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  • You Never Can Tell: Shaw’s Shakespearean Comedy
  • Tony J. Stafford (bio)

The presence of Shakespearean elements in Shaw’s You Never Can Tell has long been recognized by scholars who have found in Shaw’s play a number of specific quotations, allusions, and borrowings. The reasons vary, however, as to why these elements are present. Frederick McDowell points out Shaw’s utilization of “archetypes in Shakespeare” and of “mythic and archetypal dimensions in general.”1 Miriam Chirico seeks to understand Shaw’s play by studying “its use of archetypes of character and drama” in the context of “ancient Greek drama, the commedia dell’arte,” Shakespeare, or Wilde.”2 John Bertolini goes so far as to see Shaw as anxious “about his own originality with regard to Shakespeare”; he is “an inferior son to Shakespeare”3 (portrayed in the relationship between Walter and his son) who “competes with Shakespearean comedy by means of allusion” (158–59).

Clearly, direct connections between Shakespeare and You Never Can Tell exist, beginning with the title. Shaw’s usual practice is to use titles that are either someone’s name or denotatively descriptive, such as Widowers’ Houses, The Philanderer, Mrs Warren’s Profession, Arms and the Man, Candida, Man and Superman, Major Barbara, and Saint Joan, to name a few. But You Never Can Tell resonates with a sort of whimsy, casualness, optimism, even a colloquial as well as a metaphorical quality, found in such Shakespearean titles as Love’s Labor’s Lost, Midsummer Night’s Dream, Much Ado About Nothing, As You Like It, and Twelfth Night, or What You Will. 4

Moreover, direct quotations from Shakespeare are also present in Shaw’s play, such as “pluck from the memory a rooted sorrow” (Macbeth 5.3.43) and “from the vasty deep I go” (1 Henry IV 3.1.51).5 A number of Shakespearean echoes also exists in Shaw’s play, such as Valentine invoking Romeo’s line when he says that “Gloria is the sun” after the twins have referred to Valentine and Gloria as Romeo and Juliet;6 Crampton drawing [End Page 31] upon Shylock’s famous speech by declaiming that “I’m a man, with the feelings of our common humanity” (259);7 and Shaw describing Crampton as “cowed,” using Macbeth’s complaint that it “hath cowed my better part of man” (V.viii.18). 8

Some scholars have also detected similarities between Shaw’s characters and characters from Shakespeare’s plays. For example, McDowell sees a resemblance between Shaw’s Philip and Ariel of The Tempest, between Philip and Puck in Midsummer Night’s Dream, and between Philip and Mercutio with their “extroverted good-heartedness.”9 In Valentine, McDowell sees a prototype of the character of the same name in Two Gentlemen of Verona, of Orlando in As You Like It, and of Bassanio in The Merchant of Venice. 10 McDowell also asserts that Valentine and Gloria recall Ferdinand and Miranda in The Tempest in their “freshness and spontaneity” and resemble Beatrice and Benedict in some of their “contentious interchange” (69, 66). McDowell goes on to compare M’Comas to the councilor Kent in King Lear (79), likens Crampton to Leontes and Perdita in The Winter’s Tale in his reconciliation with his children, and regards Crampton and Mrs. Clandon as an ironic inversion of the reunion of Leontes and Hermione of the same play (78). MacDowell also sees the seaside hotel as “the enchanted isle in The Tempest, with William and Bohun dividing the Prospero role of magician between them” (75). Bertolini adds to this list by observing that Mrs. Clandon’s reason for leaving her husband “was the father’s obtaining a whip,” suggesting “shades of Petruchio in Taming of the Shrew,” says Bertolini.11

Additionally, the character of William has drawn much critical attention as a direct reference to Shakespeare. While the waiter’s name is actually Walter, Dolly renames him William because of his resemblance to the bust of Shakespeare in the Stratford Church, or, as McDowell interprets it, she sees him “as radiating a serenity akin to that emanating from Shakespeare’s bust.”12 McDowell also adds another interesting similarity: “William’s tact and...


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