William Shakespeare: The Early Comedies

William Shakespeare: The Early Comedies

William Shakespeare: The Early Comedies

William Shakespeare: The Early Comedies

Excerpt

Relatively little that really illuminates has been written upon Shakespeare's comedies. This is perhaps due in art to the presence in them of an important element of convention which has to be mastered before the human content of the plays, their relation to normal experience, can begin to make itself felt. A similar element no doubt exists also in the tragedies and the historical plays, but in these the universal significance of the dramatic action asserts itself more obviously and directly; Othello, Lear -- and, we might add, Henry V -- are recognizable human beings, facing predicaments and challenges which may be on a different scale from those familiar in ordinary life but to which, none the less, we can readily respond. In Shakespeare's comedies, however, a content not finally dissimilar in kind is canalized into conventional forms. Artificial situations, contrived marriages, elaborate happy endings, all set in countries of the imagination, frequently act, even while they exercise their magic upon us, as impediments to full and direct participation in the dramatist's intention: impediments which, without doubt, it is well worth overcoming, but which call for a special effort, a particular kind of attention, before the necessary fullness of response can be achieved.

This general statement is particularly relevant to the five comedies under consideration in this essay. Written at the outset of Shakespeare's dramatic career, none of them is by any standards a complete masterpiece. In the absence of unequivocal signs of the commanding quality which we associate with his mature work, there are two different ways in which we may choose to study these plays. We may . . .

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