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TWO GENTLEMEN OF VERONA.
This is one of Shakspeare's earliest if not his first play. It was not printed until 1623; but it is mentioned by Meres in his Wit's Treasury, printed in 1598. It bears strong internal marks of an early composition. Pope has observed, that “the style of this comedy is less figurative, and more natural and unaffected than the greater part of Shakspeare's, though supposed to be one of the first he wrote.” Malone is inclined to consider this to be in consequence of that very circumstance, and that it is natural and unaffected, because it was a youthful performance. “Though many young poets of ordinary talents are led by false taste to adopt inflated and figurative language, why should we suppose that such should have been the course pursued by this master genius? The figurative style of Othello, Lear, and Macbeth, written when he was an established and long-practised dramatist, may be ascribed to the additional knowledge of men and things which he had acquired during a period of fifteen years; in consequence of which his mind teemed with images and illustrations, and thoughts crowded so fast upon him, that the construction, in these and some other plays of a still later period, is much more difficult and involved than in the productions of his youth."
Hanmer thought Shakspeare had no other hand in this play, than the enlivening it with some speeches and lines, which, he thinks, are easily distinguished from the rest. Upton peremptorily asserts, " that if any proof can be drawn from manner and style, this play must be sent packing, and seek for its parent elsewhere." "How otherwise," says he, a do painters distinguish copies from originals ? and have not authors their peculiar style and manner, from which a true critic can form as unerring judgment as a painter?” To this Johnson replies very satisfactorily: "I am afraid this illustration of a critic's science will not prove what is desired. A painter knows a copy from an original, by rules somewhat resembling those by which critics know a translation, which, if it be literal, and literal it must be to resemble the copy of a picture, will be easily distinguished. Copies are known from originals, even when a painter copies his own picture ; so, if an author should literally translate his work, he would lose the manner of an original. Upton confounds the copy of a picture with the imitation of a painter's manner. Copies are easily known; but good imitations are not detected with equal certainty, and are, by the best judges, often mistaken. Nor is it true that the writer has always peculiarities equally distinguishable with those of the painter. The peculiar manner of each arises from the desire, natural to every performer, of facilitating his subsequent work by recurrence to his former ideas : this recurrence produces that repetition which is called habit. The painter, whose work is partly intellectual and partly manual, has habits of the mind, the eye, and the hand; the writer has only habits of the mind. Yet some painters have differed as much from themselves as from any other; and I have been told, that there is little resemblance between the first works of Raphael and the last. The same variation may be expected in writers; and, if it be true, as it seems, that they are less subject to habit, the difference between their works may be yet greater."
“ But by the internal marks of composition we may discover the author with probability, though seldom with certainty. When I read this play, I cannot but think that I find, both in the serious and ludicrous scenes, the language and sentiments of Shakspeare. It is not indeed one of his most powerful effusions; it has neither many diversities of character, nor striking delineation of life, but it abounds in yrouar beyond most of his plays, and few have more lines or passages which, singly considered, are eminently beautiful. I am yet inclined to believe that it was not very successful, and suspect that it has escaped corruption, only because, being seldom played, it was less exposed to the hazards of transcription."
Pope has set what he calls a mark of reprobation upon the low and trifiing conceits which are to be found in this play. It is true that the familiar scenes abound with quibbles and conceits, but the poet must not be condemned for adopting a mode of writing admired by his contemporaries; they were not considered low and trifling in Shakspeare's age, but, on the contrary, were very generally admired and allowed for pure and genuine wit. Yet some of these scenes have much farcical drollery and invention: that of Launce with his dog in the fourth act is an instance, and surely "Speed's mode of proving his master to be in love is neither deficient in wit or sense.”
“The tender scenes in this play, though not so highly wrought as in some others, have often much sweetness of sentiment and expression." Schlegel says, “It is as if the world was obliged to accommodate itself to a transient youthful caprice, called love." Julia may be considered a light sketch of the lovely characters of Viola and Imogen. Her answer to Lucetta's advice against following her lover in disguise has been pointed out as a beautiful and highly-poetical passage.
“That it should ever have been a question whether this comedy were the genuine and entire composition of Shakspeare appears to me very extraordinary," says Malone. “Hanmer and Upton never seem to have considered whether it were his first or one of his latest pieces. Is no allowance to be made for the first flights of a young poet? nothing for the imitation of a preceding celebrated dramatist,* which in some of the lower dialogues of this comedy (and these only) may, I think, be traced ? But even these, as well as the other parts of the play, are perfectly Shakspearean (I do not say as finished and beautiful as any of his other pieces); and the same judgment must, I conceive, be pronounced concerning the Comedy of Errors and Love's Labor's Lost, by every person who is intimately acquainted with his manner of writing and thinking."
Sir William Blackstone observes, “that one of the great faults of the Two Gentlemen of Verona is the hastening too abruptly, and without preparation, to the dénouiment, which shows that it was one of Shakspeare's very early performances." Dr. Johnson, in his concluding observations, has remarked upon the geographical errors. They cannot be defended by attributing them to his youthful inexperience, for one of his latest productions is also liable to the same objection. To which Malone replies:
The truth, I believe, is, that as he neglected to observe the rules of the drama with respect to the unities, though before he began to write they had been enforced by Sidney in a treatise which doubtless he had read; so he seems to have thought that the whole terraqueous globe was at his command; and as he brought in a child at the beginning of a play, who in the fourth act appears as a woman, so he seems to have set geography at defiance, and to have considered countries as inland or maritime, just as it suited his fancy or convenience."
* Malone points at Lilly, whose comedies were performed with great success and admb ration previous to Shakspeare's commencement of his dramatic career.
Some of the incidents in this play may be supposed to have been taken from The Arcadia, book 1. ch. vi., where Pyrocles consents to head the Helots. The Arcadia was entered on the Stationers' books in 1588. The love adventure of Julia resembles that of Viola in Twelfth Night, and is indeed common to inany of the ancient novels.
Mrs. Lennox informs us, that the story of Proteus and Julia might be taken from a similar one in “The Diana" of Montemayor. This pastoral romance was translated from the Spanish in Shakspeare's time, by Bartholomew Young, and published in 1598. It does not appear that it was previously published, though it was translated two or three years before by one Thomas Wilson. Perhaps some parts of it may have been made public, or Shakspeare may have found the tale elsewhere. It has before been observed that Meres mentions the Two Gentlemen of Verona in his book, published in 1598. Malone conjectures that this play was the first that Shakspeare wrote, and places the date of its composition in the year 1591. VOL. I.