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THE TWO GENTLEMEN OF VERONA.
Vast labour and research have been spent in endeavours to ascertain the times when Shakespeare's several plays were writ. ten, and the sources whence his plots and materials were drawn. The subject is certainly very curious and interesting, not only in reference to the Poet's external history, but as illustrating the growth and progress of the greatest individual mind that hath reported itself in human speech. And, though the desired results have seldom been reached, enough has been done to pay the labour : even where the end has not been gained such approximations have been often made as amply vindicate the undertaking ; and in overhauling the musty records of antiquity, along with much that is valuable only or chiefly as bearing upon something else, much has also been brought to light, that is of rare value in itself. Thus Shakespeare, ever fresh and ever young himself, keeps alive many things which it is for our interest not to let die; he being, as it were, the master of ceremonies to bring us acquainted with the great spirits that cluster and revolve around him.
We are apt to think of Shakespeare too much as an abstraction of intellectual power, with whom the ordinary laws and processes of mental life and action had little or nothing to do. He must indeed have been a prodigious infant, yet an infant he unquestionably was; and had to proceed by the usual paths from infancy to manhood, how unusual soever may have been the ease and speed of his passage. Dowered perhaps with such a portion of genius as hath fallen to no other mortal, still his powers had to struggle through the common infirmities and encumbrances of our nature For, assuredly, his mind was not born full-grown and ready-furnished for the course and service of Truth, but had to creep, totter, and prattle ; much study, observation, experience, in short, a long, severe tentative process being required to insinew, and discipline, and regulate his genius into power. Had he been naturally free from inward insufficiencies, still he was beset with clogs and drawbacks from without: to act upon the age as he did, he must needs have been more or less acted upon by it; and even had he been able to start from the point where he ended, it was impracticable for him to do so, since in that case he would have been too far ahead of those for whom he wrote to take them along with him. And such, no doubt, were the very trials and chastening's whereby he came to be
16 of a rectified spiri
Dryden rather oddly represents the Poet's ghost as saying,
« Untaught, unpractis'd, in a barbarous age,
I found not, but created first, the stage :"
but this is far from true, the ghost being made to utter Dryden's thoughts, not Shakespeare's. For, though the least that he did may be worth more than all that was done before him, and his poorest performances surpass the best of his models; it is nevertheless certain that his task was but to continue and perfect what others had begun. Not only were the three forms of comedy, history, and tragedy in use on the English stage, but the elements of these were to some extent blended in the freedom and variety of the Romantic Drama; though of course in nothing like the purity and harmony wherein he presented them. The usage, also, of dramatic blank-verse stood up inviting his adoption ; there being scarce any variety of measure, or pause, or cadence, of which Marlowe had not set the example : though no one before or since has come near Shakespeare in the mastery of its capabilities, in the ever-varying, never-tiring fluctuation of his verse ; his genius being an inexhaustible spring of both mental and verbal modulation. Nor can this be rightly regarded as any alleviation of his task, or any abatement of his fame. For to work thus with materials and upon models already prepared, without being drawn down to their level and subdued to their quality, asks a higher order and exercise of power, than to strike out in a way and with a stock entirely new. And herein it is that the absorbing, and purifying, and quickening virtue of Shakespeare's genius is best seen : he had not a drama to create in any of its forms or elements, but a drama to regenerate and rectify, - to inform its shapes with life and grace, to temper and mould its elements in the happy symmetry and proportion of living art. Thus his work naturally linked in with the whole past : in his hands the collective thought and wisdom of ages were smelted out of the earth and dross wherein they lay imbedded, and wrought into figures of undecaying beauty; and the extraction and efficacy of centuries were treasured up in his pages.
It can hardly be questioned that The Two GENTLEMEN OF VERONA was among the earliest-written of our author's plays. This is apparent from the internal evidence: the frequency of rhymes, the comparative want of variety, and the general smoothness of the versification showing that he had not yet grown to a just reliance on his own strength, and to the free working of his powers; that he was rather looking at his models than overseeing them, - rather mastered by them than mastering them and rising upon them. Compared to the plays of what is termed his third or even his second period, the poetry, rich as it is, has more of a lyrical than dramatic cast; particular parts and passages, though often full of beauty, are less subordinated to the whole, and seem more as if used for their own sake; the general style and structure is loose, unvital, inorganic ; and we miss the close-knitting of thought and image, the subtle and sinewy discourse, and the “working words,” that give such matchless energy and operation to his later and riper performances. Hence, no doubt, the persuasion of certain men, that Shakespeare had little share in the making of this play. Concerning whom Mr. Collier says, « The notion of some critics, that The Two Gentlemen of Verona contains few or no marks of Shakespeare's hand, is strong proof of their incompetence to form a judgment.” Wherein we agree with him ; for Shakespeare's marks are set all over the play : but they are the marks of his “prentice hand,” though such as no prentice hand but his could have put into it; the play, especially in the more comic parts, poor as these are beside others from the same source, as much outstripping any thing done before him as it falls short of what he afterwards did.
The internal evidence is corroborated by whatsoever of external evidence hath come down to us. Of the plays mentioned by Francis Meres in his Wit's Treasury, published in 1598, The Two Gentlemen of Verona stands first in the list.
" As Plautus and Seneca are accounted the best for comedy and tragedy among the Latins; so Shakespeare among the English is the most excellent in both kinds for the stage. For comedy, witness his Gentlemen of Verona, his Errors, his Love's Labour's Lost, his Love's Labour Won,* his Midsummer-Night's Dream, and his Merchant of Venice; for tragedy, his Richard II., Richard III., Henry IV., King John, Titus Andronicus, and his Romeo and Juliet.” Supposing Meres to include both parts of Henry IV., and adding the three parts of Henry VI., which were written before this date,
* The original title of All's Well That Ends Well.