Imagens das páginas
PDF
ePub

CORIOLANUS.

FIRST

IRST printed in the folio of 1623, and one of the worst specimens of printing in that volume. The text as there delivered abounds in palpable corruptions: critical sagacity and ingenuity have done their utmost, apparently, towards rectifying the numerous errors; still there are some passages that seem too much for corrective art.

The tragedy is not heard of at all through any notice or allusion made during the author's life: in fact, we have no contemporary note of reference to it whatever, save in an elegy on Richard Burbage,* where we learn that the hero's part was sustained by that celebrated actor. So that we are left without any external evidence as to the date of the writing. Nor does the piece itself contain a traceable vestige of allusion to any known contemporary events; such, for instance, as that to the new creation of baronets in Othello. Our only argument, therefore, as regards the time of composition lies in marks of style, use of language, and complexion of imagery and thought; in all which respects it clearly falls among the very latest of the Poet's writing. Certainly no play of the series surpasses it, and very few, if any, equal it, in boldness of metaphor, in autocratic prerogative of expression, or in passages marked by an overcrowding of matter or an overcompression of language. The strength of civil wisdom, also, the searching anatomy of public characters and motives, the wide and firm grasp of social and political questions, in short, the whole moral and intellectual climate of the piece, all concur with the former notes in marking it off to the Poet's highest maturity of thought and power. There

* Burbage died in 1619, and a copy of an elegy written upon that occasion was discovered some years ago among Mr. Heber's manuscripts. See vol. xvii. page 156.

withal I hold it to be among his greatest triumphs in organization: I cannot point out, I believe no one has pointed out, a single instance where the parts might have been better ordered for the proper effect of the whole; while the interest never once flags or falters, nor suffers any break or diversion, from the beginning to the end: rather say, it holds on with ever-increasing force throughout, and draws all the details into its current; so that the unity of impression is literally perfect. In this great point of dramatic architecture, I think it bears the palm clean away from both the other Roman tragedies; and indeed I am not sure but it should be set down as the peer of Othello.

In this, as in the other Roman plays, the historical matter was drawn from Sir Thomas North's translation of Plutarch. The events of the drama as related in the old Greek's Life of Coriolanus extend over a period of about four years, from the popular secession to the Sacred Mount, B.C. 494, to the hero's death, B.C. 490. The capture of Corioli is now reckoned to the year

B.C. 493.

The severity of criticism applied in recent times has made rather sweeping work with the dim heroic traditions of old Rome; insomuch that the story of Coriolanus has now come to be generally regarded as among the most beautiful of the early Roman legends. Shakespeare, however, was content to take the rambling and credulous, but lively and graphic narratives of Plutarch as veritable and authentic history.

The Coriolanus of Plutarch offered the Poet a capital basis for the construction of a great dramatic hero. Hardly any other passage indeed of Roman history could furnish so grand and inviting a theme for personal delineation. The main outlines of the man's character, and also the principal actions ascribed to him, are copied faithfully from the historian; while those outlines are filled up and finished with a wealth of invention and a depth of judgment which the Poet has perhaps nowhere surpassed. The proportions are indeed gigantic, not to say superhuman; so much so, that the boldest of delineators might well have scrupled such a portrait, but that he had so strong a warrant of historic faith to bear him out. The other personal figures, also, with the one exception of Menenius Agrippa, were

are,

in like sort derived from the same time-honoured repository. And the point most worth noting is, that from the parts and fragments thence derived, rich and fresh as these often the Poet should have reproduced, as it were, the entire form and order of their being, creating an atmosphere and environing which so fit and cohere with what he borrowed, that the whole has the air and movement of an original work. For it may be observed that all the humorous and amusing scenes and Shakespeare has few that are more choicely conceived or more aptly used are supplied from the Poet's own mind; there being no hint towards these in Plutarch, except the fable rehearsed and applied by old Menenius, who is merely described as one of "the pleasantest old men, and the most acceptable to the people." And yet how exquisite the keeping of these scenes with the other matter of the play! and how perfectly steeped they seem to be in the very genius and spirit of the old Roman life and manners!

Nor does the Poet's borrowing in this case stop with incidents or with lines of character: it extends to the very words and sentences of the old translator, and this sometimes for a considerable space together. In illustration of this, I copy, with slight abridgment, the passage describing the flight of Coriolanus to Antium, and his reception by Aufidius:

"It was even twilight when he entered the city, and many people met him in the streets, but no man knew him. So he went immediately to Tullus Aufidius' house, and when he came thither he got him up straight to the chimney-hearth, and sat him down, and spake not a word, his face all muffled over. They of the house spying him wondered what he should be, yet they durst not bid him rise: for, disguised as he was, yet there appeared a certain majesty in his countenance and in his silence; whereupon they went to Tullus who was at supper, to teil him of the strange disguising of this man. Tullus rose presently from the board, and coming towards him asked who he was, and wherefore he came. Then Marcius unmuffled himself, and, after he had paused awhile, said, ' If thou knowest me not yet, Tullus, and seeing me dost not believe me to be the man I am indeed, I must of necessity bewray myself to be that I am. I am CAIUS MARCIUS, who hath done to thyself particularly, and

[ocr errors]

a good

to all the Volsces generally, great hurt and mischief, which I cannot deny for my surname CORIOLANUS that I bear. For I never had other benefit of the painful service I have done, and the extreme dangers I have been in, but this surname ; memory and witness of the malice and displeasure thou shouldst bear me. Indeed the name only remaineth with me: for the rest the envy and cruelty of the people of Rome have taken from me, by the sufferance of the dastardly Nobility and magistrates, who have forsaken me, and let me be banished by the people. This extremity hath now driven me to come as a poor suitor, to take thy chimney-hearth: not of any hope I have to save my life thereby; for if I had feared death, I would not have come hither to put myself in hazard; but pricked forward with desire to be revenged of them that thus have banished me; which now I do begin, in putting my person into the hands of their enemies. Wherefore, if thou hast any heart to be wreaked of the injuries thy enemies have done thee, speed thee now, and let my misery serve thy turn, and so use it, that my services may be a benefit to the Volsces; promising thee that I will fight with better will for you than I did when I was against you; knowing that they fight more valiantly who know the force of the enemy than such as have never proved it. But if it be so that thou dare not, and art weary to prove fortune any more, then am I also weary to live any longer. And it were no wisdom in thee to save the life of him who hath been heretofore thy mortal enemy, and whose service now can nothing help nor pleasure thee.' Tullus, hearing what he said, was a marvellous glad man, and, taking him by the hand, said unto him, Stand up, O Marcius, and be of good cheer; for in proffering thyself unto us thou doest us great honour; and by this means thou mayest hope also of greater things at all the Volsces' hands.' So he feasted him for that time, and entertained him in the honourablest manner he could, talking with him of no other matter at that present; but within a few days they fell to consultation in what sort they should begin their wars."

[ocr errors]

To this I must add the still more remarkable passage relating the visit of the Roman ladies to the enemy's camp, and the interview between Volumnia and her son:

"Now was Marcius set in his chair of state, and when he spied the women coming afar off he marvelled what it meant; but afterwards, knowing his wife, who came foremost, he determined at the first to persist in his rancour. But in the end, being altered to see them, his heart would not serve him to tarry their coming to his chair; but, coming down in haste, he went to meet them, and first he kissed his mother and embraced her awhile, then his wife and little children. And nature so wrought in him, that the tears fell from his eyes, and he could not keep himself from making much of them. Then, perceiving that his mother would speak, he called the chiefest of the Volsces to hear what she would say. Then she spake in this sort:

"If we held our peace, my son, and determined not to speak, the state of our poor bodies and present sight of our raiment would easily bewray to thee what life we have led at home since thy exile: but think now with thyself how much more unfortunate than all the women living we are come hither, considering that the sight which should be most pleasant to behold, spiteful fortune hath made most fearful to us; making myself to see my son, and my daughter here her husband, besieging the walls of his native country; so as that which is the only comfort to all others in their adversity, to pray unto the gods and to call to them for aid, is the thing which plungeth us in most deep perplexity. For we cannot, alas! together pray both for victory to our country and for safety of thy life; but a world of grievous curses, yea, more than any mortal enemy can heap upon us, are forcibly wrapped up in our prayers. For the bitter sop of most hard choice is offered thy wife and children either to lose the person of thyself or the nurse of their native country. For myself, my son, I am determined not to tarry till fortune in my lifetime do make an end of this war; for, if I cannot persuade thee rather to do good unto both parties than to overthrow and destroy the one, trust unto it, thou shalt no sooner march forward to assault thy country, but thy foot shall tread upon thy mother's womb, that brought thee first into this world. And I may not defer to see the day, either that my son be led prisoner in triumph by his natural countrymen or that he himself do triumph of them.. If it were so that my request tended to save thy coun

« AnteriorContinuar »