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Thus the first source of Shakspeare's comedy may be said to be Words—words used by those who can make them into playthings and words mastering others and making them ridiculous. For language is a strange thing: it is like a steed, which, when it has its master on its back, can be made to show the prettiest paces, but is able to unship the unskilful rider, who tries to mount, and send him sprawling in the mire. Language is the poet's own instrument: and Shakspeare knew all its possibilities.
Another source of his comedy—and a still more copious one—is Love. This, indeed, is the subject of which all these plays are full. It appears in an endless variety of forms; and over everyone of them there shimmers the iridescence of mirth.
Shakspeare's very first comedy-Love's Labour's Lost -has for its hero Ferdinand, King of Navarre, who, along with his three lords—Biron, Longaville and Dumain-has vowed to devote three years to books and study and never during this period to look upon a woman's face. All the arrangements are made, the precincts of the palace being strictly garrisoned against the access of the other sex, when it is remembered that the Princess of France is coming on business of state, which will brook no delay. A temporary suspension of the rules, therefore, becomes inevitable; and
the Princess, accompanied by her three attendantsRosaline, Maria and Katharine-pitches her tent on a flowery meadow outside the gates. The sequel may be easily guessed.
The four ascetic students fall desperately in love ; each of them tries to hide it from the rest; but they all find each other out in the most amusing way; and four marriages are imminent at the close; though the ladies prescribe a year of delay, that their forsworn lovers may do penance for their broken vows.
This fable will strike some readers as familiar, even if they have not read Love's Labour's Lost. borrowed by Tennyson as the plot of The Princess ; and this circumstance will afford any young student who may wish to test his critical abilities the opportunity of comparing two great poets.
Shakspeare's treatment is full of spirit and "go" from beginning to end. It is especially remarkable for one very strong character-Biron, one of the King's companions. He is full of sardonic mirth, shrewd criticism of life, and self
mockery; he reminds one not a little of one of Thackeray's finest charactersPendennis's friend, George Warrington-and, indeed, one would surmise that in him we have a good deal of Shakspeare himself. He divines from the first the hollowness of the resolution of the Prince and his companions; he is the first to confess to himself that he has been pierced by the shaft of love; in fact, he
acts as the chorus of the play all through; and at the close he sums up the truth of the whole: Consider what
first did swear untoTo fast, to study, and to see no womanFlat treason 'gainst the kingly state of youth. Say, can you fast? Your stomachs are too young, And abstinence engenders maladies. And, where that you have vowed to study, lords, Why, universal plodding prisons up The nimble spirits in the arteries. But love, first learned in a lady's eyes, Lives not alone immured in the brain But, with the motion of all elements, Courses as swift as thought in every power And gives to every power a double power, Above their functions and their offices. It adds a precious seeing to the eyeA lover's eyes will gaze an eagle blind; A lover's ear will hear the lowest sound When the suspicious head of theft is stopped ; Love's feeling is more soft and sensible Than are the tender horns of cockled snails; Love's tongue proves dainty Bacchus gross in taste; For valour-is not love a Hercules, Still climbing trees in the Hesperides? Subtle as Sphinx ; as sweet and musical As bright Apollo's lute, strung with his hair. And, when love speaks, the voice of all the gods
Makes heaven drowsy with the harmony.
This omnipotence of love, to conquer the most recalcitrant, is illustrated again in Much Ado About Nothing, where Benedick, on the one hand, is as resolved to be a bachelor as Beatrice, on the other, is to die a maid; yet Nature, assisted by a little pleasant deception on the part of their friends, easily forces them beneath the golden yoke.
Love is, indeed, a serious enough matter, and some may be indignant that it should form a theme for laughter. Yet it has its ludicrous aspects; and at these there is no harm in laughing.
Its signs, or marks, for example. These are given in these comedies on many occasions. Thus, in the Two Gentlemen of Verona, Valentine asks his man Speed, “How know you that I am in love ?” to which that worthy answers: “Marry, by these special marks: first, you have learned to wreathe your arms like a
malcontent; to relish a love-song like a robinredbreast; to walk alone like one that had the pestilence; to sigh like a schoolboy that had lost his A B C; to weep like a young wench that had buried her grandam; to fast like one that takes diet; to watch like one that fears robbing ; to speak puling, like a beggar at Hallowmas. You were wont, when you laughed, to crow like a cock; when you walked, to walk like one of the lions; when you fasted, it was presently after dinner; when you looked sadly, it was for want of money; and now you are so metamorphosed with a mistress that, when I look upon you, I can scarcely think you my master.” The witty Rosalind, in As You Like It, being asked what a lover should be like, replies: “A lean cheek; an eye blue and sunken; a beard neglected. Then your hose should be ungartered, your bonnet unbanded, your sleeve unbuttoned, your shoe untied, and everything about you demonstrating a careless desolation.”
Other observers, however, have noted marks exactly the opposite—the lover blossoms out into a dandy, in the hope of pleasing the eyes of his lady: “I have known when he would have walked ten miles afoot to see a good armour; and now will he lie ten nights awake, carving the fashion of a new doublet”.
Love is capable of a thousand extravagances; and these Shakspeare loved to paint. Who but he can lend a voice to love's hyperbole of admiration? In