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For that being one o' the lowest basest, poorest
The one side must have bale. This speech will call to mind the far greater one in Julius Cæsar, in which Antony, over the corpse of the murdered Julius, stirs up the hearts of the populace to mutiny and so works upon them that they, who were on the side of Brutus and the conspirators, cry out for their death and rush about the street in frenzy, calling for blood and fire.
It can be asserted with truth, I think, that in these Roman plays Shakspeare not only introduces characters who look down upon the people, but himself exposes their weaknesses.
He dwells with special severity on their inconstancy.
An adroit tongue like Antony's can turn them to anything; and changes of fortune depress or elate them, to one thing constant never. The fickleness of the mob might, in fact, almost be called the theme of Coriolanus.
On the other hand, the dramatist exhibits with equal impartiality the weakness of the opposite side. If the fickleness of the mob might, with a stretch, be called the motive of this play, the judgment of arrogance, the darling vice of aristocracy, is its obvious subject.
Coriolanus has all the virtues of his class. He is devoted to his family and proud of his country. He has personal distinction, strength, courage and the power of evoking enthusiasm. He is the kind of man who could save a kingdom in an emergency and produce panic in the ranks of its enemies. But he is devoured by arrogance-pride of self and pride of his class. In nothing is this more visible than in his dislike of praise: he depreciates his own services and cannot endure to have a word said about his merits; but this is only the sensitiveness of a spirit too proud to endure any familiarity. His arrogance assumes the form of a savage contempt of the common people. While his achievements have made him the natural candidate for the highest office in the state, he cannot become consul without the consent of the common people, and to sue for their favour he cannot endure. When at last he is persuaded to do so, he insults the electors instead of petitioning them; and his insane behaviour culminates in a tumult, in which he is banished from the city. So deeply offended is he that he goes and allies himself with the Volscians, the deadly enemies of Rome, and, at the head of their army, returns to take vengeance on his ungrateful country. Such is the unnatural position into which he is brought by inhuman arrogance. But nature obtains her revenge; for his mother, with hiş wife and child, goes out to meet him at the gates of the city, and, under her entreaties, his resolution breaks
down. Abandoning the expedition, he returns with the Volscians to their capital, but only to perish in an outbreak occasioned by his fickle conduct.
No man is so great that he can afford to live to himself alone; the most brilliant gifts may only procure their owner's ruin, unless, united with them, be the saving grace of charity. Such is the moral of Coriolanus.
If the purpose of Shakspeare's writings were to illustrate political principles, we should expect to find in Julius Cæsar a discussion of the rival claims of Republicanism and Imperialism ; for this was the issue involved in the conflicts which it describes. We do also find in the play indications of this fact. Cæsar is an impersonation of arbitrary power, not very worthily conceived, falling far beneath the Julius Cæsar of actual history. Brutus, on the other hand, is the embodiment of republican principles : he is sincerely attached to the tradition of the past and cannot endure to see his country enslaved to Cæsar's ambition. But Shakspeare is far less concerned about the rightness and wrongness of the political creed of Brutus than with the loyalty of his hero to what he believes. Brutus is one of the prime favourites of the dramatist; next to Henry the Fifth, he may be called his ideal of manhood; but it is not with his political principles but with the purity and completeness of his character as a man that Shakspeare is concerned.
If there is any political principle which may be said
to be embodied in this play, it is neither Republicanism nor Imperialism, but what may be called the Destiny of the State. Political institutions are neither good nor bad in themselves: they are only good or bad according to circumstances. They are not intended to last forever, but are subject to the law of mutability, which plays so vast a part in human things. The Roman state began with kings and passed on through aristocracy and republicanism to imperialism. Coriolanus's life was a desperate attempt to stop this evolution at an early stage and keep things forever as they had been ; but the law at the heart of things is mightier than the will of any individual; and accordingly the evolution proceeded, while Coriolanus, strong as he was, was swept aside. In the same way, when the period depicted in the other play had come, the republican stage of the state, having done its work, was ready to be superseded. It had raised problems which it could not solve and created forces which it could not control. One strong man was needed to take all the threads into his hand and give to Rome's far-extended conquests the unity which the republic could not impress on the vanquished world. Julius
1 Whose course will on
-Act i. Scene I.
Cæsar seemed to be the man; but Brutus threw himself in the way, resolved to turn back the wheels of change. He succeeded so far as to thwart the ambition of Cæsar; but he could not alter the course of destiny: the wheels which he attempted to stop passed over himself and crushed him, as they went.
His motives are of the highest, but his enterprise contains within itself from the beginning the seeds of failure. More than he is aware, he is the tool of Cassius, his fellow-conspirator, whose motives are far from being equally pure.
Cassius is inflamed not with zeal for his country's freedom, but with envy that anyone should be greater than himself; as Caesar threatens to be.
Of Cæsar he says:
Why, man, he doth bestride the narrow world
Cæsar had noted the envy of this man and was afraid of it:
Let me have about me men that are fat,