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LOVE'S LABOUR'S LOST
THE GAYER COMEDIES
SHAKSPEARE made himself by the historical plays, and these form the true gateway into the world of his thought. But even earlier than the working of this enriching vein the composition of his earliest Comedies had begun; and, during the first half of his life as an author, the writing of historical plays and the making of comedies went on side by side. Indeed, the composition of comedies went on during his entire life as a dramatist; and the Comedies number nearly half of all his plays. The audience in a theatre wants primarily to be amused, and the dramatist has to give what the public asks. The Comedies formed part of the day's work which Shakspeare had to perform, although there is far less of the man himself in them than in the historical plays.
It is generally allowed that there is a marked contrast between the comedies of Shakspeare's earlier and those of his later life. The former are gayer, the latter graver ; and the date fixed upon as the watershed is the year 1600. Up to this date he wrote ten comedies, the names of which are printed on the opposite page, and these form the theme of the present chapter.
Among the learned there has been a great deal of discussion about what Comedy is; and the different theories are far from uninteresting; but, when we are dealing with Gayer Comedies, there can be little difficulty in determining what their object is. It is to excite laughter.
Man is said to be the only animal that can laugh ; and it is a precious privilege. As the Scripture says, "a merry heart doeth good like a medicine". It is a kind of piquant and titillating sauce, appointed by Nature to be taken along with the daily bread of work, which would otherwise be too dry and indigestible. It is a kind of sunshine, which imparts buoyancy to the step and prevents the journey of life from becoming too tedious. It is a power imparted to human beings in very varying degrees. As one of these Gayer Comedies says,
now, by two-headed Janus, Nature hath framed strange fellows in her timeSome that will evermore peep through their eyes And laugh like parrots at a bagpiper ; And others of such vinegar aspect, That they'll not show their teeth in way of smile, Though Nestor swear the jest be laughable.
To laugh well, however, requires a good deal of wisdom. It is possible to laugh too much-it doeth good, says Solomon, " like a medicine"—that is, when taken now and then, with plenty of work and other kinds of seriousness in between--but to feed on medicine would be a perilous experiment. Another secret of the wisdom of laughter lies in laughing at the right things and not at the wrong ones.
And we may take as the guide to the wisdom of Shakspeare in this part of his writings the question-What are the things at which he makes us laugh?
In these plays there are figures introduced which have been expressly created for the purpose of provoking laughter. These are the Fools, of whom Touchstone, in As You Like It, is perhaps the most distinguished. In the Age of Chivalry there was attached to the establishment of lords and ladies a professional fool, who wore motley and cap and bells. He'was a privileged character, who was allowed to say anything to anybody. He went about making jokes on the business of life, as a clown does on the business of a circus; but, if he happened to be a man of shrewdness and sense, he might be a true teacher, because he was permitted to utter unpalatable truths. As Shakspeare says, “he uses his folly like a stalking-horse, and, under the presentation of that, he shoots his wit". And elsewhere the poet says:
This fellow's wise enough to play the fool ;
The quality of persons, and the time;
"Full of labour” he calls the business of the fool; and it must be confessed that to us now at all events it is a laborious task to follow the fooling of these plays. It turns to a large extent on puns and other plays upon words, which no doubt were easily comprehended by the first hearers, but now require as much commenting as obscure passages in the classics. There are pages upon pages on which the light of wit must once have shone as brightly as the morning sunshine on the drops of dew; but time has rendered them as dry as sand and as opaque as clay. You may with great labour master every difficulty; but in nine cases out of ten the game is not worth the candle.
There are other figures on a level with the fools -such, for example, as the Men's Men. When a young gentleman goes forth from home on his travels, he is always accompanied by a confidential servant, who not only fetches and carries for him, and assists him in every kind of adventure, but also plays the fool for his amusement. Of these one or two, like the immortal Launce in the Two Gentlemen of Verona, who is always accompanied by his dog Crab, are still
1 Untrained hawk.