How to understand Shakespeare's plays

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  • erschienen am 12. Februar 2019
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978-3-7481-9696-9 (ISBN)
In reading and criticising the plays of Shakespeare, we must always bear in mind that they were written for the stage, not for the closet, to be acted, not to be read. Shakespeare, as it would appear, was utterly regardless of literary fame; he had, as we have seen, one sole object in view, to acquire as much money as would enable him to quit the hurry and bustle of London, and settle down in his native Stratford-on-Avon as a man of independent property, and be, if possible, the founder of a family. Pouring forth, therefore, his tragic and comic strains, with as little apparent effort as the songsters of the grove warble their native notes, he set no value on them but as they filled the Globe and the Blackfriars and thus tended to the realization of the great object of all his ambition; and he never gave a single one of them to the press, as was done by Jonson and others who sought for literary fame by their dramas.
1. Auflage
  • Englisch
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978-3-7481-9696-9 (9783748196969)


The Comedy of Errors.
Edition. Only in the folio, 1623.
Date. As it is mentioned by Meres it must be anterior to 1598. It was probably Shakespeare's first original piece. From the plain allusion (III.2) to the civil war in France, it must have been written before February 1594, in which year Henry IV. was crowned. I have shown above that it could not have been acted earlier than 1593.
Origin. It is manifestly founded on the Menæchmi of Plautus; but Shakespeare hardly went to the original. He may have merely got an account of that piece from some learned friend; and there was a piece named The Historie of Error, which was played at Hampton Court before the Queen, on New Year's day 1576-77, which may have been formed on the Menæchmi. The proper title of this play seems to have been simply Errors, and The Comedy of Errors is like The Tragedy of Macbeth, &c.

The Two Gentlemen of Verona.
Edition. Only in the folio, 1623.
Date. Anterior to 1598 as it is in Meres's list. The critics have not observed that the resemblance is so strong between Act III. Sc. 1 of this play, and Act I. Sc. 2 of Lyly's Midas, that the one must have been taken from the other. In my opinion our poet was the borrower, as his scene is so superior to Lyly's. Now Midas was printed in 1592; but Shakespeare, it may be said, may have seen the play acted, or he may have written that scene, and added it to his play after he had read Lyly's; so the present comedy might have been written before 1592. This, however, I have shown to be at the least very unlikely. Though in my edition of the Plays I have given, as here, precedence to The Comedy of Errors, I do not feel at all certain upon the point, and would by no means assert that this is not rather "the first heir of his [dramatic] invention."
Origin. The plot seems to have been, in the main, of our poet's own invention; though what relates to Proteus and Julia may have been suggested, mediately or immediately, by the story of Felix and Felismena in the Diana of Montemayor. Indeed the points of resemblance are such that I feel confident the poet must have been acquainted with that part of the Diana; and yet it was not translated till 1598. Might he not have learned it from some one who had read the work in Spanish?

Love's Labour's Lost.
Editions. 4to, 1598; in the folio, 1623.
Date. We have no means of ascertaining the exact time of its composition; but from internal evidence we must regard it as one of our author's earliest pieces, yet, I think, later than those I have placed before it.
Origin. It is apparently wholly our poet's own invention, as no novel, play, or anything else at all resembling it has been discovered.

All's Well that Ends Well.
Edition. Only in the folio, 1623.
Date. Meres, as we have seen, terms one of Shakespeare's comedies "Love Labour's Won." Among our author's extant comedies there is none with that title, and we have no reason whatever for supposing any original play of his to be lost; while on the other hand the subject of the present play accords most accurately with that title. It has therefore been conjectured, with great probability, that this is one of Shakespeare's early plays, which he altered and improved at a later period, giving it at the same time a new title. We can certainly discern in it the style and mode of composition of two different periods-the riming scenes, for instance, belonging to the earlier one. It is to be observed of these riming scenes, that they only occur in the three preceding plays, and in Romeo and Juliet, in all which plays soliloquies, letters, &c. are in stanzas-like the sonnets in Spanish plays; and the very same is the case in the present play, and in it alone of the later ones; whence we may fairly conclude that it belonged to the early period. The second act seems to retain, both in the serious and the comic scenes, much of the original play unaltered; and every one must be struck with the resemblance of the style in it to that of Love's Labour's Lost.
Origin. The tale of Giletta di Narbona in Boccaccio's Decameron, which Shakespeare may have read in the original, or in the translation in Painter's Palace of Pleasure. The comic scenes are, of course, our author's own, as usual.

A Midsummer-Night's Dream.
Editions. 4to (by Fisher), 1600; 4to (by Roberts), 1600; in the folio, 1623.
Date. Anterior to 1598, as it is mentioned by Meres. I do think that in Act II.Sc. 1 there is an allusion to the state of the weather in the summer of 1594, and that Shakespeare may have been writing this play at that very time. I therefore incline to give that year, or 1595, as the date of its composition.
Origin. Purely and absolutely the whole the poet's own invention. He was well read in Chaucer, in Golding's Ovid, and in North's Plutarch, where he got the names of his characters and some circumstances.

The Taming of the Shrew.
Edition. Only in the folio, 1623.
Date. We have no means of ascertaining the exact date of this play; but the style proves it to belong to Shakespeare's early period. The reason of its omission by Meres has been already given.
Origin. It is a rifacimento of an anonymous play, first printed in 1594, though perhaps written and acted some time earlier, and termed "The Taming of a Shrew," and it may be anterior to the Midsummer-Night's Dream; the date 1594 would seem to have some connexion with both plays. The incident of the Pedant personating Vincentio was taken from The Supposes, a translation by Gascoigne of Ariosto's I Suppositi.

The Merchant of Venice.
Editions. 4to (by Roberts), 1600; 4to (by Heyes), 1600; in the folio, 1623. The two 4tos are in effect the same; for Heyes's was printed by J. R., i.e. James Roberts, who probably had contrived to get a transcript from the copy in the theatre, and then may have made some arrangement with Heyes for the publication.
Date. It is in Meres's list, and it was entered by Roberts in the Stationers' Registers 22nd July 1598; so that it was probably first acted in that or the preceding year. It is, I think, certainly later than any of the preceding comedies.
Origin. The remote origin of the incidents both of the bond and of the caskets is the Gesta Romanorum portions of which had been translated and published by Robinson in 1577. The incident of the bond is also in Il Pecorone of Ser Giovanni Fiorentino, first printed in 1558, and which Shakespeare may have read. There was also a ballad on the subject, in Percy's Reliques, with which he may have been acquainted.

As You Like It.
Edition. Only in the folio, 1623.
Date. It is posterior to 1598, as Meres does not mention it, and was entered in the Stationer's Registers, August 4, 1600, by the booksellers Wise and Aspley; but for some reason, which we cannot now discover, they did not print it.
Origin. It is founded on Lodge's novel of Rosalynde, of which the chief origin was The Coke's Tale of Gamelyn, ascribed, but wrongly, to Chaucer. The characters of Jaques, Touchstone, and Audrey, and of course all the comic scenes, are Shakespeare's own.

Much Ado About Nothing.
Editions. 4to, 1600; in the folio, 1623.
Date. Not being mentioned by Meres, it is posterior to 1598; and as it is said, in the title-page of the 4to, that "it hath been sundry times publicly acted," it may have been written in 1598, and may be older than As You Like It; but we have no means of deciding.
Origin. The story of Ariodante and Ginevra in the Orlando Furioso, which Shakespeare may have read either in the original or in Sir John Harington's translation, published in 1591. The story had also been translated by Beverley and Turberville; and there was a play on it, performed before the Queen on Shrove Tuesday 1582-83; so that it was well known. Shakespeare's other authority was the novel of Timbreo di Cardona, &c., in Bandello, in which occur the names Pietro di Aragona , Messina , and Felicia Lionata , and with which therefore Shakespeare must have been acquainted. As there was no known translation of it, save a French one in Belleforest's Histoires Tragiques , I am of opinion that Shakespeare had read the original Italian. It need hardly be added that all the comic scenes and characters are our author's own.


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