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by the Watch to one "deformed, a vile thief this seven years" and "Amorphus, or the Deformed," who appears in Ben Jonson's "Cynthia's Revels," to discover in the lines
Made proud by Princes, that advance their pride
a thrust at Essex, whose failure in Ireland had been followed by loss of the royal favour and imprisonment, are more ingenious than convincing.
The date of the entry of the play and of its publication, and its affinities of mood and manner with " As You Like It" and "Twelfth Night," make it practically certain that it belongs to the group of comedies produced about 1599 and 1600, when Shakespeare's spirit was most buoyant and his genius most unshadowed. He had served his apprenticeship in dealing with the earlier historical plays and given unmistakable evidence of his mastery of his art in "Henry V," "Romeo and Juliet," and "The Midsummer Night's Dream"; the period of the tragedies was rapidly approaching, and there is evidence that the problems presented in "Hamlet" were already haunting his imagination; but between the period of his training and that of his greatest achievement there came a few years of serene and joyful fertility, when all the elements of his character and conditions were harmonious, and his creative genius worked freely and apparently without conscious effort in a world happily in tune with his spirit. In this golden weather, which sometimes lingers long
even in the most poetic careers and which often visits poets of Shakespeare's health of mind and soul, some of the finest fruit of the genius of comedy ripened and was gathered for the joy of all coming time. In the whole range of comedy there is no play in which the deeper and the gayer elements of life are so magically combined, in which freedom, vivacity, and purity are so exquisitely harmonised in a woman of captivating charm, the pathos and poignancy of expression so lightly but deeply touched with poetry, and the many-sided movement of life set against a background so fragrant and so free as in "As You Like It"; an Arcadia in which the sharp edge of adverse conditions cuts but gives no pain, and men feel the sting of care and change but are not embittered.
In all moods Shakespeare was keenly alive to those broad and fundamental contrasts between the possible greatness of a man's destiny and the perishing things with which he deals in his vocations, the fleeting illusions which he often follows with bleeding feet, the greatness of the things which he pursues with uncertain and half-hearted steps. The ironies of life, great and small, were always haunting him, and there is hardly a royal figure in the plays which does not bring home to us the pathos of the pomp and power which enfolds a frail mortal but cannot add to his strength, ward off the diseases which smite the meanest serf, or protect him from that death which knocks with impartial hand at the palaces of kings and the hovels of the poorest.
In Shakespeare's darker moods these contrasts deepened into tragedy; in his gayer and more harmonious
hours they caught the light of fantasy and were translated into the bewildering phantasmagoria of "A Midsummer Night's Dream," or were carried through vicissitudes that were often ominous of calamity to the happiest issues. The free hand of the great artist, who deals with his maХ terials with little regard for traditions but with profound feeling for their essential dramatic values, is everywhere at work in the comedies, and in none of them more conspicuously than in "Much Ado About Nothing." The play is perilously full of tragic forces and runs dangerously near the verge of catastrophe; but Shakespeare's grasp of his materials is so firm and his skill so magical that the movement of the comedy, introducing the baser and the gayer elements, the gloom of the most hopeless potential tragedy and the gaiety of the most audacious wit, is never for an instant uncertain or wandering, but bears steadfastly on to an issue which gains its deepest interest from the background of villainy and treachery against which it is accomplished. It was a piece of Shakespeare's audacity to fasten upon a plot which in more than one version had a tragic ending and in every version involved the blackest elements of character, and snatch from the peril inherent in his material the most moving element in a happy ending of the basest plot.
Much Ado About Nothing" is neither a play of charXacter nor of manners; it is a drama of wit; everything is subordinate and accessory to the flash and counter-flash of the minds of Beatrice and Benedict. The gentle Hero, the credulous Claudio, the villainous Don John, and the inimitably muddle-headed Dogberry and Verges play
their parts in order that the verbal interchange between Beatrice and Benedict may be effectively staged. But no drama of wit, however brilliantly constructed, can have deep rootage or dilate the imagination; such a drama must inevitably seem cold and artificial. "Much Ado About Nothing" does not move us because it subordinates the interest of character to the interest of brilliant verbal dexterity. It is the finest product of the verbal ingenuity and audacity of Shakespeare's time; a legitimate and brilliant example of a love of paradox, conceit, and hair-splitting juggling with words affected by the man of wit and fashion in that time and effectively satirised in "Love's Labour's Lost."
While it is true that we never at any moment fear a tragic issue in "Much Ado About Nothing" we are constantly in the presence of tragic motives and possibilities, X and some of the material which may have entered into the play was distinctly tragical in its earlier use and association. It is by no means certain that Shakespeare went to Ariosto for one incident in his comedy, the personation of Hero by her maid and the imposition practised on the too easily convinced lover; but in Carrington's translation of the "Orlando Furioso" he had ready access to the pathetic story of Rinaldo and Ginevra. The differences between Ariosto's story and the story of Hero and Claudio as Shakespeare tells it are, however, far more numerous and important than the similarities. Ariosto takes Scotland, Shakespeare Messina, as a background; in the story of Ginevra the motive for the villainy is Polynesso's love; in "Much Ado About Nothing" it is
the love of evil for its own sake in the soul of Don John. To a wide divergence of incident between the two versions must be added an entire change of the names of the dramatis personæ. In fact, there is nothing in common between Ariosto and Shakespeare, save the appearance at the window of a lady-in-waiting in the dress of her mistress and the consequent poisoning of an unsuspecting lover's mind; incidents which may have had a place in the gossip of Shakespeare's time.
The resemblances between " Much Ado About Nothing" and the twenty-second novella of Bandello, which had been retold in French by Belleforest in his Histoires Tragiques," are much more noticeable. The probabilities are that Shakespeare, like many men of his vocation and opportunities, had a reading knowledge of Italian; it is more than probable that he knew French; he may have found Bandello's story either in its original form or in Belleforest's very free rendering. That he had some acquaintance with it seems highly probable in view of the important similarities between the story of Hero and that of Fenecia. Messina is the scene of both stories, and in Bandello we find the personation of the heroine by her maid, the reluctant acceptance of the fact of unchastity by the despairing lover, the rejection of the victim of the conspiracy, her apparent death and secret restoration to life, her seclusion, the sham funeral and epitaph, the repentance of the villain, and his endeavour to persuade the despairing lover to kill him at the tomb of his victim, the generous forgiveness of the lover and the common grief of the two men over the tragic fate in