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We read or see his plays in their all but unlimited wealth of interest and beauty, and they bring not only delight but the revelation of an understanding so embracing we can hardly credit it as within the power of a human.
Dryden's praise says it best: We accordingly ask ourselves how much Christendom in general and the Renaissance in particular contributed to the forming of this magnificent work, and when the comparison with the ancients comes into our minds we find ourselves relating what we judge to be the special worth of the contemporary culture to each of them.
We do this because much is at stake, for in this way we are attempting to discover the wisdom we can make our own. There is, of course, a certain provinciality in this modern method of pursuing understanding; but on the key matter—what Dryden calls comprehensiveness of soul, which we translate as a grasp of the range and meaning of human experience—we cannot misconceive the question at issue: If Shakespeare, say, is able to find his way beyond all that would limit him in the thought of his time, does he yet receive from it more to light up his understanding than Homer had, or Plato?
Shakespeare participated in the movement of his era in absorbing much of the thought of antiquity, and, no doubt, he found as everyone does that the serious study of the pagan past, inviting emulation, sometimes led to the rebuttal of Christian claims—sometimes the ancient wisdom appeared the better.
The old illustration is the telling one—a famous Renaissance humanist was said to have kept on the walls of his study icons of Socrates and Christ, burning a candle before each. He hoped neither would take offense at the honor done the other, although the chances are he knew he could not have it both ways.
Without arguing that Shakespeare so completely expressed the wisdom of his age, that he was in fact matching the depth of understanding the ancients had gained from then-experience, I shall bring forward a few matters Barbarism versus civilization in william shakespeares the tempest around his use of classical writing that may help us take the measure of his achievement.
Shakespeare will not generally set himself up as a champion of his age, and he will not be challenging Homer on his own ground, however much audiences in recent years are taking his Troilus and Cressida as an image of the horror of the time and of all time, Homer's and his own and ours. Nevertheless, in his baptism for the stage, in The Comedy of Errors, he does begin as one who will outdo the ancients at their own game, and if we should think this taking off from a boisterous Roman comic writer an inappropriate beginning for someone who will ultimately call forth such ideas as Dryden brings into view, we shall be missing much of what makes Shakespeare Shakespeare.
The first theatrical undertaking was nothing if not an outgrowth of humanist education. For about a century everywhere in Europe, schoolboys studying Latin had been putting on the plays of Plautus.
Plautus offered the most engaging of opportunities for learning to master the language and for becoming acquainted with a strange and wonderful form of drama. At the same time his plays were being produced at the courts of princes, and everywhere—in Italy, France, England, Spain, Germany—translations and adaptations were among the most powerful forces at work in displacing medieval forms.
With Shakespeare, the most vivid and imaginative Latin was bathed in the well-spring of the richest of modern languages. In The Comedy of Errors, Shakespeare was working chiefly with Plautus's Menaechmi, although he also drew on at least two others of his plays.
The Latin prologue tells us that some years before, as children, twin brothers had been separated from each other in a crowd, and one was given up for lost. The father died of grief shortly thereafter; but when the son who had remained with him reached manhood he took a sea-journey in the hope of finding his lost brother.
The play begins with his arrival at a port where it happens that his twin is indeed alive and established, although he does not yet know this, and before he discovers him he encounters a variety of persons who take him for his brother. We are, therefore, treated to a comedy of mistaken identity in which all sorts of confusions are as amusing to us as they are discomfiting to the characters themselves, and these include a badly baffled wife and a badly baffled mistress.
Everything is straightened out finally, of course; the brothers are delighted beyond imagination in discovering each other, and the women—who somehow are at fault for having added to the difficulties—are put in their proper place.
Plautus is most hilarious when he is teasing them. Shakespeare took over most of this but complicated it elaborately. He provided the twin brothers at their birth with twin servants. The separation came not in a crowd but when they were all on a sea-voyage with their parents. There was a shipwreck.
The twins, each with his servant, are picked up by different ships, and the parents are also separated. So when Shakespeare's play begins, a young man and his servant arrive at a port where each is mistaken for his counterpart, and in the encounters that follow the confusions are, of course, multiplied.
The outrageousness of this profligate doubling of the causes of confusion is made more humorous by the preposterousness of the initial circumstances, two sets of identical twins, dressed identically, speaking identically, each master quarreling with the wrong servant, and all the rest.
Then, the happiness of the final recognition is multiplied by other unions, the restoration of the father of his wife and of parents to children. Also, another young and virtuous woman is introduced in place of the mistress in Plautus's play to provide the occasion for a new marriage to add to the other happiness.
The idea is obviously that we cannot have too much of a good thing, and if there are to be mistaken identities let's have them compounded, and if there are to be happy reunions to end the whole adventure in joy let's have a stage full.
But there is much more to this amplification than mere multiplying. Shakespeare might simply have presented us with an arbitrarily crowded plot, but he did something much more, he let us know that some power was at work in these misadventures and in their very multiplicity, or at least that there were grounds for supposing so; and the audience, so differently from that attending to Plautus, is being brought to think of all this as somehow the demonstration of mysterious influences making use of the confusion, turning it all to good.
At the very end of the play, the mother, who in exile had become the head of an abbey, is shown to us as a seer and as skilled in magic.The Tempest - Barbarism versus Civilization Essays: Over , The Tempest - Barbarism versus Civilization Essays, The Tempest - Barbarism versus Civilization Term Papers, The Tempest - Barbarism versus Civilization Research Paper, Book Reports.
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