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DATE OF THE PLAY,—ITS CHARACTERISTICS, ETC.
with this title-page :-“A pleasant Conceited Comedie called,
Loues labors lost. As it was presented before her Highnes this last Christmas. Newly corrected and augmented By W. Shakespere.” Although it did not appear in print until the author's thirty-fourth year, when he had established a generally acknowledged reputation and popularity, by many of his dramas of English history, and six successful and popular comedies, including the Merchant of Venice and the MIDSUMMER Night's Dream; when, too, ROMEO AND JULIET, in its earlier form, had been printed a year before, ---yet there is a general concurrence of opinion, both traditional and critical, that this play was among Shakespeare's earliest dramatic works.
Coleridge, in his first attempt to classify the order of Shakespeare's
plays, did, indeed, place this comedy in that which he designates as the epoch of “ the full although youthful Shakespeare, the negative period of his perfection;" not long preceding the time to which he assigns, in his catalogue, the corrected ROMEO AND JULIET, and the MERChant of Venice. But, in his next reconsideration of the subject, he placed Love's Labour's Lost at the head of the list of “Shakespeare's earliest dramas;" and again, nine years after, he began his review of the same question by saying—"I think Shakespeare's earliest dramatic attempt-perhaps even prior, in conception, to the VENUS AND Adonis, and planned before he left Stratford—was Love's LABOUR’s Lost.” Its general resemblance of style and thought to his other early works, and especially the “ frequency of the rhymes, the sweetness as well as the smoothness of the metre, and the number of acute and fancifully illustrated aphorisms," all correspond with the idea of a youthful work; while, as in others of his early works, we also find in the personages the rudiments of characters, slightly sketched, to which he afterwards returned, and, without repeating himself, presented them again, in a varied and more individualized and living form. Thus, Biron contains within him the germs both of Benedick and of Jaques ; of the one in his colloquial and mocking mood, and of the other in his graver moralities. Rosaline is (in Coleridge's phrase) "the pre-existent state of Beatrice ;" though she is as yet a Beatrice of the imagination, drawn from books or report, rather than one painted from familiar acquaintance.
Both the characters and the dialogue are such as youthful talent might well invent, without much knowledge of real life, and would indeed be likely to invent, before the experience and observation of varied society. The comedy presents a picture, not of the true every-day life of the great or the beautiful, but exhibits groups of such brilliant personages as they might be supposed to appear in the artificial conversation, the elaborate and continual effort to surprise or dazzle by wit or elegance, which was the prevailing taste of the age, in its literature, its poetry, and even its pulpit; and in which the nobles and beauties of the day were accustomed to array themselves for exhibition, as in their state attire, for occasions of display. All this, when the leading idea was once caught, was quite within the reach of the young Poet to imitate or surpass, with little or no personal knowledge of aristocraticor what would now be termed fashionable—society. English literature, a century later, afforded a striking example of the success of a very young author in carrying to its perfection a similar affectation of artificial wit, and studied conversational brilliancy-I mean Cougreve, whose comedies, the admiration of their own age, for their fertility of fantastically gay dialogue, bright conceits, and witty repartees, are still read for their abundance of lively imagery and play of language, the “ reciprocation of conceits and the clash of wits,"—although the personages of his scene, and all that they do and think, are wholly remote from the truth, the feeling, and the manners of real life. These productions, so remarkable in their way, were written before Congreve's twenty-fifth year; and his first and most brilliant comedy (the “Old Bachelor") was acted when he was yet a minor. His talent, thus early ripe, did not afterwards expand or refine itself into the nobler power of teaching "the morals of the heart,” nor even into the delightful gift of embodying the passing scenes of real life in graphic and durable pictures. But his writings afford a memorable proof how soon the graces and brilliant effects of mere intellect can be acquired, while those works of genius which require the co-operation and the knowledge of man's moral nature, are of slower and later growth.
This comedy, then, marks the transition of Shakespeare's mind through the Congreve character of invention and dialogue; that of lively and artificial brilliancy—a region in which he did not long loiterBut rose to truth, and moralized his song.