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written the year before : that it was written earlier than 1596 nobody pretends. And that The Merry Wives had not been heard of in 1598, is further probable from its not being mentioned by Meres in his Wit's Treasury, which came out that year; for, his purpose being to approve Shakespeare “the most excellent among the English in both ” comedy and tragedy, it seems rather unlikely that he would have passed by so apt a document of comic power, had it been known.
A deal of perplexity has been gotten up as to the time of the action in this play; that is, in what period of his life Falstaff undertook the adventures at Windsor, whether before or after his exploits represented in Henry IV., or at some intermediate time: questions scarce worth the discussing or even the raising, but that it would hardly do to ignore a thing about which there has been so much ado. Much of this perplexity seems to have risen from confounding the order in which the several plays were made, with the order of the events described in them. Now, at the close of Henry IV. Falstaff and his companions are banished the neighbourhood of the Court, "till their conversations appear more wise and modest to the world;" and near the opening of Henry V., which follows hard upon the close of the former play, we have an account of Falstaff's death. And because The Merry Wives of Windsor was probably written after both those plays, therefore the Poet has been thought by some to have ventured upon the questionable experiment of bringing Sir John and two of his followers upon the stage after their death ; just as though one could not write the latter part of a man's life, and tell the story of his last hours, and then go back and give the history of his boyhood, and youth, without breaking the sacred peace of the grave. That the exploits at Windsor were before those at Gadshill, Eastcheap, and Shrewsbury, in the order of time, is shown by Mrs. Quickly's progress ; who in the Merry Wives is a maiden and the housekeeper of Dr Caius; but in the other plays she has become a wife, though still Quickly; then she dwells awhile in widowhood, until, the sweetness of her former marriage having taught her better than to live out of wedlock, " she taketh to herself another mate." And the same thing is further shown in Falstaff's fearing lest the noise of his shames should come to the ears of the Court; which fear could hardly be, but that he still have something there to lose : for he seems not to be aware how completely his genius in other exigencies will triumph over his failures in love-making. Nevertheless, it must be owned that the Poet, probably because the subject never occurred to him, or because he sometimes lost the historical order of things in an overmastering sense of art, did not in all cases take care to shun such anachronisms as criticism hath delighted to find in his plays. Perhaps it should be observed in this connection, that the two parts of Henry IV. cover a period of ten and a half years, from the battle of Homildon, Sept. 1402, to the death of the King, March, 1413; in which time Falstaff doubtless had intervals of leisure for such adventures as those at Windsor. So that the action of the Comedy, supposing it were not before, might well enough have taken place some time during, the action of the History. And if the former seem too early a date for the mention of “the wild Prince and Poins ;” it would be considered that the Poet represents the Prince as already noted for his loose and idle courses, his connection with the rioters of Eastcheap hay. ing begun even before his father reached the throne.
For the plot and matter of The Merry Wives, Shakespeare was apparently little indebted to any thing but his own invention, “ T'he Two Lovers of Pisa," a tale borrowed from the novels of Straparola, and published in Tarlton's " Newes out of Purgatorie,' 1590, is thought to have suggested some of the incidents; and the notion seems probable enough. In that Tale a young gallant falls in love with a jealous old doctor's wife, who is also young, and really encourages the unlawful passion. The gallant, not knowing the doctor, takes him for confidant and counsellor in the prose. cution of his suit, and is thus thwarted in all his plans. The naughty wife conceals her lover first in a basket of feathers, then between the ceilings of a room, and again in a box of deeds and valuable papers. If the Poet had any other obligations, they have not been traced clearly enough to be worth the mentioning.
As a specimen of pure comedy, The Merry Wives of Windsor by general concession stands unrivalled; the play being not only replete with the most ludicrous situations and predicaments, but surpassingly rich both in quality and variety of comic characteri zation. To say nothing of Falstaff, who is an inexhaustible storehouse of laughter-moving preparations, there is comic matter enough in the other persons to keep the world in perpetual laughter. Though historically connected with the reign of Henry IV., the play is otherwise a delineation of the manners and humours of the Poet's time : in which view we need but compare it with Ben Jonson's Every Man in His Humour, great as is the latter, to see “ how much easier it was to vanquish the rest of Europe than to contend with Shakespeare."
The action of this play proceeds throughout by intrigue; meaning thereby such a complication of cross-purposes and conflicting aims, wherein the several persons strive to outwit and circumvent one another. And the stratagems all have the appropriate merit of causing a grateful surprise, and a perplexity that interests because it stops short of confusion; while the awkward and grotesque predicaments, into which the persons throw each other by their cross. plottings and counter-plottings, are often a source of exquisite diver sion. The play finely illustrates, moreover, though in its own peculiar line, the general order and method of Shakespeare's art; the surrounding parts falling in with the central one, and the subordinato plots drawing, as by a hidden impulse, into harmony with the lead
ing one: if Falstaff be doomed to repeated collapses from a hero into a butt, that others may laugh at him instead of with him, the Welch Parson and French Doctor are also defeated of their revenge, just as they are getting over the preliminary pains and vexations, and while pluming themselves with forthcoming honours are su idenly deplumed into “ vlouting-stogs ;” Page and his wife no sooner begin to exult in their success than they are taken down by the thrift of a counter-stratagem, and left to the double shame of ignobly failing in a disreputable undertaking ; and Ford's jealousy is made to scourge him with the very whip be bas twisted for the scourging of its object. Thus all the more prominent characters have to chew the ashes of disappointment in turn, their plans being thwarted, and themselves made ridiculous, just as they are on the point of grasping their several fruitions. Lut Falstaff is the only one of them that rises by falling and extracts grace out of his very disgraces. For in him the grotesque and ludicrous is evermore laughing and chuckling over itself: he makes coinedies extempore out of his own shames and infirmities; and is himself the most delighted spectator of the side-shaking scenes where himself figures as chief actor.
This observation and enjoyment of the comical as exhibited in himself, which forms perhaps the leading characteristic of Sir John, and explains much in him that were else inexplicable, is here seen, however, labouring under something of an eclipse. The truth is, Falstaff is plainly out of his sphere; and he shows a sad want of his usual sagacity and good sense in getting into it, - in supposing for a moment that he could inspire such a passion in such a place : nor does it seem probable that the Poet would have exhibited him thus, but that he were moved thereto by somewhat else than the native promptings of his genius. For of love in any right or respectable sense Sir John is essentially incapable; and to represent him otherwise, had been to contradict, not carry out, his character. Shakespeare doubtless understood this; and, being thus reduced to the alternative of conimitting a gross breach of decorum or of making the hero unsuccessful, the moral sanity of his genius left him no choice. Accordingly Sir John is here conspicuous not so much for what he practises as for what is practised upon him ; he being, in fact, the dupe and victim of his own heroism, and provoking laughter more by that he suffers than by liat he does. So that the internal evidence of the play strongly favours the tradition of the Queen's requesting to see Falstaff in love; as such request affords the only clear solution of the Poet's representing one who was plainly a favourite with him in so unsuitable a quality. For, if we may believe Hazlitt, “ wits and philosophers seldom shine in that character;" and, whether this be true or not, it is certain that “ Sir John by no means comes off with flying colours."
But Falstaff, notwithstanding these drawbacks, is still so far him
self that “ naught but himself can be his conqueror.” If he be overnatched, it is not so much by the strength or skill of his antag. onists, as from his being persuaded, seemingly against his will and for the pleasure of others, into a line of adventure where he is not qnalified to thrive. His incomparable art of turning adversities into commodities; the good-humoured strategy whereby he manages to divert off all unpleasant feeling of his vices and frailties; the marvellous agility and aptness of wit which, with a vesture of odd and whimsical constructions, at ouce hides the offensive and discovers the comical features of his conduct; the same towering impudence and sublime effrontery, which so lift him aloft in his subsequent exploits; and the overpowering eloquence of exaggeration, with which he delights to set off and heighten whalsoever is most ludicrous in his own person or situation ;- all these qualities, though not in their full bloom and vigour, are here to be seen in triumphant exercise.
Upon the whole, however, this bringing forth of Sir John more for exposure than for exhibition is not altogether grateful to those whom he has so often convulsed into health : though he still gives us wholesome shakings, we feel that it costs him too much : the rare exhilaration he affords us elsewhere, and even here, invests bim with a sort of humorous reverence; insomuch that we can hardly help pitying even while we approve his merited, yet scarcely merited, shames and failures; and we would fain make out some excuse for him on the score of these slips' occurring earlier in his life, when experience had not yet disciplined away the natural vanity which may sometimes lead a man of genius to fancy himself the object of the tender passion. And in like manner we are apt to apologize for the Poet's exposure of his and our favourite, on the ground that, being to represent him in an enterprise where he could not deserve success, nor even work for it but by knavery, he was under a strong moral necessity of causing him not only to be thwarted, but to become the laughing-stock of those who thwart him, and, which is especially galling to one so wit-proud as Sir John, " to stand at the taunt of one that makes fritters of English." And we are the more disposed to leniency towards Falstaff amid his unparalleled swampings, forasmuch as his merry persecutors are but a sort of decorous, respectable, common-place people, who borrow their chief importance from the victim of their mischievous sport; and if they are not so bad as to make us wish him success, neither are they so good that we like to see them grow at his expense. But on this point Mr. Verplanck has spoken so aptly, that mere justice to the subject bids us quote him : “ Our choler would rise, despite of us, against Cleopatra herself, should she presume to make a dupe and tool of regal old Jack, the natural lord and master of all about him; and, though not so atrociously immoral as to wish he had succeeded with the Windsor gypsies, we plead guilty to the minor turpitude of sympathy, when he tells bis persecutors, with brightening visage and exultant (winkle of eye, - I am glad, though you have ta'en a special stand to strike at me, that your arrow hath glanc'd.'”
A further account of this huge magazine of comedies must be deferred till we encounter him at the noon of his glory, stealing, drinking, lying, recruiting, warring, and discoursing of wine, wit, valour, and honour, with Prince Hal at his side to wrestle forut the prodigies of his big-teeming brain.
Sir John's followers are under the cloud with him, being little more than the shadows of what they appear when their master is fully himself: the light of Bardolph's nose is not well kindled yet; Pistol, ancient Pistol's tongue has not yet learned to strut with such potent impotence as it elsewhere waxes great withal. Quickly, however, is altogether herself as far as she goes, and she lets off some brilliancies that would not discredit her maturity in the more congenial atmosphere of Eastcheap; though of course we may not expect her to be the woman now that she will be when she has known Sir John “these twenty-nine years, come peascod time.” Acting here in the capacity of a matchmaker and go-between, her perfect impartiality towards all of Anne Page's suitors, both in the service she renders and in the return she accepts, finely exemplifies the indefatigable benevolence of that class of worthies towards themselves, and is so true to the life of a certain perpetual sort of people, as almost to make one believe in the transmigration of souls. - I Mine Host of the Garter" is indeed a model of a host : up to any thing, and brimful of fun, so that it runs out at the ends of his fingers, nothing suits him so well as to uncork the wit-holders of his guests, unless, peradventure, it be to uncork his wine-holders for them. His exhilarating conceit of practical shrewdness, -"Am I politic ? am I subtle ? am I a Machiavel ? " — which serves as oil to make the wheels of his mind run smooth and glib, is richly characteristic, both of himself individually and of the class he represents. — Sir Hugh Evans is an odd marriage of the ludicrous and the respectable. In his officious simplicity he moralizes the play much better, doubtless, than a wiser man could do it. The scene where, in expectation of the fight with the French doctor, he is full of “ cholers,” and “ trempling of mind,” and “ melancholies," and has " a great dispositions to cry," and strikes up a lullaby to the palpitations of his heart without seeming to know it, while those palpitations in turn scatter his memory and discompose his singing, is replete with a quiet delicacy of humour, hardly to be surpassed. It is quite probable, as hath been said, that both be and Doctor Caius are delineations, slightly caricatured, of what the Poet had seen and conversed with ; there being a portrait-like reality and effect about them, with just enough infusion of the ideal to lift them into the region of art.
Hazlitt boldly pronounces Shakespeare " the only writer who