« PreviousContinue »
OBSERVATIONS ON JULIUS CÆSAR; ON ANTONY AND CLEOPATRA; ON CORIOLANUS; ON
THE WINTER'S TALE; ON THE TEMPEST; DISSERTATION ON THE GENERAL BELIEF OF THE TIMES IN THE ART OF MAGIC, AND ON SHAKSPEARE'S MANAGEMENT OF THIS SUPERSTITION, AS EXHIBITED IN THE TEMPEST - OBSERVATIONS ON OTHELLO; ON TWELFTH NIGHT, AND ON THE PLAYS ASCRIBED TO SHAKSPEARE SUMMARY OF SHAKSPEARE'S DRAMATIC CHARACTER.
The Roman tragedy of Shakspeare, including the three pieces of Julius Cæsar, Antony and Cleopatra, and Coriolanus, exhibit the poet under a new aspect. We have seen him dramatise the annals of his own country with matchless skill and effect; we have beheld him touching with a discriminative pencil the heroes of ancient Greece, and he now brings before us, clothed in the majesty of republican greatness, or surrounded with the splendour of illimitable power, the most illustrious patriots and warriors of the Roman world.
The task of combining a faithful adhesion to the records of history with that grandeur and freedom of conception which characterise the unfettered poet, could alone have been achieved by the genius of Shakspeare. He has, accordingly, not only fixed his scene at Rome, during the days of Coriolanus or of Cæsar, but he has resuscitated the manners and the modes of thinking of their respective ages. We enter with enthusiasm into the characters and fortunes of these masters of the civilised globe, and the patriotism and martial glory, the very feelings and public life of the eternal city again start into existence.
The chronology of these three plays having been ascertained with as much probability, as the subject will admit, it is only necessary to observe, as a preliminary remark, that the dates of the first and second are adopted from Mr. Malone, and that of the third from Mr. Chalmers; and to these critics the reader is referred for facts and inferences which, not being susceptible as we conceive of further extension or improvement, it would be useless here to repeat:
29. Julius Cæsar: 1607. Of this tragedy Brutus is the principal and most interesting character, and to the developement of his motives, and to the result of his actions, is the greater part of the play appropriated; for it is not the fall of Cæsar, but that of Brutus, which constitutes the catastrophe. Cæsar is introduced indeed expressing that characteristic confidence in himself, which has been ascribed to him by history; and his influence over those who surround him, the effect of high mental powers and unrivalled military success, is represented as very great ; but he takes little part in the business of the scene, and his assassination occurs at the commencement of the third act.
While the conqueror of the world is thus in some degree thrown into the shade, Brutus, the favourite of the poet, is brought forward, not only adorned with all the virtues attributed to him by Plutarch, but, in order to excite a deeper interest in his favour, and to prove, that not jealousy, ambition, or revenge, but unalloyed patriotism was the sole director of his conduct, our author has drawn him as possessing the utmost sweetness and gentleness of disposition, sympathising with all that suffer, and unwilling to inflict pain but from motives of the strongest moral necessity. He has most feelingly and beautifully painted him in the relations of a master, a friend, and a husband ; his kindness to his domestics, his attachment to his friends, and his love for Portia, to whom he declares, that she is
« As dear to him, as are the ruddy drops
That visit his sad heart,"
demonstrating, that nothing but a high sense of public duty could have induced him to lift his hand against the life of Cæsar.
It is this struggle between the humanity of his temper and his ardent and hereditary love of liberty, now threatened with extinction by the despotism of Cæsar, that gives to Brutus that grandeur of character and that predominancy over his associates in purity of intention, which secured to him the admiration of his contemporaries, and to which posterity has done ample justice through the medium of Shakspeare, who has placed the virtues of Brutus, and the contest in his bosom between private regard and patriotic duty, in the noblest light; wringing even from the lips of his bitterest enemy, the fullest eulogium on the rectitude of his principles, and the goodness of his heart :
6 Ant. This was the noblest Roman of them all:
to all the world, This was a man!”
In the conduct and action of this drama, though closely pursuing the occurrences and characters as detailed by Plutarch in his life of Brutus, there is a great display of ingenuity, and much mechanism in the concentration of the events, producing that integrity and unity, which, without any modification of the truth of history, moulds a small portion of an immense chain of incidents into a perfect and satisfactory whole. The formation of the conspiracy, the death of the dictator, the harangue of Antony and its effeçts, the flight of Brutus and Cassius, their quarrel and reconcilement, and finally their noble stand for liberty against the sanguinary and atrocious triumvirate, are concatenated with the most happy art; and though, after the fall of Cæsar, nothing but the patriotic heroism of Brutus and Cassius is left to occupy the stage, the apprehensions and the interest which have been awakened for their fate, are sustained, and even augmented to the last scene of the tragedy.
30. ANTONY AND CLEOPATRA : 1608. Shakspeare has here spread a wider canvas; he has admitted a vast variety of groups, some of which are crowded, and some too isolated, whilst in the back ground are dimly seen personages and events that, for the sake of perspicuity, ought to have been brought forward with some share of boldness and relief. The subject, in fact, is too complex and extended, to admit of a due degree of simplicity and wholeness, and the mind is consequently hurried by a multiplicity of incidents, for whose introduction and succession we are not sufficiently prepared.
* Reed's Shakspeare, vol. xvi. p. 422.
Yet, notwithstanding these defects, this is a piece which gratifies us by its copiousness and animation ; such, indeed, is the variety of its transactions, and the rapidity of its transitions, that the attention is never suffered, even for a moment, to grow languid ; and, though occasionally surprised by abruptness, or want of connection, pursues the footsteps of the poet with eager and unabated delight.
Neither is the merit of this play exclusively founded on the viva-' city and entertainment of its fable; it presents us with three characters which start from their respective groups with a prominency, with a depth of light and shade, that gives the freshness of existing energy to the records of far distant ages.
The martial but voluptuous Antony, whose bosom is the seat of great qualities and great vices; now magnanimous, enterprising, and heroic; now weak, irresolute, and slothful ; alternately the slave of ambition and of effeminacy, yet generous, open-hearted, and unsuspicious, is strikingly opposed to the cold blooded and selfish Octavius. The keeping of these characters is sustained to the last, whilst Cleopatra, the mistress of every seductive and meretricious art, a compound of vanity, sensuality, and pride, adored by the former, and despised by the latter, an instrument of ruin to the one, and of greatness to the other, is decorated, as to personal charms and exterior splendour, with all that the most lavish imagination can bestow.
31. Coriolanus: 1609. This play, which refers us to the third century of the Republic, is of a very peculiar character, involving in its course a large intermixture of humorous and political matter. It affords us a picture of what may be termed a Roman electioneering mob; and the insolence of newly-acquired authority on the part of
the tribunes, and the ungovernable licence and malignant ribaldry of the plebeians, are forcibly, but naturally expressed. The popular anarchy, indeed, is rendered highly diverting through the intervention of Menenius Agrippa, whose sarcastic wit, and shrewd good sense, have lent to these turbulent proceedings a very extraordinary degree of interest and effect. His “
His“ pretty tale,” as he calls it, of the belly and the members, which he recites to the people, during their mutiny occasioned by the dearth of corn, is a delightful and improved expansion of the old apologue, originally attributed to Menenius by Dionysius of Halicarnassus, but taken immediately by Shakspeare from Plutarch's Life of Coriolanus, and from Camden's Remains.
The serious and elevated persons of the drama are delineated in colours of equal, if not superior strength. The unrivalled military prowess of Coriolanus, in whose nervous arm, “ Death, that dark spirit,” dwelt; the severe sublimity of his character, his stern and unbending hauteur, and his undisguised contempt of all that is vulgar, pusillanimous, and base, are brought before us with a raciness and power of impression, and, notwithstanding a very liberal use both of the sentiments and language of his Plutarch, with a freedom of outline which, even in Shakspeare, may be allowed to excite our astonishment. *
Among the female characters, a very important part is necessarily attached to the person of Volumnia; the fate of Rome itself depending upon her parental influence and authority. The poet has accordingly done full justice to the great qualities which the Cheronean sage has ascribed to this energetic woman; the daring loftiness of her spirit, her bold and masculine eloquence, and, above all, her patriotic
* The representation of the character of Coriolanus by Mr. Kemble, which realises the very conception of the poet, and which in spirit, manner, and costume, can scarcely be deemed susceptible of improvement, has rendered this drama very popular in our own day.