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parently having no ear to distinguish prose and verse, and so presuming it to be poetry, because written by a poet. That such frauds and piracies were practised with some of Shakespeare's plays, scarce admits of dispute. But, for aught appears, The Merry Wives of Windsor may have been at that time very imperfect and inferior to what it is now, and yet the first edition a stolen and mangled copy of the play as it then was. And, whether from a correct or from a mutilated transcript, that edition contains passages of which no traces are discoverable in the play as it now, stands. Such is the following from the fifth act:
4 Sir Hugh. Go you and see where brokers sleep,
And fox-ey'd serjeants, with their mace;
But such whose nose looks blue and red.
And look that none of you stand still :
There being no corresponding passage in the later edition strongly argues that the play, at least in this part, was entirely rewritten after the first copy was taken for the press; loining a manuscript or reporting it as spoken, would obviously be much more apt to omit or alter words and sentences, than to make additions or put in quite other matter. On the other hand, the authentic edition has some passages that can hardly be explained but upon the supposal that the play was revised, and those passages inserted, after the accession of James in the spring of 1603, Such is the odd reason Mrs. Page gives Mrs. Ford for declining to share the honour of Knighthood with Sir John : “ These knights will hack; and so thou shouldst not alter the article of thy gentry : which can scarce bear any other sense than as referring to the prodigality with which the King dispensed those honours in the first of his reign; Knighthood being thereby in a way to grow so huckneyed that it would rather be an honour not to have been dubbed. And, indeed, perhaps it may as well be noted here, that many of Shakespeare's plays apparently underwent so many revisals and improvements between the first sketching and the last, finishing of them, that any allusions they may contain to the events of his time afford a very uncertain clew to the date of their original composition.
There remains a question of some interest as to the time when The Merry Wives was first written ; whether before or after Henry IV.; for, if before, this at once upsets that part of the tradition which assigns the huge delight the Queen had at seeing
Falstaff in wit and war, as the cause of her requesting to see him in love. Kuight and Halliwell, taking the edition of 1602 as a faithful, though perhaps surreptitious, copy of the play as then written, date “the original sketch” as far back as 1592 or 1593. In proof of this they urge what passes between Sir Hugh Evans, "mine Host de Jarterre," and Dr. Caius respecting “a duke de Jarmany; ” because in 1592 a German duke actually did travel in England, with such special privileges and accommodations as are indicated in the play. Mr. Knight's argument runs thus : “ Now, if we knew that a real German duke had visited Windsor, (a rare occurrence in the days of Elizabeth,) we should have the date of the comedy pretty exactly fixed. The circumstance would be one of those local and temporary allusions which Shakespeare seized upon to arrest the attention of his audience. We have before us a narrative, printed in the old German language, of the journey to England of the Duke of Wurtemburg in 1592 ; which narrative, drawn up by his secretary, contains a daily journal of his proceedings. He was accompanied by a considerable retinue, and travelled under the name of “ The Count Mombeliard."
From the resemblance of this to Garmomble, an apparent anagram of Mumpelgart, which occurs in the copy of 1602, Mr. Knight justly infers the identity of the person. Yet the force of his reasoning is not altogether apparent, as it proceeds by a very uncertain measure between the date of an event alluded to and the date of the allusion itself. Surely, in proportion to the rareness of an occurrence and the sensation it caused, it would naturally be remembered and remarked upon afterwards : nor is it easy to see how so rare and remarkable a thing as Mr. Halliwell represents this to have been, was “ a matter to be forgotten in 1601.” Shakespeare's “local and temporary allusions," be it observed, were not merely for novelty and popularity, or used as ear-catchers to his audience; but for whatsoever matter he saw in them that could be made to serve the general purposes of art : and that the thing in question would not so soon be spoilt for his use, appears in the interest it has for us; and would have, even if we had never heard of any such event occurring in his time.
In further proof of his point Mr. Knight alleges several passages from the finished play, which are not found in the "original sketch,” and which apparently refer to things occurring after the supposed date of that sketch. But all such arguments are at once nonsuited by the supposition, which, to say the least, is a probable one, that the edition of 1602 was not from a faithful transcript, however obtained, of an unfinished play, but from a copy fraudulently taken down and made up by unskilful reporters.
There appears no good reason, therefore, but that The Merry Wives of Windsor may have been written after Henry IV., the First Part of which was first published in 1598, and probably comic
written the year before : that it was written earlier than 1596, nobody pretends. And that The Merry Wives had not been heard of in 1598, is further probable from its not being mentioned by Meres in his Wit's Treasury, which came out that year ; for, his purpose being to approve Shakespeare “the most excellent among the English in both” comedy and tragedy, it seems rather unlikely that he would have passed by so apt a document of power,
had it been known. A deal of perplexity has been gotten up as to the time of the action in this play ; that is, in what period of his life Falstaff undertook the adventures at Windsor, whether before or after his exploits represented in Henry IV., or at some intermediate time: questions scarce worth the discussing or even the raising, but that it would hardly do to ignore a thing about which there has been so much ado. Much of this perplexity seems to have risen from confounding the order in which the several plays were made, with the order of the events described in them. Now, at the close of Henry IV. Falstaff and his companions are banished the neighbourhood of the Court, “till their conversations appear more wise and modest to the world;" and near the opening of Henry V., which follows hard upon the close of the former play, we have an account of Falstaff's death. And because The Merry Wives of Windsor was probably written after both those plays, therefore the Poet has been thought by some to have ventured upon the questionable experiment of bringing Sir John and two of his followers upon the stage after their death; just as though one could not write the latter part of a man's life, and tell the story of his last hours, and then go back and give the history of his boyhood and youth, without breaking the sacred peace of the grave. That the exploits at Windsor were before those at Gadshill, Eastcheap, and Shrewsbury, in the order of time, is shown by Mrs. Quickly's progress; who in the Merry Wives is a maiden and the housekeeper of Dr. Caius; but in the other plays she has become a wife, though still Quickly; then she dwells awhile in widowhood, until, the sweetness of her former marriage having taught her better than to live out of wedlock, “ she taketh to herself another mate.” And the sanie thing is further shown in Falstaff's fearing lest the noise of his shames should come to the ears of the Court; which fear could hardly be, but that he still have something there to lose : for he seems not to be aware how completely his genius in other exigencies will triumph over his failures in love-making. Nevertheless, it must be owned that the Poet, probably because the subject never occurred to him, or because he sometimes lost the historical order of things in an overmastering sense of art, did not in all cases take care to shun such anachronisms as criticism hath delighted to find in his plays. Perhaps it should be observed in this connection, that the two parts Henry IV. cover a period ten and a half years, from the battle of Homildon, Sept. 1402, to the death of the King, March, 1413; in which time Falstaff doubtless had intervals of leisure for such adventures as those at Windsor. So that the action of the Comedy, supposing it were not before, might well enough have taken place some time during, the action of the History. And if the former seem too early a date for the mention of “ the wild Prince and Poins ; " it would be considered that the Poet represents the Prince as already noted for his loose and idle courses, his connection with the rioters of Eastcheap having begun even before his father reached the throne.
For the plot and matter of The Merry Wives, Shakespeare was apparently little indebted to any thing but his own invention. “ The Two Lovers of Pisa," a tale borrowed from the novels of Straparola, and published in Tarlton's “ Newes out of Purgatorie," 1590, is thought to have suggested some of the incidents; and the notion scems probable enough. In that Tale a young gallant falls in love with a jealous old doctor's wife, who is also young, and really encourages the unlawful passion. The gallant, not knowing the doctor, takes him for confidant and counsellor in the prosecution of his suit, and is thus thwarted in all his plans. The naughty wife conceals her lover first in a basket of feathers, then between the ceilings of a room, and again in a box of deeds and valuable papers. If the Poet had any other obligations, they have not been traced clearly enough to be worth the mentioning.
As a specimen of pure comedy, The Merry Wives of Windsor by general concession stands unrivalled; the play being not only replete with the most ludicrous situations and predicaments, but surpassingly rich both in quality and variety of comic characterization. To say nothing of Falstaff, who is an inexhaustible storehouse of laughter-moving preparations, there is comic matter enough in the other persons to keep the world in perpetual laughter. Though historically connected with the reign of Henry IV., the play is otherwise a delineation of the manners and humours of the Poet's time : in which view we need but compare it with Ben Jonson's Every Man in His Humour, great as is the latter, to see “ how much easier it was to vanquish the rest of Europe than to contend with Shakespeare.”
The action of this play proceeds throughout by intrigue; meaning thereby such a complication of cross-purposes and conflicting aims, wherein the several persons strive to outwit and circumvent one another. And the stratagems all have the appropriate merit of causing a grateful surprise, and a perplexity that interests because it stops short of confusion; while the awkward and grotesque predicaments, into which the persons throw each other by their crossplottings and counter-plottings, are often a source of exquisite diversion. The play finely illustrates, moreover, though in its own peculiar line, the general order and method of Shakespeare's art; the surrounding parts falling in with the central one, and the subordinate plots drawing, as by a hidden impulse, into harmony with the lead
ing one: if Falstaff be doomed to repeated collapses from a hero into a butt, that others may laugh at him instead of with him, the Welch Parson and French Doctor are also defeated of their revenge, just as they are getting over the preliminary pains and vexations, and while pluming themselves with forthcoming honours are suddenly deplumed into “ vlouting-stogs ;” Page and his wife no sooner begin to exult in their success than they are taken down by the thrift of a counter-stratagem, and left to the double shame of ignobly failing in a disreputable undertaking ; and Ford's jealousy is made to scourge him with the very whip he has twisted for the scourging of its object. Thus all the more prominent characters have to chew the ashes of disappointment in turn, their plans being thwarted, and themselves made ridiculous, just as they are on the point of grasping their several fruitions. But Falstaff is the only one of them that rises by falling and extracts grace out of his very disgraces. For in him the grotesque and ludicrous is evermore laughing and chuckling over itself: he makes comedies extempore out of his own shames and infirmities; and is himself the most delighted spectator of the side-shaking scenes where himself figures as chief actor.
This observation and enjoyment of the comical as exhibited in himself, which forms perhaps the leading characteristic of Sir Jobn, and explains much in him that were else inexplicable, is here seen, however, labouring under something of an eclipse. The truth is, Falstaff is plainly out of his sphere; and he shows a sad want of his usual sagacity and good sense in getting into it, - in supposing for a moment that he could inspire such a passion in such a place : nor does it seem probable that the Poet would have exhibited him thus, but that he were moved thereto by somewhat else than the native promptings of his genius. For of love in any right or respectable sense Sir John is essentially incapable; and to represent him otherwise, had been to contradict, not carry out, his character. Shakespeare doubtless understood this; and, being thus reduced to the alternative of committing a gross breach of decorum or of making the hero unsuccessful, the moral sanity of his genius left him no choice. Accordingly Sir John is here conspicuous not so much for what he practises as for what is practised upon him ; he being, in fact, the dupe and victim of his own heroism, and provoking laughter more by that he suffers than by that he does. So that the internal evidence of the play strongly favours the tradition of the Queen's requesting to see Falstaff in love; as such request affords the only clear solution of the Poet's representing one who was plainly a favourite with him in so unsuitable a quality. For, if we may believe Hazlitt, “ wits and philosophers seldom shine in that character;" and, whether this be true or not, it is certain that “ Sir John by no means comes off with flying colours."
But Falstaff, notwithstanding these drawbacks, is still so far him.