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THE CANON OF SHAKSPERE.

371

abounded in London at this epoch, cannot be doubted. Shakspere, moreover, as is clearly proved by the gradual emergence of his final style, by his slow selfdisentanglement from rhyme, and by his lingering love of prettinesses and conceits, did not start as a dramatist with a manner so fixed and unmistakable as that of Marlowe. When, therefore, there is

any

scintilla of external evidence in favour of his authorship, we are bound to weigh the question, and not to discard a work because it seems to us palpably unworthy. There is always the possibility that he may have had a hand in it, either as a restorer or as a collaborator ; or, again, that it may have been a trial essay in some vein of work abandoned by him upon better judgment making.' These possibilities or probabilities fall into three or four main categories. We have to ask ourselves : Is the doubtful play in question a work of considerable merit retouched by the master's hand ? If so, it may be classified with the Second or Third Parts of Henry VI.' . Is it an old piece entirely rewritten and rehandled ? If so, it will take rank with • Romeo and Juliet.' Is it one on which Shakspere engrafted fresh scenes of incontestable mastery and beauty? If so, it finds its analogue in · Pericles.' Is it one in which he wrought with a collaborator ? If so, we may compare it with · The Two Noble Kinsmen,' or perhaps with · Henry VIII. There remains the further possibility of trial-work or prentice-labour in a style rejected by the mature artist. Some would explain the difficulties of Henry VIII.'

this theory, ascribing the parts on which Fletcher seems to have been engaged, to Shakspere's own experiments in an afterwards abandoned manner. · Arden of Feversham,' if we accept this fine play as Shaksperian, would stand upon nearly the same ground, as an early effort.

upon

Such are some of the preliminary questions which the critic has to ask himself. Yet having weighed them in the balance of his judgment, he must face another set of difficulties. These arise from the tribe of imitators. It is comparatively easy for men of talent in a fertile literary age to ape the men of genius. Therefore, when we detect some note which has in it the master's accent, but lacks the full clear ring of his authentic utterance, we are forced to choose between two hypotheses. Either the passage in

question is the product of his immaturity or weakness; or else it is the parrot utterance of a clever disciple. In this perplexity a sound critic, if he arrives at any conclusion whatsoever, will do so by trusting his sense of what the master would have felt and thought, quite as much as by analysing language and rhythm--will ask himself whether the real Shakspere conceived character thus, or treated a situation in this way. He will be cautious in drawing inferences from similarity, which is not genuine identity, of style. He will form his final judgment from a survey of the whole work in dispute, not from a comparison of single passages. In some cases he will rise from the perusal of a doubtful play, as Swinburne rose from the study of · Edward III.,' with the conviction that he has before him the vigorous performance of no mean man, who, having sat at the feet of two great masters, has managed to reproduce their manner, with only a moderate portion of their

CRITIQUE OF DOUBTFUL PLAYS.

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spirit. The fine anonymous ‘Tragedy of Nero,' for example, shows such enthusiastic study of both Marston and Fletcher, that the ascription of certain passages to either poet would be reasonable, were not the whole work cast in the mould of a mind differing from both.

There remains a further source of hesitation and perplexity, which has to be taken into calculation. This is the mangled condition in which plays, during the whole Elizabethan period, were apt to issue from the press-piratically seized upon by publishers who had no access to the author's MS., but took on trust a shorthand writer's notes. Many instances of deformed versification, mutilated scenes, and confused grammar, can be explained by the simple hypothesis of piracy ; and it is therefore dangerous to reject a misshapen piece of work, in the face of any external evidence, on the mere score of imperfection or unworthiness. I might cite the first issue of Shakspere's · Henry V.' or our sole text of Marlowe's · Massacre at Paris,' as instances of what I wish to indicate.

From this digression I return to ‘The Birth of Merlin. It was printed in 1662 by the bookseller Kirkman, a most untrustworthy caterer and angler for the public, with an ascription to William Shakespear and William Rowley. Little indeed is known about this Rowley's life. But if he collaborated with Shakspere, it must have been in the full maturity of that poet's powers. Nothing in the plan or style of the play reminds us of the adult Shakspere. If therefore we attach any value to Kirkman's title-page, we must suppose that Rowley retouched an early piece in

which Shakspere was known to have had some hand ; or that Shakspere received this piece of Rowley's for his theatre with approval. There are Shaksperian qualities in 'The Birth of Merlin ;' but these can be accounted for by referring it to the post-Shaksperian epoch, when the master's manner had helped to create a current style

The play is by no means despicable, though far too long, crowded with irrelevant dramatic stuff, and confused in action. The intricacy of the warp, and the intellectual vivacity of the woof woven over it, are not altogether unlike the early work of Shakspere. The cast of some soliloquies, with interjected philosophical reflections, the contorted phrasing and occasional pregnancy of thought, taken in combination with the absence of Greene's mythological jargon, and with a notable superfluity of motives and situations-the very parbreak of a youthful poet's indigestion-mark it out as, at the least, post-Shaksperian. It belongs, indeed, in my opinion, to the category of plays sufficiently imitative of the master's style to have suggested the legend of his part-authorship.

· The Birth of Merlin' is the second play founded on the Arthurian cycle. It combines the tale of Uther Pendragon's wanderings and loves with the story of Merlin's diabolical parentage. Under the form of a Court-gallant, the devil begets a child on a peasantgirl. When he is born, this son, who enters the world in full maturity and with more than a man's wisdom, consigns his father to a prison in a rock, and addresses himself to the State affairs of Britain. These supernatural and romantic elements are, however, subordi

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nated to a medley of farce; and the ill-constructed drama leaves no clear impression on the mind.

Having touched upon the style of this play in the foregoing remarks, I must proceed to quote some specimens. Here is a speech in rhyming couplets :

O my good Sister, I beseech you hear me :
This world is but a masque, catching weak eyes,
With what is not ourselves, but our disguise,
A vizard that falls off, the dance being done,
And leaves death's glass for all to look upon.
Our best happiness here lasts but a night,
Whose burning tapers make false ware seem right;
Who knows not this, and will not now provide
Some better shift before his shame be spied,
And knowing this vain world at last will leave him,
Shake off these robes that help but to deceive him?

Prince Uther, in his love-lunes, exclaims :

O, you immortal powers,
Why has poor man so many entrances
For sorrow to creep in at, when our sense
Is much too weak to hold his happiness?
O, say I was born deaf : and let your silence
Confirm in me the knowing my defect.
At least be charitable to conceal my sin

;
For hearing is no less in me, dear brother.

A Hermit refuses to drink healths at a wedding feast :

Temperate minds
Covet that health to drink, which nature gives
In every spring to man. He that doth hold
His body but a tenement at will,
Bestows no cost but to repair what's ill.

The following soliloquy, with its curious blending of redundant blank verse and rhyme, has a passable vein of thought :

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