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PECULIAR CHARACTERISTICS, DATE OF COMPOSITION.
STATE OF THE TEXT, ETC.
HIS is, in several respects, the most remarkable composition of
its author, and has probably contributed more to his general fame, as it has given a more peculiar evidence of the variety and brilliancy of his genius, than any other of his dramas. Not that it is in itself the noblest of his works, or even one of the highest order among them; but it is not only exquisite in its kind-it is also original and peculiar in its whole character, and of a class by itself. For, although it be far from rivalling As You LIKE IT, or the MERCHANT OF VENICE, in the varied exhibition of human character, or the gravity or the sweetness of ethical poetrythough it stand in no rank of comparison with OTHELLO, or LEAR, in the manifestation of lofty intellect or the energy of passion, or in unresisted sway over the reader's deeper emotions-yet LEAR or OTHELLO, or any one of Shakespeare's most perfect comedies, might have been lost by the carelessness of early editors, or the accidents of time, without any essential diminution of the general estimate of their author's genius. Possessing HAMLET, ROMEO AND JULIET, MACBETH, and the Roman tragedies, we could place no assignable limit to the genius which produced them, if exerted on any similar themes of fierce passion or tragic dignity. So, again, As You LIKE IT is but another and most admirable exhibition of the same prolific comic invention, which revels as joyously in Falstaff and Mercutio-of the same meditative poetic spirit, in turns fanciful, passionate, philosophical, which pours forth its austerer teachings in MEASURE FOR MEASURE, or more sweetly comes upon the ear, "with a dying fall," in the intervals of the loud jollity of the TWELFTH NIGHT. But the MIDSUMMER-NIGHT'S DREAM stands by itself, without any parallel; for the TEMPEST, which it resembles in its preternatural personages and machinery of the plot, is in other respects wholly dissimilar, is of quite another mood in feeling and thought, and with, perhaps, higher attributes of genius, wants its peculiar fascination. Thus it is that the loss of this singularly beautiful production would, more than that of any other of his works, have abridged the measure of its author's fame, as it would have left us without the means of forming any estimate of the brilliant lightness of his "forgetive" fancy, in its most sportive and luxuriant vein. The Poet and his contemporaries seem to have regarded this piece, as they well might, as in some sort a nondescript in dramatic literature; for it happens that, while the other plays published during their author's life are regularly denominated, in their title-page, as "the pleasant comedy," "the true dramatic history," or "the lamentable tragedy," this has no designation of the kind beyond its mere title, in either of the original editions. It has, in common with all his comedies, a per petual intermixture of the essentially poetical with the purely laughable, yet is distinguished from all the rest by being (as Coleridge has happily defined its character) "one continued specimen of the dramatized lyrical." Its transitions are as rapid, and the images and scenes it presents to the imagination as unexpected and as remote from each other, as those of the boldest lyric; while it has also that highest perfection of the lyric art, the pervading unity of the poetic spirit-that continued glow of excited thought-which blends the whole rich and strange variety in one common effect of gay and dazzling brilliancy.
There is the heroic magnificence of the princely loves of Theseus and his Amazon bride, dazzling with the strangely gorgeous mixture of classical allusion and fable with the taste, feelings, and manners of chivalry; and all embodied in a calm and lofty poetry, fitted alike to express the grand simplicity of primeval heroism, and "the high thoughts in a heart of courtesy," which belong to the best parts of the chivalrous character. This is intertwined with the ingeniously perplexed fancies and errors of the Athenian lovers, wrought up with a luxuriant profusion of quaint conceits and artificial turns of thought, such as the age delighted in. The Fairy King and Queen, equally essential to the plot, are invested with a certain mythological dignity, suited to the solemn yet free music of the verse, and the elevation and grave elegance of all their thoughts and images. Their fairy subjects, again,
are the gayest and most fantastic of Fancy's children. All these are relieved and contrasted by the grotesque absurdity of the mock play, and still more by the laughable truth and nature of the amateur “mechanicals" who present it. The critics have, indeed, been disposed to limit the praise of truth and nature, in this part of the play, to the portraiture of green-room jealousies or vanity, such as the Poet might have observed in his own professional life. But in truth he has here contrasted to the finer idealities of heroic and of playful fancy, a vivid delineation of vulgar human nature-not confined to any one occupation or class in life, but such as often displays itself in the graver employments of real life, and the higher as well as the lower castes of society. Bottom, for instance, may be frequently found in high official or representative stations, among the legislative and municipal bodies of the world; and so near (according to Napoleon's well-known adage) is the sublime to the ridiculous, that it depends entirely upon external circumstances, with a little more or a little less sense in himself and his hearers, whether the Bottom of the day is doomed to wear the ass's head for life, or becomes the admiration of his companions, and roars "like a nightingale," in his own conceit, from the high stations of the law or the state.
This clustering of the sweetest flowers of fanciful and of heroic poetry around the grotesque yet substantial reality of Bottom and his associates, gives to the whole play that mixed effect of the grotesquely ludicrous with the irregularly beautiful, which the Poet himself has painted in his picture of Titania "rounding the hairy temples" of the self-satisfied fool
With coronet of fresh and fragrant flowers.
All this profusion of pure poetry and droll reality is worked up with the dramatic skill of a practised artist, in embodying these apparently discordant plots and personages into one perfectly connected and harmonious whole, out of which nothing could well be removed without injury to the rest. This artistic skill, though it may not be an excellence of the very highest order, is yet one that results only from practice and experience; and connected, as it is here, with great variety and richness of allusion, and knowledge-as well of life and nature as of books— indicates that the play cannot have been the production of a youth of limited experience of life, and little exercise of his dramatic talent. Yet it has been most commonly classed among the author's more youthful works, and it must be allowed that there is a good deal in the play to support this conjecture. It was first printed in 1600, but Meares mentioned it in his list before 1598; and the remarkable allusion to the ungenial summer and confusion of seasons which occurred in England, in 1594, (see note on act ii. scene 2-" Therefore the winds, piping," etc.,) affords evidence that the play, as it first appeared in print, must belong to a period about 1595, or 1596. This would place it in its author's thirty-first or thirty-second year, when, as his ROMEO AND JULIET shows, he had acquired a familiar freedom of poetic diction, in its widest range, and a mastery of metrical power and sweetness, far more bold and varied than is seen in his first dramatic efforts; and to this period the MIDSUMMER-NIGHT'S DREAM, as it was printed in 1600, certainly belongs. Yet the comparison of this beautiful poem with those of his other dramas, (which we know, from the collation of the successive old editions of some, or from the title-pages of others, were first written in a comparative immaturity of the author's genius, and afterwards received large alterations and additions,) strongly impresses me with the opinion that such was also the history of this drama. Malone places the whole of it as contemporary with LoVE'S LABOUR'S LOST, the Two GENTLEMEN OF VERONA, etc. Without agreeing to this arbitrary assignment of its date, I yet think that the rhyming dialogue and the peculiarities of much of the versification in those scenes, the elaborate elegance, the quaint conceits, and artificial refinements of thought in the whole episode (if it may be termed so) of Helena and Hermia, and their lovers, do certainly partake of the taste and manner of those more juvenile comedies; while, in the other poetic scenes, "the strain we hear is of a higher mood," and belongs to a period of fuller and more conscious power.
It, therefore, seems to me very probable, (though I do not know that it has appeared so to any one else,) that the MIDSUMMER-NIGHT'S DREAM was originally written in a very different form from that in which we now have it, several years before the date of the drama in its present shape—that it was subsequently remoulded, after a long interval, with the addition of the heroic personages, and all the dialogue between Oberon and Titania, perhaps with some alteration of the lower comedy; the rhyming dialogue and the whole perplexity of the Athenian lovers being retained, with slight change, from the more boyish comedy. The completeness and unity of the piece would indeed quite exclude such a conjecture, if we were forced to reason only from the evidence afforded by itself; but, as in ROMEO AND JULIET (not to speak of other dramas) we have the certain proof of the amalgamation of the products of different periods of the author's progressive intellect and power, the comparison leads to a similar conclusion here.
The play is said never to have been popular, as an acted drama, on the modern stage; as may well be the case; for dramatic imitation must deal in too material realities to pourtray the "airy nothings" which the Poet's "fine frenzy" had "turned to shapes." Mrs. A. Browne has even conjectured that it failed in its first representation, and that it was the author's mortification on this result, and his consequent disgust for the drama, for a time, that Spenser alluded to in his "Tears of the Muses," in 1591, when he lamented that his "pleasant Willey" should 'chuse to sit in idle cell." If this supposition be well founded, it must have been the primitive sketch that was unsuccessful; for we learn, from the title-page of the edition of 1600, that the piece then printed was often acted, and it was so popular that two different printers brought out rival editions.
It was originally printed in quarto, in those two editions, with much more care than was usual with other dramatic writings of the day, and especially than the generality of Shakespeare's other plays printed during his lifetime. It accordingly furnishes less food than usual for critical correction and controversy in settling the text, which offers few difficulties of this nature.
SOURCE OF THE PLOT, COSTUME, MANNERS, ETC.
This play has all the merit of entire originality of plot and incident—a merit which we know that Shakespeare soon learnt to hold very cheap, regarding such originality, very justly, as the humblest part of dramatic invention. Here, however, where he meant to carry the invention of his characters, with the language and thoughts, beyond the bounds of real life, or of traditional story, novelty of plot became necessary to the higher originality of effect he wished to produce otherwise. The traditions of all Europe, and the East, had given him the leading idea of fairy character, in the legends of puny immortals, whose interference in human affairs had always a mixture of waggish malice and good-nature. But the peculiar poetic colouring of that character is purely his own, as the reader may satisfy himself by comparing the fairy scenes with the materials to which the industry of the commentators has referred, as the sources of his invention:
"The Knight's Tale' of Chaucer, and the same poet's 'Tysbe of Babylone,' together with Arthur Golding's translation of the story of Pyramus and Thisbe' from Ovid, are the only sources yet pointed out of the plots introduced and employed by Shakespeare. Oberon, Titania, and Robin Good-fellow, or Puck, are mentioned, as belonging to the fairy mythology, by many authors of the time. The Percy Society not long since reprinted a tract called Robin Good-fellow, his Mad Pranks and Merry Jests,' from an edition in 1628; but there is little doubt that it originally came out at least forty years earlier: together with a ballad inserted in the 'Introduction' to that reprint, it shows how Shakespeare availed himself of existing popular superstitions. In Percy's Reliques' is a ballad entitled the 'Merry Pranks of Robin Good-fellow,' attributed to Ben Jonson, of which I have a version in a MS. of the time: it is the more curious, because it has the initials B. J. at the end. It contains some variations and an additional stanza, which, considering the subject of the poem, it may be worth while here to subjoin :
When as my fellow elfes and I
In circled ring do trip around,
Do happen to be seen or found;
No words do say,
But mum continue as they go,
Put groat in shoe,
And wind out laughing, ho, ho, ho!
"The incidents connected with the life of Robin Good-fellow were, no doubt, worked up by different dramatists in different ways: and in Henslowe's 'Diary' are inserted two entries of money paid to Henry Chettle for a play he was writing, in September, 1602, under the title of Robin Good-fellow.'"-COLLIER.
The heroical personages are not original, in name or history, but quite so in the peculiar combination with fairy lore, as well as in their poetical decoration, and more especially in the beautiful spirit of philosophical thought with which Theseus is filled-to whom the Poet has given a sort of regal family-likeness to Hamlet, both in the kind and thoughtful courtesy of disposition, and in the meditative cast of thought, though not, like Hamlet's, forced by painful inquiries, but employed in cheerful considerations upon man's noblest tastes and faculties.
The splendid confusion of the classical and mythological with the tastes and habits of medaval chivalry, will strike modern readers as discordant. But such was the traditionary and customary poetical costume of the heroes of Homer and Ovid, when they appeared in the songs or tales of romance. This arose at first from the ignorance of the old romancers and historians, and their readers, who conformed the habits and manners of the classical heroes to those of their own days. But afterwards, when these topics were used by more cultivated authors, they from choice continued the same confusion of times and manners. Boccaccio and Chaucer were familiar at least with Latin literature; but (the one in his 'Tescide,' and the other in his Knight's Tale') both introduced Duke Theseus in the same romantic and conventional costume, without any attempt to invest him or his times with a dress more congruous to Grecian tastes and habits. There was then no reason why a dramatist, writing for popular effect, should throw away the manifest advantage of adopting the ideas of his personages which were already familiar to his audience; nor does he betray any ignorance in comforming to them. Thus, the Athens of this play, like that of Chaucer and Boccaccio, is not a city of early Greece, but the capital of a principality which, in every thing but its religion, resembled the Ghent and Bruges of the dukes of Burgundy, or the capitals of any of the princely chiefs of the days of chivalry.
If, however, the artist thinks it expedient for the stage, or for pictorial illustration, to resort to a stricter external costume than the Poet thought necessary, he may find materials of the choicest kind, (where Mr. Planché directs him,) in the frieze of the Parthenon, the Etruscan vases, and other exquisite relics of classic taste and form.