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THE story is taken from Cinthio's Novels, Decad. 8, Novel 5.
Pope. We are sent to Cinthio for the plot of Measure for Measure, and Shakspeare's judgment hath been attacked for some deviations from him in the conduct of it, when probably all he knew of the matter was from Madam Isabella, in The Heptameron of Whetstone, Lond. 4to. 1582.–She reports, in the fourth dayes Exercise, the rare Historie of Promos and Cassandra. A marginal note informs us, that Whetstone was the author of the Comedie on that subject ; which likewise had probably fallen into the hands of Shakspeare. FARMER.
There is perhaps not one of Shakspeare's plays more darkened than this by the peculiarities of its author, and the unskilfulness of its editors, by distortions of phrase, or negligence of transcription. Johnson.
Dr. Johnson's remark is so just respecting the corruptions of this play, that I shall not attempt much reformation in its metre, which is too rough, redundant, and irregular. Additions and omissions (however trifling) cannot be made without constant notice of them ; and such notices, in the present instance, would so frequently occur, as to become equally tiresome to the commentator and the reader.
Shakspeare took the fable of this play from the Promos and Cassandra of George Whetstone, published in 1578. See Theobald's note at the end.
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 will find that the old play of Promos and Cassandra 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.
Whetstone opens his play thus :
ACT I.-SCENE I.
“ Promos, Mayor, Shirife, Sworde Bearer: one with a bunche
of keyes : Phallax, Promos Man.
Phallax, reade out my Soveraines chardge. “ Phal. As
you commaunde I wyll: give heedeful eare. Phallax readeth the Kinges Letters Pattents, which
must be fayre written in parchment, with some
great counterfeat zeale. “ Pro. Loe, here you see what is our Soveraignes wyl,
* Loe, heare his wish, that right, not might, beare swaye:
Loe, heare his care, to weede from good the yll, " To scoorge the wights, good lawes that disobay. “ Such zeale he beares, unto the common weale, ' (How so he byds, the ignoraunt to save) “ As he commaundes, the lewde doo rigor feele, &c.
“ Pro. Both swoorde and keies, unto my princes use,
“I do receyve, and gladlie take my chardge.
“ To treate of which, a whyle we wyll depart. “ Al. speake. To worke your wyll, we yeelde a willing hart.
“ Ereunt." The reader will find the argument of G. Whetstone's Promos and Cassandra, at the end of this play. It was too bulky to be inserted here. See likewise the piece itself among Six old Plays on which Shakspeare founded, &c. published by S. Leacroft, Charing Cross. Steevens.
Measure for Measure was, I believe, written in 1603. See An Attempt to ascertain the Order of Shakspeare's Plays, vol. ii.
VINCENTIO, Duke of Vienna.
ISABELLA, Sister to Claudio.
Lords, Gentlemen, Guards, Officers, and other
* Varrius might be omitted, for he is only once spoken to, and says nothing. Johnson.