BIRON, ADRIANA, VALENTINE
In the preceding chapters I have considered those impersonations of
Shakespeare which revealed most distinctly the salient features of his
character. I now regard this part of my work as finished: the outlines
at least of his nature are established beyond dispute, and I may
therefore be permitted to return upon my steps, and beginning with the
earliest works pass in review most of the other personages who discover
him, however feebly or profoundly. Hitherto I have rather challenged
contradiction than tried to conciliate or persuade; it was necessary to
convince the reader that Shakespeare was indeed Hamlet-Orsino, plus an
exquisite sense of humour; and as the proofs of this were almost
inexhaustible, and as the stability of the whole structure depended on
the firmness of the foundations, I was more than willing to call forth
opposition in order once for all to strangle doubt. But now that I have
to put in the finer traits of the portrait I have to hope for the
goodwill at least of my readers. Even then my task is not easy. The
subtler traits of a man's character often elude accurate description, to
say nothing of exact proof; the differences in tone between a
dramatist's own experiences of life and his observation of the
experiences of others are often so slight as to be all but unnoticeable.
In the case of some peculiarities I have only a mere suggestion to go
upon, in that of others a bare surmise, a hint so fleeting that it may
well seem to the judicious as if the meshes of language were too coarse
to catch such evanescent indication.
Fortunately in this work I am not called on to limit myself to that
which can be proved beyond question, or to the ordinary man. I think my
reader will allow me, or indeed expect me, now to throw off constraint
and finish my picture as I please.
In this second book then I shall try to correct Shakespeare's portraits
of himself by bringing out his concealed faults and vices--the
shortcomings one's vanity slurs over and omits. Above all I shall try to
notice anything that throws light upon his life, for I have to tell here
the story of his passion and his soul's wreck. At the crisis of his life
he revealed himself almost without affectation; in agony men forget to
pose. And this more intimate understanding of the man will enable us to
reconstruct, partially at least, the happenings of his life, and so
trace not only his development, but the incidents of his life's journey
from his school days in 1575 till he crept home to Stratford to die
nearly forty years later.
The chief academic critics, such as Professor Dowden and Dr. Brandes,
take pains to inform us that Biron in "Love's Labour's Lost" is nothing
but an impersonation of Shakespeare. This would show much insight on the
part of the Professors were it not that Coleridge as usual has been
before them, and that Coleridge's statement is to be preferred to
theirs. Coleridge was careful to say that the whole play revealed many
of Shakespeare's characteristic features, and he added finely, "as in a
portrait taken of him in his boyhood." This is far truer than Dowden's
more precise statement that "Berowne is the exponent of Shakespeare's
own thought." For though, of course, Biron is especially the mouthpiece
of the poet, yet Shakespeare reveals himself in the first speech of the
King as clearly as he does in any speech of Biron:
"Let Fame, that all hunt after in their lives,
Live registered upon our brazen tombs,
And then grace us in the disgrace of death;
When, spite of cormorant devouring Time,
The endeavour of this present breath may buy
That honour which shall 'bate his scythe's keen edge,
And make us heirs of all eternity."
The King's criticism, too, of Armado in the first scene is more finely
characteristic of Shakespeare than Biron's criticism of Boyet in the
last act. In this, his first drama, Shakespeare can hardly sketch a
sympathetic character without putting something of himself into it.
I regard "Love's Labour's Lost" as Shakespeare's earliest comedy, not
only because the greater part of it is in rhymed verse, but also because
he was unable in it to individualize his serious personages at all; the
comic characters, on the other hand, are already carefully observed and
distinctly differenced. Biron himself is scarcely more than a charming
sketch: he is almost as interested in language as in love, and he plays
with words till they revenge themselves by obscuring his wit; he is
filled with the high spirits of youth; in fact, he shows us the form and
pressure of the Renaissance as clearly as the features of Shakespeare.
It is, however, Biron-Shakespeare, who understands that the real world
is built on broader natural foundations than the King's womanless
Academe, and therefore predicts the failure of the ascetic experiment.
Another trait in Biron that brings us close to Shakespeare is his
contempt for book-learning;
"Small have continual plodders ever won
Save bare authority from others' books.
* * * * *
Too much to know is to know nought but fame;
And every godfather can give a name."
Again and again he returns to the charge:
"To study now it is too late,
Climb o'er the house to unlock the little gate."
The summing up is triumphant:
"So, study evermore is overshot."
In fine, Biron ridicules study at such length and with such earnestness
and pointed phrase that it is manifest the discussion was intensely
interesting to Shakespeare himself. But we should have expected
Shakespeare's <i>alter ego</i> to be arguing on the other side; for
again and again we have had to notice that Shakespeare was a confirmed
lover of books; he was always using bookish metaphors, and Hamlet was a
student by nature. This attitude on the part of Biron, then, calls for
explanation, and it seems to me that the only possible explanation is to
be found in Shakespeare's own experience. Those who know England as she
was in the days of Elizabeth, or as she is to-day, will hardly need to
be told that when Shakespeare first came to London he was regarded as an
unlettered provincial ("with little Latin and less Greek"), and had to
bear the mocks and flouts of his beschooled fellows, who esteemed
learning and gentility above genius. In his very first independent play
he answered the scorners with scorn. But this disdain of study was not
Shakespeare's real feeling; and his natural loyalty to the deeper truth
forced him to make Biron contradict and excuse his own argument in a way
which seems to me altogether charming; but is certainly undramatic:
"--Though I have for barbarism spoke more
Than for that angel knowledge you can say."
Undramatic the declaration is because it is at war with the length and
earnestness with which Biron has maintained his contempt for learning;
but here undoubtedly we find the true Shakespeare who as a youth speaks
of "that angel, knowledge," just as in "Cymbeline" twenty years later he
calls reverence, "that angel of the world."
When we come to his "Life" we shall see that Shakespeare, who was thrown
into the scrimmage of existence as a youth, and had to win his own way
in the world, had, naturally enough, a much higher opinion of books and
book-learning than Goethe, who was bred a student and knew life only as
"Einen Blick in's Buch hinein und zwei in's Leben
Das muss die rechte Form dem Geiste geben."
Shakespeare would undoubtedly have given "two glances" to books and one
to life, had he been free to choose; but perhaps after all Goethe was
right in warning us that life is more valuable to the artist than any
transcript of it.
To return to our theme; Biron is not among Shakespeare's successful
portraits of himself. As might be expected in a first essay, the drawing
is now over-minute, now too loose. When Biron talks of study, he
reveals, as we have seen, personal feelings that are merely transient;
on the other hand, when he talks about Boyet he talks merely to hear
"the music of his own vain tongue." He is, however, always nimble-witted
and impulsive; "quick Biron" as the Princess calls him, a gentleman of
charming manners, of incomparable fluent, graceful, and witty speech,
which qualities afterwards came to blossom in Mercutio and Gratiano. The
faults in portraiture are manifestly due to inexperience: Shakespeare
was still too youthful-timid to paint his chief features boldly, and it
is left for Rosaline to picture Biron for us as Shakespeare doubtless
desired to appear:
"A merrier man,
Within the limits of becoming mirth,
I never spent an hour's talk withal.
His eye begets occasion for his wit;
For every object that the one doth catch,
The other turns to a mirth-moving jest,
Which his fair tongue, conceit's expositor,
Delivers in such apt and gracious words
That agèd ears play truant at his tales,
And younger hearings are quite ravishèd,
So sweet and voluble is his discourse."
Every touch of this self-painted portrait deserves to be studied: it is
the first photograph of our poet which we possess--a photograph, too,
taken in early manhood. Shakespeare's wit we knew, his mirth too, and
that his conversation was voluble and sweet enough to ravish youthful
ears and enthrall the aged we might have guessed from Jonson's report.
But it is delightful to hear of his mirth-moving words and to know that
he regarded himself as the best talker in the world. But just as the
play at the end turns from love-making and gay courtesies to thoughts of
death and "world-without-end" pledges, so Biron's merriment is only the
effervescence of youth, and love brings out in him Shakespeare's
"By heaven, I do love, and it hath taught me to
rhyme, and to be melancholy."
Again and again, as in his apology to Rosaline and his appeal at the end
of the play to "honest plain words," he shows a deep underlying
seriousness. The soul of quick talkative mirthful Biron is that he loves
beauty whether of women or of words, and though he condemns "taffeta
phrases," he shows his liking for the "silken terms precise" in the very
form of his condemnation.
Of course all careful readers know that the greater seriousness of the
last two acts of "Love's Labour's Lost," and the frequent use of blank
verse instead of rhymed verse in them, are due to the fact that
Shakespeare revised the play in 1597, some eight or nine years probably
after he had first written it. Every one must have noticed the
repetitions in Biron's long speech at the end of the fourth act, which
show the original garment and the later, finer embroidery. As I shall
have to return to this revision for other reasons, it will be enough
here to remark that it is especially the speeches of Biron which
Shakespeare improved in the second handling
Dr. Brandes, or rather Coleridge, tells us that in Biron and his
Rosaline we have the first hesitating sketch of the masterly Benedick
and Beatrice of "Much Ado about Nothing"; but in this I think Coleridge
goes too far. Unformed as Biron is, he is Shakespeare in early youth,
whereas in Benedick the likeness is not by any means so clear. In fact,
Benedick is merely an admirable stage silhouette and needs to be filled
out with an actor's personality. Beatrice, on the other hand, is a woman
of a very distinct type, whereas Rosaline needs pages of explanation,
which Coleridge never dreamed of. A certain similarity rather of
situation than of character seems to have misled Coleridge in this
instance. Boyet jests with Maria and Rosaline just as Biron does, and
just as Benedick jests with Beatrice: all these scenes simply show how
intensely young Shakespeare enjoyed a combat of wits, spiced with the
suggestiveness that nearly always shows itself when the combatants are
of different sexes.
It is almost certain that "Love's Labour's Lost" was wholly conceived
and constructed as well as written by Shakespeare; no play or story has
yet been found which might, in this case, have served him as a model.
For the first and probably the last time he seems to have taken the
entire drama from his imagination, and the result from a playwright's
point of view is unfortunate; "Love's Labour's Lost" is his slightest
and feeblest play. It is scarcely ever seen on the stage--is, indeed,
practically unactable. This fact goes to confirm the view already put
forth more than once in these pages, that Shakespeare was not a good
playwright and took little or no interest in the external incidents of
his dramas. The plot and action of the story, so carefully worked out by
the ordinary playwright and so highly esteemed by critics and
spectators, he always borrows, as if he had recognized the weakness of
this first attempt, and when he sets himself to construct a play, it has
no action, no plot--is, indeed, merely a succession of fantastic
occurrences that give occasion for light love-making and brilliant talk.
Even in regard to the grouping of characters the construction of his
early plays is puerile, mechanical; in "Love's Labour's Lost" the King
with his three courtiers is set against the Princess and her three
ladies; in "The Two Gentlemen of Verona" there is the faithful Valentine
opposed to the inconstant Proteus, and each of them has a comic servant;
and when later his plays from this point of view were not manufactured
but grew, and thus assumed the beautiful irregular symmetry of life, the
incidents were still neglected. Neither the poet nor the philosopher in
Shakespeare felt much of the child's interest in the story; he chose his
tales for the sake of the characters and the poetry, and whether they
were effective stage-tales or not troubled him but little. There is
hardly more plot or action in "Lear" than in "Love's Labour's Lost."
It is probable that "The Comedy of Errors" followed hard on the heels of
"Love's Labour's Lost." It practically belongs to the same period: it
has fewer lines of prose in it than "Love's Labour's Lost"; but, on the
other hand, the intrigue-spinning is clever, and the whole play shows a
riper knowledge of theatrical conditions. Perhaps because the intrigue
is more interesting, the character-drawing is even feebler than that of
the earlier comedy: indeed, so far as the men go there is hardly
anything worth calling character-drawing at all. Shakespeare speaks
through this or that mask as occasion tempts him: and if the women are
sharply, crudely differentiated, it is because Shakespeare, as I shall
show later, has sketched his wife for us in Adriana, and his view of her
character is decided enough if not over kind. Still, any and every
peculiarity of character deserves notice, for in these earliest works
Shakespeare is compelled to use his personal experience, to tell us of
his own life and his own feelings, not having any wider knowledge to
draw upon. Every word, therefore, in these first comedies, is important
to those who would learn the story of his youth and fathom the
idiosyncrasies of his being. When AEgeon, in the opening scenes, tells
the Duke about the shipwreck in which he is separated from his wife and
child, he declares that he himself "would gladly have embraced immediate
death." No reason is given for this extraordinary contempt of living. It
was the "incessant weepings" of his wife, the "piteous plainings of the
pretty babes," that forced him, he says, to exert himself. But wives
don't weep incessantly in danger, nor are the "piteous plainings of the
pretty babes" a feature of shipwreck; I find here a little picture of
Shakespeare's early married life in Stratford--a snapshot of memory.
AEgeon concludes his account by saying that his life was prolonged in
"To tell sad stories of my own mishaps"
--which reminds one of similar words used later by Richard II. This
personal, melancholy note is here forced and false, for Aegeon surely
lives in hope of finding his wife and child and not in order to tell of
his misfortunes. Aegeon is evidently a breath of Shakespeare himself,
and not more than a breath, because he only appears again when the play
is practically finished. Deep-brooding melancholy was the customary
habit of Shakespeare even in youth.
Just as in "Love's Labour's Lost" we find Shakespeare speaking first
through the King and then more fully through the hero, Biron, so here he
first speaks through Aegeon and then at greater length through the
protagonist Antipholus of Syracuse. Antipholus is introduced to us as
new come to Ephesus, and Shakespeare is evidently thinking of his own
first day in London when he puts in his mouth these words:
"Within this hour it will be dinner-time:
Till that, I'll view the manners of the town,
Peruse the traders, gaze upon the buildings,
And then return and sleep within mine inn;
For with long travel I am stiff and weary."
Though "stiff and weary" he is too eager-young to rest; he will see
everything--even "peruse the traders"--how the bookish metaphor always
comes to Shakespeare's lips!--before he will eat or sleep. The utterly
needless last line, with its emphatic description--"stiff and
weary"--corroborates my belief that Shakespeare in this passage is
telling us what he himself felt and did on his first arrival in London.
In the second scene of the third act Antipholus sends his servant to the
"I will not harbour in this town to-night
If any bark put forth."
From the fact that Shakespeare represented Antipholus to himself as
wishing to leave Ephesus by sea, it is probable that he pictured him
coming to Ephesus in a ship. But when Shakespeare begins to tell us what
he did on reaching London he recalls his own desires and then his own
feelings; he was "stiff and weary" on that first day because he rode, or
more probably walked, into London; one does not become "stiff and weary"
on board ship. This is another snapshot at that early life of
Shakespeare, and his arrival in London, which one would not willingly
miss. And surely it is the country-bred lad from Stratford who, fearing
all manner of town-tricks, speaks in this way:
"They say this town is full of cozenage;
As, nimble jugglers that deceive the eye,
Dark-working sorcerers that change the mind,
Soul-killing witches that deform the body,
Disguised cheaters, prating mountebanks,
And many such-like liberties of sin:
* * * * *
I greatly fear my money is not safe."
This Antipholus is most ingenuous-talkative; without being questioned he
tells about his servant:
"A trusty villain, sir; that very oft,
When I am dull with care and melancholy,
Lightens my humour with his merry jests."
And as if this did not mark his peculiar thoughtful temperament
sufficiently, he tells the merchant:
"I will go lose myself,
And wander up and down to view the city."
And when the merchant leaves him, commending him to his own content, he
talks to himself in this strain:
"He that commends me to mine own content,
Commends me to the thing I cannot get,
* * * * *
So I, to find a mother and a brother,
In quest of them, unhappy, lose myself."
A most curious way, it must be confessed, to seek for any one; but
perfectly natural to the refined, melancholy, meditative, book-loving
temperament which was already Shakespeare's. In this "unhappy" and
"mother" I think I hear an echo of Shakespeare's sorrow at parting from
his own mother.
This Antipholus, although very free and open, has a reserve of dignity,
as we see in the second scene of the second act, when he talks with his
servant, who, as he thinks, has played with him:
"Because that I familiarly sometimes
Do use you for my fool, and chat with you,
Your sauciness will jest upon my love,
And make a common of my serious hours.
When the sun shines let foolish gnats make sport,
But creep in crannies when he hides his beams."
The self-esteem seems a little exaggerated here; but, after all, it is
only natural; the whole scene is taken from Shakespeare's experience:
the man who will chat familiarly with his servant, and jest with him as
well, must expect to have to pull him up at times rather sharply.
Antipholus proceeds to play with his servant in a fencing match of
wit--a practice Shakespeare seems to have delighted in. But it is when
Antipholus falls in love with Luciana that he shows us Shakespeare at
his most natural as a lover. Luciana has just taken him to task for not
loving her sister Adriana, who, she thinks, is his wife. Antipholus
answers her thus:
"Sweet mistress,--what your name is else, I know not,
Nor by what wonder you do hit of mine,--
Less in your knowledge and your face you show not,
Than our earth's wonder; more than earth divine,
Teach me, dear creature, how to think and speak;
Lay open to my earthy-gross conceit,
Smother'd in errors, feeble, shallow, weak,
The folded meaning of your words' deceit. ..."
He declares, in fact, that he loves her and not her sister:
"Sing, siren, for thyself and I will dote:
Spread o'er the silver waves thy golden hairs,
And as a bed I'll take them and there lie;
* * * * *
It is thyself, mine own self's better part,
Mine eye's clear eye, my dear heart's dearer heart."
And as if this were not enough he goes on:
"My food, my fortune, and my sweet hope's aim,
My sole earth's heaven, and my heaven's claim."
The word-conceits were a fashion of the time; but in spite of the verbal
affectation, the courting shows the cunning of experience, and has,
besides, a sort of echo of sincere feeling. How Shakespeare delights in
making love! It reminds one of the first flutings of a thrush in early
spring; over and over again he tries the notes with delighted iteration
till he becomes a master of his music and charms the copses to silence
with his song: and so Shakespeare sings of love again and again till at
length we get the liquid notes of passion and the trills of joy all
perfected in "Romeo and Juliet"; but the voice is the voice we heard
before in "Venus and Adonis" and "The Comedy of Errors."
Antipholus' other appearances are not important. He merely fills his
part till in the last scene he assures Luciana that he will make good
his earlier protestations of love; but so far as he has any character at
all, or distinctive individuality, he is young Shakespeare himself and
his experiences are Shakespeare's.
Now a word or two about Adriana. Shakespeare makes her a jealous,
nagging, violent scold, who will have her husband arrested for debt,
though she will give money to free him. But the comedy of the play would
be better brought out if Adriana were pictured as loving and constant,
inflicting her inconvenient affection upon the false husband as upon the
true. Why did Shakespeare want to paint this unpleasant bitter-tongued
When Adriana appears in the first scene of the second act she is at once
sketched in her impatience and jealousy. She wants to know why her
husband should have more liberty than she has, and declares that none
but asses will be bridled so. Then she will strike her servant. In the
first five minutes of this act she is sketched to the life, and
Shakespeare does nothing afterwards but repeat and deepen the same
strokes: it seems as if he knew nothing about her or would depict
nothing of her except her jealousy and nagging, her impatience and
violence. We have had occasion to notice more than once that when
Shakespeare repeats touches in this way, he is drawing from life, from
memory, and not from imagination. Moreover, in this case, he shows us at
once that he is telling of his wife, because she defends herself against
the accusation of age, which no one brings against her, though every one
knows that Shakespeare's wife was eight years older than himself.
"His company must do his minions grace,
Whilst I at home starve for a merry look.
Hath homely age the alluring beauty took
From my poor cheek? then he hath wasted it ...
... My decayed fair
A sunny look of his would soon repair:
But, poor unruly deer, he breaks the pale,
And feeds from home; poor I am but his stale."
The appeal is pathetic; but Luciana will not see it. She cries:
"Self-harming jealousy! fie, beat it hence!"
In the second scene of this second act Adriana goes on nagging in almost
the same way.
In the second scene of the third act there is a phrase from the hero,
Antipholus of Syracuse, about Adriana which I find significant:
"She that doth call me husband, even my soul
Doth for a wife abhor!"
There is no reason in the comedy for such strong words. Most men would
be amused or pleased by a woman who makes up to them as Adriana makes up
to Antipholus. I hear Shakespeare in this uncalled-for, over-emphatic
"even my soul doth for a wife abhor."
In the fifth act Adriana is brought before the Abbess, and is proved to
be a jealous scold. Shakespeare will not be satisfied till some
impartial great person of Adriana's own sex has condemned her. Adriana
admits that she has scolded her husband in public and in private, too;
the Abbess replies:
"And thereof came it that the man was mad."
And she adds:
"The venom clamours of a jealous woman
Poisons more deadly than a mad dog's tooth."
Again, a needlessly emphatic condemnation. But Adriana will not accept
the reproof: she will have her husband at all costs. The whole scene
discovers personal feeling. Adriana is the portrait that Shakespeare
wished to give us of his wife.
The learned commentators have seemingly conspired to say as little about
"The Two Gentlemen of Verona" as possible. No one of them identifies the
protagonist, Valentine, with Shakespeare, though all of them identified
Biron with Shakespeare, and yet Valentine, as we shall see, is a far
better portrait of the master than Biron. This untimely blindness of the
critics is, evidently, due to the fact that Coleridge has hardly
mentioned "The Two Gentlemen of Verona," and they have consequently been
unable to parrot his opinions.
"The Two Gentlemen of Verona" is manifestly a later work than "Love's
Labour's Lost"; there is more blank verse and less rhyme in it, and a
considerable improvement in character-drawing. Julia, for example, is
individualized and lives for us in her affection and jealousy; her talks
with her maid Lucetta are taken from life; they are indeed the first
sketch of the delightful talks between Portia and Nerissa, and mark an
immense advance upon the wordy <i>badinage</i> of the Princess and her
ladies in "Love's Labour's Lost," where there was no attempt at
differentiation of character. It seems indubitable to me that "The Two
Gentlemen of Verona" is also later than "The Comedy of Errors," and just
as far beyond doubt that it is earlier than "A Midsummer Night's Dream,"
in spite of Dr. Furnival's "Trial Table."
The first three comedies, "Love's Labour's Lost," "The Comedy of
Errors," and "The Two Gentlemen of Verona," are all noteworthy for the
light they throw on Shakespeare's early life.
In "The Two Gentlemen of Verona" Shakespeare makes similar youthful
mistakes in portraiture to those we noticed in "Love's Labour's Lost";
mistakes which show that he is thinking of himself and his own
circumstances. At the beginning of the play the only difference between
Proteus and Valentine is that one is in love, and the other, heart-free,
is leaving home to go to Milan. In this first scene Shakespeare speaks
frankly through both Proteus and Valentine, just as he spoke through
both the King and Biron in the first scene of "Love's Labour's Lost,"
and through both AEgeon and Antipholus of Syracuse in "The Comedy of
Errors." But whilst the circumstances in the earliest comedy are
imaginary and fantastic, the circumstances in "The Two Gentlemen of
Verona" are manifestly, I think, taken from the poet's own experience.
In the dialogue between Valentine and Proteus I hear Shakespeare
persuading himself that he should leave Stratford. Some readers may
regard this assumption as far-fetched, but it will appear the more
plausible, I think, the more the dialogue is studied. Valentine begins
"Home-keeping youth have ever homely wits,"--
he will "see the wonders of the world abroad" rather than live "dully
sluggardiz'd at home," wearing out "youth with shapeless idleness." But
all these reasons are at once superfluous and peculiar. The audience
needs no persuasion to believe that a young man is eager to travel and
go to Court. Shakespeare's quick mounting spirit is in the lines, and
the needlessness of the argument shows that we have here a personal
confession. Valentine, then, mocks at love, because it was love that
held Shakespeare so long in Stratford, and when Proteus defends it, he
"Even so by Love the young and tender wit
Is turned to folly; blasting in the bud,
Losing his verdure even in the prime,
And all the fair effects of future hopes."
Here is Shakespeare's confession that his marriage had been a failure,
not only because of his wife's mad jealousy and violent temper, which we
have been forced to realize in "The Comedy of Errors," but also because
love and its home-keeping ways threatened to dull and imprison the eager
artist spirit. In the last charming line I find not only the music of
Shakespeare's voice, but also one of the reasons--perhaps, indeed, the
chief because the highest reason--which drew him from Stratford to
London. And what the "future hope" was, he told us in the very first
line of "Love's Labour's Lost." The King begins the play with"
"Let Fame, that all hunt after in their lives."
Now all men don't hunt after fame; it was Shakespeare who felt that Fame
pieced out Life's span and made us "heirs of all eternity"; it was young
Shakespeare who desired fame so passionately that he believed all other
men must share his immortal longing, the desire in him being a forecast
of capacity, as, indeed, it usually is. If any one is inclined to think
that I am here abusing conjecture let him remember that Proteus, too,
tells us that Valentine is hunting after honour.
When Proteus defends love we hear Shakespeare just as clearly as when
Valentine inveighs against it:
"Yet writers say, as in the sweetest bud
The eating canker dwells, so eating love
Inhabits in the finest wits of all."
Shakespeare could not be disloyal to that passion of desire in him which
he instinctively felt was, in some way or other, the necessary
complement of his splendid intelligence. We must take the summing-up of
Proteus when Valentine leaves him as the other half of Shakespeare's
"He after honour hunts, I after love:
He leaves his friends to dignify them more;
I leave myself, my friends, and all for love.
Thou, Julia, thou hast metamorphosed me,--
Made me neglect my studies, lose my time,
War with good counsel, set the world at naught;
Made wit with musing weak, heart sick with thought."
Young Shakespeare hunted as much after love as after honour, and these
verses show that he has fully understood what a drag on him his foolish
marriage has been. That all this is true to Shakespeare appears from the
fact that it is false to the character of Proteus. Proteus is supposed
to talk like this in the first blush of passion, before he has won
Julia, before he even knows that she loves him. Is that natural? Or is
it not rather Shakespeare's confession of what two wasted years of
married life in Stratford had done for him? It was ambition--desire of
fame and new love--that drove the tired and discontented Shakespeare
from Anne Hathaway's arms to London.
When his father tells Proteus he must to Court on the morrow, instead of
showing indignation or obstinate resolve to outwit tyranny, he
generalizes in Shakespeare's way, exactly as Romeo and Orsino generalize
in poetic numbers:
"O, how this spring of love resembleth
The uncertain glory of an April day."
Another reason for believing that this play deals with Shakespeare's own
experiences is to be found in the curious change that takes place in
Valentine. In the first act Valentine disdains love: he prefers to
travel and win honour; but as soon as he reaches Milan and sees Silvia,
he falls even more desperately in love than Proteus. What was the
object, then, in making him talk so earnestly against love in the first
act? It may be argued that Shakespeare intended merely to contrast the
two characters in the first act; but he contrasts them in the first act
on this matter of love, only in the second act to annul the distinction
himself created. Moreover, and this is decisive, Valentine rails against
love in the first act as one who has experienced love's utmost rage:
In love: when scorn is bought with groans; coy looks,
With heart-sore sighs; one fading moment's mirth,
With twenty watchful, weary, tedious nights."
The man who speaks like this is not the man who despises love and
prefers honour, but one who has already given himself to passion with an
absolute abandonment. Such inconsistencies and flaws in workmanship are
in themselves trivial, but, from my point of view, significant; for
whenever Shakespeare slips in drawing character, in nine cases out of
ten he slips through dragging in his own personality or his personal
experience, and not through carelessness, much less incompetence; his
mistakes, therefore, nearly always throw light on his nature or on his
life's story. From the beginning, too, Valentine like Shakespeare is a
As soon, moreover, as he has gone to the capital and fallen in love he
becomes Shakespeare's avowed favourite. He finds Silvia's glove and
"Sweet ornament that decks a thing divine--"
the exclamation reminding us of how Romeo talks of Juliet's glove. Like
other men, Shakespeare learned life gradually, and in youth poverty of
experience forces him to repeat his effects.
Again, when Valentine praises his friend Proteus to the Duke, we find a
characteristic touch of Shakespeare. Valentine says:
"His years but young; but his experience old;
His head unmellowed; but his judgement ripe."
In "The Merchant of Venice" Bellario, the learned doctor of Padua,
praises Portia in similar terms:
"I never knew so young a body with so old a head."
But it is when Valentine confesses his love that Shakespeare speaks
through him most clearly:
"Ay, Proteus, but that life is altered now,
I have done penance for contemning love;
* * * * *
For in revenge of my contempt of love
Love hath chased sleep from my enthralled eyes
And made them watchers of my own heart's sorrow.
O gentle Proteus, Love's a mighty lord,"--
and so on.
Every word in this confession is characteristic of the poet and
especially the fact that his insomnia is due to love. Valentine then
gives himself to passionate praise of Silvia, and ends with the "She is
alone" that recalls "She is all the beauty extant" of "The Two Noble
Kinsmen." Valentine the lover reminds us of Romeo as the sketch
resembles the finished picture; when banished, he cries:
"And why not death, rather than living torment? To die is to be banished
from myself; And Silvia is myself: banished from her, Is self from self;
a deadly banishment. What light is light, if Silvia be not seen? What
joy is joy, if Silvia be not by? Unless it be to think that she is by
And feed upon the shadow of perfection. Except I be by Silvia in the
night There is no music in the nightingale,"
and so forth. I might compare this with what Romeo says of his
banishment, and perhaps infer from this two-fold treatment of the theme
that Shakespeare left behind in Stratford some dark beauty who may have
given Anne Hathaway good cause for jealous rage. It must not be
forgotten here that Dryasdust tells us he was betrothed to another girl
when Anne Hathaway's relations forced him to marry their kinswoman.
A moment later and this lover Valentine uses the very words that we
found so characteristic in the mouth of the lover Orsino in Twelfth
"O I have fed upon this woe already,
And now excess of it will make me surfeit."
Valentine, indeed, shows us traits of nearly all Shakespeare's later
lovers, and this seems to me interesting, because of course all the
qualities were in the youth, which were later differenced into various
characters. His advice to the Duke, who pretends to be in love, is far
too ripe, too contemptuous-true, to suit the character of such a votary
of fond desire as Valentine was; it is mellow with experience and
man-of-the-world wisdom, and the last couplet of it distinctly
"Flatter and praise, commend, extol their graces;
Though ne'er so black, say they have angels' faces.
That man that hath a tongue, I say, is no man
If with his tongue he cannot win a woman."
But this is only an involuntary <i>aperçu</i> of Valentine, as
Benedick is only an intellectual mood of Shakespeare. And here Valentine
is contrasted with Proteus, who gives somewhat different advice to
Thurio, and yet advice which is still more characteristic of Shakespeare
than Valentine-Benedick's counsel. Proteus says:
"You must lay lime to tangle her desires
By wailful sonnets, whose composéd rhymes
Should be full fraught with serviceable vows."
In this way the young poet sought to give expression to different views
of life, and so realize the complexity of his own nature.
The other traits of Valentine's character that do not necessarily belong
to him as a lover are all characteristic traits of Shakespeare. When he
is playing the banished robber-chief far from his love, this is how
Valentine consoles himself:
"This shadowy desert, unfrequented woods,
I better brook than flourishing peopled towns:
Here can I sit alone unseen of any,
And to the nightingale's complaining notes
Tune my distresses and record my woes."
This idyllic love of nature, this marked preference for the country over
the city, however peculiar in a highway robber, are characteristics of
Shakespeare from youth to age. Not only do his comedies lead us
continually from the haunts of men to the forest and stream, but also
his tragedies. He turns to nature, indeed, in all times of stress and
trouble for its healing unconsciousness, its gentle changes that can be
foreseen and reckoned upon, and that yet bring fresh interests and
charming surprises; and in times of health and happiness he pictures the
pleasant earth and its diviner beauties with a passionate intensity.
Again and again we shall have to notice his poet's love for
"unfrequented woods," his thinker's longing for "the life removed."
At the end of the drama Valentine displays the gentle forgivingness of
disposition which we have already had reason to regard as one of
Shakespeare's most marked characteristics. As soon as "false, fleeting
Proteus" confesses his sin Valentine pardons him with words that echo
and re-echo through Shakespeare's later dramas:
"Then I am paid,
And once again I do receive thee honest.
Who by repentance is not satisfied
Is nor of heaven nor earth; for these are pleased;
By patience the Eternal's wrath's appeased."
He even goes further than this, and confounds our knowledge of human
nature by adding:
"And that my love may appear plain and free
All that was mine in Silvia I give thee."
And that the meaning may be made more distinct than words can make it,
he causes Julia to faint on hearing the proposal. One cannot help
recalling the passage in "The Merchant of Venice" when Bassanio and
Gratiano both declare they would sacrifice their wives to free Antonio,
and a well-known sonnet which seems to prove that Shakespeare thought
more of a man's friendship for a man than of a man's love for a woman.
But as I shall have to discuss this point at length when I handle the
Sonnets, I have, perhaps, said enough for the moment. Nor need I
consider the fact here that the whole of this last scene of the last act
was manifestly revised or rewritten by Shakespeare <i>circa</i>
1598--years after the rest of the play.
I think every one will admit now that Shakespeare revealed himself in
"The Two Gentlemen of Verona," and especially in Valentine, much more
fully than in Biron and in "Love's Labour's Lost" The three earliest
comedies prove that from the very beginning of his career Shakespeare's
chief aim was to reveal and realize himself.