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Shakspere's comic tendencies —“Much Ado about Nothing" — His
comic creations—Beatrice and Benedick, improved on Biron and Rosalind-Hero-Shakspere's lighter pieces, to be properly appreciated, must be viewed from a high elevation—“ As you like it”Shakspere's fools—“Merry Wives of Windsor"_" Twelfth Night” - Universal character --Shakspere's anticipation of philosophical discoveries.
Tas tendency of Shakspere towards comedy has been decidedly apparent even in his more serious pieces, and for a while the great poet now indulged it almost exclusively. It was, indeed, the natural outcome of his inward experience and artistic development. His passion was now to individualise, and comedy affords opportunity for its display. With all the energy of his soul, therefore, he threw himself into the arms of Thalia, and, that she might effectually dry up her tears, submitted to her caprices. He revelled in her society, and surrendered his entire being to the influence of her charms. The two years which he thus employed must have been among the happiest of his life.
Much Ado about Nothing appears to have been commenced soon after Henry V. Shakspere apparently derived the subject from a novel of Bandello's. The story itself had, of course, an elder origin. It is to be found in the fifth canto of Ariosto's Orlando Furioso, the argument of which had already been treated in a play under the title of Ariodante and Ginevra. The episode from Ariosto had been more than once translated into English; and Spenser in his Faerie Queen made use of it in the second canto. Belleforest, in 1583, included it in his Cent Histoires Tragiques, a translation of which into English was soon afterwards made. As usual, in adopting the subject, Shakspere commenced by engrafting on it an idea. He did more, for he expanded it, adding to the tale of Claudio and Hero that of Beatrice and Benedick, which latter has ultimately commanded the greater interest. These characters are the poet's own creations, as are also Dogberry and Verges. In the incidents of the original tale itself he has in like manner introduced variations, in subservience to dramatic convenience; variations which are sometimes needful in translating a story from one art into another. Each has its limitations. What is
will not always come into a painting; what is available in a romance will not always suit the epos; and what suits the epos must sometimes be discarded from the drama. The structure of each controls the choice of the materials. Dramas, in particular, from the necessities of the stage, are inevitably cast in a mould, and have so far an external form imposed on them which will not admit of certain particulars, or at all events will throw them into the background, though in the original fable they may have occupied a prominent place. In the comedy before us, the original fable
Much Ado about Nothing.
itself retires into a secondary position, while an invented action takes the front rank.
In drawing the characters of Beatrice and Benedick, Shakspere improved on a younger conception. Biron and Rosalind, in Love's Labour's lost, form the earliest sketches of these more complete portraits. On those “he tried his 'prentice-hand,”—these exhibit the master touches. They are indeed finished and exquisite works of art, by one who had now nothing to learn, but had grown to be as perfect in execution as he was excellent in conception.
The plot in which this invented action is embodied grows out of the characters themselves, and apart from the characters is really “nothing,” notwithstanding the “much-ado” that is made “about” it. Two couples are to be brought into marriage relations, and these are to be disturbed by the misdoings of the Bastard John, whose errors lie in the malignity of his own nature and have no external motive. One such man troubles the whole circle whereof he is a living segment. That circle presents a family enjoying supreme felicity, and indulging in a merry vein ; but one man's evil disposition suddenly subverts its happiness, and threatens it with a tragic crisis. The mirth with which the play commences is as general as it is generous, and we behold life in holiday vestments disporting as at a festival which was destined never to be discontinued. But the change comes—and the gay become grave, the witty and the loving become revengeful, and the most amiable assume an aspect of sternness only proper to offended honour. Calumniated innocence has to be vindicated, and death frowns on noble brows, and steps ireful between dearest friends. Honourable as they are, they are fortune's fools, and require discipline to make them more earnest and sincere in their engagements and duties. Seriousness has to be forced upon them; and this purpose effected, again begins for them a serene life, in which mirth is chastened by reflection.
In the development of the relations thus established some inferior agencies assist. Over them is extended the same bland colouring. The State in which this family flourishes is carelessly governed; authority slumbers, and public offices are negligently executed. Dogberry and Verges, men utterly unfit for their situation, are on a familiar footing with the governor, who, however, never suspects their unfitness, until the crisis arrives which constitutes the turning-point of the action. These characters form the low-comedy of the drama; and, “shallow fools” as they are, bring to light what profounder wisdom could not discover. This is a religious lesson, and Shakspere dwells on it emphatically. The catastrophe of the play is scarcely of a less sacred character, though classical in form. The restored Hero is brought to the reformed Claudio, like Alcestis to her husband Admetus, under another name, and concealed behind a veil which disguises her identity. The incident is beautiful both in the Grecian drama and the English play; and furnishes a tableau which, whether in sculpture or in painting, produces an exquisite picture:
Reticence in Character.
“ Claudio. Give me your hand before this holy friar:
[Unmasking. And when you loved, you were my other husband.
Claudio. Another Hero ?
Hero. Nothing certainer.
Loving, faithful, forgiving Hero! Equally delicate the creations both of Shakspere and Euripides--both the affianced bride and the devoted wife; each touching in its pathos, both consecrated by our tears.
Nothing is more difficult than such a fine creation in which retired modesty is to be portrayed. The characterisation is almost negative, consisting in the absence of those points by which other individualities are defined. While Beatrice talks and rattles away, Hero is silent. She is so, save in one sentence, throughout the first scene. We are scarcely aware of her having been present, until Claudio speaks of her to Benedick, who is evidently puzzled to appreciate an excellence that is simply expressed by a pure negation. We meet with her again in the first scene of the second act; and again her conversation is limited to a single sentence. It is not until Pedro as a masker addresses her, that she ventures on more, and then but little. Wooed and won for Claudio, she seems to think, like him, that “silence is the perfectest herald of joy;"—for we hear her say nothing; only Claudio confesses that she has whispered " in his ear, that he is in her heart.” Reticence like this in the drawing of character is the perfection of Art. In the whole