Page images



SIIAKSPEARE took the fable of this play from the Promos and Cassandra of George Whetstone, published in 1578, of which this is “The Argument."

“ In the city of Julio (sometimes under the dominion of Corvinus, king of Hungary and Bohemia), there was a law, that what man soever comDitted adultery should lose his head, and the woman offender should wear some disguised apparel, during her life, to make her infamously noted. This severe law, by the favor of some merciful magistrate, became little regarded, until the time of Lord Promos's authority; who, convicting a young gentleman named Andrugio of incontinency, condemned both him and his minion to the execution of this statute. Andrugio had a very virtuous and beautiful gentlewoman to his sister, named Cassandra. Cassandra, to enlarge her brother's life, submitted a humble petition to the Lord Promos. Promos, regarding her good behavior, and fantasying her great beauty, was much delighted with the sweet order of her talk; and doing good, that evil might come thereof, for a time he reprieved her brother; but, wicked man, turning his liking into unlawful lust, he set down the spoil of her honor, ransom for her brother's life: chaste Cassandra, abhorring both him and his suit, by no persuasion would yield to this

But in fine, won by the importunity of her brother (pleading for life), upon these conditions she agreed to Promos: First, that he should pardon her brother, and after marry her. Promos, as fearless in promise as careless in performance, with solemn vow, signed her conditions; but, worse than any infidel, his will satisfied, he performed neither the one nor



VOL. 1.

[ocr errors]

the other: for to keep his authority unspotted with favor, and to prevent Cassandra's clamors, he commanded the jailer secretly to present Cassandra with her brother's head. The jailer (touched] with the outcries of Andrugio (abhorring Promos's lewdness), by the providence of goa provided thus for his safety. He presented Cassandra with a felon's head newly executed; who knew it not, being mangled, from her brother's (who was set at liberty by the jailer). [She] was so aggrieved at this treachery, that, at the point to kill herself, she spared that stroke to be avenged of Promos; and devising a way, she concluded to make her fortunes known to the king. She, executing this resolution, was so highly favored of the king, that forthwith he hasted to do justice on Promos; whose judgment was to marry Cassandra, to repair her crazed honor; which done, for his heinous offence, he should lose his head. This marriage solemnized, Cassandra, tied in the greatest bonds of affection to her husband, became an earnest suitor for his life: the king tendering the general benefit of the commonweal before her special case, although he favored her much, would not grant her suit. Andrugio (disguised among the company), sorrowing the grief of his sister, bewrayed his safety, and craved pardon. The king, to renown the virtues of Cassandra, pardoned both him and Pro

The circumstances of this rare history, in action lively followeth." Whetstone, however, has not afforded a very correct analysis of his play, which contains a mixture of comic scenes, between a bawd, a pimp, felons, &c., together with some serious situations which are not described. A hint, like a seed, is more or less prolific, according to the qualities of the soil on which it is thrown. This story, which in the hands of Whetstone produced little more than barren insipidity, under the culture of Shakspeare became fertile of entertainment. The curious reader may see the old play of Promos and Cassandra among “Six Old Plays on which Shakspeare founded, &c.” published by Mr. Steevens, printed for S. Leacroft, Charing Cross. The piece exhibits an almost complete embryo of Measure for Measure; yet the hints on which it is formed are so slight, that it is nearly as impossible to detect them, as it is to point out in the acorn the future ramifications of the oak. The story originally came


from the “ Hecatommithi” of Cinthio, Decade 8, Novel 5, and is repeated in the Tragic Histories of Belleforest.

“ This play,” says Mr. Hazlitt,“ is as full of genius as it is of wisdom. Yet there is an original sin in the nature of the subject, which prevents us from taking a cordial interest in it. The height of moral argument,' which the author has maintained in the intervals of passion, or blended with the more powerful impulses of nature, is hardly surpassed in any of his plays. But there is a general want of passion; the affections are at a stand; our sympathies are repulsed and defeated in all directions."

Isabella is a lovely example of female purity and virtue: with mental energies of a very superior kind, she is placed in a situation to make trial of them all, and the firmness with which her virtue resists the appeal of natural affection has something in it heroically sublime. The passages in which she encourages her brother to meet death with firmness rather than dishonor; his burst of indignant passion on learning the price at which his life might be redeemed; and his subsequent clinging to life, and desire that she would make the sacrifice required,—are among the finest dramatic passages of Shakspeare. What heightens the effect is, that this scene follows the fine exhortation of the duke in the character of the friar, about the little value of life, which had almost made Claudio “ resolved to die.” The comic parts of the play are lively and amusing ; and the reckless Barnardine, “ fearless of what's past, present, and to come,” is in fine contrast to the sentimentality of the other characters. Shakspeare “ was a moralist in the same sense in which Nature is one. He taught what he had learnt from her. IIe showed the greatest knowledge of humanity, with the greatest fellow feeling for it.”

Malone supposes this play to have been written about the close of the

year 1603




SCENE I. An Apartment in the Duke's Palace.

Enter Duke, Escalus, Lords, and Attendants.
Duke. EscALUS,–
Escal. My lord.

Duke. of government the properties to unfold,
Would seem in me to affect speech and discourse;
Since I am put to know, that your own science
Exceeds, in that, the lists of all advice
My strength can give you: then no more remains,
But that to your sufficiency, as your worth is able,
And let them work. The nature of our people,
Our city's institutions, and the terms
For common justice, you are as pregnant in,
As art and practice hath enriched any
That we remember: there is our commission,
From which we would not have you warp.-Call

hither, I say, bid come before us, Angelo.

[Exit an Attendant. What figure of us think you he will bear? For you must know, we have with special soul

1 Lists are bounds.

2 Some words seem to be lost here; the sense of which may have been

-Then no more remains
But that to your sufficiency you join
A zeal as willing, as your worth is able,
And let them work.

« PreviousContinue »