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"Let but Beatrice
And Benedicte be seene, loe in a trice The Cock-pit, Galleries, Boxes all are full."
The succeeding twenty years had other matters in hand than the seeing of plays, and this brilliant comedy would have given mortal offence to Puritan sensibilities and convictions. It fared hardly better at the hands of the theatre-loving public of the age of the Restoration. It was as brilliant as Congreve's "The Way of the World," which registers the high-water mark of the playwright's art in that gay, pleasure-loving period, and in play of wit it outshines
Congreve's masterpiece; but taste had changed, the play of intrigue had come in, a fuller and freer social life had put fresh and highly entertaining material in the dramatists' hands, and nothing saved "Much Ado About Nothing" from the fate which overtook most of the earlier comedies save one of those surgical operations so often performed by the skilful stage mechanics of the later seventeenth and of the eighteenth century, in the vain endeavour to make over a work of genius to the pattern beloved by a more artificial age. Sir W. Davenant combined the play with "Measure for Measure" in "The Law Against Lovers," and a contemporary writer expressed the optimistic opinion that the two had "wit enough in them to make one good play."
Modern readers and playgoers have not been slow to feel the extraordinary interest of this comedy of wit and to recognise its peculiarly happy expression of the mind of Shakespeare in his most prosperous period, the brief and brilliant years between his apprenticeship and his resolute grappling with the most appalling problems of character and experience, which bore fruit in the tragedies.
"Much Ado About Nothing" was entered in the "Stationers' Register” with “As You Like It,” “Henry the Fifth," and "Every Man in His Humour" on the fourth day of August, 1600. In the same year the play was published in the only Quarto Edition, with this record on the title-page: "Much Ado About | Nothing. | As it hath been sundries times publikely | acted by the right honourable, the Lord | Chamberlain his servants. |
Written by William Shakespeare. | London | Printed by V. S. for Andrew Wise, and | William Ashley. | 1600."
The records of the title-page and of the "Stationers' Register" furnish all the knowledge we possess regarding the date of the play. That it had been played before it was printed is evidenced not only by the statement on the title-page of the Quarto, but by its publication in that form. The Quarto publications, being surreptitious, followed public interest; they did not "create a market" for the plays; they made use of a market already created. The Quarto of "Much Ado About Nothing" has what Dr. Furness has happily called "a tidy little mystery of its own," which need not be discussed here; it is, however, a part of the record of the play that there is but one Quarto Edition and that the editors of the Folio Edition reprinted the text with only a few omissions and unimportant changes. No lines are to be found in the Folio which are not found in the Quarto. Mr. Dyce is of opinion that when the Folio differs from the Quarto it is mostly "for the worse," and Dr. Furness suggests that the copy of the Quarto which Heminge and Condell had before them in preparing the text of the Folio had been used as a prompt-book and contained fuller stage directions than appeared in the original form of the play.
There is no decisive evidence touching the exact date of the writing of the play, and the attempts to identify Beatrice's reference to "musty victuals" in the opening scene with the complaints of bad provisions furnished by contractors in the campaign of the Earl of Essex in Ireland in 1599, to trace a connection between the reference
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