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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

§ 9. Second group: The Two Gentlemen of Verona, All’s Well that Ends Well and The Taming of the Shrew

And this is the state of things that we actually find in The Two Gentlemen of Verona and All’s Well that Ends Well. Julia, in the former, as a serious character, and Parolles, in the latter, as a comic personage, are much above anything that Shakespeare had hitherto done in the way of live human figures. The plot, though “romantic” enough in both, is much closer knit and more thoroughly carried out by the dramatis personae than the shuffle of stock characters in the Errors, the sanguinary dream procession of Titus, or the masque-like intricacies of Love’s Labour’s Lost. The verse, still of the same general character, is settling down towards blank verse only and that blank verse free. But the progress is not like that of a faultless and hopeless schoolboy, who proceeds with even excellence from one class to another. There are relapses, as, at least, in part (not all) of the business of Launce and his dog, in The Two Gentlemen; there are failures to advance or even thoroughly to “know where he is,” as in that part of Helena which has been very differently judged. It does not matter very much whether those are right who consider her a touching example of a wronged and loving woman, conquering through constancy and wisdom, or those who think her “Shakespeare’s only disagreeable heroine”—one who makes confusion of marriage and something very different, who practically swindles a man into indissoluble connection with her, and who, in short, when we contrast her, say, with Cleopatra, is the more really vicious of the pair. Either view may be right; but, if this play were of a later date, Shakespeare would have taken more care to prevent the uncertainty—or would, at any rate, have left the worse interpretation on the shoulders of the interpreters, as he has done in the case of Ophelia. Still, there are great things in both these plays, though, emphatically, they are experiments still, and experiments in which the ill success is more conspicuous from the very fact that they aim higher. The poetical beauties in The Two Gentlemen are, occasionally, of all but the very highest kind, while in All’s Well there is much fine verse, Lafeu is a comic, not burlesque, character of great interest, and there is a further advance towards the Shakespearean clown proper.

There is, however, another candidate for the alias of Love’s Labour’s Won which seems to have much less claim to it, but which, undoubtedly, is early—in fact, in all probability, one of Shakespeare’s earliest adaptations of other men’s work. This is the popular, and, in parts, very amusing, but only in parts original, Taming of the Shrew. A play entitled The Taming of a Shrew appeared in 1594, and, from this, the Shakespearean piece is adapted, with not a little of “his own sauce,” as Mrs. Tibbs would say, in the main or Petruchio portion, an addition in the shape of the doubly contrasted sister Bianca, and some very curious local allusions (in the induction) to Shakespeare’s own country. The Bianca part of the subject had been taken from the Italian much earlier by Gascoigne. The story was sure to catch the public taste, and the play was actually taken up long afterwards by Fletcher for the purpose of reversing it and showing “the tamer tamed.” The situations, though in the farcical division of comedy, are of general appeal, and Shakespeare has made the very utmost of them—indeed, there are few more remarkable instances of his power of transforming marionettes into men and women than Petruchio and Katharine. But much of the verse, even in the added portions, is of quite early “university wit” character—singly-moulded lines, the trick of repetition of the speaker’s own name instead of “I,” “my,” and so forth, Latin tags and the like. Indeed, some have questioned whether this part of the addition is Shakespeare’s at all. In any case, what is his cannot be late; and, as the original play appears not to be older than 1594, the rehandling, if it be rehandling, must have followed very quickly. And there is very little to say for the identification with Love’s Labour’s Won. Petruchio’s is an odd “labour of love,” and Lucentio seems to be a rather doubtful winner.