A long, long, long time ago in a galaxy exactly as far away as our own, I promised a discussion of comments made by William C. Carroll, the editor of the Arden Shakespeare Third Edition of Two Gentlemen, in his introduction to the edition. They irk me because while I think I understand why Carroll is making them, his argument proves far too much, marring what is otherwise a valuable introduction. Even more, I think the argument is in the service of a strained interpretation.
The issue is the one I dealt with in my last post on Two Gentlemen; whether it is one of Shakespeare’s earliest plays, and whether its relatively low quality counts as evidence for an early date. The majority, perhaps even the vast majority, of scholars and critics agree to the first proposition, and most if not all of those base their opinion on the second. In a nutshell: Two Gentlemen isn’t very good; Shakespeare tended to get better as he wrote more; therefore, Two Gentlemen dates from a time when he hadn’t written much. Of course I am not a scholar and I do not have a worked-out chronology of the plays, but the crucial premise—Shakespeare, like any other writer, got better as he went along—seems unassailable to me.
I should qualify this right off. I’m not saying that Shakespeare marched from triumph to triumph in uninterrupted succession. That would mean that Shakespeare could never misfire, which plainly isn’t true. King John’s date is in dispute and I would dearly love to call it early because it’s pretty bad, but the consensus seems to be that it comes from the time of King Richard II and King Henry IV, Part 1. If the consensus is right, King John is a counterexample to the general rule that relatively bad work is relatively early work, but nobody is suggesting that this is an ironclad rule.
At least I’m not. All I am saying is that practice makes, if not perfect, at least better. Malcolm Gladwell’s claim that to get good at anything you need to practice for at least 10,000 hours may be fatuous (it’s Gladwell, after all), but you do need to practice. Moreover, later work often builds on earlier work, but for obvious reasons never vice versa. Every writer knows these facts from experience.