Page images

Shakspere often incline to think that he did not write it; all the same, it is a very good example of what passed for serious tragedy on the early Elizabethan stage. “Love's Labour's Lost” is a comedy full of intricate plays on words and such things, of a kind which was very fashionable at the time when Shakspere began to write. “Henry VI.” is what is called a chronicle-history—a sort of play common at that time, but long since out of date. Its object was to tell historical facts to audiences who were unable to read the histories for themselves. As books of history grew better and cheaper, they naturally supplanted this kind of play, the nearest approach to which in modern literature is the historical novel, such as was written by Sir Walter Scott and the elder Alexandre Dumas. The Comedy of Errors” is an adaptation for the English stage of an old Roman comedy, still in existence. The

Two Gentlemen of Verona” is a stage version of an Italian story, such as we may still read in the “Decameron ” of Boccaccio. Shakspere began, then, by trying his hand at narrative poetry, at tragedy, at chronicle-history, and at three distinct kinds of comedy. All of these things he did pretty well; none of them conspicuously better than other contemporary writers; but no other writer of his time had managed, by 1593, to do so many different kinds of things with anything like equal

The first trait which Shakspere showed, then, was versatility.

Having thus learned by experiment to write in a good many different ways, Shakspere devoted himself for the next seven or eight years to writing a number of plays which are so much better than what came before that if we may call the first group experimental we may call the second masterly. Between 1593 and 1600, we may pretty surely say that he produced the “Midsummer Night's Dream," “Romeo and Juliet,” “Richard III.," "Richard II.,"

[ocr errors]


[ocr errors]


[ocr errors]

“King John,” the “Merchant of Venice," the “ Taming of the Shrew,” the two parts of “ Henry IV.,” the “ Merry Wives of Windsor,” “Henry V.,' Much Ado About Nothing,” “ Twelfth Night,” and “ As You Like It.” Of these plays, all of which we may call masterly, only one“Romeo and Juliet”—is a tragedy, and this tragedy is of a tender and sentimental rather than of a grand or dreadful sort. The six plays which bear the names of English kings are chronicle-histories, the later three a great deal firmer and more powerful than the earlier. The remaining seven plays in this list are all comedies; and the list includes the best unmixed comedies which Shakspere ever wrote. In the years between 1593 and 1600, then, the years when his success began to be established, and during some of which he was almost the only thoroughly good playwright at work in London, we find that he produced very little tragedy, but that he brought both chronicle-history and comedy to a point which neither ever surpassed. Were we to pursue his work further, we should find that in the following eight years or so his plays were almost steadily tragic. Into this part of his work, however, we need not now proceed. The thing for us to keep in mind is that “ As You Like It,” the play now before us, is among the final works of Shakspere's period of comedy -final in both senses of the word, last and best.

[ocr errors]


So much for the position of “As You Like It" in Shakspere's life and among his works. The play, we see, may be taken as broadly typical of what he did at a time when, complete master of his art, he had not yet happened to devote his powers to their most serious taskthe writing of great tragedy. It may now be interesting to consider the play itself, and to see what special traits

[ocr errors][ocr errors]

it has. In so considering any play or story—any piece of writing of which the basis is narrative-it is often convenient to proceed with a little system.

Any narrative composition concerns itself with actions or events, with what people do or what happens to them. The actions and events which form the groundwork of a narrative are called its plot. Now, to do anything, or to have anything happen, there must be people: all narrative, then, involves characters. Again, to do things or to have experiences, people must be somewhere; all narrative, then, involves not only characters, but a place for them to live and move in; this place we may call background, or atmosphere. Furthermore, as the only vehicle by which we come to know all narrative is words, all narrative involves a certain style—a convenient term to signify how the words in question are chosen and put together. Finally, the plot, the characters, the atmosphere, and the style combine to produce in whoever reads the narrative a certain state of mind and feeling, which we may call its effect.

This effect, indeed, is the only thing of which an ordinary reader or play-goer is aware, or need be.

When one grows critical, however, it is often worth while—because it often adds to one's enjoyment—to consider how this effect is produced, and so to make clear to oneself just what this effect really is. In so doing, it is convenient to consider separately the plot, the characters, the atmosphere, and the style, which together produce the effect. In this introduction to “As You Like It,” then, we shall proceed to consider these four elements in turn.


First, then, for the plot of “As You Like It”; and, first of all, for where it came from.

Nowadays, when anybody writes a story or a play, it is generally assumed that he has invented the whole thing. So far does this assumption go, indeed, that if a story or a play which pretends to be original is found to resemble some older one, the author is apt to be spoken of as dishonest in trying to palm off as his own something which was originally thought of by somebody else. Nowadays, then, it is hard to think of a respectable novelist or dramatist of any period, except in the character of a storyteller who spins his yarns wholly out of his own brains. Three hundred years ago, when Shakspere was writing for the London stage, the case was wholly different. As we reminded ourselves not long ago, books were far fewer and comparatively far dearer than now, and the theatre was far more generally popular. In the case of chroniclehistories, we saw, what a dramatist did was to go to a book, not generally in possession of his audience, and to translate the narrative he found there into dramatic terms which should give his audience something like the information they might have got by reading the original text. What a dramatist did who wrote comedy or tragedy proves to have been about the same thing. In some story-book, or some old play, he found a plot which he thought would be interesting; this he proceeded to translate, just as he would have translated history, into dramatic terms.

The modern notion that he was morally bound to invent his story never occurred to him; his business was not invention, but translation. So completely is this true that all but two or three of Shakspere's plays have been traced directly to their sources; and that there is no good reason for believing him not to have had such sources for the two or three whose sources have not been discovered.

In the case of “ As You Like It " the source is well known; it is a now rather tiresome story by a man named


Thomas Lodge, published in 1590 under the title of "Rosalynde. Euphues Golden Legacie: found after his death in his Cell at Silexedra. Bequeathed to Philautus sonnes noursed up with their father in England. Fetcht from the Canaries."

For two reasons this ponderous title is worth quoting in full. In the first place, it shows as clearly as would a long extract from the tale itself what a queer, unwieldy kind of thing an Elizabethan novel was. In the second place, the reference to Euphues and to Philautus, well-known characters in the novels of John Lyly, the most popular novelist of that period, shows how general the habit of

appropriating other men's work had become. Lodge's use ✓ of these names is much what might be the case nowadays if

some story-writer should undertake to tell us more about
Clive Newcome, or Adam Bede, or David Balfour.
only difference is that while such a proceeding would now
be thought at least impudent, it was perfectly regular in
the time of Queen Elizabeth. For the rest, Lodge not only
appropriated the name of Euphues, which hardly occurs
except on his title-page, but he took his whole plot from
an old “ Tale of Gamelyn,” at that time attributed to

Just as Lodge felt himself quite at liberty to alter and improve the plot he undertook to deal with, Shakspere felt himself free to alter and improve that of Lodge. He took this old story, popular in his day but now outworn and tedious, he selected from it such incidents as he chose, he added whatever he liked, suppressed what he did not care for, gave the whole a new title, and produced in dramatic form this free translation of what he had found in narrative. With Lodge's old plot, then, we need not concern ourselves further; our business is with the plot as it emerged from the hands of Shakspere.

Briefly stated, it is somewhat as follows: A duke, de

« PreviousContinue »