The Early Comedies – Shakespeare

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It is in the nature of young artists to experiment in mode, form and content. This is an essential and often uncontrolled flexing of the imagination’s muscles. The danger, however, for the reader, is to isolate the author from his context and ignore any predisposition to be influenced by it. No writer, who is truly a writer, is generated solely by the inner workings of his own mind – least of all the dramatist whose work is at the mercy of his the inevitable compromises through which drama is realized on the stage. The fact that Shakespeare wrote, in a short period, several history plays, a Senecan revenge tragedy, and a number of comedies (themselves in different modes) is, of course, a measure of excited and young versatility. Most surely, however, it indicates the nature of the varied context in which he lived, as man and artist. He shows in his history plays that he is capable of transcending the conventional with individual sensibility in form and content. His early comedies, less obviously, show a similar process, but what is more immediately apparent about them is the extent to which he was governed by theatre fashion and the examples of his contemporaries. The Comedy of Errors, The Taming of the Shrew, and Love’s Labour’s Lost are modish comedies. They are the product of Shakespeare’s reading of Latin Literature, his manipulation of the form and content of Terence and Plautus and his susceptibility to the influence of the University Wits. We have removed ourselves from the classical diet of the Elizabethan intelligentsia, and from the idea of “academic” influences of art; it means little to us to say that Shakespeare’s early comedies derived from these sources. We can gain a rich delight from them (particularly, The Shrew) with no knowledge of Lyly, Peele, Greene or Gaxoignes’ influence on their creator. So complex is this interweaving that scholarly claims have been made for the authorship of (or part authorship of) several Shakespeare’s of early plays by one or the other group. Equally there have been many speculations on collaborative authorship of certain plays – such is the power of mode and genre that it can often obliterate individuality.

Artifice is the key-note of the plays like Greene’s James IV, Lyly’s Mother Bombie  and Campaspe, elements of which Shakespeare later refined and modified in his mature comedies. In the 1580s, however, what he found in them led his own pen in the direction of conscious contrivance in plot, character and language. His early comedies, to one degree or another, have a conscious fastidiousness of application of technique and imagination. “The measure of his superiority over his contemporaries is less in his superior technique than in the gradual emergence of an individuality of vision. His contemporaries remained largely bound by convention of all kinds; he gradually made use of the same conventions to communicate a vision of existence which was beyond them. Consideration of his early comedies, therefore, demands a balance between critical appreciation of his handling of conventions and a sensibility to be aware of his unique, if as yet, limited vision.”

The nature of the conventions is simply stated: Pots are derived from classical sources and are often or devious in form. Stock characters are almost folk figures of Latin drama – crafty servant, bombastic soldiery, ageing but affluent lovers, duped parents. There is highly artificial language, exemplified in its English counterpart in Lyly’s style, (1) ostentatious imagery full of classical allusions, (2) conceits of speech, (3) rhetoric, (4) self-conscious wit, (5) aphorisms, (6) alliteration. The setting, particularly in Lyly, is often pastoral in which a story of love is played out with groups of couples, young shepherds and shepherdesses, baulked swains and disguised amorata. (1) From Robert Greene he learned about the way to complicate plots and to interweave main and sub-plots; from the Commedia Delle Arte he derived the stock low-life characters like the braggard, the lowly priest, the clown and the cheeky boy and the sophisticates like the pedantic scholar and the bombastic soldier; from Terence and Plautus he learnt how to how to manipulate such stock figures within the five act form, how to capitalize on mistaken identity, how to manoeuvre intrigue. He had either in the original or in the translation and adaptation, realized that where Plautus uses ridicule Terence uses irony, that where one is coarse the other leans towards refinement, where the one is given to idiomatic vernacular speech the other is more arrogantly literary in verbal tone and form.

It is easy to enumerate the general and particular qualities which Shakespeare inherited from these various sources but difficult to pin down the particular source of any obvious influence. It is not enough to remember that Shakespeare most probably read Plautus in the original. One example of the difficulty of assessing direct influence will suffice to avoid any tendency to be dogmatic. There were many adaptations from Plautus, for example, made in the 15th and 16th Centuries, for use on the Italian stage, Thus Ariosto’s Gli Suppo Iti of 1509 is an adaptation of Plautine comedy. This later formed the basis for Gaxoigne’s Supposes written in 1566. We later find that the Gaxoigne version becomes the Bianca sub-plot in The Taming of the Shrew.

The complicated weaving and interweaving of literary modes and influences, which involved matter both ancient and contemporary and writers both long dead and ambitiously still alive, may enliven the researcher to unravel to a point where the thread breaks. The truth is that the young Shakespeare showed himself as capable as any of using modes which were common stock, and that he was probably quite immune from speculation upon where and how he got this and that. What was more to the point for him was the necessity to keep his name in the forefront of the young dramatists and to combat, by sheer virtuosity, the tense envies and jealousies that undoubtedly crowed and grunted din that small theatre world. It is Greene’s attack on Shakespeare which is most commonly held to be the most violent example of the tensions which inhabited the Elizabethan literary world, and it certainly has a sneering envy about it. A lesser known Nashe, on dramatists whose learning is faulty, gives a more direct impression of the temper of the times. Such men, he says, are “A sort of shifting companions, that run through every Art and thrive by none…that could scarce Latinize their verse if they should have a need.”

He was not referring directly to Shakespeare, but his words suggest an atmosphere in which no one was likely to be immune from calumny. Shakespeare would have been particularly vulnerable, not only because of his achievements, not only because he was not a member of the University Wits, but also because, the discerning, with no axe to grind, were beginning to laud him:

“As Plautus and Seneca are accounted the best for tragedy and comedy among the Latines, so Shakespeare among the English is the most excellent in both kinds for the stage; for comedy, witness his Two Gentlemen of Verona, his Errors, his Love’s Labour’s Lost, his Love’s Labour’s Won, his Mid-Sunmmer Night’s Dream and his Merchant of Venice.”

This, by Francis Meres, is a comprehensive assertion of his admiration for Shakespeare. It is also a tacit recognition of his pre-eminence in those very forms and modes of comedy and tragedy which were part of the common stock and style.

There can be no doubt that Shakespeare, in his early comedies, showed evidence of being captivated by accepted modes – “in these early plays Shakespeare had clearly been taken with the sweet flowers of fancy and the pretty conceits of poet-apes” (Bradbrook). Except intermittently, his language, quite apart from his dramaturgy, echoes the courtly forms of his contemporaries. IT is his point of view, growing into comprehensive vision as he matures, which clinches the evidences of individuality. This may be expressed simply, but it takes different forms in the early plays. He may be said to be a creator where his contemporaries are artificers. He comes to write with imaginative purpose where his contemporaries exercise nimble fancy. He comes to use convention as a means where, largely, for his contemporaries it is an end in itself. He begins to find individual characters where they rest with happy types. Above all, he moves inexorably in the direction of fairness of judgment of the human world which is his unique quality. In short, it is the difference between a correct compassionate art and agile, self-regarding artifice, which we observe beginning to develop between him and the rest.