Page images
PDF
EPUB

IM TRODUCTORY REMARK
tropuer

SOURCE OF THE PLOT, CHARACTER AND DATE OF THE PLAY.

[graphic]

HERE are about ten or twelve plots of comic accident that have come down to our times

from remote antiquity,—some in the narrative form and others in the dramatic,—which are so rich in unexpected or ludicrous situations and circumstances, so fertile in new suggestions and combinations, that they have passed along from generation to generation, through various languages and widely differing forms of society, always preserving the

power of interesting and amusing, and affording to one race of wits and authors after another a happy groundwork for their own gayety or invention.

Among these is the story of the Menæchmi of Plautus, founded on the whimsical mistakes and confusion arising from the perfect resemblance of twin brothers. Plautus is to us the original author of this amusing plot; but it is quite probable that the old Latin comic writer stands in the same relation to some Greek predecessor that the moderns do to him. There are some Greek fragments preserved of a lost play of Menander's, entitled “ Didymi, or the Twins," which, there is great probability, was the original comedy here adapted by Plautus, as it is known he did other Greek originals, to the Latin stage. The subject became a favourite one among the dramatists of the continent at an early period of our modern literature. A paraphrastic version or adaptation of the Menæchmus was, it is supposed, the very earliest specimen of dramatic composition in the Italian language; and in various forms and additions, more or less fanciful, the subject has kept possession of the Italian stage. There is also a Spanish version of it about the date of the COMEDY OF ERRORS. In France, Rotrou, the acknowledged father of the legitimate French drama, introduced a free translation or imitation of Plautus's original upon the French stage. La Noble farcified it some years after into the “Two Harlequins;" and finally, Regnard, in a free and spirited imitation, transferred the scene from Asia Minor to Paris, adapted to French manners and habits, clothed his dialogue in gay and polished verses worthy of the rival of Molière, and made the Menæchmes a part of the classic French comedy

Such was the early and wide-spread popularity of this plot, before and soon after Shakespeare's time, which I mention merely as a curious fact of literary history, or

perhaps, of the philosophy of our lighter literature, than as directly connected with Shakespeare's choice of a subject; for, indeed, there is no clear indication that he had recourse to any other original than the Latin of Plautus himself. of this there was, indeed, a bald and somewhat paraphrastical translation by Warner, which it is possible (though there is little probability of it) that Shakespeare may have seen in manuscript. This was published in 1595, which is later than the probable date of the COMEDY of ERRORS. There is also evidence of the existence of an old play called “ The Historie of Error," which was acted at court in 1576–7, and again in 1582, and is conjectured by the critics to have been founded on the same plot; but this seems a mere gratuitous conjecture, for which no reason but the use of the word “error" in the title has been assigned. That title would rather designate a masque or allegorical pageant of Error than a comedy of laughable mistakes. There is no resemblance between Warner's translation and the COMEDY OF ERRORS, in any peculiarity of language, of names, or any matter, however slight, which could not (like the main plot) have been drawn from the original by a very humble Latinist. The accurate Ritson has ascertained that there is not a single name, or thought, or phrase peculiar to Warner to be traced in Shakespeare's play. Stevens, and others, maintain the opinion (to which Collier also seems to incline) that the old court-drama of the “ Historie of Error" was the basis of the present play, that much of the dialogue, incident, and character is retained, and that Shakespeare merely remodelled the whole, and added some of those scenes and portions which bear their own evidence that they could have come from his pen alone.

All these conjectural opinions, though made with great confidence by several critics, seem to me wholly un. founded. There is no external evidence whatever of the existence of any such play as is alleged to have been incorporated in this comedy, and the internal evidence seems to me equally clear against a double authorship by writers of different times and tastes. The whole piece is written in the same buoyant spirit, with no more pause to its gayety than was needed to add to the interest by graver narrative dialogue. Broad and farciful as much of it is, it has as much unity of purpose and spirit as Macbeth itself. The dramatist used the Latin comedy, (whether in the original or a translation is immaterial on this occasion,) as he afterwards did Hollingshed's history, using the incidents only as the materials of his own invention; and this was done in an unbroken strain of merry humour, as if the author enjoyed all the while his own frolic conceptions and the puzzle of his audience. Plautus had on

his stage a pair of resembling brothers, to form the central action of his plot. Such a resemblance, though rare, is not out of the ordinary probability of life. Resemblances, sufficient to puzzle strangers and occasion ludicrous mistakes, are by no means uncommon; while the judicial annals of France (see “ Causes Célèbres”) in the case of Martin Guerre, and of New York in that of Hoag, (1804,) exhibit a well-attested chain of perplexities arising from such similarity of person, etc., even surpassing those of the Menachmi, or the Antipholuses and Dromios. Such a resemblance then, however rare, is within the legitimate range of classic comedy as a picture of ordinary social life; and Regnard has treated the subject accordingly in a pure vein of chastised comic wit. But Shakespeare, writing for a less polished audience, and himself in the joyous mood of frolic youth, boldly overleaped these bounds, added to the twin gentlemen of his pages a pair of undistinguishable buffoon servants, and revelled m the unrestrained indulgence of broad drollery.

Now, to my apprehension at least, all this is done with that continuous and unbroken spirit which could not have been kept up through a patchwork renovation and improvement of some inferior author. But as this evidence of general spirit and style cannot well be analyzed in words, or put into the shape of formal argument, the reader must decide for himself upon the comedy itself, with the reasons here suggested. The opinion of former critics cannot be more briefly or better stated than they have been by Mr. Singer :

“ The general idea of this play is taken from the Menachmi of Plautus, but the plot is entirely recast, and rendered much more diverting by the variety and quick succession of the incidents. To the twin brothers of Plautus are added twin servants, and though this increases the improbability, yet, as Schlegel observes, when once we have lent ourselves to the first, which certainly borders on the incredible, we should not probably be disposed to cavil about the second ; and if the spectator is to be entertained with mere perplexities, they cannot be too much varied.' The clumsy and inartificial mode of informing the spectator by a prologue of events, which it was necessary for him to be acquainted with in order to enter into the spirit of the piece, is well avoided, and shows the superior skill of the modern dramatist over his ancient prowtype. With how much more propriety is it placed in the mouth of Ægeon, the father of the twin brothers, whose character is sketched with such skill as deeply to interest the reader in his griefs and misfortunes. Development of character, however, was not to be expected in a piece which consists of an uninterrupted series of mistakes and laughter-moving situations. Stevens most resolately maintains his opinion that this was a play only retouched by the hand of Shakespeare, but he has not giveu the grounds upon which his opinion was formed. . We may suppose the doggerel verses of the drainas, and the want of distinct characterization in the dramatis persona, together with the farcelike nature of some of the inciolents, made him draw this conclusion. Malone has given a satisfactory answer to the first objection, by adducing numerous examples of the same kind of long verse from the dramas of several of his contemporaries; and that Shakespeare was swayed by custom in introducing it into his early plays there can be no doubt; for it should be remembered, that this kind of versification is to be found in Love's Labour's Lost, and in the TAMING OF THE SHREW. His better judgment made him subsequently abandon it. The particular translation from Plautus, which served as a model, has not come down to us. There was a translation of the Menaechmi, by W. W., (Warner.) published in 1595, which it is possible Shakespeare may have seen in manuscript; but, from the circumstance of the brothers being, in the folio of 1623, occasionally styled Antipholus Erotes or Errotis, and Antipholus Sereptus, perhaps for Surreptus and Erraticus; while, in Warner's translation, the brothers are named Menachmus Sosicles, and Menachmus the Traveller, it is concluded that he was not the Poet's authority. It is difficult to pronounce decidedly between the contending opinions of the critics, but the general impression upon my mind is that the whole of the play is from the hand of Shakespeare. Dr. Drake thinks it is visible throughout the entire play, as well in the broad exuberance of its mirth, as in the cast of its more chastised parts, a combination of which may be found in the character of Pinch, who is sketched in his strongest and most marked style.' We may conclude with Schlegel's dictum, that this is the best of all written or possible Menæchmi; and if the piece is inferior in worth to other pieces of Shakespeare, it is merely because nothing more could be made of the materials.' "SINGER.

This play was never printed during the author's lifetime, although it has been ascertained that it was performed at court as late as 1604. It was first printed in the folio of 1623. As it was certainly an early production, so it was probably one that the author did not care to remodel or improve; but left it in manuscript to go its rounds, as a popular piece for the stage. The text is not very accurately printed in the folio editions, yet, on the other hand, the misprints may in general be easily corrected; and when the precise correction is not very certain, that is sel. dom very material, as the interest and jest of the scene depend mainly upon the general effect of droll entanglement or surprise, and little is gained or lost by the change or omission of a bold expression or poetical word, often so important in the Poet's loftier strains.

Mr. Collier thus states the evidence of the date of the piece :

“ The earliest notice we have of the COMEDY OF Errors, is by Meares, in his · Palladis Tamia,' 1598, where he gives it to Shakespeare under the name of • Errors.' How much before that time it had been written and produced on the stage, we can only speculate. Malone refers to a part of the dialogue in act iii. scene 2, where Dromio of Syracuse is conversing with his master about the · kitchen wench' who insisted upon making love to liim, and who was so fat and round—-spherical like a globe'-that Dromio.could find out countries in her:'

Ant. $. Where France !

Dro. S. In her forehead; arm'd and reverted, making war against her heir. It is supposed that an equivoque was intended on the word · heir,' (which is printed in the folio of 1623 “ heire,' at that period an unusual way of spelling hair,') and that Shakespeare alluded to the civil war in France, which began in the middle of 1589, and did not terminate until the close of 1593. This notion seems well founded, for otherwise there would be no joke in the reply; and it accords pretty exactly with the time when we may believe the COMEDY OF Errors to have been writteo. But here we have a range of four years and a half, and we can arrive at no nearer approximation to a precise date. As a mere conjecture it may be stated, that Shakespeare would not have inserted the allusion to the hostility between France and her óheir,' after the war had been so long carried on, that interest in, or attention to it, in England would have been relaxed."

The date of 1593, placing this among the author's earlier works, corresponds with various other indications of style and versification, and cast of thought, not decisive in themselves. Thus the alternate rhymes in which the courtship of the Syracusian Antipholus is clothed, is in the taste of Shakespeare's earlier poems, and corresponds also with the versification of some of the love-scenes in the first edition of ROMEO AND JULIET, as well as with passages in Love's Labour's Lost. The long doggerel lines, in which so much of the more farcical part is writteu, is a vestige of the older versification still used on the stage at the commencement of Shakespeare's dramatic career. This, in various forms of the longer rhythm, had come down through English literature even from Saxon poetry, and had been employed for the gravest subjects, as not unworthy of epic, narrative, or devotional poetry. It had gradually given way, for such purposes, to more cultivated metres, such as are now in use; but was still used in dramatic composition by Shakespeare's immediate predecessors, for all purposes of dialogue, whether grave or gay. Skakespeare (so far as I can trace the subject) seems to have been the first who perceived the peculiar adaptatiou of these long hobbling measures for ludicrous effect, and who used them for nothing else.

PERIOD OF THE ACTION.

“In Douce's essay "On the Anachronisms and some other Incongruities of Shakespeare,' the offences of our Poet in the COMEDY OF Errors are thus summed up :- In the ancient city of Ephesus we have ducats, marks, and guilders, and the Abbess of a Nunnery. Mention is also made of several modern European kingdoms, and of America; of Henry the Fourth of France,* of Turkish tapestry, a rapier, and a striking-clock; of Laplanı sorcerers, Satan, and even of Adam and Noah. In one place Antipholus calls himself a Christian. As we are unacquainted with the immediate source whence this play was derived, it is impossible to ascertain whether Shakespeare is responsible for these anachronisms.'

* Douce, seeing that the COMEDY OF Errors was suggested by the Menachmi of Plautus, considers, no doubt, that Shakespeare intended to place his action at the same period as the Roman play. It is manifest to us that he intended precisely the contrary. The Menæchmi contains invocations in great number to the ancient divinities ;Jupiter and Apollo are here familiar words. From the first line of the COMEDY of Errors to the last we have not the slightest allusion to the classical mythology. Was there not a time, then, even in the ancient city of Ephesus, when there might be an abbess.-men mighi call themselves Christians,—and Satan, Adam, and Noah might be names of common use? We do not mean to affirm that Skakespeare intended to select the Ephesus of Christianity -the great city of churches and councils—for the dwelling place of Antipholus, any more than we think that Duke Solinus was a real personage—that · Duke Menaphon, his most renowned uncle,' ever had any existenceor that even his name could be found in any story more trustworthy than that of Greene's · Arcadia. The truth is, that in the same way that Ardennes was a sort of terra incognita of chivalry, the poets of Shakespeare's time had no hesitation in placing the fables of the romantic ages in classical localities, leaving the periods and the names perfectly undefined and unappreciable. Who will undertake to fix a period for the action of Sir Philip Sydney's great romance, when the author has conveyed his reader into the fairy or pastoral land, and informed him what manner of life the inhabitants of that region lead? We cannot open a page of Sydney's · Arcadia' without being struck with what we are accustomed to call anachronisms,--and these from a very severe critie, who, in his · Defence of Poesy,' denounces with merciless severity all violation of the unities of the drama.

" Warton has prettily said, speaking of Spenser, 'exactness in his poem would have been like a cornice wbich a painter introduced in the grotto of Calypso.' Those who would define every thing in poetry are the makers of corniced grottoes. As we are not desirous of belonging to this somewhat obsolete fraternity, to which even Warton himself affected to belong when he wrote what is truly an apology for the • Faëry Queen,' we will leave our readers to decide,-whether Duke Solinus reigned at Ephesus before the great temple, after having risen with increasing splendour from seven repeated misfortunes, was finally burnt by the Goths in their third naval invasion ;' or whether he presided over the decaying city, somewhat nearer to the period when Justinian · filled Constantinople with its statues, and raised his church of St. Sophia on its columns;' or, lastly, whether he approached the period of its final desolation, when the candlestick was removed out of its place,' and the Christian Ephesus became the Mohammadan Aiasaluck."-Knight.

COSTUME.

“ The costume of this comedy must, we fear, be left conventional. The two masters, as well as the two servants, must of course be presumed to have been attired precisely alike, or the difference of dress would at least have called forth some remark, had it not led to an immediate eclaircissement; and yet that the Syracusian travellers, both master and man, should by mere chance be clothed in garments not only of the same fashion, but of the same colour, as those of their Ephesian brethren, is beyond the bounds of even stage probability. Were the scene laid during the classical era of Greece, as in the Menachmi, on which our comedy was founded, the absurdity would not be quite so startling, as the simple tunic of one slave might accidentally resemble that of another; and the chlamys and petasus of the upper classes were at least of one general form, and differed but occasionally in colour; but the appearance of an abbess renders it necessary to consider the events as passing at the time when Ephesus had become famed among the Christian cities of Asia Minor, and at least as late as the first establishment of religious communities, (i. e. in the fourth century.)

“We can only recommend to the artist the Byzantine Greek paintings and illuminations, or the costume adopted from them for scriptural designs by the early Italian painters." -Mr. Planché, in Pictorial Shakespeare.

* Mention is certainly not made of Henry IV.; there is a supposed allusion to him.

7

[merged small][merged small][merged small][merged small][ocr errors]
« PreviousContinue »