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THE ANCIENT HISTORIES
THE first great effort of Shakspeare's genius was the series of plays founded on the history of his native country. But it was natural that, when this task was approaching completion, he, who had now perfectly acquired the art of dramatizing history, should turn, in search of subjects, to the history of other countries. And at that period, when the Revival of Learning had just given the literature of Greece and Rome as a fresh possession to the modern world, no foreign history was so likely to attract attention as that of classical antiquity.
Long before this stage, indeed, Shakspeare had glanced into that ancient region. His first play was Titus Andronicus, the personages of which were supposed to belong to the later Roman Empire. It is, indeed, doubtful how far this play really belongs to him. It is extremely unlike anything else which we know for certain to be his. There are in it a few striking lines and even passages of greater length; but, as a whole, it is an extremely crude performance, full of extravagant passages and unnatural crimes. In
short, the life it describes never was on sea or land, but only on the stage. If Shakspeare had any considerable hand in it, its principal interest lies in the evidence it affords of how, almost at a single bound, he afterwards passed beyond himself and beyond the style of his predecessors, whose turgid and bloodthirsty extravagances he had condescended for once to imitate.
Although Titus Andronicus is located in the Imperial Period, it has little or no connexion with actual history, its incidents being nearly all purely imaginary. Hence Coleridge has characterized it by the happy epithet of pseudo-classical. This name would apply also to another play, belonging to the dramatist's prime, Troilus and Cressida ; which is founded on a lovestory taken from the earliest Greek history and embodies some incidents of the Trojan War, but cannot be looked upon in any strict sense as an attempt to dramatize history. It is a curious piece and has an important value as a document in Shakspeare's personal history. It seems to have been written at a time when he was disgusted with life, and especially with the character of woman. He turns out the seamy side of everything, satirizing the Homeric heroes and exposing the brutality and cunning which underlay their chivalry and splendour. There are some great qualities in the play, side by side with others which are repulsive; but it has hardly a place in the
series of Histories. Timon of Athens would also be one of those Pseudo-classical Dramas, or it may be reckoned among the Tragedies. In it there is much of the disgust with life found in Troilus and Cressida, and it bears not a little resemblance to Hamlet.
The three plays on classical themes which distinctly belong to the category of Histories are Coriolanus, Julius Cæsar and Antony and Cleopatra. These form the true continuation of the English Histories, and this is a hint which may guide the reader; though there was a long interval of time between the English and these Ancient Histories. All three were written at the height of the author's power, Julius Cæsar coming next after Hamlet, and Antony and Cleopatra and Coriolanus immediately after Othello, King Lear and Macbeth. All three, it will be observed, belong to Roman history ; Shakspeare has no play of the same species taken from the history of Greece.
In contrast with the pseudo-classical plays, these derive their materials directly from history, with only limited invention of character or incident for poetical effect. The source from which Shakspeare chiefly obtained his information was a recently executed
1 All the plays discussed in this chapter appear in the First Folio among the Tragedies. As for Troilus and Cressida, the editors themselves seem to have been uncertain where to place it; and no wonder ; for, as has been said, it is “a History in which historical verisimilitude is openly set at nought, a Comedy without genuine laughter, a Tragedy without pathos”.