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history were carefully adopted in order to the perfection of the play, or were the results of carelessness or misinformation. William Schlegel + says that most of his anachronisms were designed for an essential end. I believe that very few periods of history could be dramatised with good effect; and, therefore, that to make a good play, it is necessary to take great liberties. As the construction of a good play was, or ought to have been, Shakspeare's first object, we shall, perhaps, find reason to lament his adherence to historical models, rather than his departure from them. Coleridge is of opinion, and I think that he is right, that only striking and poetical events can be pleasantly dramatised; yet he appears to approve of historical plays for the instruction of youth. To reconcile these two opinions, it would be necessary to choose for each play at least one great event, important as well as dramatic; and, where a reign is represented, that event of the reign with which it is most desirable to impress the young mind.
“In order that a drama may be properly historical, it is necessary that it should be the history of the people to whom it is addressed. In the composition, care must be taken that there appear no dramatic improbability, as the reality is taken for granted. It must likewise be poetical; that only, I mean, must be taken which is permanent in our nature, which is common, and, therefore, deeply interesting, to all ages. The events themselves are immaterial, otherwise than as the clothing and manifestation of the spirit that is working within. In this mode, the unity resulting from succession is destroyed, but is supplied by a unity of a higher order, which connects the events by reference to the workers, gives a reason for them in the motives, and presents them in their causative character. It takes, therefore, that part of real history which is least known, and infuses a principle of life and organization to the naked facts, and makes them all the framework of an animated whole. . . . . . An historic drama is, therefore, a collection of events borrowed from history, but connected together in respect of cause and time, poetically, and by dramatic fiction. It would be a fine national custom to act such a series of dramatic histories in orderly succession, in the yearly Christmas holidays, and could not but tend to counteract that mock cosmopolitism, which under a peculiar term really implies nothing but a negation of, or indifference to, the particular love of our country.”
* Vol. ii. 360.
Frederick Schlegel praises Shakspeare for the absence of this cosmopolitism. “The feeling by which he seems to have been most connected with ordinary men is that of nationality. He has represented the heroic and glorious period of English history, during the conquests in France, in a series of dramatic pieces, which possess all the simplicity and liveliness of the ancient chronicles, but approach, in their ruling spirit of patriotism and glory, to the most dignified and effective productions of the epic muse.”* That Shakspeare had a deeply-rooted love of his country, many passages of affectionate admiration of England sufficiently show. And some of these are to be found in that truly “glorious period of English history” which is represented in the play of Henry V. Yet this passage is a specimen of the carelessness of historical critics. The sequel to Henry V. is a play of little merit, and probably not Shakspeare's, and certainly records little of glory Or Success. But, whatever opinion may be formed upon any of these topics, I cannot think that, after all that has been said of Shakspeare as a teacher of history, as
well as a poet, the inquiry upon which I now purpose
* Lectures on the History of Literature, ii. 147.
to enter will be altogether uninteresting, namely, what were Shakspeare's authorities for his history, and how far has he departed from them? And whether the plays may be given to our youth, as “properly historical ?” The inquiry has not been anticipated by any of the commentators. Steevens and Malone have each a few historical notes; but the range of their historical criticism is extremely small, and the former is sometimes careless. In the present work I have included the plays which Shakspeare founded upon the Scottish and the Roman histories; and have added some general
It may be convenient to mention the editions which have been used, of some of the books to
which reference is made.
Lingard's History of England, 5th edit. 12mo.
Hall, 4to. 1809.
Holinshed, 4to. 1807.
Hardyng, 4to. 1812.
Polydore Vergil, 1556.