HotFreeBooks.com
Characteristics of Women - Moral, Poetical, and Historical
by Anna Jameson
Previous Part     1  2  3  4  5  6  7     Next Part
Home - Random Browse

It appears to me that the whole character rests upon the two sublimest principles of human action, the love of truth and the sense of duty; but these, when they stand alone, (as in the Antigone,) are apt to strike us as severe and cold. Shakspeare has, therefore, wreathed them round with the dearest attributes of our feminine nature, the power of feeling and inspiring affection. The first part of the play shows us how Cordelia is loved, the second part how she can love. To her father she is the object of a secret preference, his agony at her supposed unkindness draws from him the confession, that he had loved her most, and "thought to set his rest on her kind nursery." Till then she had been "his best object, the argument of his praise, balm of his age, most best, most dearest!" The faithful and worthy Kent is ready to brave death and exile in her defence: and afterwards a farther impression of her benign sweetness is conveyed in a simple and beautiful manner, when we are told that "since the lady Cordelia went to France, her father's poor fool had much pined away." We have her sensibility "when patience and sorrow strove which should express her goodliest:" and all her filial tenderness when she commits her poor father to the care of the physician, when she hangs over him as he is sleeping, and kisses him as she contemplates the wreck of grief and majesty.

O my dear father! restoration hang Its medicine on my lips: and let this kiss Repair those violent harms that my two sisters Have in thy reverence made! Had you not been their father, these white flakes Had challenged pity of them! Was this a face To be exposed against the warring winds, To stand against the deep dread-bolted thunder In the most terrible and nimble stroke Of quick cross lightning? to watch, (poor perdu!) With thin helm? mine enemy's dog, Though he had bit me, should have stood that night Against my fire.

Her mild magnanimity shines out in her farewell to her sisters, of whose real character she is perfectly aware:—

Ye jewels of our father! with washed eyes Cordelia leaves you! I know ye what ye are, And like a sister, am most loath to call Your faults as they are nam'd. Use well our father, To your professed bosoms I commit him. But yet, alas! stood I within his grace, I would commend him to a better place; So farewell to you both.

GONERIL.

Prescribe not us our duties!

The modest pride with which she replies to the Duke of Burgundy is admirable; this whole passage is too illustrative of the peculiar character of Cordelia, as well as too exquisite, to be mutilated

I yet beseech your majesty, (If, for I want that glib and oily heart, To speak and purpose not, since what I well intend I'll do't before I speak,) that you make known, It is no vicious blot, murder, or foulness, No unchaste action, or dishonored step That hath deprived me of your grace and favor; But even for want of that, for which I am richer; A still soliciting eye, and such a tongue I am glad I have not, tho' not to have it Hath lost me in your liking.

LEAR.

Better thou Hadst not been born, than not to have pleased me better.

FRANCE.

Is it but this? a tardiness of nature, That often leaves the history unspoke Which it intends to do?—My lord of Burgundy, What say you to the lady? love is not love When it is mingled with respects that stand Aloof from the entire point. Will you have her? She is herself a dowry.

BURGUNDY.

Royal Lear, Give but that portion which yourself proposed, And here I take Cordelia by the hand Duchess of Burgundy.

LEAR.

Nothing: I have sworn; I am firm.

BURGUNDY.

I am sorry, then, you have lost a father That you must lose a husband.

CORDELIA.

Peace be with Burgundy! Since that respects of fortune are his love, I shall not be his wife.

FRANCE.

Fairest Cordelia! thou art more rich, being poor, Most choice, forsaken, and most lov'd, despised! Thee and thy virtues here I seize upon.

She takes up arms, "not for ambition, but a dear father's right." In her speech after her defeat, we have a calm fortitude and elevation of soul, arising from the consciousness of duty, and lifting her above all consideration of self. She observes,—

We are not the first Who with best meaning have incurred the worst!

She thinks and fears only for her father.

For thee, oppressed king, am I cast down; Myself would else out-frown false fortune's frown.

To complete the picture, her very voice is characteristic, "ever soft, gentle, and low; an excellent thing in woman."

But it will be said, that the qualities here exemplified—as sensibility, gentleness, magnanimity, fortitude, generous affection—are qualities which belong, in their perfection, to others of Shakspeare's characters—to Imogen, for instance, who unites them all; and yet Imogen and Cordelia are wholly unlike each other. Even though we should reverse their situations, and give to Imogen the filial devotion of Cordelia, and to Cordelia the conjugal virtues of Imogen, still they would remain perfectly distinct as women. What is it, then, which lends to Cordelia that peculiar and individual truth of character, which distinguishes her from every other human being?

It is a natural reserve, a tardiness of disposition, "which often leaves the history unspoke which it intends to do;" a subdued quietness of deportment and expression, a veiled shyness thrown over all her emotions, her language and her manner; making the outward demonstration invariably fall short of what we know to be the feeling within. Not only is the portrait singularly beautiful and interesting in itself, but the conduct of Cordelia, and the part which she bears in the beginning of the story, is rendered consistent and natural by the wonderful truth and delicacy with which this peculiar disposition is sustained throughout the play.

In early youth, and more particularly if we are gifted with a lively imagination, such a character as that of Cordelia is calculated above every other to impress and captivate us. Any thing like mystery, any thing withheld or withdrawn from our notice, seizes on our fancy by awakening our curiosity. Then we are won more by what we half perceive and half create, than by what is openly expressed and freely bestowed. But this feeling is a part of our young life: when time and years have chilled us, when we can no longer afford to send our souls abroad, nor from our own superfluity of life and sensibility spare the materials out of which we build a shrine for our idol—then do we seek, we ask, we thirst for that warmth of frank, confiding tenderness, which revives in us the withered affections and feelings, buried but not dead. Then the excess of love is welcomed, not repelled: it is gracious to us as the sun and dew to the seared and riven trunk, with its few green leaves. Lear is old—"fourscore and upward"—but we see what he has been in former days: the ardent passions of youth have turned to rashness and wilfulness: he is long passed that age when we are more blessed in what we bestow than in what we receive. When he says to his daughters, "I gave ye all!" we feel that he requires all in return, with a jealous, restless, exacting affection which defeats its own wishes. How many such are there in the world! How many to sympathize with the fiery, fond old man, when he shrinks as if petrified from Cordelia's quiet calm reply!

LEAR.

Now our joy, Although the last not least— What can you say to draw A third more opulent than your sisters'? Speak!

CORDELIA.

Nothing, my lord.

LEAR.

Nothing!

CORDELIA.

Nothing.

LEAR.

Nothing can come of nothing: speak again!

CORDELIA.

Unhappy that I am! I cannot heave My heart into my mouth: I love your majesty According to my bond; nor more, nor less.

Now this is perfectly natural. Cordelia has penetrated the vile characters of her sisters. Is it not obvious, that, in proportion as her own mind is pure and guileless, she must be disgusted with their gross hypocrisy and exaggeration, their empty protestations, their "plaited cunning;" and would retire from all competition with what she so disdains and abhors,—even into the opposite extreme? In such a case, as she says herself—

What should Cordelia do?—love and be silent?

For the very expressions of Lear—

What can you say to draw A third more opulent than your sisters'?

are enough to strike dumb forever a generous, delicate, but shy disposition, such as Cordelia's, by holding out a bribe for professions.

If Cordelia were not thus portrayed, this deliberate coolness would strike us as verging on harshness or obstinacy; but it is beautifully represented as a certain modification of character, the necessary result of feelings habitually, if not naturally, repressed: and through the whole play we trace the same peculiar and individual disposition—the same absence of all display—the same sobriety of speech veiling the most profound affections—the same quiet steadiness of purpose—the same shrinking from all exhibition of emotion.

"Tous les sentimens naturels ont leur pudeur," was a viva voce observation of Madame de Stael, when disgusted by the sentimental affectation of her imitators. This "pudeur," carried to an excess, appears to me the peculiar characteristic of Cordelia. Thus, in the description of her deportment when she receives the letter of the Earl of Kent, informing her of the cruelty of her sisters and the wretched condition of Lear, we seem to have her before us:—

KENT.

Did your letters pierce the queen to any demonstration of grief?

GENTLEMAN.

Ay, sir, she took them, and read them in my presence And now and then an ample tear stole down Her delicate cheek. It seemed she was a queen Over her passion; who, most rebel-like Sought to be king over her.

KENT.

O then it moved her!

GENTLEMAN.

Not to a rage. Faith, once or twice she heaved the name of father Pantingly forth, as if it pressed her heart, Cried, Sisters! sisters! Shame of ladies! Sisters! What, i' the storm? i' the night? Let pity not be believed. Then she shook The holy water from her heavenly eyes;

* * * *

Then away she started, To deal with grief alone.

Here the last line—the image brought before us of Cordelia starting away from observation, "to deal with grief alone," is as exquisitely beautiful as it is characteristic.

But all the passages hitherto quoted must yield in beauty and power to that scene, in which her poor father recognizes her, and in the intervals of distraction asks forgiveness of his wronged child. The subdued pathos and simplicity of Cordelia's character, her quiet but intense feeling, the misery and humiliation of the bewildered old man, are brought before us in so few words, and at the same time sustained with such a deep intuitive knowledge of the innermost workings of the human heart, that as there is nothing surpassing this scene in Shakspeare himself, so there is nothing that can be compared to it in any other writer.

CORDELIA.

How does my royal lord? How fares your majesty?

LEAR.

You do me wrong to take me out of the grave. Thou art a soul in bliss; but I am bound Upon a wheel of fire, that mine own tears Do scald like molten lead.

CORDELIA.

Sir, do you know me?

LEAR.

You are a spirit, I know: when did you die?

CORDELIA.

Still, still far wide!

PHYSICIAN.

He's scarce awake: let him alone awhile.

LEAR.

Where have I been? Where am I? Fair daylight! I am mightily abused. I should even die with pity To see another thus. I know not what to say. I will not swear these are my hands: Let's see. I feel this pin prick. Would I were assured Of my condition.

CORDELIA.

O look upon me, sir, And hold your hands in benediction o'er me— No, sir, you must not kneel.

LEAR.

Pray, do not mock me: I am a very foolish, fond old man, Fourscore and upwards; and to deal plainly with you, I fear I am not in my perfect mind. Methinks I should know you, and know this man, Yet I am doubtful: for I am mainly ignorant What place this is; and all the skill I have Remembers not these garments; nor I know not Where I did lodge last night. Do not laugh at me; For as I am a man, I think this lady To be my child Cordelia.

CORDELIA.

And so I am, I am.

LEAR.

Be your tears wet? Yes, faith. I pray you weep not If you have poison for me I will drink it. I know you do not love me; for your sisters Have, as I do remember, done me wrong: You have some cause, they have not.

CORDELIA.

No cause, no cause!

As we do not estimate Cordelia's affection for her father by the coldness of her language, so neither should we measure her indignation against her sisters by the mildness of her expressions. What, in fact, can be more eloquently significant, and at the same time more characteristic of Cordelia, than the single line when she and her father are conveyed to their prison:—

Shall we not see these daughters and these sisters?

The irony here is so bitter and intense, and at the same time so quiet, so feminine, so dignified in the expression, that who but Cordelia would have uttered it in the same manner, or would have condensed such ample meaning into so few and simple words?

We lose sight of Cordelia during the whole of the second and third, and great part of the fourth act; but towards the conclusion she reappears. Just as our sense of human misery and wickedness being carried to its extreme height, becomes nearly intolerable, "like an engine wrenching our frame of nature from its fixed place," then, like a redeeming angel, she descends to mingle in the scene, "loosening the springs of pity in our eyes," and relieving the impressions of pain and terror by those of admiration and a tender pleasure. For the catastrophe, it is indeed terrible! wondrous terrible! When Lear enters with Cordelia dead in his arms, compassion and awe so seize on all our faculties, that we are left only to silence and to tears. But if I might judge from my own sensations, the catastrophe of Lear is not so overwhelming as the catastrophe of Othello. We do not turn away with the same feeling of absolute unmitigated despair. Cordelia is a saint ready prepared for heaven—our earth is not good enough for her: and Lear!—O who, after sufferings and tortures such as his, would wish to see his life prolonged? What replace a sceptre in that shaking hand?—a crown upon that old gray head, on which the tempest had poured in its wrath?—on which the deep dread bolted thunders and the winged lightnings had spent their fury? O never, never!

Let him pass! he hates him That would upon the rack of this rough world Stretch him out longer.

In the story of King Lear and his three daughters, as it is related in the "delectable and mellifluous" romance of Perceforest, and in the Chronicle of Geoffrey of Monmouth, the conclusion is fortunate. Cordelia defeats her sisters, and replaces her father on his throne. Spenser, in his version of the story, has followed these authorities. Shakspeare has preferred the catastrophe of the old ballad, founded apparently on some lost tradition. I suppose it is by way of amending his errors, and bringing back this daring innovator to sober history, that it has been thought fit to alter the play of Lear for the stage, as they have altered Romeo and Juliet: they have converted the seraph-like Cordelia into a puling love heroine, and sent her off victorious at the end of the play—exit with drums and colors flying—to be married to Edgar. Now any thing more absurd, more discordant with all our previous impressions, and with the characters as unfolded to us, can hardly be imagined. "I cannot conceive," says Schlegel, "what ideas of art and dramatic connection those persons have, who suppose we can at pleasure tack a double conclusion to a tragedy—a melancholy one for hard-hearted spectators, and a merry one for those of softer mould." The fierce manners depicted in this play, the extremes of virtue and vice in the persons, belong to the remote period of the story.[64] There is no attempt at character in the old narratives; Regan and Goneril are monsters of ingratitude, and Cordelia merely distinguished by her filial piety; whereas, in Shakspeare, this filial piety is an affection quite distinct from the qualities which serve to individualize the human being; we have a perception of innate character apart from all accidental circumstance: we see that if Cordelia had never known her father, had never been rejected from his love, had never been a born princess or a crowned queen, she would not have been less Cordelia; less distinctly herself; that is, a woman of a steady mind, of calm but deep affections, of inflexible truth, of few words, and of reserved deportment.

As to Regan and Goneril—"tigers, not daughters"—we might wish to regard them as mere hateful chimeras, impossible as they are detestable; but fortunately there was once a Tullia. I know not where to look for the prototype of Cordelia: there was a Julia Alpinula, the young priestess of Aventicum,[65] who, unable to save her father's life by the sacrifice of her own, died with him—"infelix patris, infelix proles"—but this is all we know of her. There was the Roman daughter, too. I remember seeing at Genoa, Guido's "Pieta Romana," in which the expression of the female bending over the aged parent, who feeds from her bosom, is perfect,—but it is not a Cordelia: only Raffaelle could have painted Cordelia.

But the character which at once suggests itself in comparison with Cordelia, as the heroine of filial tenderness and piety, is certainly the Antigone of Sophocles. As poetical conceptions, they rest on the same basis: they are both pure abstractions of truth, piety, and natural affection; and in both, love, as a passion, is kept entirely out of sight: for though the womanly character is sustained, by making them the objects of devoted attachment, yet to have portrayed them as influenced by passion, would have destroyed that unity of purpose and feeling which is one source of power; and, besides, have disturbed that serene purity and grandeur of soul, which equally distinguishes both heroines. The spirit, however, in which the two characters are conceived, is as different as possible; and we must not fail to remark, that Antigone, who plays a principal part in two fine tragedies, and is distinctly and completely made out, is considered as a masterpiece, the very triumph of the ancient classical drama; whereas, there are many among Shakspeare's characters which are equal to Cordelia as dramatic conceptions, and superior to her in finishing of outline, as well as in the richness of the poetical coloring.

When Oedipus, pursued by the vengeance of the gods, deprived of sight by his own mad act, and driven from Thebes by his subjects and his sons, wanders forth, abject and forlorn, he is supported by his daughter Antigone; who leads him from city to city, begs for him, and pleads for him against the harsh, rude men, who, struck more by his guilt than his misery, would drive him from his last asylum. In the opening of the "Oedipus Coloneus," where the wretched old man appears leaning on his child, and seats himself in the consecrated Grove of the Furies, the picture presented to us is wonderfully solemn and beautiful. The patient, duteous tenderness of Antigone; the scene in which she pleads for her brother Polynices, and supplicates her father to receive his offending son; her remonstrance to Polynices, when she entreats him not to carry the threatened war into his native country, are finely and powerfully delineated; and in her lamentation over Oedipus, when he perishes in the mysterious grove, there is a pathetic beauty, apparent even through the stiffness of the translation.

Alas! I only wished I might have died With my poor father; wherefore should I ask For longer life? O I was fond of misery with him; E'en what was most unlovely grew beloved When he was with me. O my dearest father, Beneath the earth now in deep darkness hid, Worn as thou wert with age, to me thou still Wert dear, and shalt be ever. —Even as he wished he died, In a strange land—for such was his desire— A shady turf covered his lifeless limbs, Nor unlamented fell! for O these eyes, My father, still shall weep for thee, nor time E'er blot thee from my memory.

The filial piety of Antigone is the most affecting part of the tragedy of "Oedipus Coloneus:" her sisterly affection, and her heroic self-devotion to a religious duty, form the plot of the tragedy called by her name. When her two brothers, Eteocles and Polynices, had slain each other before the walls of Thebes, Creon issued an edict forbidding the rites of sepulture to Polynices, (as the invader of his country,) and awarding instant death to those who should dare to bury him. We know the importance which the ancients attached to the funeral obsequies, as alone securing their admission into the Elysian fields. Antigone, upon hearing the law of Creon, which thus carried vengeance beyond the grave, enters in the first scene, announcing her fixed resolution to brave the threatened punishment: her sister Ismene shrinks from sharing the peril of such an undertaking, and endeavors to dissuade her from it, on which Antigone replies:—

Wert thou to proffer what I do not ask— Thy poor assistance—I would scorn it now; Act as thou wilt, I'll bury him myself: Let me perform but that, and death is welcome. I'll do the pious deed, and lay me down By my dear brother; loving and beloved, We'll rest together.

She proceeds to execute her generous purpose; she covers with earth the mangled corse of Polynices, pours over it the accustomed libations, is detected in her pious office, and after nobly defending her conduct, is led to death by command of the tyrant: her sister Ismene, struck with shame and remorse, now comes forward to accuse herself as a partaker in the offence, and share her sister's punishment; but Antigone sternly and scornfully rejects her; and after pouring forth a beautiful lamentation on the misery of perishing "without the nuptial song—a virgin and a slave," she dies a l'antique—she strangles herself to avoid a lingering death.

Hemon, the son of Creon, unable to save her life, kills himself upon her grave: but throughout the whole tragedy we are left in doubt whether Antigone does or does not return the affection of this devoted lover.

Thus it will be seen that in the Antigone there is a great deal of what may be called the effect of situation, as well as a great deal of poetry and character: she says the most beautiful things in the world, performs the most heroic actions, and all her words and actions are so placed before us as to command our admiration. According to the classical ideas of virtue and heroism, the character is sublime, and in the delineation there is a severe simplicity mingled with its Grecian grace, a unity, a grandeur, an elegance, which appeal to our taste and our understanding, while they fill and exalt the imagination: but in Cordelia it is not the external coloring or form, it is not what she says or does, but what she is in herself, what she feels, thinks, and suffers, which continually awaken our sympathy and interest. The heroism of Cordelia is more passive and tender—it melts into our heart; and in the veiled loveliness and unostentatious delicacy of her character, there is an effect more profound and artless, if it be less striking and less elaborate than in the Grecian heroine. To Antigone we give our admiration, to Cordelia our tears. Antigone stands before us in her austere and statue-like beauty, like one of the marbles of the Parthenon. If Cordelia reminds us of any thing on earth, it is of one of the Madonnas in the old Italian pictures, "with downcast eyes beneath th' almighty dove?" and as that heavenly form is connected with our human sympathies only by the expression of maternal tenderness or maternal sorrow, even so Cordelia would be almost too angelic, were she not linked to our earthly feelings, bound to our very hearts, by her filial love, her wrongs, her sufferings, and her tears.

FOOTNOTES:

[48]

——The gods approve The depth, and not the tumult of the soul.

WORDSWORTH.

"Il pouvait y avoir des vagues majestueuses et non de l'orage sans son coeur," was finely observed of Madame de Stael in her maturer years; it would have been true of Hermione at any period of her life.

[49] Winter's Tale, act v scene 11

[50] Only in the last scene, when, with solemnity befitting the occasion, Paulina invokes the majestic figure to "descend, and be stone no more," and where she presents her daughter to her. "Turn, good lady! our Perdita is found."

[51] Act iii, scene 3.

[52] Which being interpreted into modern English, means, I believe, nothing more than that the pattern was what we now call arabesque.

[53] There is an incident in the original tale, "Il Moro di Venezia," which could not well be transferred to the drama, but which is very effective, and adds, I think, to the circumstantial horrors of the story. Desdemona does not accidentally drop the handkerchief; it is stolen from her by Iago's little child, an infant of three years old, whom he trains and bribes to the theft. The love of Desdemona for this child, her little playfellow—the pretty description of her taking it in her arms and caressing it, while it profits by its situation to steal the handkerchief from her bosom, are well imagined, and beautifully told; and the circumstance of Iago employing his own innocent child as the instrument of his infernal villany, adds a deeper, and, in truth an unnecessary touch of the fiend, to his fiendish character.

[54] Consequences are so linked together, that the exclamation of Emilia,

O thou dull Moor!—That handkerchief thou speakest of I found by fortune, and did give my husband!—

is sufficient to reveal to Othello the whole history of his ruin.

[55] Decamerone. Novella, 9mo. Giornata, 2do.

[56] Vide Dr. Johnson, and Dunlop's History of Fiction.

[57] See Hazlitt and Schlegel on the catastrophe of Cymbeline.

[58] More rare—i. e. more exquisitely poignant.

[59] Characters of Shakspeare's Plays.

[60] Vide act 1. scene 7.

[61] The character of Cloten has been pronounced by some unnatural, by others inconsistent, and by others obsolete. The following passage occurs in one of Miss Seward's letters, vol. iii p. 246: "It is curious that Shakspeare should, in so singular a character as Cloten, have given the exact prototype of a being whom I once knew. The unmeaning frown of countenance, the shuffling gait, the burst of voice, the bustling insignificance, the fever and ague fits of valor, the froward tetchiness, the unprincipled malice, and, what is more curious, those occasional gleams of good sense amidst the floating clouds of folly which generally darkened and confused the man's brain, and which, in the character of Cloten, we are apt to impute to a violation of unity in character; but in the some-time Captain C——, I saw that the portrait of Cloten was not out of nature."

[62] i. e. full of words.

[63] Dryden.

[64] King Lear may be supposed to have lived about one thousand years before the Christian era, being the forth or fifth in descent from King Brut, the great-grandson of AEneas, and the fabulous founder of the kingdom of Britain.

[65] She is commemorated by Lord Byron. Vide Childe Harold Canto iii.



HISTORICAL CHARACTERS.

CLEOPATRA.

I cannot agree with one of the most philosophical of Shakspeare's critics, who has asserted "that the actual truth of particular events, in proportion as we are conscious of it, is a drawback on the pleasure as well as the dignity of tragedy." If this observation applies at all, it is equally just with regard to characters: and in either case can we admit it? The reverence and the simpleness of heart with which Shakspeare has treated the received and admitted truths of history—I mean according to the imperfect knowledge of his time—is admirable; his inaccuracies are few: his general accuracy, allowing for the distinction between the narrative and the dramatic form, is acknowledged to be wonderful. He did not steal the precious material from the treasury of history, to debase its purity,—new-stamp it arbitrarily with effigies and legends of his own devising and then attempt to pass it current, like Dryden, Racine, and the rest of those poetical coiners: he only rubbed off the rust, purified and brightened it, so that history herself has been known to receive it back as sterling.

Truth, wherever manifested, should be sacred: so Shakspeare deemed, and laid no profane hand upon her altars. But tragedy—majestic tragedy, is worthy to stand before the sanctuary of Truth, and to be the priestess of her oracles. "Whatever in religion is holy and sublime, in virtue amiable or grave, whatsoever hath passion or admiration in all the changes of that which is called fortune from without, or the wily subtleties and refluxes of man's thought from within;"[66]—whatever is pitiful in the weakness, sublime in the strength, or terrible in the perversion of human intellect, these are the domain of Tragedy. Sibyl and Muse at once, she holds aloft the book of human fate, and is the interpreter of its mysteries. It is not, then, making a mock of the serious sorrows of real life, nor of those human beings who lived, suffered and acted upon this earth, to array them in her rich and stately robes, and present them before us as powers evoked from dust and darkness, to awaken the generous sympathies, the terror or the pity of mankind. It does not add to the pain, as far as tragedy is a source of emotion, that the wrongs and sufferings represented, the guilt of Lady Macbeth, the despair of Constance, the arts of Cleopatra, and the distresses of Katherine, had a real existence; but it adds infinitely to the moral effect, as a subject of contemplation and a lesson of conduct.[67]

I shall be able to illustrate these observations more fully in the course of this section, in which we will consider those characters which are drawn from history; and first, Cleopatra.

Of all Shakspeare's female characters, Miranda and Cleopatra appear to me the most wonderful. The first, unequalled as a poetic conception; the latter, miraculous as a work of art. If we could make a regular classification of his characters, these would form the two extremes of simplicity and complexity; and all his other characters would be found to fill up some shade or gradation between these two.

Great crimes, springing from high passions, grafted on high qualities, are the legitimate source of tragic poetry. But to make the extreme of littleness produce an effect like grandeur—to make the excess of frailty produce an effect like power—to heap up together all that is most unsubstantial, frivolous, vain, contemptible, and variable, till the worthlessness be lost in the magnitude, and a sense of the sublime spring from the very elements of littleness,—to do this, belonged only to Shakspeare that worker of miracles. Cleopatra is a brilliant antithesis, a compound of contradictions, of all that we most hate, with what we most admire. The whole character is the triumph of the external over the innate; and yet like one of her country's hieroglyphics, though she present at first view a splendid and perplexing anomaly, there is deep meaning and wondrous skill in the apparent enigma, when we come to analyze and decipher it. But how are we to arrive at the solution of this glorious riddle, whose dazzling complexity continually mocks and eludes us? What is most astonishing in the character of Cleopatra is its antithetical construction—its consistent inconsistency, if I may use such an expression—which renders it quite impossible to reduce it to any elementary principles. It will, perhaps, be found on the whole, that vanity and the love of power predominate; but I dare not say it is so, for these qualities and a hundred others mingle into each other, and shift and change, and glance away, like the colors in a peacock's train.

In some others of Shakspeare's female characters, also remarkable for their complexity, (Portia and Juliet, for instance,) we are struck with the delightful sense of harmony in the midst of contrast, so that the idea of unity and simplicity of effect is produced in the midst of variety; but in Cleopatra it is the absence of unity and simplicity which strikes us; the impression is that of perpetual and irreconcilable contrast. The continual approximation of whatever is most opposite in character, in situation, in sentiment, would be fatiguing, were it not so perfectly natural: the woman herself would be distracting, if she were not so enchanting.

I have not the slightest doubt that Shakspeare's Cleopatra is the real historical Cleopatra—the "Rare Egyptian"—individualized and placed before us. Her mental accomplishments, her unequalled grace, her woman's wit and woman's wiles, her irresistible allurements, her starts of irregular grandeur, her bursts of ungovernable temper, her vivacity of imagination, her petulant caprice, her fickleness and her falsehood, her tenderness and her truth, her childish susceptibility to flattery, her magnificent spirit, her royal pride, the gorgeous eastern coloring of the character; all these contradictory elements has Shakspeare seized, mingled them in their extremes, and fused them into one brilliant impersonation of classical elegance, Oriental voluptuousness, and gipsy sorcery.

What better proof can we have of the individual truth of the character than the admission that Shakspeare's Cleopatra produces exactly the same effect on us that is recorded of the real Cleopatra? She dazzles our faculties, perplexes our judgment, bewilders and bewitches our fancy; from the beginning to the end of the drama, we are conscious of a kind of fascination against which our moral sense rebels, but from which there is no escape. The epithets applied to her perpetually by Antony and others confirm this impression: "enchanting queen!"—"witch"—"spell"—"great fairy"—"cockatrice"—"serpent of old Nile"—"thou grave charm!"[68] are only a few of them; and who does not know by heart the famous quotations in which this Egyptian Circe is described with all her infinite seductions?

Fie! wrangling queen! Whom every thing becomes—to chide, to laugh, To weep; whose every passion fully strives To make itself, in thee, fair and admired.

Age cannot wither her, nor custom stale Her infinite variety:— For vilest things Become themselves in her.

And the pungent irony of Enobarbus has well exposed her feminine arts, when he says, on the occasion of Antony's intended departure,—

Cleopatra, catching but the least noise of this, dies instantly: I have seen her die twenty times upon far poorer moment.

ANTONY.

She is cunning past man's thought.

ENOBARBUS.

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 as Jove.

The whole secret of her absolute dominion over the facile Antony may be found in one little speech:—

See where he is—who's with him—what he does— (I did not send you.) If you find him sad, Say I am dancing; if in mirth, report That I am sudden sick! Quick! and return.

CHARMIAN.

Madam, methinks if you did love him dearly, You do not hold the method to enforce The like from him.

CLEOPATRA.

What should I do, I do not?

CHARMIAN.

In each thing give him way; cross him in nothing.

CLEOPATRA.

Thou teachest like a fool: the way to lose him.

CHARMIAN.

Tempt him not too far.

But Cleopatra is a mistress of her art, and knows better: and what a picture of her triumphant petulance, her imperious and imperial coquetry, is given in her own words!

That time—O times! I laugh'd him out of patience; and that night I laughed him into patience: and next morn, Ere the ninth hour, I drunk him to his bed; Then put my tires and mantles on, whilst I wore his sword, Philippan.

When Antony enters full of some serious purpose which he is about to impart, the woman's perverseness, and the tyrannical waywardness with which she taunts him and plays upon his temper, are admirably depicted.

I know, by that same eye, there's some good news. What says the married woman?[69] You may go; Would she had never given you leave to come! Let her not say, 'tis I that keep you here; I have no power upon you; hers you are.

ANTONY.

The gods best know—

CLEOPATRA.

O, never was there queen So mightily betray'd! Yet at the first, I saw the treasons planted.

ANTONY.

Cleopatra!

CLEOPATRA.

Why should I think you can be mine, and true, Though you in swearing shake the throned gods, Who have been false to Fulvia? Riotous madness To be entangled with those mouth-made vows, Which break themselves in swearing!

ANTONY.

Most sweet queen!

CLEOPATRA.

Nay, pray you, seek no color for your going, But bid farewell, and go.

She recovers her dignity for a moment at the news of Fulvia's death, as if roused by a blow:—

Though age from folly could not give me freedom, It does from childishness. Can Fulvia die?

And then follows the artful mockery with which she tempts and provokes him, in order to discover whether he regrets his wife.

O most false love! Where be the sacred vials thou shouldst fill With sorrowful water? Now I see, I see In Fulvia's death, how mine receiv'd shall be.

ANTONY.

Quarrel no more; but be prepared to know The purposes I bear: which are, or cease, As you shall give th' advice. Now, by the fire That quickens Nilus' shrine, I go from hence Thy soldier, servant, making peace or war, As thou affectest.

CLEOPATRA.

Cut my lace, Charmian, come—But let it be. I am quickly ill, and well. So Antony loves.

ANTONY.

My precious queen, forbear: And give true evidence to his love which stands An honorable trial.

CLEOPATRA.

So Fulvia told me. I pr'ythee turn aside, and weep for her: Then bid adieu to me, and say, the tears Belong to Egypt. Good now, play one scene Of excellent dissembling; and let it look Like perfect honor.

ANTONY.

You'll heat my blood—no more.

CLEOPATRA.

You can do better yet; but this is meetly.

ANTONY.

Now, by my sword—

CLEOPATRA.

And target—still he mends: But this is not the best. Look, pr'ythee, Charmian, How this Herculean Roman does become The carriage of his chafe!

This is, indeed, most "excellent dissembling;" but when she has fooled and chafed the Herculean Roman to the verge of danger, then comes that return of tenderness which secures the power she has tried to the utmost, and we have all the elegant, the poetical Cleopatra in her beautiful farewell.

Forgive me! Since my becomings kill me when they do not Eye well to you. Your honor calls you hence, Therefore be deaf to my unpitied folly, And all the gods go with you! Upon your sword Sit laurell'd victory; and smooth success Be strew'd before your feet!

Finer still are the workings of her variable mind and lively imagination, after Antony's departure; her fond repining at his absence, her violent spirit, her right royal wilfulness and impatience, as if it were a wrong to her majesty, an insult to her sceptre, that there should exist in her despite such things as space and time; and high treason to her sovereign power, to dare to remember what she chooses to forget

Give me to drink mandragora, That I might sleep out this great gap of time My Antony is away.

O Charmian! Where think'st thou he is now? Stands he, or sits he, Or does he walk? or is he on his horse? O happy horse, to bear the weight of Antony! Do bravely, horse! for wot'st thou whom thou mov'st? The demi-Atlas of this earth—the arm And burgonet of men. He's speaking now, Or murmuring, Where's my serpent of old Nile? For so he calls me. Met'st thou my posts?

ALEXAS.

Ay, madam, twenty several messengers: Why do you send so thick?

CLEOPATRA.

Who's born that day When I forget to send to Antony, Shall die a beggar. Ink and paper, Charmian. Welcome, my good Alexas. Did I, Charmian, Ever love Caesar so?

CHARMIAN.

O that brave Caesar!

CLEOPATRA.

Be chok'd with such another emphasis! Say, the brave Antony.

CHARMIAN.

The valiant Caesar!

CLEOPATRA.

By Isis, I will give thee bloody teeth, If thou with Caesar paragon again My man of men!

CHARMIAN.

By your most gracious pardon, I sing but after you.

CLEOPATRA.

My salad days, When I was green in judgment, cold in blood, To say as I said then. But, come away— Get me some ink and paper: he shall have every day A several greeting, or I'll unpeople Egypt.

We learn from Plutarch, that it was a favorite amusement with Antony and Cleopatra to ramble through the streets at night, and bandy ribald jests with the populace of Alexandria. From the same authority, we know that they were accustomed to live on the most familiar terms with their attendants and the companions of their revels. To these traits we must add, that with all her violence, perverseness, egotism, and caprice, Cleopatra mingled a capability for warm affections and kindly feeling, or rather what we should call in these days, a constitutional good-nature; and was lavishly generous to her favorites and dependents. These characteristics we find scattered through the play; they are not only faithfully rendered by Shakspeare, but he has made the finest use of them in his delineation of manners. Hence the occasional freedom of her women and her attendants, in the midst of their fears and flatteries, becomes most natural and consistent: hence, too, their devoted attachment and fidelity, proved even in death. But as illustrative of Cleopatra's disposition, perhaps the finest and most characteristic scene in the whole play, is that in which the messenger arrives from Rome with the tidings of Antony's marriage with Octavia. She perceives at once with quickness that all is not well, and she hastens to anticipate the worst, that she may have the pleasure of being disappointed. Her impatience to know what she fears to learn, the vivacity with which she gradually works herself up into a state of excitement, and at length into fury, is wrought out with a force of truth which makes us recoil.

CLEOPATRA.

Antony's dead! If thou say so, villain, thou kill'st thy mistress. But well and free, If thou so yield him, there is gold, and here My bluest veins to kiss; a hand that kings Have lipp'd, and trembled kissing.

MESSENGER.

First, madam, he is well.

CLEOPATRA.

Why, there's more gold. But, sirrah, mark! we use To say, the dead are well: bring it to that, The gold I give thee will I melt, and pour Down thy ill-uttering throat.

MESSENGER.

Good madam, hear me.

CLEOPATRA.

Well, go to, I will. But there's no goodness in thy face. If Antony Be free and healthful, why so tart a favor To trumpet such good tidings? If not well, Thou should'st come like a fury crown'd with snakes.

MESSENGER.

Wil't please you hear me?

CLEOPATRA.

I have a mind to strike thee ere thou speak'st; Yet if thou say Antony lives, is well, Or friends with Caesar, or not captive to him, I'll set thee in a shower of gold, and hail Rich pearls upon thee.

MESSENGER.

Madam, he's well.

CLEOPATRA.

Well said.

MESSENGER.

And friends with Caesar.

CLEOPATRA.

Thou art an honest man.

MESSENGER.

Caesar and he are greater friends than ever.

CLEOPATRA.

Make thee a fortune from me.

MESSENGER.

But yet, madam—

CLEOPATRA.

I do not like but yet—it does allay The good precedence. Fie upon but yet: But yet is as a gaoler to bring forth Some monstrous malefactor. Pr'ythee, friend, Pour out thy pack of matter to mine ear, The good and bad together. He's friends with Caesar In state of health, thou say'st; and thou say'st free.

MESSENGER.

Free, madam! No: I made no such report, He's bound unto Octavia.

CLEOPATRA.

For what good turn?

MESSENGER.

Madam he's married to Octavia.

CLEOPATRA.

The most infectious pestilence upon thee! [Strikes him down.

MESSENGER.

Good madam, patience.

CLEOPATRA.

What say you? [Strikes him again. Hence horrible villain! or I'll spurn thine eyes Like balls before me—I'll unhair thine head— Thou shalt be whipp'd with wire, and stewed in brine Smarting in ling'ring pickle.

MESSENGER.

Gracious madam! I, that do bring the news, made not the match.

CLEOPATRA.

Say 'tis not so, a province I will give thee, And make thy fortunes proud: the blow thou hadst Shall make thy peace for moving me to rage; And I will boot thee with what gift beside Thy modesty can beg.

MESSENGER.

He's married, madam.

CLEOPATRA.

Rogue, thou hast lived too long. [Draws a dagger.

MESSENGER.

Nay then I'll run. What mean you, madam? I have made no fault. [Exit.

CHARMIAN.

Good madam, keep yourself within yourself; The man is innocent.

CLEOPATRA.

Some innocents 'scape not the thunderbolt. Melt Egypt into Nile! and kindly creatures Turn all to serpents! Call the slave again; Though I am mad, I will not bite him—Call!

CHARMIAN.

He is afraid to come.

CLEOPATRA.

I will not hurt him. These hands do lack nobility, that they strike A meaner than myself.

* * * *

CLEOPATRA.

In praising Antony I have dispraised Caesar.

CHARMIAN.

Many times, madam.

CLEOPATRA.

I am paid for't now— Lead me from hence. I faint. O Iras, Charmian—'tis no matter Go to the fellow, good Alexas; bid him Report the features of Octavia, her years, Her inclination—let him not leave out The color of her hair. Bring me word quickly. [Exit Alex.

Let him forever go—let him not—Charmian, Though he be painted one way like a Gorgon, T'other way he's a Mars. Bid you Alexas [To Mardian.

Bring me word how tall she is. Pity me, Charmian. But do not speak to me. Lead me to my chamber.

I have given this scene entire because I know nothing comparable to it The pride and arrogance of the Egyptian queen, the blandishment of the woman, the unexpected but natural transitions of temper and feeling, the contest of various passions, and at length—when the wild hurricane has spent its fury—the melting into tears, faintness, and languishment, are portrayed with the most astonishing power, and truth, and skill in feminine nature. More wonderful still is the splendor and force of coloring which is shed over this extraordinary scene. The mere idea of an angry woman beating her menial, presents something ridiculous or disgusting to the mind; in a queen or a tragedy heroine it is still more indecorous;[70] yet this scene is as far as possible from the vulgar or the comic. Cleopatra seems privileged to "touch the brink of all we hate" with impunity. This imperial termagant, this "wrangling queen, whom every thing becomes," becomes even her fury. We know not by what strange power it is, that in the midst of all these unruly passions and childish caprices, the poetry of the character, and the fanciful and sparkling grace of the delineation are sustained and still rule in the imagination; but we feel that it is so.

I need hardly observe, that we have historical authority for the excessive violence of Cleopatra's temper. Witness the story of her boxing the ears of her treasurer, in presence of Octavius, as related by Plutarch. Shakspeare has made a fine use of this anecdote also towards the conclusion of the drama, but it is not equal in power to this scene with the messenger.

The man is afterwards brought back, almost by force, to satisfy Cleopatra's jealous anxiety, by a description of Octavia:—but this time, made wise by experience, he takes care to adapt his information to the humors of his imperious mistress, and gives her a satirical picture of her rival. The scene which follows, in which Cleopatra—artful, acute, and penetrating as she is—becomes the dupe of her feminine spite and jealousy, nay, assists in duping herself; and after having cuffed the messenger for telling her truths which are offensive, rewards him for the falsehood which flatters her weakness—is not only an admirable exhibition of character, but a fine moral lesson.

She concludes, after dismissing the messenger with gold and thanks,

I repent me much That I so harry'd him. Why, methinks by him This creature's no such thing?

CHARMIAN.

O nothing, madam.

CLEOPATRA.

The man hath seen some majesty, and should know!

Do we not fancy Cleopatra drawing herself up with all the vain consciousness of rank and beauty as she pronounces this last line? and is not this the very woman who celebrated her own apotheosis,—who arrayed herself in the robe and diadem of the goddess Isis, and could find no titles magnificent enough for her children but those of the Sun and the Moon?

The despotism and insolence of her temper are touched in some other places most admirably. Thus, when she is told that the Romans libel and abuse her, she exclaims,—

Sink Rome, and their tongues rot That speak against us!

And when one of her attendants observes, that "Herod of Jewry dared not look upon her but when she were well pleased," she immediately replies, "That Herod's head I'll have."[71]

When Proculeius surprises her in her monument, and snatches her poniard from her, terror, and fury, pride, passion, and disdain, swell in her haughty soul, and seem to shake her very being.

CLEOPATRA.

Where art thou, death? Come hither, come! come, come and take a queen Worth many babes and beggars!

PROCULEIUS.

O temperance, lady?

CLEOPATRA.

Sir, I will eat no meat; I'll not drink, sir: If idle talk will once be necessary. I'll not sleep neither; this mortal house I'll ruin, Do Caesar what he can! Know, sir, that I Will not wait pinion'd at your master's court, Nor once be chastis'd with the sober eye Of dull Octavia. Shall they hoist me up, And show me to the shouting varletry Of censuring Rome? Rather a ditch in Egypt Be gentle grave to me! Rather on Nilus' mud Lay me stark naked, and let the water-flies Blow me into abhorring! Rather make My country's high pyramids my gibbet, And hang me up in chains!

In the same spirit of royal bravado, but finer still, and worked up with a truly Oriental exuberance of fancy and imagery, is her famous description of Antony, addressed to Dolabella:—

Most noble empress you have heard of me?

CLEOPATRA.

I cannot tell.

DOLABELLA.

Assuredly, you know me.

CLEOPATRA.

No matter, sir, what I have heard or known. You laugh when boys, or women, tell their dreams Is't not your trick?

DOLABELLA.

I understand not, madam.

CLEOPATRA.

I dream'd there was an emperor Antony; O such another sleep, that I might see But such another man!

DOLABELLA.

If it might please you—

CLEOPATRA.

His face was as the heavens; and therein stuck A sun and moon; which kept their course, and lighted The little O, the earth.

DOLABELLA.

Most sovereign creature—

CLEOPATRA.

His legs bestrid the ocean: his reared arm Crested the world; his voice was propertied As all the tuned spheres, and that to friends; But when he meant to quail or shake the orb He was as rattling thunder. For his bounty, There was no winter in't; an autumn 'twas, That grew the more by reaping. His delights Were dolphin like; they show'd his back above The element they liv'd in. In his livery[72] Walk'd crowns and coronets; realms and islands were As plates[73] dropp'd from his pocket.

DOLABELLA.

Cleopatra!

CLEOPATRA.

Think you there was, or might be, such a man As this I dream'd of?

DOLABELLA.

Gentle madam, no.

CLEOPATRA.

You lie,—up to the hearing of the gods!

There was no room left in this amazing picture for the display of that passionate maternal tenderness, which was a strong and redeeming feature in Cleopatra's historical character; but it is not left untouched, for when she is imprecating mischiefs on herself, she wishes, as the last and worst of possible evils, that "thunder may smite Caesarion!"

In representing the mutual passion of Antony and Cleopatra as real and fervent, Shakspeare has adhered to the truth of history as well as to general nature. On Antony's side it is a species of infatuation, a single and engrossing feeling: it is, in short, the love of a man declined in years for a woman very much younger than himself, and who has subjected him to every species of female enchantment. In Cleopatra the passion is of a mixed nature, made up of real attachment, combined with the love of pleasure, the love of power, and the love of self. Not only is the character most complicated, but no one sentiment could have existed pure and unvarying in such a mind as hers; her passion in itself is true, fixed to one centre; but like the pennon streaming from the mast, it flutters and veers with every breath of her variable temper: yet in the midst of all her caprices, follies, and even vices, womanly feeling is still predominant in Cleopatra: and the change which takes place in her deportment towards Antony, when their evil fortune darkens round them, is as beautiful and interesting in itself as it is striking and natural. Instead of the airy caprice and provoking petulance she displays in the first scenes, we have a mixture of tenderness, and artifice, and fear, and submissive blandishment. Her behavior, for instance, after the battle of Actium, when she quails before the noble and tender rebuke of her lover, is partly female subtlety and partly natural feeling.

CLEOPATRA.

O my lord, my lord, Forgive my fearful sails! I little thought You would have follow'd.

ANTONY.

Egypt, thou know'st too well My heart was to the rudder tied by the strings, And thou should'st tow me after. O'er my spirit Thy full supremacy thou know'st; and that Thy beck might from the bidding of the gods Command me.

CLEOPATRA.

O, my pardon?

ANTONY.

Now I must To the young man send humble treaties, dodge And palter in the shifts of lowness; who With half the bulk o' the world play'd as I pleas'd, Making and marring fortunes. You did know How much you were my conqueror; and that My sword, made weak by my affection, would Obey it on all cause.

CLEOPATRA.

O pardon, pardon!

ANTONY.

Fall not a tear, I say; one of them rates All that is won and lost. Give me a kiss; Even this repays me.

It is perfectly in keeping with the individual character, that Cleopatra, alike destitute of moral strength and physical courage, should cower terrified and subdued before the masculine spirit of her lover, when once she has fairly roused it. Thus Tasso's Armida, half siren, half sorceress, in the moment of strong feeling, forgets her incantations, and has recourse to persuasion, to prayers, and to tears.

Lascia gl' incanti, e vuol provar se vaga E supplice belta sia miglior maga.

Though the poet afterwards gives us to understand that even in this relinquishment of art there was a more refined artifice.

Nella doglia amara Gia tutte non oblia l' arti e le frodi.

And something like this inspires the conduct of Cleopatra towards Antony in his fallen fortunes. The reader should refer to that fine scene, where Antony surprises Thyreus kissing her hand, "that kingly seal and plighter of high hearts," and rages like a thousand hurricanes.

The character of Mark Antony, as delineated by Shakspeare, reminds me of the Farnese Hercules. There is an ostentatious display of power, an exaggerated grandeur, a colossal effect in the whole conception, sustained throughout in the pomp of the language, which seems, as it flows along, to resound with the clang of arms and the music of the revel. The coarseness and violence of the historic portrait are a little kept down; but every word which Antony utters is characteristic of the arrogant but magnanimous Roman, who "with half the bulk o' the world played as he pleased," and was himself the sport of a host of mad (and bad) passions, and the slave of a woman.

History is followed closely in all the details of the catastrophe, and there is something wonderfully grand in the hurried march of events towards the conclusion. As disasters hem her round, Cleopatra gathers up her faculties to meet them, not with the calm fortitude of a great soul, but the haughty, tameless spirit of a wilful woman, unused to reverse or contradiction.

Her speech, after Antony has expired in her arms, I have always regarded as one of the most wonderful in Shakspeare. Cleopatra is not a woman to grieve silently. The contrast between the violence of her passions and the weakness of her sex, between her regal grandeur and her excess of misery, her impetuous, unavailing struggles with the fearful destiny which has compassed her, and the mixture of wild impatience and pathos in her agony, are really magnificent. She faints on the body of Antony, and is recalled to life by the cries of her women:—

IRAS.

Royal Egypt—empress!

CLEOPATRA.

No more, but e'en a woman![74] and commanded By such poor passion as the maid that milks, And does the meanest chares.—It were for me To throw my sceptre at the injurious gods: To tell them that our world did equal theirs Till they had stolen our jewel. All's but naught, Patience is sottish, and impatience does Become a dog that's mad. Then is it sin To rush into the secret house of death Ere death dare come to us? How do you, women? What, what? good cheer! why how now, Charmian? My noble girls!—ah, women, women! look Our lamp is spent, is out. We'll bury him, and then what's brave, what's noble, Let's do it after the high Roman fashion, And make death proud to take us.

But although Cleopatra talks of dying "after the high Roman fashion" she fears what she most desires, and cannot perform with simplicity what costs her such an effort. That extreme physical cowardice, which was so strong a trait in her historical character, which led to the defeat of Actium, which made her delay the execution of a fatal resolve, till she had "tried conclusions infinite of easy ways to die," Shakspeare has rendered with the finest possible effect, and in a manner which heightens instead of diminishing our respect and interest. Timid by nature, she is courageous by the mere force of will, and she lashes herself up with high-sounding words into a kind of false daring. Her lively imagination suggests every incentive which can spur her on to the deed she has resolved, yet trembles to contemplate. She pictures to herself all the degradations which must attend her captivity, and let it be observed, that those which she anticipates are precisely such as a vain, luxurious, and haughty woman would especially dread, and which only true virtue and magnanimity could despise. Cleopatra could have endured the loss of freedom; but to be led in triumph through the streets of Rome is insufferable. She could stoop to Caesar with dissembling courtesy, and meet duplicity with superior art; but "to be chastised" by the scornful or upbraiding glance of the injured Octavia—"rather a ditch in Egypt!"

If knife, drugs, serpents, have Edge, sting, or operation, I am safe. Your wife, Octavia, with her modest eyes, And still conclusion,[75] shall acquire no honor Demurring upon me.

Now Iras, what think'st thou? Thou, an Egyptian puppet, shall be shown In Rome as well as I. Mechanic slaves, With greasy aprons, rules, and hammers, shall Uplift us to the view. In their thick breaths, Rank of gross diet, shall we be enclouded, And forc'd to drink their vapor.

IRAS.

The gods forbid!

CLEOPATRA.

Nay, 'tis most certain, Iras. Saucy lictors Will catch at us like strumpets; and scald rhymers Ballad us out o' tune. The quick comedians Extemporally will stage us, and present Our Alexandrian revels. Antony Shall be brought drunken forth; and I shall see Some squeaking Cleopatra boy my greatness.

She then calls for her diadem, her robes of state, and attires herself as if "again for Cydnus, to meet Mark Antony." Coquette to the last, she must make Death proud to take her, and die, "phoenix like," as she had lived, with all the pomp of preparation—luxurious in her despair.

The death of Lucretia, of Portia, of Arria, and others who died "after the high Roman fashion," is sublime according to the Pagan ideas of virtue, and yet none of them so powerfully affect the imagination as the catastrophe of Cleopatra. The idea of this frail, timid, wayward woman, dying with heroism from the mere force of passion and will, takes us by surprise. The Attic elegance of her mind, her poetical imagination, the pride of beauty and royalty predominating to the last, and the sumptuous and picturesque accompaniments with which she surrounds herself in death, carry to its extreme height that effect of contrast which prevails through her life and character. No arts, no invention could add to the real circumstances of Cleopatra's closing scene. Shakspeare has shown profound judgment and feeling in adhering closely to the classical authorities; and to say that the language and sentiments worthily fill up the outline, is the most magnificent praise that can be given. The magical play of fancy and the overpowering fascination of the character are kept up to the last, and when Cleopatra, on applying the asp, silences the lamentations of her women:—

Peace! peace! Dost thou not see my baby at my breast, That sucks the nurse to sleep?—

These few words—the contrast between the tender beauty of the image and the horror of the situation—produce an effect more intensely mournful than all the ranting in the world. The generous devotion of her women adds the moral charm which alone was wanting: and when Octavius hurries in too late to save his victim, and exclaims, when gazing on her—

She looks like sleep— As she would catch another Antony In her strong toil of grace,

the image of her beauty and her irresistible arts, triumphant even in death, is at once brought before us, and one masterly and comprehensive stroke consummates this most wonderful, most dazzling delineation.

I am not here the apologist of Cleopatra's historical character, nor of such women as resemble her: I am considering her merely as a dramatic portrait of astonishing beauty, spirit, and originality. She has furnished the subject of two Latin, sixteen French, six English, and at least four Italian tragedies;[76] yet Shakspeare alone has availed himself of all the interest of the story, without falsifying the character. He alone has dared to exhibit the Egyptian queen with all her greatness and all her littleness—all her frailties of temper—all her paltry arts and dissolute passions—yet preserved the dramatic propriety and poetical coloring of the character, and awakened our pity for fallen grandeur, without once beguiling us into sympathy with guilt and error. Corneille has represented Cleopatra as a model of chaste propriety, magnanimity, constancy, and every female virtue; and the effect is almost ludicrous. In our own language, we have two very fine tragedies on the story of Cleopatra: in that of Dryden, which is in truth a noble poem, and which he himself considered his masterpiece, Cleopatra is a mere common-place "all-for-love" heroine, full of constancy and fine sentiments. For instance:—

My love's so true, That I can neither hide it where it is, Nor show it where it is not. Nature meant me A wife—a silly, harmless, household dove, Fond without art, and kind without deceit. But fortune, that has made a mistress of me, Has thrust me out to the wild world, unfurnished Of falsehood to be happy.

Is this Antony's Cleopatra—the Circe of the Nile—the Venus of the Cydnus? She never uttered any thing half so mawkish in her life.

In Fletcher's "False One," Cleopatra is represented at an earlier period of her history: and to give an idea of the aspect under which the character is exhibited, (and it does not vary throughout the play,) I shall give one scene; if it be considered out of place, its extreme beauty will form its best apology.

Ptolemy and his council having exhibited to Caesar all the royal treasures in Egypt, he is so astonished and dazzled at the view of the accumulated wealth, that he forgets the presence of Cleopatra, and treats her with negligence. The following scene between her and her sister Arsinoe occurs immediately afterwards.

ARSINOE.

You're so impatient!

CLEOPATRA.

Have I not cause? Women of common beauties and low births, When they are slighted, are allowed their angers— Why should not I, a princess, make him know The baseness of his usage?

ARSINOE.

Yes, 'tis fit: But then again you know what man—

CLEOPATRA.

He's no man! The shadow of a greatness hangs upon him, And not the virtue; he is no conqueror, Has suffered under the base dross of nature; Poorly deliver'd up his power to wealth. The god of bed-rid men taught his eyes treason. Against the truth of love he has rais'd rebellion Defied his holy flames.

EROS.

He will fall back again And satisfy your grace.

CLEOPATRA.

Had I been old, Or blasted in my bud, he might have show'd Some shadow of dislike: but to prefer The lustre of a little trash, Arsinoe, And the poor glow-worm light of some faint jewels Before the light of love, and soul of beauty— O how it vexes me! He is no soldier: All honorable soldiers are Love's servants. He is a merchant, a mere wandering merchant, Servile to gain; he trades for poor commodities, And makes his conquests thefts! Some fortunate captains That quarter with him, and are truly valiant. Have flung the name of "Happy Caesar" on him; Himself ne'er won it. He's so base and covetous, He'll sell his sword for gold.

ARSINOE.

This is too bitter.

CLEOPATRA.

O, I could curse myself, that was so foolish. So fondly childish, to believe his tongue— His promising tongue—ere I could catch his temper. I'd trash enough to have cloyed his eyes withal, (His covetous eyes,) such as I scorn to tread on, Richer than e'er he saw yet, and more tempting; Had I known he'd stoop'd at that, I'd saved mine honor— I had been happy still! But let him take it. And let him brag how poorly I'm rewarded; Let him go conquer still weak wretched ladies; Love has his angry quiver too, his deadly, And when he finds scorn, armed at the strongest— I am a fool to fret thus for a fool,— An old blind fool too! I lose my health; I will not, I will not cry; I will not honor him With tears diviner than the gods he worships; I will not take the pains to curse a poor thing.

EROS.

Do not; you shall not need.

CLEOPATRA.

Would I were prisoner To one I hate, that I might anger him! I will love any man to break the heart of him! Any that has the heart and will to kill him!

ARSINOE.

Take some fair truce.

CLEOPATRA.

I will go study mischief, And put a look on, arm'd with all my cunnings. Shall meet him like a basilisk, and strike him. Love! put destroying flame into mine eyes, Into my smiles deceits, that I may torture him— That I may make him love to death, and laugh at him

Enter APOLLODORUS.

APOLLODORUS.

Caesar commends his service to your grace

CLEOPATRA.

His service? What's his service?

EROS.

Pray you be patient The noble Caesar loves still.

CLEOPATRA.

What's his will?

APOLLODORUS.

He craves access unto your highness.

CLEOPATRA

No;— Say no; I will have none to trouble me.

ARSINOE.

Good sister!—

CLEOPATRA.

None, I say. I will be private. Would thou hadst flung me into Nilus, keeper, When first thou gav'st consent to bring my body To this unthankful Caesar!

APOLLODORUS.

'Twas your will, madam. Nay more, your charge upon me, as I honor'd you. You know what danger I endur'd.

CLEOPATRA.

Take this, [giving a jewel, And carry it to that lordly Caesar sent thee; There's a new love, a handsome one, a rich one,— One that will hug his mind: bid him make love to it: Tell the ambitious broker this will suffer—

Enter CAESAR.

APOLLODORUS.

He enters.

CLEOPATRA.

How!

CAESAR.

I do not use to wait, lady Where I am, all the doors are free and open.

CLEOPATRA.

I guess so by your rudeness.

CAESAR.

You're not angry? Things of your tender mould should be most gentle. Why should you frown? Good gods, what a set anger Have you forc'd into your face! Come, I must temper you. What a coy smile was there, and a disdainful! How like an ominous flash it broke out from you! Defend me, love! Sweet, who has anger'd you?

CLEOPATRA.

Show him a glass! That false face has betray'd me— That base heart wrong'd me!

CAESAR.

Be more sweetly angry. I wrong'd you, fair?

CLEOPATRA.

Away with your foul flatteries; They are too gross! But that I dare be angry, And with as great a god as Caesar is, To show how poorly I respect his memory I would not speak to you.

CAESAR.

Pray you, undo this riddle, And tell me how I've vexed you.

CLEOPATRA.

Let me think first, Whether I may put on patience That will with honor suffer me. Know I hate you! Let that begin the story. Now I'll tell you.

CAESAR.

But do it mildly: in a noble lady, Softness of spirit, and a sober nature, That moves like summer winds, cool, and blows sweetness, Shows blessed, like herself.

CLEOPATRA.

And that great blessedness. You first reap'd of me; till you taught my nature, Like a rude storm, to talk aloud and thunder, Sleep was not gentler than my soul, and stiller. You had the spring of my affections, And my fair fruits I gave you leave to taste of; You must expect the winter of mine anger. You flung me off—before the court disgraced me— When in the pride I appear'd of all my beauty— Appear'd your mistress; took unto your eyes The common strumpet, love of hated lucre,— Courted with covetous heart the slave of nature,— Gave all your thoughts to gold, that men of glory, And minds adorned with noble love, would kick at! Soldiers of royal mark scorn such base purchase; Beauty and honor are the marks they shoot at. I spake to you then, I courted you, and woo'd you, Called you dear Caesar, hung about you tenderly, Was proud to appear your friend—

CAESAR.

You have mistaken me.

CLEOPATRA.

But neither eye, nor favor, not a smile Was I blessed back withal, but shook off rudely, And as you had been sold to sordid infamy, You fell before the images of treasure, And in your soul you worship'd. I stood slighted; Forgotten, and contemned; my soft embraces, And those sweet kisses which you called Elysium As letters writ in sand, no more remember'd; The name and glory of your Cleopatra Laugh'd at, and made a story to your captains! Shall I endure?

CAESAR.

You are deceived in all this; Upon my life you are; 'tis your much tenderness.

CLEOPATRA.

No, no; I love not that way; you are cozen'd; I love with as much ambition as a conqueror, And where I love will triumph!

CAESAR.

So you shall: My heart shall be the chariot that shall bear you: All I have won shall wait upon you. By the gods, The bravery of this woman's mind has fir'd me! Dear mistress, shall I but this once——

CLEOPATRA.

How! Caesar! Have I let slip a second vanity That gives thee hope?

CAESAR.

You shall be absolute, And reign alone as queen; you shall be any thing.

CLEOPATRA.

* * * *

Farewell, unthankful!

CAESAR.

Stay!

CLEOPATRA.

I will not.

CAESAR. I command.

CLEOPATRA.

Command, and go without, sir, I do command thee be my slave forever, And vex, while I laugh at thee!

CAESAR.

Thus low, beauty—— [He kneels

CLEOPATRA.

It is too late; when I have found thee absolute, The man that fame reports thee, and to me, May be I shall think better. Farewell, conqueror!

(Exit.)

Now this is magnificent poetry, but this is not Cleopatra, this is not "the gipsey queen." The sentiment here is too profound, the majesty too real, and too lofty. Cleopatra could be great by fits and starts, but never sustained her dignity upon so high a tone for ten minutes together. The Cleopatra of Fletcher reminds us of the antique colossal statue of her in the Vatican, all grandeur and grace. Cleopatra in Dryden's tragedy is like Guido's dying Cleopatra in the Pitti Palace, tenderly beautiful. Shakspeare's Cleopatra is like one of those graceful and fantastic pieces of antique Arabesque, in which all anomalous shapes and impossible and wild combinations of form are woven together in regular confusion and most harmonious discord: and such, we have reason to believe, was the living woman herself, when she existed upon this earth.

OCTAVIA.

I do not understand the observation of a late critic, that in this play "Octavia is only a dull foil to Cleopatra." Cleopatra requires no foil, and Octavia is not dull, though in a moment of jealous spleen, her accomplished rival gives her that epithet.[77] It is possible that her beautiful character, if brought more forward and colored up to the historic portrait, would still be eclipsed by the dazzling splendor of Cleopatra's; for so I have seen a flight of fireworks blot out for a while the silver moon and ever-burning stars. But here the subject of the drama being the love of Antony and Cleopatra, Octavia is very properly kept in the background, and far from any competition with her rival: the interest would otherwise have been unpleasantly divided, or rather Cleopatra herself must have served but as a foil to the tender, virtuous, dignified, and generous Octavia, the very beau ideal of a noble Roman lady:—

Admired Octavia, whose beauty claims No worse a husband than the best of men; Whose virtues and whose general graces speak That which none else can utter.

Dryden has committed a great mistake in bringing Octavia and her children on the scene, and in immediate contact with Cleopatra. To have thus violated the truth of history[78] might have been excusable, but to sacrifice the truth of nature and dramatic propriety, to produce a mere stage effect, was unpardonable. In order to preserve the unity of interest, he has falsified the character of Octavia as well as that of Cleopatra:[79] he has presented us with a regular scolding-match between the rivals, in which they come sweeping up to each other from opposite sides of the stage, with their respective trains, like two pea-hens in a passion. Shakspeare would no more have brought his captivating, brilliant, but meretricious Cleopatra into immediate comparison with the noble and chaste simplicity of Octavia, than a connoisseur in art would have placed Canova's Dansatrice, beautiful as it is, beside the Athenian Melpomene, or the Vestal of the Capitol.

The character of Octavia is merely indicated in a few touches, but every stroke tells. We see her with "downcast eyes sedate and sweet, and looks demure,"—with her modest tenderness and dignified submission—the very antipodes of her rival! Nor should we forget that she has furnished one of the most graceful similes in the whole compass of poetry, where her soft equanimity in the midst of grief is compared to

The swan's down feather That stands upon the swell at flood of tide, And neither way inclines.

The fear which, seems to haunt the mind of Cleopatra, lest she should be "chastised by the sober eye" of Octavia, is exceedingly characteristic of the two women: it betrays the jealous pride of her, who was conscious that she had forfeited all real claim to respect; and it places Octavia before us in all the majesty of that virtue which could strike a kind of envying and remorseful awe even into the bosom of Cleopatra. What would she have thought and felt, had some soothsayer foretold to her the fate of her own children, whom she so tenderly loved? Captives, and exposed to the rage of the Roman populace, they owed their existence to the generous, admirable Octavia, in whose mind there entered no particle of littleness. She received into her house the children of Antony and Cleopatra, educated them with her own, treated them with truly maternal tenderness, and married them nobly.

Lastly, to complete the contrast, the death of Octavia should be put in comparison with that of Cleopatra.

After spending several years in dignified retirement, respected as the sister of Augustus, but more for her own virtues, Octavia lost her eldest son Marcellus, who was expressively called the "Hope of Rome." Her fortitude gave way under this blow, and she fell into a deep melancholy, which gradually wasted her health. While she was thus declining into death, occurred that beautiful scene, which has never yet, I believe, been made the subject of a picture, but should certainly be added to my gallery, (if I had one,) and I would hang it opposite to the dying Cleopatra. Virgil was commanded by Augustus to read aloud to his sister that book of the Eneid in which he had commemorated the virtues and early death of the young Marcellus. When he came to the lines—

This youth, the blissful vision of a day, Shall just be shown on earth, then snatch'd away, &c.

The mother covered her face, and burst into tears. But when Virgil mentioned her son by name, ("Tu Marcellus eris,") which he had artfully deferred till the concluding lines, Octavia, unable to control her agitation, fainted away. She afterwards, with a magnificent spirit, ordered the poet a gratuity of ten thousand sesterces for each line of the panegyric.[80] It is probable that the agitation she suffered on this occasion hastened the effects of her disorder; for she died soon after, (of grief, says the historian,) having survived Antony about twenty years.

VOLUMNIA.

Octavia, however, is only a beautiful sketch, while in Volumnia, Shakspeare has given us the portrait of a Roman matron, conceived in the true antique spirit, and finished in every part. Although Coriolanus is the hero of the play, yet much of the interest of the action and the final catastrophe turn upon the character of his mother, Volumnia, and the power she exercised over his mind, by which, according to the story, "she saved Rome and lost her son." Her lofty patriotism, her patrician haughtiness, her maternal pride, her eloquence, and her towering spirit, are exhibited with the utmost power of effect; yet the truth of female nature is beautifully preserved, and the portrait, with all its vigor, is without harshness.

I shall begin by illustrating the relative position and feelings of the mother and son; as these are of the greatest importance in the action of the drama, and consequently most prominent in the characters. Though Volumnia is a Roman matron, and though her country owes its salvation to her, it is clear that her maternal pride and affection are stronger even than her patriotism. Thus when her son is exiled, she burst into an imprecation against Rome and its citizens:—

Now the red pestilence strikes all trades in Rome, And occupations perish!

Here we have the impulses of individual and feminine nature, overpowering all national and habitual influences. Volumnia would never have exclaimed like the Spartan mother, of her dead son, "Sparta has many others as brave as he;" but in a far different spirit she says to the Romans,—

Ere you go, hear this: As far as doth the Capitol exceed The meanest house in Rome, so far my son, Whom you have banished, does exceed you all.

In the very first scene, and before the introduction of the principal personages, one citizen observes to another that the military exploits of Marcius were performed, not so much for his country's sake "as to please his mother." By this admirable stroke of art, introduced with such simplicity of effect, our attention is aroused, and we are prepared in the very outset of the piece for the important part assigned to Volumnia, and for her share in producing the catastrophe.

In the first act we have a very graceful scene, in which the two Roman ladies, the wife and mother of Coriolanus, are discovered at their needle-work, conversing on his absence and danger, and are visited by Valeria:—

The noble sisters of Publicola, The moon of Rome; chaste as the icicle, That's curded by the frost from purest snow, And hangs on Dian's temple!

Over this little scene Shakspeare, without any display of learning, has breathed the very spirit of classical antiquity. The haughty temper of Volumnia, her admiration of the valor and high bearing of her son, and her proud but unselfish love for him, are finely contrasted with the modest sweetness, he conjugal tenderness, and the fond solicitude of his wife Virgilia.

VOLUMNIA.

When yet he was but tender-bodied, and the only son of my womb; when youth with comeliness pluck'd all gaze his way; when, for a day of king's entreaties, a mother should not sell him an hour from her beholding—considering how honor would become such a person; that it was no better than picture-like to hang by the wall, if renown made it not stir,—was pleased to let him seek danger where he was like to find fame. To a cruel war I sent him, from whence he returned, his brows bound with oak. I tell thee, daughter—I sprang not more in joy at first hearing he was a man-child, than now in first seeing he had proved himself a man.

VIRGILIA.

But had he died in the business, madam? how then?

VOLUMNIA.

Then his good report should have been my son; I therein would have found issue. Hear me profess sincerely: had I a dozen sons, each in my love alike, and none less dear than thine and my good Marcius, I had rather eleven die nobly for their country, than one voluptuously surfeit out of action.

Enter a GENTLEWOMAN.

Madam, the lady Valeria is come to visit you.

VIRGILIA.

Beseech you, give me leave to retire myself.

VOLUMNIA.

Indeed you shall not. Methinks I hear hither your husband's drum: See him pluck Aufidius down by the hair: As children from a bear, the Volces shunning him: Methinks I see him stamp thus, and call thus— "Come on, you cowards! you were got in fear, Though you were born in Rome." His bloody brow With his mail'd hand then wiping, forth he goes; Like to a harvest-man, that's task'd to mow Or all, or lose his hire.

VIRGILIA.

His bloody brow! O Jupiter, no blood!

VOLUMNIA.

Away, you fool! it more becomes a man Than gilt his trophy. The breast of Hecuba, When she did suckle Hector, look'd not lovelier Than Hector's forehead, when it spit forth blood At Grecian swords contending. Tell Valeria We are fit to bid her welcome. [Exit Gent.

VIRGILIA.

Heavens bless my lord from fell Aufidius!

VOLUMNIA.

He'll beat Aufidius's head below his knee. And tread upon his neck.

This distinction between the two females is as interesting and beautiful as it is well sustained. Thus when the victory of Coriolanus is proclaimed, Menenius asks, "Is he wounded?"

VIRGILIA.

O no, no, no!

VOLUMNIA.

Yes, he is wounded—I thank the gods for it!

And when he returns victorious from the wars, his high-spirited mother receives him with blessings and applause—his gentle wife with "gracious silence" and with tears.

The resemblance of temper in the mother and the son, modified as it is by the difference of sex, and by her greater age and experience, is exhibited with admirable truth. Volumnia, with all her pride and spirit, has some prudence and self-command; in her language and deportment all is matured and matronly. The dignified tone of authority she assumes towards her son, when checking his headlong impetuosity, her respect and admiration for his noble qualities, and her strong sympathy even with the feelings she combats, are all displayed in the scene in which she prevails on him to soothe the incensed plebeians.

VOLUMNIA.

Pray be counsell'd: I have a heart as little apt as yours, But yet a brain that leads my use of anger To better vantage.

MENENIUS.

Well said, noble woman: Before he should thus stoop to the herd, but that The violent fit o' the time craves it as physic For the whole state, I would put mine armour on, Which I can scarcely bear.

CORIOLANUS.

What must I do?

MENENIUS.

Return to the tribunes.

CORIOLANUS.

Well. What then? what then?

MENENIUS.

Repent what you have spoke.

CORIOLANUS.

For them? I cannot do it to the gods; Must I then do't to them?

VOLUMNIA.

You are too absolute, Though therein you can never be too noble, But when extremities speak.

I pr'ythee now, my son, Go to them with this bonnet in thy hand; And thus far having stretch'd it, (here be with them) Thy knee bussing the stones, (for in such business Action is eloquent, and the eyes of the ignorant More learned than the ears,) waving thy head, Which often, thus, correcting thy stout heart Now humble, as the ripest mulberry, That will not hold the handling. Or, say to them, Thou art their soldier, and being bred in broils Hast not the soft way which, thou dost confess, Were fit for thee to use, as they to claim, In asking their good loves; but thou wilt frame Thyself, forsooth, hereafter theirs, so far As thou hast power and person.

MENENIUS.

This but done, Even as she speaks, why all their hearts were yours For they have pardons, being asked, as free As words to little purpose.

VOLUMNIA.

Pr'ythee now, Go, and be rul'd: although I know thou hadst rather Follow thine enemy in a fiery gulf Than flatter him in a bower.

MENENIUS.

Only fair speech.

COMINIUS.

I think 'twill serve, if he Can thereto frame his spirit.

VOLUMNIA.

He must, and will: Pr'ythee, now say you will, and go about it.

CORIOLANUS.

Must I go show them my unbarb'd sconce? Must I With my base tongue give to my noble heart A lie, that it must bear? Well, I will do't; Yet were there but this single plot to lose, This mould of Marcius, they to dust should grind it, And throw it against the wind. To the market-place You have put me now to such a part, which never I shall discharge to the life.

VOLUMNIA.

I pr'ythee now, sweet son, as thou hast said, My praises made thee first a soldier, so To have my praise for this, perform a part Thou hast not done before.

CORIOLANUS.

Well, I must do't: Away, my disposition, and possess me Some harlot's spirit!

* * * *

I will not do't: Lest I surcease to honor mine own truth, And by my body's action, teach my mind A most inherent baseness.

VOLUMNIA.

At thy choice, then: To beg of thee, it is my more dishonor, Than thou of them. Come all to ruin: let Thy mother rather feel thy pride, than fear Thy dangerous stoutness: for I mock at death With as big heart as thou. Do as thou list— Thy valiantness was mine, thou suck'dst it from me But owe thy pride thyself.

CORIOLANUS.

Pray be content; Mother, I am going to the market place— Chide me no more.

When the spirit of the mother and the son are brought into immediate collision, he yields before her; the warrior who stemmed alone the whole city of Corioli, who was ready to face "the steep Tarpeian death, or at wild horses' heels,—vagabond exile—flaying," rather than abate one jot of his proud will—shrinks at her rebuke. The haughty, fiery, overbearing temperament of Coriolanus, is drawn in such forcible and striking colors, that nothing can more impress us with the real grandeur and power of Volumnia's character, than his boundless submission to her will—his more than filial tenderness and respect.

You gods! I prate, And the most noble mother of the world Leave unsaluted. Sink my knee i' the earth— Of thy deep duty more impression show Than that of common sons!

When his mother appears before him as a suppliant, he exclaims,—

My mother bows; As if Olympus to a molehill should In supplication nod.

Here the expression of reverence, and the magnificent image in which it is clothed, are equally characteristic both of the mother and the son.

Her aristocratic haughtiness is a strong trait in Volumnia's manner and character, and her supreme contempt for the plebeians, whether they are to be defied or cajoled, is very like what I have heard expressed by some high-born and high-bred women of our own day.

I muse my mother Does not approve me further, who was wont To call them woollen vassals; things created To buy and sell with groats; to show bare heads In congregations; to yawn, be still, and wonder When one but of my ordinance stood up To speak of peace or war.

And Volumnia reproaching the tribunes,—

'Twas you incensed the rabble— Cats, that can judge as fitly of his worth, As I can of those mysteries which Heaven Will not have earth to know.

There is all the Roman spirit in her exultation when the trumpets sound the return of Coriolanus.

Hark! the trumpets! These are the ushers of Marcius: before him He carries noise, and behind him he leaves tears.

And in her speech to the gentle Virgilia, who is weeping her husband's banishment—

Leave this faint puling! and lament as I do In anger—Juno-like!

But the triumph of Volumnia's character, the full display of all her grandeur of soul, her patriotism, her strong affections, and her sublime eloquence, are reserved for her last scene, in which she pleads for the safety of Rome, and wins from her angry son that peace which all the swords of Italy and her confederate arms could not have purchased. The strict and even literal adherence to the truth of history is an additional beauty.

Her famous speech, beginning "Should we be silent and not speak," is nearly word for word from Plutarch, with some additional graces of expression, and the charm of metre superadded. I shall give the last lines of this address, as illustrating that noble and irresistible eloquence which was the crowning ornament of the character. One exquisite touch of nature, which is distinguished by italics, was beyond the rhetorician and historian, and belongs only to the poet.

Speak to me, son; Thou hast affected the fine strains of honor, To imitate the graces of the gods; To tear with thunder the wide cheeks o' the air, And yet to charge thy sulphur with a bolt That should but rive an oak. Why dost not speak? Think'st thou it honorable for a nobleman Still to remember wrongs? Daughter, speak you: He cares not for your weeping. Speak thou, boy; Perhaps thy childishness may move him more Than can our reasons. There is no man in the world More bound to his mother; yet here he lets me prate Like one i' the stocks. Thou hast never in thy life Show'd thy dear mother any courtesy; When she, (poor hen!) fond of no second brood, Has cluck'd thee to the wars, and safely home, Laden with honor. Say my request's unjust, And spurn me back: but, if it be not so, Thou art not honest, and the gods will plague thee That thou restrain'st from me the duty which To a mother's part belongs. He turns away: Down, ladies: let us shame him with our knees. To his surname Coriolanus 'longs more pride, Than pity to our prayers; down, and end; This is the last; so will we home to Rome, And die among our neighbors. Nay, behold us; This boy, that cannot tell what he would have, But kneels, and holds up hands, for fellowship, Does reason our petition with more strength Than thou hast to deny't.[81]

It is an instance of Shakspeare's fine judgment, that after this magnificent and touching piece of eloquence, which saved Rome, Volumnia should speak no more, for she could say nothing that would not deteriorate from the effect thus left on the imagination. She is at last dismissed from our admiring gaze amid the thunder of grateful acclamations—

Behold, our patroness,—the life of Rome.

CONSTANCE.

We have seen that in the mother of Coriolanus, the principal qualities are exceeding pride, self-will, strong maternal affection, great power of imagination, and energy of temper. Precisely the same qualities enter into the mind of Constance of Bretagne: but in her these qualities are so differently modified by circumstances and education, that not even in fancy do we think of instituting a comparison between the Gothic grandeur of Constance, and the more severe and classical dignity of the Roman matron.

The scenes and circumstances with which Shakspeare has surrounded Constance, are strictly faithful to the old chronicles, and are as vividly as they are accurately represented. On the other hand, the hints on which the character has been constructed, are few and vague; but the portrait harmonizes so wonderfully with its historic background, and with all that later researches have discovered relative to the personal adventures of Constance, that I have not the slightest doubt of its individual truth. The result of a life of strange vicissitude; the picture of a tameless will, and high passions, forever struggling in vain against a superior power: and the real situation of women in those chivalrous times, are placed before us in a few noble scenes. The manner in which Shakspeare has applied the scattered hints of history to the formation of the character, reminds us of that magician who collected the mangled limbs which had been dispersed up and down, reunited them into the human form, and reanimated them with the breathing and conscious spirit of life.

Constance of Bretagne was the only daughter and heiress of Conan IV., Duke of Bretagne; her mother was Margaret of Scotland, the eldest daughter of Malcolm IV.: but little mention is made of this princess in the old histories; but she appears to have inherited some portion of the talent and spirit of her father, and to have transmitted them to her daughter. The misfortunes of Constance may be said to have commenced before her birth, and took their rise in the misconduct of one of her female ancestors. Her great-grandmother Matilda, the wife of Conan III., was distinguished by her beauty and imperious temper, and not less by her gallantries. Her husband, not thinking proper to repudiate her during his lifetime, contented himself with disinheriting her son Hoel, whom he declared illegitimate; and bequeathed his dukedom to his daughter Bertha, and her husband Allan the Black, Earl of Richmond, who were proclaimed and acknowledged Duke and Duchess of Bretagne.

Prince Hoel, so far from acquiescing in his father's will, immediately levied an army to maintain his rights, and a civil war ensued between the brother and sister, which lasted for twelve or fourteen years. Bertha, whose reputation was not much fairer than that of her mother Matilda, was succeeded by her son Conan IV.; he was young, and of a feeble, vacillating temper, and after struggling for a few years against the increasing power of his uncle Hoel, and his own rebellious barons, he called in the aid of that politic and ambitious monarch, Henry II. of England. This fatal step decided the fate of his crown and his posterity; from the moment the English set foot in Bretagne, that miserable country became a scene of horrors and crimes—oppression and perfidy on the one hand, unavailing struggles on the other. Ten years of civil discord ensued, during which the greatest part of Bretagne was desolated, and nearly a third of the population carried off by famine and pestilence. In the end, Conan was secured in the possession of his throne by the assistance of the English king, who, equally subtle and ambitious, contrived in the course of this warfare to strip Conan of most of his provinces by successive treaties; alienate the Breton nobles from their lawful sovereign, and at length render the Duke himself the mere vassal of his power.

In the midst of these scenes of turbulence and bloodshed was Constance born, in the year 1164. The English king consummated his perfidious scheme of policy, by seizing on the person of the infant princess, before she was three years old, as a hostage for her father. Afterwards, by contracting her in marriage to his third son, Geoffrey Plantagenet, he ensured, as he thought, the possession of the duchy of Bretagne to his own posterity.

From this time we hear no more of the weak, unhappy Conan, who, retiring from a fruitless contest, hid himself in some obscure retreat: even the date of his death is unknown. Meanwhile Henry openly claimed the duchy in behalf of his son Geoffrey and the Lady Constance; and their claims not being immediately acknowledged, he invaded Bretagne with a large army, laid waste the country, bribed or forced some of the barons into submission, murdered or imprisoned others, and, by the most treacherous and barbarous policy, contrived to keep possession of the country he had thus seized. However, in order to satisfy the Bretons, who were attached to the race of their ancient sovereigns, and to give some color to his usurpation, he caused Geoffrey and Constance to be solemnly crowned at Rennes, as Duke and Duchess of Bretagne. This was in the year 1169 when Constance was five, and Prince Geoffrey about eight, years old. His father, Henry, continued to rule, or rather to ravage and oppress, the country in their name for about fourteen years, during which period we do not hear of Constance. She appears to have been kept in a species of constraint as a hostage rather than a sovereign; while her husband Geoffrey, as he grew up to manhood, was too much engaged in keeping the Bretons in order, and disputing his rights with his father, to think about the completion of his union with Constance, although his sole title to the dukedom was properly and legally in right of his wife. At length, in 1182, the nuptials were formally celebrated, Constance being then in her nineteenth year. At the same time, she was recognized as Duchess of Bretagne de son chef, (that is, in her own right,) by two acts of legislation, which are still preserved among the records of Bretagne, and bear her own seal and signature.

Those domestic feuds which embittered the whole life of Henry II., and at length broke his heart, are well known. Of all his sons, who were in continual rebellion against him, Geoffrey was the most undutiful, and the most formidable: he had all the pride of the Plantagenets,—all the warlike accomplishments of his two elder brothers, Henry and Richard; and was the only one who could compete with his father in talent, eloquence, and dissimulation. No sooner was he the husband of Constance, and in possession of the throne of Bretagne, than he openly opposed his father; in other words, he maintained the honor and interests of his wife and her unhappy country against the cruelties and oppression of the English plunderers.[82] About three years after his marriage, he was invited to Paris for the purpose of concluding a league, offensive and defensive, with the French king: in this journey he was accompanied by the Duchess Constance, and they were received and entertained with royal magnificence. Geoffrey, who excelled in all chivalrous accomplishments, distinguished himself in the tournaments which were celebrated on the occasion; but unfortunately, after an encounter with a French knight, celebrated for his prowess, he was accidentally flung from his horse, and trampled to death in the lists before he could be extricated.

Previous Part     1  2  3  4  5  6  7     Next Part
Home - Random Browse