« PreviousContinue »
It appears from the Appendix to Peck's Memoirs of Oliver Cromwell, &c. p. 14, that a Latin play on this subject had been written:-“ Epilogus Cæsari interfecti, quomodo in scenam prodiit ea res acta, in Ecclesia Christi, Oxon. Qui epilogus a Magistro Ricardo Eedes, et scriptus, et in proscenio ibidem dictus fuit, A. D. 1582.” Meres, in his Wits’ Commonwealth, 1598, enumerates Dr. Eedes among the best tragic writers of that time.
From what Polonius says in Hamlet, it seems probable that there was also an English play on the story before Shakspeare commenced writer for the stage. Stephen Gosson, in his School of Abuse, 1579, mentions a play entitled The History of Cæsar and Pompey.
William Alexander, afterwards earl of Sterline, wrote a tragedy of the story of Julius Cæsar: the death of Cæsar, which is not exhibited, but related to the audience, forms the catastrophe of his piece, which appeared in 1607, when the writer was little acquainted with English writers : it abounds with Scotticisms, which the author corrected in the edition he gave of his works in 1637. There are parallel passages in the two plays, which may have arisen from the two authors drawing from the same source; but there is reason to think the coincidences more than accidental, and that Shakspeare was acquainted with the drama of lord Sterline. The celebrated passage, “ The cloud-capt towers,” &c., had its prototype in Darius, another play of the same author.
It should be remembered that Shakspeare has many plays founded on subjects which had been previously treated by others; whereas no proof has hitherto been produced that any contemporary writer ever presumed to new-model a story that had already employed the pen of Shakspeare. If the conjecture that Shakspeare was indebted to lord Sterline be just, his drama must have been produced subsequent to 1607, or at latest in that year; which is the date ascribed to it, upon these grounds, by Malone.
Upton has remarked that the real duration of time in Julius Cæsar is as follows:- About the middle of February, A. U.C. 709, a frantic festival sacred to Pan, and called Lupercalia, was held in honor of Cæsar, when the regal crown was offered to him by Antony. On the 15th of March in the same year, he was slain. November 27th, A. U. C. 710, the triumvirs met at a small island, formed by the river Rhenus, near Bononia, and there adjusted their cruel proscription. A. U. C. 711, Brutus and Cassius were defeated near Philippi.
Gildon long ago remarked that Brutus was the true hero of this tragedy, and not Cæsar; Schlegel makes the same observation : the Poet has portrayed the character of Brutus with peculiar care, and developed all the amiable traits, the feeling, and patriotic heroism of it, with supereminent skill. He has been less happy in personifying Cæsar, to whom he has given several ostentatious speeches, unsuited to his character, if we may judge from the impression made upon us by his own Commentaries. The character of Cassius is also touched with great nicety and discrimination, and is admirably contrasted to that of Brutus: his superiority“ in independent volition, and his discernment in judging of human affairs, are pointed out;” while the purity of mind and conscientious love of justice in Brutus, unfit him to be the head of a party in a state entirely corrupted; these amiable failings give, in fact, an unfortunate turn to the cause of the conspirators. The play abounds in well-wrought and affecting scenes: it is scarcely necessary to mention the celebrated dialogue between Brutus and Cassius, in which the design of the conspiracy is opened to Brutus ;—the quarrel between them, rendered doubly touching by the close, when Cassius learns the death of Portia ; and which one is surprised to think that any critic, susceptible of fceling, should pronounce “ cold and unaffecting;”—the scene between Brutus and Portia, where she endeavors to extort the secret of the conspiracy from him, in which is that heart-thrilling burst of tenderness, which Portia's heroic behavior awakens
“ You are my true and honorable wife,
As dear to me as are the ruddy drops
The speeches of Mark Antony over the dead body of Cæsar, and the artful eloquence with which he captivates the multitude, are justly classed among the happiest effusions of poetic declamation.
There are also those touches of nature interspersed, which we should seek in vain in the works of any other poet. In the otherwise beautiful scene with Lucius, an incident of this kind is introduced, which, though wholly immaterial to the plot or conduct of the scene, is perfectly congenial to the character of the agent, and beautifully illustrative of it. The sedate and philosophic Brutus, discomposed a little by the stupendous cares upon his mind, forgets where he had left his book of recreation :
“Look, Lucius, here's the book I sought for so.”
Another passage of the same kind, and of eminent beauty, is to be found in the scene where the conspirators assemble at the house of Brutus at midnight. Brutus, welcoming them all, says
“What watchful cares do interpose themselves
Cassius. Shall I entreat a word ? [They whisper.]
Cinna. O pardon, sir, it doth; and yon gray lines,
Casca. You shall confess, that you are both deceived
It is not only heroic manners and incidents which the all-powerful pen of Shakspeare has expressed with great historic truth in this play; he has entered with no less penetration into the manners of the factious plebeians, and has exhibited here, as well as in Coriolanus, the manners of a Roman mob. How could Johnson say, that “ his adherence to the real story, and to Roman manners, seems to have impeded the natural vigor of his genius”!!
Conspirators against Julius Cæsar.
Friends to Brutus and Cassius. VARRO, Clitus, CLAUDIUS, STRATO, Lucius, DARDANIUS, Servants
to Brutus. PINDARUS, Servant to Cassius.
CALPHURNIA, Wife to Cæsar.
Senators, Citizens, Guards, Attendants, fc.
SCENE, during a great part of the Play, at Rome; afterwards at
Sardis, and near Philippi.