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to me, that (after all the volumes which have been written) there are points of view in which a large portion of the works of Shakspeare are still to be considered.
The reader has, doubtless, heard it observed, that the youth of England take their religion from Milton, and their history from Shakspeare. Coleridge tells us, that the great Duke of Marlborough acknowledged that his principal acquaintance with English history was derived from the historical plays.” Lord Chatham is said to have made a similar avowal: and Southey has recently told us that his boyish knowledge of history came from the same source.* Coleridge quotes from Bishop Corbet, who wrote in the time of James the First, the proof, that, in his time, the middling classes were familiarly acquainted with these plays, and referred to them for English history.
I presume that Coleridge's allusion is to the Iter Boreale, a poetical description of the writer's tour through some of the northern and midland counties. Speaking of an innkeeper at Bosworth, he says:—
* Coleridge's Literary Remains, ii. 166.
“Mine host was full of ale and history,
It is well known that Shakspeare is much read and highly estimated in Germany. I have, indeed, heard it affirmed by Germans, that they now set a higher value upon him than even we his country
* A well-known actor. It has been conjectured from Corbet's lines that Shakspeare's plays were at this early period performed in the country; but it would appear, from the mention of Burbage, that mine host had seen “Richard the Third’ acted in London.
f Bishop Corbet's Poems by Gilcrist, p. 193.
men; and I am not certain but that, if the comparison is made with the rising generation of Englishmen, the statement is true. This remark would, perhaps, have been more just, a few years ago. If I am right in supposing that, since the days of my childhood, the English youth had become less and less familiar with Shakspeare, there are symptoms, within a very few years, of a revival of the former taste. Shakspeare has been presented to us in a variety of new editions, some cheap, some beautiful, some both. But, if it be true that the taste for Shakspeare was for a time suspended in England, it flourished at that time in Germany. Both the Schlegels have particularly celebrated the historical plays. Augustus William Schlegel says, that— “Shakspeare imbibed the spirit of Roman history,
and that that of his own country was known to him in its smallest details.”
“The plays drawn from the history of England are in number ten, and form, when united, one of the works of Shakspeare which has the truest merit, and which
was composed, at least in part, in the perfect maturity of his talents. It is not unadvisedly, that I say a work, because it is clear that the poet has brought together all the parts, so as to form one great whole. It is a magnificent dramatic Epopée, of which the separate pieces are different cantos. The principal traits in every event are given with so much correctness, their apparent causes and their secret motives are given with so much penetration, that we may therein study history, so to speak, after nature, without fearing that such lively images should ever be effaced from our minds. But this series of tragedies is calculated to give a lesson yet more extensive and elevated; it offers examples applicable to all times of the march of public affairs; and this mirror for kings ought to be the manual of young princes. There they will learn how noble is their vocation, and how difficult their position; they will see there the dangers of usurpation, the inevitable destruction of the tyranny which undermines its own foundations while seeking to strengthen them; there they will contemplate the consequences so fatal to nations and for whole ages, which result from the crimes, the faults, and even the foibles of the head of a state.”*
I propose to inquire whether this commendation is the result of an enviable enthusiasm, or of an accurate research. But I pray that it may be well understood, that if in any case I derogate from Shak
speare as an historian, it is as an historian only.
* Cours de Littérature Dramatique, iii. 93.
Never had poet a better right to use freely the licence allowed to poets, or less necessity for drawing upon unpoetical stores for any portion of his fame. It has been observed that Shakspeare was no inventor of plots, and that for every one of his plays (with the exception perhaps of the “Merry Wives of Windsor,” said to have been written by royal command,) there is an original to be found, in the shape of an Italian novel or otherwise. Some even of his historical plays were formed, not immediately upon the history, but upon older plays of little worth. And either he, or his more ancient author, has taken such liberties with facts and dates, and has omissions so important, as to make the pieces, however admirable as a drama, quite unsuitable as a medium of instruction to the English youth. It would be a difficult, and, perhaps, useless inquiry, whether Shakspeare had a systematic design to teach history through the stage, or merely adopted the stories of Holinshed, as he did those of Boccaccio. Nor do I think it necessary to inquire whether his deviations from the truth of