus to vary his measure I cannot guess, but that it is his measure, I see not the slightest reason for doubting. I know that even in prose the construction of sentences, and (if I may say so) the air, is much affected by the tone of the writer's mind at the moment, and by the nature of his subject. It did occur to me, as a cause of the variety, that the greater number of the speeches to which Roderick's remarks are applicable, are plaintive ; but that is not the character of Cranmer's speech at the christening, which is open to the same remark. I must leave the difficulty as I find it.
Of these plays in general, Johnson says, t “ The historical dramas are now concluded, of
* There is a third observation, “ that the emphasis arises from the sense of the verse very often clashing with the cadence that would naturally result from the metre.” This remark gives too much importance to quantity, which scarcely prevails in English; nor is it, I think, borne out.
† Bosw., 502.
which the two parts of Henry IV. and Henry V. are among the happiest of our author's compositions, and King John, Richard III. and Henry VIII., deservedly stand in the second class.” I would put Henry VIII., and I think King John also, in the same class with Henry V. Richard II. deserves also to be promoted.