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The hurry with which Shakespeare wrote this comedy has led him into some confusion as to the process of time. In Act iii. 4, when Dame Quickly is sent to Falstaff to make a second appointment with him, it is the afternoon of the second day; in the following scene, when she comes to him, it is the morning of the third day.
But this haste has also given the play an unusually dramatic swing and impetus; it is quite free from the episodes in which the poet is at other times apt to loiter.
Nevertheless Shakespeare has here woven together no fewer than three different actions-Falstaff's advances to the two Merry Wives, Mrs. Ford and Mrs. Page, and all the consequences of his ill-timed rendezvous; the rivalry between the foolish doctor, the imbecile Slender, and young Fenton for the hand of fair Anne Page ; and finally, the burlesque duel between the Welsh priest and the French doctor, which is devised and set afoot by the jovial Windsor innkeeper.
Shakespeare has himself invented much more than usual of the complicated intrigue.
But Falstaff's concealment in the buck-basket was suggested by a similar incident in Fiorentino's Il Pecorone, from which Shakespeare had already borrowed in the Merchant of Venice; and the idea of making Falstaff incessantly confide his designs and his rendezvous to the husband of the lady in question came from another Italian story by Straparola, which had been published some ten years earlier, under the title of Two Lovers of Pisa, in Tarlton's News of Purgatory.
The invention is not always very happy. For instance, it is a highly unpleasing and improbable touch that Ford, as Master Brook, should bribe Falstaff to procure him possession of the woman (his own wife) whom he affects to desire, and whom Falstaff also is pursuing.
Ford's jealousy, moreover, is altogether too stupid and crude in its manifestations. But we have especially to deplore that the nature of the intrigue and the moral tendency to be impressed on the play should have made Falstaff, who used to be quickness and ingenuity personified, so preternaturally dense that his incessant defeats afford his opponents a very poor triumph.
He is ignorant of everything it would have been his interest to know, and he is perpetually committing afresh the same inconceivable blunders. It is foolish enough, in the first place, to write two identical love-letters to two women in the same little town, who, as he ought to know, are bosom friends. It is incredibly stupid of him to walk three times in succession straight into the coarse trap which they set for him ; in doing so he betrays such a monstrous vanity that we find it impossible to recognise in him the ironical Falstaff of the Histories. It is inexpressibly guileless of him never to conceive the slightest suspicion of ‘Master Brook,' who, being his only confidant, is therefore the only man who can have betrayed him to the husband. And finally, it is not only childish, but utterly inconsistent with the keen understanding of the earlier Falstaff, that he should believe in the supernatural nature of the beings who pinch him and burn him by night in the park.
On the other hand, the old high spirits and the old wit now and again flame forth in him, and a few of his speeches to Shallow, to Pistol, to Bardolph and others, are exceedingly amusing. He shows a touch of his old self when, after having been soused in the water along with the foul linen, he protests that drowning is 'a death that I abhor, for the water swells a man, and what a thing should I have been when I had been swelled !' And he has a highly humorous outburst in
the last act (v. 5) when he declares, 'I think the devil will not have me dammed, lest the oil that is in me should set hell on fire.' But what are these little flashes in comparison with the inexhaustible whimsicality of the true Falstaff !
sages are few.
The play is more consistently farcical than any earlier comedy of Shakespeare's, The Taming of the Shrew not excepted. The graceful and poetical pas
We have in Mr. and Mrs. Page a pleasant English middle-class couple ; and though the young lovers, Fenton and Anne Page, have only one short scene together, they display in it some attractive qualities. Anne Page is an amiable, middle-class girl of Shakespeare's day, one of the healthy and natural young women whom Wordsworth has celebrated in the nineteenth century. Fenton, who is said (though we cannot believe it) to have been at one time a comrade of Prince Hal and Poins, is certainly attached to her; but it is very characteristic that Shakespeare, with his keen sense for the value of money, sees nothing to object to in the fact that Fenton, as he frankly confesses, was first attracted to Anne by her wealth. This is the same trait which is found in another wooer Bassanio, of a few years earlier.
Finally, there is real poetry in the short fairy scene of the last act. The poet here takes his revenge for the prose to which he has so long been condemned. It is full of the aromatic wood-scents of Windsor Park by night. What is altogether most valuable in The Merry Wives is its strong smack of the English soil. The play appeals to us, in spite of the drawbacks inseparable from a work hastily written to order, because the poet has here for once remained faithful to his own age and his own country, and has given us a picture of the contemporary middle-class, in its sturdy and honest worth, which even the atmosphere of farce cannot quite obscure.
Twelfth Night is perhaps the most graceful and harmonious comedy Shakespearė ever wrote. It is certainly that in which all the notes the poet strikes, the note of seriousness and of raillery, of passion, of tenderness, and of laughter, blend in the richest and fullest concord. It is like a symphony in which no strain can be dispensed with, or like a picture veiled in a golden haze, into which all the colours resolve themselves. The play does not overflow with wit and gaiety; we feel that Shakespeare's joy of life has culminated and is about to pass over into melancholy; but there is far more unity in it than in As you Like It, and it is a great deal more dramatic.
A. W. Schlegel long ago made the penetrating observation that, in the opening speech of the comedy, Shakespeare reminds us how the same word, 'fancy,' was applied in his day both to love and to fancy in the modern sense of the term ; whence the critic argued, not without ingenuity, that love, regarded as an affair of the imagination rather than of the heart, is the fundamental theme running through all the variations of the play. Others have since sought to prove that capricious fantasy is the fundamental trait in the physiognomy of all the characters. Tieck has compared the play to a great iridescent butterfly, fluttering through pure blue air, and soaring in its golden glory from the many-coloured flowers into the sunshine.
Twelfth Night, in Shakespeare's time, brought the Christmas festivities of the upper classes to an end;