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amusing ; but the wit of most of them has fallen, through the lapse of time, into a woefully withered condition, consisting as it does almost entirely in verbal quibbles and contemporary allusions. Sometimes, for their blunders, they come in for a beating from their masters; and it is easy to understand how such scenes would make the pittites of Shakspeare's day roar with delight; but it is hard work, at this distance of time, to extract amusement from such horseplay. The Women's Women—that is to say, the handmaidens who attend on the heroines—resemble the men's men in the liberty they are allowed with their tongues; but in none of them, I suspect, is there any permanent vitality, except it be “the little villain " Maria, as she is called by Sir Toby Belch, in Twelfth Night, who presides over the orgies and practical jokes of that play with such inventive gaiety.
The men's men, as I have called them, are constantly falling into mistakes with their words—they will say “ repose" instead of “compose"; expectoration" instead of “expectation," and the like—and Shakspeare extracts a great deal of wit of this kind out of his humbler characters. Indeed, the mark with him of the lower orders is that language baffles them. Thus Dogberry and Verges, who represent the police, go blundering over the Queen's English at every sentence. It may be remarked, in passing, how old is the practice of making the police the butt of popular jokes; and Shakspeare's charge against them is exactly the modern one, expressed in the music hall line, that the bobby's duty is to walk the other way. Says Dogberry to the guard, “This is your charge--you shall comprehend all vagrom men; you are to bid any man stand in the Prince's name”, “But how," asks the Second Watch, "if a' will not stand?" “Why, then,” replies Dogberry, “take no note of him, but let him go; and presently call the rest of the watch together, and thank God you are rid of a knave."
There are other minor characters out of whose difficulties with the Queen's English mirth is extractedsuch as the French Doctor practising in England. The Welshman comes in for very severe handling in this respect; Shakspeare being almost as hard on him as Thackeray is on the Irishman. Sir Hugh Evans, in The Merry Wives of Windsor, is the chief example; and the last straw in poor Sir John Falstaff's burden of humiliation in that play is that he has lived to stand at the taunt of one who makes fritters of English and says “sheese” and “putter" instead of " cheese” and “butter”.
On the other hand, there are characters whose amusing quality is their command of language. Shakspeare rather makes fun of the Schoolmaster, for example, because he thinks the sky is more to him than other men if he knows the Latin name for it. Sir," says Sir Nathaniel, of one who knows no Latin,
“ he hath never fed of the dainties that are bred of a book; he hath not ate paper, as it were; he hath not drunk ink; his intellect is not replenished; he is only an animal, only sensible in the duller parts :
And such barren plants are set before us that we
thankful should be Which we of taste and feeling are—for those parts
which do fructify in us more than he.”
Observe the "taste and feeling” of the grammar and the versification of these lines !
Similar to the self-satisfied delight of the schoolmaster in Latin is the use by certain characters of an inflated, theatrical mode of speaking. Such is the extraordinary dialect in which Pistol, one of Falstaff's minions, always talks ; and there is even more swagger in the language of mine host of the Garter Inn in The Merry Wives of Windsor. He does not make use of language, but is carried away by it; it flows from him like a torrent.
In this, Shakspeare was caricaturing the theatrical dialect of his day, which was artificial and inflated, full of sound and fury, blood and thunder. Indeed, one of the conspicuous sources of amusement in these Comedies is the ridicule cast on the manners and customs of the stage. Shakspeare frequently introduces a play within a play—that is to say, a portion of his own play consists of the performance of another play, which is not supposed to be of his composition, but is written in the conventional stage-dialect of the day. Shakspeare was seeking to introduce nature and good sense; and he takes this way of exposing the crudities of other dramatists.
Still more amusing is his exposure of the persons who at that time took upon themselves the art of acting. They were the most illiterate mechanics—the tailor, the weaver, the joiner, the bellows-mender-but such was their self-conceit that they were ready to perform anything on a moment's notice.
The prince of these stage-quacks is Bottom, the weaver, in A Midsummer-Night's Dream : he is the very genius of stupidity, the very incarnation of selfconceit. The play which he and his fellow-mechanics propose to perform is Pyramus and Thisbe ; and he chooses for himself the leading rôle. " What is Pyramus?” he asks, "a lover, or a tyrant?" and, when he is told, “a lover," he exclaims, “That will ask some tears in the true performance of it: if I do it, let the audience look to their eyes; I will move storms." Yet he is not satisfied with this part; he wishes that Pyramus were not a lover, but a tyrant: * My chief humour is for a tyrant: I could play Ercles rarely, or a part to tear a cat in, to make all split.
The raging rocks
The foolish Fates.
This was lofty !-Now name the rest of the players.
- This is Ercles' vein, a tyrant's vein ;-a lover is more condoling.”
When the other players are named for their parts, he is not satisfied : he thinks he could do every part better himself. Thus he will do Thisbe as well as Pyramus
“An I may hide my face, let me play Thisbe too; I'll speak, in a monstrous little voice*Thisne, Thisne'-Ah Pyramus, my lover dear, Thy Thisbe dear and lady dear.”
Someone else is named for the Lion's part; but Bottom cries: “Let me play the lion too. I will roar that it will do anyone's heart good to hear me”. Someone objects that this might frighten the ladies; whereupon he says: “I will roar you as gently as it were any sucking dove, I will roar you an 'twere any nightingale”.