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DEPRECIATION OF SHAKESPEARE
to pieces based upon them. Once in every eight performances Shakespeare was presented to his view. Fourteen was the number of different plays by Shakespeare which Pepys saw during these fortyone visits. Very few caused him genuine pleasure. At least three he condemns, without any qualification, as "tedious," or "silly." In the case of others, while he ignored the literary merit, he enjoyed the scenery and music with which, in accordance with current fashion, the dramatic poetry was overlaid. In only two cases, in the case of two tragedies— Othello and Hamlet-does he show at any time a true appreciation of the dramatic quality, and in the case of Othello he came in course of years to abandon his good opinion.
Pepys's moderate praise and immoderate blame of Shakespeare are only superficially puzzling. The ultimate solution is not difficult. Despite his love of music and his zeal as a collector, Pepys was the most matter-of-fact of men; he was essentially a man of business. Not that he had any distaste for timely recreation; he was, indeed, readily susceptible to every manner of commonplace pleasures-to all the delights of both mind and sense which appeal to the practical and hard-headed type of Englishman. Things of the imagination, on the other hand, stood with him on a different footing. They were out of his range or sphere. Poetry and romance, unless liberally compounded with prosaic ingredients, bored him on the stage and elsewhere.
In the plays of Beaumont and Fletcher, of Massinger and Ben Jonson, poetry and romance were for the most part kept in the background. Such elements lay there behind a substantial barrier
of conventional stage machinery and elocutionary scaffolding. In Shakespeare, poetry and romance usually eluded the mechanical restrictions of the theatre. The gold had a tendency to separate itself from the alloy, and Pepys only found poetry and romance endurable when they were pretty thickly veiled behind the commonplaces of rhetoric, or broad fun, or the realistic ingenuity of the stage carpenter and upholsterer.
There is, consequently, no cause for surprise that Pepys should write thus of Shakespeare's ethereal comedy of A Midsummer Night's Dream: "Then to the King's Theatre, where we saw Midsummer Night's Dream, which I had never seen before, nor shall ever again, for it is the most insipid, ridiculous play that ever I saw in my life. I saw, I confess, some good dancing and some handsome women, which was all my pleasure." This is Pepys's ordinary attitude of mind to undiluted poetry on the stage.
Pepys only saw A Midsummer Night's Dream once. Twelfth Night, of which he wrote in very similar strains, he saw thrice. On the first occasion his impatience of this romantic play was due to external causes. He went to the theatre "against his own mind and resolution." He was over-persuaded to go in by a friend, with whom he was casually walking past the house in Lincoln's Inn Fields. Moreover, he had just sworn to his wife that he would never go to a play without her: all which considerations "made the piece seem a burden" to him. He witnessed Twelfth Night twice again in a less perturbed spirit, and then he called it a "silly" play, or "one of the weakest plays that ever I saw on the stage."
Again, of Romeo and Juliet, Pepys wrote: "It is
PEPYS ON FALSTAFF
a play of itself the worst I ever heard in my life." This verdict, it is right to add, was attributable, in part at least, to Pepys's irritation at the badness of the acting, and at the actors' ignorance of their words. It was a first night.
The literary critic knows well enough that the merit of these three pieces-A Midsummer Night's Dream, Twelfth Night, and Romeo and Julietmainly lies in their varied wealth of poetic imagery and passion. One thing alone could render the words, in which poetic genius finds voice, tolerable in the playhouse to a spectator of Pepys's prosaic temperament. The one thing needful is inspired acting, and in the case of these three plays, when Pepys saw them performed, inspired acting was wanting.
It is at first sight disconcerting to find Pepys no less impatient of The Merry Wives of Windsor. He expresses a mild interest in the humours of "the country gentleman and the French doctor." But he condemns the play as a whole. It is in his favour that his bitterest reproaches are aimed at the actors and actresses. One can hardly conceive that Falstaff, fitly interpreted, would have failed to satisfy Pepys's taste in humour, commonplace though it was. He is not quite explicit on the point; but there are signs that the histrionic interpretation of Shakespeare's colossal humorist, rather than the dramatist's portrayal of the character, caused the diarist's disappointment.
Just before Pepys saw the first part of Henry IV., wherein Falstaff figures to supreme advantage, he had bought and read the play in quarto. "But my expectation being too great" (he avers), "it did not please me as otherwise I believe it would."
Here it seems clear that his hopes of the actor were unfulfilled. However, he saw Henry IV. again a few months later, and had the grace to describe it as "a good play." On a third occasion he wrote that, "contrary to expectation," he was pleased by the delivery of Falstaff's ironical speech about honour. For whatever reason, Pepys's affection for Shakespeare's fat knight, as he figured on the stage of his day, never touched the note of exaltation.
Of Shakespeare's great tragedies Pepys saw three -Othello, Hamlet, and Macbeth. But in considering his several impressions of these pieces, we have to make an important proviso. Only the first two of them did he witness in the authentic version. Macbeth underwent in his day a most liberal transformation, which carried it far from its primordial purity. The impressions he finally formed of Othello and Hamlet are not consistent one with the other, but are eminently characteristic of the variable moods of the average playgoer.
Othello he saw twice, and he tells us more of the acting than of the play itself. On his first visit he notes that the lady next him shrieked on seeing Desdemona smothered: a proof of the strength of the histrionic illusion. Up to the year 1666 Pepys adhered to the praiseworthy opinion that Othello was a "mighty good" play. But in that year his judgment took a turn for the worse, and that for a reason which finally convicts him of incapacity to pass just sentence on the poetic or literary drama. On August 20, 1666, he writes: "Read Othello, Moor of Venice, which I have ever heretofore esteemed a mighty good play; but having so lately read the Adventures of Five Hours, it seems a mean thing."
PEPYS ON OTHELLO
Most lovers of Shakespeare will agree that the great dramatist rarely showed his mature powers to more magnificent advantage than in his treatment of plot and character in Othello. What, then, is this Adventures of Five Hours, compared with which Othello became in Pepys's eyes "a mean thing"? It is a trivial comedy of intrigue, adapted from the Spanish by one Sir Samuel Tuke. A choleric guardian arranges for his ward, who also happens to be his sister, to marry against her will a man whom she has never seen. Without her guardian's knowledge she, before the design goes further, escapes with a lover of her own choosing. In her place she leaves a close friend, who is wooed in mistake for herself by the suitor destined for her own hand. This is the main dramatic point; the thread is very slender, and is drawn out to its utmost limits through five acts of blank verse. The language and metre are scrupulously correct. But one cannot credit the play with any touch of poetry or imagination. It presents a trite theme tamely and prosaically. Congenital inability of the most inveterate toughness to appreciate dramatic poetry could alone account for a mention of the Adventures of Five Hours in the same breath with Othello.
Pepys did not again fall so low as this. The only other tragedy of Shakespeare which he saw in its authentic purity moved him, contradictorily, to transports of unqualified delight. One is glad to recall that Hamlet, one of the greatest of Shakespeare's plays, received from Pepys ungrudging commendation. Pepys's favourable opinion of Hamlet is to be assigned to two causes. One is the literary and psychological attractions of the piece; the other, and perhaps the