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about Nothing, except in one instance, is every where so clear and well-settled as almost to foreclose controversy. That exception is the last verse of the Song in Act v. sc. 3; where the best result we can come to will be found in a note.
This play, as may be seen in our Introduction to The Two Gentlemen of Verona, is not in the list given hy Francis Meres in 1598. As Meres' purpose was to set forth the Poet's excellence in comedy, it is hardly to be supposed that he would have taken The Two Gentlemen of Verona and left Much Ado about Nothing, if the latter had then been known. This circumstance, there. fore, together with the publishing of the play in the latter part of 1600, sufficiently ascertains the probable date of the composition. Allowing time enough for a successful run upon the boards, and for such a growth of popularity as to invite a fraudulent publication, the play could scarce have been written after 1599, when the Poet was in his thirty-fifth year.
As in many other of our Author's plays, a part of the plot and story of Much Ado about Nothing was borrowed. But the same matter had been borrowed so many times before, and run into so many variations, that we cannot affirm with certainty to what source Shakespeare was immediately indebted. Mrs. Lenox, indeed, characteristically instructs us, that the Poet here" borrowed just enough. to show his poverty of invention, and added enough to prove his want of judgment :” and this choice dropping of criticism, like many others vouchsafed by her learned ladyship, is too wise, if not too womanly, to need any comment from us, save that the Poet can better afford to have such things said, than the sayer can to have them repeated.
Pope says. — “ The story is taken from Ariosto.” And so much of it as relates to Hero, Claudio, and John, certainly bears a strong resemblance to the tale of Ariodante and Genevra, which occupies the whole of the fifth and part of the sixth books of Ariosto's Orlando Furioso. A translation of this part of the poem by Peter Beverly was licensed for the press in 1565; and Warton tells us it was reprinted in 1600 ; which is of some consequence, as suggesting that Shakespeare's play may have had something to do with the republication. An English version of Ariosto's whole poem, by Sir John Harrington, came out in 1591 ; but Much Ado about Nothing yields no traces of the Author's having been with Sir John. And indeed the fixing of any obligations in this quarter is the more difficult, forasmuch as the same matter appears to have been borrowed by Ariosto himself. For the story of a lady betrayed to peril and disgrace by the personation of her waiting-woman was an old European tradition : it has been traced to Spain; and Ariosto interwove it with the adventures of Rinaldo, as yielding an apt od sion his ivalrous heroism. An outline of the story as told by Ariosto is thus given by Mr. Knight:
“ The Lady Genevra, so falsely accused, was doomed to die,
unless a true knight came within a month to do battle for her hon
Her lover, Ariodante, hard fled, and was reported to have perishe l. The wicked duke, Polinesso, who had betrayed Genevra, appears secure in his treachery. But the misguided woman, Dalinda, who had been the instrument of his crime, flying from her paramour, meets with Rinaldo, and declares the truth. Then comes the combat, in which the guilty duke is slain by the champion of imiocence, and the lover reappears to be made happy with his spotless princess."
From which it will be seen at once that the Polinesso of the poem answers to the John of the play. But there is this important difference, that the motive of the former in vilifying the lady is to drive away her lover, that he may have her himself; whereas the latter acts from a self-generated malignity of spirit that tahes pleasure in blasting the happiness of others without any hope of supplanting them.
Spenser, whose genius sucked in whatsoever was rich and rare in all the resources that learning could accumulate, seems to have followed Ariosto in working the same tale into the variegated structure of his great poem : but the Englishman so used it as to set forth a high moral lesson ; the Italian, to minister opportunity for a romantic adventure. The story of Phedon, relating the treachery of his false friend Philemon, is in Book ii. Canto 4 of the Faery Queene.
The same story also forms the groundwork of one of Bandello's novels; and Mr. Skottowe's brief analysis of that tale will indicate the most probable source of Shakespeare's borrowings :
“ Fenicia, the daughter of Lionato, a gentleman of Messina, is betrothed to Timbreo de Cardona. Girondo, a disappointed lover of the young lady, resolves, if possible, to prevent the marriage. He insinuates to Timbreo that his mistress is disloyal, and oilers to show hin a stranger scaling her chamber window. Timbvreo accepts the invitation, and witnesses the hired servant of Girondo, in the dress of a gentleman, ascending a ladder and entering the house of Lionato. Stung with rage and jealousy, Timbreo the next morning accuses his innocent mistress to her father, and re. jects the alliance. Fenicia sinks in a swoon ; a dangerous illness succeeds; and to stifle all reports injurious to her fame, Lionato proclaims that she is dead. Her funeral rites are performed in Messina, while in truth she lies concealed in the obscurity of a country residence.
• The thought of having occasioned the death of an innocent and lovely female strikes Girondo with horror ; in the agony of remorse he confesses his villany to Timbreo, and they both throw themselves on the mercy, and ask forgiveness, of the insulted family of Fenicia. On Timbreo is imposed only the penance of espousing a lady whose face he should not see previous to his marriage : instead of a new bride, whom he expected, he is presented, at the nuptial altar, with his injured and beloved Fe. nicia."
How Shakespeare could have come to the knowledge of Bandello's novel, unless through the original, is not easy to explain ; no translation of so early a date having been preserved. Which is probably the cause why the critics have been so unwilling to trace him to this source; as it did not suit their theory to allow that he had learning enough to read a simple tale in what was then the most generally-studied language of Europe.
This account of the matter, if it do no more, may serve to show, what is so often shown elsewhere, that in his borrowing of stories Shakespeare seems to have preferred such as were most received into the common circulation of thought, and most familiar to his audience, that he might have some tie of association to draw and hold their minds to the deep lessons of beauty and wisdom which he was ever pouring forth from himself. And surely much less of insight than he possessed might have taught him, that men are apt to study for novelty in proportion as they lack originality; and that where the latter abounds the former may be rather a hindrance than a help.
This placing of the main interest in something higher and better than any mere plot or story can be, is well stated by Coleridge : “ The interest in the plot is on account of the characters, not vice versa, as in almost all other writers; the plot is a mere canvas, and no more. Take away from Much Ado about Nothing all that is not indispensable to the plot, either as having little to do with it, or, like Dogberry and his comrades, forced into the service, when any other less ingeniously-absurd watchmen and night-constables would have answered the mere necessities of the action; take away Benedick, Beatrice, Dogberry, and the reaction of the former on the character of Hero, - and what will remain ? In other writers the main agent of the plot is always the prominent character: John is the mainspring of the plot in this play; but he is merely shown, and then withdrawn."
We have already seen from the external evidence that Much Ado about Nothing was probably written in or near the author's thirty-fifth year. And it requires no great perspicacity to see from the play itself that it naturally falls somewhere in the middle period of his productive years. The style, like that of Twelfth Night, is sustained and equal; easy, natural, and modest in dress and bearing ; every where alive indeed with the exhilaration of wit, or humour, or poetry, but without the labored smoothness of his earlier plays, or the penetrating energy and quick, sinewy movement of his later ones. Compared with some of its predecessors, the play shows a decided growth in what may be termed virility of mind : a wider scope, a higher reach, a firmer grasp, have been attained : the Poet's faculties have manifestly been feeding upon tonics, and inhaling invigoration : he has come to read nature less through “ the spectacles of books," and does not hesitate to meet her face to face, and trust and try himself alone with her. The result of all which appears in a greater freshuess and reality of characterization: there being less of a certain dim, equivocal hearsay air about the persons; as if his mind, having outgrown its recollected terms and bookish generalities, had plunged into living intercourse with surrounding life, where his personal observation and experience are blossoming up into poctry and going to seed in philosophy.
Msich Ado about Nothing has great variety of interest, now running into the most grotesque drollery, now rising into an almost tragic dignity, now revelling in the most sparkling brilliancy. Its excellences, however, both of plot and of character are rather of the striking sort, involving little of the hidden beauty which shows just enough on the surface to invite a diligent search, and then overpays all the labour it costs. The play, accordingly, has always been very effective on the stage. — The characters of Hero and Claudio, though rather beautiful than otherwise in their simplicity and uprightness, offer no very salient points, and are indeed nowise extraordinary: they derive their interest mainly from the events that befall them; the reverse of which is generally true of Shakespeare's plays. One can scarce help thinking, that had the course of love run smooth with them, its voice, even if audible, had been hardly worth the hearing. Hero, indeed, is altogether gentle and womanly in her ways, and she offers a rather sweet, inviting nestling-place for the fireside affections; and there is something very pathetic and touching in her situation when she is stricken down in mute agony by the tongue of slander. - That Claudio should lend his ear to the poisonous breathings of one whose spirits are known to “ toil in frame of villanies,” is no little impeachment of his temper, or his understanding; and the preparing us for this, by representing him as falling into a fit of jealousy towards the Prince, is a fine instance of the Poet's skill and care in small matters. A piece of conduct, which the circumstances do not explain, is explained at once by thus disclosing a slight predisposition to jealousy in the subject. In keeping with this part of his behaviour, Claudio's action every where smacks of the soldier : he shows all along both the faults and the virtues of his calling; is sensitive, rash, “ quick in quarrel," and as quick in reconciliation; and has a sort of unreflective spontaneousness about him, that is only not so good as a chastened discretion and a firm, steady self-control. This accounts very well for his sudden running into a match, which in itself looks more like a freak of fancy than a resolution of love ; while the same suddenness on the side of the more calm, discreet, and patient Hero, is accounted for by the intervention of the Prince, and the sway he might justly have over her thoughts. - Critics have unnecessarily found fault with the Poet for the character of John, as if it lay without the circum
ference of truth and nature. They would apparently prefer the more commonplace character of a disappointed rival in love, whose guilt might be explained away into a pressure of violent motives. But Shakespeare saw deeper into human character; and perhaps his wisest departure from the original story is in making John a moody, sullen, envious rascal, who joys at others' pain, is pained at others' joy, and gloats over his power in working mischief ; thus exemplifying in a smaller figure the same innate, spontaneous malice which towers into such a stupendous height of wickedness in Iago. We may well reluct to believe in the fact of such characters; but history is unhappily too full of deeds and plots that cannot be otherwise accounted for; nor need we go far to learn that men may “ spin motives out of their own bowels; " and that the man often has more to do in shaping the motive than the motive in determining the man.
Ulrici, regarding the play as setting forth the contrast between life, as it is in itself, and as it seems to those engaged in its struggle, looks upon Dogberry as embodying the whole idea of the piece. And, sure enough, the impressive insignificance of his action to the lookers-on is equalled only by its stuffed importance to himself: when he is really most absurd and ridiculous, precisely then it is that he feels most confident and grave; the irony that is rarisied into wit and poetry in the other characters being thus condensed into the broadest humour and drollery in him. The German critic, however, is not quite right in thinking that his blundering garrulity brings to light the infernal plot; as it rather keeps it in the dark : he is too fond of hearing himself talk to make known what he has to say, in time to do any good ; and amidst his huge struttings and tumblings of mind the truth leaks out at last in spite of him. The part was imitated by other dramatists of the time; which shows it to have been a decided hit on the stage; and perhaps the Poet has evinced something of an author's weakness in attempting a repetition of Dogberry under the name of Elbow in Measure for Measure. But even Shakespeare himself could not make an imitation come up to his own original.
The good repute of Benedick and Beatrice has been greatly perilled by their wit. But it is the ordinary lot of persons so wise as they, to suffer under the misconstructions of prejudice or partial acquaintance; their wisdom augmenting the difficulty of coming to a true knowledge of them. How dangerous it is to be so gifted that way, may be seen by the impression these persons have had the ill luck to make on one whose good opinion is so desirable as Campbell's. He says,
,-“ During one half of the play, we have a disagreeable female character in that of Beatrice. Her portrait, I may be told, is deeply drawn, and minutely finished. It is; and so is that of Benedick, who is entirely her counterpart, except that he is less disagreeable.” A little after, he pronounces Beatrice “an odious woman.” We are sorry so tasteful and