The Ordering of Shakespeare's Earliest Comedies: New Uses of Old Evidence


In lieu of an abstract, the first paragraph of the essay follows:

For Shakespeareans attempting to trace the growth of the playwright's mind and art, the problem of chronology looms especially large in the earliest comedies. Granted, almost everyone since T. W. Baldwin would rank Love's Labor's Lost and A Midsummer Night's Dream as the fourth and fifth of five comedies composed between 1590 and 1595, and most still place The Comedy of Errors first, The Taming of the Shrew second, and The Two Gentlemen of Verona third. For the customary ordering of the first three comedies, however, there is no conclusive evidence, either external or internal, only inferred patterns of development which, as D. J. Palmer notes, eventually assume "that Shakespeare's artistic growth necessarily followed the orderly progression of the critic's logic."1 After briefly examining the most intriguing of these patterns, this essay argues for an exact reversal of the commonly accepted sequence by advancing a new pattern, one that infers relationships between the comedies and their respective sources and not simply between the plays themselves. Its central thesis is that the care and sensitivity with which Shakespeare tried to reconcile the disparate sources of Errors (Roman comedy/"medievalized" Greek romance) and The Shrew (native farce/Supposes) show a maturity not found in Two Gentlemen, where equally disparate traditions (constancy in love/ friendship over love) were simply allowed to shift for themselves.

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