BEFORE I approach the consideration of some of Shakespeare's early comedies and of the conventions in which they so evidently work, may I clear a piece of ground, and make some sort of perspective? Shakespeare was about twenty-six years old when he wrote his first play, and by the time he was thirty-six--from about 1590, say, to 1600--had composed some twenty plays in all (roughly two a year): histories and comedies mostly, with the spirit of Comedy still gallantly prevailing. A busy time, with all his acting and producing as well; but one must think a happy time, the private discord of the Sonnets notwithstanding. It is from that decade that we first hear of his candid good-nature, his facility in composition, his 'comic ease', as the phrase went, and his pleasant gifts as a companion. Another ten or eleven years of writing lay before him, years of still greater and very different achievement, during much of which his natural vein of Comedy was not absent, but in abeyance. The tradition of his personal character remained, however, unaffected. He was 'sweet Mr. Shakespeare', and 'gentle Mr. Shakespeare' to the end.
And that, I think, was right. I wish to protest, not angrily (that itself would be un-Shakespearian) against a tendency, which has long prevailed, to view all his work, and even the man himself, in the light of his tragedies--to make the writing of Hamlet in some undefined sense the goal of that astonishing first decade of his art, and the fact of Hamlet, and of the great tragedies which followed it, the master key to his life. I should have thought his Midsummer Night's Dream, Twelfth Night, As You Like It, the scenes of Eastcheap, are as absolute, or