Home  »  Volume V: English THE DRAMA TO 1642 Part One  »  § 13. Plays not mentioned by Meres: Pericles, The Merry Wives, Measure for Measure, Much Ado about Nothing, As You Like It and Twelfth Night

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

§ 13. Plays not mentioned by Meres: Pericles, The Merry Wives, Measure for Measure, Much Ado about Nothing, As You Like It and Twelfth Night

We are now deprived of the safe, if not in all ways definite, assistance of Meres in respect of chronology; and, for the rest of the contents of the folio as well as for Pericles (the single play outside of it which will be considered in the present chapter) we have, in a majority of cases, nothing but guesswork to guide us. But, using the same general principles as heretofore—the internal evidence of versification and dramatic craftsmanship, with such positive aids as may bear investigation, we can continue this history of Shakespeare’s work on the same general lines. Only, it will be desirable to adhere to the usual folio order with one single exception, that of The Tempest, which, in accordance with general practice (to be critically examined later) we shall keep to the end, putting Pericles, which has no folio order, in its place, though by no means asserting that it certainly deserves priority over all the others.

That the whole of Pericles is not Shakespeare’s is extremely probable; but the allocation of parts to other dramatists, named or unnamed, is as hazardous a piece of “hariolation” as has been tried even in this hazardous game. It is not too much to say that there is no part which might not be his; the very choruses which have been denied him are extremely Shakespearean, and group excellently with similar things in A Midsummer Night’s Dream and As You Like It. The brothel scenes can be similarly, if not so completely, paired with passages in the Errors and in Measure for Measure; and divers examples of stiff Marlowe verse and handling with others in Titus Andronicus and the early chronicles and elsewhere. On the other hand, some of the best things throughout the play are aut Shakespeare aut Diabolus, and it must have been a most superior fiend who forged the shipwreck passage. Still, nothing is heard of the play till 1606, when it was licensed; and it is pretty certain that, whether the whole was written by Shakespeare or not, the whole was not written by Shakespeare at or near that time. The present writer would be prepared to take either side on the question: “Did Shakespeare about this time complete an early immature sketch of his own; or did he furnish, voluntarily or involuntarily, scenes to one which was vamped up and botched off by another or others?” But he rather inclines to the first alternative, because of the distinct similarity of the phenomena to those shown in others of Shakespeare’s plays actually contained in the folio. That the scheme of the play is not of a mature period is shown by the fact that it has little character, and that what it has is still less concerned with the working out of the action. The contrast here, not merely with A Winter’s Tale but with the much abused Cymbeline, is remarkable.

To cast back to the earlier, but not yet discussed, plays of the canon, The Merry Wives of Windsor, as most people know, is a play with a legend—that the queen wished to see Falstaff “in love,” and that it was written in fourteen days to please her. This, however (the later part of which is one of the curious Shakespeare-Molière coincidences), comes only from Dennis, a hundred years after date. The play was actually licensed in 1601, and imperfectly printed next year—dates which suit well enough with the inclusion of Henry IV in the Meres list of 1598 and its completion by Henry V in that year or 1599. With his usual preference of artistic convenience to prosaic exactitude, Shakespeare has not troubled himself about niching this episode very carefully in his precedent history of the fat knight. Shallow appears duly, but Slender replaces Silence; “the wild prince and Poins” are referred to, but vaguely. You neither need, nor are you intended, to make a “harmony” of the four pieces. So, too, it seems to be lost labour and idle sentimentality to lament the decadence and defeat of Falstaff. Men are generally decadent, and frequently defeated, when dealing with women in such circumstances; and Falstaff’s overthrow does not make him fall very hard after all. On the other hand, the vis comica of the piece is perfect; its exuberant invention and variety are unsurpassed; and the actual construction is more careful than usual. In character and dialogue, it is not surpassed by the very greatest of the plays, allowance being made for kind and atmosphere. Everybody is alive and everything is vividly illuminated—not with the extra-natural, if not non-natural, Congreve rockets, but with a lambent easy light of air. Sir Hugh Evans must have been meant as a brother in dramatic arms to Fluellen, and it is difficult to prefer Roland to Oliver or vice versa. The attractive grace—though given in outline merely—of sweet Anne Page is masterly; and, in her mother and Mistress Ford, Shakespeare has given, as hardly another writer has ever succeeded in doing, in bourgeois condition and deliberately prosaised tone, the same high but perfectly human standard of wifeliness which, elsewhere, he has carried to the court of poetical quintessence in Hermione and in Imogen. There are few things more amusing to a liberally catholic student of literature than the half patronising, half apologetic, tone adopted, sometimes, towards The Merry Wives, as a “farce.” And, here again, one is reminded of Molière.

Measure for Measure is a more difficult play—one not so liable to be undervalued from inability to perceive that a comic microcosm may be thoroughly cosmic, but more apt to disconcert, if not actually to disgust, by reason of its singular apparent discords, its unusual scheme of conduct and character and its scant reconcilableness with that un-puritan, but fairly severe, system of poetical justice which Shakespeare generally maintains. Its “disagreeableness”—to use a word often laughed at but expressive and without a synonym—is less to some tastes than that of All’s Well that Ends Well; but, to a certain extent, it exists. On the other hand, its power is unquestionable, and it contains some of the greatest things in Shakespeare. It was certainly (or almost certainly) performed in 1604, and it has been customary to accept that year as the approximate date of the composition. To the present writer, this seems very improbable, and he would select Measure for Measure as the strongest instance of the suggested earliness, in a more or less incomplete form, of many more plays than are contained in Meres’s list. Shakespeare, indeed, has improved English versions, in novel and drama. He has not only added the magnificent scenes between Isabella and Angelo, and Isabella and her brother, and the character (dramatically important, inasmuch as it helps to save Isabella and provides a dénouement) of “Mariana in the moated grange”; he has lavished his nepenthe of poetry on a not particularly attractive theme. But, in the first place, it seems very unlikely that he would have chosen that theme so late; and, in the second, it is nearly certain that, if he had, he would have worked it up with different results. His seventeenth century plays generally contain nothing so crude as the cruder parts of Measure for Measure, while these are very like parts of the early certainties and of Pericles. Moreover, even if Pompey and Lucio were cleaner-mouthed, they would still be unfinished studies, companions of Launce and Launcelot, not of Touchstone and Feste. The play, as a whole, gives one the idea of an early, half finished piece which the writer has resumed, which he has improved immensely, but on which he has rather hung additional and separate jewels than spent the full labour of the thorough refashioning and refounding. Had it come straight from the hands of the Shakespeare of 1604, we should surely have had a much more defensible and, in fact, intelligible duke, than the person who runs his state and his servants into difficulties in order that he may come to the rescue as a rather shabby Providence—an Angelo more of a piece, less improbably repentant (not to say so improbably flagitious) and less flagrantly “let off.” If one cared to conjecture, it might be possible to show a strong case for an original intention to adopt the story in its blackest shape, Titus fashion; a disgust with this leading to the abandonment of the thing for a time; an inspiration to create a “Saint Isabel” and a consequent adaptation and transformation to “happy ending” and poetical injustice. But even a Shakespeare cannot reshape ends in a manner entirely contrary to their rough-hewing, without some loss of accomplishment, verisimilitude and effect.

Measure for Measure was never printed in Shakespeare’s lifetime; Much Ado about Nothing, which (with the much earlier Errors between them) follows it in the folio and which, like it, is founded on an Italian story, had been actually printed four years before the alleged date of Measure for Measure and is thought to have been written even a year earlier than this. Here, there is neither necessity nor probability for any theory of partial composition. The play is all of a piece; and the best things in it are entirely original. The trick played on Hero had appeared both in Bandello’s prose and in Ariosto’s verse; and there seems actually to have been an English play on the subject so early as 1583. But Shakespeare added Benedick and Beatrice; he added Dogberry and Verges and he made the whole thing into one of the most remarkable instances of the kind of tragicomedy where no actual tragedy is permitted, but where it is only just avoided, and where tragic motives are allowed to work freely. The play is of extraordinary merit, and Shakespeare has only left one loose stitch—a stitch which he might have picked up with very little trouble—in the entirely unexplained, and very nearly inexplicable behaviour of Margaret, who, being certainly not a traitress and as certainly not a fool, first lends herself to a proceeding obviously prejudicial to her mistress, and then holds her tongue about it. Except in this point, the play works with perfect ease of action; and, if one does not envy Hero her husband, and does grudge her very much to him, that is no uncommon case. As for Benedick and Beatrice, they are, perhaps, as good touchstones as any in Shakespeare. No one but an “innocent” can possibly fail to like them; no one but a charlatan will ever pretend not to do so. The authorities of Messina are more “farcical”; but the farce, again, is superfarcical.

It might well have been thought that nothing better in the way of romantic comedy would be written. But this was to be triumphantly contradicted by two plays, As You Like It and Twelfth Night, which are believed to have followed Much Ado very quickly, and which, in the folio (with plays already mentioned intervening), observe the order in which they have been named. But it is not positively known which appeared first. Twelfth Night was acted on 2 February, 1601/2; As You Like It, on less certain grounds, is put some two years before. So far as one can judge from internal evidence, Twelfth Night would seem to be a little the earlier, or, at any rate, to retain a little more of the characteristics of Shakespeare’s earliest comedies. But, in reality, Much Ado About Nothing, As You Like It and Twelfth Night form a trio of which the best thing to say is that only the man who wrote the other two could have written any one of them. Still, As You Like It has a certain pre-eminence, and may put in a claim to be the greatest of Shakespeare’s comedies—the typical romantic comedy—excluding The Tempest as belonging rather to that middle kind for which there is no English name, but which is inexactly designated drame in French. There is hardly more than one fault in it—a fault which, oddly enough, is very rare in Shakespeare, though extremely common in his contemporaries—the fault of concluding the play with a violent “revolution” merely communicated by a messenger. That an “old religious man” of Shakespeare’s creation might have converted even such an exceedingly unpromising subject as duke Frederick need not be denied: it is very difficult to say what any one of Shakespeare’s creation might not have done. But it would have been very interesting to hear the arguments used on the occasion. With this exception, there is nothing that exceeds the licence of romantic character comedy. That was the way they lived in Arden—there can be no doubt of it. And the other things had to happen in order that they might so live. A fresh qualm, succeeded by a fresh desire, may, indeed, be aroused by the announced intention of Jaques to seek duke Frederick’s company: the qualm as to his probable reception, the desire to have Shakespeare’s account of it. But Jaques himself, with whom some have quarrelled, is a perfectly allowable, and a perfectly admirable, foil to the lovers and the fleeters of the time. The vividness of almost every scene and passage is unmatched even in Shakespeare; there are no longueurs; and, if there were, Rosalind and Touchstone would save them. The poet has not here, as he did earlier in A Midsummer Night’s Dream, and later, in The Tempest, resorted to supernatural machinery to help his glamour. We are no further from ordinary life than romance always is, and in the least extraordinary regions of romance itself. But “Arden” is none the less made an enchanted ground without spells or incantations, an earthly Paradise, with nothing that is not within reach of almost any human being. Wit, wisdom and poetry are the only transfigurers. Shakespeare, of course, had certainly for canvas Lodge’s Euphuist romance of Rosalynde; perhaps (it would be pleasant to think so) the Tale of Gamelyn itself—but it was merely canvas. The charm of Rosalind, the marrowy moralising of Jaques, the unfailing fool-wisdom of Touchstone, are all his own. By this time, too, he had arrived at that command of verse of which something will be specially said later, and had perfected his wonderful prose. Both the blank verse and the lyric in As You Like It are in absolute perfection, each for its special purpose; and there is, perhaps, no play (for Hamlet lacks the lyric) in which all three media are so perfectly displayed.

As You Like It, with Rosalind as Ganymede, had taken advantage of that habit of representing women’s parts by boys which has been supposed to possess advantages in itself. Cleopatra, played by a boy (as with true Shakespearean audacity she is herself made to suggest) must have been absurd, but Shakespeare could not help himself and the custom of the country. Here, he could help himself; and he did so with admirable success. Moreover, the success could evidently be repeated (if the artist were strong enough) in a different key. The artist was strong enough and he repeated it in Viola; relying here on the custom to emphasise and make probable the confusion of brother and sister. Twelfth Night or What You Will—the latter title an obvious pendant to As You Like It; the former, perhaps unnecessarily, supposed to refer to the time of production—is the purest comedy of all Shakespeare’s plays. We know that the captain is in no danger; none, even apparently, threatens any one else. To make Malvolio, as has sometimes been attempted, an almost tragic personage, virtuous and deeply wronged, is an absurdity. The duke is, and is meant to be, a feeble person; but he can talk exquisite poetry, is a gentleman, probably made exactly the sort of husband that Viola wanted and so is one of those subtlest, because most faintly nuanced, criticisms of life which only the greatest masters dare to allow themselves. Feste is not Touchstone’s equal—but who is? and, besides, it would not have done for the clown to be wittier than the knight when both were witty—in As You Like It things are different. The rest are of the Upper House almost without an exception. Viola, no Rosalind or Beatrice, but a jewel of the other type and differenced exquisitely from such sisters as Juliet and Miranda; Olivia, stately, but perfectly human; Maria, not elaborately, but sufficiently, drawn in the other vein for contrast—form an extraordinary triad even for Shakespeare; and it is afflicting that some commentators should forget that “the youngest wren of nine” was no “waiting maid” in the modern sense. On the other side, Sir Toby Belch is one of those doubles that are no doubles, over which nearly all artists stumble. He is of the same genus as Falstaff, but of a different species; and almost entirely different as an individual; just as Sir Andrew is of the tribe of Silence and Slender, but quite other than they. As for Malvolio, he has no parallel anywhere save Molière’s Alceste, who, like him but more commonly, has been travestied into a persona tragica by incompetent criticism. A gentleman, a man of honour and of his duty, of parts and of merit, his comic [char] is compounded of vanity, sourness of temper, lack of humour, a little jack-in-officeship, much ambition and, probably, not a little downright jealousy—and it brings the comic punishment upon him most completely and condignly. Sebastian, no doubt, has extraordinary, but not impossible, luck.

From this point, we may take a liberty—of which we have already given warning—with the folio arrangement. The Winter’s Tale would come next, according to the division of “Comedies, Histories and Tragedies,” and several histories, earlier according to the Meres point de repère, would come next after that. But, according to that class of internal evidence which we have allowed, The Winter’s Tale is distinctly later; some more plays regarded as “histories” in Shakespeare’s time are, not merely to us, but essentially, romantic tragedies; and the arrangement, according to logic and literature must, in other ways, be altered. We shall rearrange the scene from this point, therefore, recording all certain, or even probable, data as to individual plays as they arise, under four heads—the remaining English histories, the classical plays subsequent to Titus Andronicus, the romantic tragedies and the three final drames.