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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 :