« PreviousContinue »
“As You LIKE IT” is a play written some three hundred years ago for public performance in a London theatre. Unlike most plays of its time, and, indeed, rather more than most plays of its author, it is still popular. People who read
, Shakspere are apt to read this play among the first, and to turn back to it very often; when it is given at the theatre, the house is still apt to be a good one. All of which means that “ As You Like It” has given people a remarkable amount of pleasure. If readers did not enjoy it, they would not read it unconstrained; if audiences did not enjoy it, they would not give their time and money to see it on the stage. Really to understand it, then, one must somehow or other enjoy it.
The first thing to do is to read it through. Unlike a long novel or an epic poem, a play is always meant, originally, to be seen at a single sitting. One goes to the theatre before any of it is begun, and one does not come away until it is all over. To get the impression which any writer of plays means to produce, then, one must, in the first place, get it all at once; just as one would get the impression of any short story, such as modern magazines are
, full of.
What distinguishes plays, and books, and other things which survive in literature from those which do not, is that the lasting ones are capable of giving a more constant and various pleasure than the others. In " As You Like It," for example, there are a great many details which, as people have grown to know them, they have enjoyed more and more.
It is to help readers to perceive and to enjoy these that any introduction or notes to the play are desirable. Only in so far as they help toward enjoyment are notes or introductions like those in this book worth while. If, in spite of them, a reader does not enjoy the play they deal with, they fail to do their purpose. If without them a reader can heartily enjoy his reading, he has the less need for them. With a piece of literature like this comedy, enjoyment should be the first and the last condition of understanding. Whoever fails to enjoy, fails to understand.
When anybody begins to enjoy a work of art nowadays, his first impulse is often a curiosity to know who the artist that made it was. In the case of Shakspere, who wrote this play, there is not very much to know. William Shakspere was born in 1564, at Stratford-on-Avon, a pretty little town almost in the centre of England. His father was a local tradesman, who had begun to make money and to take some small part in public affairs—the kind of man who might to-day be a flourishing shopkeeper and a selectman in a good-sized New England town. When Shakspere was about thirteen years old, his father's affairs took another turn, and the family lost money. When Shakspere was eighteen years old he married a woman past twenty-five. In three years they had three children. Meanwhile the family fortunes had not bettered.
For five years after 1587 we have no record of him. Then, in the year 1592, it appears that he had already for some time been connected with the theatre in London, where he was beginning to be known as a writer of plays. At this time the theatre had become the chief source of amusement in England. People in general were far less apt than nowadays to know how to read. Besides, there were nothing like as many books as exist now; and what there were cost comparatively much more than books cost in our own time. The theatre, then, provided people in general not only with the kind of amusement which it still provides, but also with much of the kind which is now provided by books, magazines, and newspapers. To supply the theatre with plays, a considerable number of playwrights had arisen. Their plays, which have not lasted, are too queerly old-fashioned for the modern stage. In their day, however, Greene, and Peele, and Kyd, and Marlowe, and others, were well-known and popular writers for the theatre. It was as one of this group of early Elizabethan dramatists that Shakspere began his work.
His earliest plays, like others of the period, are queer, old-fashioned things, in which we can find many beautiful passages, but which, on the whole, have become pretty tiresome. At the time when they were written, however, they seemed to have pleased the public. At any rate, Shakspere kept on writing, and the records show that his plays began to bring him money. In 1597, for example, he was rich enough to buy a good-sized house and lands at Stratford.
Meanwhile the other dramatists with whom he had begun to work had died. For several years he was almost the only man who could write thoroughly good plays for the London stage. These plays he wrote were from year to year better and better. In his hands, the sort of thing which appeared on the stage in England changed from such queer, old-fashioned matter as is found in the plays of the early Elizabethan dramatists into such lastingly beautiful and interesting form as we are apt to think of nowadays when we hear Shakspere's name. By and by,
, other men began to write in this new manner of which Shakspere had at first been the only master.
The plays of these new men-Heywood, and Dekker, and Ben Jonson, and Middleton, and Beaumont and Fletcher, and Webster, and more were not unlike the plays which Shakspere himself wrote in their time, just as Shakspere's earlier plays had been very like what his earlier contemporaries - Greene, and Peele, and Marlowe - had written. The plays of the two groups of Shakspere's contemporaries, however, were as different from each other as such things well could be; as different, for example, as the pictures of the Italian painters who lived before Raphael are from those of the painters who lived later. Shakspere is the only dramatist of the period who wrote plays of the old kind and also plays of the new.
This successful playwriting, begun some time about the · twenty-fifth year of his age, had made him, by the time he was thirty-five, a well-to-do man, whose growing fortunes enabled him to help his father and his family in general out of their misfortunes. So far as we can determine, he was about thirty-five years old when he wrote "As You Like It.”
Shakspere's plays were not collected and published all together until some years after his death. In the volume in which they first appeared--the folio of 1623—“As You Like It," so far as we know, was first printed. There is a reference to it, however, in the “Stationers' Register" (a kind of book where they recorded something which we should now call copyright) as early as 1600; and there is other evidence to make us believe that it had not yet been written in the middle of 1598. In a rough way, then, we may fairly assume that it was written somewhere between the middle of 1598 and the middle of 1600.
Now, in the folio of 1623 Shakspere's plays were not printed in the order in which they were written. They were classified as comedies, a kind of play of which “As
-a You Like It” is a capital example; histories,—of which perhaps the best is “Henry IV.";—and tragedies,hof which the most celebrated is probably “Hamlet.” In all, the volume contained thirty-six plays, to the writing of which Shakspere had probably devoted about twenty-five years; and they were put together with such utter disregard of the order in which he wrote them that people in general have not yet managed quite to understand that from time to time his manner of writing and the subjects which he chose to write about altered a good deal.
After so many years, of course, it is impossible to decide with certainty just when any of the plays were written. In a rough way, however, we may feel pretty sure that before the year 1593 Shakspere had written, or had helped in writing, the following poems and plays: “Venus and Adonis,” “Lucrece," "Titus Andronicus,” “Love's Labour's Lost," the three parts of “Henry VI.," the “Comedy of Errors," and the “Two Gentlemen of Verona.' The notable fact about these is that, at the time when he was beginning his work, he tried his hand at almost every sort of writing which was popular. " Venus and Adonis
are very carefully written narrative poems, of a kind just then highly fashionable. These were the first works which Shakspere published; they seem to have sold fairly well; at the same time, poems could, under no circumstances, pay so well as successful plays, and perhaps for this reason Shakspere, once having shown how well he could write narrative poems, never wrote any more. The case is something like that of Sir Walter Scott, who, when the Waverley Novels began to succeed, produced no more poems like “ Marmion” or the “Lady of the Lake." Titus Andronicus very bloody tragedy, with so little merit that admirers of