Shakespeare—Ben Jonson—Beaumont and Fletcher—The Wise Men of Gotham.
Greene, in his admonition to his brother sinners of the stage, tells them that “there is an vpstart crow beautified with our feathers an absolute Johannes factotum, in his own conceyt the onely Shake-scene in a countrey,” and in truth these olden writers are principally interesting as having laid the foundations upon which Shakespeare built some of his earliest plays. The genius of our great dramatist was essentially poetic, and some of his plays, which we now call comedies, were originally entitled “histories.” How seldom do we hear any of his humorous passages quoted, or find them reckoned among our household words! From some of his observations we might think he was altogether averse from jocosity. Henry V. says
“How ill gray hairs become a fool—a jester!”
In “Much ado about Nothing,” Beatrice speaks as follows—
“Why, he is the Prince’s jester; a very dull fool, only his gift is in devising unprofitable slanders; none but libertines delight in him, and the commendation is not in his wit, but in his villany, for he both pleases men and angers them, and then they laugh at him and beat him.”
But notwithstanding all this condemnation Beatrice is herself the liveliest character in Shakespeare, and her lady’s wit is some of the best he shows—
Beatrice. For hear me, Hero; wooing, wedding, and repenting is as a Scotch jig, a measure and a cinque-pace; the first suit is hot and hasty, like a Scotch jig, and full as fantastical; the wedding mannerly-modest, as a measure full of state and ancientry; and then comes repentance, and with his bad legs, falls into the cinque-pace faster and faster, till he sinks into his grave.
Leonato. Cousin, you apprehend shrewdly.
Beat. I have a good eye, uncle; I can see a church, by daylight.
In the “Merchant of Venice” Lorenzo thus answers Launcelot—
“How every fool
can play upon the word. I think the best grace
wit will shortly turn into silence, and discourse grow commendable
in none but parrots.”
“Oh, dear discretion, how his words
The fool hath planted in his memory
An army of good words: And I do know
A many fools that stand in better place
Garnished like him, that for a tricksie word
Defie the matter.”