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which they are involved, the one through his villainy and the other through his credulity. This ending of the story is more moving and dramatic than that which Shakespeare adopted, but if he had used it he would have changed a comedy of wit into an impressive melodrama.
The players of Shakespeare's time were as nomadic in instinct as their successors on the stage of to-day and, taking into consideration the conditions under which they lived, travelled almost as arduously. They visited Germany and the Low Countries, as they visited the English provincial towns and Scotland, and there is ground for believing that they went as far as Italy. During this period certain plays appeared in Germany which present resemblances in title or plots to contemporary plays by English writers, and certain similarities, interesting rather than important, have been pointed out between Jakob Ayrer's "Die Schoene Sidea" and "The Tempest," and some students think they have found resemblances between Ayrer's play with the appalling title of "A Mirror of Womanly Virtue and Honour. The Comedy of the Fair Phoenicia and Count Tymbri of Golison from Arragon, How it fared with them in their honourable love until they were united in marriage" and "Much Ado About Nothing."
Ayrer was a poor boy who found work in Nuremberg as an ironmonger, and after various experiments elsewhere became a person of some consequence and attained to official position in the old city, dying there in 1605. He took up playwriting as an avocation late in life and
wrote a great number of tragedies, comedies, and farces. These plays were probably written at the very time when Shakespeare was giving the world in rapid succession the series of plays which preceded the tragedies. A comparison of "The Fair Phoenicia" and "Much Ado About Nothing" shows only such similarities as might be expected to appear in two works which drew to a certain extent upon common material. There is ground for the inference that Jakob Ayrer was under English influence; there is practically no evidence that Shakespeare was under German influence. His debt in later years to German scholarship became great, but he owed very little to German suggestion and inspiration. Many signs point to the indebtedness of Ayrer to Belleforest; there is no evidence of any indebtedness of Shakespeare to Ayrer.
There is one other possible source of some of the incidents and characters in "Much Ado About Nothing." In certain accounts of moneys received and paid out by the Lord Treasurer Stanhope in 1612-1613 mention is made of a play entitled "Benedicte and Betteris." Shakespeare sometimes uses alliterative titles, and it has been assumed by some commentators that "Benedicte and Betteris" and "Much Ado About Nothing" were titles of the same play. Dr. Furness gives good ground for believing that there were two plays on the same subject, and several allusions in the play to events which took place before the opening scene support this conclusion and suggest the very reasonable supposition that while Bandello's novel was a principal source of "Much Ado About
Nothing" its nearer source was a drama of the conventional kind; crude, weak, and badly constructed, upon which Shakespeare wrought with the magic that turns dross into gold.
These are matters of curiosity; the real thing is the play as the great dramatist left it. We may well take a hint from his indifference to the sources of his plots and his supreme concern to shape the materials which came to his hand to the highest dramatic and poetic uses. The wrong done to Hero and the deception practised on Claudio evidently belonged to the common stock of incident upon which the dramatists and story-tellers of the time drew at will; that which belongs to Shakespeare is the very soul of the play: its firm coherence, its striking contrasts of character, its immortal clowns, and the flash of wit between Beatrice and Benedict. These brilliant personifications of the alertness, the finesse, the artificial wit of the close of the sixteenth century are the real actors in a comedy which is skilfully unfolded against a tragic background that the play of their minds, the clash of their wills, may gain distinctness against the darkness of a great wrong.
The malicious villainy of Don John, the weak credulity of Claudio, and the impenetrable stupidity of Dogberry and Verges are essential elements in the staging of this sparkling comedy. Don John is, as Coleridge pointed out, the mainspring of the plot, although he appears only at the moments when his intervention is necessary to keep the plot moving, and then promptly withdraws from the scene. Claudio is so faintly drawn and of such
feeble purpose that he is a lay figure in a drama which he does not influence, but in which some one is needed as credulous and ineffective as he; while the irresistible dulness of Dogberry and Verges makes the working out of the plot possible by failure to detect the villainy when its details were fully set forth in their hearing, and serves as a foil to the quick-witted brilliancy of Beatrice and Benedict. The two clowns are, in a way, the satirists of the verbal dexterity of Beatrice and Benedict; they are as skilful in the misuse of language as the chief figures in the play are adroit in forcing the note of far-fetched and often purely artificial association or contrast. The fooling of the clowns, by its delightful unconsciousness no less than by its humour, relieves the strain of the tragic element in the play and offsets the occasional forcing of language in which Beatrice and Benedict indulge themselves, after the manner of a time which took far greater liberties with language than any later period has dared to take.
While it is true that "Much Ado About Nothing" is essentially a comedy of wit and, therefore, less highly moralised and less definitely related to character than such a comedy as "Measure for Measure," it shows Shakespeare's hand in the clearness and delicacy of its portraiture. Hero is really a secondary figure and is as definitely subordinate to Beatrice as Claudio is to Benedict; but the few strokes with which she is drawn reveal, with beautiful art, her purity, her simplicity, her womanly power to find refuge in silence and patience. Beatrice, on the other hand, stands out with the distinctness of the
most brilliant portraits in the gallery of Shakespeare's women; quick in thought, audacious in speech, mistress of the art of repartee: the heart of the passionate woman reveals itself in her vehement advocacy of Hero, and her imperious command, "Kill Claudio," and in her sudden tenderness when she is persuaded that Benedict's raillery covers an ardent devotion.
The connections of the characters in "Much Ado About Nothing" have often been pointed out, and are significant as disclosing the advance of Shakespeare's art in insight and graphic power. The comedy marks the culmination of his creative skill in this kind of drama, and Hazlitt happily put its perfection into words when he said that "the middle point of comedy was never more nicely hit, in which the ludicrous blends with the tender, and our follies, turning round against themselves, in support of our affections, retain nothing but their humanity." If "Love's Labour's Lost" is a preliminary sketch of "Much Ado About Nothing," and Rosaline and Dull, the constable, are studies of Beatrice and Dogberry, the sense of Shakespeare's power of growth — one of the most marvellous of his many gifts-is deepened by the perception of his grasp of the vital connection between action and character and heightened by the realisation of his gain in command of the delicate and subtle resources of speech in which he worked. If Beatrice and Benedict recall Katharine and Petruchio, and a common tragedy of illegitimacy involves Don John and Edmund in "King Lear," these connections serve to bring out Shakespeare's wealth of resource rather than to suggest