Imagens das páginas
PDF
ePub

translation of Plutarch, the celebrated biographer of antiquity, who wrote the lives of the most distinguished personages of the ancient world, both Greek and Roman. In the more learned editions of the plays the narrative of Plutarch is usually printed in the introduction, that the student may see to what extent the modern author was indebted to it; and no one can compare the two versions of the events—the ancient and the modern, the prosaic and the poetical --without being struck with the closeness, almost slavishness, with which the playwriter adheres to his authority. Thus in Julius Cæsar (to quote the remarks of Gervinus, the German Shakspearian commentator) not only the historical action in general, but single incidents and speeches are taken from Plutarch, nay, even such details as one unacquainted with the ancient biographer would consider in form and manner to be quite Shakspearean : the omens of Cæsar's death, the warnings of the augur and of Artemidorus, the absence of the heart in the animal sacrificed, Calphurnia's dream, the peculiar traits of Cæsar's character, his remarks about thin people like Cassius, the circumstance that in the conspiracy no oath was taken, the withdrawal of Cicero, the relation of Portia to Brutus, her temptation, her words, his reply, her subsequent anxiety and death; the circumstances of Cæsar's death, the means taken by Decius Brutus to induce him to leave home, the behaviour of Antony, the murder of

[ocr errors]

the poet Cinna; further on, the contention of the Republican leaders concerning Lucius Pella, their conversation about suicide, the apparition of the ghost of Cæsar, the mistakes in the battle, its double issue, the suicide of Cassius by the same sword with which he had killed Cæsar-all are taken from Plutarch's narrative, from which the poet had only to omit whatever would have destroyed the unity of the action.

Such wholesale literary appropriation-and I have omitted some of the details enumerated by Gervinus - takes away one's breath. Never was there so magnificent a thief as Shakspeare. The mere skeleton of a play he laid hands on wherever he could find it. But all the more wonderful on this account must appear the magic-touch with which everything thus appropriated is made his own and the creative power with which he is able to clothe the skeleton with flesh and beauty, and breathe into it the breath of life.

Shakspeare, as Ben Jonson, the scholar, has recorded, knew little Latin and less Greek. In short, his acquaintance with the ancient world must have been acquired almost, if not altogether, through translations. Yet the atmosphere of the classical ages, which other men learn to feel by long years of study, was so perfectly caught by him, with the childlike instinct of genius, that, scholars have to allow, it could not have been better reproduced even by the most learned. He falls, indeed, into superficial blunders, as when he

makes one of the Trojan heroes speak of Aristotle or one of the characters in Coriolanus mention Cato; but it may be doubted whether he was not himself aware of these anachronisms; and it is infinitely easier to be correct in such trifles than accurately to reproduce the spirit of the ancient world.

Perhaps this Roman stamp is most distinctly felt in Coriolanus. The characters have the force, the individuality and the severe simplicity of ancient sculpture. As you read, you feel how natural it was that this race should have descended from brothers who were suckled by a wolf; that it should have produced men like Curtius and Cato and women like Lucretia and Cornelia ; that the tramp of its legions should have shaken the world ; that its military roads, uniting country to country, should have been so constructed that they have lasted to the present day; and that its system of law should have laid the ground-work of all modern legislation.

In Antony and Cleopatra the mighty force of Rome is also everywhere felt; but the atmosphere is not so distinctively Roman. The prodigal and magnificent manhood of the hero masters the author and runs away with him, so that he forgets the Roman in the man; and he departs more from the literal record than in the other plays. Coleridge says of Antony and Cleopatra that it ranks with the four great tragedies; and well may he say so; for the power, accumul

ating as it proceeds, rises in the last two acts into overwhelming sublimity.

Julius Cæsar is, however, the most perfect of these three plays. Its art has, indeed, been objected to, because it is a question who is the hero-whether Julius Cæsar, after whom it is named, or Brutus. I have heard a German Shakspeare Society discuss this question for hours, when the orators were hidden in clouds of tobacco-smoke, and the arguments were washed down with rivers of bad beer. But, whatever may be said on such a technical point, this is one of the few plays in which Shakspeare exhibits all the resources of a perfect workman. Antony and Cleopatra has a keener human interest and displays a more gigantic power; but it exhibits also a giant's violence and lack of control; the material strays about like an unkept wood; and there are portions which only retard and obscure the movement of the whole. But in Julius Cæsar everything superfluous is pruned away. It is as if the poet had loved his work and gone over it again and again, giving the finishing touches, as a sculptor does to his statue. In Coriolanus the thought is frequently obscure; you feel as if you were reading a corrupt text; the interior heat is not intense enough to raise the meaning into relief. But in Julius Cæsar such is the intensity of the poetic inspiration that the language is resonant, the thought clearly intelligible, and the movement swift and sure from the first page

to the last. Nowhere else, even in Shakspeare, do you come upon more passages which you would like to quote. In respect of perfection of execution Julius Cæsar among the Histories ranks with Macbeth among the Tragedies and the Merchant of Venice among the Comedies; but it excels both. I do not say, by any means, that it is the greatest of Shakspeare's plays ; but it is the most perfect; and, if one wished to tempt anyone who had read nothing of Shakspeare, this would be the play to place in his hands.

In Coriolanus and Julius Cæsar Shakspeare has chosen for illustration two of the critical moments of Roman history—the one the point, in early ages, when aristocracy was passing into democracy, the other the point, in later times, at which the republic was passing into the empire. Antony and Cleopatra is a kind of appendix to Julius Cæsar ; and in it the political situation is unchanged. These plays being thus derived from junctures of history when opposite political principles were in violent collision, it might be natural to expect in them the discussion of the rival theories of government. And in Coriolanus at all events, it might be maintained, this expectation is realised.

History says that, in the earliest ages, Rome was ruled first by kings and then by an oligarchy. But the common people fretted under the government of the

« AnteriorContinuar »