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full maturity of his power, Shakespeare should have written a play so full of defects both of style and of plot, simply for the purpose of furnishing an actor with an advantageous part. But once admit that “ Pericles ” had been sketched out twenty years before, and there is no absurdity in the conjecture that the poet's wish to give a friend and comrade a splendid opportunity for displaying his talents may have been the determining cause which made him put the finishing touch to his work.
SHAKESPEARE AND PLUTARCH.
· For the material of the three Roman tragedies, "Julius Cæsar,” “ Antony and Cleopatra,” and “Coriolanus," Shakespeare drew exclusively upon Plutarch. An in- • terval of at least half a dozen years separates the first tragedy from the other two, the latest in point of date being “ Coriolanus,” which would appear not to have been written before 1608. For reasons stated further on, I shall take these three plays in the order in which they were written, and not in that of historical facts. An English translation, by Sir Thomas North, of the “ Lives” of Plutarch appeared in 1579. This, as I have already said, was not taken from the Greek text, but was simply a version of the French translation by Amyot, whose genius had at once invested it with all the importance of an original work. North made no attempt to revert to the Greek, and frankly called his book, “ The lives of the noble Grecians and Romans compared together by that grave, learned philosopher and historiographer, Plutarch of Chæronea. Translated out of Greek into French by James Amyot ... and out of French into English by Sir Thomas North, Knight.”
No sign of Shakespeare having read Plutarch appears in his plays until we come to “ Julius Cæsar," in the beginning of the seventeenth century.
The ingenious conjecture by which M. Philarète Chasles endeavours to explain in what manner this translation of
Sir Thomas North's came to attract Shakespeare's attention, has already been alluded to. From him we learn of the copy of Montaigne's “Essays " in the British Museum, which contains Shakespeare's signature, and the date 1603 written by his own hand, besides his marks with the pen, and various marginal notes. It is a folio copy, published in English by Florio, an Italian who was acquainted with several languages. But even without this palpable proof—this copy of Montaigne annotated by the hand of Shakespeare—no doubt could be entertained as to his knowing the “Essays,” as several evident recollections of them, and even quotations, are to be found in his plays-notably in the “Tempest,” in which a fragment of the chapter "On Cannibals” is introduced. M. Chasles imagines that Shakespeare's curiosity was aroused by Montaigne's praises of Plutarch, and his attention was thereby called to North's translation, which had been published twenty-four years before. He looks upon the year 1603, in which Shakespeare read Montaigne's “Essays"-pen in hand,—as a turning-point in his literary and moral development, from which the direction of his genius into a new channel may be dated. Up to that time, the poet had mistaken his path, frittering away his time and talent in the by-ways of fancy, of comedy, and of the historical drama; but his meeting with Montaigne was a revelation to him—a journey, as it were, on the road to Damascus, and the deep sources of tragedy were laid open to his gaze by the great French moralist. M. Philarète Chasles would willingly insinuate that we are indebted to Montaigne, not only for “ Julius Cæsar," but also for “Hamlet,” and for all Shakespeare's great works up to the “Tempest.” But this conjecture is based on too slight a foundation. An earlier date by a year or two than 1603 is assigned, with every appearance of probability, by the most recent efforts of criticism, to the first
representation of “ Julius Cæsar.” M. Chasles might, it is true, reply that the edition of 1603 to which Shakespeare's copy belonged, was a reprint, and that the first English edition having appeared in 1601, he might still have known the “ Essays " when he wrote "Julius Cæsar ;” besides, putting translations aside, he doubtlessly knew French well enough to run through them in the original before studying them more closely in his English copy. But all this is nothing but conjecture, and the influence it attributes to Montaigne over the development of Shakespeare's genius is a gratuitous supposition quite unjustified by the few traces in his writings of his having read the “Essays." However, be it as it may with the part played by Montaigne between Shakespeare and Plutarch, one thing is abundantly clear, and that is that Shakespeare only. knew Plutarch at third-hand,—through the English version of Amyot's translation. Ample proof of this has been given in a former chapter, in considering the question that animated criticism of the pedantic sort to such a ridiculous degree, as to whether Shakespeare knew Greek. There is no necessity to repeat the evidence here, or to show how closely the poet followed the translation even down to its mistakes, or to point out the numerous passages which are simply transcribed from it. The interest attaching to this comparison of texts was merely superficial, and the subject of the present chapter is of deeper and graver import, in which Shakespeare is no longer to be compared with North or Amyot, but with Plutarch-the poet with the historian. The matter is no longer one of words, but concerns the inmost heart of things.
In his Roman tragedies, with the exception of a few • instances to be mentioned further on, Shakespeare has generally followed Plutarch so faithfully and minutely that they are almost, so to speak, only the lives of Cæsar,
• of Brutus, of Antony, and of Coriolanus dramatized. If
a poet of the rigid French school were to borrow the materials for a tragedy from Plutarch, we can picture to ourselves what his mode of procedure would be. From the varied and ample information supplied by the Greek historian, he would choose out a few salient points and some clearly defined set of circumstances; then, rigorously excluding all the rest, with this single situation and his selected features he would make up a fine work maybe of its kind, but of which the essential beauty would consist in its unity, simplicity, and clearness; it would be a dramatic extract from Plutarch, but it would not be Plutarch himself dramatized. But Shakespeare's method is far less austere, and of greater width; a masterly breadth of touch everywhere characterizes his handiwork. It would be a manifest absurdity to say that he made no choice and excluded nothing, since selection, and therefore also exclusion, is an elementary, an essential condition of every work of art; but the multiplicity of detail in his plays is so amazing that the thought never occurs to us that all this abundance is only a choice out of yet vaster treasures, and that the knowledge and memory and imagination of the poet
were incomparably greater than any tangible result he · has left of them. We forget that his ideal was always
infinitely beyond the work he actually accomplished,
and that he had in his own mind stores of materials a · thousand times richer and more varied than his dramas;
and it is because we overlook all this, that the impression given us by his dramatic translation of Plutarch is that of a most prodigal use of materials, which appears--but it is in appearance only—to exclude nothing, and to aim at reproducing everything.*
* “ Art cannot get on without abstraction. A choice must inevitably be made among all the many elements of human life, but the truth of art consists in preserving the greatest possible number of them."-Vinet.