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CHARACTERISTICS OF THE PLAY, PROBABLE DATE OF COMPOSITION,
STATE OF THE TEXT, ETC.
year 1598, established the general reputation of being “the most excellent among
the English in both tragedy and comedy,” places the Two GENTLEMEN OF VERONA the first in order of thirteen dramas which he names. If we add to this list, Pericles, and the two parts of Henry VI., which Meares does not mention, though both were prior to his date, Shakespeare had, before his thirty-fourth year, been the acknowledged author of seventeen dramas ; and if the Two GENTLEMEN OF VERONA were the first of these, it must certainly have been the production of his early youth. His poem of Venus and Adonis, first printed in 1592, he himself has (in his dedication) designated as “the first heir of his invention,” and may probably have been written before he removed to London,—and before, or not long after, his twentieth year. The Two GenTLEMEN OF Verona, if not his earliest comedy, was in all probability written in the same, or at least the next, stage of his intellectual progress.
Hanmer, and after him, Upton, thought its style so little resembling his general dramatic manner, that they pronounced with great confidence, that “ he could have had no other hand in it than enlivening, with some speeches and lines, thrown in here and there,” the production of some inferior dramatist, from whose thoughts his own are easily to be distinguished, “ as being of a different stamp from the rest.” There seems no reasonable ground for such an opinion ; which has, indeed, been fully refuted by Johnson, and rejected by all succeeding critics. On the contrary, the play is full of
undeniable marks of the author, in its strong resemblance in taste and style to his earlier plays and poems, as well as in the indications it gives of the author's future power of original humour and vivid delineation of character. It, indeed, has the characteristics of a young author who had already acquired a ready and familiar mastery of poetic diction and varied versification, and who had studied nature with a poet's eye; for the play abounds in brief passages of great beauty and melody. There are here, too, as in his other early dramas, outlines of thought and touches of character, sometimes faintly or imperfectly sketched, to which he afterwards returned in his maturer years, and wrought them out into his most striking scenes and impressive passages. Thus, Julia and Silvia are, both of them, evidently early studies of
female love and loveliness, from the unpractised "'prentice hand" of the same great artist, who was afterwards to pourtray with matchless delicacy and truth the deeper affections, the nobler intellects, and the varied imaginative genius of Viola, of Rosalind, and of Imogen. Indeed, as a drama of character, however inferior to his own after-creations, it is, when compared with the works of his predecessors and contemporaries, superior alike in taste and in originality; for (as Mr. Hallam justly observes) “it as, probably, the first English comedy in which characters are drawn ideal and yet true;" although, when contrasted with the vivid and discriminating delineations to which his genius afterwards familiarized his audience, both the truth of nature and the ideal grace appear marked with the faint colouring and uncertain drawing of a timid hand. The composition, as a whole, does not seem to have been poured forth with the rapid abundance of his later works; but, in its graver parts, bears evidence of the young author's careful elaboration, seldom daring to deviate from the habits of versification to which his muse had been accustomed, and fearful of venturing on any untried novelty of expression.
Johnson (probably on the authority of his friend, Sir J. Reynolds) has well replied to the objection raised by Upton to Shakespeare's right of authorship to this piece, founded on the difference of style and manner from his other plays, by comparing this difference to the variation of manner between Raphael's first pictures and those of his ripened talent. This comparison is more apt and pregnant than Johnson's limited acquaintance with the arts of design allowed him to perceive. Raphael, as compared with other great masters of his art, was eminently the dramatic painter,—the delineator of human action, passion, character, and expression; and, as the peculiar powers of his genius developed themselves by exercise, so, too, he gradually formed to himself his own taste and style of execution and expression; while, like his great dramatic ante-type, his earlier works, full of grace and mind, yet bore the marks of the feebler school in which he had studied, as well as of the timidity and constraint of halfformed talent.
Not only is the language of this piece carefully studied, but there seems no haste or carelessness in the construction of the plot, unless we may admit the criticism of Judge Blackstone,—whose legally trained acuteness has done for Shakespeare almost as much as the clearness and gracefulness of a style acquired in the best school of English literature has contributed to methodizing and elucidating the mysteries of his country's law. He remarks, that the great fault of the play is “the hastening too abruptly, and without preparation, to the dénouement, which shows that it was one of Shakespeare's very early performances.” This, however, appears to be rather the want of dramatic skill, to be acquired by experience, than any effect of negligence or haste, and is, after all, no very serious fault. If, as a poem, it has little of that exuberance of thought which afterwards overflowed his page, yet, in the construction of his story, there is not only no deficiency of invention, but even more labour in that way than he was afterwards accustomed to bestow. The characters were not only new and uncopied from any dramatic model, but the plot and incidents are substantially equally original; for, although Skottowe, and the other diligent searchers for the original materials of his dramas, have found two or three resembling incidents in Sydney's “ Arcadia," and elsewhere, still there is nothing to show that the young dramatist had employed any prior story as the groundwork of his plot; and the incidents he used were such as form part of the common stock of romantic narrative.
In the humorous parts of the play, he is still more unfettered by authority, and more whimsically and boldly original. He happened to find the stage mainly abandoned in its comic underplots and interludes to the coarse buffoonery of barren-witted clowns, who excited the laughter of their audiences by jokes as coarse and practical as may be now witnessed in a modern circus. From the coarse farce of “Gammer Gurton's Needle” to Launce and Speed was a gigantic stride, even with reference to the probability of the scene ; although fastidious criticism may still find ample cause for objection. But it is now too late to protest against the improbability or the coarseness of Launce and his dog Crab. They have both of them become real and living persons of the great world of fictitious reality, and must continue to amuse generation after generation, along with Sancho and Dapple, Clinker and Chowder, and many other squires and dogs of high and low degree, whom “ Posterity will not will. ingly let die."
Upon the whole, the Two GENTLEMEN OF Verona, whatever rank of merit may be assigned to it by critics, will always be read and studied with deeper interest than it can probably excite as a mere literary performance, because it exhibits to us the great dramatist at a most interesting point in his career; giving striking, but imperfect and irregular, indications of his future powers.
This play was never printed until it appeared after the author's death, in the folio of 1623. The text, -whether because it contains few deviations from ordinary modes of expression and trains of thought; or, because the piece being less popular than others of the Poet's plays, was less exposed to the corruptions of frequent transcription for theatrical use, and so was first printed from an early and accurate manuscript, -whatever be the reason, offers fewer difficulties and various readings than are found in any other of Shakespeare's plays.
SOURCE OF THE PLOT.
“ If the Two GENTLEMEN OF Verona were not the offspring merely of the author's invention, we have yet to discover the source of its plot. Points of resemblance have been dwelled upon in connection with Sir Philip Sydney's · Arcadia,' (1590,) and the · Diana' of Montemayor, which was not translated into English by B. Yongo until 1598; but the incidents, common to the drama and to these two works, are only such as might be found in other romances, or would present themselves spontaneously to the mind of a young poet : the one is the command of banditti by Valentine; and the other the assumption of male attire by Julia, for a pairpose nearly similar to that of Viola in Twelfth Night. Extracts from the · Arcadia' and the 'Diana' are to be found in Shakespeare's Library,' vol. ii.”-Collier.
SCENERY AND COSTUME.
“In the folio of 1623, there are no indications of the localities of the several scenes. The notices, such as “ An Open Place in Verona,' • The Garden of Julia's House,' • A Room in the Duke's Palace, “A Forest near Mantuu,' are additions that have been usefully made from time to time. The text, either specially or by allusion, of course furnishes the authority for these directions.
“Ceasare Vecellio, the brother of Titian, in his curious work, · Habiti Antiche e Moderni di tutto il Mondo,' completed in 1589, presents us with the general costume of the noblemen and gentlemen of Italy at the commencement of the sixteenth century, which has been made familiar to us by the well-known portraits of the contemporary monarchs, Francis I. and Henry VIII. He tells us they wore a sort of diadem surmounted by a turban-like cap of gold tissue, or embroidered silk, a plaited shirt (low in the neck) with a small band or ruff', a coat or cassock of the German fashion, short in the waist and reaching to the knee, having sleeves down to the elbow, and from thence showing the arm covered only by the shirt with wristbauds or ruffles. The cassock was ornamented with stripes or borders of cloth, silk, or velvet of different colours, or of gold lace or embroidery, according to the wealth or taste of the wearer. With this dress they sometimes wore doublets and stomachers, or placcards, as they were called, of different colours, their shoes being of velvet, like those of the Germans, that is, very broad at the toes. Over these cassocks again were occasionally worn cloaks or mantles of silk, velvet, or cloth of gold, with ample turn-over collars of fur or velvet, having large arm-holes through which the full-puffed sleeves of the cassock passed,