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Shakespeare — Early Dramatic Efforts

by Sidney Lee


Dramatic work.

The whole of Shakespeare’s dramatic work was probably begun and ended within two decades (1591-1611), between his twenty-seventh and forty-seventh year.  If the works traditionally assigned to him include some contributions from other pens, he was perhaps responsible, on the other hand, for portions of a few plays that are traditionally claimed for others.  When the account is balanced, Shakespeare must be credited with the production, during these twenty years, of a yearly average of two plays, nearly all of which belong to the supreme rank of literature.  Three volumes of poems must be added to the total.  Ben Jonson was often told by the players that ‘whatsoever he penned he never blotted out (i.e. erased) a line.’  The editors of the First Folio attested that ‘what he thought he uttered with that easinesse that we have scarce received from him a blot in his papers.’  Signs of hasty workmanship are not lacking, but they are few when it is considered how rapidly his numerous compositions came from his pen, and they are in the aggregate unimportant.

His borrowed plots.

By borrowing his plots he to some extent economised his energy, but he transformed most of them, and it was not probably with the object of conserving his strength that he systematically levied loans on popular current literature like Holinshed’s ‘Chronicles,’ North’s translation of ‘Plutarch,’ widely read romances, and successful plays.  In this regard he betrayed something of the practical temperament which is traceable in the conduct of the affairs of his later life.  It was doubtless with the calculated aim of ministering to the public taste that he unceasingly adapted, as his genius dictated, themes which had already, in the hands of inferior writers or dramatists, proved capable of arresting public attention.

The revision of plays.

The professional playwrights sold their plays outright to one or other of the acting companies, and they retained no legal interest in them after the manuscript had passed into the hands of the theatrical manager. It was not unusual for the manager to invite extensive revision of a play at the hands of others than its author before it was produced on the stage, and again whenever it was revived.  Shakespeare gained his earliest experience as a dramatist by revising or rewriting behind the scenes plays that had become the property of his manager.  It is possible that some of his labours in this direction remain unidentified.  In a few cases his alterations were slight, but as a rule his fund of originality was too abundant to restrict him, when working as an adapter, to mere recension, and the results of most of his labours in that capacity are entitled to rank among original compositions.

Chronology of the plays.  Metrical tests.

The determination of the exact order in which Shakespeare’s plays were written depends largely on conjecture.  External evidence is accessible in only a few cases, and, although always worthy of the utmost consideration, is not invariably conclusive.  The date of publication rarely indicates the date of composition.  Only sixteen of the thirty-seven plays commonly assigned to Shakespeare were published in his lifetime, and it is questionable whether any were published under his supervision. But subject-matter and metre both afford rough clues to the period in his career to which each play may be referred.  In his early plays the spirit of comedy or tragedy appears in its simplicity; as his powers gradually matured he depicted life in its most complex involutions, and portrayed with masterly insight the subtle gradations of human sentiment and the mysterious workings of human passion.  Comedy and tragedy are gradually blended; and his work finally developed a pathos such as could only come of ripe experience.  Similarly the metre undergoes emancipation from the hampering restraints of fixed rule and becomes flexible enough to respond to every phase of human feeling.  In the blank verse of the early plays a pause is strictly observed at the close of each line, and rhyming couplets are frequent.  Gradually the poet overrides such artificial restrictions; rhyme largely disappears; recourse is more frequently made to prose; the pause is varied indefinitely; extra syllables are, contrary to strict metrical law, introduced at the end of lines, and at times in the middle; the last word of the line is often a weak and unemphatic conjunction or preposition. To the latest plays fantastic and punning conceits which abound in early work are rarely accorded admission.  But, while Shakespeare’s achievement from the beginning to the end of his career offers clearer evidence than that of any other writer of genius of the steady and orderly growth of his poetic faculty, some allowance must be made for ebb and flow in the current of his artistic progress.  Early work occasionally anticipates features that become habitual to late work, and late work at times embodies traits that are mainly identified with early work.  No exclusive reliance in determining the precise chronology can be placed on the merely mechanical tests afforded by tables of metrical statistics.  The chronological order can only be deduced with any confidence from a consideration of all the internal characteristics as well as the known external history of each play.  The premisses are often vague and conflicting, and no chronology hitherto suggested receives at all points universal assent.

‘Love’s Labour’s Lost.’

There is no external evidence to prove that any piece in which Shakespeare had a hand was produced before the spring of 1592.  No play by him was published before 1597, and none bore his name on the title-page till 1598.  But his first essays have been with confidence allotted to 1591.  To ‘Love’s Labour’s Lost’ may reasonably be assigned priority in point of time of all Shakespeare’s dramatic productions.  Internal evidence alone indicates the date of composition, and proves that it was an early effort; but the subject-matter suggests that its author had already enjoyed extended opportunities of surveying London life and manners, such as were hardly open to him in the very first years of his settlement in the metropolis.  ‘Love’s Labour’s Lost’ embodies keen observation of contemporary life in many ranks of society, both in town and country, while the speeches of the hero Biron clothe much sound philosophy in masterly rhetoric.  Its slender plot stands almost alone among Shakespeare’s plots in that it is not known to have been borrowed, and stands quite alone in openly travestying known traits and incidents of current social and political life.  The names of the chief characters are drawn from the leaders in the civil war in France, which was in progress between 1589 and 1594, and was anxiously watched by the English public. Contemporary projects of academies for disciplining young men; fashions of speech and dress current in fashionable circles; recent attempts on the part of Elizabeth’s government to negotiate with the Tsar of Russia; the inefficiency of rural constables and the pedantry of village schoolmasters and curates are all satirised with good humour.  The play was revised in 1597, probably for a performance at Court.  It was first published next year, and on the title-page, which described the piece as ‘newly corrected and augmented,’ Shakespeare’s name first appeared in print as that of author of a play.

‘Two Gentlemen of Verona.’

Less gaiety characterised another comedy of the same date, ‘The Two Gentlemen of Verona,’ which dramatises a romantic story of love and friendship.  There is every likelihood that it was an adaptation—amounting to a reformation—of a lost ‘History of Felix and Philomena,’ which had been acted at Court in 1584.  The story is the same as that of ‘The Shepardess Felismena’ in the Spanish pastoral romance of ‘Diana’ by George de Montemayor, which long enjoyed popularity in England.  No complete English translation of ‘Diana’ was published before that of Bartholomew Yonge in 1598, but a manuscript version by Thomas Wilson, which was dedicated to the Earl of Southampton in 1596, was possibly circulated far earlier.  Some verses from ‘Diana’ were translated by Sir Philip Sidney and were printed with his poems as early as 1591.  Barnabe Rich’s story of ‘Apollonius and Silla’ (from Cinthio’s ‘Hecatommithi’), which Shakespeare employed again in ‘Twelfth Night,’ also gave him some hints.  Trifling and irritating conceits abound in the ‘Two Gentlemen,’ but passages of high poetic spirit are not wanting, and the speeches of the clowns, Launce and Speed—the precursors of a long line of whimsical serving-men—overflow with farcical drollery.  The ‘Two Gentlemen’ was not published in Shakespeare’s lifetime; it first appeared in the folio of 1623, after having, in all probability, undergone some revision. 

‘Comedy of Errors.’

Shakespeare next tried his hand, in the ‘Comedy of Errors’ (commonly known at the time as ‘Errors’), at boisterous farce.  It also was first published in 1623.  Again, as in ‘Love’s Labour’s Lost,’ allusion was made to the civil war in France.  France was described as ‘making war against her heir’ (III. ii. 125).  Shakespeare’s farcical comedy, which is by far the shortest of all his dramas, may have been founded on a play, no longer extant, called ‘The Historie of Error,’ which was acted in 1576 at Hampton Court.  In subject-matter it resembles the ‘Menæchmi’ of Plautus, and treats of mistakes of identity arising from the likeness of twin-born children.  The scene (act iii. sc. i.) in which Antipholus of Ephesus is shut out from his own house, while his brother and wife are at dinner within, recalls one in the ‘Amphitruo’ of Plautus.  Shakespeare doubtless had direct recourse to Plautus as well as to the old play, and he may have read Plautus in English.  The earliest translation of the ‘Menæchmi’ was not licensed for publication before June 10, 1594, and was not published until the following year.  No translation of any other play of Plautus appeared before.  But it was stated in the preface to this first published translation of the ‘Menæchmi’ that the translator, W. W., doubtless William Warner, a veteran of the Elizabethan world of letters, had some time previously ‘Englished’ that and ‘divers’ others of Plautus’s comedies, and had circulated them in manuscript ‘for the use of and delight of his private friends, who, in Plautus’s own words, are not able to understand them.’

‘Romeo and Juliet.’

Such plays as these, although each gave promise of a dramatic capacity out of the common way, cannot be with certainty pronounced to be beyond the ability of other men.  It was in ‘Romeo and Juliet,’ Shakespeare’s first tragedy, that he proved himself the possessor of a poetic and dramatic instinct of unprecedented quality.  In ‘Romeo and Juliet’ he turned to account a tragic romance of Italian origin, which was already popular in English versions.  Arthur Broke rendered it into English verse from the Italian of Bandello in 1562, and William Painter had published it in prose in his ‘Palace of Pleasure’ in 1567.  Shakespeare made little change in the plot as drawn from Bandello by Broke, but he impregnated it with poetic fervour, and relieved the tragic intensity by developing the humour of Mercutio, and by grafting on the story the new comic character of the Nurse. The ecstasy of youthful passion is portrayed by Shakespeare in language of the highest lyric beauty, and although a predilection for quibbles and conceits occasionally passes beyond the author’s control, ‘Romeo and Juliet,’ as a tragic poem on the theme of love, has no rival in any literature.  If the Nurse’s remark, ‘’Tis since the earthquake now eleven years’ (I. iii. 23), be taken literally, the composition of the play must be referred to 1591, for no earthquake in the sixteenth century was experienced in England after 1580.  There are a few parallelisms with Daniel’s ‘Complainte of Rosamond,’ published in 1592, and it is probable that Shakespeare completed the piece in that year.  It was first printed anonymously and surreptitiously by John Danter in 1597 from an imperfect acting copy.  A second quarto of 1599 (by T. Creede for Cuthbert Burbie) was printed from an authentic version, but the piece had probably undergone revision since its first production.

Of the original representation on the stage of three other pieces of the period we have more explicit information.  These reveal Shakespeare undisguisedly as an adapter of plays by other hands.  Though they lack the interest attaching to his unaided work, they throw invaluable light on some of his early methods of composition and his early relations with other dramatists.

‘Henry VI.’

On March 3, 1592, a new piece, called ‘Henry VI,’ was acted at the Rose Theatre by Lord Strange’s men.  It was no doubt the play which was subsequently known as Shakespeare’s ‘The First Part of Henry VI.’  On its first performance it won a popular triumph.  ‘How would it have joyed brave Talbot (the terror of the French),’ wrote Nash in his ‘Pierce Pennilesse’ (1592, licensed August 8), in reference to the striking scenes of Talbot’s death (act iv. sc. vi. and vii.), ‘to thinke that after he had lyne two hundred yeares in his Tombe, hee should triumphe againe on the Stage, and have his bones newe embalmed with the teares of ten thousand spectators at least (at severall times) who, in the Tragedian that represents his person, imagine they behold him fresh bleeding!’  There is no categorical record of the production of a second piece in continuation of the theme, but such a play quickly followed; for a third piece, treating of the concluding incidents of Henry VI’s reign, attracted much attention on the stage early in the following autumn.

Greene’s attack.  Chettle’s apology.

The applause attending the completion of this historical trilogy caused bewilderment in the theatrical profession.  The older dramatists awoke to the fact that their popularity was endangered by the young stranger who had set up his tent in their midst, and one veteran uttered without delay a rancorous protest.  Robert Greene, who died on September 3, 1592, wrote on his deathbed an ill-natured farewell to life, entitled ‘A Groats-worth of Wit bought with a Million of Repentance.’  Addressing three brother dramatists—Marlowe, Nash, and Peele or Lodge—he bade them beware of puppets ‘that speak from our mouths,’ and of ‘antics garnished in our colours.’  ‘There is,’ he continued, ‘an upstart Crow, beautified with our feathers, that with his Tygers heart wrapt in a players hide supposes he is as well able to bumbast out a blanke verse as the best of you; and being an absolute Johannes factotum is, in his owne conceit, the only Shake-scene in a countrie. . . .  Never more acquaint [those apes] with your admired inventions, for it is pity men of such rare wits should be subject to the pleasures of such rude groomes.’  The ‘only Shake-scene’ is a punning denunciation of Shakespeare.  The tirade was probably inspired by an established author’s resentment at the energy of a young actor—the theatre’s factotum—in revising the dramatic work of his seniors with such masterly effect as to imperil their hold on the esteem of manager and playgoer.  The italicised quotation travesties a line from the third piece in the trilogy of Shakespeare’s ‘Henry VI:’

Oh Tiger’s heart wrapt in a woman’s hide.

But Shakespeare’s amiability of character and versatile ability had already won him admirers, and his successes excited the sympathetic regard of colleagues more kindly than Greene.  In December 1592 Greene’s publisher, Henry Chettle, prefixed an apology for Greene’s attack on the young actor to his ‘Kind Hartes Dreame,’ a tract reflecting on phases of contemporary social life.  ‘I am as sory,’ Chettle wrote, ‘as if the originall fault had beene my fault, because myselfe have seene his [i.e. Shakespeare’s] demeanour no lesse civill than he [is] exelent in the qualitie he professes, besides divers of worship have reported his uprightnes of dealing, which argues his honesty, and his facetious grace in writing that aprooves his art.’

Divided authorship of ‘Henry VI.’

The first of the three plays dealing with the reign of Henry VI was originally published in the collected edition of Shakespeare’s works; the second and third plays were previously printed in a form very different from that which they subsequently assumed when they followed the first part in the folio.  Criticism has proved beyond doubt that in these plays Shakespeare did no more than add, revise, and correct other men’s work.  In ‘The First Part of Henry VI’ the scene in the Temple Gardens, where white and red roses are plucked as emblems by the rival political parties (act ii. sc. iv.), the dying speech of Mortimer, and perhaps the wooing of Margaret by Suffolk, alone bear the impress of his style.  A play dealing with the second part of Henry VI’s reign was published anonymously from a rough stage copy in 1594, with the title ‘The first part of the Contention betwixt the two famous houses of Yorke and Lancaster.’  A play dealing with the third part was published with greater care next year under the title ‘The True Tragedie of Richard, Duke of Yorke, and the death of good King Henry the Sixt, as it was sundrie times acted by the Earl of Pembroke his servants.’  In both these plays Shakespeare’s revising hand can be traced.  The humours of Jack Cade in ‘The Contention’ can owe their savour to him alone.  After he had hastily revised the original drafts of the three pieces, perhaps with another’s aid, they were put on the stage in 1592, the first two parts by his own company (Lord Strange’s men), and the third, under some exceptional arrangement, by Lord Pembroke’s men.  But Shakespeare was not content to leave them thus.  Within a brief interval, possibly for a revival, he undertook a more thorough revision, still in conjunction with another writer.  ‘The First Part of The Contention’ was thoroughly overhauled, and was converted into what was entitled in the folio ‘The Second Part of Henry VI;’ there more than half the lines are new.  ‘The True Tragedie,’ which became ‘The Third Part of Henry VI,’ was less drastically handled; two-thirds of it was left practically untouched; only a third was thoroughly remodelled.

Shakespeare’s coadjutors.

Who Shakespeare’s coadjutors were in the two successive revisions of ‘Henry VI’ is matter for conjecture.  The theory that Greene and Peele produced the original draft of the three parts of ‘Henry VI,’ which Shakespeare recast, may help to account for Greene’s indignant denunciation of Shakespeare as ‘an upstart crow, beautified with the feathers’ of himself and his fellow dramatists.  Much can be said, too, in behalf of the suggestion that Shakespeare joined Marlowe, the greatest of his predecessors, in the first revision of which ‘The Contention’ and the ‘True Tragedie’ were the outcome.  Most of the new passages in the second recension seem assignable to Shakespeare alone, but a few suggest a partnership resembling that of the first revision.  It is probable that Marlowe began the final revision, but his task was interrupted by his death, and the lion’s share of the work fell to his younger coadjutor.

Shakespeare’s assimilative power.

Shakespeare shared with other men of genius that receptivity of mind which impels them to assimilate much of the intellectual effort of their contemporaries and to transmute it in the process from unvalued ore into pure gold.  Had Shakespeare not been professionally employed in recasting old plays by contemporaries, he would doubtless have shown in his writings traces of a study of their work.  The verses of Thomas Watson, Samuel Daniel, Michael Drayton, Sir Philip Sidney, and Thomas Lodge were certainly among the rills which fed the mighty river of his poetic and lyric invention.  Kyd and Greene, among rival writers of tragedy, left more or less definite impression on all Shakespeare’s early efforts in tragedy.  It was, however, only to two of his fellow dramatists that his indebtedness as a writer of either comedy or tragedy was material or emphatically defined.  Superior as Shakespeare’s powers were to those of Marlowe, his coadjutor in ‘Henry VI,’ his early tragedies often reveal him in the character of a faithful disciple of that vehement delineator of tragic passion.  Shakespeare’s early comedies disclose a like relationship between him and Lyly.

Lyly’s influence in comedy.

Lyly is best known as the author of the affected romance of ‘Euphues,’ but between 1580 and 1592 he produced eight trivial and insubstantial comedies, of which six were written in prose, one was in blank verse, and one was in rhyme.  Much of the dialogue in Shakespeare’s comedies, from ‘Love’s Labour’s Lost’ to ‘Much Ado about Nothing,’ consists in thrusting and parrying fantastic conceits, puns, or antitheses.  This is the style of intercourse in which most of Lyly’s characters exclusively indulge.  Three-fourths of Lyly’s comedies lightly revolve about topics of classical or fairy mythology—in the very manner which Shakespeare first brought to a triumphant issue in his ‘Midsummer Night’s Dream.’  Shakespeare’s treatment of eccentric character like Don Armado in ‘Love’s Labour’s Lost’ and his boy Moth reads like a reminiscence of Lyly’s portrayal of Sir Thopas, a fat vainglorious knight, and his boy Epiton in the comedy of ‘Endymion,’ while the watchmen in the same play clearly adumbrate Shakespeare’s Dogberry and Verges.  The device of masculine disguise for love-sick maidens was characteristic of Lyly’s method before Shakespeare ventured on it for the first of many times in ‘Two Gentlemen of Verona,’ and the dispersal through Lyly’s comedies of songs possessing every lyrical charm is not the least interesting of the many striking features which Shakespeare’s achievements in comedy seem to borrow from Lyly’s comparatively insignificant experiments.

Marlowe’s influence in tragedy.  ‘Richard III.’

Marlowe, who alone of Shakespeare’s contemporaries can be credited with exerting on his efforts in tragedy a really substantial influence, was in 1592 and 1593 at the zenith of his fame.  Two of Shakespeare’s earliest historical tragedies, ‘Richard III’ and ‘Richard II,’ with the story of Shylock in his somewhat later comedy of the ‘Merchant of Venice,’ plainly disclose a conscious resolve to follow in Marlowe’s footsteps.  In ‘Richard III’ Shakespeare, working single-handed, takes up the history of England near the point at which Marlowe and he, apparently working in partnership, left it in the third part of ‘Henry VI.’  The subject was already familiar to dramatists, but Shakespeare sought his materials in the ‘Chronicle’ of Holinshed.  A Latin piece, by Dr. Thomas Legge, had been in favour with academic audiences since 1579, and in 1594 the ‘True Tragedie of Richard III’ from some other pen was published anonymously; but Shakespeare’s piece bears little resemblance to either.  Throughout Shakespeare’s ‘Richard III’ the effort to emulate Marlowe is undeniable.  The tragedy is, says Mr. Swinburne, ‘as fiery in passion, as single in purpose, as rhetorical often, though never so inflated in expression, as Marlowe’s “Tamburlaine” itself.’  The turbulent piece was naturally popular.  Burbage’s impersonation of the hero was one of his most effective performances, and his vigorous enunciation of ‘A horse, a horse! my kingdom for a horse!’ gave the line proverbial currency.

‘Richard II.’

‘Richard II’ seems to have followed ‘Richard III’ without delay.  Subsequently both were published anonymously in the same year (1597) as they had ‘been publikely acted by the right Honorable the Lorde Chamberlaine his servants;’ but the deposition scene in ‘Richard II,’ which dealt with a topic distasteful to the Queen, was omitted from the early impressions.  Prose is avoided throughout the play, a certain sign of early work.  The piece was probably composed very early in 1593.  Marlowe’s tempestuous vein is less apparent in ‘Richard II’ than in ‘Richard III.’  But if ‘Richard II’ be in style and treatment less deeply indebted to Marlowe than its predecessor, it was clearly suggested by Marlowe’s ‘Edward II.’  Throughout its exposition of the leading theme—the development and collapse of the weak king’s character—Shakespeare’s historical tragedy closely imitates Marlowe’s.  Shakespeare drew the facts from Holinshed, but his embellishments are numerous, and include the magnificently eloquent eulogy of England which is set in the mouth of John of Gaunt.

Acknowledgments to Marlowe.

In ‘As you like it’ (III. v. 80) Shakespeare parenthetically commemorated his acquaintance with, and his general indebtedness to, the elder dramatist by apostrophising him in the lines:

Dead Shepherd! now I find thy saw of might:
‘Who ever loved that loved not at first sight?’

The second line is a quotation from Marlowe’s poem ‘Hero and Leander’ (line 76).  In the ‘Merry Wives of Windsor’ (III. i. 17-21) Shakespeare places in the mouth of Sir Hugh Evans snatches of verse from Marlowe’s charming lyric, ‘Come live with me and be my love.’

Between February 1593 and the end of the year the London theatres were closed, owing to the prevalence of the plague, and Shakespeare doubtless travelled with his company in the country.  But his pen was busily employed, and before the close of 1594 he gave marvellous proofs of his rapid powers of production.

‘Titus Andronicus.’

‘Titus Andronicus’ was in his own lifetime claimed for Shakespeare, but Edward Ravenscroft, who prepared a new version in 1678, wrote of it: ‘I have been told by some anciently conversant with the stage that it was not originally his, but brought by a private author to be acted, and he only gave some master-touches to one or two of the principal parts or characters.’  Ravenscroft’s assertion deserves acceptance.  The tragedy, a sanguinary picture of the decadence of Imperial Rome, contains powerful lines and situations, but is far too repulsive in plot and treatment, and too ostentatious in classical allusions, to take rank with Shakespeare’s acknowledged work.  Ben Jonson credits ‘Titus Andronicus’ with a popularity equalling Kyd’s ‘Spanish Tragedy,’ and internal evidence shows that Kyd was capable of writing much of ‘Titus.’  It was suggested by a piece called ‘Titus and Vespasian,’ which Lord Strange’s men played on April 11, 1592; this is only extant in a German version acted by English players in Germany, and published in 1620. ‘Titus Andronicus’ was obviously taken in hand soon after the production of ‘Titus and Vespasian’ in order to exploit popular interest in the topic.  It was acted by the Earl of Sussex’s men on January 23, 1593-4, when it was described as a new piece; but that it was also acted subsequently by Shakespeare’s company is shown by the title-page of the first extant edition of 1600, which describes it as having been performed by the Earl of Derby’s and the Lord Chamberlain’s servants (successive titles of Shakespeare’s company), as well as by those of the Earls of Pembroke and Sussex.  It was entered on the ‘Stationers’ Register’ to John Danter on February 6, 1594. Langbaine claims to have seen an edition of this date, but none earlier than that of 1600 is now known.

‘Merchant of Venice.’

For part of the plot of ‘The Merchant of Venice,’ in which two romantic love stories are skilfully blended with a theme of tragic import, Shakespeare had recourse to ‘Il Pecorone,’ a fourteenth-century collection of Italian novels by Ser Giovanni Fiorentino. There a Jewish creditor demands a pound of flesh of a defaulting Christian debtor, and the latter is rescued through the advocacy of ‘the lady of Belmont,’ who is wife of the debtor’s friend.  The management of the plot in the Italian novel is closely followed by Shakespeare.  A similar story is slenderly outlined in the popular medieval collection of anecdotes called ‘Gesta Romanorum,’ while the tale of the caskets, which Shakespeare combined with it in the ‘Merchant,’ is told independently in another portion of the same work.  But Shakespeare’s ‘Merchant’ owes much to other sources, including more than one old play.  Stephen Gosson describes in his ‘Schoole of Abuse’ (1579) a lost play called ‘the Jew . . . showne at the Bull [inn]. . . representing the greedinesse of worldly chusers and bloody mindes of usurers.’  This description suggests that the two stories of the pound of flesh and the caskets had been combined before for purposes of dramatic representation.  The scenes in Shakespeare’s play in which Antonio negotiates with Shylock are roughly anticipated, too, by dialogues between a Jewish creditor Gerontus and a Christian debtor in the extant play of ‘The Three Ladies of London,’ by R[obert] W[ilson], 1584.  There the Jew opens the attack on his Christian debtor with the lines:

Signor Mercatore, why do you not pay me?  Think you I will be mocked in this sort?
This three times you have flouted me—it seems you make thereat a sport.
Truly pay me my money, and that even now presently,
Or by mighty Mahomet, I swear I will forthwith arrest thee.

Subsequently, when the judge is passing judgment in favour of the debtor, the Jew interrupts:

Stay, there, most puissant judge.  Signor Mercatore consider what you do.
Pay me the principal, as for the interest I forgive it you.

Shylock and Roderigo Lopez.

Above all is it of interest to note that Shakespeare in ‘The Merchant of Venice’ betrays the last definable traces of his discipleship to Marlowe.  Although the delicate comedy which lightens the serious interest of Shakespeare’s play sets it in a wholly different category from that of Marlowe’s ‘Jew of Malta’, the humanised portrait of the Jew Shylock embodies distinct reminiscences of Marlowe’s caricature of the Jew Barabbas.  But Shakespeare soon outpaced his master, and the inspiration that he drew from Marlowe in the ‘Merchant’ touches only the general conception of the central figure.  Doubtless the popular interest aroused by the trial in February 1594 and the execution in June of the Queen’s Jewish physician, Roderigo Lopez, incited Shakespeare to a new and subtler study of Jewish character. For Shylock (not the merchant Antonio) is the hero of the play, and the main interest culminates in the Jew’s trial and discomfiture.  The bold transition from that solemn scene which trembles on the brink of tragedy to the gently poetic and humorous incidents of the concluding act attests a mastery of stagecraft; but the interest, although it is sustained to the end, is, after Shylock’s final exit, pitched in a lower key.  The ‘Venesyon Comedy,’ which Henslowe, the manager, produced at the Rose on August 25, 1594, was probably the earliest version of ‘The Merchant of Venice,’ and it was revised later.  It was not published till 1600, when two editions appeared, each printed from a different stage copy.

‘King John.’

To 1594 must also be assigned ‘King John,’ which, like the ‘Comedy of Errors’ and ‘Richard II,’ altogether eschews prose.  The piece, which was not printed till 1623, was directly adapted from a worthless play called ‘The Troublesome Raigne of King John’ (1591), which was fraudulently reissued in 1611 as ‘written by W. Sh.,’ and in 1622 as by ‘W. Shakespeare.’  There is very small ground for associating Marlowe’s name with the old play.  Into the adaptation Shakespeare flung all his energy, and the theme grew under his hand into genuine tragedy.  The three chief characters—the mean and cruel king, the noblehearted and desperately wronged Constance, and the soldierly humourist, Faulconbridge—are in all essentials of his own invention, and are portrayed with the same sureness of touch that marked in Shylock his rapidly maturing strength.  The scene, in which the gentle boy Arthur learns from Hubert that the king has ordered his eyes to be put out, is as affecting as any passage in tragic literature.

‘Comedy of Errors’ in Gray’s Inn Hall.

At the close of 1594 a performance of Shakespeare’s early farce, ‘The Comedy of Errors,’ gave him a passing notoriety that he could well have spared.  The piece was played on the evening of Innocents’ Day (December 28), 1594, in the hall of Gray’s Inn, before a crowded audience of benchers, students, and their friends.  There was some disturbance during the evening on the part of guests from the Inner Temple, who, dissatisfied with the accommodation afforded them, retired in dudgeon.  ‘So that night,’ the contemporary chronicler states, ‘was begun and continued to the end in nothing but confusion and errors, whereupon it was ever afterwards called the “Night of Errors.”’ Shakespeare was acting on the same day before the Queen at Greenwich, and it is doubtful if he were present.  On the morrow a commission of oyer and terminer inquired into the causes of the tumult, which was attributed to a sorcerer having ‘foisted a company of base and common fellows to make up our disorders with a play of errors and confusions.’

Early plays doubtfully assigned to Shakespeare.

Two plays of uncertain authorship attracted public attention during the period under review (1591-4)—‘Arden of Feversham’ (licensed for publication April 3, 1592, and published in 1592) and ‘Edward III’ (licensed for publication December 1, 1595, and published in 1596).  Shakespeare’s hand has been traced in both, mainly on the ground that their dramatic energy is of a quality not to be discerned in the work of any contemporary whose writings are extant.  There is no external evidence in favour of Shakespeare’s authorship in either case.  ‘Arden of Feversham’ dramatises with intensity and insight a sordid murder of a husband by a wife which took place at Faversham in 1551, and was fully reported by Holinshed.  The subject is of a different type from any which Shakespeare is known to have treated, and although the play may be, as Mr. Swinburne insists, ‘a young man’s work,’ it bears no relation either in topic or style to the work on which young Shakespeare was engaged at a period so early as 1591 or 1592.  ‘Edward III’ is a play in Marlowe’s vein, and has been assigned to Shakespeare on even more shadowy grounds.  Capell reprinted it in his ‘Prolusions’ in 1760, and described it as ‘thought to be writ by Shakespeare.’  Many speeches scattered through the drama, and one whole scene—that in which the Countess of Salisbury repulses the advances of Edward III—show the hand of a master (act ii. sc. ii.)  But there is even in the style of these contributions much to dissociate them from Shakespeare’s acknowledged productions, and to justify their ascription to some less gifted disciple of Marlowe. A line in act ii. sc. i. (‘Lilies that fester smell far worse than weeds’) reappears in Shakespeare’s Sonnets’ (xciv. l. 14). It was contrary to his practice to literally plagiarise himself.  The line in the play was doubtless borrowed from a manuscript copy of the ‘Sonnets.’


Two other popular plays of the period, ‘Mucedorus’ and ‘Faire Em,’ have also been assigned to Shakespeare on slighter provocation.  In Charles II.’s library they were bound together in a volume labelled ‘Shakespeare, Vol. I.,’ and bold speculators have occasionally sought to justify the misnomer.

‘Mucedorus,’ an elementary effort in romantic comedy, dates from the early years of Elizabeth’s reign; it was first published, doubtless after undergoing revision, in 1595, and was reissued, ‘amplified with new additions,’ in 1610.  Mr. Payne Collier, who included it in his privately printed edition of Shakespeare in 1878, was confident that a scene interpolated in the 1610 version (in which the King of Valentia laments the supposed loss of his son) displayed genius which Shakespeare alone could compass.  However readily critics may admit the superiority in literary value of the interpolated scene to anything else in the piece, few will accept Mr. Collier’s extravagant estimate.  The scene was probably from the pen of an admiring but faltering imitator of Shakespeare.

‘Faire Em.’

‘Faire Em,’ although not published till 1631, was acted by Shakespeare’s company while Lord Strange was its patron, and some lines from it are quoted for purposes of ridicule by Robert Greene in his ‘Farewell to Folly’ in 1592.  It is another rudimentary endeavour in romantic comedy, and has not even the pretension of ‘Mucedorus’ to one short scene of conspicuous literary merit.