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“Henry W.’ unchanged. All this being accomplished, he would naturally have remodelled the first sketch of ‘The Merry Wives,'—making the relations between the characters of the comedy and of the histories closer, but still of purpose keeping the situations sufficiently distinct. He thus for ever connected “The Merry Wives’ with the historical plays. The Falstaff of the comedy must now belong to the age of Henry IV.; but to be understood he must, we venture to think, be regarded as the embryo Falstaff. We request that it may be borne in mind that the entire argument which we have thus advanced is founded upon a conviction that the original sketch, as published in the quarto of 1602, is an authentic production of our poet. Had no such sketch existed, we must have reconciled the difficulties of believing ‘The Merry Wives of Windsor’ to have been produced after ‘Henry IV.’ and | “Henry W.’ as we best might have done. Then we must have acknowledged that the characters of Falstaff and Shallow and Quickly were the same in the comedy and the “Henry | IV, though represented under different circumstances. Then we must have believed that the contradictory situations were to be explained by the determination of Shakspere boldly to disregard the circumstances which resulted from his compliance with the commands of Elizabeth—“to show Falstaff in love.” But that sketch being preserved to us, it is much easier, we think, to believe that it was produced before the histories; and that the characters were subsequently heightened, and more strikingly delineated, to assimilate them to the characters of the histories. After all, we have endeavoured, whilst we have expressed our own belief, fairly to present both sides of the question. The point, we think, is of interest to the lovers of Shakspere; for, inferring that the comedy is a continuation of the history, the inferiority of the Falstaff of ‘The Merry Wives’ to the Falstaff of ‘Henry IV.’ implies a considerable abatement of the poet's skill. On the other hand, the conviction that the sketch of the comedy preceded the history, that it was an early play, and that it was subsequently remodelled, is consistent with
the belief in the progression of that extraordinary intellect, which acquired greater vigour the more its power was exercised. Rightly to appreciate this comedy, it is, we conceive, absolutely necessary to dissociate it from the historical plays of “Henry IV.” and “Henry W.’ Whether Shakspere produced the original sketch of ‘The Merry Wives of Windsor’ before those plays, and remodelled it after their appearance,—or whether he produced both the original sketch and the finished performance when his audiences were perfectly familiar with the Falstaff, Shallow, Pistol, Nym, Bardolph, and Mistress Quickly of ‘Henry IV. and “Henry W.’—it is perfectly certain that he did not intend ‘The Merry Wives’ as a continuation. It is impossible, however, not to associate the period of the comedy with the period of the histories. For although the characters which are common to all the dramas act in the comedy under very different circumstances, and are, to our minds, not only different in their moods but in some of their distinctive features, they must each be received as identical—alter et tdem. Still the connexion must be as far as possible removed from our view, that we may avoid comparisons which the author certainly was desirous to avoid, when in remodelling the comedy he introduced no circumstances which could connect it with the histories; and when he not only did not reject what would be called the anachronisms of the first sketch, but in the perfect play heaped on such anachronisms with a profuseness that is not exhibited in any other of his dramas. We must, therefore, not only dissociate the characters of ‘The Merry Wives' from the similar characters of the histories, but suffer our minds to slide into the belief that the manners of the times of Henry IV. had sufficient points in common with those of the times of Elizabeth to justify the poet in taking no great pains to distinguish between them. We must suffer ourselves to be carried away with the nature and fun of this comedy, without encumbering our minds with any precise idea of the social circumstances under which the characters lived. We must not startle, therefore, at the mention of Star-chambers, and Edward shovel-boards,
and Sackerson, and Guiana, and rapiers, and Flemish drunkards, and coaches, and pensioners. The characters speak in the language of truth and nature, which belongs to all time; and we must forget that they sometimes use the expressions of a particular time to which they do not in strict propriety belong.
The critics have been singularly laudatory of this comedy. Warton calls it “the most complete specimen of Shakspere's comic powers.” Johnson says, “This comedy is remarkable for the variety and number of the personages, who exhibit more characters appropriated and discriminated than perhaps can be found in any other play . . . . Its general power, that power by which all works of genius shall finally be tried, is such, that perhaps it never yet had reader or spectator who did not think it too soon at the end.” We agree with much of this; but we certainly cannot agree with Warton that it is “the most complete specimen of Shakspere's comic powers.” We cannot forget ‘As You Like It,’ and “Twelfth Night, and “Much Ado about Nothing.” We cannot forget those exquisite combinations of the highest wit with the purest poetry, in which the wit flows from the same everlasting fountain as the poetry, —both revealing all that is most intense and profound and beautiful and graceful in humanity. Of those qualities which put Shakspere above all other men that ever existed, “The Merry Wives of Windsor’ exhibits few traces. Some of the touches, however, which no other hand could give, are to be found in Slender, and we think in Quickly. Slender, little as he has to do, is the character that most frequently floats before our fancy when we think of ‘The Merry Wives of Windsor.’ Slender and Anne Page are the favourites of our modern school of English painting, which has attempted, and successfully, to carry the truth of the Dutch school into a more refined region of domestic art. We do not wish Anne Page to have been married to Slender, but in their poetical alliance they are inseparable. It is in the remodelled play that we find, for the most part, such Shaksperean passages in the character of Slender as, “If I be drunk, I’ll be drunk
with those that have the fear of God, and not with drunken knaves,”—which resolve, as Evans says, shows his “virtuous mind.” In the remodelled play, too, we find the most peculiar traces of the master-hand in Quickly, —such as, “His worst fault is that he is given to prayer; he is something peevish that way;” and “The boy never need to understand anything, for ’t is not good that children should know any wickedness. Old folks, you know, have discretion, as they say, and know the world;” and again, “Good hearts, what ado here is to bring you together! Sure, one of you does not serve heaven well that you are so crossed.” Johnson objects to this latter passage as profane; but he overlooks the extraordinary depth of the satire. Shakspere's profound knowledge of the human heart is as much displayed in these three little sentences as in his Hamlet and his Iago. The principal action of this comedy—the adventures of Falstaff with the Merry Wives —sweeps on with a rapidity of movement which hurries us forward to the dénouement as irresistibly as if the actors were under the influence of that destiny which belongs to the empire of tragedy. No reverses, no disgraces, can save Falstaff from his final humiliation. The net is around him, but he does not see the meshes;–he fancies himself the deceiver, but he is the deceived. He will stare Ford “out of his wits,” he will “awe him with his cudgel,” yet he lives “to be carried in a basket, like a barrow of butcher's offal; and to be thrown in the Thames.” But his confidence is undaunted: “I will be thrown into Etna, as I have been thrown into Thames, ere I will leave her;” yet, “since I plucked geese, played truant, and whipped top, I knew not what it was to be beaten, till lately.” Lastly, he will rush upon a third adventure: “This is the third time; I hope good luck lies in odd numbers;” yet his good luck ends in “I do begin to perceive that I am made an ass.” The real jealousy of Ford most skilfully helps on the merry devices of his wife; and with equal skill does the poet make him throw away his jealousy, and assist in the last plot against the “unclean knight.” The misadventures of Falstaff are
most agreeably varied. The disguise of the old woman of Brentford puts him altogether in a different situation to his suffocation in the buck-basket; and the fairy machinery of Herne's Oak carries the catastrophe out of the region of comedy into that of romance. The movement of the principal action is beautifully contrasted with the occasional repose of the other scenes. The Windsor of the time of Elizabeth is presented to us, as the quiet country town, sleeping under the shadow of its neighbour the castle. Amidst its gabled houses, separated by pretty gardens, from which the elm and the chestnut and the lime throw their branches across the unpaved road, we find a goodly company, with little to do but gossip and laugh, and make sport out of each other's cholers and weaknesses. We see Master Page training his “fallow greyhound:” and we go with Master Ford “a-birding.” We listen to the “pribbles and prabbles” of Sir Hugh Evans and Justice Shallow, with a quiet satisfaction: for they talk as unartificial men ordimarily talk, without much wisdom, but with good temper and sincerity. We find ourselves in the days of ancient hospitality, when men could make their fellows welcome without ostentatious display, and half a dozen neighbours “could drink down all unkindness” over “a hot venison pasty.” The more busy inhabitants of the town have time to tattle, and to laugh, and be laughed at. Mine Host of the Garter is the prince of hosts; he is the very soul of fun and good temper :—he is not solicitous whether Falstaff sit “at ten pounds a week” or at two ; —he readily takes “the withered servingman for a fresh tapster;”—his confidence in his own cleverness is delicious:–“Am I politic? am I subtle 7 am I a Machiavel !”—the Germans “shall have my horses, but I’ll
make them pay, I'll sauce them.” When he loses his horses, and his “mind is heavy,” we rejoice that Fenton will give him “a hundred pound in gold” more than his loss. His contrivances to manage the fray between the furious French doctor and the honest Welsh parson are productive of the happiest situations. Caius waiting for his adversary —“De herring is no dead so as I will kill him”—is capital. But Sir Hugh, with his—
“There will we make our peds of roses,
Mercy on me ! I have a great dispositions to cry,”—is inimitable. With regard to the underplot of Fenton
and Anne Page—the scheme of Page to marry her to Slender—the counterplot of her mother, “firm for Dr. Caius”—and the management of the lovers to obtain a triumph out of the devices against them—it may be sufficient to point out how skilfully it is interwoven with the Herne's Oak adventure of Falstaff. Though Slender “went to her in white, and cried ‘mum, and she cried ‘ budget,' ... yet it was not Anne, but a postmaster's boy;”—though Caius did “take her in green,” he “ha’ married un garçon, a boy, unpaisan;”—but Anne and Fenton, .
“long since contracted, Are now so sure, that nothing can dissolve them.”
Over all the misadventures of that night, when “all sorts of deer were chas'd,” Shakspere throws his own tolerant spirit of forgiveness and content:
“Good husband, let us every one go home, And laugh this sport o'er by a country fire; Sir John and all.”
“MANY were the wit-combats betwixt him and BEN Jonson ; which two I behold like a Spanish great galleon and an English manof-war: Master Jonson (like the former) was built far higher in learning; solid, but slow, in his performances. Shakespeare, with the English man-of-war, lesser in bulk, but lighter in sailing, could turn with all tides, tack about, and take advantage of all winds, by the quickness of his wit and invention.” Such is Thomas Fuller's wellknown description of the convivial intercourse of Shakspere and Jonson, first published in 1662. A biographer of Shakspere says, “The memory of Fuller perhaps teemed with their sallies.” That memory, then, must have been furnished at secondhand; for Fuller was not born till 1608. He beheld them in his mind's eye only. Imperfect, and in many respects worthless, as the few traditions of these wit-combats are, there can be no doubt of the companionship and ardent friendship of these two monarchs of the stage. Fuller's fanciful comparison of their respective conversational powers is probably to some extent a just one. The difference in the constitution of their minds, and the diversity of their respective acquirements, would more endear each to the other's society. Rowe thus describes the commencement of the intercourse between Shakspere and Jonson —“His acquaintance with Ben Jonson began with a remarkable piece of humanity and good nature. Mr. Jonson, who was at that time altogether unknown to the world, had offered one of his plays to the
players, in order to have it acted ; and the persons into whose hands it was put, after |
having turned it carelessly and superciliously over, were just upon returning it to him with an ill-natured answer, that it would be of no service to their company, when Shakspere luckily cast his eye upon it, and found something so well in it as to engage him first to read it through, and afterwards to recommend Mr. Jonson and his writings to the public.”* The tradition which Rowe thus records is not supported by minute facts which have since become known. In Henslowe's Diary of plays performed at his theatre, we have an entry under the date of the 11th of May, 1597, of ‘The Comedy of Humours.’ This was no doubt a new play, for it was acted eleven times: and there can be little question that it was Jonson's comedy of “Every Man in his Humour.” A few months after we have the following entry in the same document:-‘‘Lent unto Benjamin Jonson, player, the 22nd of July, 1597, in ready money, the sum of four pounds, to be paid it again whensoever either I or my son shall demand it.” Again: “Lent unto Benjamin Jonson, the 3rd of December, 1597, upon a book which he was to write for us before Christmas next after the date hereof, which he showed the plot unto the company: I say, lent in ready money unto him the sum of twenty shillings.” On the 5th of January, 1598, Henslowe records in the same way the trifling loan of five shillings. An advance is also made by Henslowe to his company on the 13th of August, 1598, “to buy a book called “Hot Anger soon cold,’ of Mr. Porter, Mr. Chettle, and Benjamin Jonson, in full payment, the sum of six pounds.” We thus see, that in 1597 * * Life of Shakspeare.”
and 1598 there was an intimate connection of Jonson with the stage, but not with Shakspere's company. It can scarcely be supposed that Jonson was a writer for the stage earlier than 1597, and that the “remarkable piece of humanity and good nature” recorded of Shakspere took place before the connection of Jonson with Henslowe's theatre. He was born, according to Gifford, in 1574. In January, 1619, he sent a poetical “picture of himself” to Drummond, in which these lines occur:—
“My hundred of grey hairs Told six and forty years.”
This would place his birth in 1573*. Drummond, in narrating Jonson's account of “his own life, education, birth, actions,” up to the period in which we have shown how dependent he was upon the advances of a theatrical manager, thus writes:– “His grandfather came from Carlisle, and, he thought, from Annandale to it: he served King Henry VIII, and was a gentleman. His father lost all his estate under Queen Mary, having been cast in prison and forfeited ; at last turned minister: so he was a minister's son. He himself was posthumous born, a month after his father's decease; brought up poorly, put to school by a friend (his master Camden); after, taken from it, and put to another craft (I think was to be a wright or bricklayer), which he could not endure; then went he to the Low Countries; but returning soon, he betook himself to his wonted studies. In his service in the Low Countries, he had, in the face of both the camps, killed an enemy and taken opima spolia from him ; and since his coming to England, being appealed to the fields, he had killed his adversary which had hurt him in the arm, and whose sword was ten inches longer than his ; for the which he was imprisoned, and almost at the gallows. Then took he his religion by trust, of a priest who visited him in prison. Thereafter he was twelve years a Papist.” Aubrey says in his random way, “He killed Mr. Marlowe the poet on Bunhill, coming from the Green
Curtain Playhouse.” We know where Marlowe was killed, and when he was killed. He was slain at Deptford in 1593. Gifford supposes that this tragical event in Jonson's life took place in 1595 ; but the conjecture is set aside by an indisputable account of the fact. Philip Henslowe, writing to his son-in-law Alleyn on the 26th of September, 1598, says, “Since you were with me I have lost one of my company, which hurteth me greatly, that is Gabrell [Gabriel], for he is slain in Hogsden Fields by the hands of Benjamin Jonson, bricklayer; therefore I would fain have a little of your counsel, if I could.”* This event took place them, we see, exactly at the period when Jonson was in constant intercourse with Henslowe's company; and it probably arose out of some quarrel at the theatre that he was “appealed to the fields.” The expression of Henslowe, “Benjamin Jonson, bricklayer,” is a remarkable one. It is inconsistent with Jonson's own declaration that after his return from the Low Countries he “betook himself to his wonted studies.” We believe that Henslowe, under the excitement of that loss for which he required the counsel of Alleyn, used it as a term of opprobrium, that was familiar to his company. Dekker, who was a writer for Henslowe's theatre, and who in 1599 was associated with Jonson in the composition of two plays, ridicules his former friend and colleague, in 1602, as a “poor lime and hair rascal”—as one who ambled “in a leather pilch by a play-waggon in the highway”—“a foul-fisted mortar-treader”— “one famous for killing a player”—one whose face “ looks for all the world like a rotten russet-apple when it is bruised”— whose “goodly and glorious nose was blunt, blunt, blunt”—who is asked, “how chance it passeth that you bid good bye to an honest trade of building chimneys and laying down bricks for a worse handicraftness?”—who is twitted with “dost stamp, mad Tamburlaine, dost stamp ; thou think'st thou 'st mortar under thy feet, dost 7”—one whose face was “punched full of eyelet-holes like the cover of a warming-pan”—“a hollow-cheeked
* See “Jonson's Conversations with Drummond,’ published by the Shakespeare Society.
* Letter in Dulwich College, quoted in Collier's ‘Memoirs of Alleyn.”