« PreviousContinue »
SOME of the incidents in this play may be supposed to have been taken from The Arcadia, Book I. chap. vi. where Pyrocles consents to head the Helots. (The Arcadia was entered on the books of the Stationers' Company, August 23d, 1588.) The love-adventure of Julia resembles that of Viola in Twelfth Night, and is indeed common to many of the ancient novels. Steevens.
Mrs. Lenox observes, and I think not improbably, that the story of Proteus and Julia might be taken from a similar one in the “ Diana” of George of Montemayor.—“This pastoral romance,
“was translated from the Spanish, in Shakspeare's time." I have seen no earlier translation than that of Bartholomew Yong, who dates his dedication in November, 1598; and Meres, in his Wit's Treasury, printed the same year, expressly mentions the Two Gentlemen of Verona. Indeed, Montemayor was translated two or three years before, by one Thomas Wilson; but this work, I am persuaded, was never published entirely; perhaps some parts of it were, or the tale might have been translated by others. However, Mr. Steevens says, very truly, that this kind of loveadventure is frequent in the old novelists. FARMER.
There is no earlier translation of the Diana entered on the books of the Stationers' Company, than that of B. Younge, Sept. 1598. Many translations, however, after they were licensed, were capriciously suppressed. Among others, "The Decameron of Mr. John Boccace, Florentine,” was “recalled by my lord of Canterbury's commands.” Steevens.
It is observable (I know not for what cause) that the style of this comedy is less figurative, and more natural and unaffected, than the greater part of this author's, though supposed to be one of the first he wrote. Pope.
It may very well be doubted whether Shakspeare had any other hand in this play than the enlivening it with some speeches and lines thrown in here and there, which are easily distinguished, as being of a different stamp from the rest. HANMER.
To this observation of Mr. Pope, which is very just, Mr. Theobald has added, that this is one of Shakspeare's “ worst plays, and is less corrupted than any other.” Mr. Upton peremptorily determines, “ 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," do painters distinguish copies from originals ? and have not authors their peculiar style and manner, from which a true critic can form as unerring judgement as a painter ?” 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 the painter copies his own picture; so, if an author should literally translate his work, he would lose the manner of an original.
Mr. 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
yet greater. But by the internal marks of a 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 delineations of life; but it abounds in yoo peas 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. Johnson.
That it ever should have been a question whether this comedy were the genuine and entire composition of Shakspeare, appears to me very extraordinary. The notions of Sir Thomas Hanmer and Mr. Upton on this subject, which have been above stated, in my opinion only show their want of ste and critical skill, and their deficiency of information respecting the history of Shakspeare and the chronological order of his dramas. They never
seem to have considered whether the Two Gentlemen of Verona were his first or one of his latest pieces ; and it might, for aught which they appear to have known, have belonged, like The Tempest, to the latter class, notwithstanding its having so forward a place in the first authentic edition of his plays. But reasons have been already assigned, to show that it was the earliest, or at least one of the earliest, of his dramatick compositions ; and therefore it is not to be weighed against that late most beautiful and highly-wrought comedy, which in the volume published by the players is preposterously placed before it.
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 this play, are as perfectly Shakspearian (I do not say as finished or as beautiful) as any of his other pieces; and the same judgment must, I conceive, be pronounced concerning the Comedy of Errors and Love's Labour Lost, by every person who is intimately acquainted with his manner of thinking and writing.
Mr. Pope has expressed his surprise, that the style of this comedy is less figurative and more natural and unaffected than the greater part of this author's, though supposed to be one of the first he wrote.” But I conceive it is natural and unaffected, and less figurative, than some of his subsequent productions, in consequence of the very circumstance which has been mentioned 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 of his plays of a still later period, is much more difficult and involved than in the productions of his youth, which in general are distinguished by their ease and perspicuity; and this simplicity and unaffected elegance, and not its want of success, were,
I conceive, the cause of its being less corrupted than some others. Its perspicuity rendered any attempt at alteration unnecessary. Who knows that it was not successful? For my own part, I have no doubt that it met with the highest applause. Nor is this mere conjecture; for we know from the testimony of a contemporary well acquainted with the stage, whose eulogy on our author I have already produced, that he was very early distinguished for his comick talents, and that before the end of the year 1592, he had excited the jealousy of one of the most celebrated dramatick poets of that time.
In a note on the first scene of this comedy, Mr. Pope has particularly objected to the low and trifling conceits which he says are found there and in various other parts of the play before us : but this censure is pronounced without sufficient discrimination, or a due attention to the period when it was produced. Every composition must be examined with a constant reference to the opinions that prevailed when the piece under consideration was written; and if the present comedy be viewed in that light, it will be found that the conceits here objected to were not denominated by any person of Shakspeare's age low and trifling, but were very generally admired, and were considered pure and genuine wit. Nothing can prove the truth of this statement more decisively than a circumstance which I have had occasion to mention elsewhere,--that Sir John Harrington was commonly called by Queen Elizabeth her witty godson, and was very generally admired in his own time for the liveliness of his talents and the playfulness of his humour; yet when we examine his writings*, we find no other proof of his wit than those very conceits which have been censured in some of our author's comedies as mean, low, and trifling. It is clear therefore that the notions of our ancestors on this subject were very different from ours; what we condemn, they highly admired; and what we denominate true wit, they certainly would not have relished, and perhaps would scarcely have understood.
Mr. Pope should also have recollected, that in Shakspeare's time, and long before, it was customary in almost every play to introduce a jester, who, with no great propriety, was denominated a clown; whose merriment made a principal part of the entertainment of the lower ranks, and, I believe, of a large portion of the higher orders also. When no clown or jester was intro
* See particularly his “Supplie” (or Supplement] to Godwin's Account of the English Bishops ; which abounds in almost every page with such conceits as we are now speaking of. The titles of some of our poet's comedies, which appear to have been written by the booksellers for whom they were printed, may also be cited for the same purpose; thus we have “ A pleasant conceited comedy called Love's Labour's Lost,” &c. 1598; that is, a comedy full of pleasant conceits. The bookseller doubtless well knew the publick taste, and added this title as more likely to attract purchasers than any other he could devise. See also “A most pleasant and excellent conceited comedy of Syr John Falstaffe," &c. 1602, i. e. a comedy full of excellent conceits.
duced in a comedy, the servants of the principal personages sustained his part; and the dialogue attributed to them was written with a particular view to supply that deficiency, and to amuse the audience by the promptness of their pleasantry and the liveliness of their conceits. Such is the province assigned to those characters in Lilly's comedies, which were performed with great success and admiration for several years before Shakspeare's time; and such are some of the lower characters in this drama, the Comedy of Errors, Love's Labour's Lost, and some others. On what ground therefore is our poet to be condemned for adopting a mode of writing universally admired by his contemporaries, and for not foreseeing that in a century after his death, these dialogues which set the audience in a roar, would by more fastidious criticks be denominated low quibbles and trifling conceits * ?
With respect to his neglect of geography in this and some other plays, it cannot be defended by attributing his errour in this instance to his youth; for one of his latest productions is liable to the same objection. 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 in the beginning of a play, who in the fourth act appears as a woman, so he seems to have wholly set geography at defiance, and to have considered countries as inland or maritime just as it suited his fancy or convenience.
With the qualifications and allowances which these considerations demand, the present comedy, viewed as a first production, may surely be pronounced a very elegant and extraordinary performance.
Having already given the reasons why I suppose this to have been our author's first play, it is only necessary to say here, that I believe it to have been written in 1591. See the Essay on the Chronological Order of Shakspeare's Plays. Malone,
* See this topick further discussed, in the preliminary observations to the Comedy of Errors.