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CHARACTERISTICS AND DATE OF THE THREE ROMAN DRAMAS,
AND ESPECIALLY OF CORIOLANUS-ITS POSSIBLE POLITICAL
HE three Roman historical dramas bear strong witness to themselves that
they were the product of one of the later eras of their author's genius. They are all of them impressed with the more general characteristics of the style, spirit, and versification of Othello and Macbeth, so that there is scarcely a single scene, or indeed a single remarkable passage, in any one of them which could reasonably be ascribed to any other author, or to the Poet's own younger days, as nearly contemporary with his earlier comedies. Yet, as compared with these great tragedies and their author's other works known to be of the same epoch, these peculiar characteristics are softened and sobered; the language and turn of expression are less compressed and elliptical; the style less crowded with thronging ideas and transient allusions, and generally much more expanded and continuous; the whole tone and spirit less excited, and consequently less exciting. The whirlwind of passion which had swept through Lear and Macbeth, and arose with sudden violence and force in portions of Shakespeare's other dramas of that period of his genius, appears to have passed away, yet leaving behind it the evidence of its recent sway, and, like the hurricane of the natural world, it is followed
by a solemn calm. Thus, while these noble dramas impress the reader with the sense of the same surpassing power displayed in its fall career in the Poet's greater tragedies, yet it is as of that power not put forth to any excited or continuous effort ;—like that of Hercules, as ancient art delighted to represent him in its statues, gems, and coins-vast and majestic in all his proportions, engaged no longer in toils calling forth all his gigantic strength, but breathing from every limb and muscle the expression of present power and past struggles and victories.
All his tragedies and historical dramas bear the impress of the same genius; but in the Roman dramas there is a more artist-like calmness, a personal self-possession and temperance preserved in the very torrent, tempest, and whirlwind of passion.” This difference between many of the passages depicting the stronger emotions in CorioLanus and Julius Cæsar, and similar scenes in the other dramas, is doubtless to be ascribed in part to the choice of the subjects generally requiring the restrained emotion and cold majesty imposed by “the high Roman fashion" of life, morals, and manners; yet to me it seems also to result in some degree from a less readily kindling sympathy in the Poet himself, so that instead of identifying his own feelings throughout with those of his personages he rather reflected from the calm surface of his own mind the true and living portraiture of their characters, emotions, and lofty bearing. Of the three dramas drawn from classic history, ANTONY AND Cleopatra is the most varied, vivid, and magnificent, partakes least of the peculiar tone and spirit just noticed, and breathes most of the fiery energy of the great tragedies. CORIOLANUS, on the other hand, is the most marked with these characteristics, is that in which the author is most inclined to regard man in his general, social, and political relations, and least to identify himself with the emotions and sentiments of the individual. It is also the most thoroughly Roman, the most perfectly imbued with the spirit of antiquity, not only of his own works, but of all modern dramas founded upon classic story.
Indeed, Shakespeare must have entered upon this new class of characters and subjects with some peculiar advantages over more modern authors. To him they must have offered themselves with all the zest and freshness of perfect novelty ;-exhibiting to him human nature under a new aspect, affording new materials for philosophic reflection, and suggesting new and untried combinations for his fancy. In our days, the great features of Roman and Grecian story and character are made trite and familiar from childhood to all who have the slightest advantages of early education. In Shakespeare's boyhood this was otherwise. The poetry and mythology of Rome was indeed made familiar, in some form or other, by Latin poets, read in schools or translated, imitated or applied in masque or pageant, or the popular light literature of the times, and thus became familiar alike to the scholar, the court, and the people. But the original historians of antiquity, and the grand swelling tale of empire they related, were alike unknown, except to professed scholars, or so far as they might be taught in schools in the meagre abridgment of Eutropius. There was no good history of Rome in English in a popular form, and the traditionary fragments of Roman history were mixed up in old romances and stories, as well as in poetry, with the legends and the manners of Gothic romance. Livy was first translated into English and published in 1600, by Philemon Holland ; and Plutarch first appeared in an English dress in 1579, in a translation by North, not from the original Greek, but confessedly from the French of Amyot. North's “ Plutarch" was reprinted in 1595. But North's large and closely printed folio was not calculated to attract at once the attention of a young dramatic poet
in an age when there were no such familiar channels of literary intelligence as reviews and magazines to acquai the world with every novelty of literature. Shakespeare does not seem to have read Plutarch during the period of the fertile and rapid production of his comedies and most of his historical dramas, before 1600; for we fail him in his notions of ancient history adopting the current inaccurate ideas of his age; as, for instance, in the Mos SUMMER-Night's Dream he dramatizes Duke Theseus and his Amazon bride as they came to him from Ok through the poems, legends, and romances of the middle ages, arrayed in the trappings of chivalry, and with a resemblance to Plutarch's half legendary, half biographical narrative.
Nor am I aware that there is to be found in ShakESPEARE any illustration or thought, in fact, which can be traced distinctly to Plutarch or the original Roman historians, other than such fragments of ancient story as were mire up with the familiar current literature of the times, before the allusion to the prodigies that occurred - a little ere the mightiest Julius fell,” which is added in the enlarged Hamlet of 1604, and of which no trace appears in the outline edition of 1603.
This probably marks the date when the Poet became acquainted with North’s “ Plutarch," though the probabilt also is, that he did not immediately employ it for the construction of his Roman tragedies. But it soon became, a T. Warton happily phrases it, “Shakespeare's storehouse of learned history:" there he found great minds and hist exploits exhibited as influenceding the discipline of ancient philosophy or of republican patriotism, and of habits and manners strongly contrasted with those in which he had hitherto seen society arrayed under the contendiez yet mixed influence of Christianity, of feudal institutions, and the spirit of chivalric honour. All this he saw for the first time, not through the dim medium of second-hand compilation or abridgment, but as painted with malcbless truth and simplicity in old Plutarch's graphic narrative, until he felt himself as well acquainted with the heroes of old Rome as with those of the civil wars of York and Lancaster, and was as able to place them living and breatbing before us. The fidelity and spirit with which this is done cannot be better exemplified than by placing Coriolanus side by side with Hotspur. The groundwork of the Achilles-like character of the two haughty, quicktempered, impetuous soldiers, is the same in both; the differences between them are those impressed on the ore by the spirit of chivalric aristocracy, and by that of patrician republicanism upon the other. How perfectly Shakespeare entered into the spirit of antiquity-how, in spite of some slight errors of confusion of ancient usages
with those of later days, such as the convenient compends of antiquarian lore can guard the most superficial modern scholar from committing, he yet gave to his Roman scenes all the effect of reality, every reader must feel; but this will be made more striking by comparing any one of his Roman tragedies with the “Cataline” or “Sejanus" of Ben Jonson, Addison's “Cato," Thomson's “Coriolanus," or the “Mort de Cesar” or “ Brutus" of Voltaire. All these dramatists were scholars, all men of genius in their several walks, and all, certainly Ben Jonson and Addison, had taken great pains to draw the rich materials of their works directly from the best authors of antiquity. Still their heroes are but the heroes of the stage; however perfect their costume, they are but lifeless automatons compared with the real and living Romans of the half-learned Shakespeare. He preserves in these tragedies throughout an artist-like keeping, which, combined with their dramatic skill, the constant propensity of the author to moral or political argument or reasoning, and the more habitual and mature tone of his philosophy, as well as with the evidence of diction and versification, gives strong attestation that they, and especially Coriolanus, be long to that later epoch of Shakespeare's authorship, when (to use Coleridge's discriminating criticism) "the energies of intellect in the cycle of genius became predominant over passion and creative self-manifestation."
This period I should place as beginning after the production of LEAR and Macbeth, in 1608 or 1609, or about the Poet's forty-fifth year. Besides those reasons for ascribing the Roman dramas to this date, which appeal only to the reader's taste and feeling, the following considerations seem also of some weight. CORIOLANUS and its Plutarchian companions appeared first in print in the posthumous folio of 1623, and they were then entered in the Stationers' Register as among the plays in that volume “not formerly entered to other men.” This was the case with all Shakespeare's later works, either produced or remodelled after Lear; for it appears that after Othello, HAMLET, and Lear had placed him far above his contemporaries, his plays became of too much value to the theatrical company which held the copies to be suffered to go into the market as mere literary property. Again: there is no period of Shakespeare's life, except the last seven or eight years, where we can well find room for the production of these dramas. We well know from various sources what were the luxuriant products of his youthful genius antil 1598. During the succeeding ten years we find him with his full share of interest and occupation in the manage ment and pecuniary concerns of his theatre, yet employed in the enlargement of his HAMLET “to as much again as it was,” the improvement and revision of some of his comedies, and the composition of As You Like It, Much Ado About NOTHING, Twelfth Night, very probably of several of his English historical plays, and of Timon, and certainly of Othello, MEASURE FOR MEASURE, TROILUS AND CRESSIDA, LEAR, and Macbeth. It can scarcely be thought that he had then leisure to add the Roman tragedies to all these. On the other hand, if there had been no trace of any additional authorship after 1609, we might infer that he had been incapacitated by disease, or drawn away by some other cause from composition ; but as we know that after that date he revised or greatly enlarged some dramas, and wrote two or three new ones, we have far more reason to presume that some portion of his leisure, after he had returned to his native village, during which he wrote the TEMPEST, was also employed in the composition of these tragedies, filled like that, his last poetic comedy, with grave and deep reflections, wide moral speculation, and the sobered energy of mature but calm power, than to believe that they were poured forth in the same rapid torrent of invention and passionate thought which, during the ten preceding years of the Poet's life, had enriched English literature with more of original dramatic character, and poetic sentiment and expression, than it owes to the whole life of any other author.