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even to the duty, of the patriot to exercise in all seriousness his best powers of criticism on the political conduct of his fellow-citizens and of those who rule over him.
Shakespeare's studies of English history are animated by a patriotism which boldly seeks and faces the truth. His dramatic presentments of English history have been often described as fragments of a national epic, as detached books of an English Iliad. But they embody no epic or heroic glorification of the nation. Taking the great series which begins chronologically with King John and ends with Richard III. (Henry VIII. stands apart), we find that Shakespeare makes the central features of the national history the persons of the kings. Only in the case of Henry V. does he clothe an English king with any genuine heroism. Shakespeare's kings are as a rule but men as we are. The violet smells to them as it does to us; all their senses have but human conditions; and though their affections be higher mounted than ours, yet when they stoop they stoop with like wing. Excepting Henry V., the history plays are tragedies. They "tell sad stories of the death of kings." But they do not merely illustrate the crushing burdens of kingship or point the moral of the hollowness of kingly pageantry; they explain why kingly glory is in its essence brittle rather than brilliant. And since Shakespeare's rulers reflect rather than inspire the character of the nation, we are brought to a study of the causes of the brittleness of national glory.
The glory of a nation, as of a king, is only stable, we learn, when the nation, as the king, lives soberly, virtuously and wisely, and is courageous, magnan
JOHN OF GAUNT'S DYING SPEECH
imous, and zealous after knowledge. Cowardice, meanness, ignorance, and cruelty ruin nations as surely as they ruin kings. This is the lesson specifically taught in the most eloquent of all the direct avowals of patriotism which are to be found in Shakespeare's plays-in the dying speech of John of Gaunt.
That speech is no ebullition of the undisciplined patriotic instinct. It is a solemn announcement of the truth that the greatness and glory, with which nature and history have endowed a nation, may be dissipated when, on the one hand, the rulers prove selfish, frivolous and unequal to the responsibilities which a great past places on their shoulders, and when, on the other hand, the nation acquiesces in the depravity of its governors. In his opening lines, the speaker lays emphasis on the possibilities of greatness with which the natural physical conditions of the country and its political and military traditions have invested his countrymen. Thereby he brings into lurid relief the sin and the shame of paltering with, of putting to ignoble uses, the national character and influence. The dying patriot apostrophises England in the familiar phrases, as:
This royal throne of kings, this sceptred isle.
The last line identifies with the patriotic instinct the
aspiration of a people to deserve well of foreign opinion. Subsequently the speaker turns from his survey of the ideal which he would have his country seek. He exposes with ruthless frankness the ugly realities of her present degradation.
England, bound in with the triumphant sea, Whose rocky shore beats back the envious siege Of wat'ry Neptune, is now bound in with shame, With inky blots, and rotten parchment bonds,That England, that was wont to conquer others, Hath made a shameful conquest of itself. -Richard II., II., i., 61-6. At the moment the speaker's warning is scorned, but ultimately it takes effect. At the end of the play of Richard II., England casts off the ruler and his allies, who by their self-indulgence and moral weakness play false with the traditions of the country.
In Henry V., the only one of Shakespeare's historical plays in which an English king quits the stage in the full enjoyment of prosperity, his good fortune is more than once explained as the reward of his endeavour to abide by the highest ideals of his race, and of his resolve to exhibit in his own conduct its noblest mettle. His strongest appeals to his fellowcountrymen are:
Dishonour not your mothers; now attest
Let us swear
That you are worth your breeding.
The kernel of sound patriotism is respect for a nation's traditional repute, for the attested worth of the race. That is the large lesson which Shakespeare taught continuously throughout his career as a dramatist. The teaching is not solely enshrined in the poetic eloquence either of plays of his early
THE WARNING IN CYMBELINE
years like Richard II., or of plays of his middle life like Henry V. It is the last as well as the first word in Shakespeare's collective declaration on the true character of patriotism. Cymbeline belongs to the close of his working life, and there we meet once more the assurance that a due regard to the past and an active resolve to keep alive ancestral virtue are the surest signs of health in the patriotic instinct.
The accents of John of Gaunt were repeated by Shakespeare with little modulation at that time of his life when his reflective power was at its ripest. The Queen of Britain, Cymbeline's wife, is the personage in whose mouth Shakespeare sets, not perhaps quite appropriately, the latest message in regard to patriotism that he is known to have delivered. Emissaries from the Emperor Augustus have come from Rome to demand from the King of Britain payment of the tribute that Julius Cæsar had long since imposed on the island, by virtue of a force majeure, which is temporarily extinguished. The pusillanimous King Cymbeline is indisposed to put himself to the pains of contesting the claim, but the resolute queen awakens in him a sense of patriotism and of patriotic obligation by recalling the more nobly inspired attitude of his ancestors, and by convincing him of the baseness of ignoring the physical features which had been bestowed by nature on his domains as a guarantee of their independence.
Remember, sir my liege,
The natural bravery of your isle, which stands
As Neptune's park, ribbed and paled in
With sands, that will not bear your enemies' boats,
But suck them up to the topmast.
-Cymbeline, III., i., 16–22.
The appeal prevails, and the tribute is refused. Although the evolution of the plot which is based on an historical chronicle compels the renewed acquiescence of the British king in the Roman tax at the close of the play, the Queen of Britain's spirited insistence on the maritime strength of her country loses little of its significance.
Frank criticism of the social life of the nation is as characteristic of Shakespearean drama as outspoken exposition of its political failings. There is hardly any of Shakespeare's plays which does not offer shrewd comment on the foibles and errors of contemporary English society.
To society Shakespeare's attitude is that of a humourist, who invites to reformation half-jestingly. His bantering tone, when he turns to social censure, strikingly contrasts with the tragic earnestness that colours his criticism of political vice or weakness. Some of the national failings on the social side which Shakespeare rebukes may seem trivial at a first glance. But it is the voice of prudent patriotism which prompts each count in the indictment. The keenness of Shakespeare's insight is attested by the circumstance that every charge has a modern application. None is yet quite out of date.
Shakespeare rarely missed an opportunity of betraying contempt for the extravagances of his countrymen and countrywomen in regard to dress. Portia says of her English suitor Faulconbridge, the young baron of England: "How oddly he is suited! I think he bought his doublet in Italy, his round hose