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HAMILTON WRIGHT MABIB
Copyright, 1900, Hamilton W. Mabie. All rights reserved.
XII.- The Earlier Tragedies HE order of the appearance of the ously; in a sense they are unimpor
Tragedies has not been definitely tant; the important aspect of the work of
settled; they were written, how- this decade lies in the continuity of mood ever, in the same period, and that period and of themes which it represents, and in began about 1601 and ended about 1609. the mastery of the dramatic art which it The poet was at work on these masterpieces illustrates. during the closing years of the reign of During these years Shakespeare dealt Elizabeth and the early years of the reign continuously with the deepest problems of of James First. While he was meditating character with the clearest insight and the upon or writing “ Julius Cæsar," Essex and most complete command of the resources Southampton had embarked upon their of the dramatic art. It is significant of ill-planned conspiracy, and one had gone the marvelous harmony of the expert to the block and the other was lying in craftsman with the poet of superb imagithe Tower; soon after finishing “ Corio- nation that the plays of this period have lanus” the poet left London and returned been at the same time the most popular to Stratford. The first decade of the of all the Shakespearean dramas with seventeenth century was, therefore, his theater-goers and the most deeply studied “storm and stress ” period. Its chief in- by critical lovers of the poet in all parts terest lies in its artistic product, but the of the world. possible and probable relations of his Shakespeare had read Holinshed and artistic activity to his personal experience Hall with an insight into historic incident have been indicated. Those relations and character quite as marvelous in its must not be insisted upon too strenu- power of laying bare the sources of action and of vitalizing half-forgotten actors in English by Thomas North," was published the drama of life as the play of the faculty in 1579, while Shakespeare was coming of invention, and far more fruitful; he to the end of his school-days in the Gramnow opened the pages of one of the most mar School at Stratford, and forms one fascinating and stimulating biographers of that group of translations, including in the whole range of literature. It is Chapman's “Homer," Florio's “ Mondoubtful if any other recorder of men's taigne,” and Fairfax's “ Tasso,” which, in lives has touched the imagination and their influence, must be ranked as original influenced the charac
contributions to Elizater of so many readers
bethan literature. Pluas Plutarch, to whom
tarch is not only the the modern world owes
foremost biographer in much of its intimate
the history of letters; and vital knowledge of
he had the further good the men who not only
fortune to attract a shaped the destinies of
reader who, more than Greece and Rome, but
any other, has disclosed created the traditions of
the faculty of grasping culture which influenced
the potential content of Shakespeare's age and
a narrative, as well as contemporaries so deep
mastering its record of ly. Part of Plutarch's
fact. It is one of Pluextraordinary influence
tarch's greatest honors has been due to the in
that he was the chief exhaustible interest of
feeder of Shakespeare's his material and part to
imagination during the the charm of his person
period when his genius ality. He was and will
touched its highest mark remain one of the great
of achievement; for it interpreters of the clas
was in Plutarch that the sical to the modern
poet found the material world; a biographer
for three of the greatest who breathed the life of
of the Tragedies, "Jufeeling and infused the
lius Cæsar,” “ Antony insight of the imagina
and Cleopatra," and tion into his compact
“Coriolanus," and, in narratives. It has well
part, for “ Timon of been said of his work
Athens.” Not only did that it has been “most
he find his material in sovereign in its domin
Plutarch, but he found ion over the minds of
nobly great men in all ages;"
phrased, whole dia. and the same thought
logues sustained at such has been suggested in
height of dignity, another form in the de.
force, or eloquence, that scription of that work
he incorporated them as “the pasturage of
into his work with essen
From the Gower Monument. great minds."
tially minor changes. Sir Thomas North’s English version of Holinshed furnished only the bare out· The Lives of the Noble Grecians, com- lines of movement for “ Richard II.” and pared together by that grave learned “Richard III.,” but Plutarch supplied philosopher and historiographer Plutarke, traits, hints, suggestions, phrases, and of Chæronea, translated out of Greek into actions so complete in themselves that the French by James Amyot, Abbot of Bel- poet needed to do little but turn upon loxane, Bishop of Auxerre, one of the the biographer's prose his vitalizing and King's Privy Council, and great Amner organizing imagination. The difference of France, and now out of French into between the prose biographer and the
SHAKESPEARE'S CLIFF, DOVER dramatist remains, however, a difference of Judge, O you gods, how dearly Cæsar loved quality so radical as to constitute a differ- him!
This was the most unkindest cut of all; ence of kind. The nature and extent of
For when the noble Cæsar saw him stab, Shakespeare's indebtedness to the works Ingratitude, more strong than traitors' arms, upon which he drew for material may be Quite vanquish'd him : then burst his mighty most clearly shown by placing in juxtaposi- And, in his mantle muffling up his face, tion Mark Antony's famous oration over
Even at the base of Pompey's statua, Cæsar's body as Shakespeare found it and
Which all the while ran blood, great Cæsar fell. as he left it: “When Cæsar's body," writes
“ Julius Cæsar” probably appeared in Plutarch,“ was brought into the market
1601. Many facts point to this date, place, Antonius making his funeral oration in praise of the dead, according to the Weever's “ Mirror of Martyrs," which was
among them the oft-quoted passage from ancient custom of Rome, and perceiving printed in that year : that his words moved the common people to compassion, he framed his eloquence The many-headed multitude were drawn
By Brutus' speech, that Cæsar was amto make their hearts yearn the more, and
bitious. taking Cæsar's gown all bloudy in his When eloquent Mark Antonie had shewn hand, he layed it open to the sight of them His virtues, who but Brutus then was viall, shewing what a number of cuts and
cious ? holes it had in it. Therewith all the A little later, in a still greater play, Polopecple fell presently into such a rage and nius, recalling his life at the University, mutinie that there was no more order kept said: among the common people.”
I did enact Julius Cæsar: I was killed i' the A magical change has been wrought in Capitol: this narrative when it reappears in
Brutus killed me. Shakespeare's verse in one of his noblest The story, like many others with which passages :
Shakespeare dealt, was popular, and had You all do know this mantle: I remember
been presented on the stage at an earlier The first time ever Cæsar put it on;
date. Shakespeare's rendering was so 'Twas on a summer's evening, in his tent, obviously superior to all its predecessors That day he overcame the Nervii : Look, in this placeran Cassius'
dagger through; that it practically put an end to further See what a rent the envious Casca made;
the , Through this the well-beloved Brutus stabb'd; In the English historical plays the And as he pluck'd his cursed steel away, dramatist never entirely broke with the Mark how the blood of Cæsar follow'd'it,
traditional form and spirit of the ChroniAs rushing out of doors, to be resolved If Brutus so unkindly knock’d, or no;
cle play; in his first dealing with a Roman For Brutus, as you know, was Cæsar's angel: subject he took the final step from the
earlier drama to the tragedy. “ Julius nature, denied the sense of reality, with Cæsar” is not, it is true, dominated by a the world-spirit. Brutus is not only single great character, as are the later crushed, but recognizes that there was no Tragedies, but it reveals a rigorous selec- other issue of his untimely endeavor. tion of incidents with reference to their The affinity between Hamlet and Brutus dramatic value, and a masterly unfolding has often been pointed out. The poet of their significance in the story. The was brooding over the story of the Danish drama was not misnamed; although Cæsar prince probably before he became interdies at the beginning of the dramatic ested in Roman history; certainly before movement, his spirit dominates it to the he wrote the Roman plays. The chief
At every turn he confronts actors in both dramas were men upon the conspirators in the new order which he whom was laid the same fatal necessity; personified, and of which he was the
of which he was the both were idealists forced to act in great organizing genius. Cassius dies with this crises, when issues of appalling magnirecognition on his lips :
tude hung on their actions. Their circumCæsar, thou art revenged,
stances were widely different, but a common Even with the sword that kill'd thee.
doom was on both ; they were driven to And when Brutus looks on the face of the do that which was against their natures. dead Cassius, he, too, bears testimony to a In point of style " Julius Cæsar" marks spirit which is more potent than the arms the culmination of Shakespeare's art as a of Octavius and Antony:
dramatic writer. The ingenuity of the O Julius Cæsar, thou art mighty yet!
earlier plays ripened in a rich and pelThy spirit walks abroad, and turns our swords lucid flexibility ; the excess of imagery In our own proper entrails.
gave place to a noble richness of speech; This new order in the Roman world, there is deep-going coherence of structure personified by Cæsar, is the shaping force and illustration ; constructive instinct has of the tragedy ; Octavius represents with passed on into the ultimate skill which is out fully understanding it, and Brutus born of complete identification of thought and Cassius array themselves against it with speech, of passion with utterance, of without recognizing that they are con
action with character. The long poputending with the inevitable and the irre- larity of the play was predicted by Shakesistible. At a later day, the eloquent and speare in the words of Cassius : captivating Antony, a man of genius, How many ages hence enthusiasm, and personal devotion, but Shall this our lofty scene be acted over without the co-ordinating power of char- In states unborn and accents yet unknown! acter, Alings himself against this new The great impression made by “ Julius order in the same blank inability to recog- Cæsar" in a field which Jonson regarded nize a new force in the world, and dies as his own probably led to the writing of as much a victim of his lack of vision as “Sejanus," which appeared two years later, Brutus and Cassius. Nowhere else is and of “Catiline,” which was produced Shakespeare's sense of reality, his ability in 1611. A comparison of these plays dealto give facts their full weight, more clearly ing with Roman history brings into clear revealed than in " Julius Cæsar." Brutus relief the vitalizing power of Shakespeare's is one of the noblest and most consistent imagination in contrast with the conscienof Shakespearean creations; a man far tious and scholarly craftsmanship of Jonabove all self-seeking and capable of the son. In “Sejanus ” almost every inciloftiest patriotism; in whose whole bear- dent and speech, as Mr. Knight has ing, as in his deepest nature, virtue wears pointed out, is derived from ancient auher noblest aspect. But Brutus is an thorities, and the dramatist's own edition idealist, with a touch of the doctrinaire; of the play was packed with references like his purposes are of the highest, but the a text-book. The characters speak with means he employs to give those purposes admirable correctness after the manner of effect are utterly inadequate; in a lofty their time ; but they do not live. Brutus, spirit he embarks on an enterprise doomed Cassius, Antony, Portia, on the other hand, to failure by the very temper and press- talk and act like living creatures, and the ure of the age. “ Julius Cæsar" is the play is saturated with the spirit and entragedy of the conflict between a great veloped in the atmosphere of Rome.