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DATE OF THE PLAY,—ITS CHARACTERISTICS, ETC.
with this title-page:-“A pleasant Conceited Comedie called,
Loues labors lost. As it was presented before her Highnes this last Christmas. Newly corrected and augmented By W. Shakespere." Although it did not appear in print until the author's thirty-fourth year, when he had established a generally acknowledged reputation and popularity, by many of his dramas of English history, and six successful and popular comedies, including the Merchant of VENICE and the MIDSUMMER Night's DREAM; when, too, ROMEO AND JULIET, in its earlier form, had been printed a year before,—yet there is a general concurrence of opinion, both traditional and critical, that this play was among Shakespeare's earliest dramatic works.
Coleridge, in his first attempt to classify the order of Shakespeare's
plays, did, indeed, place this comedy in that which he designates as the epoch of “ the full although youthful Shakespeare, the negative period of his perfection ;" not long preceding the time to which he assigns, in his catalogue, the corrected ROMEO AND Juliet, and the MERCHANT OF VENICE. But, in his next reconsideration of the subject, he placed Love's Labour's Lost at the head of the list of “Shakespeare's earliest dramas;" and again, nine years after, he began his review of the same question by saying—"I think Shakespeare's earliest dramatic attempt-perhaps even prior, in conception, to the Venus AND ADONIS, and planned before he left Stratford-was Love's LABOUR's Lost." Its general resemblance of style and thought to his other early works, and especially the “frequency of the rhymes, the sweetness as well as the smoothness of the metre, and the number of acute and fancifully illustrated aphorisms," all correspond with the idea of a youthful work; while, as in others of his early works, we also find in the personages the rudiments of characters, slightly sketched, to which he afterwards returned, and, without repeating himself, presented them again, in a varied and more individualized and living form. Thus, Biron contains within him the germs both of Benedick and of Jaques ; of the one in his colloquial and mocking mood, and of the other in his graver moralities. Rosaline is (in Coleridge's phrase) “ the pre-existent state of Beatrice ;” though she is as yet a Beatrice of the imagination, drawn from books or report, rather than one painted from familiar acquaintance.
Both the characters and the dialogue are such as youthful talent might well invent, without much knowledge of real life, and would indeed be likely to invent, before the experience and observation of varied society. The comedy presents a picture, not of the true every day life of the great or the beautiful, but exhibits groups of such brilliant personages as they might be supposed to appear in the artificial conversation, the elaborate and continual effort to surprise or dazzle by wit or elegance, which was the prevailing taste of the age, in its literature, its poetry, and even its pulpit; and in which the nobles and beauties of the day were accustomed to array themselves for exhibition, as in their state attire, for occasions of display. All this, when the leading idea was once caught, was quite within the reach of the young Poet to imitate or surpass, with little or no personal knowledge of aristocraticor what would now be termed fashionable—society. English literature, a century later, afforded a striking example of the success of a very young author in carrying to its perfection a similar affectation of artificial wit, and studied conversational brilliancy-I mean Congreve, whose comedies, the admiration of their own age, for their fertility of fantastically gay dialogue, bright conceits, and witty repartees, are still read for their abundance of lively imagery and play of language, the “reciprocation of conceits and the clash of wits,”—although the personages of his scene, and all that they do and think, are wholly remote from the truth, the feeling, and the manners of real life. These productions, so remarkable in their way, were written before Congreve's twenty-fifth year; and his first and most brilliant comedy (the “Old Bachelor") was acted when he was yet a minor. His talent, thus early ripe, did not afterwards expand or refine itself into the nobler power of teaching “the morals of the heart,” nor even into the delightful gift of embodying the passing scenes of real life in graphic and durable pictures. But his writings afford a memorable proof how soon the graces and brilliant effects of mere intellect can be acquired, while those works of genius which require the co-operation and the knowledge of man's moral nature, aro of slower and later growth.
This comedy, then, marks the transition of Shakespeare's mind through the Congreve character of invention and dialogue; that of lively and artificial brilliancy—a region in which he did not long loiterBut rose to truth, and moralized his song.
These remarks apply to the general contexture of the comedy, and the greater part of the dialogue. But it must not be overlooked that the whole is not the work of a mere boy. It had been played before Queen Elizabeth, according to the title-page of the edition of 1598, “this last Christmas," and, as it then shortly after appeared "newly corrected and augmented,” it is probable that the author had followed the fashion of his times, when (according to Mr. Collier) " it was common for dramatists to revise and improve their plays, when they were selected for exhibition at court.” It does not imply any great presumption of criticism, or demand peculiar delicacy of discrimination, to separate many of these acknowledged additions from the lighter and less valuable materials in which they are inserted. Rosaline's character of Biron, in the second act, and her dialogue with him at the winding up of the drama, and Biron’s speeches in the first and at the end of the fourth act, are among the passages which appropriate themselves at once to the period of the composition of the MIDSUMMER Night's Dream, or the MERCHANT OF Venice, not less in the mood of thought than in the peculiar poetic style and melody.
The story itself is but slight, the incidents few, and the higher characters, though varied, are but sketchily drawn—at least, taking the author's own maturer style of execution in that way as the standard. There was, therefore, no very great effort of original invention in either respect; but whatever there is, either of plot or character, belongs to the author alone; for the diligence of the critics and antiquarians, (Stevens, Skottowe, Collier, etc.,) who have been most successful in tracing out the rough materials of romance, tradition, or history used by Shakespeare for the construction of his dramas, have entirely failed in discovering any thing of the kind in any older author, native or foreigu, to which he could have been indebted on this occasion. It is well worthy of remark that Shakespeare, in his earlier works, bestowed more of the labour of invention upon his plot and incidents than he generally did afterwards, when he usually selected known personages, to whom and to the outline of whose story, the popular mind was already somewhat familiar,—thus, probably quite unconsciously, adopting from his own experience the usage of the great Greek dramatists. It may be that the impress of reality, which the circumstance of familiar names and events lends to the drama, more than compensated for any pleasure that mere novelty of incident could give either to the author or his audience. But, in his characters of broad humour, Shakespeare is here, as he always is, original and inventive. Although the Pedant and the Braggart are characters familiar to the old Italian stage, yet if the dramatist derived the general notion of such personages, as fitted for stage-effect, from any Italian source, (for the presumption is but remote,) still he assuredly painted them and their affectations from the life; these being characters, as Coleridge justly observes, which “a country town and a schoolboy's observation might supply."
All the personages of broader humour, in spite of their extravagances and droll absurdities, have still an air of truth, a solidity of effect, which at once indicates that, however heightened and exaggerated, still they came apon the stage from the real world, and not from the author's fancy; and this solidity and reality tend to give a more unreal and shadowy tone to the other and more courtly and poetic personages of the comedy. Such a remark can apply only to Shakespeare's very early dramatic works. The other comic creations of the second stage of the Poet's career-Launcelot Gobbo, or Falstaff—do not command the temporary illusion of the stage more than the nobler personages with whom they are contrasted. Juliet is as true and real as her Nurse.
The play in the folio of 1623 appears to have been printed from the first quarto, as it retains several errors of the press, which could not have found their way into a different manuscript. There are, however, some few variations; and the collation of the two copies, with the aid of the metre and rhyme, enable the editors to agree in a very satisfactory text.
PERIOD OF THE ACTION, MANNERS, AND COSTUME. “ There is no historical foundation for any portion of the action of this comedy. There was no Ferdinand, King of Navarre. We have no evidence of a difference between France and Navarre, as to possessions in Aquitain. We may place, therefore, the period of the action as the period of Elizabeth, for the manners are those of Shakespeare's own time. The more remarkable of the customs which are alluded to are pointed out in the notes. Cesare Vecellio, at the end of his third book, (edit. 1598,) presents us with the general costume of Navarre at this period. The women appear to have worn a sort of clog, or patten, something like the Venetian chioppine; and we are told in the text that some dressed in imitation of the French, some in the style of the Spaniards; while others blended the fashions of both those nations. The well-known costume of Henri Quatre and Philip II. may furnish authority for the dress of the King and nobles of Navarre, and of the lords attending on the Princess of France, who may herself be attired after the fashion of Marguerite de Valois, the sister of Henry III. of France, and first wife of his successor, the King of Navarre. (Vide Montfaucon, “Monarchie Française.')"-Knight.
SOURCE OF THE PLOT AND CHARACTERS. I have above expressed the decided opinion that the plot of this comedy and its characters are wholly of the young Poet's own creation, with no other aid to his invention than that furnished by the general literature of his age and country, and, as to the comic personages, by such laughable individual peculiarities as fell within his acute though as yet limited observation of life and manners. In this opinion we have the concurrence of those higher critics, who, like Coleridge, argued from the internal evidence of the comedy, with others of a humble rank, who, like Skottowe, have devoted themselves to seeking out every fragment of old romance or legend which Shakespeare might possibly have read and been indebted to for even the most ordinary incidents used in his dramas. Skottowe honestly, though a little reluctantly, confesses that here his “occupation is gone;" and says that “ Love's Labour's Lost is one of the very few plays of its author, that are not ascertained to have been founded on some previously