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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

§ 8. Earliest group: The Comedy of Errors, Love’s Labour’s Lost and Titus Andronicus

By the steady carrying out of all these processes—the comparison of the Meres list with the other plays; the comparison of the plays in that list with each other; and the comparison of the work of the Marlowe group, of Lyly and of a few other known or unknown writers—the least hasty or fanciful of critics will probably be induced to mark off from the Meres list of undoubtedly early plays a smaller group of almost undoubtedly earlier and, perhaps, a smaller still of probably earliest. From this last, he will probably be wise in refusing to select an “earliest of all,” because the marks of earliness in them are not quite the same. They are all such as would characterise a genius in its novitiate; but it would be an exceedingly rash person who would undertake to say that, of the various kinds of literary measles which they show, one would be likely to attack the patient sooner than another. The group in question consists, as it seems to the present writer, of three plays, which, to mention them in the unquestion-begging order of the folio, are The Comedy of Errors, Love’s Labour’s Lost and Titus Andronicus. The Two Gentlemen of Verona, which, in the same notoriously haphazard order, comes before them all, is, in this order of criticism, very near them as a whole, but with perhaps later qualities; and so is Meres’s probable Love’s Labour’s Won (All’s Well that Ends Well). Let us take the five in order and the three, together and separately, first. That The Comedy of Errors is, in substance, a mere adaptation of the Menaechmi of Plautus would, in itself, have very little to do with probable earliness or lateness; for it is a point so well known as to require no discussion, explanation, apology or even frequent statement, that Shakespeare never gave himself the slightest trouble to be “original.” Its earliness is shown by the comparative absence of character, by the mixed and rough-hewn quality of the prosody (a connected view of Shakespeare’s versification will be given later) and, last and most of all, by the inordinate allowance of the poorest, the most irrelevant, and, occasionally, the most uncomely wordplay and “foolery.” This last characteristic has, of course, been charged against Shakespeare generally, and the charge will have to be dealt with in general. It need only be said now that in no play or passage from The Tempest to Pericles is there anything to which, as it seems to the present writer, the words above used can be applied as they can to passage after passage between the Dromios and their masters. He does not therefore think, as would some, that Shakespeare did not write these latter passages; he does think that Shakespeare wrote them before he knew better. But that Shakespeare was certain to know better before long is proved in this very play by the fine, though stiff, tirades of the opening scene, by the extremely beautiful poetry of Adriana and her sister, as well as by touches of nascent power over character in both of them, and by numerous flashes here and there in which the spirit, not quite fullgrown as yet, hurries itself through the bonds of imperfect training in speech and metre. It is, however, on the whole, the crudest and most immature of all the plays, and may well have been the earliest. That position has more commonly been assigned to Love’s Labour’s Lost, and here, too, the assignment has justifications, though they are different. The play exhibits not so much (though there is something of this) the inability of youth to finish, as its prodigality and want of selection. The poet cannot make up his mind what metre to select: blank verse, couplets, stanzas, fourteeners more or less doggerel—he tries them all by turns and does them all with a delightful improvisation. He has a real plot—partly borrowed, of course—but he overloads it in every direction with incident and character. Of the latter, in hasty but astonishingly creative forms, he is the most prodigal of younkers. Nobody is a mere figurehead: Biron, Armado, Holofernes, Costard, Rosaline, even Sir Nathaniel, are of the true Shakespearean family; and the exquisite Shakespearean lyric makes its appearance. There is almost everything in the piece but measure and polish; and one is almost tempted to say: “Measure and polish are most excellent things; but they can wait or we can wait for them.”

Titus Andronicus, as we have it, has been denied to Shakespeare, but this denial really passes the bounds of all rational literary criticism. The play, we know, was acted and published in 1594; it is included with Shakespeare’s by Meres in 1598; it is included in the folio by Shakespeare’s intimates and dramatic associates in 1623. If we are to disregard a threefold cord of evidence like this, the whole process of literary history becomes a mere absurdity—a game of All Fools, with the prize for the craziest topsyturvyfier, as Thackeray would say, of actual fact. It is, of course, possible—almost everything is possible—that the wrong play got into the folio, that Meres was mistaken, that the piece acted and printed in 1594 was not Shakespeare’s; but it is also possible that all the world is mad, except the inhabitants of lunatic asylums. As it happens, too, there are reasons given for the denial; and these reasons are valueless. Titus is the one play of Shakespeare which is assuredly of the Marlowe school; the one play, too, which is almost wholly what is called “repulsive” throughout; the one play in which (see below) the stiff “single moulded” blank verse line hardly ever—but not never—ruffles itself and grows social. Granted: but this is exactly what we should expect as one very probable result of the novitiate in such a case as Shakespeare’s. Considering the shreds and patches in the same style which are actually to be found in his work up to Macbeth and King Lear, not to say Hamlet; considering, further, the genuinely Shakespearean character of Aaron, and the genuinely Shakespearean poetry of more than one or two passages—the internal evidence would be strong. Joined to the external, it is simply irresistible. But the novitiate on another side is equally unmistakable here; though the novice, scholar, tiro, explorer (call him what you will) is in a different mood. He is playing a particular game—the game of the tragedy with horror as its main motive and a stately, but monotonous and verbally “bombasted,” blank verse as its vehicle. In a certain sense, it is the complement of The Comedy of Errors and might be called The Tragedy of Horrors—outrage and bloodshed taking the place of horseplay and buffoonery for stuff, rhetorical and conceited diction that of wordplay and coarseness for language. And, as there, so here, the novice, though he cannot keep his identity and quality wholly invisible, cramps and curbs them in order to play somebody else’s game. In the order of thought, perhaps Love’s Labour’s Lost should come later—as a burst of relief, an incoherent but untrammelled exercise in the writer’s own game or games for his own pleasure. But even a Shakespeare is unlikely to write two plays like Love’s Labour’s Lost; or, rather, a Shakespeare is least likely of all men to write them. He will do better or worse, accordingly as he pays more or less attention to parts of his composition, while improving that composition itself. He will have more of the picture and less of the panorama or kaleidoscope; but it does not follow that his whole picture will, for a time at least, have as much charm.