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In 1582 Whetstone published his Heptameron of Civil Discourses, containing a prose version of the same tale. He was a writer of learning and talent, but not such that even the instruc. tions of Shakespeare could have made him capable of dramatic excellence; and, as he had no such benefit, bis performance, as might be expected, is insipid and worthless enough. It is observable that he deviates most from Cinthio in managing to bring Andrugio off alive; and from Shakespeare's concurring with him herein it may be fairly inferred that the borrowings were from him, not from the original author. The Poet, moreover, represents the illicit meeting of Claudio and Juliet as taking place un. der the shield of a solemn betrothment; which very much sofiens their fault, as marriage bonds were already upon them, and proportionably heightens the injustice of Angelo, as it brings upon him the guilt of making the law responsible for his own arbitrary rigour. Beyond this outline of the story, it does not appear that Shakespeare took any thing from Whetstone more than a few slight hints and casual expressions. And a comparison of the two performances were very far from abating the Poet's fame; it being more creditable to have listed the story out of the mire into such a region of art and poetry than to have invented it. The main original feature in the plot of Measure for Measure is the part of Mariana, which puts a new life into the whole, and purifics it almost into another nature; as it prevents the soiling of Isabella's holy womanhood, suggests an apt reason for the Duke's mysterious conduct, and yields a pregnant motive for Angelo's par. don, in that his life is thereby bound up with that of a wronged and innocent woman, whom his crimes are made the occasion of restoring to her rights and happiness, so that her virtue may be justly allowed to reprieve him from death.
In the comic scenes of Whetstone's play there is all the grossness of Measure for Measure, unredeemed by any thing that the utmost courtesy of language can call wit or humour : here, as Shakespeare took no help, so he can have no excuse, from his predecessor. But he probably saw that some such matter was required by the scheme of the work and the laws of artistic proportion ; and as in these parts the truth and character are all his own, so he can scarce be blamed for not anticipating the delicacy of later times, there being none such in the most refined audiences of his day: and his choice of a subject so ugly in itself is amply justified by the many sweet lessons of virtue and wisdom which he has used it as an opportunity of delivering. To have trained and taught a barbarous tale of cruelty and lust into such a rich mellow fruitage of poetry and humanity, may be safely left to offset whatsoever of offence there may be in the play to modern
Perhaps the hardest thing to digest is the conduct of Angelo, as being too improbable for a work of art or fiction ; though history has recorded several instances substantially the same, - of which probably the most familiar to English and American ears is that of Colonel Kirke, a lewd and inhuman minion of James II., whose crimes, however, did not exclude him from the favour of William III.
We have already referred to certain characteristics of style and temper which this play shares with several others written about the same period, and which have been thought to mark some crisis in the Poet's life. It cannot well be denied that the plays in question have something of a peculiar spirit, which might aptly suggest that some rude uncivil shock must have untuned the mel. ody of his soul; that some passage of bitter experience must have turned the sweet milk of his genius for a time into gall, and put him upon a course of harsh and ungentle thought. The matter is well stated by Mr. Hallam : “ There seems to have been a period of Shakespeare's life when his heart was ill at ease, and ill con. tent with the world or his own conscience: the memory of hours misspent, the pang of affection misplaced or unrequited, the experience of man's worser nature, which intercourse with ill-chosen associates peculiarly teaches; these, as they sank down into the depths of his great mind, seem not only to have inspired into it the conception of Lear and Timon, but that of one primary character, the censurer of mankind. This type is first seen in the philosophic melancholy of Jaques, gazing with an undiminished serenity. and with a gayety of fancy, though not of manners, on the follies of the world. It assumes a graver cast in the exiled Duke of the same play, and one rather more severe in the Duke of Measure for Measure. In all these, however, it is merely a contemplative philosophy. In Hamlet this is mingled with the impulses of a perturbed heart under the pressure of extraordinary circumstances; it shines no longer, as in the former characters, with a steady light, but plays in fitful coruscations amid feigned gayety and extravagance. In Lear, it is the flash of sudden inspiration across the incongruous imagery of madness; in T'imon, it is obscured by the exaggerations of misanthropy.”. Mr. Ver. planck speaks in a similar strain of “that portion of the author's life which was memorable for the production of Othello, with all its bitter passion ; the additions to the original Hamlet, with their melancholy wisdom; probably of Timon, with his indignant and hearty scorn, and rebukes of the baseness of civilized society; and above all of Lear, with its dark pictures of unmixed, unmiti. gated guilt, and its terrible and prophet-like denunciations."
These words certainly carry much weight, and may go far to warrant the suggestion of the same authors, that the Poet was visited with some external calamity, which wrought itself into his moral frame; some assault of fortune, that wrenched his mind from its once smooth and happy course, causing it to recoil upon itself and brood over its own thoughts. Yet there are considerable difficulties besetting a theory of this kind. For there is no proof that Timon, but much that Twelfth Night, was written dur. ing the period in question : besides, even in the plays referred to there is so much of unquestionable difference blended with the acknowledged likeness, as will greatly embarrass, if not quite defeat, such a theory. But whatsoever may have caused the peculiar tone, the darker cast of thought, in these plays, it is pleasing to know that that darkness passed away; the clear azure, soft sunshine, and serene sweetness of The Tempest and The Winter's Tale being unquestionably of a later date. And surely, in the life of so thoughtful a man as Shakespeare, there might well be, nay, there must needs have been, times when, without any special woundings or bruisings of fortune, his mind got fascinated by the awful mystery, the appalling presence of evil that haunts our fallen nature.
That these hours, however occasioned, were more frequent at one period of his life than at others, is indeed probable. And it was equally natural that their coming should sometimes engage him in heart-tugging and brain-sweating efforts to scrutinize the inscrutable workings of human guilt, and thus stamp itself strongly upon the offspring of his mind. Thus, without any other than the ordinary progress of thoughtful spirits, we should naturally have a middle period, when the early enthusiasm of hope and successful endeavour had passed away, and before the deeper, calmer, but not less cheerful tranquillity of resignation had set in, the experienced insufficiency of man for himself having charmed the wrestlings of thought into repose, and his spirit having undergone the chastening and subduing power of life's sterner discipline.
In some such passage as this, then, we should rather presume the unique conception of Measure for Measure to have been wrought up in his mind. We say unique, because this is his only instance of comedy where the wit seems to foam and sparkle up from a fountain of bitterness; where even the humour is made pungent with sarcasm; and where the poetry is marked with tragic austerity. In none of his plays does he exhibit less of leaning upon preëxisting models, or a more manly negligence, perhaps sometimes carried to excess, of those lighter graces of manner which none but the greatest minds may safely despise. His genius is here out in all its colossal individuality, and he seems to have meant it should be so; as if he felt that he had now reached his mastership; as if a large experience and long testing of his powers had taught him a just self-reliance, and given him to know that, from being the offspring, he was to become the soul of his age; that from his accumulated and well-practised learnings he had built up a power to teach still nobler lessons; so that, instead of leaning any longer upon those who had gone before, he was to be himself a safe leaning-place for those that were to follow.
Accordingly, if we here miss something of what Wordsworth finely calls
6 That monumental grace Of Faith, which doth all passions tame
That Reason should control,
A statue of the soul ;”
- yet we have the wise though fearless grapplings and strugglings of mind with thoughts too big for human mastery, whereby the imperfection was in due time to be outgrown. The thought is strong, and in its strength careless of appearances, and rather wishing than fearing to have its roughnesses seen : the style is rugged, irregular, abrupt. sometimes running into an almost forbidding sternness, but every where throbbing with life;
the words, direct of movement, sudden and sure of result, always going right to the spot, and leaving none of their work undone : with but little of elaborate grace or finish, we have a few bold, deep strokes, where the want of finer softenings and shadings is more than made up by increased energy and expressiveness : often a rush and flood of thought is condensed and rammed into a line or clause, so that the life thereof beats and reverberates through the whole scene. Hence, perhaps, it is, in part, that so many axioms and « brief sententious precepts ” of moral and political wisdom from this play have wrought themselves into the currency and familiarity of household words, and live for instruction or comfort in the memory of many who know nothing of their original source.
Whether from the nature of the subject, or the mode of treating it, or both, Measure for Measure is generally regarded as one of the least attractive, though most instructive, of Shakespeare's plays. Coleridge, in those precious fragments of his critical lectures, which now form our best text-book of English criticism,
This play, which is Shakespeare's throughout, is to me the inost painful — say rather, the only painful — part of his genuine works. The comic and tragic parts equally border on the ulontóv, — the one being disgusting, the other horrible ; and the pardon and marriage of Angelo not merely baffles the strong indignant claims of justice, (for cruelty, with lust and damnable baseness, cannot be forgiven, because we cannot conceive them as being morally repented of ;) but it is likewise degrading to
This language, though there is much in other critics to bear it out, seems not a little stronger than the subject will fairly justity; and when, in his Table Talk, he says that “ Isabella herself contrives to be unamiable, and Claudio is detestable,” we can by no means go along with him.
It would seem indeed as if undue censure had often passed, not so much on the play itself, as upon some of the persons, from trying them by a moral standard which cannot be fairly applied to them, as they are not supposed to have any means of knowing it; or from not duly weighing all the circumstances, feelings, and motives under which they are represented as acting. Thus Ulrici speaks of Claudio as being guilty of seduction : which is surely
wide of the mark; it being clear enough, that by the standard of morality then and there approved, he was, as he considered himself, virtually married, though not adınissible to all the rights of the married life; in accordance with what the Duke says to Mariana, that there would be no crime in her meeting with Angelo, because he was her “ husband on a pre-contract." And who does not know that, in ancient times, the ceremony of betrothment conferred the marriage tie, but not the nuptials, so that the union of the parties was thenceforth firm in the eyes of the law itself? Mr. Hallam, in like sort, speaking of Isabella, says, – -“ One is disposed to ask, whether, if Claudio had been really executed, the spectator would not have gone away with no great affection for her ; and at least we now feel that her reproaches against her miserable brother, when he clings to life like a frail and guilty being, are too harsh." In reply to the first part of which, we would venture to ask this accomplished critic whether she would not have suffered a still greater depreciation in his esteem, if she had yielded to Angelo's proposal. As to the second part, though we do indeed feel that Claudio were rather to be pitied than blamed, whatever course he had taken in so terrible an alternative, yet the conduct of his sister strikes us as every way creditable to her.
Her reproaches were indeed too harsh, if they appeared to spring from any want of love ; but as it is their very harshuess does her honour, as it shows the nitural workings of a tender and deep affection, in an agony of disappointment at being counselled, by one for whom she would die, lo an act which she shrinks from with noble horror, and justly regards as worse than death. We have here the keen anguish of conflicting feelings venting itself in a severity which, though certainly undeserved, only serves to disclose the more impressively the treasured riches of her character. And the same judicious writer, after stating that, without the part of Mariana, “ the story could not have had any thing like a satisfactory termination,” goes on, — " Yet it is never explained how the Duke had become acquainted with this secret, and, being acquainted with it, how he had preserved his esteem and confidence in Angelo." But surely we are given to understand in the outset that the Duke has not preserved the esteem and confidence in question. In his first scene with friar Thomas, among his reasons for the action he has on foot, he makes special mention of this
“ Lord Angelo is precise ;
thus inferring that his main purpose, in assuming the disguise of a monk, is to unmask the deputy, and demonstrate to others VOL. II.