Home  »  Volume V: English THE DRAMA TO 1642 Part One  »  § 15. Classical Plays: Troilus and Cressida, Timon of Athens, Julius Caesar, Coriolanus and Antony and Cleopatra

The Cambridge History of English and American Literature in 18 Volumes (1907–21).
Volume IV. Prose and Poetry: Sir Thomas North to Michael Drayton.

VIII. Shakespeare: Life and Plays

§ 15. Classical Plays: Troilus and Cressida, Timon of Athens, Julius Caesar, Coriolanus and Antony and Cleopatra

With the classical plays, we come to a new and very interesting group. In a sense, of course, Titus Andronicus belongs to it; but nothing like the extreme earliness of that piece belongs to any of the others, and none of them is mentioned by Meres. Two of them, however, are, internally as well as externally, of very uncertain date; the other three are of Shakespeare’s very meridian.

For Troilus and Cressida, a licence to print was obtained in 1602/3; but the players objected, and it was not published till half a dozen years later, and then surreptitiously. It is extremely difficult not to believe that it is much older than the earlier date would show. Some of the blank verse, no doubt, is fairly mature; but the author may have furbished this up, and much of it is not mature at all. Instead of transcending his materials, as Shakespeare almost invariably does, he has here failed almost entirely to bring out their possibilities; has not availed himself of Chaucer’s beautiful romance so fully as he might; and has dramatised the common Troy-books with a loose yet heavy hand utterly unsuggestive of his maturer craftsmanship. If it were not for certain speeches and touches chiefly in the part of Ulysses, and in the parts of the hero and heroine, it might be called the least Shakespearean of all the plays.

Timon of Athens, again a puzzle, is a puzzle of a different kind. It is usual to resort to the rather Alexandrine suggestion of collaboration and then to put it as late as 1607. To the present writer, the first theory seems unnecessary and the last impossible. There is nothing in Timon that Shakespeare, at one time or another, may not have written; there are some things which hardly anybody but Shakespeare can have written; but that he wrote this piece just after Lear, even with somebody, not to help, but to hinder, him, is not, from the point of view from which the present survey is written, conceivable. The play is as chaotic as Troilus, or more so; and, except Timon himself, it has no character of interest in it. But Timon himself must be Shakespeare’s own; he has so much of good in him, and might have been made so much better, that it is impossible to imagine Shakespeare, in his maturity, turning over such a character to be botched by underlings, and associated with third rate company. On the other hand, he might have written the whole play in his nonage and—as in the other case—have thrown in some “modern touches” to freshen it up and get it off his hands. At any rate, the two plays (which may be called Greek) stand in the sharpest contrast to the great Roman trio, based, in Shakespeare’s most easy-going fashion, on North’s Plutarch for matter, and, sometimes, even for words, but made his own, absolutely and for ever.

None of the three was printed till the folio appeared, though licence appears to have been obtained for Antony and Cleopatra in 1608. It is usual to select that date for it and for Coriolanus, and to put Julius Caesar seven years earlier, because of an apparent allusion to it in that year. Internal evidence does not, perhaps, supply any valid reason for such a separation in date; and, as they are all taken from the same source, they may very well all have been written about the same time. This could not have been very early, from the complete mastery of the blank verse, but might be anywhere after the close of the sixteenth century. All three are masterpieces, but curiously different in kind; thought there is an equally curious agreement between them in the manner in which the author, at one time, simply arranges the very words not merely of Plutarch but of North, while, at another, he will add or substitute passages of absolute originality.

Julius Caesar has, at least, this mark of an earlier date that its interest is of a diffused character, and that there is a certain prodigality of poetic passages put in everybody’s mouth. The titular hero perishes before half the play is done; and his place is taken first by Antony and then by Brutus. Nor does he make any very copious appearance even before his murder. Further, the marvellous Shakespearean impartiality seems to take delight in doing the best for each of these heroes in turn; while the prodigality above referred to furnishes not merely the three, Cassius, who is all but a fourth hero, and Portia, but quite insignificant people—Marullus, Casca, Calpurnia—with splendid poetical utterance. The magnificent speech of Antony—all Shakespeare’s own; the great exchange of mind between Brutus and Cassius, both as friends and as (almost) foes; the dialogue of Brutus and Portia: these, and many other things, with the surprising majesty and interest of the theme, have always made the play a great favourite, and deservedly so. Moreover, its central interest from the point of view of romance—the death and revenging of Caesar—is perfect. But, from the point of view of unity of character, which is Shakespeare’s general appeal, it may be thought somewhat lacking. Brutus is the only person whose character can supply a continuous tie rod—and, except to those who take the old French Revolution or Roman declamation line of admiration for tyrannicide per se, Brutus, admirably as he develops, is rather thin at first. It may plausibly be argued that either he should not have required Cassius’s blend of personal and pseudo-patriotic hatred of Caesar to ferment his own patriotism, or he should have detected the insufficiency of the “lean and hungry” conspirator. Practically, however, Julius Caesar, is of the panoramic, if not of the kaleidoscopic, order of drama—its appeal is of sequence rather than of composition.

With the other two Roman plays, it is quite different. Coriolanus is certainly not deficient in variety of incident, or of personage, but every incident and every personage is, in a way, subservient to the hero. The ordinary descriptions of the dramatis personae—“friend to Coriolanus,” “mother to Coriolanus,” “wife to Coriolanus”—acquire a new appositeness from this feature. Menenius and Volumnia are no shadows; the “gracious silence” herself is all the more gracious for her unobtrusiveness. But it is in relation to Coriolanus that they interest us most. The sordid spite of the tribunes—types well known at this time and at all times—helps to bring out the arrogance, at its worst not sordid, of Caius Martius. The inferior generals set him off. And that interesting, and not very easy, character, Tullus Aufidius, whose psychical evolution Shakespeare has left in obviously intentional uncertainty, furnishes yet another contrast in his real changes from enmity to friendship, and then from hospitality to treachery, with the changes of Coriolanus from the height of Roman patriotism to actual hostility against his ungrateful and degraded country, and from that hostility to semi-reconciliation, at least to the foregoing of his vengeance in obedience to his mother. Most of all do the various mobs—the mob of Rome above all, but, also, the rank and file of the army, the Volscian conspirators, the officers, the senators, the very servants, of Aufidius—throw up against their own vulgar variety and characterless commonness the “headstrong beauty” of the great soldier’s mind and will—his hatred of the vulgus itself, of its malignity, of its meanness, of its ingratitude. He is, of course, no flawless character: he need not have been rude to the people (one cannot blame him for being so to their misguiders); and, because they committed virtual treason to Rome by banishing its defender, he was certainly not justified in himself committing the overt act. But he remains one of the noblest figures in literature, and his nobility is largely the work of Shakespeare himself. What is more, he has provided Shakespeare with the opportunity of working out a “one-man” drama, as, except in inferior specimens like Timon he has done nowhere else. For, even in Hamlet, the single and peculiar life of the hero does not overshadow all the others, as is done here.

Great as Coriolanus is, however, it is not nearly so great as Antony and Cleopatra. Coriolanus, personally, is a great figure, but rather narrowly great and hardly as provocative of delight as of admiration. The interest of his story is somewhat lacking in variety, and, cunningly as the comic or seriocomic aspects and interludes are employed to lighten it up, the whole play is rather statuesque. Antony and Cleopatra has nearly as infinite a variety as its incomparable heroine herself: its warmth and colour are of the liveliest kind; its character drawing is of the Shakespearean best; the beauties of its versification and diction are almost unparalleled in number, diversity and intensity; and, above all, the powers of the two great poetic motives, love and death, are utilised in it to the utmost possible extent. Even this long list of merits does not exhaust its claims. From the technical side, it is the very type and triumph of the chronicle play—of the kind which dramatises whole years of history, solid portions of the life of man, and keeps them dramatically one by the interwoven threads of character interest, by individual passages of supreme poetry and by scenes or sketches of attaching quality. Here, again, Shakespeare follows North, at times very closely indeed; and here, more than ever, he shows how entirely he is able not to follow his leader when he chooses. The death of Cleopatra, with the ineffable music of the words that follow, “Peace, Peace,” is only the strongest example of a pervading fact. But the central interest of character and the side portraits which accompany and enforce it are the greatest points about the play. Nowhere has even Shakespeare given such a pair, hero and heroine, as here. Antony, at once ruined and ennobled by the passion which is both his [char] and his abiding title to sympathy, which completes his friendship for Caesar in the earlier play; Cleopatra, her frailty sublimated into the same passion—both heroic in their very weakness and royal in the way in which they throw away their royalty: there is nothing like them anywhere. There is no palliation of fault or of folly; both are set as plainly before the spectator as may be, and he will imitate them at his peril. But the power of romantic tragedy in this direction can go no further.