Characteristics of Women - Moral, Poetical, and Historical
by Anna Jameson
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Constance, being now left a widow, returned to Bretagne, where her barons rallied round her, and acknowledged her as their sovereign. The Salique law did not prevail in Bretagne, and it appears that in those times the power of a female to possess and transmit the rights of sovereignty had been recognized in several instances; but Constance is the first woman who exercised those rights in her own person. She had one daughter, Elinor, born in the second year of her marriage, and a few months after her husband's death she gave birth to a son. The States of Bretagne were filled with exultation; they required that the infant prince should not bear the name of his father,—a name which Constance, in fond remembrance of her husband, would have bestowed on him—still less that of his grandfather Henry; but that of Arthur, the redoubted hero of their country, whose memory was worshipped by the populace. Though the Arthur of romantic and fairy legends—the Arthur of the round table, had been dead for six centuries, they still looked for his second appearance among them, according to the prophecy of Merlin; and now, with fond and short-sighted enthusiasm, fixed their hopes on the young Arthur as one destined to redeem the glory and independence of their oppressed and miserable country. But in the very midst of the rejoicings which succeeded the birth of the prince, his grandfather, Henry II., demanded to have the possession and guardianship of his person; and on the spirited refusal of Constance to yield her son into his power, he invaded Bretagne with a large army, plundering, burning, devastating the country as he advanced. He seized Rennes, the capital, and having by the basest treachery obtained possession of the persons both of the young duchess and her children, he married Constance forcibly to one of his own favorite adherents, Randal de Blondeville, Earl of Chester, and conferred on him the duchy of Bretagne, to be held as a fief of the English crown.

The Earl of Chester, though a brave knight and one of the greatest barons of England, had no pretensions to so high an alliance; nor did he possess any qualities or personal accomplishments which might have reconciled Constance to him as a husband. He was a man of diminutive stature and mean appearance, but of haughty and ferocious manners, and unbounded ambition.[83] In a conference between this Earl of Chester and the Earl of Perche, in Lincoln cathedral, the latter taunted Randal with his insignificant person, and called him contemptuously "Dwarf." "Sayst thou so!" replied Randal; "I vow to God and our Lady, whose church this is, that ere long I will seem to thee high as that steeple!" He was as good as his word, when, on ascending the throne of Brittany, the Earl of Perche became his vassal.

We cannot know what measures were used to force this degradation on the reluctant and high-spirited Constance; it is only certain that she never considered her marriage in the light of a sacred obligation, and that she took the first opportunity of legally breaking from a chain which could scarcely be considered as legally binding. For about a year she was obliged to allow this detested husband the title of Duke of Bretagne, and he administered the government without the slightest reference to her will, even in form, till 1189, when Henry II. died, execrating himself and his undutiful children. Whatever great and good qualities this monarch may have possessed, his conduct in Bretagne was uniformly detestable. Even the unfilial behavior of his sons may be extenuated; for while he spent his life, and sacrificed his peace, and violated every principle of honor and humanity to compass their political aggrandizement, he was guilty of atrocious injustice towards them, and set them a bad example in his own person.

The tidings of Henry's death had no sooner reached Bretagne than the barons of that country rose with one accord against his government, banished or massacred his officers, and, sanctioned by the Duchess Constance, drove Randal de Blondeville and his followers from Bretagne; he retired to his earldom of Chester, there to brood over his injuries, and meditate vengeance.

In the mean time, Richard I. ascended the English throne. Soon afterwards he embarked on his celebrated expedition to the Holy Land, having previously declared Prince Arthur, the only son of Constance, heir to all his dominions.[84]

His absence, and that of many of her own turbulent barons and encroaching neighbors, left to Constance and her harassed dominions a short interval of profound peace. The historians of that period, occupied by the warlike exploits of the French and English kings in Palestine, make but little mention of the domestic events of Europe during their absence; but it is no slight encomium on the character of Constance, that Bretagne flourished under her government, and began to recover from the effects of twenty years of desolating war. The seven years during which she ruled as an independent sovereign, were not marked by any events of importance; but in the year 1196 she caused her son Arthur, then nine years of age, to be acknowledged Duke of Bretagne by the States, and associated him with herself in all the acts of government.

There was more of maternal fondness than policy in this measure, and it cost her dear. Richard, that royal firebrand, had now returned to England: by the intrigues and representations of Earl Randal, his attention was turned to Bretagne. He expressed extreme indignation that Constance should have proclaimed her son Duke of Bretagne, and her partner in power, without his consent, he being the feudal lord and natural guardian of the young prince. After some excuses and representations on the part of Constance, he affected to be pacified, and a friendly interview was appointed at Pontorson, on the frontiers of Normandy.

We can hardly reconcile the cruel and perfidious scenes which follow with those romantic and chivalrous associations which illustrate the memory of Coeur-de-Lion—the friend of Blondel, and the antagonist of Saladin. Constance, perfectly unsuspicious of the meditated treason, accepted the invitation of her brother-in-law, and set out from Rennes with a small but magnificent retinue to join him at Pontorson. On the road, and within sight of the town, the Earl of Chester was posted with a troop of Richard's soldiery, and while the Duchess prepared to enter the gates, where she expected to be received with honor and welcome, he suddenly rushed from his ambuscade, fell upon her and her suite, put the latter to flight, and carried off Constance to the strong Castle of St. Jaques de Beuvron, where he detained her a prisoner for eighteen months. The chronicle does not tell us how Randal treated his unfortunate wife during this long imprisonment. She was absolutely in his power; none of her own people were suffered to approach her, and whatever might have been his behavior towards her, one thing alone is certain, that so far from softening her feelings towards him, it seems to have added tenfold bitterness to her abhorrence and her scorn.

The barons of Bretagne sent the Bishop of Rennes to complain of this violation of faith and justice, and to demand the restitution of the Duchess. Richard meanly evaded and temporized: he engaged to restore Constance to liberty on certain conditions; but this was merely to gain time. When the stipulated terms were complied with, and the hostages delivered, the Bretons sent a herald to the English king, to require him to fulfil his part of the treaty, and restore their beloved Constance. Richard replied with insolent defiance, refused to deliver up either the hostages or Constance, and marched his army into the heart of the country.

All that Bretagne had suffered previously was as nothing compared to this terrible invasion; and all that the humane and peaceful government of Constance had effected during seven years was at once annihilated. The English barons and their savage and mercenary followers spread themselves through the country, which they wasted with fire and sword. The castles of those who ventured to defend themselves were razed to the ground; the towns and villages plundered and burnt, and the wretched inhabitants fled to the caves and forests; but not even there could they find an asylum; by the orders, and in the presence of Richard, the woods were set on fire, and hundreds either perished in the flames, or were suffocated in the smoke.

Constance, meanwhile, could only weep in her captivity over the miseries of her country, and tremble with all a mother's fears for the safety of her son. She had placed Arthur under the care of William Desroches, the seneschal of her palace, a man of mature age, of approved valor, and devotedly attached to her family. This faithful servant threw himself, with his young charge, into the fortress of Brest, where he for some time defied the power of the English king.

But notwithstanding the brave resistance of the nobles and people of Bretagne, they were obliged to submit to the conditions imposed by Richard. By a treaty concluded in 1198, of which the terms are not exactly known, Constance was delivered from her captivity, though not from her husband; but in the following year, when the death of Richard had restored her to some degree of independence, the first use she made of it was to divorce herself from Randal. She took this step with her usual precipitancy, not waiting for the sanction of the Pope, as was the custom in those days; and soon afterwards she gave her hand to Guy, Count de Thouars, a man of courage and integrity, who for some time maintained the cause of his wife and her son against the power of England. Arthur was now fourteen, and the legitimate heir of all the dominions of his uncle Richard. Constance placed him under the guardianship of the king of France, who knighted the young prince with his own hand, and solemnly swore to defend his rights against his usurping uncle John.

It is at this moment that the play of King John opens; and history is followed as closely as the dramatic form would allow, to the death of John. The real fate of poor Arthur, after he had been abandoned by the French, and had fallen into the hands of his uncle, is now ascertained; but according to the chronicle from which Shakspeare drew his materials, he was killed in attempting to escape from the castle of Falaise. Constance did not live to witness this consummation of her calamities; within a few months after Arthur was taken prisoner, in 1201, she died suddenly, before she had attained her thirty-ninth year; but the cause of her death is not specified.

Her eldest daughter Elinor, the legitimate heiress of England, Normandy, and Bretagne, died in captivity; having been kept a prisoner in Bristol Castle from the age of fifteen. She was at that time so beautiful, that she was called proverbially, "La belle Bretonne," and by the English the "Fair Maid of Brittany." She, like her brother Arthur, was sacrificed to the ambition of her uncles.

Of the two daughters of Constance by Guy de Thouars, the eldest, Alice, became Duchess of Bretagne, and married the Count de Dreux, of the royal blood of France. The sovereignty of Bretagne was transmitted through her descendants in an uninterrupted line, till, by the marriage of the celebrated Anne de Bretagne with Charles VIII. of France, her dominions were forever united with the French monarchy.

In considering the real history of Constance, three things must strike us as chiefly remarkable.

First, that she is not accused of any vice, or any act of injustice or violence; and this praise, though poor and negative, should have its due weight, considering the scanty records that remain of her troubled life, and the period at which she lived—a period in which crimes of the darkest dye were familiar occurrences. Her father, Conan, was considered as a gentle and amiable prince—"gentle even to feebleness;" yet we are told that on one occasion he acted over again the tragedy of Ugolino and Ruggiero, when he shut up the Count de Dol, with his two sons and his nephew, in a dungeon, and deliberately starved them to death; an event recorded without any particular comment by the old chroniclers of Bretagne. It also appears that, during those intervals when Constance administered the government of her states with some degree of independence, the country prospered under her sway, and that she possessed at all times the love of her people and the respect of her nobles.

Secondly, no imputation whatever has been cast on the honor of Constance as a wife and as a woman. The old historians, who have treated in a very unceremonious style the levities of her great-grandmother Matilda, her grandmother Bertha, her godmother Constance, and her mother-in-law Elinor, treat the name and memory of our Lady Constance with uniform respect.

Her third marriage, with Guy de Thouars, has been censured as impolitic, but has also been defended; it can hardly, considering her age, and the circumstances in which she was placed, be a just subject of reproach. During her hated union with Randal de Blondeville, and the years passed in a species of widowhood, she conducted herself with propriety: at least I can find no reason to judge otherwise.

Lastly, we are struck by the fearless, determined spirit, amounting at times to rashness, which Constance displayed on several occasions, when left to the free exercise of her own power and will; yet we see how frequently, with all this resolution and pride of temper, she became a mere instrument in the hands of others, and a victim to the superior craft or power of her enemies. The inference is unavoidable; there must have existed in the mind of Constance, with all her noble and amiable qualities, a deficiency somewhere, a want of firmness, a want of judgment or wariness, and a total want of self-control.

* * * * *

In the play of King John, the three principal characters are the King, Falconbridge, and Lady Constance. The first is drawn forcibly and accurately from history: it reminds us of Titian's portrait of Caesar Borgia, in which the hatefulness of the subject is redeemed by the masterly skill of the artist,—the truth, and power, and wonderful beauty of the execution. Falconbridge is the spirited creation of the poet.[85] Constance is certainly an historical personage; but the form which, when we meet it on the record of history, appears like a pale indistinct shadow, half melted into its obscure background, starts before us into a strange relief and palpable breathing reality upon the page of Shakspeare.

Whenever we think of Constance, it is in her maternal character. All the interest which she excites in the drama turns upon her situation as the mother of Arthur. Every circumstance in which she is placed, every sentiment she utters, has a reference to him, and she is represented through the whole of the scenes in which she is engaged, as alternately pleading for the rights, and trembling for the existence of her son.

The same may be said of the Merope. In the four tragedies of which her story forms the subject,[86] we see her but in one point of view, namely, as a mere impersonation of the maternal feeling. The poetry of the situation is every thing, the character nothing. Interesting as she is, take Merope out of the circumstances in which she is placed,—take away her son, for whom she trembles from the first scene to the last, and Merope in herself is nothing; she melts away into a name, to which we can fix no other characteristic by which to distinguish her. We recognize her no longer. Her position is that of an agonized mother; and we can no more fancy her under a different aspect, than we can imagine the statue of Niobe in a different attitude.

But while we contemplate the character of Constance, she assumes before us an individuality perfectly distinct from the circumstances around her. The action calls forth her maternal feelings, and places them in the most prominent point of view: but with Constance, as with a real human being, the maternal affections are a powerful instinct, modified by other faculties, sentiments, and impulses, making up the individual character. We think of her as a mother, because, as a mother distracted for the loss of her son, she is immediately presented before us, and calls forth our sympathy and our tears; but we infer the rest of her character from what we see, as certainly and as completely as if we had known her whole course of life.

That which strikes us as the principal attribute of Constance is power—power of imagination, of will, of passion, of affection, of pride: the moral energy, that faculty which is principally exercised in self-control, and gives consistency to the rest, is deficient; or rather, to speak more correctly, the extraordinary development of sensibility and imagination, which lends to the character its rich poetical coloring, leaves the other qualities comparatively subordinate. Hence it is that the whole complexion of the character, notwithstanding its amazing grandeur, is so exquisitely feminine. The weakness of the woman, who by the very consciousness of that weakness is worked up to desperation and defiance, the fluctuations of temper and the bursts of sublime passion, the terrors, the impatience, and the tears, are all most true to feminine nature. The energy of Constance not being based upon strength of character, rises and falls with the tide of passion. Her haughty spirit swells against resistance, and is excited into frenzy by sorrow and disappointment while neither from her towering pride, nor her strength of intellect, can she borrow patience to submit, or fortitude to endure. It is, therefore, with perfect truth of nature, that Constance is first introduced as pleading for peace.

Stay for an answer to your embassy, Lest unadvised you stain your swords with blood: My Lord Chatillon may from England bring That right in peace, which here we urge in war; And then we shall repent each drop of blood, That hot, rash haste so indirectly shed.

And that the same woman, when all her passions are roused by the sense of injury, should afterwards exclaim,

War, war! No peace! peace is to me a war!

That she should be ambitious for her son, proud of his high birth and royal rights, and violent in defending them, is most natural; but I cannot agree with those who think that in the mind of Constance, ambition—that is, the love of dominion for its own sake—is either a strong motive or a strong feeling: it could hardly be so where the natural impulses and the ideal power predominate in so high a degree. The vehemence with which she asserts the just and legal rights of her son is that of a fond mother and a proud-spirited woman, stung with the sense of injury, and herself a reigning sovereign,—by birth and right, if not in fact: yet when bereaved of her son, grief not only "fills the room up of her absent child," but seems to absorb every other faculty and feeling—even pride and anger. It is true that she exults over him as one whom nature and fortune had destined to be great, but in her distraction for his loss, she thinks of him only as her "Pretty Arthur."

O lord! my boy, my Arthur, my fair son! My life, my joy, my food, my all the world! My widow-comfort, and my sorrow's cure!

No other feeling can be traced through the whole of her frantic scene: it is grief only, a mother's heart-rending, soul-absorbing grief, and nothing else. Not even indignation, or the desire of revenge, interfere with its soleness and intensity. An ambitious woman would hardly have thus addressed the cold, wily Cardinal:—

And, Father Cardinal, I have heard you say, That we shall see and know our friends in heaven: If that be true, I shall see my boy again: For since the birth of Cain, the first male child, To him that did but yesterday suspire, There was not such a gracious creature born. But now will canker eat my bud, And chase the native beauty from his cheek, And he will look as hollow as a ghost; As dim and merge as an ague's fit; And so he'll die; and rising so again, When I shall meet him in the court of heaven I shall not know him: therefore never, never. Must I behold my pretty Arthur more!

The bewildered pathos and poetry of this address could be natural in no woman, who did not unite, like Constance, the most passionate sensibility with the most vivid imagination.

It is true that Queen Elinor calls her on one occasion, "ambitious Constance;" but the epithet is rather the natural expression of Elinor's own fear and hatred than really applicable.[87] Elinor, in whom age had subdued all passions but ambition, dreaded the mother of Arthur as her rival in power, and for that reason only opposed the claims of the son: but I conceive, that in a woman yet in the prime of life, and endued with the peculiar disposition of Constance, the mere love of power would be too much modified by fancy and feeling to be called a passion.

In fact, it is not pride, nor temper, nor ambition, nor even maternal affection, which in Constance gives the prevailing tone to the whole character; it is the predominance of imagination. I do not mean in the conception of the dramatic portrait, but in the temperament of the woman herself. In the poetical, fanciful, excitable cast of her mind, in the excess of the ideal power, tinging all her affections, exalting all her sentiments and thoughts, and animating the expression of both, Constance can only be compared to Juliet.

In the first place, it is through the power of imagination that when under the influence of excited temper, Constance is not a mere incensed woman; nor does she, in the style of Volumnia, "lament in anger, Juno-like," but rather like a sibyl in a fury. Her sarcasms come down like thunderbolts. In her famous address to Austria—

O Lymoges! O Austria! thou dost shame That bloody spoil! thou slave! thou wretch! thou coward! &c.

it is as if she had concentrated the burning spirit of scorn, and dashed it in his face: every word seems to blister where it falls. In the scolding scene between her and Queen Elinor, the laconic insolence of the latter is completely overborne by the torrent of bitter contumely which bursts from the lips of Constance, clothed in the most energetic, and often in the most figurative expressions.


Who is it thou dost call usurper, France?


Let me make answer; Thy usurping son.


Out insolent! thy bastard shall be king, That thou may'st be a queen, and check the world!


My bed was ever to thy son as true, As thine was to thy husband; and this boy Liker in feature to his father Geffrey, Than thou and John in manners: being as like As rain to water, or devil to his dam. My boy a bastard! By my soul, I think His father never was so true begot; It cannot be, an if thou wert his mother.


There's a good mother, boy, that blots thy father.


There's a good grandam, boy, that would blot thee.

* * * *


Come to thy grandam, child.


Do child; go to its grandam, child: Give grandam kingdom, and its grandam will Give it a plum, a cherry, and a fig: There's a good grandam.


Good my mother, peace! I would that I were low laid in my grave; I am not worth this coil that's made for me.


His mother shames him so, poor boy, he weeps.


Now shame upon you, whe'r she does or no! His grandam's wrongs, and not his mother's shame, Draw those heaven-moving pearls from his poor eyes Which heaven shall take in nature of a fee: Ay, with these crystal beads heav'n shall be bribed To do him justice, and revenge on you.


Thou monstrous slanderer of heaven and earth!


Thou monstrous injurer of heaven and earth! Call me not slanderer; thou and thine usurp The dominations, royalties, and rights Of this oppressed boy. This is thy eldest son's son Infortunate in nothing but in thee.

* * * *


Thou unadvised scold, I can produce A will that bars the title of thy son.


Ay, who doubts that? A will! a wicked will— A woman's will—a canker'd grandam's will!


Peace, lady: pause, or be more moderate.

And in a very opposite mood, when struggling with the consciousness of her own helpless situation, the same susceptible and excitable fancy still predominates:—

Thou shalt be punish'd for thus frighting me; For I am sick, and capable of fears; Oppressed with wrongs, and therefore full of fears A widow, husbandless, subject to fears; A woman, naturally born to fears; And though thou now confess thou didst but jest With my vexed spirits, I cannot take a truce, But they will quake and tremble all this day. What dost thou mean by shaking of thy head? Why dost thou look so sadly on my son? What means that hand upon that breast of thine? Why holds thine eye that lamentable rheum, Like a proud river peering o'er his bounds? Be these sad signs confirmers of thy words?

* * * *

Fellow, begone! I cannot brook thy sight— This news hath made thee a most ugly man!

It is the power of imagination which gives so peculiar a tinge to the maternal tenderness of Constance; she not only loves her son with the fond instinct of a mother's affection, but she loves him with her poetical imagination, exults in his beauty and his royal birth, hangs over him with idolatry, and sees his infant brow already encircled with the diadem. Her proud spirit, her ardent enthusiastic fancy, and her energetic self-will, all combine with her maternal love to give it that tone and character which belongs to her only: hence that most beautiful address to her son, which coming from the lips of Constance, is as full of nature and truth as of pathos and poetry, and which we could hardly sympathize with in any other:—


I do beseech you, madam, be content.


If thou, that bid'st me be content, wert grim, Ugly, and slanderous to thy mother's womb, Full of unpleasing blots and sightless stains, Lame, foolish, crooked, swart, prodigious. Patched with foul moles and eye-offending marks, I would not care—I then would be content; For then I should not love thee; no, nor thou Become thy great birth, nor deserve a crown. But thou art fair, and at thy birth, dear boy! Nature and Fortune join'd to make thee great: Of Nature's gifts thou mayest with lilies boast, And with the half-blown rose: but Fortune, O! She is corrupted, chang'd, and won from thee; She adulterates hourly with thine uncle John; And with her golden hand hath pluck'd on France To tread down fair respect of sovereignty.

It is this exceeding vivacity of imagination which in the end turns sorrow to frenzy. Constance is not only a bereaved and doating mother, but a generous woman, betrayed by her own rash confidence; in whose mind the sense of injury mingling with the sense of grief, and her impetuous temper conflicting with her pride, combine to overset her reason; yet she is not mad: and how admirably, how forcibly she herself draws the distinction between the frantic violence of uncontrolled feeling and actual madness!—

Thou art not holy to belie me so; I am not mad: this hair I tear is mine; My name is Constance; I was Geffrey's wife; Young Arthur is my son, and he is lost: I am not mad; I would to Heaven I were! For then, 'tis like I should forget myself: O, if I could, what grief should I forget!

Not only has Constance words at will, and fast as the passionate feelings rise in her mind they are poured forth with vivid, overpowering eloquence; but, like Juliet, she may be said to speak in pictures. For instance:—

Why holds thine eye that lamentable rheum? Like a proud river peering o'er its bounds.

And throughout the whole dialogue there is the same overflow of eloquence, the same splendor of diction, the same luxuriance of imagery; yet with an added grandeur, arising from habits of command, from the age, the rank, and the matronly character of Constance. Thus Juliet pours forth her love like a muse in a rapture: Constance raves in her sorrow like a Pythoness possessed with the spirit of pain. The love of Juliet is deep and infinite as the boundless sea: and the grief of Constance is so great, that nothing but the round world itself is able to sustain it.

I will instruct my sorrows to be proud; For grief is proud and makes his owner stout. To me, and to the state of my great grief Let kings assemble, for my grief's so great, That no supporter but the huge firm earth Can hold it up. Here I and Sorrow sit; Here is my throne,—bid kings come bow to it!

An image more majestic, more wonderfully sublime, was never presented to the fancy; yet almost equal as a flight of poetry is her apostrophe to the heavens;—

Arm, arm, ye heavens, against these perjured kings A widow calls!—be husband to me, heavens!

And again—

O that my tongue were in the thunder's mouth, Then with a passion would I shake the world!

Not only do her thoughts start into images, but her feelings become persons: grief haunts her as a living presence:

Grief fills the room up of my absent child; Lies in his bed, walks up and down with me; Puts on his pretty looks, repeats his words, Remembers me of all his gracious parts, Stuffs out his vacant garments with his form; Then have I reason to be fond of grief.

And death is welcomed as a bridegroom; she sees the visionary monster as Juliet saw "the bloody Tybalt festering in his shroud," and heaps one ghastly image upon another with all the wild luxuriance of a distempered fancy:—

O amiable, lovely death! Thou odoriferous stench! sound rottenness! Arise forth from the couch of lasting night, Thou hate and terror to prosperity, And I will kiss thy detestable bones; And put my eye-balls in thy vaulty brows; And right these fingers with thy household worms; And stop this gap of breath with fulsome dust; And be a carrion monster like thyself; Come, grin on me, and I will think thou smil'st, And buss thee as thy wife! Misery's love, O come to me!

Constance, who is a majestic being, is majestic in her very frenzy. Majesty is also the characteristic of Hermione: but what a difference between her silent, lofty, uncomplaining despair, and the eloquent grief of Constance, whose wild lamentations, which come bursting forth clothed in the grandest, the most poetical imagery, not only melt, but absolutely electrify us!

On the whole, it may be said that pride and maternal affection form the basis of the character of Constance, as it is exhibited to us; but that these passions, in an equal degree common to many human beings, assume their peculiar and individual tinge from an extraordinary development of intellect and fancy. It is the energy of passion which lends the character its concentrated power, as it is the prevalence of imagination throughout which dilates it into magnificence.

Some of the most splendid poetry to be met with in Shakspeare, may be found in the parts of Juliet and Constance; the most splendid, perhaps, excepting only the parts of Lear and Othello; and for the same reason,—that Lear and Othello as men, and Juliet and Constance as women, are distinguished by the predominance of the same faculties,—passion and imagination.

The sole deviation from history which may be considered as essentially interfering with the truth of the situation, is the entire omission of the character of Guy de Thouars, so that Constance is incorrectly represented as in a state of widowhood, at a period when, in point of fact, she was married. It may be observed, that her marriage took place just at the period of the opening of the drama; that Guy de Thouars played no conspicuous part in the affairs of Bretagne till after the death of Constance, and that the mere presence of this personage, altogether superfluous in the action, would have completely destroyed the dramatic interest of the situation;—and what a situation! One more magnificent was never placed before the mind's eye than that of Constance, when, deserted and betrayed, she stands alone in her despair, amid her false friends and her ruthless enemies![88] The image of the mother-eagle, wounded and bleeding to death, yet stretched over her young in an attitude of defiance, while all the baser birds of prey are clamoring around her eyry, gives but a faint idea of the moral sublimity of this scene. Considered merely as a poetical or dramatic picture, the grouping is wonderfully fine; on one side, the vulture ambition of that mean-souled tyrant, John; on the other, the selfish, calculating policy of Philip: between them, balancing their passions in his hand, the cold, subtle, heartless Legate: the fiery, reckless Falconbridge; the princely Louis; the still unconquered spirit of that wrangling queen, old Elinor; the bridal loveliness and modesty of Blanche; the boyish grace and innocence of young Arthur; and Constance in the midst of them, in all the state of her great grief, a grand impersonation of pride and passion, helpless at once and desperate,—form an assemblage of figures, each perfect in its kind, and, taken all together, not surpassed for the variety, force, and splendor of the dramatic and picturesque effect.


Elinor of Guienne, and Blanche of Castile, who form part of the group around Constance, are sketches merely, but they are strictly historical portraits, and full of truth and spirit.

At the period when Shakspeare has brought these three women on the scene together, Elinor of Guienne (the daughter of the last Duke of Guienne and Aquitaine, and like Constance, the heiress of a sovereign duchy) was near the close of her long, various, and unquiet life—she was nearly seventy: and, as in early youth, her violent passions had overborne both principle and policy, so in her old age we see the same character, only modified by time; her strong intellect and love of power, unbridled by conscience or principle, surviving when other passions were extinguished, and rendered more dangerous by a degree of subtlety and self-command to which her youth had been a stranger. Her personal and avowed hatred for Constance, together with its motives, are mentioned by the old historians. Holinshed expressly says, that Queen Elinor was mightily set against her grandson Arthur, rather moved thereto by envy conceived against his mother, than by any fault of the young prince, for that she knew and dreaded the high spirit of the Lady Constance.

Shakspeare has rendered this with equal spirit and fidelity.


What now, my son! have I not ever said, How that ambitious Constance would not cease, Till she had kindled France and all the world Upon the right and party of her son? This might have been prevented and made whole With very easy arguments of love; Which now the manage of two kingdoms must With fearful bloody issue arbitrate.


Our strong possession and our right for us!


Your strong possession much more than your right; Or else it must go wrong with you and me. So much my conscience whispers in your ear— Which none but Heaven, and you, and I shall hear.

Queen Elinor preserved to the end of her life her influence over her children, and appears to have merited their respect. While intrusted with the government, during the absence of Richard I., she ruled with a steady hand, and made herself exceedingly popular; and as long as she lived to direct the counsels of her son John, his affairs prospered. For that intemperate jealousy which converted her into a domestic firebrand, there was at least much cause, though little excuse. Elinor had hated and wronged the husband of her youth,[89] and she had afterwards to endure the negligence and innumerable infidelities of the husband whom she passionately loved:[90]—"and so the whirligig of time brought in his revenges." Elinor died in 1203, a few months after Constance, and before the murder of Arthur—a crime which, had she lived, would probably never have been consummated; for the nature of Elinor, though violent, had no tincture of the baseness and cruelty of her son.


Blanche of Castile was the daughter of Alphonso IX. of Castile, and the grand-daughter of Elinor. At the time that she is introduced into the drama, she was about fifteen, and her marriage with Louis VIII., then Dauphin, took place in the abrupt manner here represented. It is not often that political marriages have the same happy result. We are told by the historians of that time, that from the moment Louis and Blanche met, they were inspired by a mutual passion, and that during a union of more than twenty-six years they were never known to differ, nor even spent more than a single day asunder.[91]

In her exceeding beauty and blameless reputation; her love for her husband, and strong domestic affections; her pride of birth and rank; her feminine gentleness of deportment; her firmness of temper; her religious bigotry; her love of absolute power, and her upright and conscientious administration of it, Blanche greatly resembled Maria Theresa of Austria. She was, however, of a more cold and calculating nature; and in proportion as she was less amiable as a woman, did she rule more happily for herself and others. There cannot be a greater contrast than between the acute understanding, the steady temper, and the cool intriguing policy of Blanche, by which she succeeded in disuniting and defeating the powers arrayed against her and her infant son, and the rash confiding temper and susceptible imagination of Constance, which rendered herself and her son easy victims to the fraud or ambition of others. Blanche, during forty years, held in her hands the destinies of the greater part of Europe, and is one of the most celebrated names recorded in history—but in what does she survive to us except in a name? Nor history, nor fame, though "trumpet-tongued," could do for her what Shakspeare and poetry have done for Constance. The earthly reign of Blanche is over, her sceptre broken, and her power departed. When will the reign of Constance cease? when will her power depart? Not while this world is a world, and there exists in it human souls to kindle at the touch of genius, and human hearts to throb with human sympathies!

* * * * *

There is no female character of any interest in the play of Richard II. The Queen (Isabelle of France) enacts the same passive part in the drama that she does in history.

The same remark applies to Henry IV. In this admirable play there is no female character of any importance; but Lady Percy, the wife of Hotspur, is a very lively and beautiful sketch: she is sprightly, feminine, and fond; but without any thing energetic or profound, in mind or in feeling. Her gayety and spirit in the first scenes, are the result of youth and happiness, and nothing can be more natural than the utter dejection and brokenness of heart which follow her husband's death: she is no heroine for war or tragedy; she has no thought of revenging her loss; and even her grief has something soft and quiet in its pathos. Her speech to her father-in-law, Northumberland, in which she entreats him "not to go to the wars," and at the same time pronounces the most beautiful eulogium on her heroic husband, is a perfect piece of feminine eloquence, both in the feeling and in the expression.

Almost every one knows by heart Lady Percy's celebrated address to her husband, beginning,

O, my good lord, why are you thus alone?

and that of Portia to Brutus, in Julius Caesar,

... You've ungently, Brutus, Stol'n from my bed.

The situation is exactly similar, the topics of remonstrance are nearly the same; the sentiments and the style as opposite as are the characters of the two women. Lady Percy is evidently accustomed to win more from her fiery lord by caresses than by reason: he loves her in his rough way "as Harry Percy's wife," but she has no real influence over him: he has no confidence in her.


... In faith, I'll know your business, Harry, that I will. I fear my brother Mortimer doth stir About this title, and hath sent for you To line his enterprise, but if you go—


So far afoot, I shall be weary, love!

The whole scene is admirable, but unnecessary here, because it illustrates no point of character in her. Lady Percy has no character, properly so called; whereas, that of Portia is very distinctly and faithfully drawn from the outline furnished by Plutarch. Lady Percy's fond upbraidings, and her half playful, half pouting entreaties, scarcely gain her husband's attention. Portia, with true matronly dignity and tenderness, pleads her right to share her husband's thoughts, and proves it too

I grant I am a woman, but withal, A woman that Lord Brutus took to wife, I grant I am a woman, but withal, A woman well reputed—Cato's daughter. Think you, I am no stronger than my sex Being so father'd and so husbanded?

* * * *


You are my true and honorable wife: As dear to me, as are the ruddy drops That visit my sad heart!

Portia, as Shakspeare has truly felt and represented the character, is but a softened reflection of that of her husband Brutus: in him we see an excess of natural sensibility, an almost womanish tenderness of heart, repressed by the tenets of his austere philosophy: a stoic by profession, and in reality the reverse—acting deeds against his nature by the strong force of principle and will. In Portia there is the same profound and passionate feeling, and all her sex's softness and timidity, held in check by that self-discipline, that stately dignity, which she thought became a woman "so fathered and so husbanded." The fact of her inflicting on herself a voluntary wound to try her own fortitude, is perhaps the strongest proof of this disposition. Plutarch relates, that on the day on which Caesar was assassinated, Portia appeared overcome with terror, and even swooned away, but did not in her emotion utter a word which could affect the conspirators. Shakspeare has rendered this circumstance literally.


I pr'ythee, boy, run to the senate house, Stay not to answer me, but get thee gone. Why dost thou stay?


To know my errand, madam.


I would have had thee there and here again, Ere I can tell thee what thou should'st do there. O constancy! be strong upon my side: Set a huge mountain 'tween my heart and tongue! I have a man's mind, but a woman's might. ... Ah me! how weak a thing The heart of woman is! O I grow faint, &c.

There is another beautiful incident related by Plutarch, which could not well be dramatized. When Brutus and Portia parted for the last time in the island of Nisida, she restrained all expression of grief that she might not shake his fortitude; but afterwards, in passing through a chamber in which there hung a picture of Hector and Andromache, she stopped, gazed upon it for a time with a settled sorrow, and at length burst into a passion of tears.[92]

If Portia had been a Christian, and lived in later times, she might have been another Lady Russel; but she made a poor stoic. No factitious or external control was sufficient to restrain such an exuberance of sensibility and fancy: and those who praise the philosophy of Portia and the heroism of her death, certainly mistook the character altogether. It is evident, from the manner of her death, that it was not deliberate self-destruction, "after the high Roman fashion," but took place in a paroxysm of madness, caused by overwrought and suppressed feeling, grief, terror, and suspense. Shakspeare has thus represented it:—


O Cassius! I am sick of many griefs!


Of your philosophy you make no use, If you give place to accidental evils.


No man bears sorrow better; Portia's dead.




She is dead.


How 'scap'd I killing when I cross'd you so? O insupportable and touching loss— Upon what sickness?


Impatient of my absence, And grief that young Octavius with Mark Antony Had made themselves so strong—(for with her death These tidings came)—with this she fell distract, And, her attendants absent, swallowed fire.

So much for woman's philosophy!


Malone has written an essay, to prove from external and internal evidence, that the three parts of King Henry VI. were not originally written by Shakspeare, but altered by him from two old plays,[93] with considerable improvements and additions of his own. Burke, Porson, Dr. Warburton, and Dr. Farmer, pronounced this piece of criticism convincing and unanswerable; but Dr. Johnson and Steevens would not be convinced, and, moreover, have contrived to answer the unanswerable. "Who shall decide when doctors disagree?" The only arbiter in such a case is one's own individual taste and judgment. To me it appears that the three parts of Henry VI. have less of poetry and passion, and more of unnecessary verbosity and inflated language, than the rest of Shakspeare's works; that the continual exhibition of treachery, bloodshed, and violence, is revolting, and the want of unity of action, and of a pervading interest, oppressive and fatiguing; but also that there are splendid passages in the Second and Third Parts, such as Shakspeare alone could have written: and this is not denied by the most skeptical.[94]

Among the arguments against the authenticity of these plays, the character of Margaret of Anjou has not been adduced, and yet to those who have studied Shakspeare in his own spirit, it will appear the most conclusive of all. When we compare her with his other female characters, we are struck at once by the want of family likeness; Shakspeare was not always equal, but he had not two manners, as they say of painters. I discern his hand in particular parts, but I cannot recognize his spirit in the conception of the whole: he may have laid on some of the colors, but the original design has a certain hardness and heaviness, very unlike his usual style. Margaret of Anjou, as exhibited in these tragedies, is a dramatic portrait of considerable truth, and vigor, and consistency—but she is not one of Shakspeare's women. He who knew so well in what true greatness of spirit consisted—who could excite our respect and sympathy even for a Lady Macbeth, would never have given us a heroine without a touch of heroism; he would not have portrayed a high-hearted woman, struggling unsubdued against the strangest vicissitudes of fortune, meeting reverses and disasters, such as would have broken the most masculine spirit, with unshaken constancy, yet left her without a single personal quality which would excite our interest in her bravely-endured misfortunes; and this too in the very face of history. He would not have given us, in lieu of the magnanimous queen, the subtle and accomplished French woman, a mere "Amazonian trull," with every coarser feature of depravity and ferocity; he would have redeemed her from unmingled detestation; he would have breathed into her some of his own sweet spirit—he would have given the woman a soul.

The old chronicler Hall informs us, that Queen Margaret "excelled all other as well in beauty and favor, as in wit and policy, and was in stomach and courage more like to a man than to a woman." He adds, that after the espousals of Henry and Margaret, "the king's friends fell from him; the lords of the realm fell in division among themselves; the Commons rebelled against their natural prince; fields were foughten; many thousands slain; and, finally, the king was deposed, and his son slain, and his queen sent home again with as much misery and sorrow as she was received with pomp and triumph."

This passage seems to have furnished the groundwork of the character as it is developed in these plays with no great depth or skill. Margaret is portrayed with all the exterior graces of her sex; as bold and artful, with spirit to dare, resolution to act, and fortitude to endure; but treacherous, haughty, dissembling, vindictive, and fierce. The bloody struggle for power in which she was engaged, and the companionship of the ruthless iron men around her, seem to have left her nothing of womanhood but the heart of a mother—that last stronghold of our feminine nature! So far the character is consistently drawn: it has something of the power, but none of the flowing ease of Shakspeare's manner. There are fine materials not well applied; there is poetry in some of the scenes and speeches; the situations are often exceedingly poetical; but in the character of Margaret herself, there is not an atom of poetry. In her artificial dignity, her plausible wit, and her endless volubility, she would remind us of some of the most admired heroines of French tragedy, but for that unlucky box on the ear which she gives the Duchess of Gloster,—a violation of tragic decorum, which of course destroys all parallel.

Having said thus much, I shall point out some of the finest and most characteristic scenes in which Margaret appears. The speech in which she expresses her scorn of her meek husband, and her impatience of the power exercised by those fierce overbearing barons, York, Salisbury, Warwick, Buckingham, is very fine, and conveys as faithful an idea of those feudal times as of the woman who speaks. The burst of female spite with which she concludes, is admirable—

Not all these lords do vex me half so much As that proud dame, the Lord Protector's wife. She sweeps it through the court with troops of ladies, More like an empress than Duke Humphrey's wife. Strangers in court do take her for the queen: She bears a duke's revenues on her back, And in her heart she scorns our poverty. Shall I not live to be avenged on her? Contemptuous base-born callet as she is! She vaunted 'mongst her minions t'other day, The very train of her worst wearing gown Was better worth than all my father's lands, Till Suffolk gave two dukedoms for his daughter.

Her intriguing spirit, the facility with which she enters into the murderous confederacy against the good Duke Humphrey, the artful plausibility with which she endeavours to turn suspicion from herself—confounding her gentle consort by mere dint of words—are exceedingly characteristic, but not the less revolting.

Her criminal love for Suffolk (which is a dramatic incident, not an historic fact) gives rise to the beautiful parting scene in the third act; a scene which it is impossible to read without a thrill of emotion, hurried away by that power and pathos which forces us to sympathize with the eloquence of grief, yet excites not a momentary interest either for Margaret or her lover. The ungoverned fury of Margaret in the first instance, the manner in which she calls on Suffolk to curse his enemies, and then shrinks back overcome by the violence of the spirit she had herself evoked, and terrified by the vehemence of his imprecations; the transition in her mind from the extremity of rage to tears and melting fondness, have been pronounced, and justly, to be in Shakspeare's own manner.

Go, speak not to me—even now begone. O go not yet! Even thus two friends condemn'd Embrace, and kiss, and take ten thousand leaves, Loather a hundred times to part than die: Yet now farewell; and farewell life with thee!

which is followed by that beautiful and intense burst of passion from Suffolk—

'Tis not the hand I care for, wert thou hence; A wilderness is populous enough, So Suffolk had thy heavenly company: For where thou art, there is the world itself, With every several pleasure in the world; And where thou art not, desolation!

In the third part of Henry the Sixth, Margaret, engaged in the terrible struggle for her husband's throne, appears to rather more advantage. The indignation against Henry, who had pitifully yielded his son's birthright for the privilege of reigning unmolested during his own life, is worthy of her, and gives rise to a beautiful speech. We are here inclined to sympathize with her; but soon after follows the murder of the Duke of York; and the base revengeful spirit and atrocious cruelty with which she insults over him, unarmed and a prisoner,—the bitterness of her mockery, and the unwomanly malignity with which she presents him with the napkin stained with the blood of his youngest son, and "bids the father wipe his eyes withal," turn all our sympathy into aversion and horror. York replies in the celebrated speech, beginning—

She-wolf of France, and worse than wolves of France, Whose tongue more poisons than the adder's tooth—

and taunts her with the poverty of her father, the most irritating topic he could have chosen.

Hath that poor monarch taught thee to insult? It needs not, nor it boots thee not, proud queen, Unless the adage must be verified, That beggars, mounted, ride their horse to death. 'Tis beauty, that doth oft make women proud; But, God he knows, thy share thereof is small. 'Tis virtue that doth make them most admired; The contrary doth make thee wondered at. 'Tis government that makes them seem divine, The want thereof makes thee abominable.

* * * *

O tiger's heart, wrapped in a woman's hide! How could'st thou drain the life-blood of the child To bid the father wipe his face withal, And yet be seen to bear a woman's face? Women are soft, mild, pitiful and flexible, Thou stern, obdurate, flinty, rough, remorseless!

By such a woman as Margaret is here depicted such a speech could be answered only in one way—with her dagger's point—and thus she answers it.

It is some comfort to reflect that this trait of ferocity is not historical: the body of the Duke of York was found, after the battle, among the heaps of slain, and his head struck off: but even this was not done by the command of Margaret.

In another passage, the truth and consistency of the character of Margaret are sacrificed to the march of the dramatic action, with a very ill effect. When her fortunes were at the very lowest ebb, and she had sought refuge in the court of the French king, Warwick, her most formidable enemy, upon some disgust he had taken against Edward the Fourth, offered to espouse her cause; and proposed a match between the prince her son and his daughter Anne of Warwick—the "gentle Lady Anne," who figures in Richard the Third. In the play, Margaret embraces the offer without a moment's hesitation:[95] we are disgusted by her versatile policy, and a meanness of spirit in no way allied to the magnanimous forgiveness of her terrible adversary. The Margaret of history sternly resisted this degrading expedient. She could not, she said, pardon from her heart the man who had been the primary cause of all her misfortunes. She mistrusted Warwick, despised him for the motives of his revolt from Edward, and considered that to match her son into the family of her enemy from mere policy was a species of degradation. It took Louis the Eleventh, with all his art and eloquence, fifteen days to wring a reluctant consent, accompanied with tears, from this high-hearted woman.

The speech of Margaret to her council of generals before the battle of Tewksbury, (Act v. scene 5,) is as remarkable a specimen of false rhetoric, as her address to the soldiers, on the eve of the fight, is of true and passionate eloquence.

She witnesses the final defeat of her army, the massacre of her adherents, and the murder of her son; and though the savage Richard would willingly have put an end to her misery, and exclaims very pertinently—

Why should she live to fill the world with words?

she is dragged forth unharmed, a woful spectacle of extremest wretchedness, to which death would have been an undeserved relief. If we compare the clamorous and loud exclaims of Margaret after the slaughter of her son, to the ravings of Constance, we shall perceive where Shakspeare's genius did not preside, and where it did. Margaret, in bold defiance of history, but with fine dramatic effect, is introduced again in the gorgeous and polluted court of Edward the Fourth. There she stalks around the seat of her former greatness, like a terrible phantom of departed majesty, uncrowned, unsceptered, desolate, powerless—or like a vampire thirsting for blood—or like a grim prophetess of evil, imprecating that ruin on the head of her enemies, which she lived to see realized. The scene following the murder of the princes in the Tower, in which Queen Elizabeth and the Duchess of York sit down on the ground bewailing their desolation, and Margaret suddenly appears from behind them, like the very personification of woe, and seats herself beside them revelling in their despair, is, in the general conception and effect grand and appalling.


O, Harry's wife, triumph not in my woes; God witness with me, I have wept for thine!


Bear with me, I am hungry for revenge, And now I cloy me with beholding it. Thy Edward he is dead, that kill'd my Edward; Thy other Edward dead, to quit my Edward: Young York he is but boot, because both they Match not the high perfection of my loss. Thy Clarence he is dead, that stabb'd my Edward; And the beholders of this tragic play, The adulterate Hastings, Rivers, Vaughan, Grey, Untimely smother'd in their dusky graves. Richard yet lives, hell's black intelligencer, Only reserv'd their factor, to buy souls And send them thither. But at hand, at hand, Ensues his piteous and unpitied end; Earth gapes, hell burns, fiends roar for him: saints pray To have him suddenly convey'd from hence. Cancel his bond of life, dear God, I pray, That I may live to say, The dog is dead.[96]

She should have stopped here; but the effect thus powerfully excited is marred and weakened by so much superfluous rhetoric, that we are tempted to exclaim with the old Duchess of York—

Why should calamity be full of words?


To have a just idea of the accuracy and beauty of this historical portrait, we ought to bring immediately before us those circumstances of Katherine's life and times, and those parts of her character, which belong to a period previous to the opening of the play. We shall then be better able to appreciate the skill with which Shakspeare has applied the materials before him.

Katherine of Arragon, the fourth and youngest daughter of Ferdinand, King of Arragon, and Isabella of Castile, was born at Alcala, whither her mother had retired to winter after one of the most terrible campaigns of the Moorish war—that of 1485.

Katherine had derived from nature no dazzling qualities of mind, and no striking advantages of person. She inherited a tincture of Queen Isabella's haughtiness and obstinacy of temper, but neither her beauty nor her splendid talents. Her education under the direction of that extraordinary mother, had implanted in her mind the most austere principles of virtue, the highest ideas of female decorum, the most narrow and bigoted attachment to the forms of religion, and that excessive pride of birth and rank, which distinguished so particularly her family and her nation. In other respects, her understanding was strong, and her judgment clear. The natural turn of her mind was simple, serious, and domestic, and all the impulses of her heart kindly and benevolent. Such was Katherine; such, at least, she appears on a reference to the chronicles of her times, and particularly from her own letters, and the papers written or dictated by herself which relate to her divorce; all of which are distinguished by the same artless simplicity of style, the same quiet good sense, the same resolute, yet gentle spirit and fervent piety.

When five years old, Katherine was solemnly affianced to Arthur, Prince of Wales, the eldest son of Henry VII.; and in the year 1501, she landed in England, after narrowly escaping shipwreck on the southern coast, from which every adverse wind conspired to drive her. She was received in London with great honor, and immediately on her arrival united to the young prince. He was then fifteen and Katherine in her seventeenth year.

Arthur, as it is well known, survived his marriage only five months; and the reluctance of Henry VII. to refund the splendid dowry of the Infanta, and forego the advantages of an alliance with the most powerful prince of Europe, suggested the idea of uniting Katherine to his second son Henry; after some hesitation, a dispensation was procured from the Pope, and she was betrothed to Henry in her eighteenth year. The prince, who was then only twelve years old, resisted as far as he was able to do so, and appears to have really felt a degree of horror at the idea of marrying his brother's widow. Nor was the mind of King Henry at rest; as his health declined, his conscience reproached him with the equivocal nature of the union into which he had forced his son; and the vile motives of avarice and expediency which had governed him on this occasion. A short time previous to his death, he dissolved the engagement, and even caused Henry to sign a paper in which he solemnly renounced all idea of a future union with the Infanta. It is observable, that Henry signed this paper with reluctance, and that Katherine, instead of being sent back to her own country, still remained in England.

It appears that Henry, who was now about seventeen, had become interested for Katherine, who was gentle and amiable. The difference of years was rather a circumstance in her favor; for Henry was just at that age, when a youth is most likely to be captivated by a woman older than himself: and no sooner was he required to renounce her, than the interest she had gradually gained in his affections, became, by opposition, a strong passion. Immediately after his father's death, he declared his resolution to take for his wife the Lady Katherine of Spain, and none other; and when the matter was discussed in council, it was urged that, besides the many advantages of the match in a political point of view, she had given so "much proof of virtue, and sweetness of condition, as they knew not where to parallel her." About six weeks after his accession, June 3, 1509, the marriage was celebrated with truly royal splendor, Henry being then eighteen, and Katherine in her twenty-fourth year.

It has been said with truth, that if Henry had died while Katherine was yet his wife, and Wolsey his minister, he would have left behind him the character of a magnificent, popular, and accomplished prince, instead of that of the most hateful ruffian and tyrant who ever swayed these realms. Notwithstanding his occasional infidelities, and his impatience at her midnight vigils, her long prayers, and her religious austerities, Katherine and Henry lived in harmony together. He was fond of openly displaying his respect and love for her; and she exercised a strong and salutary influence over his turbulent and despotic spirit. When Henry set out on his expedition to France, in 1513, he left Katherine regent of the kingdom during his absence, with full powers to carry on the war against the Scots; and the Earl of Surrey at the head of the army, as her lieutenant-general. It is curious to find Katherine—the pacific, domestic, and unpretending Katherine—describing herself as having "her heart set to war," and "horrible busy" with making "standards, banners, badges, scarfs, and the like."[97] Nor was this mere silken preparation—mere dalliance with the pomp and circumstance of war; for within a few weeks afterwards, her general defeated the Scots in the famous battle of Floddenfield, where James IV. and most of his nobility were slain.[98]

Katherine's letter to Henry, announcing this event, so strikingly displays the piety and tenderness, the quiet simplicity, and real magnanimity of her character, that there cannot be a more apt and beautiful illustration of the exquisite truth and keeping of Shakspeare's portrait.


My Lord Howard hath sent me a letter, open to your Grace, within one of mine, by the which ye shall see at length the great victory that our Lord hath sent your subjects in your absence: and for this cause, it is no need herein to trouble your Grace with long writing; but to my thinking this battle hath been to your Grace, and all your realm, the greatest honor that could be, and more than ye should win all the crown of France, thanked be God for it! And I am sure your Grace forgetteth not to do this, which shall be cause to send you many more such great victories, as I trust he shall do. My husband, for haste, with Rougecross, I could not send your Grace the piece of the king of Scots' coat, which John Glyn now bringeth. In this your Grace shall see how I can keep my promise, sending you for your banners a king's coat. I thought to send himself unto you, but our Englishmen's hearts would not suffer it. It should have been better for him to have been in peace than have this reward, but all that God sendeth is for the best. My Lord of Surrey, my Henry, would fain know your pleasure in the burying of the king of Scots' body, for he hath written to me so. With the next messenger, your Grace's pleasure may be herein known. And with this I make an end, praying God to send you home shortly; for without this, no joy here can be accomplished—and for the same I pray. And now go to our Lady at Walsyngham, that I promised so long ago to see.

At Woburn, the 16th day of September, (1513.)

I send your Grace herein a bill, found in a Scottishman's purse, of such things as the French king sent to the said king of Scots, to make war against you, beseeching you to send Mathew hither as soon as this messenger cometh with tidings of your Grace.

Your humble wife and true servant,


The legality of the king's marriage with Katherine remained undisputed till 1527. In the course of that year, Anna Bullen first appeared at court, and was appointed maid of honor to the queen; and then, and not till then, did Henry's union with his brother's wife "creep too near his conscience." In the following year, he sent special messengers to Rome, with secret instructions: they were required to discover (among other "hard questions") whether, if the queen entered a religious life, the king might have the Pope's dispensation to marry again; and whether if the king (for the better inducing the queen thereto) would enter himself into a religious life, the Pope would dispense with the king's vow, and leave her there?

Poor Katherine! we are not surprised to read that when she understood what was intended against her, "she labored with all those passions which jealousy of the king's affection, sense of her own honor, and the legitimation of her daughter, could produce, laying in conclusion the whole fault on the Cardinal." It is elsewhere said, that Wolsey bore the queen ill-will, in consequence of her reflecting with some severity on his haughty temper, and very unclerical life.

The proceedings were pending for nearly six years, and one of the causes of this long delay, in spite of Henry's impatient and despotic character, is worth noting. The old Chronicle tells us, that though the men generally, and more particularly the priests and the nobles sided with Henry in this matter, yet all the ladies of England were against it. They justly felt that the honor and welfare of no woman was secure if, after twenty years of union, she might be thus deprived of all her rights as a wife; the clamor became so loud and general, that the king was obliged to yield to it for a time, to stop the proceedings, and to banish Anna Bullen from the court.

Cardinal Campeggio, called by Shakspeare Campeius, arrived in England in October, 1528. He at first endeavored to persuade Katherine to avoid the disgrace and danger of contesting her marriage, by entering a religious house; but she rejected his advice with strong expressions of disdain. "I am," said she, "the king's true wife, and to him married; and if all doctors were dead, or law or learning far out of men's minds at the time of our marriage, yet I cannot think that the court of Rome, and the whole church of England, would have consented to a thing unlawful and detestable as you call it. Still I say I am his wife, and for him will I pray."

About two years afterwards, Wolsey died, (in November, 1530;)—the king and queen met for the last time on the 14th of July, 1531. Until that period, some outward show of respect and kindness had been maintained between them; but the king then ordered her to repair to a private residence, and no longer to consider herself as his lawful wife. "To which the virtuous and mourning queen replied no more than this, that to whatever place she removed, nothing could remove her from being the king's wife. And so they bid each other farewell; and from this time the king never saw her more."[100] He married Anna Bullen in 1532, while the decision relating to his former marriage was still pending. The sentence of divorce to which Katherine never would submit, was finally pronounced by Cranmer in 1533; and the unhappy queen, whose health had been gradually declining through these troubles of heart, died January 29, 1536, in the fiftieth year of her age.

Thus the action of the play of Henry VIII. includes events which occurred from the impeachment of the Duke of Buckingham in 1521, to the death of Katherine in 1536. In making the death of Katherine precede the birth of Queen Elizabeth, Shakspeare has committed an anachronism, not only pardonable, but necessary. We must remember that the construction of the play required a happy termination; and that the birth of Elizabeth, before or after the death of Katherine, involved the question of her legitimacy. By this slight deviation from the real course of events, Shakspeare has not perverted historic facts, but merely sacrificed them to a higher principle; and in doing so has not only preserved dramatic propriety, and heightened the poetical interest, but has given a strong proof both of his delicacy and his judgment.

If we also call to mind that in this play Katherine is properly the heroine, and exhibited from first to last as the very "queen of earthly queens;" that the whole interest is thrown round her and Wolsey—the one the injured rival, the other the enemy of Anna Bullen—and that it was written in the reign and for the court of Elizabeth, we shall yet farther appreciate the moral greatness of the poet's mind, which disdained to sacrifice justice and the truth of nature to any time-serving expediency.

Schlegel observes somewhere, that in the literal accuracy and apparent artlessness with which Shakspeare has adapted some of the events and characters of history to his dramatic purposes, he has shown equally his genius and his wisdom. This, like most of Schlegel's remarks, is profound and true; and in this respect Katherine of Arragon may rank as the triumph of Shakspeare's genius and his wisdom. There is nothing in the whole range of poetical fiction in any respect resembling or approaching her; there is nothing comparable, I suppose, but Katherine's own portrait by Holbein, which, equally true to the life, is yet as far inferior as Katherine's person was inferior to her mind. Not only has Shakspeare given us here a delineation as faithful as it is beautiful, of a peculiar modification of character; but he has bequeathed us a precious moral lesson in this proof that virtue alone,—(by which I mean here the union of truth or conscience with benevolent affection—the one the highest law, the other the purest impulse of the soul,)—that such virtue is a sufficient source of the deepest pathos and power with out any mixture of foreign or external ornament: for who but Shakspeare would have brought before us a queen and a heroine of tragedy, stripped her of all pomp of place and circumstance, dispensed with all the usual sources of poetical interest, as youth, beauty, grace, fancy, commanding intellect; and without any appeal to our imagination, without any violation of historical truth, or any sacrifices of the other dramatic personages for the sake of effect, could depend on the moral principle alone, to touch the very springs of feeling in our bosoms, and melt and elevate our hearts through the purest and holiest impulses of our nature!

The character, when analyzed, is, in the first place, distinguished by truth. I do not only mean its truth to nature, or its relative truth arising from its historic fidelity and dramatic consistency, but truth as a quality of the soul; this is the basis of the character. We often hear it remarked that those who are themselves perfectly true and artless, are in this world the more easily and frequently deceived—a common-place fallacy: for we shall ever find that truth is as undeceived as it is undeceiving, and that those who are true to themselves and others, may now and then be mistaken, or in particular instances duped by the intervention of some other affection or quality of the mind; but they are generally free from illusion, and they are seldom imposed upon in the long run by the shows of things and superfices of characters. It is by this integrity of heart and clearness of understanding, this light of truth within her own soul, and not through any acuteness of intellect, that Katherine detects and exposes the real character of Wolsey, though unable either to unravel his designs, or defeat them.

... My lord, my lord, I am a simple woman, much too weak T' oppose your cunning.

She rather intuitively feels than knows his duplicity, and in the dignity of her simplicity she towers above his arrogance as much as she scorns his crooked policy. With this essential truth are combined many other qualities, natural or acquired, all made out with the same uncompromising breadth of execution and fidelity of pencil, united with the utmost delicacy of feeling. For instance, the apparent contradiction arising from the contrast between Katherine's natural disposition and the situation in which she is placed; her lofty Castilian pride and her extreme simplicity of language and deportment; the inflexible resolution with which she asserts her right, and her soft resignation to unkindness and wrong; her warmth of temper breaking through the meekness of a spirit subdued by a deep sense of religion; and a degree of austerity tinging her real benevolence;—all these qualities, opposed yet harmonizing, has Shakspeare placed before us in a few admirable scenes.

Katherine is at first introduced as pleading before the king in behalf of the commonalty, who had been driven by the extortions of Wolsey into some illegal excesses. In this scene, which is true to history, we have her upright reasoning mind, her steadiness of purpose, her piety and benevolence, placed in a strong light. The unshrinking dignity with which she opposes without descending to brave the Cardinal, the stern rebuke addressed to the Duke of Buckingham's surveyor, are finely characteristic; and by thus exhibiting Katherine as invested with all her conjugal rights and influence, and royal state, the subsequent situations are rendered more impressive. She is placed in the first instance on such a height in our esteem and reverence, that in the midst of her abandonment and degradation, and the profound pity she afterwards inspires, the first effect remains unimpaired, and she never falls beneath it.

In the beginning of the second act we are prepared for the proceedings of the divorce, and our respect for Katherine heightened by the general sympathy for "the good queen," as she is expressively entitled, and by the following beautiful eulogium on her character uttered by the Duke of Norfolk:—

He (Wolsey) counsels a divorce—a loss of her That like a jewel hath hung twenty years About his neck, yet never lost her lustre. Of her that loves him with that excellence That angels love good men with; even of her, That, when the greatest stroke of fortune falls, Will bless the King!

The scene in which Anna Bullen is introduced as expressing her grief and sympathy for her royal mistress, is exquisitely graceful.

Here's the pang that pinches; His highness having liv'd so long with her, and she So good a lady, that no tongue could ever Pronounce dishonor of her,—by my life She never knew harm-doing. O now, after So many courses of the sun enthron'd, Still growing in a majesty and pomp,—the which To leave is a thousand-fold more bitter, than 'Tis sweet at first to acquire,—after this process, To give her the avaunt! it is a pity Would move a monster.


Hearts of most hard temper Melt and lament for her.


O, God's will! much better She ne'er had known pomp: though it be temporal, Yet if that quarrel, fortune, do divorce It from the bearer, 'tis a sufferance, panging As soul and body's severing.


Alas, poor lady! She's a stranger now again.


So much the more Must pity drop upon her. Verily, I swear 'tis better to be lowly born, And range with humble livers in content, Than to be perk'd up in a glistering grief, And wear a golden sorrow.

How completely, in the few passages appropriated to Anna Bullen, is her character portrayed! with what a delicate and yet luxuriant grace is she sketched off, with her gayety and her beauty, her levity, her extreme mobility, her sweetness of disposition, her tenderness of heart, and, in short, all her femalities! How nobly has Shakspeare done justice to the two women, and heightened our interest in both, by placing the praises of Katherine in the mouth of Anna Bullen! and how characteristic of the latter, that she should first express unbounded pity for her mistress, insisting chiefly on her fall from her regal state and worldly pomp, thus betraying her own disposition:—

For she that had all the fair parts of woman, Had, too, a woman's heart, which ever yet Affected eminence, wealth, and sovereignty.

That she should call the loss of temporal pomp, once enjoyed, "a sufferance equal to soul and body's severing;" that she should immediately protest that she would not herself be a queen—"No, good troth! not for all the riches under heaven!"—and not long afterwards ascend without reluctance that throne and bed from which her royal mistress had been so cruelly divorced!—how natural! The portrait is not less true and masterly than that of Katherine; but the character is overborne by the superior moral firmness and intrinsic excellence of the latter. That we may be more fully sensible of this contrast, the beautiful scene just alluded to immediately precedes Katherine's trial at Blackfriars, and the description of Anna Bullen's triumphant beauty at her coronation, is placed immediately before the dying scene of Katherine; yet with equal good taste and good feeling Shakspeare has constantly avoided all personal collision between the two characters; nor does Anna Bullen ever appear as queen except in the pageant of the procession, which in reading the play is scarcely noticed.

To return to Katherine. The whole of the trial scene is given nearly verbatim from the old chronicles and records; but the dryness and harshness of the law proceedings is tempered at once and elevated by the genius and the wisdom of the poet. It appears, on referring to the historical authorities, that when the affair was first agitated in council, Katherine replied to the long expositions and theological sophistries of her opponents with resolute simplicity and composure: "I am a woman, and lack wit and learning to answer these opinions; but I am sure that neither the king's father nor my father would have condescended to our marriage, if it had been judged unlawful. As to your saying that I should put the cause to eight persons of this realm, for quietness of the king's conscience, I pray Heaven to send his Grace a quiet conscience and this shall be your answer, that I say I am his lawful wife, and to him lawfully married, though not worthy of it; and in this point I will abide, till the court of Rome, which was privy to the beginning, have made a final ending of it."[101]

Katherine's appearance in the court at Blackfriars, attended by a noble troop of ladies and prelates of her counsel, and her refusal to answer the citation, are historical.[102] Her speech to the king—

Sir, I beseech you do me right and justice, And to bestow your pity on me, &c. &c.

is taken word for word (as nearly as the change from prose to blank verse would allow) from the old record in Hall. It would have been easy for Shakspeare to have exalted his own skill, by throwing a coloring of poetry and eloquence into this speech, without altering the sense or sentiment; but by adhering to the calm argumentative simplicity of manner and diction natural to the woman, he has preserved the truth of character without lessening the pathos of the situation. Her challenging Wolsey as a "foe to truth," and her very expressions, "I utterly refuse,—yea, from my soul abhor you for my judge," are taken from fact. The sudden burst of indignant passion towards the close of this scene,

In one who ever yet Had stood to charity, and displayed the effects Of disposition gentle, and of wisdom O'ertopping woman's power;

is taken from nature, though it occurred on a different occasion.[103]

Lastly, the circumstance of her being called back after she had appealed from the court, and angrily refusing to return, is from the life. Master Griffith, on whose arm she leaned, observed that she was called: "On, on," quoth she; "it maketh no matter, for it is no indifferent court for me, therefore I will not tarry. Go on your ways."[104]

King Henry's own assertion, "I dare to say, my lords, that for her womanhood, wisdom, nobility, and gentleness, never prince had such another wife, and therefore if I would willingly change her I were not wise," is thus beautifully paraphrased by Shakspeare:—

That man i' the world, who shall report he has A better wife, let him in nought be trusted, For speaking false in that! Thou art, alone, If thy rare qualities, sweet gentleness, (Thy meekness saint-like, wife-like government, Obeying in commanding; and thy parts, Sovereign and pious else, could speak thee out,) The queen of earthly queens. She is noble born, And, like her true nobility, she has Carried herself towards me.

The annotators on Shakspeare have all observed the close resemblance between this fine passage—

Sir, I am about to weep; but, thinking that We are a queen, or long have dreamed so, certain The daughter of a king—my drops of tears I'll turn to sparks of fire.

and the speech of Hermione—

I am not prone to weeping as our sex Commonly are, the want of which vain dew Perchance shall dry your pities: but I have That honorable grief lodged here, which burns Worse than tears drown.

But these verbal gentlemen do not seem to have felt that the resemblance is merely on the surface, and that the two passages could not possibly change places, without a manifest violation of the truth of character. In Hermione it is pride of sex merely: in Katherine it is pride of place and pride of birth. Hermione, though so superbly majestic, is perfectly independent of her regal state: Katherine, though so meekly pious, will neither forget hers, nor allow it to be forgotten by others for a moment. Hermione, when deprived of that "crown and comfort of her life," her husband's love, regards all things else with despair and indifference except her feminine honor: Katherine, divorced and abandoned, still with true Spanish pride stands upon respect, and will not bate one atom of her accustomed state

Though unqueened, yet like a queen And daughter to a king, inter me!

The passage—

A fellow of the royal bed, that owns A moiety of the throne—a great king's daughter, ... here standing To prate and talk for life and honor 'fore Who please to come to hear,[105]

would apply nearly to both queens, yet a single sentiment—nay, a single sentence—could not possibly be transferred from one character to the other. The magnanimity, the noble simplicity, the purity of heart, the resignation in each—how perfectly equal in degree! how diametrically opposite in kind![106]

Once more to return to Katherine.

We are told by Cavendish, that when Wolsey and Campeggio visited the queen by the king's order she was found at work among her women, and came forth to meet the cardinals with a skein of white thread hanging about her neck; that when Wolsey addressed her in Latin, she interrupted him, saying, "Nay, good my lord, speak to me in English, I beseech you; although I understand Latin." "Forsooth then," quoth my lord, "madam, if it please your grace, we come both to know your mind, how ye be disposed to do in this matter between the king and you, and also to declare secretly our opinions and our counsel unto you, which we have intended of very zeal and obedience that we bear to your grace." "My lords, I thank you then," quoth she, "of your good wills; but to make answer to your request I cannot so suddenly, for I was set among my maidens at work, thinking full little of any such matter; wherein there needeth a longer deliberation, and a better head than mine to make answer to so noble wise men as ye be. I had need of good counsel in this case, which toucheth me so near; and for any counsel or friendship that I can find in England, they are nothing to my purpose or profit. Think you, I pray you, my lords, will any Englishmen counsel, or be friendly unto me, against the king's pleasure, they being his subjects? Nay, forsooth, my lords! and for my counsel, in whom I do intend to put my trust, they be not here; they be in Spain, in my native country.[107] Alas! my lords, I am a poor woman lacking both wit and understanding sufficiently to answer such approved wise men as ye be both, in so weighty a matter. I pray you to extend your good and indifferent minds in your authority unto me, for I am a simple woman, destitute and barren of friendship and counsel, here in a foreign region; and as for your counsel, I will not refuse, but be glad to hear."

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