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family of the Tarquins, in vengeance of Lucretia's wrongs, with the miseries that befell the family of Priam for the sake of Helen.
A very appropriate epigraph for a critical study of the poem could be furnished by two of its passages : in the midst of her interminable soliloquy Lucrece exclaims:
Out idle words, servants to shallow fools !
Debate where leisure serves with dull debaters."
“ This helpless smoke of words doth me no right." Further on, when she writes to Collatine to beseech him to return home, the poet represents her as criticising the letter herself:
“ This is too curious-good, this blunt and ill:
Much like a press of people at a door,
Shakespeare's first achievements in literature were, it is evident, not those of a revolutionary innovator or of a leader of a school. He began almost timidly: classical subjects and the Italian style being the taste of the day, he took classical subjects and moulded them in the Italian fashion. As Gervinus remarks, young writers with a great future before them are seldom tempted by the search after novelty; they simply follow the most natural way, and put themselves to school under some contemporary master and work out their apprenticeship under him. The ambition of breaking away from existing landmarks and of taking the world by storm with some unprecedented performance is a temptation chiefly to youthful minds that are more infatuated with themselves than really fertile, and that possessed but of one idea are eager to express it in their own way,—the idea once
expressed, they do nothing all the rest of their life but turn it complacently round and round.
The process of Shakespeare's development was gradual and unmarked by any violent shocks, unfolding itself through practice, experience, and reflection. Not one of his works is suggestive of a defiant temper, nor of a spirit of system or paradox. The movement by which he disengaged himself from the false classicality of the Renaissance, in order to give an increasingly large and independent character to his poetry, was not the sudden revolt of an emancipated slave throwing off the yoke, but was simply a series of progressive stages. Starting with imitation of the ancients, by degrees, as he ceased to imitate them, he came to be their equal. The firmness with which he followed the promptings of his genius reveals a strength all the more astonishing when we remember that the admiration of his contemporaries was especially excited by the class of poetry that he subsequently felt impelled to abandon. None of his works had more success or were more praised in his own times than his two descriptive poems. They passed through six editions in thirteen years. Meres, in his “Wit's Treasury” (1598), said, “ As the soule of Euphorbus was thought to live in Pythagoras, so the sweete wittie soule of Ovid lives in mellifluous and hony-tongued Shakespeare; witnes his 'Venus and Adonis,' his ‘Lucrece,' and his sugred sonnets;” and Gustave Rümelin, in his "Shakespeare Studien," quotes an opinion, purporting to be that of Thomas Nash-though all attempts to discover the passage in any of his works have proved unavailing which declares Shakespeare's poems had gained him a reputation as a poet which his dramatic works only served to damage, and that if he had but confined himself to writing in the Italian style he might have become even a greater poet than Daniel, the first poet of
THE COMEDY OF ERRORS.
THE “Comedy of Errors” is based upon the “Menæchmi” of Plautus. As the whole scene is laid in Ephesus, and the plot is comprised within the space of one day, the unities of time and place are strictly observed.
It is proved by a concurrence of evidence both external and internal to be one of Shakespeare's youthful plays: in the first place, it must necessarily be anterior to 1598, as mention is made of it in that year by Meres in his “Wit's Treasury.” Besides this, rhymed lines are of frequent occurrence in it, and rhyme is a characteristic of all Shakespeare's earlier productions; added to which, it contains many lines in doggrel verse, such as the concluding couplet :
“We came into the world like brother and brother,
And now let's go hand in hand, not one before another;" which resemble those of M. Tibaudier in "La Comtesse D’Escarbagnas:
“ Vous devriez, vous contentant d'être Comtesse,
Vous dépouiller en ma faveur d'une peau de tigresse.” Doggrel verse was very frequently employed in comic literature before Shakespeare, and we meet with it in several of his earlier comedies, such as “Love's Labour's Lost," and " The Taming of the Shrew," but it soon disappeared from his plays. And finally, a more precise date of the composition of the piece is furnished by a pun in Act III., Sc. 2, where Dromio, in his description of a fat kitchen-wench,“ no longer from head to foot than from hip to hip, and spherical like a globe,” in whom he could find out countries, says of France that it is “In her forehead, armed and reverted, making war against her heir," in allusion to the civil wars of France, when the “Ligue” was fighting against the legitimate heir to the throne, Henry IV. The“ Comedy of Errors” was therefore written not later than either before or in the year 1594, when Paris submitted and Henry's coronation took place.
This question of date has its importance. An English translation by W. Warner of the “Menachmi" of Plautus existed in Shakespeare's time, but it was not published before 1595. On account of Shakespeare having used translations whenever he could, many persons have concluded that he was incapable of doing without them if need were, and that therefore he must have read the English translation in manuscript; and they moreover recall that on New Year's Eve in 1576-77, a comedy was acted at Hampton Court, entitled, “ The Historie of Error.” This piece is no longer extant, but it was possibly founded on the “Menachmi," and Shakespeare may have taken the idea of his play from it; but these are only conjectures, and to those who think—and their opinion seems to me to be right—that Shakespeare could very well have read Plautus's comedy in Latin, there is nothing embarrassing in the date of publication of Warner's translation.
In whatever manner Shakespeare became acquainted with Plautus's play, it is at all events certain that the classical source of the “ Comedy of Errors ” is the “Menæchmi.” An excellent analysis of this play has been given by M. François Victor Hugo, which I here borrow: A merchant of Syracuse had had twin sons. These children, perfectly alike in height, size and face, had been separated ever since they were seven years old. One, whom his father had taken to the games at Tarentum, had been stolen in the crowd and taken to Epidamnus by a rich citizen, who before dying had adopted him, made him his heir, and married him to a rich wife in his city. The other had remained in his native country with his grandfather, who called him Menæchmus, after the child that was lost, and after having attained to years of manhood he had set out to search for his brother: he travelled all over the known world in vain, his twinbrother was nowhere to be found. At last a propitious wind blew his sail to the very place where this wishedfor brother lived; and at this point the play opens.
We are at Epidamnus, before the house of Menächmus the citizen, where Peniculus the parasite comes to ask for alms. Just as Peniculus is about to knock at the door, Menaechmus comes out of the house railing at his wife for always expecting him to give an account of his doings. This uncourteous husband determines as a fit revenge to go and dine with the courtesan Erotium, and to present her with a splendid mantle taken surreptitiously from his wife's wardrobe. Peniculus, having overheard this secret resolve, craftily offers to accompany him, and Menæchmus, afraid of being exposed, is obliged to invite him, and accordingly he and his troublesome self-constituted companion go off together to Erotium; she receives them very well, accepts the handsome present, and only stipulates for time to provide a good dinner. While the cook Cylindrus makes his preparations, Menæchmus proceeds to the forum, where his presence is required for some important affair, accompanied by the parasite Peniculus, who follows him like a shadow; and so ends the first act.
Interrupting the analysis for a moment, a comparison may here be made between the Latin play and Rotrou's translation of it into French verse, which is in the main