« ZurückWeiter »
the common opinion) more by meanes of ouermuch transporting, by our owne merchants for their priuate gaine, than through the vnseasonablenesse of the weather passed.' (Annales, ed. 1601, pp. 1274-9). A similar description is given in the journal of Dr. Simon Forman, the astrologer, which is quoted by Mr. Halliwell (Phillipps) in his Introduction to A Midsummer Night's Dream (p. 6, ed. 1841), from MS. 384 in the Ashmolean Museum, Oxford. These passages have been so often referred to as containing the prose version of Titania's speech that I have thought it best to give them at length, if only for the purpose of shewing that in all probability Shakespeare had not the year 1594 in his mind at all. It is true that King, and Stowe, and Forman alike describe great storms of wind and rain and disastrous floods as characterising this year, but notwithstanding we are told in the moneth of August there followed a faire haruest,' and the subsequent high prices of corn are attributed not to a deficiency in the crop but to the avarice of merchants in exporting it for their own gain. Now this does not agree with Titania's description of the fatal consequences of her quarrel with Oberon, through which
The green corn
Hath rotted, ere his youth attain'd a beard.'
In this point alone there is such an important discrepancy that if Shakespeare referred to any particular season we may without doubt affirm it was not to the year 1594, and therefore the passages which have been quoted have no bearing upon the date of the play. I am even sceptical enough to think that Titania's speech not only does not describe the events of the year 1594, or of the other bad seasons which happened at this time, but that it is purely the product of the poet's own imagination, and that the picture which it presents had no original in the world of fact, any more than Oberon's bank or Titania's bower.
Another passage which has been appealed to as afford
ing internal evidence of the date of our play is in v. 1. 52, 53, where Theseus reads from the list of performances submitted to him for approval by the master of the revels,
'The thrice three Muses mourning for the death
Of learning, late deceased in beggary';
in which some see an allusion to the death of Spenser in 1599, others to that of Greene in 1592. In the former case the lines must have been interpolated after Spenser's death, for we know the play was in existence in 1598. It was Knight who first suggested that the reference is to the death of Greene. Rejecting the supposition of Warton that Shakespeare here 'alluded to Spenser's poem entitled "The Teares of the Muses, on the neglect and contempt of learning," which appeared in 1591, he maintains, 'These expressions are too precise and limited to refer to the tears of the Muses for the decay of knowledge and art. We cannot divest ourselves of the belief that some real person, and some real death, was alluded to. May we hazard a conjecture? Greene, a man of learning, and one whom Shakspere in the generosity of his nature might wish to point at kindly, died in 1592, in a condition that might truly be called beggary. But how was his death, any more than that of Spenser, to be the occasion of " some satire keen and critical"? Every student of our literary history will remember the famous controversy of Nash and Gabriel Harvey, which was begun by Harvey's publication, in 1592, of "Four Letters, and certain Sonnets, especially touching Robert Greene, and other parties by him abused." Robert Greene was dead; but Harvey came forward, in revenge of an incautious attack of the unhappy poet, to satirize him in his grave-to hold up his vices and his misfortunes to the public scorn-to be "keen and critical" upon "learning, late deceas'd in beggary." The conjecture which we offer may have little weight, and the point is certainly of very small consequence.' It may safely be said that the conjecture would have had more weight if the reasons
for it had not been given, for it is difficult to see any parallel between Gabriel Harvey's satire and
'The thrice three Muses mourning for the death
which must of necessity satirize some person or persons other than him whose death is mourned, even supposing that any particular person is referred to. On the whole, I am inclined to think that Spenser's poem may have suggested to Shakespeare a title for the piece submitted to Theseus, and that we need not press for any closer parallel between them.
Chalmers, in his Supplemental Apology for the Believers in the Shakspeare-Papers (pp. 359–370), gives the reasons which induced him to place the composition of the Midsummer Night's Dream in the early part of 1598. He finds, in the speech of Theseus at the beginning of the fifth act, the line, 'One sees more devils than vast hell can hold,'
which, he says, 'is, plainly, a sarcasm on Lodge's pamphlet, called Wits Miserie, and the Worlds Madnesse; discovering the Incarnate Devils of this age.' Lodge's tract was printed in 1596, and as he mentions other poets and suppresses Shakespeare's name Chalmers infers that Shakespeare in revenge wrote the line which is quoted above. An equally strong reason for believing that Shakespeare had read Lodge's tract before writing Midsummer Night's Dream, is that he uses the word 'compact,' which is also found in Lodge.
The next step in Chalmers's argument is that in 1597 there was a poem, entitled Pyramus and Thisbe, published by Dunstan Gale, which in his opinion was prior to Shakespeare's work. But as no one has seen this edition of Gale's poem, and as the story of Pyramus and Thisbe was accessible to Shakespeare from other sources long before 1597, we may dismiss this piece of evidence brought forward by Chalmers as having no decisive weight. He next takes for granted what is merely suggested by Malone, that Shakespeare borrowed from a comedy called the Wisdom of Doctor Dodipoll, and
further that this comedy was published in, or before, the year 1596. I have given reasons above for believing that this suggestion also may be disregarded. Again, says Chalmers, 'The Faiery Queen helped Shakspeare to many hints,' and 'the second volume of the Faiery Queen was published in 1596.' To this I would add, what Chalmers himself should have stated, that although the second volume of Spenser's poem was not published till 1596, the first appeared in 1590, and if Shakespeare borrowed any ideas from it at all he had an opportunity of doing so long before 1596. This therefore may be consigned to the limbo of worthless evidence. Further, in the speech of Egeus, in which he claims the ancient privilege of Athens, to dispose of his daughter either to Demetrius or to death, Chalmers sees a direct reference to a bill which was introduced into parliament in 1597 for depriving offenders of clergy who should be found guilty of taking away women against their wills. This is certainly the weakest of all the proofs by which Chalmers endeavours to make out his case, for the law which Egeus wished to enforce was against a refractory daughter, who at the time at which he was speaking had not been stolen away by Lysander, and was only too willing to go with him. I have given Chalmers's theory rather more consideration than it deserves, because he has supported it by a parade of evidence, which to him no doubt appeared satisfactory, but which upon examination proves to be of absolutely no value.
Another point, which has a bearing upon the date of the play, is the occasion for which it was written. If this could be determined with any degree of probability we should be able to ascertain within a little the time at which it was composed. But here again we embark upon a wide sea of conjecture, with neither star nor compass to guide us. That the Midsummer Night's Dream may have been first acted at the marriage of some nobleman, and that, from the various compliments which are paid to Elizabeth, the performance may have taken place when the Queen herself was present,
are no improbable suppositions. But when was this conjuncture of events? No theory which has yet been proposed satisfies both conditions. On the one hand Mr. Gerald Massey maintains that it was to celebrate the marriage of Lord Southampton with Elizabeth Vernon that Shakespeare composed the Midsummer Night's Dream; but as this marriage did not take place till 1598, and was then kept secret in order to avoid the Queen's displeasure, Mr. Massey supposes that the play was written some time before, when it was thought probable that the Queen's consent might have been obtained, and he accordingly places it in 1595. He goes further and believes that in the play 'many touches tend to show that Hermia is Lady Rich, and Helena, Elizabeth Vernon' (The Secret Drama of Shakespeare's Sonnets unfolded, p. 475). 'Perhaps,' he adds in a note (p. 481), 'it was one of the Plays presented before Mr. Secretary Cecil and Lord Southampton, when they were leaving London for Paris, in January, 1598, at which time, as Rowland White relates, the Earl's marriage was secretly talked of.' It appears that the exigencies of Mr. Massey's theory have here driven him into great straits. That Southampton was not married to Elizabeth Vernon till the summer of 1598, is all but certain. If therefore the Midsummer Night's Dream was one of the plays acted before Cecil and Southampton in January, 1598, it was not in honour of the marriage of the latter. If it was not one of these plays we are not concerned with what happened on that occasion. In fact we know nothing whatever about the matter, and of guesses like these there is neither end nor profit. Elze, who rejects the date offered by Mr. Massey's theory as too late, advances a conjecture of his own which must be regarded as a conjecture only, having no evidence whatever to support it. To use his own language, he maintains that 'all indications point to the fact that the Midsummer Night's Dream was written for and performed at the marriage of the Earl of Essex in 1590' with Lady Frances Sidney the widow of Sir Philip Sidney. He regards Theseus and Hippolyta as the