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There is another play where the same incident is handled in such fashion as to put the truth of the sonnet-story beyond all doubt.
In “Much Ado about Nothing” the incident is dragged in by the ears, and the whole treatment is most remarkable. Everyone will remember how Claudio tells the Prince that he loves Hero, and asks his friend's assistance: “ your highness now may do me good.” There's no reason for Claudio's shyness : no reason why he should call upon the Prince for help in a case where most men prefer to use their own tongues; but Claudio is young, and so we glide over the inherent improbability of the incident. The Prince at once promises to plead for Claudio with Hero and with her father:
“ And thou shalt have her. Was't not to this end
That thou began'st to twist so fine a story?"
Now comes the peculiar handling of the incident. Claudio knows the Prince is wooing Hero for him, therefore when Don John tells him that the Prince
is enamoured on Hero," he should at once infer that Don John is mistaken through ignorance of this fact; but instead of that he falls suspicious, and questions:
How know you he loves her?
There is absolutely nothing even in this corroboration by Borachio' to shake Claudio's trust in the Prince: neither Don John nor Borachio knows what he knows, that the Prince is wooing for him (Claudio) and at his request. He should therefore
smile at the futile attempt to excite his jealousy. But at once he is persuaded of the worst, as a man would be who had already experienced such disloyalty: he cries:
“ 'Tis certain so; the prince woos for himself.” And then we should expect to hear him curse the prince as a traitorous friend, and dwell on his own loyal service by way of contrast, and so keep turning the dagger in the wound with the thought that
one but himself was ever so repaid for such honesty of love. But, no! Claudio has no bitterness in him, no reproachings; he speaks of the whole matter as if it had happened months and months before, as indeed it had; for “Much Ado about Nothing was written about 1599. Reflection had already shown Shakespeare the unreason of revolt, and he puts his own thought in the mouth of Claudio:
'Tis certain so; the prince woos for himself.
The Claudio who spoke like this in the first madness of love lost and friendship cheated would be a monster. Here we have Shakespeare speaking in all calmness of something that happened to himself a considerable time before. The lines I have put in italics admit no other interpretation: they show Shakespeare's philosophic acceptance of things
as they are; what has happened to him is not to be assumed as singular but is the common lot of man
an accident of hourly proof”—which he blames himself for not foreseeing. In fact, Claudio's temper here is as detached and impartial as Benedick’s. Benedick declares that Claudio should be whipped:
“ D. Pedro. To be whipped! What's his fault?
Benedick. The flat transgression of a schoolboy, who being overjoyed with finding a bird's nest, shows it his companion and he steals it."
That is the view of the realist who knows life and men, and plays the game according to the rules accepted. Shakespeare understood this side of life as well as most men. But Don Pedro is a prince -a Shakespearean prince at that-full of all loyalties and ideal sentiments; he answers Benedick from Shakespeare's own heart:
“ Wilt thou make a trust a transgression?
The transgression is in the stealer.”
It is curious that Shakespeare doesn't see that Claudio must feel this truth a thousand times more keenly than the Prince. As I have said, Claudio's calm acceptance of the fact is a revelation of Shakespeare's own attitude, an attitude just modified by the moral reprobation put in the mouth of the Prince. The recital itself shows that the incident was a personal experience of Shakespeare, and as one might expect in this case it does not accelerate but retard the action of the drama; it is, indeed, altogether foreign to the drama, an excrescence upon it and not an improvement but a blemish. Moreover, the reflective, disillusioned, slightly pessimistic tone of the narrative is alien and strange to the optimistic temper of the play; finally, this garb of patient sadness does not suit Claudio, who should be all love and eagerness, and diminishes instead of increasing
, our sympathy with his later actions. Whoever considers these facts will admit that we have here Shakespeare telling us what happened to himself, and what he really thought of his friend's betrayal.
“ The transgression is in the stealer."
That is Shakespeare's mature judgement of Lord Herbert's betrayal.
The third mention of this sonnet-story in a play is later still: it is in “Twelfth Night.” The Duke, as we have seen, is an incarnation of Shakespeare himself, and, indeed, the finest incarnation we have of his temperament. In the fourth scene of the first act he sends Viola to plead his cause for him with Olivia, much in the same way, no doubt, as Shakespeare sent Pembroke to Miss Fitton. The whole scene deserves careful reading.
stand at her doors,
Sure, my noble lord,
Duke. Be clamorous and leap all civil bounds
Vio. Say I do speak with her, my lord, what then?
Duke. O, then unfold the passion of my love,
She will attend it better in thy youth
Vio. I think not so, my lord.
Dear lad, believe it;
say thou art a man: Diana's lip
I do not want to find more here than is in the text: the passage simply shows that this idea of sending some one to plead his love was constantly in Shakespeare's mind in these years. The curious part of the matter is that he should pick a youth as ambassador, and a youth who is merely his page. He can discover no reason for choosing such a boy as Viola, and so simply asserts that youth will be better attended to, which is certainly not the fact. Lord Herbert's youth was in his mind: but he could not put the truth in the play that when he chose his ambassador he chose him for his high position and personal beauty and charm, and not because of his youth. The whole incident is treated lightly as something of small import; the bitterness in
“ Much Ado ” has died out: 66 Twelfth Night was written about 1601, a year or so later than Much Ado.”
I do not want to labour the conclusion I have reached; but it must be admitted that I have found in the plays, and especially in “ The Two Gentlemen of Verona ” and “Much Ado," the same story which is told in the sonnets; a story lugged into the