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And Nerissa goes a little further:
The wish would make else an unquiet house." The blunder is monstrous ; not only is the friend prepared to sacrifice all he possesses, including his wife, to save his benefactor, but the friend's friend is content to sacrifice his wife too for the same object. Shakespeare then in early manhood was accustomed to put friendship before love; we must find some explanation of what seems to us so unnatural an attitude.
In the last scene of “ The Two Gentlemen of Verona,” which is due to a later revision, the sonnetcase is emphasized. And at this time Shakespeare has suffered Herbert's betrayal. As soon as the false friend Proteus says he is sorry and asks forgiveness, Valentine, another impersonation of Shakespeare, replies:
Then I am paid; And once again I do receive thee honest: Who by repentance is not satisfied, Is nor of heaven nor earth, for these are pleas'd; By penitence the Eternal's wrath's appeased; And that my love may appear plain and free,
All that was mine in Silvia I give thee.” This incarnation of Shakespeare speaks of repentance in Shakespeare's most characteristic fashion, and then coolly surrenders the woman he loves to his friend without a moment's hesitation, and without even considering whether the woman would be satisfied with the transfer. The words admit of no misconstruction; they stand four-square, not to be shaken by any ingenuity of reason, and Shakespeare supplies us with further corroboration of them.
Coriolanus was written fully ten years after “ The Merchant of Venice,” and long after the revision of “ The Two Gentlemen of Verona.” And yet Shakespeare's attitude at forty-three is, in regard to this matter, just what it was at thirty-three. When Aufidius finds Coriolanus in his house, and learns that he has been banished from Rome and is now prepared to turn his army against his countrymen, he welcomes him as more a friend than e'er an enemy," and this is the way he takes to show
“Know thou first,
Here's the same attitude; the same extravagance; the same insistence on the fact that the man loves the maid and yet has more delight in the friend. What does it mean? When we first find it in " The Merchant of Venice” it must give the reader pause; in “ The Two Gentlemen of Verona” it surprises
“ us; in the sonnets, accompanied as it is by every flattering expression of tender affection for the friend, it brings us to question; but its repetition in
Coriolanus must assure us that it is a pose. Aufidius was not such a friend of Coriolanus that we can take his protestation seriously. The argument is evidently a stock argument to Shakespeare: a part of the ordinary furniture of his mind: it is like a fashionable dress of the period—the wearer does not notice its peculiarity.
The truth is, Shakespeare found in the literature of his time, and in the minds of his contemporaries,
a fantastically high appreciation of friendship, coupled with a corresponding disdain for love as we moderns understand it. In - Wit's Commonwealth," published in 1598, we find: “ The love of men to women is a thing common and of course, but the friendship of man to man, infinite and immortal.” Passionate devotion to friendship is a sort of mark of the Renaissance, and the words “love ” and “ lover” in Elizabethan English were commonly used for “ friend” and “ friendship.” Moreover,
“ ” one must not forget that Lyly, whose euphuistic speech affected Shakespeare for years, had handled this same incident in his “ Campaspe,” where Alexander gives up his love to his rival, Apelles. Shakespeare, not to be outdone in any loyalty, sets forth the same fantastical devotion in the sonnets and plays. He does this, partly because the spirit of the time infected him, partly out of sincere admiration for Herbert, but oftener, I imagine, out of self-interest. It is pose, flunkeyism and the hope of benefits to come and not passion that inspired the first series of sonnets.
Whoever reads the scene carefully in “Much Ado About Nothing," cannot avoid seeing that Shakespeare at his best not only does not minimize his friend's offence, but condemns it absolutely:
The transgression is in the stealer."
And in the sonnets, too, in spite of himself, the same true feeling pierces through the snobbish and affected excuses.
Ay me! but yet thou might'st my seat forbear,
Where thou art forced to break a twofold truth,
Hers, by thy beauty tempting her to thee,
Thine, by thy beauty being false to me. Shakespeare was a sycophant, a flunkey if you will, but nothing worse.
Further arguments suggest themselves. Shakespeare lived, as it were, in a glass house with a score of curious eyes watching everything he did and with as many ears pricked for every word he said; but this foul accusation was never even suggested by any of his rivals.
In especial Ben Jonson was always girding at Shakespeare, now satirically, now good-humouredly. Is it not manifest that if any such sin had ever been attributed to him, Ben Jonson would have given the suspicion utterance? There is a passage in his “Bartholomew Fair” which I feel sure is meant as a skit upon the relations we find in the Sonnets. In Act V., scene iii., there is a puppet-show setting forth “ the ancient modern history of Hero and Leander, otherwise called the Touchstone of true Love, with as true a trial of Friendship between Damon and Pythias, two faithful friends o' the Bankside.” Hero is a wench o' the Bankside,” and Leander swims across the Thames to her. Damon and Pythias meet at her lodgings, and abuse each other violently, only to finish as perfect good friends.
"Damon. Whore-master in thy face; Thou hast lain with her thyself, I'll prove it in this place. Leatherhead. They are whore-masters both, sir, that's
a plain case.
Leatherhead. A pimp and a scab!
Pythias and Damon. Come, now we'll go together to
breakfast to Hero. Leatherhead. Thus, gentles, you perceive without
'Twixt Damon and Pythias here friendship's true trial.”
Rare Ben Jonson would have been delighted to set forth the viler charge if it had ever been whispered.
Then again, it seems to me certain that if Shakespeare had been the sort of man his accusers say he was, he would have betrayed himself in his plays. Consider merely the fact that young boys then played the girls' parts on the stage. Surely if Shakespeare had had any leaning that way, we should have found again and again ambiguous or suggestive expressions given to some of these boys when aping girls; but not one. The temptation was there; the provocation was there, incessant and prolonged for twenty-five years, and yet, to my knowledge, Shakespeare has never used one word that malice could misconstrue. Yet he loved suggestive and lewd speech.
Luckily, however, there is stronger proof of Shakespeare's innocence than even his condemnation of his false friend, proof so strong, that if all the arguments for his guilt were tenfold stronger than they are, this proof would outweigh them all and bring them to nought. Nor should it be supposed, because I have only mentioned the chief arguments for and against, that I do not know all those that can be urged on either side. I have confined myself to the chief ones simply because by merely stating them, their utter weakness must be admitted by every one who can read Shakespeare, by every one who understands his impulsive sensitiveness, and