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Nor is the effect of the thing any the less in keeping, that it assumes in them the character of a high-wrought poetical frenzy. That was the ancient heathen notion of divine possession. And the Poet makes us sympathize so far with their magnificent infatuation, that we cheerfully accord to them a sort of special privilege and exemption. Thus their action leaves our moral feelings altogether behind, and indeed soars, or, which comes to the same thing, sinks, quite beyond their ken. Nay, more; our thoughts and imaginations take with them, so to speak, a glad holiday in a strange country where the laws of duty undergo a willing suspension, and conscience temporarily abdicates her throne. Nor are we anywise damaged by this process. Rather say, the laws of duty are all the sweeter to us after such a brief escape from them; mark, I say escape from them, not transgression of them; which is a very different thing. So that the drama is perfectly free from any thing approaching to moral taint or infection. The very extravagance of the leading characters causes their action to be felt by us as strictly exceptional. In fact, we no more think of drawing their rules to us or ours to them, than we do of claiming the liberty of a comet with its eccentric orbit and long tail. We merely enjoy the vision of its pranks, and take no license from them. In this respect, the play, I grant, illustrates just as high a reach of moral audacity as seems compatible with moral purity.*
Another very remarkable feature of this drama lies in what may be termed the author's personal relation to the work. The leading characterization is steeped in a most refined and subtle guile. Every now and then we catch an arch twinkle of glorious mischief peeping from the Poet's eye; though never in a manner or to a degree that is at all inconsistent with perfect earnestness and perfect innocence of delineation. This, to be sure, is a personal quality, and therefore it required to be managed with consummate art, lest it should disturb the dramatic equanimity and calmness of the work, or tinge the individuality of the persons with a colour not properly their own. Thus the Poet himself is in this play more than in any other except King Henry the Fifth, though only in the sense of an intellectual and impersonal presence.
* I find a similar, view well expressed in Heraud's Inner Life of Shakespeare: “We have already witnessed the Poet looking down, as a superior intelligence, on the loves of Troilus and Cressida, and sporting as an equal with those of Venus and Adonis. We have now to see him identifying himself with two mortals at the height of fortune, who, in a species of heroic madness, had conceived themselves to be in the position of Divine Powers. This is the elevation at which Shakespeare sustains his argument, and this prevents it from becoming immoral, as it does in the hands of Dryden, who paints his heroine and hero as mere human persons indulging in voluptuous and licentious habits. No notion of guilt attaches to the conduct of Shakespeare's
Of this most delicate and unobtrusive irony Enobarbus is the organ, who serves the office of a chorus in the play, to interpret between the author and his audience. Through him the Poet keeps up a secret understanding with us, all the while inwardly sporting himself with his characters, and laughing at them, yet at the same time gravely humouring their extravagances and clothing them with his most cunning style. For, if you note it well, I think you will feel that Enobarbus is himself far from understanding the deep wisdom and sagacity of what he utters. It is as if some pure intelligential spirit were at his side, inspiring him with thoughts quite beyond his unaided reach. Thus 7the Poet seems to be invisibly present with him, to witness
what is going on, and at the same time to play with and moralize the events and persons of the scene.
Nevertheless Enobarbus is to all intents and purposes one of the persons of the drama, and not in any sort a mere Antony and Cleopatra either in the Poet's opinion or their own. They consciously acknowledge, and therefore trangress, no law. They live in an ideal region, far above the reach of a moral code, and justify their acts on the warranty of their own nature. They swear by and recognize no higher power than themselves. That this is a false position there is no doubt; and the Poet, by the catastrophe of his tragedy, shows it to have been such. But while the divine revels last the actors in them fully believe that they are the divinities whom they would represent. They sit on thrones outside the circle of the round Flobe, and repose on couches which float in air like clouds, and never touch the surface of the planet.”
personified emanation of the author. His individual being stands as firm and inviolate as that of any of the characters; his personality being no more displaced or impaired by the Poet's intellectual presence than that of the sacred penmen was by the Power that inspired them to and for their appointed work. So that we have in him at once a character and a commentary. Of course, therefore, I do not mean but that the man is just as much himself as if there were nothing in him or coming from him but himself;"my idea being that Shakespeare merely transfuses into him so inuch of his own sense of things as would answer the purpose in question. The point, in short, is just this : In case of the other persons, the Poet does not inspire them at all; he only delivers them, and this too without any thing of himself in them; in Enobarbus he does both.
To illustrate and to approve what I have been saying, it seems needful to quote a few of this man's words. Thus, near the opening of the play, when Antony tells him he is going to leave Egypt:
“ Eno. Cleopatra, catching but the least noise of this, dies instantly ; I have seen her die twenty times upon far poorer moment: I do think there is mettle in death, which commits some loving act upon her, she hath such a celerity in dying.
Ant. She is cunning past man's thought. L · Eno. Alack, sir, no ; her passions are made of nothing but the finest part of pure love: we cannot call her winds and waters sighs and tears ; they are greater storms and tempests than almanacs can report: this cannot be cunning. in her; if it be, she makes a shower of rain as well
Eno. O, sir, you had then left unseen a wonderful piece of work : which not to have been bless'd withal would have discredited your travel.”
Here I cannot doubt that we have Shakespeare's own ironical interpretation of the matter in question. Why, the ma pith of the whole drama is covertiy insinuated in this brief passage. It would not be easy to produce a finer instance of dramatic guile. And with what smooth celerity the
speaker's thought shifts its hues at each instant of the expression! twinkling out his satire with an art as subtile as that of the heroine herself. So too, after the marriage of Antony and Octavia, when the latter is taking leave of her brother, and we have this bit of dialogue aside:
Agrip. He has a cloud in 's face.
Eno. He were the worse for that were he a horse ;
Eno. That year, indeed, he was troubled with a rheum;
Believe't, till I wept too."
“Yes, like enough, high-battled Cæsar will
Unstate his happiness, and he stag'd to th’ show
His judgment too."
“Now he'll outstare the lightning. To be furious,
Is to be frighted out of fear; and in that mood
Thus, throughout, his caustic wit and searching irony of 1 discourse interpret with remorseless fidelity the moral im- V port of the characters and movements about him. But, aside from his function as chorus, he is perhaps, after Octavia, the noblest character in the drama. His blunt, prompt, outspoken frankness smacks delightfully of the hardy Roman soldier brought face to face with the orgies of a most un-Roman levity; while the splitting of his big heart with grief and shame for having deserted the ship of his master, which he knew to be sinking, shows him altogether a noble vessel of manhood. That Antony's generosity kills him, approves, as nothing else could, how generous he is himself. The character is almost entirely the Poet's own creation, Plutarch furnishing but one or two unpregnant hints towards it.
In the case of Lepidus, also, the historian could have yielded but a few slight points towards the character as drawn by Shakespeare. The Lepidus of the play, the “ barren-spirited fellow," the “slight unmeritable map meet to be sent on errands" bears a strong likeness to the veritable pack-horse of the Triumvirate, trying to strut and swell himself up to the dimensions of his place, and thereby of course only betraying his emptiness the more. Such appears to have been about the real pitch and quality of the man, according to the notices given of him by other writers; as Paterculus, for example, who calls him vir omnium vanissimus : but whether the Poet used any of those authorities, or merely drew from his own intuitive knowledge of human nature, is a question not easily answered. Vain, sycophantic, unprincipled, boobyish, he serves as a capital butt to his great associates, while his very elevation only renders him a more provoking target for their wit. Their playing upon him at Pompey's feast, when his poor brain is greased and his tongue made thick with wine, and the acute burlesque which Enobarbus soon after runs upon his “green sickness," are among the spicy things of the drama.