Зображення сторінки

we have sixteen plays out of thirty-seven, when the author was in his thirty-fourth year. Which, unless we attribute to him such a facility and fluency of pen as neither the reason of the thing nor the facts of the case will warrant, will force us to set his first efforts at play-making back to an earlier period in his life than is generally supposed. Nor, considering his aptitudes for the work, is it at all unlikely that he made some atıempts that way even before he left Stratford : at all events, that some of the plays which we now have were written before the end of his twenty-fourth year, seems hardly questionable. And if it seem extraordinary that so young a man should have produced The Two Gentlemen of Verona, how much more extraordinary is it that a man of what soever age should have written Lear!

In 1589 Shakespeare, at the age of twenty-five, was a joint proprietor of the Blackfriars theatre; - a place which he could hardly have won but by ability and usefulness in the offices per taining to such an establishment. And where was he so likely to be able and useful as in the field where he has so far surpassed all other men ?

In 1592 appeared « A Groatsworth of Wit," by Robert Greene, which contains an unmistakeable allusion to Shakespeare. It was written amidst the anguishes of a death-bed repentance, the author's purpose being to dissuade “those gentlemen, his quondam acquaintance," from “spending their wits in making plays ;” to which end he uses this argument: “For there is an upstart crow, beautified with our feathers, that with his tigre's heart wrapp'd in a player's hide supposes he is as well able to bombast out a blankverse as the best of you; and, being an absolute Johannes Fac. totum, is in his own conceit the only Shake-scene in a country.” The words in Italic are a parody of a verse in Henry VI., " 0, tigre's heart wrapp'd in a woman's hide ; " which goes still further to ascertain the writer's aim. And the fair inference is, that Shakespeare was known as a sort of Do-all, a Fac-totum, who could turn his hand to any thing, and beat Greene and his associates in the very walks where they severally excelled ; and that he was successful not only as a writer, but as an adapter and improver of plays : in which latter quality be had perhaps overhauled some of their writings, and thrown the authors into the shade vy adding more to them than they were originally wortb; thus griting beautified with their feathers because he had feathers still more beautiful of his own. As the three parts of Henry VI, and perhaps Titus Andronicus, were in fact adapted from prečx. isting stock copies, into which Shakespeare distilled something of the life and spirit of his genius, it is quite probable that Greene and those whom he addresses had, jointly or severally, a hand in writing them.

Soon after “A Groatsworth of Wit” was written and before it was published Greene died; and a few months later Henry

Chettle, his fellow-dramatist, and his publisher, put forth a book entitled Kind-heart's Dream, wherein he regrets the attack on Shakespeare, “because myself have seen his demeanour no less civil, then he excellent in the quality he professes : besides, divers of worship have reported his uprightness of dealing, which argues his honesty, and his facetious grace in writing, that approves his art.” It is considerable that at this time Shakespeare had published nothing, his Venus and Adonis not being issued till the following year, 1593. Yet he was distinguished for “his facetious grace in writing, that approves his art;" from which it would. seem that he was best known in the lighter and finer graces of poetry, his mastery of its deeper powers being as yet either unat. lained or unappreciated. How was he so likely to win such a reputation as by plays like The Two Gentlemen of Verona, Lore's Labour's Lost, and The Comedy of Errors, where quips, and quirks, and clenches meet us in showers at every turn? the per sons having apparently set out to “act freely, carelessly, and capriciously, as if their veins ran with quicksilver; and not utter a phrase but what shall come forth steept in the very brine of conceit, and sparkle like salt in fire ;” yet the redundant facetiousness is every where touched with a grace at that time unexampled on the English stage.

All which amply warrants the conclusion, that Shakespeare was “our pleasant Willy,” whom Spenser, in his Tears of The Muses, published in 1591, speaks of as

« the man whom Nature's selse had made, To mock herselfe, and Truth to imitate.”

Ind again, after complaining that

Each idle wit at will presumes to make,
And doth the Learned's taske upon him take:

“ But that same gentle Spirit, from whose pen

Large streames of honnie and sweete nectar flowe,
Scorning the boldness of such base-borne men,

Which dare their follies forth so rashlie throwe,
Doth rather choose to sit in idle cell,
Than so himselfe to mockerie to sell.”

The Two Gentlemen of Verona was probably one of the i streames” that drew forth this no less appropriate than beautiful tribule from the great sweet poet of Faery Land. For even in the plays, which we suppose to have been written before this period, there are frequent touches of that inexpressible sweetness and delicacy of spirit which won him the name, “my gentle

Shakespeare," and which comes out in all his works, like the inconscious issues of a mind

“ As gentle as the stroking wind

Runs o'er the gentler flowers.”

The Two Gentlemen of Verona was first printed in the folio of 1623, where it follows next The Tempest. No note has been discovered of the performance of this play during the author's "life. Doubtless it was brought upon the stage, for the Poet had no thought of writing dramas merely for the closet : but if it had been acted as often as his other plays, we should most likely have some record of its performance, as we have in the case of so many of the others. Notwithstanding its superiority in char. acter and poetry to any plays then in use from other hands, perhaps its comparative excess of the rhetorical over the dramatic elements made it less popular in that most action-loving age, than many far below it in all other respects. This lack of success on the boards may also account in part for its freedom from the inequalities we find in several of his earlier plays; as, for example, in Love's Labour's Lost and All's Well That Ends Well there are parts and passages where both the tone of the thought and the structure of the verse evince a pitch of mastership that had not been reached when the plays were originally written. It was then quite common for a play, when brought out anew, to be revised and retouched either by the author or by some other hand; and some of Shakespeare's are known to have undergone this process much to their advantage. Which was probably the cause of the inequalities in question; - a cause that would not be likely to operate, unless there were call for the revival of a play.

No novel or romance has been found, to which Shakespeare could have been much indebted for the plot or matter of the play before us. In the part of Julia and her maid Lucetta there are indeed some points of resemblance to the Diana of Jorge de Montmayor, a Spanish romance at that time very popular in Eng. land, and of which an English version by Bartholomew Yonge was published in 1598. The Diana is one of the books sparen from the bonfire of Don Quixote's library, because, in the words of the l'riest who superintends the burning, « They do not deserve to be burnt like the rest, for they cannot do the mischief that those of chivalry have done: they are works of genius and fancy, and do nobody any hurt.” The part from which Shakespeare is thought to have borrowed is the story of Felismena, the heroine : “ My father having early followed my mother to the tomb, I was left an orphan. Henceforth ! resided with a distant relative; and, at the age of seventeen, fell in love with Don Felix, a young nobleman of the province where I lived. The object of pıy affections felt a reciprocal passion ; but his father, having learned the attachment between us, sent his son to court with a view to prevent our union. Soon after his departure I followed him in the disguise of a page, and on the night of my arrival discovered, by a serenade I heard him give, that he had disposed of his affections. Not being recognized, I was taken into his service, and engaged to conduct the correspondence with the mistress who had supplanted me in his heart." Though Yonge's version of the Diana was not published till 1598, several years after the probable date of The Two Gentlemen of Verona ; yet the story was generally well known; parts of it were trans. lated in Sidney's Arcadia, which came out in 1590; and there is good reason to think that the “ History of Felix and Philiomena," which was acted al court as far back as 1582, was a play founded on the story of Felix and Felismena. So that, granting Shakespeare to have followed the tale in question, he might well enough have been familiar with it long before Yonge's translation appeared. But the truth is, such and similar incidents were the common sta ple of romances in that age. And the same may be said touching the matter of Valentine's becoming captain of the outlaws; for which the Poet has been written down as obliged to the Arcadia. Excepting the Diana, there is no reason to think that Shakespeare was indebted to any thing but his own invention for the materials of the play under consideration.

Dr. Johnson remarks, that in this play there is a strange mix. ture of knowledge and ignorance, of care and negligence." In proof of the ignorance he then adduces the Poet's violation of geography in making his persons pass from Verona to Milan by water, there being no such passage between those cities. This is one of the departures from fact which critics have been fond of quoting, in order, as would seem, to impeach or disrepute his science. But, inasmuch as Shakespeare's geography and chronology are always accurate enough when such accuracy will serve the purpose of his art, it seems rather questionable whether in this case his inaccuracy should be set down to ignorance. Perhaps, after all, he showed as much knowledge here as he meant to show ; and he must have been igncrant indeed, not to know that his geography was incorrect. It should be borne in mind that his purpose was art, not science; that he spoke to the imagination rather than the understanding: which being the case, scienco itself would tell him that literal or geographica truth was to be sacrificed, in so far as such sacrifice would serve the methods of imagination and the uses of art. Thus, by the laws of his work, the lower gives way to the higher: he facilitates the passage to Milan for the convenience f his hearers in that quality or capacity wherein he addresses chem. And he know well enough that they did not visit the theatre to learn geography or chronology, but 10 see a vivid, truthful, lifel.ke representation of action character

[ocr errors]

and passion; and that nothing but a poor conceit of scientific accuracy would stick and boggle at such freedoms as art and imagination gladly allow.

The Two Gentlemen of Verona betrays much the same unripe ness in its characterization as we have remarked in its other quali. ties. Coleridge pronounces it “a sketch," and Hazlitt says it is • little more than the first outlines of a comedy loosely sketched in;" which expressions, though perhaps somewhat too general and sweeping, do not seem to strike very wide of the truth. The inain exception is in the two clownish servants, who, though so inelegant and unrefined that Pope wanted to eject them from their place, display, to our mind, more truth and energy of characterization, than all the other persons put together. It is true, they are continually pelting those about them with very small wit, wherein they seem rather too much like one mind in two persons; but their wit, if such it may be called, is quite as good as that of their betters : from beneath their affectations we catch some tones of native humour: their talk, rude and undignified enough, still relishes of nature, and smells of the places where men actually walk. Launce, master of quibbles and cranks, with his warm heart and wagging tongue sobbing in parables and conceits, is a genuine sprout of the Poet's brain. The scene between him and uis dog Crab, where he recounts the sins of the latter which he has taken upon himself, to save the poor brute from being cud. gelled and killed, is one of those odd, touching, nonsensical things, such as we find nowhere but in Shakespeare and nature.

Launce and Speed, Proteus and Valentine, Julia and Silvia, seem designedly arranged by pairs, and have such a mixture of contrast and resemblance between them as might fitly serve to herald the matchless combinations that were still to come from the same cunning hand. Julia, seeking out and attending her faithless lover in the disguise of a page, and even making herself ser. vant to his infidelity, is one of those exhibitions of female purity, sweetness, and devotion, wherein Shakespeare so far excels all other writers. Her innocence and gentleness are but the more apparent for the chill, rough atmosphere that threatens them; the Poet, here as elsewhere, multiplying the difficulties of the situalicn, the better to approve the beauty of the character. Perhaps the best excuse for her undertaking is, that she never dreams but her lover's heart is as far from fraud as her own, till she finds him with proofs to the contrary on his tongue. Julia, however, is little else than a dim foreshadowing of Imogen : we might almost call them the same person, now seen before, now after marriage; though, in the latter case, by a much clearer light. Perhaps, withal, Imogen has both more rectitude of thought and more delicacy of feeling, than to set forth on such an adventure with so little cause : for Julia has no persecution at home to drive her away, and her love seems rather unwise in not bearing the

« НазадПродовжити »