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and of Regnard with that of Shakespeare. No play, on the contrary, is more important than “Troilus and
Cressida," in which Shakespeare treats the actual subject of the “Iliad,” and represents the very world of Homer; but so fancifully is it done, with so much hardihood and irreverence, that it has more greatly scandalized his severe judges, and driven his enthusiastic devotees to talk wilder nonsense than any other of his works. The offence consists in his having made his play a parody of Homer's heroic world, to the delight of the detractors of Homer, if there still be any such, but a matter of amazement and grief to those whose religious admiration of the great romantic poet has not rendered them unfaithful to the cultus of the classics. It is worth while to read the sublime explanation evolved by the German critic, Ulrici, in his attempt to reconcile the gods, and to satisfy his own mind, which was evidently divided and troubled between his adoration of both Homer and Shakespeare: it is a curious specimen of transcendental criticism,
“The great Shakespeare with his deep insight," says Ulrici, "certainly did not mistake the beneficent effect that an ever-increasing intercourse with the culture of antiquity had already produced, and would continue to produce on the Christianized spirit of Europe. But he saw the danger of an unguarded admiration for classical antiquity, the religion and morals of those who admire it unreservedly, being inevitably doomed to the lowest depths of decadence, and such was the destiny of the eighteenth century to the eyes of the attentive observer. Inspired by his prophetic spirit, which penetrated with equal clearness of vision the obscurity of centuries to come and the clouds hanging over the most remote ages of the past, Shakespeare wrote this profoundly significant satire of the heroic world of Homer. It was not his intention to degrade the lofty, or to lessen the glory of the great, still less to attack Homer and heroic poetry in general, but he wished to give a solemn warning to those who might be tempted to exaggerate the value of the ancients and to worship them as idols."
Thus according to the German critic, " Troilus and Cressida” would be a sort of prophetic protest in the name of religion and morality against the abuse one day to be made of the masters of antiquity. A French translator of Shakespeare, M. François Victor Hugo, also seems to consider this singular play in the light of a prophecy, “Shakespeare,” writes the son of Victor Hugo,“ wished to deprive classic types of a prestige which was becoming dangerous to the liberty of art. He wished to prevent the narrow and illiberal spirit of criticism which would impose an idolatrous worship of the past upon the future, and to protest beforehand against a literary reaction of which he foresaw the excess.” But such explanations as these betray, not only far too superstitious a mode of regarding genius, but also a remarkable want of the sense of history and of reality. Shakespeare's sympathy with the Trojans and his scanty love for the Greeks was simply the outcome of a Latin tradition which was cherished all through the Middle Ages, and was still rife in the sixteenth century. When the Barbarians overthrew the Roman Empire, the sight of the colossal power which they had upset made an immense impression on their imagination. The conquerors set themselves to imitate the vanquished, whom they wished to resemble in every way, and made a point of honour of possessing a genealogy in common with them,—and as a belief which was sanctioned not only by poetry but also by history, attributed the origin of Rome to the Trojans, the Barbarians also ambitiously laid claim to the Trojans as their forefathers. We see the different peoples of Europe celebrating some prince of the family of Hector as their ancestor—the Franks taking Francus, the Normans Antenor, the Bretons Brut or Brito. These legends which flourished all through the Middle Ages were held at the dawn of the Renaissance in still higher honour than ever; in 1572 they inspired the Franciade of Ronsard, and when Shakespeare wrote “Troilus and Cressida” they still lingered in the memory of his contemporaries. In making Hector act a glorious part, and Achilles an infamous one, Shakespeare was but following a national tradition; and though his humorous fancy led him to make merry with the Greeks, he had no intention of writing a caricature of the Iliad. No poet was ever of a less revolutionary or aggressive spirit; the basis of his humour is an unchanging serenity, and he remains floating in the pure regions of art high above all our literary disputes—content to create and disdaining all combat.
“ Timon of Athens” also claims a place among Shakespeare's Greek plays, in virtue of the place in which the scene is laid, and of the names of its personages. We shall have occasion further on to inquire how much of it he may have borrowed either directly from Plutarch and Lucian, both of whom speak of Timon, or from contemporary playwrights, by whom the same subject had been treated. Nothing, indeed, could be less Greek in spirit than many of the details in this play, as also the whole part of Alcibiades, and above all, the hero's exaggerated and gloomy misanthropy which belongs by right only to a northern type of character. But the want of authenticity in some parts of it, and the extreme uncertainty as to the text, make it a difficult matter to judge of this play. The finest of Shakespeare's dramas taken from antiquity are his Roman tragedies, for the composition of which the only source he had was Plutarch's "Lives." But the medium through which he became acquainted with the Greek historian has been a debated point. M. Philarète Chasles counts four intermediate steps: in 1603, an Italian, named Florio, who knew several languages, translated the essays of Montaigne into English. Shakespeare read this translation, and taking a great fancy to Montaigne, was struck by the admiration he expressed for Plutarch and Amyot. An English translation of Plutarch's “Lives," by Sir Thomas North, taken not from the Greek, but from the French of Amyot, had been published twenty years before, but Shakespeare would appear not to have noticed it until his attention was drawn to Plutarch by Montaigne's Essays. Then he read it, and in the space of three or four years there appeared successively "Julius Cæsar,” “ Coriolanus,” and “ Antony and Cleopatra." This ingenious theory, built up by M. Philarète Chasles, is unfortunately not supported by facts. “ Julius Cæsar” was written before the famous year 1603, which figures in the imagination of the too-inventive writer just quoted, as a sort of climacteric date in Shake speare's history. There is no doubt that Shakespeare knew of Montaigne's works, as he has introduced several passages from the Essays into his plays, particularly into the “ Tempest," but that this acquaintance exercised any great influence upon him, and directed his thoughts into an entirely new channel, is a most gratuitous supposition. It would therefore be hazardous to say that Plutarch was revealed to Shakespeare by Montaigne ; one thing, however, is certain, and that is, that it was only through Amyot, or rather through his English translator, Sir Thomas North, that Shakespeare became acquainted with Plutarch. The proof of this is easy and amusing. In comparing the texts, we find the poet following the translator so closely as to borrow from him not only whole passages and various little peculiaritiesan indulgence in epithets, and a certain redundancy of expression, characteristic of good old Amyot—but also even his errors and mistranslations.
It would be an entertaining study to compare Shakespeare's Roman tragedies with the corresponding " Lives" of Plutarch. Very interesting would it be to note the exact reproductions, and still more curious, to observe how the poet's art transformed the accounts of the historian into a drama; and above all, nothing could be more fruitful of instruction than to see how he discarded his model whenever the claims of poetry demanded a departure from strict historical truth. But this necessity seldom arose, and in almost every instance Shakespeare was able to follow his guide with scrupulous fidelity, without treachery to the higher rights of poetry; he, who in general treated the source of his materials with sovereign independence, showing the most surprising humility and submission to Plutarch. The secret of this is to be found in the poetical imagination of the Greek historian, who was more desirous of moral than of historical truth, and who set himself to write not history but biography, so that Plutarch himself did more than half of the necessary transformation of history into poetry. But however it may be with Plutarch's poetical qualities and Shakespeare's conformity with him in this particular case, the general proposition is none the less true, that a poet is not an historian, and that his mission is other than to write an historical work. Poetic or ideal truth is of a different nature and of a higher order than historical fact. We shall see more than once, further
on, how it corrects the prosaic element in history, all that has to be said resolving itself into a commentary on the well-known passage in Aristotle's Poetics—“Poetry is a more philosophical and a more excellent thing than History, for Poetry is conversant with the Universal, History with the Particular.”
But if a poet is not an historian, still less is he a bookworm. Shakespeare's plays are full of anachronisms and departures from local and temporary truth, which pedantic and shallow critics delight in pointing out and reproaching him with. We must make some allowance for this line of criticism, and acknowledge certain anachronisms to be outrageous, but the distinction here between what is and what is not permissible is very delicate, and perhaps there is no other point in æsthetics on which it is more difficult to lay down positive rules. Generally