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In the play of Julius Cæsar, the “noble Lepidus” is de scribed as one that feeds
“On objects, arts, and imitations
Begin his fashion.” Which is but a poetical version of what Falstaff says of Justice Shallow, as he knew him in his youth at Clement's Inn: “He came ever in the rearward of the fashion, and sung those tunes to the overscutch'd huswives that he heard the carmen whistle, and sware they were his Fancies and his Good-nights.”
Octavius, who for more than forty years after the battle of Actium was the acknowledged master of the Roman world, is probably the most intricate and inscrutable character in history. In his plenitude of political astuteness, he seems to have understood, better than any other man we read of, that his true strength was to hold still, and let his adversaries rot themselves with motion. The later historians, as Merivale and Smith, find that the one principle which gave aim and unity to his earlier life, and reconciled all his seeming contradictions of behaviour, was a fixed resolution to avenge the slaughter of his mighty uncle and adoptive father, whose mantle had fallen upon him, and who, as he believed, would from his seat among the gods hold the ægis of Providence over him. Be this as it may, at different times he acted in the opposite extremes of cruelty and clemency; yet not, for so it appears, because he was either cruel or clement at heart, but from an insight, or from an instinct, it is uncertain which, of the largest and deepest policy. Under a cold, polished, reserved, and dignified exterior, he concealed a soul of indomitable energy, and a tenacity of purpose which no vicissitudes could shake. His state of mind at the close of life is thus described by Merivale: “He had made peace with himself, to whom alone he felt himself responsible; neither God nor man, in his view, had any claim upon him. The nations had not proclaimed
him a deity in vain ; he had seemed to himself to grow up! to the full proportions they ascribed to him.” In this shape, be it observed, we have the old age of one who, a cool, shrewd, subtle youth of nineteen, had suffered neither interest nor vanity to warp his judgment, nor any roving imaginations to hinder the accomplishment of his purposes.
Schlegel and others have justly observed that the great fame and fortune of Augustus did not prevent Shakespeare from seeing through him, and understanding his character rightly; yet he managed the representation so adroitly as not to offend the prevalent opinion of the time, which, dazzled by the man's astonishing success, rated him much above his true measure. The Poet sets him forth as a dry, passionless, elastic diplomatist : there is not a generous thought comes from him, except in reference to his sister; and even then there is something ambiguous about it; it seems more than half born of the occasion he has to use her for his selfends. But then, as he has no keen tastes nor kindling enthusiasms, so he is also free from all illusions. He is just the man for the full-souled Antony to think of with scorn, even while the dread of his better stars holds him to a constrained and studied respect. His artful tackings and shiftings, to keep the ship of State, freighted as it is with the treasure of his own ascendency, before the gale of Fortune, make a fine contrast to the frank and forthright lustihood of Antony, bold and free alike in his sinnings and his self-accusings. Octavius is indeed plentifully endowed with pru
virtues, naturally infer, as their root and basis, the cardinal virtue of self-control: and the cunning of the delineation lies partly in that the reader is left to derive them from this source, if he be so disposed; while it is nevertheless easy to see that the Poet regards them as springing not so much from self-control, as from the want of any hearty impulses to be controlled.
Octavia has furnishings enough for the heroine of a great
tragedy; but she is not fitted to shine in the same sphere with Cleopatra, as her mild, steady, serene light would needs be paralyzed by the meteoric showers of the Egyptian enchantress. The Poet has hardly done justice to her sweet and solid qualities; and indeed, from the nature of the case, the more justice she had received, the more she would have suffered from the perilous brilliancy of her rival. Yet he shows that he fully knew and felt her beauty and elevation of character, by the impression that others take of her. Her behaviour in the play is always dignified, discreet, and womanly; while her“ holy, cold, and still conversation,” the dreaded chastisements of her sober eye, her patience, modesty, and silent austerity of reproof, as these are reflected from the thoughts of those who have given themselves most cause to wish her other than she is, gain her something better than our admiration. The Poet's good judgment in not bringing her and Cleopatra together is deservedly celebrated. But indeed there needed less of intellectual righteousness than he possessed, to see that such a woman as Octavia shines best in the modesty that keeps her from shining, especially when such an unholy splendour is by. Her best eulogy, considering the known qualities of her husband, is written in the anguish of jealousy which Cleopatra suffers on learning the fact of Antony's marriage; wherein, by the way, all the witching arts of the queenly siren are for the moment quenched in the natural feelings of the woman:
“O Iras ! Charmian ! - 'Tis no matter. —
“ Her beauty was not so passing, nor such as upon pres
ent view did enamour men with her, but so sweet was her company and conversation that a man could not but be taken. And, besides her beauty, the good grace she had to talk and discourse, her courteous nature that tempered her words and deeds, was as a spur that pricked to the quick; for her tongue was an instrument of music to divers sports and pastimes, the which she easily turned into any language that pleased her.” — Such is Plutarch's idea of the heroine as rendered in the racy old English of Sir Thomas North.
Cleopatra is, I think, Shakespeare's masterpiece in female characterization. There is literally no measuring the art involved in the delineation. As Campbell the poet remarks, “ he paints her as if the gipsy herself had cast her spell over him, and given her own witchcraft to his pencil.” The character is made up of indescribable subtilty and intricacy, and presents such a varied and many-shaded complexion of opposite traits, that I cannot but fancy Shakespeare to have delighted in stretching his powers upon it, and perhaps delighted all the more, forasmuch as it put him to his best exercise and proof of skill. For the delineation seems, throughout, a keen wit-match between the heroine and the Poet, which of them shall be the more daringly brilliant and divinely wicked, she in her movements, or he in bis delivery of them. Yet the very stress of the work only serves, apparently, to inspire him the more, so that nothing exceeds his grasp, nothing eludes it; his matchless subtilty of intellect fairly permeating every part of the subject, like a kind of diffusive touch.
Accordingly the heroine as here depicted is an inexhaustible magazine of coquetry: yet all along in her practice of this, and even in part as the motive and inspirer of it, there mingles a true and strong attachment, and a warm and just admiration of those qualities which ennoble the manly character. Her love is at once romantic and sensual, blending the two extremes of imagination and appetite: she is proud, passionate, ambitious, false, revengeful; abounding in wit, talent, tact, and practical sense ; inscrutable in cunning and in the strategy of inventive passion for attaining its ends; vain, capricious, wilful, generous, and selfish ; impulsive and deliberate, drifting before her passions and at the same time controlling them. Yet all these traits are carried on with a quickness and vital energy that never flags nor falters; and all are fused into perfect consistency by the very heat, as it were, of their mutual friction. And this strange combination is all woven about with such a versatility and potency of enchantment, that there is no resisting her nor escaping from her; nonē, that is, where the answering susceptibilities are in life. All these qualities, moreover, seem perfectly innate and spontaneous : nevertheless she is fully conscious of them, and has them entirely in
art. There is, in short, an essential magic about her, that turns the very spots and stains of her being into enchantment. And, what is perhaps most wonderful of all, while one knows that her power over him is but as the spell and fascination of a serpent, this knowledge still further disables him from shaking it off; nay, the very wonder how she can so fascinate becomes itself a new fascination. So that we may well say, with Enobarbus,
“ Age cannot wither her, nor custom stale
Her infinite variety : other women cloy
Become themselves in her." Of course it is impossible to illustrate in full the points of such an ever-changing physiognomy; for in so frolicsome and fugitive an expression, which turns to something new each instant, before you can catch it in any one form it has passed into another. I can but instance the two extremes between which her host of moods and tenses is bounded. The first is when, as Antony is on the eve of quitting Egypt for Rome, she so artfully banters and teases him into a fume, and then instantly charms it all away with a