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towards desperation. Even his ancient hangers-on, Pistol, Nym and the rest, are quitting his service, as rats forsake a sinking ship. It is less under the impulse of passion that he goes a-wooing than under the constraint of impecuniosity: as he confesses himself, he makes love to Ford's wife, “because, the report goes, she hath all the rule of her husband's purse, and he hath a legion of angels”-an angel being a coin of the period. Mrs. Ford and her gossip, Mrs. Page, are merry wives, but as honest as they are merry. Falstaff has insulted them by sending to both an identical love-letter at the same time. But each, in her innocence, tells the other; and then they concoct together a scheme of revenge. Under pretence of encouraging him, they bring him to the house of Mrs. Ford, but only in time to be terrified by her husband, bursting-in to search for him with the town at his heels; so that Sir John, to save his skin, is glad to creep into a clothes-basket and be carried away out of the house as dirty linen. By which, says he, “I suffered the pangs of three several deaths : first, an intolerable fright, to be detected by the jealous husband; next to be compassed, like a good bilbo, in the circumference of a peck, hilt to point, heel to head; and then, to be stopped in, like a strong distillation, with stinking clothes, that fretted in their own grease. Think of that--a man of my kidney—think of that,
that am as subject to heat as butter—a man of continual dissolution and thaw-it was a miracle to escape suffocation. And in the height of this bath, when I was more than half stewed in grease, like a Dutch dish, to be thrown into the Thames, and cooled, glowing hot, in that surge, like a horse-shoe." One lesson was not enough for the hoary sinner; but the merry wives gave him as many as he required, being assisted in the final stages by their husbands, to whom they had communicated their secret; till at last, the fat knight was so thoroughly punished and humiliated that, as he himself affirmed, “it was enough to be the decay of lust and late walking through the realm”.
Another source of comedy of a dubious nature is Drunkenness; and the bacchanalian poetry of such an author as Burns shows what rollicking fun can be made out of it. Of this there is not much in Shakspeare's Comedies, though there is a good deal in the comic scenes of the Historical Plays. The Taming of the Shrew opens with what is called an Induction, in which Christopher Sly, a tinker, is discovered deaddrunk on a bench in front of an alehouse, by a hunting lord, who chances to be passing that way. The lord is in a merry mood, and has him carried into the best room of the house, where he is surrounded with every luxury and, when he awakes, is greeted by a host of servants, as if he were a lord. They inform him that he has just recovered from an illness, in which he
laboured under the hallucination that he was a tinker; but, being now happily restored to his senses, they urge him to realise his true position. One of the entertainments they provide for him is to witness the performance of a play; which turns out to be The Taming of the Shrew. This Induction is capitally written, and the fun is well kept up. In Twelfth Night there are some very hilarious drinking scenes, the principal hero of which is Sir Toby Belch, who makes the hours spin-by with singing of songs and drinking of healths. His apology for his conduct is, that he is drinking the health of the lady his niece, under whose protection he lives; and, says he, drink to her as long as there is a passage in my throat and drink in Illyria; he is a coward and a coistrel 1 that will not drink to my niece till his brains turn o' the toe like a parish-top”.
One more dubious subject of Comedy is Religion. Against it laughter may be directed; and it has not infrequently been. The temptation to do so was strong in Shakspeare's days, because Puritanism, which was coming into prominence, was not without certain peculiarities which invited ridicule. In Twelfth Night the house-steward Malvolio is called a Puritan; and he is unmercifully made a fool of by Sir Toby Belch and Maria, his sharp-witted coadjutrix. It is against him that Sir Toby's fam
1 Paltry fellow.
ous witticism is levelled: “Dost thou think, because thou art virtuous, there shall be no more cakes and ale?” But Malvolio's Puritanism is only mentioned incidentally; the pomposity of his manner and the ambition of his desires, against which the ridicule is directed, have nothing religious about them; and there is in this play no sneering at the habits of a religious life or attempt to prove—as was so common among playwriters of a later date—that a profession of religion is identical with hypocrisy.
I have enumerated the principal subjects from which the mirth of these Gayer Comedies is evoked; but such an enumeration is far from suggesting all the variety of material, of situation and character embraced. While laughter is their primary object, much matter of a serious and even tragic character is introduced. Thus in the Two Gentlemen of Verona we have a contest between the forces of friendship and those of love ; in As You Like It a most suggestive account of the comparative virtues of town and country life; and it would scarcely be too much to characterize A Midsummer Night's Dream as a great poetic discourse on the powers of the imagination. As the dramatist matures in the practice of his art, the development of character becomes more prominent and mere incident less conspicuous; thus the Comedy of
Errors, an early piece, is little better than a farce, while As You Like It, written eight years later, abounds with the subtlest analysis of character and at every step suggests meanings which do not lie upon the surface.
It would be easy, anywhere in these plays, to lift up handfuls of sayings wise, witty and perfectly expressed. Take a few collected almost at random This on Book-learning
Small have continual plodders ever won
Save base authority from others' books.
That give a name to every fixed star
they are. This on Word-mongers
They have been at a great feast of languages
and stolen the scraps.
This on Old Fools
The blood of youth burns not with such excess
As gravity's revolt to wantonness.
A jest's prosperity lies in the ear