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taken from Plutarch's narrative, from which the poet had only to omit whatever destroyed the unity of the action.
"The fidelity of Shakespeare to his source justifies us in saying that he has but copied the historical text. It is at the same time wonderful with what hidden and almost undiscernible power he has converted the text into a drama, and made one of the most effective plays possible. Nowhere else has Shakespeare executed his task with such simple skill, combining his dependence on history with the greatest freedom of a poetic plan, and making the truest history at once the freest drama. The parts seem to be only put together with the utmost ease, a few links taken out of the great chain of historical events, and the remainder united into a closer and more compact unity; but let any one, following this model work, attempt to take any other subject out of Plutarch, and to arrange even a dramatic sketch from it, and he will become fully aware of the difficulty of this apparently most easy task." (Bunnètt's Translation of Gervinus's Shakespeare Commentaries, pp. 699–701, fifth edition, London, 1892.)
In the following passage from his Lectures on Plutarch, Archbishop Trench compares the way in which Shakespeare treats Plutarch with his attitude toward those writers that furnished him materials for other plays:
"How noticeable is the difference between Shakespeare's treatment of Plutarch and his treatment of others, upon whose hints, more or less distinct, he elsewhere has spoken. How little is it in most cases which he condescends to use of the materials offered to his hand. Take, for instance, his employment of some Italian novel, Bandello's or Cinthio's. He derives from it the barest outline a suggestion perhaps is all, with a name or two here and there, but neither dialogue nor character. On the first fair occasion that offers he abandons his original altogether, that so he may expatiate freely in the higher and nobler world of his own thoughts and fancies. But his relations with Plutarch are different. What a testimony we have to the true artistic
1 A few slight changes have been made in Bunnètt's translation of this passage.
sense and skill which, with all his occasional childish simplicity, the old biographer possesses, in the fact that the mightiest and completest artist of all times should be content to resign himself into his hands, and simply to follow where the other leads!" (Cited from Rolfe's edition of Julius Caesar, p. 187.)
IX. THE CHARACTERS AND THE ACTION
The clear, simple style of this play is misleading if it makes the student think that the important characters are as transparent and easy to understand as are the separate sentences of the drama. The most able and conscientious critics are far from interpreting in the same way Shakespeare's delineation of the character of Brutus, of Cassius, or of Cæsar. Upon this subject Freytag speaks as follows:
"In the case of Shakespeare's heroes, the spectator never remains in uncertainty concerning the important motives which govern their action; indeed the full measure of his poetic greatness is evident just in this, that he understands, as no other poet does, how to express the mental processes of his chief characters, from the first stirring of emotion and desire up to the climax of passion, with the most intense power and reality. Also the most active opponents of the heroes in his dramas, for example, Iago and Shylock, do not fail to inform the spectators fully concerning their purposes. It may be said that those characters of Shakespeare whose passion beats in the mightiest billows, at the same time allow the spectator to look into the depths of their hearts more than do the characters of any other poet. But this depth is sometimes unfathomable to the eyes of the artist-actor even as it is to the auditor; and the characters of this poet are by no means always so transparent and simple, even to a thorough analysis, as they appear at a casual glance. Indeed, many of them have something about them peculiarly enigmatical and difficult to understand, which perpetually allures to an interpretation, and yet is never entirely comprehended.
"Not only do such persons as Hamlet, Richard III, and Iago come into this class, in whom . . an essential charac
teristic not easily understood, and certain real or apparent contradictions, strike our attention; but also those characters who, to superficial observation, stride away down the straight street, and are peculiarly fitted to be represented upon the stage.
"Let the judgments be brought to mind which for a hundred years have been pronounced in Germany on the characters in Julius Caesar, and the delighted approval with which our contemporaries respond to the noble features of this drama. To the warm-hearted youth, Brutus is the noble, patriotic hero. One honest commentator, looking from his study, sees in Cæsar the great, immovable character, superior to all; a certain statesman delights in the ironical, stern severity with which from the beginning of the play the poet has treated Brutus and Cassius as unpractical fools, and their conspiracy as a silly venture of incapable aristocrats. The actor of judgment finds at last in this same Cæsar, whom his commentator has eloquently portrayed as a model ruler, a hero inwardly wounded to the death, a soul in whom the illusion of greatness has devoured the very joints and marrow. Who is right? Each of them. And yet each of them has the feeling that the characters are not at all mixtures of incongruous elements, artfully composed, or in any way unreal. Each of them feels distinctly that these persons are admirably portrayed, and live on the stage most effectively; and the actor himself feels this most strongly, even though the secret of Shakespeare's poetic power he cannot entirely understand. . . . The poet lets his characters in every place say exactly what is appropriate to them in such a situation; but he treats their nature as self-explanatory, and clears up nothing, not because each personality has become distinct to him through deliberate calculation, but because it has arisen with a natural force from all the presupposed conditions."
It has been questioned whether this play is well named. But certainly Julius Caesar was the best possible title to draw spectators; and if the play was not to be named from its hero, Brutus, it could not well receive a better title than the name of that hero's greatest, though unconscious opponent. Moreover, though Cæsar dies in the middle of the
play, his spirit is active to the end. Probably, upon the Elizabethan stage, the same actor took the parts of Cæsar and Octavius, and thus gave outward expression to the spiritual connection of the two rôles.
It has been noticed that Shakespeare's references to "the mightiest Julius" in his other plays show a genuine appreciation of the greatness of the Roman leader. Why is the mighty conqueror made so weak and unworthy in the play that bears his name? Gervinus, Viehoff, and others think that Shakespeare found it necessary to present Cæsar in an unfavorable light in order that our sympathy may be given more completely to Brutus. Hudson admits that "the characterization [the portrayal of character] of this drama in some of the parts is not a little perplexing"; but he suggests that the policy of the drama may be "to represent Cæsar, not as he was indeed, but as he must have appeared to the conspirators, to make us see him as they saw him, in order that they too may have fair and equal judgment at our hands; for Cæsar was literally too great to be seen by them." It may fairly be urged, however, that if Cæsar had been represented as more noble, the pathos of Brutus's vain sacrifice of his beloved friend would have been so much more piercing. It is "not true," says Brandes, "that Cæsar's greatness would have impaired the unity of the piece. Its poetic value, on the contrary, suffers from his pettiness. The play might have been immeasurably richer and deeper than it is had Shakespeare been inspired by a feeling of Cæsar's greatness. I believe that Brandes is right, and that the inadequate and distorted representation of Cæsar is a real defect in the drama.
Upon the stage this play is exceedingly effective. It constantly makes its appeal to the mind through both the eye and the ear. The craftsmen and the tribunes, the stately procession, the mysterious warning of the soothsayer, the careful manipulation of Brutus by the crafty Cassius, the dark
gathering of the conspirators, the hesitation and indecision of the unconscious victim, the pomp of the senate chamber, the stabbing of the astonished Cæsar, the mob swayed this way and that by the dignified Brutus and the skillful Antony, the quarrel scene, the ghostly visitor, the stress and strain of the final battles, and the self-inflicted deaths of Cassius and Brutus, these parts are not all poetical, and they are not all lifelike in the fullest meaning of that word, but they are all intensely dramatic. These scenes and incidents make up one connected series; they constitute a mighty complication, entanglement, followed by a resolution, a steady progress to a definite conclusion. Only those por tions and aspects of the entire story are presented which are really dramatic, which at the same time оссиру the eye by the stir and movement of life, and interest the mind by the constant play of character upon character. Not only is history departed from when that will add to dramatic effectiveness; slight improbabilities are permitted for the same purpose. What likelihood, for example, that in real life the funeral of such a ruler as Cæsar would follow immediately after his assassination? Shakespeare does not attempt primarily to secure an outward realism, or to write charming poetry; he does give us deeply real characters and a thrilling action.
Since Julius Cæsar has always been a favorite play upon the stage, why is it never reckoned among the supreme tragedies of Shakespeare, such as Hamlet, Othello, King Lear, and Macbeth? For one thing, the stoical, reserved character of Brutus made it practically impossible that he should be a tragic hero of the most effective kind. Hamlet, Othello, King Lear, and Macbeth, thwarted by hostile circumstances and assailed by bitter enemies, all pour forth torrents of passion; the very depths of their souls are laid bare before us. Such unchecked self-expression is necessary to a tragedy, a soul-tempest, of the most