Home  »  Volume V: English THE DRAMA TO 1642 Part One  »  § 10. Remaining Meres Plays: Romeo and Juliet, A Midsummer Night’s Dream and The Merchant of Venice

The Cambridge History of English and American Literature in 18 Volumes (1907–21).
Volume IV. Prose and Poetry: Sir Thomas North to Michael Drayton.

VIII. Shakespeare: Life and Plays

§ 10. Remaining Meres Plays: Romeo and Juliet, A Midsummer Night’s Dream and The Merchant of Venice

As to the other seven named plays in the Meres list, there are practically no means of certain chronological arrangement. Those who choose to do so may, of course, observe that, in Romeo and Juliet, the nurse says “’T is since the earthquake now eleven years,” discover that there was an earthquake in 1580 and point to 1591. There were, doubtless, also salmons caught in both years. So, also, in dealing with The Merchant of Venice, it has been observed that the queen’s physician, Lopez, of Jewish descent, was tried and executed in 1594. And there is an o in Lopez and an o in Shylock; likewise an l in both. There were marriages in 1595, and there are marriages in A Midsummer Night’s Dream. Let these things appeal to those to whom they do appeal. Others, perhaps, more happily, may be content to abide by Meres and “before 1598,” except in so far as—without positiveness but making suggestions for what they may be worth—they rely on the kind of internal evidence already outlined. For reasons of convenience, we may take the three plays just mentioned first, leaving the histories for the moment.

For all reasons, Romeo and Juliet seems likely to be the earliest. It has not, indeed, quite such a mixture of metres as A Midsummer Night’s Dream has, and the mere “picture of young love” may easily deceive us. But, on the other hand, there is much of Marlowe’s “single-moulded” line; and, together with many things among the most magnificent in Shakespeare, there are crudities and inequalities of the kind natural to a beginner. On the other hand, such a beginner as this is not frequent in literature; and he is already far, in more than one or two respects, from his beginnings. Already, we have seen something of that astonishing power of vivification which distinguishes him from all his predecessors; already, the characters have begun to take the play into their own hands, as it were, and to work it out, not regardless of the story, by any means, but in a way that gives to that story a tenfold power and interest. But it has been only in touches—the whole story has never been treated in this way, still less have all the characters undergone this peculiar transforming influence. In Romeo and Juliet, much further advance has been made. As before—as always—Shakespeare takes a given story and does not vary the mere incidents much, or add very much to them. But the personages become persons; and this personality extends throughout the drama. Independently of Romeo and Juliet themselves—the very opposites and contradictions of the stock hero and the stock heroine—of Mercutio and the nurse, the whole houses of Montague and Capulet almost down to Antony and Potpan, are alive. There is hardly a figure in the play except, perhaps, the unfortunate count Paris, to whom Shakespeare has not communicated this vivacity: and Paris had to be a contrast to Romeo. Here, too, not for the first time—for we have seen it in Love’s Labour’s Lost, in The Two Gentlemen and even in Titus Andronicus—but in far larger measure and intenser form, is the splendid poetry which Shakespeare puts at the service of the drama, as (save in a few flashes of Marlowe and Peele) it had not been put since the great days of Greek tragedy.

There is hardly less of this in A Midsummer Night’s Dream; though, as comports with comedy, it is of a less poignant and transporting nature. And this play, as was remarked above, is more of an olio of metres. But, in certain respects, it still marks progress. If not in all parts, in the whole, it is the most original of Shakespeare’s plays in point of subject up to this time; in fact, it is one of the most original of all in that respect. And this subject is worked up into action with a skill not yet displayed—indeed, Shakespeare here depends more on incident than on character. It is not always fully recognised how artfully the several motives of the Theseus and Hippolyta story—the quarrel of Oberon and Titania, the fortunes of the lovers and the “tedious brief play”—work into each other and work out each other. Popular as fairy mythology had, in a manner, been, nobody had made anything like this use of it; it is only necessary to name Gloriana and Titania, in order to prove any rapprochement of Spenser and Shakespeare on this head to be out of the question. Puck “was feared in field and town” long before Shakespeare; but Shakespeare’s Puck is something very different from a mere “lob of spirits.” The multiplicity of the interests and beauties in this short play is almost bewildering: there is the stuff of half a dozen poetical comedies in it, yet not in the least confusedly disposed.

The Merchant of Venice presents a somewhat different problem. Here, also, there are many actions: nor, perhaps, are they much less well connected than those of the Dream, though they lack the subtle excuse for rapid and interfluent metamorphosis which the very title “A Midsummer Night’s” Dream supplies in the other case. There need be no cavilling on this score—in fact, on the “relief” system, the system of tragic and comic interchange and conflict which makes English drama, the chequers are even better placed. The plot of Shylock against Antonio, the casket scenes, the trial and the trick on the husbands, with the Lorenzo and Jessica “trace-horse” or “outrigger” interest, provide a vivid wavelike change of intensity and relief, which even the fierce vexation of Puck’s persecution of the midsummer lovers does not give. But, from another point of view, the Merchant is less mature than the Dream; or, rather, some of its parts are. The Morocco and Arragon sections, at least, of the casket scenes are quite of the Marlowe period in verse, and, to some extent, in handling; the bantering of the lovers behind their backs, part of the Gobbo business and other things belong to the unripe clowning which is at its greenest in the Errors and has ripened consummately in, say, As You Like It. On the other hand, the trial is admittedly among the apices of dramatic poetry; and the whole characters of Shylock and Portia are among the dramatis personae of eternity. To the present writer, it has for many years been a moral certainty that these different parts are of different dates, and that a similar difference prevails much more largely in Shakespeare’s work than is sometimes thought. The singleplot drama, with its beginning, middle and end, could, perhaps, not easily be written in this way. But the drama which, though not patchwork, is interwoven, can be thus written.