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CHAPTER VI

THE ROMAN PLAYS.

I.

THE two books which contributed the largest material towards the building-up of Shakspere's art-structure were the Chronicles of Holinshed, a quarry worked by the poet previous to 1600; and North's translation of Plutarch's Lives, a quarry worked after 1600. To this latter source we owe Julius Cæsar, Coriolanus, Antony and Cleopatra, and, in part, Timon of Athens. Shakspere treated the material which lay before him in Holinshed and in Plutarch with reverent care. It was not a happy falsifying of the facts of history to which he, as dramatist, aspired, but an imaginative rendering of the very facts themselves. Plutarch he follows even more studiously and closely than he followed Holinshed. Yet it is to be noted that, while Shakspere is profoundly faithful to Roman life and character, it is an ideal truth, truth spiritual rather than truth material, which he seeks to discover. His method, as critics have pointed out, is widely different from that of his contemporary, Ben Jonson. Mr Knight, treating this subject, has said, "Jonson has left us two Roman plays produced essentially upon a different principle. In his Sejanus there is scarcely

a speech or an incident that is not derived from the ancient authorities; and Jonson's own edition of the play is crowded with references as minute as would. have been required from any modern annalist. . . . His characters . . . are made to speak according to the very words of Tacitus and Suetonius; but they are not living men.' Shakspere was aware that his personages must be men before they were Romans; he felt that the truth of poetry must be vital and selfevidencing; that if it has got hold of the fact, no reference to authority will make the validity of the fact more valid. He knew that the buttressing up of art with erudition will not give stability to that which must stand by no aid of material props and stays, but, if at all, by virtue of the one living soul of which it is the body.

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The German Romanticist critic Franz Horn has said that the hero of Shakspere's King John "stands not in the list of personages, and could not stand with them.

. . The hero is England." Mr Knight adds, that the hero of Shakspere's great classical trilogy is Rome. Important, however, as the political significance doubtless is there is something more important. Whether at any time Shakspere was concerned as deeply about corporate life, ecclesiastical, political, or even national, as he was about the life and destiny of the individual man, may well be questioned. But at this time the play of social forces certainly did not engage his imagination with exclusive or supreme interest. The struggle of patrician and plebeian is not the subject of Coriolanus, and the * Charles Knight. Studies of Shakspere, 1851, p. 405.

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tragedy resolves itself by no solution of that political problem. Primarily the tragedy is that of an individual soul. It is important to note the dates of these plays. Julius Cæsar, which Malone assigned to the year 1607, is now with good reason carried back as early as 1601, and thus it lies side by side in point of time with Hamlet.* After an interval of seven years or upwards, the second of the Roman Plays, Antony and Cleopatra, was written. The events of Roman history connect Antony and Cleopatra immediately with Julius Cæsar yet Shakspere allowed a number of years to pass, during which he was actively engaged as author, before he

* Mr Halliwell pointed out the following lines in Weever's “Mirror of Martyrs," 1601,—

The many-headed multitude were drawn

By Brutus' speech, that Cæsar was ambitious;

When eloquent Mark Antony had shown
His virtues, who but Brutus then was vicious?

The theory of Mr Fleay (New Shakspere Society's Transactions, 1874) that our present Julius Cæsar is a play of Shakspere's altered by Ben Jonson about 1607, is unsupported by any sufficient evidence, internal or external. Delius dates Julius Cæsar "before December 1604."

+ There is an entry in the Stationers' Registers, by Edward Blount, May 20, 1608, of "a booke called Antony and Cleopatra." This is generally supposed to have been Shakspere's play, (so Malone, Chalmers, Drake, Collier, Delius, Gervinus, Hudson, Fleay and others). Knight and Verplanck assign a later date. Mr Halliwell on comparing the early editions of North's Plutarch-1579, 1595, 1603, 1612-noticed many small differences between them, "and in one case, in Coriolanus, hit on word 'vnfortunate,' altered by the 1612 edition from the former one's 'vnfortunately,' which 'vnfortunate' was the word used by Shakspere in his tragedy of Coriolanus. This was therefore primâ facie evidence that Shakspere used the 1612 edition of North for his Coriolanus, if not for his other Roman plays." (Transactions of the New Shakspere Society.) Mr Paton claims for a copy of North's Plutarch now in the Greenock library the honour of having been Shakspere's own copy. In it appear the initials W.S.; it is a copy of the 1612 edition.

What

seems to have thought of his second Roman play. is the significance of this fact? Does it not mean that the historical connection was now a connection too external and too material to carry Shakspere on from subject to subject, as it had sufficed to do while he was engaged upon his series of English historical plays? The profoundest concerns of the individual soul were now pressing upon the imagination of the poet. Dramas now written upon subjects taken from history became not chronicles but tragedies. The moral interest was The spiritual material dealt with by Shakspere's imagination in the play of Julius Cæsar lay wide apart from that which forms the centre of the Antony and Cleopatra. Therefore the poet was not carried directly forward from one to the other.

supreme.

But having in Macbeth (about 1606), studied the ruin of a nature which gave fair promise in men's eyes of greatness and nobility, Shakspere, it may be, proceeded directly to a similar study in the case of Antony. In the nature of Antony as in the nature of Macbeth, there is a moral fault or flaw which circumstances discover, and which in the end works his destruction. In each play the pathos is of the same kind,-it lies in the gradual severing of a man, through the lust of power, or through the lust of pleasure, from his better self. By the side of Antony as by Macbeth's side there stood a terrible force, in the form of a woman, whose function it was to realise and ripen the unorganised and undeveloped evil of his soul. Antony's sin was an inordinate passion for enjoyment at the expense of Roman virtue and manly energy; a prodigality of heart, a superb egoism of

pleasure. After a brief interval Shakspere went on to apply his imagination to the investigating of another form of egoism-not the egoism of self-diffusion but of self-concentration. As Antony betrays himself and his cause through his sin of indulgence and laxity, sc Coriolanus does violence to his own soul, and to his country through his sin of haughtiness, rigidity, and inordinate pride. Thus an ethical tendency connects these two plays which are also connected in point of time. While Antony and Cleopatra, although historically a continuation of Julius Cæsar, stands separated from it, both in the chronological order of Shakspere's plays, and in the logical order assigned by successive developments of the conscience, the intellect and the imagination of the dramatist.

The theme of the English historical plays is the success and the failure of men to achieve noble practical ends. Shakspere observed that there are two classes of men in the world-those who use the right means for effecting their ends, who, if they want fruit, plant fruittrees; and, secondly, those who will not accept the fact, who try to get fruit by various ingenious methods, only not by planting fruit-trees. Success in the visible material world, the world of noble positive action, is the measure of greatness in the English historical plays; and the ideal, heroic character of those plays is that of the king who so gloriously succeeded,-Henry V. But in the tragedies, the men who fail are not necessarily less worthy of admiration than the men who succeed. Octavius, who deals skilfully with life, and is misled by no enthusiasms, whose cool heart does not disturb his effi

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