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The masculine understanding of Queen Elizabeth was so captivated by the comic scenes of the historical play, in two parts, of Henry the Fourth, that she commanded Shakspeare to introduce Falstaff in one drama more, and to make him in love.
Her Majesty had more respect for Falstaff than for the tender passion, or she certainly would not have wished it disgraced by such a votary. But possibly there might be morality in her design; for volumes, written against the fatal delusions of love, could never be so effectual a cure to a sighing youth, or pining damsel, as to behold their own disorder raging in the bosom of one so little formed to excite a sympathetic sensation.
Shakspeare protected love from so vile an habitation, and placed avarice in its stead.
Johnson, speaking of this expedient of the great poet in favour of love, has bestowed the highest possible encomium on that prevailing power, by declaring,
“ That by any real passion of tenderness, the selfish craft, the careless jollity, and the easy luxury of Falstaff, must have suffered so much abatement, that little of his former cast could have remained. Falstaff could not love, but by ceasing to be Falstaff.”
Thus is love proclaimed as a general purifier from evil by one of our strictest moralists. The passion must therefore be ever considered as counterfeit, when unaccompanied by virtue and honour.
Dryden allows this play to be “exactly formed;" whilst the former critic says, 66 The conduct of this drama is deficient; the action begins and ends often before the conclusion, and the different parts might change place without inconvenience.” He, neverthes less, acknowledges the work to be a fine combination of dramatic circumstances, and shelters the author's failings under the royal command. To write at command is indeed of all labour the most severe, as far as the torments of the mind, in general, exceed those of
Though it is said, that the Queen was graciously. pleased to express her approbation of “ The Merry Wives," when she attended the representation, yet the author was not so easily satisfied as his royal auditor; and after the date of its first performance, he added various alterations and improvements.
Independent of its merit as a comedy, the production is curious to the highest degree, as a faithful reporter of the manners and usages
which the unadorned dialogue, and the unaffected personages of the drama, would confirm, even if Shakspeare's name was not affixed to the work.
This is one among the number of his dramas, that can never be performed but when the theatre in which it is played has in its service an actor of very high and very peculiar abilities. Henderson, about twenty
years ago, answered this description, and his Sir John Falstaff was accounted his very best character, Not, indeed, the individual Sir John of this comedy, which is far inferior, both in wit and humour, to the same man in Henry the Fourth.
From the time of Henderson's death, attempts had been made to revive Sir John, but he was cold as his great representative, till Mr. Stephen Kemble was engaged to personate him a few nights at Drury Lane, and brought him to life for the period of his engagement. Since when, Cooke, at Covent Garden, undertook his resuscitation, and will make him live as long as he lives himself.