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Let's mock the midnight bell. The next day the ships of Cleopatra desert in the midst of the battle, and all is lost. Antony sees that she, who has so long vowed to him infinite love, has betrayed him, and he curses her false heart in the terms it deserves. There is for him only one way of escape from the intolerable humiliation of being led through Rome at the wheel of Octavius' car of triumph; and, as with his own hand he gives away his life, it is with the horrible conviction that she for whom he has sacrificed everything-duty, empire and life itself-is about to cast herself into the arms of his rival. Yet even at this point his infatuation returns: the suicidal blow having been so awkwardly inflicted as not to terminate his life at once, he crawls once more to Cleopatra's feet and dies begging for one last kiss.
It is an awful picture of the infatuation of passion and its fatal consequences. Antony is the Prodigal Son of Shakspeare's works, but a prodigal who never comes home.1
1 When our viciousness grows hard-
Act iii. Scene II.
From the rich materials accumulated in these three dramas many other features might be selected.
For example, the prevalence of suicide is noteworthy. An extraordinary number of the characters terminate their existence with their own hands. Even Brutus, who expresses himself as opposed to suicide on principle, resorts to it when his affairs appear to be in desperation. This was the Roman way; and it is a characteristic trait of heathenism, in which the sense of responsibility for life was imperfectly developed. Another outstanding feature is the regard paid to
Where faith in the loving providence of God is undeveloped, superstition seizes eagerly on any hints by which the will of the gods and the secrets of the future may be supposed to be indicated; and the demand for these signs brings forth the supply. Events like the death of Cæsar were supposed to be portended by signs in the heavens and unusual disturbances in the frame of the world; and Shakspeare renders these rumours with weird sublimity.
A feature which these ancient historical plays possess, in common with the modern ones, is a fondness for pageants. To Shakspeare nothing is more congenial than to describe a holiday, when some great general returns from the wars, and the city pours itself into the streets to meet him, the onlookers swarming up posts and crowding roofs, windows and other
coigns of vantage, while the enthusiasm of a common joy pervades all classes.
There are many of the minor characters of these plays which well deserve particular analysis. But we will restrict ourselves to a closing notice of the remarkable group of women they contain.
First, there is Volumnia, the mother of Coriolanus, “the she-wolf," as Heine calls her, “who suckled the wolf Caius Marcius with her milk of iron”.
“ When he was yet tender-bodied,” she says, “and the only son of my womb; when youth with comeliness plucked all gaze his way; when, for a day of kings' entreaties, a mother should not sell him an hour from her beholding; I-considering how honour should become such a person; that was no better than picture-like to hang by the wall, if renown made it not stir-was pleased to let him seek danger where he was like to find fame. To a cruel war I sent him ; from whence he returned his brows bound with oak. I tell thee, daughter, I sprang not more in joy at first hearing he was a man-child than now in first seeing he had proved himself a man. Hear me profess sincerely: had I a dozen sons, each in my love alike, and none less dear than my good Marcius, I had rather have eleven die nobly for their country than one voluptuously surfeit out of action.” She had instilled into him the pride of his manhood and the pride of his class; and he had learned the lesson too well. When
his career was like to be wrecked because he would not condescend to canvass the common people, she had to entreat him to pocket his pride, and she even stooped to urge him to dissemble, arguing that it was no more base, for the attainment of a noble end, to use the art of dissimulation in the contests of peace than to employ stratagem, as he was wont to do, in the conduct of war. Her power over him, whom no one else could manage, was proved when, at the gates of Rome, she turned him back from his purpose; but she had to expiate what had been unnatural in his training by hearing immediately of his death at the hands of the Volscians.
Shakspeare loves to present characters in contrast; and no more striking contrast is possible than that between Coriolanus's mother and his wife, Valeria. The latter is such a woman as Thackeray loved to paint: a woman without words—my gracious silence' Coriolanus calls her—despised by her own sex as destitute of spirit; wholly absorbed in her home, her husband, her son ; full of tenderness, tremors and tears; yet a perfect woman, benign, modest, beautiful and able to satisfy and enthral the heart of a strong man.
It is a marvellous evidence of the variety which Shakspeare was able to impart to characters fundamentally alike that between the savage virtue of Volumnia on the one hand and the shrinking tenderness of Valeria on the other he could create a figure like
Portia, the wife of Brutus. She is the true Roman matron-strong and dignified, fit to participate in all the secrets of her husband and able to assert her own rights, yet watching over his life and honour like a guardian angel, dissolved in anxieties, when he is in danger, and no longer able to sustain the burden of life, when he is taken from her. If Volumnia is the image of the stern qualities by which in the earliest ages the Roman state was built up, it is because in its greatest days there were at Rome wives and mothers like Portia that the stamp of Rome upon the world is indelible, and the Roman name remains forever a synonym for manliness and righteousness.
The whole diameter of being separates such women from Cleopatra, the voluptuous daughter of the East, the swart queen of Egypt, the serpent of old Nile, as Antony calls her. In comparison with them she is but a glorious weed; yet she arrests the eye, like a poppy among corn; and on her portraiture the dramatist lavishes all the resources of his art.
Antony is not the first whom she has fascinated. The divine Cæsar himself had been ensnared by her charms, and so had Pompey the Great. But
Age cannot wither her, nor custom stale