The Variorum Love's Labour's Lost

THE magnitude of the service which Dr. Furness is performing in the successive volumes of this monumental edition has long been enthusiastically acknowledged by all students of Shakespeare. The new volume1 shows no abatement in thoroughness, conscientious zeal, or scholarly discrimination. As before, he supplies us with full apparatus for textual criticism and interpretation, a carefully condensed summary of previous scholarship in matters of date, sources, and the like, and the kernel of the contributions of all the more important æsthetic critics. In addition to all this he writes a preface bristling with stimulating and provocative suggestions, and forming an original contribution of serious importance for the history of Elizabethan literature.

The most startling feature of this preface is in connection with Euphuism. For generations the statement has been handed down from teacher to pupil, and from textbook to textbook, that the style of John Lyly’s Euphues not only called forth literary imitations, but affected even the conversation of the courtiers of Elizabeth. No one seems to have questioned the belief. Sir Walter Scott held it, and on the basis of it made an unfortunate attempt to embody it in the character of Sir Piercie Shafton in The Monastery. Modern editors and students of Lyly, men like Mr. Bond and Professor Baker, Dr. Landmann and Professor C. G. Child, have committed themselves to it. And now, at this late date, Dr. Furness takes us all aback by telling us that he sees no good ground for believing it.

His method of attack is twofold. He exposes the weakness of the positive evidence, and produces negative evidence. The positive evidence consists solely, he holds, in the statement of a bookseller, Edward Blount, who issued in 1632 an edition of six of Lylv’s comedies. In a prefixed address “To the Reader” Blount says: “Our nation are in Lyly’s debt for a new English he taught them. Euphues and his England began first that language. All our ladies were then his scholars; and that beauty in Court, which could not parley Euphuism, was as little regarded as she which now there speaks not French.” This statement, Dr. Furness points out, is really only part of an advertisement; it is accompanied by others the accuracy of which is doubtful; and it is not worthy of being taken as sufficient evidence of a state of society. “As well might the future historian promulgate as a fact that the universal greeting among citizens of all classes at the present day is an inquiry as to the soap which had assisted their morning ablutions; or that the earliest articulate cry of infancy is a petition for ‘soothing syrup.’”

On the negative side he cites a “ Prologue to the Reader,” prefixed in 1560 by Thomas Wilson to his Arte of Rhetorike. Wilson, denouncing the use of “straunge ynkehom terms” and other affectations, remarks that “the fine courtier will talk nothing but Chaucer.” “To whom,” asks Dr. Furness, “are we to give credence, Edward Blount, a bookseller, or Thomas Wilson, a courtier? Edward Blount, who wrote nigh thirty years after Elizabeth’s court had ceased to be, or Thomas Wilson, who lived during its existence and was of it?”

The issue thus raised demands more careful consideration than it has been accustomed to receive. The negative argument, however, is easily disposed of. The period during which the Euphuistic vogue prevailed in literature, and is supposed to have affected conversation at court, was from 1580 till about 1590. The passage in Wilson was written at least twenty years before; and were he twenty times a courtier we should be compelled to set aside his evidence in favor of that of even a less trustworthy historian who Writes after the event. Nor is Blount’s testimony seriously weakened by his date. Though he published his Lyly in 1632, he was old enough in 1588 to be a freeman of the Stationers’ Company, and so was an adult contemporary of the movement he professes to describe. The possible untrustworthiness of a statement made to help the sale of his wares is a more serious difficulty, and in the absence of corroboration might well make us chary of dogmatic assertion. Now, unambiguous testimony is harder to find than might be expected. Literal reports of actual conversations, especially of the small talk of the court, are not common. Euphuistic dialogue in works of fiction of the period in question is frequent enough; but it is open to the objector to say that these are merely parts of a literary tradition, not transcripts of fact. Further, evidence of a tendency to fantastic expression of various kinds is abundant; but of the prevalence in conversation of that exact species technically known as Euphuism it is harder to find proof. The presumption is in favor of it. The Elizabethan courtiers, even Dr. Furness would allow, were given to verbal affectations. Euphues was a highly popular book at court for a number of years; its style was a chief cause of its popularity, and called forth literary imitations. It is entirely plausible, then, that it should have affected speech also. But does any contemporary, save Blount, say it did ?

Here is some evidence. Michael Drayton (1563-1631), writing a poetical epistle to Henry Reynolds, says of Sidney that he

did first reduce
Our tongue from Lilly’s writing then in use;
Talking of stones, stars, plants, of fishes, flies,
Playing with words, and idle similes ;
As the English apes and very zanies be
Of everything that they do hear and see.
So imitating his ridiculous tricks,
They speak and write all like mere lunatics.

Dekker (?1570-?1641) in The Gull’s Hornbook thus ends his instructions for the conduct of a gallant at the theatre: “To conclude, hoard up the finest playscraps you can get, upon which your lean wit may most savourly feed for want of other stuff, when the Arcadian and Euphuized gentlewomen have their tongues sharpened to set upon you. That quality (next to your shuttlecock) is the only furniture to a courtier that’s but a new beginner, and is but his A B C of compliment.” In Beaumont and Fletcher’s Honest Man’s Fortune, it is said that the courtier

Has nothing in him but a piece of Euphues, And twenty dozen of twelve-penny ribband all About him.

Sir Thomas Overbury, describing the character of “A Fine Gentleman,” says he “speaks Euphues, not so gracefully as heartily. His discourse makes not his behaviour, but he buys it at court, as countrymen their clothes in Birchin Lane.”

The list could doubtless be extended; but these quotations are enough to enable us to recover from the shock of Dr. Furness’s attack, and to continue to picture the Elizabethan courtier of the second last decade of the sixteenth century ornamenting his discourse with the far-fetched figures, the alliteration, and the balanced antitheses, which characterized the style of John Lyly.

Dr. Furness’s scepticism is not confined to the question of Euphuism at court. He has little sympathy with the attempts to identify the characters of Love’s Labour’s Lost with historical personages, as, for example, Holofernes with Florio. In this he will, we imagine, carry with him an increasing number of modern scholars. Less general assent will be won by his opposition to the view of Biron and Rosaline as the predecessors of Benedick and Beatrice. He admits that “Berowne and Benedick are in love against their will; Rosaline and Beatrice are irrepressibly fond of banter;” but he questions whether the resemblance goes farther. He makes an analysis of the two pairs of characters in order to emphasize the points of difference; and he unquestionably does service in indicating the limits of the parallelism. But he confuses the issue when he says: “ Could we point to defects in the earlier character which are remedied in the later, then we might say that Berowne is Benedick’s predecessor. But are there any such defects ? Are they not essentially different ?” It is not a question of better character, but of better characterization. Benedick and Beatrice may or may not be stronger characters than Berowne and Rosaline; it is certain that they are more vividly delineated. One may doubt, however, whether those numerous critics who have seen in the hero and heroine of Love’s Labour ’s Lost the fore-runners of Benedick and Beatrice, have meant more than that in the earlier play there is the hint, later worked out, of the situation produced by two people who amuse us by the interchange of pointed and vigorous raillery, and by a reluctance, which we feel is destined to be vain, to acknowledge each other’s charm.

To the more minute student of Shakespeare’s text, Dr. Furness offers a special contribution in drawing attention to the evidence in this play in favor of the view that the Elizabethan compositors sometimes set up the copy to dictation. The importance of this is obvious when we consider that explanations of defects in the text are then to be looked for in mistakes of the ear as well as of the eye. But he goes too far in saying that if this surmise is correct “it is fatal to emendations founded on the ductus litterarum.” He seems to forget that the compositor’s reader, if not the compositor himself, must still have used his eye, and so must have been liable to the same kind of mistake as was made at times by the compositor when he set directly from written copy.

It is seldom that the veteran editor can let one of these volumes out of his hands without a yawning “cui bono?” Here it takes the form of a depreciation of all that kind of scholarship of which his edition is a compendium. “But, after all,” he concludes, “is it of any moment whether Berowne preceded Benedick, or Rosaline Beatrice ? All four of them fill our minds with measureless content; and if there be in them indications of the growth of Shakespeare’s art, then these indications are never heeded when we see the living persons before us on the stage. What care we then for aught but what our eyes see and our ears hear ? What to us then is the date when the play was written? Shall our ears at that moment be vexed with twice-told tales of the source of the plot ? Be then and there the drowsy hum of commentators uncared for and unheard.’*

To this we attempt no reasoned reply, for it is impossible to believe that the writer takes seriously a view which implies that what to the rest of us is an achievement splendid alike in conception and execution is to its author merely love’s labor lost.

  1. Love’s Labour’s Lost. The Variorum Edition. Edited by H. H. FURNESS. Philadelphia : J. B. Lippincott Co. 1904.