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DISSONANCE OF CRITICAL OPINIONS TOUCHING THE MERITS OF
THIS DRAMA — ITS PURELY HISTORICAL CHARACTER, AS COMPARED WITH THE PLAYS FOUNDED MERELY ON HISTORY - ITS CONNECTION WITH THE OTHER DRAMAS OF ENGLISH HISTORY
ITS DATE, STYLE, VERSIFICATION, ETC.-STATE OF THE TEXT. THERE is a very wide diversity of opinion upon the merits of this drama, between critics of the highest and
best deserved authority. Thus, Dr. Johnson says that, though it had been revised by its author, “it is not
finished with the happy force of some others of his tragedies, nor can it be said much to affect the passions or enlarge the understanding." On the other hand, Coleridge has no hesitation in pronouncing it to be “the first and most admirable of all Shakespeare's purely historical plays.” Nor is this contradiction of critical authorities confined to the general structure and effect of the whole drama; for the very passages—such as the lament of Richard over his own downfall—which are contemptuously dismissed, by Johnson and his followers, as “ childish prattle," have been selected by others as full of truth and nature, as well as of plaintive beauty. That Johnson should have pronounced so general and so contemptuous a condemnation, can be attributed only to one of those caprices of judgment by which, in the varying moods of feeling and taste, every opinion on poetry or art is liable to be affected. It is certainly true that “this play does not affect the passions” like Lear or Othello, but it is obvious that it is not addressed to the stronger and deeper sympathies springing from the domestic affections, or the experience of private life, but is strictly a drama of national incident and public characters; and that it can therefore excite the passions and enlarge the understanding only so far as history itself can do so. But in this respect its merits are of the highest order, and they are too of the very kind which no one would seem more likely to appreciate than Johnson himself.
It has comparatively but few of those delicate touches of description or of allusion to natural beauty, or of those slight and graceful suggestions of feeling or of imagery, to which nature had made the mind of the great English critic of the last century somewhat obtuse, and his mental, like his physical vision, dim and indistinct. But it is rich in all that the moral critic himself most delighted in. It is alive with the exhibition of men acting in great and stirring scenes, and under varied and interesting aspects of life. It paints, with nice discrimination, the arts of political popularity and the fickleness of popular favour—the means by which power is often unrighteously wrung from those by whom it may yet be rightfully lost—“the insolence of office," and the crawling abjectness, in adversity, of him who derives dignity from office alone. It contains, in short, without the forms of ethical instruction, a great moral lesson of the emptiness and uncertainty of human greatness—how little of dignity it confers, when not used for the beneficent ends for which it is bestowed—and how severe is the just though late retribution of shame and woe, for its abuse. All this is embodied in real incidents and personages, presented with perfect truth and life, in the very spirit and language, and port and bearing, and armour and pomp of the most romantic and picturesque period of European history. The whole story, with its stately personages, passes before us, in one gorgeous pageant; just as when
the duke, great Bolingbroke, Mounted upon a hot and fiery steed, Which his aspiring rider seem'd to know,
With slow but stately pace kept on his cuurse;followed by the dethroned Richard :-a continued succession of scenes as vivid and as magnificent as the pictures of the Poet's great contemporary, Rubens. Nor can any thing be more true, either in historical accuracy or in that higher and more pervading truth of human nature, than the several characters who pass over this scene-the crafty, bold, ambitious, resolute Bolingbroke, and Richard, womanish alike in good and evil, in infirmity of purpose, in varying resolution, in elation in prosperity, and in the return of gentler and kinder feelings in the hours of sorrow and distress.
It has all that solid and living truth in its representation of the old English chivalric aristocracy and their times, which has made Shakespeare's English “ Histories" the text book of a large portion of English history to all of English blood, and rightly so, because they more than compensate for their slight inaccuracies of detail by the vividness and force with which they give the “very form and pressure" of those times. It is therefore that as an historical drama, in the strictest sense of the phrase, RICHARD II. is eminently entitled to Coleridge's strong eulogy, of being “ the first and most admirable of its author's historical plays;" and it may be added with equal confidence, that it is, in this same strict sense, one of the most perfect of all historical dramas ever written. But it is only in the light of a purely historical play that it is entitled to claim this superiority; for numerous as are its merits, poetical and dramatic, it must á pale its ineffectual fires” when compared with dramas like AnTONY AND CLEOPATRA, or Henry IV., founded upon history and representing historical personages, yet not restricted to a merely historical interest. In these plays the sober groundwork of historic truth is relieved by the gay contrast of comic invention, or illuminated by the flashes of that deeper tragic emotion which can be awakened only by our sympathies with man as man, in