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This Second Part of Henry the Fourth, like the First, has different effects, in producing pleasure or distaste, to different auditors.
Of the number of persons who form an audience, few can appreciate the merit of Shakspeare's plays, so as to be greatly moved, where neither love nor murder is the subject of the scene. To many spectators, all Falstaff's humour is comprised in his unwieldy person; nor do they cast their imaginations back to former times, so as to feel and enjoy, as perfectly natural, those actual occurrences, and true touches of nature, with which the plot and dialogue of this drama, as well as its foregoing part, abound.
The classical devotee, on the other hand, admires every incident he beholds, every-line he hears, and perceives meaning in words, where, perhaps, none was intended,—that not an atom of Shakspeare may be lost, but every sentence conduce to his amusement.
To accommodate the first class of auditors and readers, this little preface is, of course, written ; that, recalling to their memory some historical facts, previous to either reading or seeing the play, may be the means of exciting their attention to a dramatic treasure.
The characters here delineated, it is to be remembered, lived four centuries ago, and the transactions exhibited took place within the space of nine years.
The First Part of Henry the Fourth, having ended with the death of Hotspur, and defeat of the rebels, this following part commences at a period but little distant, and closes with the death of Henry the Fourth, and the coronation of his son, the once depraved Prince of Wales.
After the three first acts have displayed the comic persons of the drama, with all the modes and manners of the years annexed to 1400; combining, with such persons and fashions, minds, characters, and propensities, which belong to every age—the fourth act accurately describes the following remarkable event, taken from history.
Holinshed, writing on the death of Henry the Fourth, says, “During his last sickness, he caused his crown to be set on a pillow, on his bed's head, and suddenly, his pangs so sore troubled him, that he laie as though all his vital spirits. had been from him departed. Such as were about him thinking verily he had been departed, covered his face with a linen cloth.—The prince his son being hereof advertised, entered into the chamber, took away the crown.”— Here the poet concludes, and most awfully enforces the death-bed scene,
In the last act, the conversation of Henry the Fifth with the lord chief justice, is founded on the well-known occurrence which took place between him and Sir William Gascoigne, in the court of King's Bench, when Henry was Prince of Wales. Sir William was supreme judge of that court, in the reign of Henry the Fourth :-“ in which station he acquired the character of a learned, an upright, a wise, and intrepid man. But, above all his other virtues, he is memorable for his dignified courage, in having committed the royal heir apparent to prison, for daring to insult him in his office."
The discarding of his vile companions, by the newly crowned king, as this act describes, is likewise, authenticated by history and although such an incident is, perhaps, the best moral which can be drawn from any part of the whole play, it is, nevertheless, such a one, as does not come with entire welcome to the breast of every spectator.