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Olivia, girl-like capricious, hard to please, but easily won, the tender, sensitive, but playful and witty Viola, Antonio with his fanciful friendship for Sebastian, and Sebastian with the natural rashness and impetuosity of youth, the tricksy and roguish Maria, with her clever helper's helper–Fabian, all these characters are thrown off in such easy flowing outline, and in such transparent colours, and harmonize so well together, that the slightest alteration would tear the varied, light, and airy, but ingenious web that is spun around them. In drawing the characters, Shakspeare has as it were but brushed off the light pollen of the flower—a ruder and a bolder hand would have torn the fine threads off its anthers. The clever contrast between the fool by profession, and the involuntary simpletons, Malvolio, Sir Andrew, and Sir Toby, is perhaps the most carefully worked out of the whole piece. While their own folly and absurdity, notwithstanding all their struggles, does but force the cap-and-bells over their ears, the clown in his adopted gown of motley moves with inimitable ease, and pins the pied lappets of his wit to the backs of all the rest. In his person the meaning of the entire poem is as it were concentrated. He alone with full consciousness looks upon life as a merry TwelfthNight, on which every one must play his allotted part, so as to afford the greatest possible amusement and diversion, both to himself and others. What he wishes is nothing more nor less than to be a fool in the great fool's house, the world; hence he has an unconquerable aversion for all starched wisdom and reserve, and for all hollow unmeaning gravity, which can neither understand nor bear a joke, and on this account is he on such ill terms with Malvolio. He alone feels respect for his cap-and-bells ; for he knows that fun and laughter, joke and jest, belong in short to life, and that there is more depth and meaning in witty folly like his own, than in the sour looks of so-called wise folk. And this is the profound seriousness which serves as a foil to this merry drama. As human life is at present constituted, man cannot always be serious and rational. He ought to raise himself above the finite and transient pursuits of this earthly life; his path leads upwards to God. But on this path there is a turning and a resting point -to many it is their point of exit-from which, when a sound and strong mind looks back upon the mire and confusion beneath him, the whole of life appears so little and insignificant, so wonderful and strange, that he deems it to be altogether ridiculous, and under this impression can only treat it with mockery and laughter.
The chief moments of the action spontaneously evolve themselves out of the fundamental idea, and the characters which so aptly correspond to it. The characters fall into two principal groups; which again divide into subordinate ones, and occasionally mingling and approaching, act and react upon each other. On one side stands the Duke, with Olivia, Viola, and Sebastian; on the other, Sir Toby, Sir Andrew, and the household of Olivia. Chance, caprice, and intrigue-Viola's preservation and disguise—furnish the groundwork and plan of the fable. First of all, love and chance lead a merry game with the first group. Viola, who means only to toy with the love of others, falls herself into a lieavy love sickness: the Duke, the slave of the scornful Olivia, is happily emancipated in order to work the cure of Viola; and Olivia, in punishment of her cruelty, falls desperately in love with one of her own sex ;-all, however, is happily set right by chance, which introduces Sebastian on the scene. In the second of the principal groups, Sir Toby and Sir Andrew are in the most amusing manner lashed by their folly and perversity, while the silly and conceited Malvolio is made the laughing-stock of the Clown, Maria, and Fabian, and in order to heighten the complication, chance and mistake entangle Antonio and Sebastian in the capricious net wherein reason, prudence, and all the prosaic virtues of every-day life, are caught. But chance and caprice again disentangle the intricate web, and by a happy fate every one obtains his wish. The common-place prosaic Malvolio alone reaps his due in mockery and derision; for the unenthusiastic prose, which indeed is always immoral, meets with no mercy at the comic tribunal.
The language of the piece flows on full of grace and wit; and thus in this piece, again, we discover an intrinsic harmony between the characterization, action (invention), and diction. All springs up out of the view of life which is made the basis of the piece (ground-idea), with such organic necessity, that the composition appears not less masterly here than in Shakspeare's best tragedies.
As this admirable comedy stands between the two classes of Shakspeare's comedies, so also in date it belongs to the middle of our poet's career. It admits of no doubt that it was already written in 1599. In support of this view we may appeal to the language and versification, the tone and keeping of the whole, and especially to this view of life which is not usually met with in the young or old, but to the fresh and vigorous season at which the gifted mind has gained the summit of life, and has not yet taken a step in descent. It is further supported by its affinity with “ As You Like It.” And, lastly, also by Ben Jonson’s allusion to it in his well-known comedy, “Every Man out of his Humour,” to which Tieck first called attention. Now, the latter was acted towards the close of 1599, and it is therefore more than probable that “What You Will ” had already been brought out. The reasons which led Malone, Chalmers, Drake, and others, to place it much later (1613-14), are without force against the weight which considerations of language and character lay in the opposite scale, and when they are unsupported by external and historical evidence. Even though the words of Fabian (Act II. Scene 5)—“I will not give my part of this sport for a pension of thousands to be paid from the Sophy," do contain an allusion to Sir Robert Shirley, who resided, in 1612, at London, as ambassador from the Sophy of Persia, and received from King James an allowance of four pounds a day, or if, by Viola's words, “then Westward ho,” the drama of this title, by Decker and Webster, be meant, which appeared in 1607, it would have been only natural to assume that such side-glances to unimportant topics of the day had been interpolated on occasion (ex tempore) either by the author or the actor, and so had found their way into the text, especially as “Twelfth Night” was not printed before 1623. For how little such incidental allusions are to be trusted is proved by the diary of a member of one of the Inns of Court, (discovered by Collier, and already so frequently referred to,) who reports, as eye-witness, that it was acted at the Reader's Feast at the Middle Temple on Feb. 2, 1602. Collier is of opinion that it may have been produced shortly before on the boards of Blackfriars Theatre. This, however, is a mere hypothesis, and is greatly shaken by Ben Jonson's allusion to it, above noticed.
Whether Shakspeare borrowed the materials of his piece from Bandello, or from an old Italian comedy, “Gli Inganni,” to which, according to the barrister's diary, “ Twelfth-Night” possesses the greatest resemblance, cannot be determined until the lost comedy is recovered. In what way Shakspeare has made use of the novel of Bandello, if that be the source from which he drew, may be seen in Echtermeyer, Henschel, and Simrock (ii. 161; ü. 254, f.), where it will appear that in such a case the piece, so far as invention is concerned, is altogether Shakspeare's own property.
2. AS YOU LIKE IT. THE COMEDY OF ERRORS.
THE WINTER'S TALE.
The noble comedy of "As You Like It” is also of the mixed class, but with a decided preponderance of the fanciful element. Of two princely brothers, one is in possession of the ducal throne, of which-We are not told how-he has unjustly dispossessed the other, who, with his followers, are leading a wild and fantastic sort of life in the Forest of Arden; of another pair of noble brothers, the younger is persecuted by the elder, and takes refuge in the forest with the banished Duke; two princesses, the daughters of the two dukes, are deeply attached to each other, so that upon the banishment of one the other accompanies her in her flight also to the forest; a merry and a melancholy fool, with shepherds and shepherdesses, drawn to the truth of nature, with a few light touches—such are the principal personages of the piece, which, in harmonious and graceful grouping, and pleasing contrasts, animate the wilds of the wood of Arden, and by their diversified situations, relations, and character, condition every thing, and of themselves bring about whatever happens in the piece. Separately considered, nothing appears directly to contradict nature; no being or event singly is supernatural or unusual ; viewed singly, each character, situation, and transaction, might belong to the most ordinary reality. It is only by the presence of lions and serpents in an European forest, that we are gently reminded that we are standing within the intellectual domain of poetical fancy. But still more strongly does the whole, as it organically developes itself, and by the action of the several parts on each other, and
their relation to the whole-in short, the sum of the circumstances, situations, transactions, and incidents, give us to understand that it is by no means the purpose of the drama to exhibit ordinary reality, but, on the contrary, a view of life taken from a peculiar poetic position—in other words, a fanciful reflection of it in the mirror of irony and humour. For, when we take a closer look at the whole, we are soon compelled to admit that the like does not and could not come to pass in reality, but that such a romantic mode of living, in the solitude of a forest, is but a poetical dream; that caprice and humour do not so absolutely rule human life; that a character like that of the unjust Duke would not be so easily converted by the religious old hermit, nor a man like Oliver de Boys be suddenly diverted from his hatred by one magnanimous action of his persecuted and injured brother.
But it will be asked, where, then, amid this apparent want of nature and reality, is the poetic truth of the piece, and what is the position from which it contemplates human life? To answer this question it must be borne in mind, that the general comic view of things forms the basis of the whole piece, and that, consequently, it is by means of contrast, and not directly, that human life is here illustrated, and that by chance, humour, and caprice, being made to annihilate and subvert each other, the true director of human life, which is nothing less than the eternal order of things, is brought to light. This becomes clearly manifest, when we behold the arbitrary caprice which led to the banishment of the good old Duke, brought to an end by a like capricious whim; and how, in like measure, fickle humour restores a good understanding between the two brothers Oliver and Orlando de Boys; and how the fanciful loves of Rosalind and Orlando, of Celia and Oliver, which owed their origin to a singular concurrence of circumstances, are rendered happy by a no less arbitrary play of caprice and accident; and how, in the same way, the coyness of the shepherdess Phebe is overcome, and she is united to her faithful and goodhumoured simpleton of a lover.
Thus is the general comic view reflected in the whole, and thus does it fornı the foundation and platform on which all moves. When, then, we come to ask what special position the poet has here taken, and what is the special ground-idea of the piece, the title of the play