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the other hand, the play, as we have it, contains at least one passage, inferring, apparently, that the work of revisal must have been done some time after the accession of King James, which was in March, 1603. That passage is the odd reason Mrs. Page gives Mrs. Ford for declining to share the honour of knighthood with Sir John: “These knights will hack ; and so thou shouldst not alter the article of thy gentry”; which can scarce bear any other sense than as referring to the prodigality with which the King dispensed those honours in the first year of his English reign; knighthood being thereby in a way to grow so hackneyed, that it would rather be an honour not to have been dubbed. As for the reasons urged by Knight and Halliwell for dating the first writing as far back as 1593, they seem to me quite too far-fetched and fanciful to be worthy of notice; certainly not worth the cost of sifting, nor even of statement.
Much question has been made as to the particular period of his life in which Sir John prosecuted his adventures at Windsor, whether before or after the incidents of King Henry the Fourth, or at some intermediate time. And some perplexity appears to have arisen from confounding the order in which the several plays were written with the order of the events described in them. Now, at the close of the History, Falstaff and his companions are banished the neighborhood of the Court, and put under strong bonds of good behaviour. So that the action of the Comedy cannot well be referred to any point of time after that proceeding. Moreover we have Page speaking of Fenton as having " kept company with the wild Prince and Pointz.” Then too, after Falstaff's experiences in the buck-basket and while disguised as “the wise woman of Brentford,” we have him speaking of the matter as follows: “ If it should come to the ear of the Court, how I have been transformed, and how my transformation hath been washed and cudgelled, they would melt me out of my fat drop by drop, and liquor fishermen's boots with me: I warrant they would whip me with their fine wits till I were as crestfallen as a dried pear.” From which it would seem that he still enjoys at Court the odour of his putative heroism in killing Hotspur at the battle of Shrewsbury, with which the First Part of the History closes. The Second Part of the History covers a period of nearly ten years, from July, 1403, to March, 1413; in which time Falstaff may be supposed to have found leisure for the exploits at Windsor.
So that the action of the Comedy might well enough have taken place in one of Sir John's intervals of rest from the toils of war during the time occupied by the Second Part of the History. And this placing of the action is further sustained by the presence of Pistol in the Comedy; who is not heard of at all in the First Part of the History, but spreads himself with characteristic splendour in the Second. Falstaff's boy, Robin, also, is the same, apparently, who figures as his Page in the Second Part of the History. As for the Mrs. Quickly of Windsor, we can hardly identify her in any way with the Hostess of Eastcheap. For, as Gervinus acutely remarks, “not only are her outward circumstances different, but her character also is essentially diverse; similar in natural simplicity indeed, but at the same time docile and skilful, as the credulous wife and widow of Eastcheap never appears." To go no further, the Windsor Quickly is described as a maid ; which should suffice of itself to mark her off as distinct from the Quickly of Boars-head Tavern.
In truth, however, I suspect the Poet was not very attentive to the point of making the events of the several plays fadge together. The task of representing Sir John in love was so very different from that of representing him in wit and war, that he might well fall into some discrepancies in the process. And if he had been asked whereabouts in the order of Falstaff's varied exploits he meant those at Windsor to be placed, most likely he would have been himself somewhat puzzled to answer the question.
For the plot and matter of the Comedy, Shakespeare was apparently little indebted to any thing but his own invention. The Two Lovers of Pisa, a tale borrowed from the novels of Straparola, and published in Tarlton’s News out of Purgatory, 1590, is thought to have suggested some of the incidents; and the notion seems probable. In that tale a young gallant falls in love with a jealous old doctor's wife, who is also young, and really encourages the illicit passion. The gallant, not knowing the doctor, takes him for confidant and adviser in the prosecution of his suit, and is thus thwarted in all his plans. The naughty wife conceals her lover, first in a basket of feathers, then between some partitions of the house, and again in a box of deeds and valuable papers. If the Poet had any other obligations, they have not been traced clearly enough to be worth noting.
As a specimen of pure comedy, The Merry Wives of Windsor by general concession stands unrivalled. I say pure comedy, for it has no such interminglings of high poetry and serious passion as mark the Poet's best comedies, and give them a semi-tragic cast. This play is not only full of ludicrous situations and predicaments, but is also rich and varied in comic characterization. Even Falstaff apart, who is an inexhaustible storehouse of laughtermoving preparations, there is comic matter enough in the characters and doings of the other persons to make the play a perpetual diversion. Though historically connected with the reign of Henry the Fourth, the manners and humours of the scene are those of the Poet's own time; and in this respect we need but compare it with Ben Jonson's Every Man in his Humour, to see “how much easier it was to vanquish the rest of Europe than to contend with Shakespeare."
The action of the piece proceeds throughout by intrigue; that is, a complication of cross-purposes wherein the several persons strive to outwit and circumvent one another. And
the stratagems all have the appropriate merit of causing a pleasant surprise, and a perplexity that is grateful, because it stops short of confusion ; while the awkward and grotesque predicaments, into which the persons are thown by their mutual crossing and tripping, hold attention on the alert, and keep the spirits in a frolic. Yet the laughable proceedings of the scene are all easy and free; that is, the comic situations are ingenious without being at all forced; the ingenuity being hidden in the naturalness with which every thing comes to pass. The play well illustrates, too, though in its own peculiar sort, the general order and method of Shakespeare's art; the surrounding parts falling
in with the central one, and the subordinate plots drawing, Southeas by a secret impulse, into harmony with the leading plot.
For instance, while Falstaff undergoes repeated collapses
from a hero into a butt, that others may laugh at his expense; the Welsh Parson and the French Doctor are also baulked of their revenge, just as they are getting over the preliminary pains and vexations; and, while pluming themselves with anticipated honours, are suddenly deplumed into “vlouting-stogs ”: Page, too, and his wife no sooner begin to exult in their success than they are taken down by the thrift of a counter stratagem, and left to the double shame of ignobly failing in an ignoble undertaking: and Ford's jealousy, again, is made to scourge himself with the very whip he has twisted for the scourging of its object. Thus all the more prominent persons have to chew the ashes of disappointment in turn; their plans being thwarted, and themselves made ridiculous, just as they are on the point of grasping their several fruitions. Falstaff, indeed, is the only one of them that rises by falling, and extracts grace out of his disgraces. For in him the grotesque and ludicrous is evermore laughing and chuckling over itself: he makes comedies extempore out of his own shames and infirmities; and is himself the most delighted spectator of the scenes in which he figures as chief actor.
This observation and enjoyment of the comical as displayed in himself, which forms one of Sir John's leading traits, and explains much in him that were else inexplicable, is here seen however labouring under something of an eclipse. The truth is, he is plainly out of his sphere; and he shows a strange lapse from his wonted sagacity in getting where he is: the good sense so conspicuous in his behaviour on other occasions ought to have kept him from supposing for a moment that he could inspire the passion of love in such a place; nor, as before observed, does it seem likely that the Poet would have shown him thus, but that he were moved thereto by something outside of his own mind. For of love in any right or even decent sense Sir John is essentially incapable. And Shakespeare evidently so regarded him : he therefore had no alternative but either to commit a gross breach of decorum or else to make the hero unsucce
cessful, an alternative in which the moral sanity of his genius left him no choice. So that in undertaking the part of a lover the man must needs be a mark of interest chiefly for what is practised upon him. For, if we may believe Hazlitt, “wits and philosophers seldom shine in that character”; and, whether this be true or not, it is certain that “ Sir John by no means comes off with flying colours." In fact, he is here the dupe and victim of his own heroism, and provokes laughter much more by what he suffers than by what he does.
But Falstaff, notwithstanding all these drawbacks, is still so far himself, that “nought but himself can be his conqueror.” If he be overmatched, it is not so much by the strength or skill of his antagonists as from his being persuaded, seemingly against his judgment and for the pleasure of others, into a line of adventure where he is not qualified to shine, and where genius, wit, and understanding are commonly distanced by a full purse and a handsome person. His incomparable art in turning adversities into commodities; the good-humoured strategy whereby he manages to divert off all unpleasant feeling of his vices and frailties;