« IndietroContinua »
So much has been said about the anachronisms in this play, that we must add a word touching them. We have already seen that the making of seaports and landing of ships in Bohemi were taken from Greene. Mr. Verplanck conjectures that by Bohemia was meant simply the land of the Boii, an ancient people several tribes of whom settled in the miun Jats of France: but we scarce think the Poet would have used the name with so much license at a time when the boundaries of that country were so well fixed, and so widely known. We have no notion, indeed that this breach of geography was a blunder: it was meant, no doubt. for the convenience of thought; and such is its effect, until one goes about to dissect and anatomize, thus viewing the parts with reference to ends never contemplated in the use here made of them. And the same may be said of several other liberties here taken with the order of facts; such as the making Whitsun pastorals, Christian burial, Julio Romano, and the Emperor of Russia, contemporary with the Oracle of Delphi; wherein actual things are but marshalled into an ideal order, thus rendering memory subservient to imagination, history to art. In these and such points it is enough that the materials be apt to combine among themselves, and that they draw together in working out the issue proposed, the end thus regulating the use of the meaus. For a work of art, as such, should be itself an object for the mind to rest upon, not a directory to guide it to something else. So that here we may justly say "the mind is its own place," and, pro vided the work be true to the laws and the order of this intellect ual whereabout, breaches of geography and chronology are of little consequence.
THE COMEDY OF ERRORS.
THE COMEDY OF ERRORS bears upon its face indubitable marks of being one of Shakespeare's earliest performances. In respect of merit, most readers,.we apprehend, would be apt to place it at the bottom of the list of comedies; though this may he owing more to the nature of the subject than to the manner of the execution. It was mentioned by Meres in 1593; which was supposed to be the earliest notice of it extant, until very lately Mr. Halliwell brought to light a passage in the Gesta Grayorum, showing that it was acted at Gray's Inn during the Christmas revels in 1594. The writer concludes his account of one day's proceedings thus: "After such sports, a Comedy of Errors, like to Plautus his Menechmus, was played by the players: so that night was begun and continued to the end in nothing but confusion and errors, whereupon it was ever afterwards called the Night of Errors." Mr. Halliwell also shows that the title was either a common proverb or furnished the subject of one. But one other contemporary notice of the play has been produced, and that is from the account of the Master of the Revels, showing it to have been acted at Whitehall, December 28, 1604: " By his Majesty's players: On Innocents' Night, the play of Errors." And Shaxberd is written in the margin as "the name of the poet which made the play." The play itself, however, has one passage that may go somewhat to ascertain its date. It is in Act iii. sc. 2. where Dromio of Syracuse, talking of the "kitchen wench," who made love to him, and who was " spherical like a globe," so that be" could find out countries in her," in answer to the question, -"Where France ? ?" says. 166 In her forehead; arm'd and reverted, making war against her heir." Which was probably meant for a quibble between heir and hair, and referred to the civil war that broke out in France in 1589, upon the death of Henry III.; otherwise there were no apparent point in the jest. As this war against the heir of France was because of his being a Protestant, the English people took great interest in it; so that the allusion would
naturally be understood and relished: and it agrees entirely with what appears on other grounds to have been the date of the play.
- The Comedy of Errors was not printed nor entered in the Stationers' books till the folio of 1623, where it raakes the fifth in the division of Comedies.
There has been considerable speculation and quite a variety of opinions as to whether Shakespeare wrote the whole of this play - a matter that need not be better stated than it has been by Mr. Singer. "The general idea of this play," says he, is taken from the Menæchmi 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 prototype. 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 situSteevens most resolutely maintains his opinion that this was a play only retouched by the hand of Shakespeare, but he has not given the grounds upon which his opinion was formed We may suppose the doggerel verses of the drama and the want of distinct characterization in the Dramatis Personæ, together with the farcelike nature of some of the incidents, 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 judg ment made him subsequently abandon it. . . It is difficult to pronounce decidedly between the conflicting 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, that this is the best of all written
or possible Menæchmi; and if the piece be inferior in worth to other pieces of Shakespeare, it is merely because nothing more could be made of the materials.'"
A like diversity of opinions has arisen concerning the immediate sources of the plot of this play. Mr. Collier has found out that an old drama, entitled The History of Error, had been acted at Hampton Cour. ' u uury 1, 1577, and probably again at Windsor, on Twelfth night, 1583. This he conjectures to have been taken as the basis of Shakespeare's comedy, and that parts of it, especially the doggerel verses, were interwoven with the Poet's work. The older play not having been recovered, nor any part of it, of course we have no means either of refuting or of verifying this conjecture. We may remark, however, that Mr. Collier seems a little too prone to suspect Shakespeare to have borrowed all his puerilities Another opinion supposes the Poct to have drawn from a free version of the Menachmi published in 1595, as "A pleasant and fine conceited Comedy, taken out of the most excellent witty Poet Plautus." This version, to be sure, did not come out till after the Comedy of Errors was written; but then Shakespeare may have seen it in manuscript; for in his preface the translator speaks of having divers of this poet's comedies Englished, for the use and delight of his private friends, who in Plautus' own words are not able to understand them." Nevertheless, we are far from thinking such to have been the case; there being no such verbal or other resemblances between the two, as, had such been the case, could scarce have been avoided. The accurate Ritson has ascertained that of this version not a single peculiar name, or phrase, or thought, is to be traced in Shakespeare's comedy. On the whole, we cannot discover the slightest objection to supposing, along with Knight and Verplanck, that the Poet may have drawn directly from Plautus himself; the matter common to them both not being such but that it may well enough have been taken by one who had " small Latin."
The Comedy of Errors is thus disposed of by Coleridge: Shakespeare has in this piece presented us with a legitimate farce in exactest consonance with the philosophical principles and character of farce, as distinguished from comedy and from entertainments. A proper farce is mainly distinguished from comedy by the license allowed, and even required, in the fable, in order to produce strange and laughable situations. The story need not be probable, it is enough that it be possible. A comedy would scarcely allow even the two Antipholuses; because, although there have been instances of almost indistinguishable likeness in two persons, yet these are mere individual accidents, casus ludentis naturæ, and the verum will not excuse the inverisimile. But farce dares add the two Dromios, and is justified in so doing by the laws of its end and constitution. In a word, farces commence in a postulate, which must be granted."