Academic journal article Restoration and 18th Century Theatre Research

John Dennis and the Shakespeare-Elizabeth Anecdote: The Comical Gallant and the Reception of the Merry Wives of Windsor

Academic journal article Restoration and 18th Century Theatre Research

John Dennis and the Shakespeare-Elizabeth Anecdote: The Comical Gallant and the Reception of the Merry Wives of Windsor

Article excerpt

Overview

A thorough study of John Dennis' Comical Gallant (May 1702) and the essay that accompanied its publication, both in their immediate circumstances and in their afterlife, makes for a surprisingly complicated affair.1 The play itself seems little more than a curious outlier. As an adaptation of William Shakespeare's Merry Wives of Windsor (Quarto 1602; Folio 1623), it has proven both too minor and unimpressive to warrant substantial interest. The performances did not enjoy the benefit of a third night, and by Dennis' own account, the play was a flop. He may not have been helped by poor acting from his Falstaff, nor by the unpredictable tastes of early eighteenth-century theatergoers; but the near total consensus among critics for the subsequent three hundred years would put the burden on the script itself. Dislike for the play has been far too extensive simply to suggest that its critical assessment has been distorted by its early fate. Early twentieth-century critics of Restoration adaptations such as George C. D. Odell and Hazleton Spencer might be underweighted. While they despised the play for many reasons (including aesthetic), their clear bias for what they understood to be Shakespeare's true word tended to leave them prejudiced against any play that struck them as an adulteration of it. But even among the extensive range of more recent critical studies by scholars such as Michael Dobson, Jean Marsden, Sandra Clark, Robert Hume, Katherine West Scheil, and Don-John Dugas, who have tried to unravel modern prejudices and approach those texts on their own terms, Dennis' first attempt at revising Shakespeare has suffered comparative neglect.2 Other than David Wheeler, who found the play "uproariously funny" (446), it has suffered from near universal disesteem. More importantly, since it would involve types of financial risk that critics do not often assume, nobody has attempted a major revival.3

Of course, plays failed on the London stages with such frequency and for so many different reasons, that its happening on any one particular occasion does not warrant attention. Dennis continued both to write poetry and to try his hand at the more commercially promising world of theater, mostly with misses, but at times with some modest success (Paul 40). Already held in high esteem as a critic, he continued to write among the most substantial literary essays of his age; in fact his best years still lay ahead of him (Hooker xlvi-lxxvi). It was only much later, and for reasons that Dennis could not have anticipated, that his reputation would suffer to the point that John Morillo could remark that he has "barely escaped the trash heap of history" (21). Despite its poor fortune on the stage, however, Dennis published the script, along with a lengthy critical essay dedicated to George Granville, a patron and poet whose career had also involved a recent (and more successful) attempt at adapting Shakespeare for contemporary London audiences.

From the very moment of the essay's publication, its relation to the play was often regarded as problematic. The anonymous essay, A Comparison between the Two Stages ( 1702), gave the sort of praise one would rather avoid, suggesting, "Let him stick to his Criticisms and find fault with others, because he does ill himself" (97). Modern responses have tended to be favorable, and it has found its way occasionally into anthologies of criticism (e.g., Willard Higley Durham). But even as it has been recognized for what Don-John Dugas has called "an important statement in early eighteenthcentury Shakespeare criticism" (25)-and one has to wonder about all the qualifiers-as a defense of the play it is far too luxurious, and all to the wrong purpose. However much he admires the essay on the whole, when it comes to the essay's defense of the play itself, Dugas does not refrain from calling the argument "disingenuous" (58).

As Dobson has recounted, Dennis sought carefully to balance his account of Shakespeare's comedy between its blind admirers and its harshest critics-those who thought the play was too perfect to suffer adulteration of any sort and those who dismissed it as too contemptible to warrant the effort in the first place (125). …

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