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This comedy was first printed in the folio edition of 1623. The text is divided into acts and scenes; and the order of these has been undisturbed in the modern editions. With the exception of a few manifest typographical errors, the original copy is remarkably
It was formerly supposed that this charming comedy was written by Shakspere late in life. But there was found in the British Museum, in 1828, a little manuscript diary of a student of the Middle Temple, extending from 1601 to 1603, which leaves doubt that the play was publicly acted at the Candlemas feast of the Middle Temple in 1602; and it belongs, therefore, to the first year of the seventeenth century, or the last of the sixteenth; for it is not found in the list of Meres, in 1598.
It is scarcely necessary to enter into any analysis of the plot of this delightful comedy, or attempt any dissection of its characters, for the purpose of opening to the reader new sources of enjoyment. It is impossible, we think, for one of ordinary sensibility to read through the act without yielding his
self up to the genial temper in which the entire play is written.
“The sunshine of the breast” spreads its rich purple light over the whole champain, and penetrates into every thicket and every dingle. From the first line to the last from the Duke's
“ That strain again ;-it had a dying fall,” to the Clown's
“ With hey, ho, the wind and the rain,”there is not a thought, nor a situation, that is not calculated to call forth pleasurable feelings. The love-melancholy of the Duke is a luxurious abandonment to one pervading impression-not a fierce and hopeless contest with one o'ermastering passion. It delights to lie “canopied with bowers,"—to listen to “old and antique" songs, which dally with its “innocence,” -to be “full of shapes," and "high fantastical.” The love of Viola is the sweetest and tenderest emotion that ever informed the heart of the purest and most graceful of beings with a spirit almost divine. Perhaps in the whole range of Shakspere's poetry there is nothing which comes more unbidden into the mind, and always in connexion with some image of the ethereal beauty of the utterer, than Viola's “She never told her love." The love of Olivia, wilful as it is, is not in the slightest degree repulsive. With the old stories before him, nothing but the refined delicacy of Shakspere's conception of the female character could have redeemed Olivia from approaching to the anti-feminine. But as it is, we pity her, and we rejoice with her. These are what may be called the serious characters, because they are the vehicles for what we emphatically call the poetry of the
play. But the comic characters are to us equally poetical—that is, they appear to us not mere copies of the representatives of temporary or individual follies, but embodyings of the universal comic, as true and as fresh to-day as they were two centuries and a half ago. Malvolio is to our minds as poetical as Don Quixote ; and we are by no means sure that Shakspere meant the poor cross-gartered steward only to be laughed at, any more than Cervantes did the knight of the rueful countenance. He meant us to pity him, as Olivia and the Duke pitied him; for, in truth, the delusion by which Malvolio was wrecked, only passed out of the romantic into the comic through the manifestation of the vanity of the character in reference to his situation. But if we laugh at Malvolio we are not to laugh ill-naturedly, for the poet has conducted all the mischief against him in a spirit in which there is no real malice at the bottom of the fun. Sir Toby is a most genuine character, one given to strong potations and boisterous merriment; but with a humour about him perfectly irresistible. His abandon to the instant opportunity of laughing at and with others is something so thoroughly English, that we are not surprised the poet gave him an English
And like all genuine humorists Sir Toby must have his butt. What a trio is presented in that glorious scene of the second act, where the two Knights and the Clown “make the welkin dance;"—the humorist, the fool, and the philosopher ;- for Sir Andrew is the fool, and the Clown is the philosopher. We hold the Clown's epilogue song to be the most philosophical