Imatges de pàgina

than his own wife is the subject of seduction, and he resolves to ascertain the fact by watching the young man to his house. He follows him accordingly; but is foiled in his expectation of detecting the frailty of his spouse, a heap of wet linen effectually concealing the gallant from observation.

Perfectly unconscious that he was engaged in an intrigue with his master's wife, the young man relates to him the next morning the alarm, disappointment, and escape he had experienced; and, above all, the consolation he was to receive, that very night, in a new interview. As before, the master watches the approach of the youth, who is scarcely allowed time to enter the lady's house when a violent knocking proclaims the arrival of her husband : she admits him, and, at the same time, conceals her favourite by throwing the door completely back. As the husband rushes in, the gallant slips out; and the wife knowing all to be now safe, catches her husband in her arms, shrieks aloud, affects to believe him mad, and calls in the neighbours to witness his outrageous conduct: he cuts and stabs the linen with his sword, and talks wildly of a man concealed in his house. Search proves the falsity of his charge, and in the end he gets laughed at for his humour.

These are the incidents adopted by Shakspeare from the Italian tale, but his design in using them was totally different from that of the novelist. The story is a real, the play a mock, affair of gallantry : an injured husband is the butt of the former, and applause is solicited for the ingenuity of his deceivers. The play ridicules the folly of unreasonable suspicion ; and justly punishes, and exposes to contempt, the grossness and sensuality of Falstaff.

I have already slightly alluded to the tradition preserved by Rowe, that Queen Elizabeth was so much pleased with Falstaff in the two parts of Henry the Fourth, that she commanded Shakspeare to write another play, and exhibit him in love ; which was complied with in the production of the Merry Wives of Windsor. This story is strongly corroborated by the evidence of the play itself. There are two editions of the Merry Wives of Windsor; a quarto, published in 1602, and the edition in the first folio ; and they materially differ from each other. The quarto is evidently the play referred to by a second story that the queen's commands were executed in a fortnight. It is a production such as might have been anticipated

from a hasty compliance with directions which, though foolish, could not be disregarded : it is slight, ill-digested, unfinished, and, viewed in connection with the two parts of Henry the Fourth, inconsistent also. The author saw and regretted the imperfections of his performance. In an endeavour to amend it, he retouched each character, and brightened almost every passage : but inherent defects were beyond his power of cure; and as a continuation of the Falstaff of Henry IV., the Falstaff of the Merry Wives of Windsor must be considered as a failure. The two characters do not harmonise ; and it is particularly worthy of observation, that the want of symmetry between them is in the point of Falstaff's intrigue with the Merry Wives. The objection is not to his inclination to gallantry with Mistress Ford, or Mistress Page, but to the personal vanity and simple credulity which a belief of their attachment to him necessarily presupposes in Falstaff. Of personal vanity the fat knight of Henry IV. possesses not a spark : on the contrary, his preposterous fatness is an exhaustless theme of his own laughter. Rather than have courted exposure and ridicule from two sprightly women, he would instantly have smelt waggery in any advances they might have

made to him ; and if he had not at once put an end to their hopes of fooling him, he would merely have yielded, till he could successfully have turned the tables on themselves. The Falstaff of the Merry Wives indeed jests with himself and is merry with his unwieldy person, but the effect is only that of making his conduct appear more absurd and unnatural.

The dramatist exerted himself strenuously, to conceal defects which it was not in his power to remove. The hope of supplying his necessities furnishes motives to Falstaff to try the experiment of an intrigue with Mistress Ford; and in Ford's application to him, there is an additional reason for perseverance. But still it always appears incredible that the keen-sighted knight should so far forget himself, and his knowledge of the world, as to incur the risque (the certainty, one might say) of exposure ; that he should be so utterly insensible to the wisdom of Shylock's caution, and not only let a serpent sting him “ twice," but thrice : and being thrice gulled, that he should bow under disgrace, unexcused by falsehood, or undefended by wit.

From the novel which furnished Shakspeare with his plot he derived nothing in the shape of character ; but the Kitely of Ben Jonson being

a previous delineation, it is doubtful whether Ford can be considered original : both are jealous, both causelessly so, and both make themselves ridiculous by their extravagance. The manly confidence of Page effectively contrasts the unworthy mistrust of Ford.

The wives of both are jewels, though not inestimable. Gay, witty, and good-humoured, sense and prudence are the directors, and virtue the object of their behaviour. They love their jest, and are doubly delighted to indulge it, its aim being the cure of folly and the exposure and punishment of wickedness. Mistress Page truly marked the conclusion deducible from their actions

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“We'll leave a proof by that which we will do,


and yet honest too.”

Wives may

There is not much humour of the highest order in Doctor Caius: the mirth he occasions is attributable to an illegitimate source of wit- blunders in language. But the character is very amusing, even by the force of its contrast to the Welsh parson. Sir Hugh Evans is inimitable : his general good sense, his integrity of intention, his imperfect knowledge of things and of the world, and his consequent con

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