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“ Measure for Measure” was first printed in the folio of “Mr. William Shakespeares Comedies, Histories, & Tragedies,” 1623, where it occupies twenty-four pages, viz., from p. 61 to p. 84, inclusive, in the division of “ Comedies." It was, of course, reprinted in the later folios of 1632, 1664, and 1685.
IN the "History of English Dramatic Poetry," III. 68, it is remarked, that " although it seems clear that Shakespeare kept Whetstone's 'Promos and Cassandra' in his eye, while writing Measure for Measure,' it is probable that he also made use of some other dramatic composition or novel, in which the same story was treated.”. I was led to form this opinion from the constant habit of dramatists of that period to employ the productions of their predecessors, and from the extreme likelihood, that when our old play-writers were hunting in all directions for stories which they could convert to their purpose, they would not have passed over the novel by Giraldi Cinthio, which had not only been translated, but actually converted into a drama nearly a quarter of a century before the death of Elizabeth. Whetstone's “Promos and Cassandra,” a play in two parts, was printed in 1578, though, as far as we know, never acted, and he subsequently introduced a translation of the novel (which he admitted to be its origin), in his “Heptameron of Civil Discourses,” 4to, 1582'. No plays, however, excepting “Promos and Cassandra," and "Measure for Measure,” founded on the same incidents, have reached our day, and Whetstone's is the only existing ancient version of the Italian novel.
The title of Cinthio's novel, the fifth of the eighth Decad of his Hecatommithi, gives a sufficient account of the progress of the story as he relates it, and will show its connexion with Shakespeare's play: _"Juriste e mandato da Massimiano, Imperadore, in Ispruchi, ove fà prendere un giovane, violatore di una vergine, e condannalo à morte : la sorella cerca di liberarlo: Juriste da speranza alla donna di pigliarla per moglie, e di darle libero il fratello : ella con lui si giace, e la notte istessa Juriste få tagliar al giovane la testa, e la manda alla sorella. Ella ne fà querela all' Imperadore, il quale fà sposare ad Juriste la donna ; poscia lo fà dare ad essere ucciso. La donna lo libera, e con lui si vive amorevolissimamente."—Whetstone adopts these incidents pretty exactly in his “Promos and Cassandra ;" but Shakespeare varies from them chiefly by the introduction of Mariana, and by the final union between the Duke and Isabella. Whetstone lays his scene at Julio in Hungary, whither Corvinus, the King, makes a progress to ascertain the truth of certain charges against Promos : Shakespeare lays his scene in Vienna, and represents the Duke as retiring from public view, and placing his power in the hands of two deputies. Shakespeare was not indebted to Whetstone for a single thought, nor for a casual expression, excepting as far as similarity of situation may be said to have necessarily occasioned corresponding states of feeling, and employment of language. In Whetstone's “ Heptameron,” the name of the lady who narrates the story of “Promos and Cassandra,” is Isabella, and hence possibly Shakespeare might have adopted it.
1 Whetstone's “ Heptameron” is not paged, but “the rare Historie of Promos and Cassandra,” commences on Sign. N. ij b.
As to the date when “ Measure for Measure was written, we have no positive information, but we now know that it was acted at Court on St. Stephen's night, (26 Dec.) 1604. This fact is stated in Edmund Tylney's account of the expenses of the revels from the end of Oct. 1604, till the same date in 1605, preserved in the Audit Office: the original memorandum of the master of the revels runs literatim as follows:
“By his Matis Plaiers. On St. Stivens night in the Hall, a Play caled Mesur for Mesur."
In the column of the account headed “ The Poets which mayd the Plaies,” we find the name of “ Shaxberd” entered, which was the mode in which the ignorant scribe, who prepared the account, spelt the name of our great dramatist. Malone conjectured from certain allusions (such as to “ the war” with Spain, “ the sweat,” meaning the plague, &c.), that “Measure for Measure” was written in 1603; and if we suppose it to have been selected for performance at Court on 26th Dec. 1604, on account of its popularity at the theatre after its production, his supposition will receive some confirmation. However, such could not have been the case with “ the Comedy of Errors,” and “Love's Labours Lost,” which were written before 1598, and which were also performed at Christmas and Twelfth-tide, 1604-5. Tyrwhitt was at one time of opinion, from the passage in A. II. sc. 4,
“ As these black masks Proclaim an enshield beauty ten times louder
Than beauty could displayed,” that this drama was written to be acted at Court, as Shakespeare would hardly have been guilty of such an indecorum to flatter a common audience.” He was afterwards disposed to retract this notion ; but it is supported by the quotation from the Revels' accounts, un
less we imagine, as is not at all impossible, that the lines respecting “black masks" and some others (to use Tyrwhitt's words), “of particular flattery to James,” were inserted after it was known that the play, on account of its popularity, had been chosen for performance before the king. One of these passages seems to have been the following, which may have had reference to the crowds attending the arrival of James I. in London, not very long before “Measure for Measure" was acted at Whitehall :
« and even so
Must needs appear offence."
from a True Narration of the Entertainment" of the King on his way from Edinburgh to London, printed in 1603, where it is said, “ he was faine to publish an inhibition against the inordinate and dayly accesse of people comming." Taken with the context, the lines above quoted read like an insertion.
We may, therefore, arrive pretty safely at the conclusion, that “ Measure for Measure was written either at the close of 1603, or in the beginning of 1604.
“ Measure for Measure” was first printed in the folio of 1623 ; and exactly fifty years afterwards was published Sir William Davenant's “Law against Lovers,” founded upon it, and “Much ado about Nothing.” With some ingenuity in the combination of the plots, he contrived to avail himself largely, and for his purpose judiciously, of the materials Shakespeare furnished.
Of“ Measure for Measure,” Coleridge observes in his “ Literary Remains," ii. 122: “This play, which is Shakespeare's throughout, is to me the most painful, say rather, the only painful part of his genuine works. The comic and tragic parts equally border on the ulontéor—the one being disgusting, the other horrible ; and the pardon and marriage of Angelo not merely baffles the strong indignant claim of justice (for cruelty, with lust and damnable baseness, cannot be forgiven, because we cannot conceive them as being morally repented of), but it is likewise degrading to the character of woman.” In the course of Lectures on Shakespeare delivered in the year 1818, Coleridge pointed especially to the artifice of Isabella, and her seeming consent to the suit of Angelo, as the circumstances which tended to lower the character of the female sex. He then called “Measure for Measure" only the “least agreeable" of Shakespeare's dramas.