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DATE OF THE PLAY, ITS CHARACTER, STYLE, AND SOURCE OF THE PLOT. HIS comedy was first printed in 1600, when it appeared in the small quarto pamphlet customary in those days for such publications. Its title was "Much Adoe about Nothing; as it hath been sundry times publickly acted," etc., etc. This phrase of "sundry times publickly acted" would seem to intimate that it had not been long enough on the stage to have become a stock-piece; though, as this was rather a common-place expression of theatrical title-pages in that day, it is by no means conclusive that it might not have been some few years on the stage. But it is not among the
titles of those plays, in the often-cited list given by Meares, 1598, as the works upon which Shakespeare's fame had already been securely placed among the contemporaries of his earlier days; nor is there any quotation from it, in the collection called "England's Parnassus," (1600,) which has aided in adjusting several literary dates of this period.
This last-mentioned fact is probably to be accounted for from the comedy not having been in print long enough to fall into the hands of the compiler of the "Parnassus," or not having been published until after the collection was printed, as they both bear the date of the same year. The circumstance of the title not being found in Meares's catalogue, is conclusive that the play had not appeared in any way before 1593; for the critic who then enumerated the COMEDY OF ERRORS, the Two GENTLEMEN OF VERONA, etc., as the works which had gained and justified the dramatic reputation of his contemporary, could not well have omitted in his list the title of this brilliant and always very popular comedy. That it was thus popular soon after its first representation, Mr. Collier has furnished us with very strong presumptive evidence, by showing, from extracts from the Stationers' Register," that in 1600 a caveat had been entered to stay its publication, evidently to prevent the publication of some pirated or unfairly obtained copy of this play, and also of HENRY V.
Thus the date of authorship may, with the highest probability, be placed in or about 1599, that is to say-for this is the chief point of interest in such inquiries-about the author's thirty-fifth or sixth year, after the production of the MERCHANT OF VENICE, and between the first and second editions of ROMEO AND JULIET. It may be added that it was probably written not long before or after the composition of HAMLET, in that form in which it first reached the press. It may seem extravagant to associate this play with ROMEO AND JULIET, or HAMLET, for, to a hasty consideration, there may appear to be little in common in these dramas with the comedy; as if, though the work of the same author, they were the productions of wholly different and distinct faculties. Yet there is more than one point indicating their common origin; but that which led to this comparison was the indication given in this comedy, as compared with the earlier ones, (the Two GENTLEMEN OF VERONA, for instance,) of the author's personal ascent in social life, and the wider as well as nearer means of observation of life and manners thus opened to him. This appears from the ease, familiarity and truth, such as are gained by actual converse alone, with which he had learned to depict the social manners and conversation of that class of society who have leisure and taste to cultivate the elegances of life, and the ornamental graces and decorations of mind and manners. Much of this is always conventional and transitory, but much is also the result of habitual attention to the minor graces, and of variety of association wearing away the peculiarities of the individual, or his occupation. But as the most successful personators either of broad humour or of deep passion, and tragic dignity,-the great tragedians, or the laugh-provoking drolls of the stage,-are often alike awkward in the gay man of fashion; so the young poet, who might study truth and nature, and the intricacies of the human heart, and the capricious oddities of human character, in his humble native village, and idealize them all in exquisite fancy, yet could not have learned to pourtray the high gentlemanly bearing of HAMLET, or the careless pleasantry of the wits, nobles, and ladies of MUCH ADO ABOUT NOTHING, without something more than a distant glance at such scenes in real life. The Valentine and Proteus, of 1585, are but gentlemen and lovers painted at second-hand from books, when compared with the char acters and scenes of this play, all drawn rapidly and boldly from the life, and carrying throughout the plot the lively grace and brilliant effect of one of Watteau's pictures of courtly gayety.
In the occasional passages of a higher poetic strain, into which the Poet sometimes rises, as his subject happens to suggest, such especially as the Friar's speeches, in act iv., the versification and imagery are clearly those of the middle stage of his genius, with little of the peculiarity of his later diction. But it is very clear that the Poet did
not here propose to his own mind either a drama of stirring passion, or even a dramatic tale around which the more delicate flowers of fancy might spontaneously cluster. He meant obviously only to interest and amuse, by an exhibition of life and character, and dwelt no more on the graver incidents and stronger emotions involved in his plot, or suggested by it, than was necessary to keep up the interest of the story, while he luxuriates now in gay dialogue and the keen encounters of wit, and now in the broadest drollery; entering with his whole soul into the invention of Benedick and Beatrice, and the immortal Dogberry and Verges. The main object he always keeps in view is lively dramatic effect on the stage, and this is apparent, not only in his characters and dialogue, but in his plot and incidents.
"The story (says Pope) is taken from Ariosto, ('Orlando Furioso,' book v.") Others find its original in Phedon's tale of Philemon's treachery in the "Faerie Queene," (book ii., canto 4;) of which Spenser, with the rightful license of genius, took the outline from Ariosto, and turned it to a nobler moral. Shakespeare was certainly familiar with the "Faerie Queene," and had doubtless read Ariosto, if not in the original, yet at least in Harrington's translation of the whole of the "Orlando," (1591,) or in Beverley's older one of the tale of "Ariodant and Genevra." Yet I see no ground for thinking that he had either of these poets in his mind; and the resemblance of his comedy to their tales extends little beyond the incident common to romance-writers, of the deception of the lover by a personation of his lady-love by a false "maiden." Its origin is to be traced more distinctly to a tale, or short romance, of Bandello, the same Italian novelist to whom, through Arthur Brooke, Shakespeare had been much more largely indebted for the materials of ROMEO AND JULIET. Most of the editors have chosen to trace the plot to Ariosto, or Spenser, in preference to this source, because it has not been ascertained that Bandello's novels had been translated; and it did not suit their theory to allow that Shakespeare had, after fifteen or more years of literary pursuits, acquired enough of the fashionable tongue of Europe to read a short and simply told Italian tale. But whether he read it in its author's language, or, as Collier suggests, in some version now lost, it is quite clear that the plot of the comedy was suggested by Bandello's story of "Timbreo de Cardona (Claudio) and Fenicia;" for, besides the similarity of the leading incidents, he has adopted (with Bandello) Messina as the scene of his plot, and preserved the names of Don Pedro and Leonato.
The laborious and faithful Augustine Skottowe gives the following outline of Bandello's tale:
"Fenicia, the daughter of Lionato, a gentleman of Messina, is betrothed to Timbreo de Cardona. Girondo, a disappointed lover of the young lady, resolves, if possible, to prevent the marriage. He insinuates to Timbreo that his mistress is disloyal, and offers to show him a stranger scaling her chamber-window. Timbreo accepts the invitation, and witnesses the hired servant of Girondo, in the dress of a gentleman, ascending a ladder and entering the house of Lionato. Stung with rage and jealousy, Timbreo the next morning accuses his innocent mistress to her father, and rejects the alliance. Fenicia sinks into a swoon; a dangerous illness succeeds; and, to stifle all reports injurious to her fame, Lionato proclaims that she is dead. Her funeral rites are performed in Messina, while in truth she lies concealed in the obscurity of a country residence.
"The thought of having occasioned the death of an innocent and lovely female strikes Girondo with horror; in the agony of remorse he confesses his villany to Timbreo, and they both throw themselves on the mercy, and ask forgiveness, of the insulted family of Fenicia. On Timbreo is imposed only the penance of espousing a lady whose face he should not see previous to his marriage: instead of a new bride, whom he expected, he is presented, at the nuptial altar, with his injured and beloved Fenicia."
This is sufficient to show that while Bandello's tale is the probable original of the plot, yet that it did little mo than furnish two or three leading and effective incidents, and the naked outline of the drama; as if, after having been once read, and its story adopted, the book was not looked into again, and the dramatist suffered the current of his own inventive imagination to flow on in its own course. Thus, while he fills the scene with accomplished and brilliant personages-whose originals might very probably have been recognized in the gay life of that day— he changed the revengeful rejected lover, who works all the mischief of the older story, into the less commonplace but truly drawn character of the Bastard John; a moody and disappointed man, who broods over his own malignant feelings till his spirits are taught to "toil in frame of villanies," which he puts in execution, though without any personal motive to gratify. This leads to another fortunate variation of the plot, which has enriched our comic literature with the matchless Dogberry and his companions, while it exhibits a lively picture of one of those incidents not uncommon in real life, where the most cunningly devised plans of craft and wickedness are baffled by humble ignorance and imbecility.
This play was not reprinted from the time of its first publication, in quarto, 1600, until it appeared in Heminge & Condell's folio, 1623. This would seem not to have been a direct reprint of the quarto, (though Mr. Collier so pronounces it,) but rather to have been printed from a play-house manuscript. This appears from the omission of seve passages, doubtless for the purposes of the stage, and from the circumstance of the names of actors being more than once substituted for those of the dramatic personages. Thus, act ii. scene 3, the folio has― "Enter Prince, Leonato, Claudio, and Jack Wilson," (the last in place of Balthazar.) So, in act iv., Kempe and Cowley are substituted for Dogberry and Verges.
The two editions, thus independent copies, agree substantially with each other, and leave but little room for doubting or disputing as to the readings. MUCH ADO ABOUT NOTHING is, therefore, not one of the favourite debateable grounds of the commentators for the exercise of their critical ingenuity.