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should prefer it to all others of Shakspeare, because, assuredly of the historical plays, and perhaps of all the plays, Othello alone excepted, it is the finest in representation. To read, I own that it is, in my opinion, inferior to .some others, from the absence of the splendid and stately speeches, which I have noticed in former plays.
As it is certain that Shakspeare did not apply his great genius to the invention of plots, it was natural that when in search of dramatic subjects, he should look to the Roman History ; a history with which the English youth are familiar, and which is full of striking and romantic incidents. It can hardly be said that we take our Roman history from Shakspeare, because, in our system of education, the history of that remarkable people usually precedes that of our own country; and we learn the story of Coriolanus from Eutropius, or Goldsmith, if not from Plutarch, before we go to see a play.
I shall not attempt to subject the three Latin plays—Coriolanus, Julius Caesar, and Antony and Cleopatra—to the sort of commentary which I have applied to the plays from English history; nor do the materials exist for any such examination: but I hope that the lovers of historical truth, as well as the lovers of Shakspeare,—who certainly constitute a class a hundred-fold more numerous,— will allow me to show whereon the great dramatist founded his plays, and how far there is reason to believe that the history is true. And there will be ample opportunity for that which is by far the most pleasing part of my task, the quotation of striking passages from the works of this all-various poet.
I must further premise that the historical criticisms of former commentators upon these Roman plays, are more copious than upon the English plays;—probably because these learned men were better acquainted with ancient than with modern history. But, in their time, the searching criticism of continental commentators, and especially of Niebuhr, had not been applied to the popular Roman story,—a fact which may in itself justify a fresh commentary.
Shakspeare's Coriolanus is taken from Sir Thomas North's translation of Plutarch's Lives; but it commences with a slight variation. According to the Greek biographer, and to other received histories, the plebeians of Rome, about the year 260, sixteen after the expulsion of the Tarquins, retired, in consequence of their difference with the patricians, to a hill near to the city, which was afterwards called Mons Sacer. The opening of the play (though placed in "a street in Rome,'") is evidently meant to represent this occurrence. But Shakspeare has not followed Plutarch as to the cause of this separation, or mutiny as he represents it. The dearth of corn, of which the citizens complain, did not occur at this time; the present cause of complaint arose of the severe laws of debtor and creditor, which, while all the wealth was in the hands of the patricians, enabled them to oppress with cruel severity those plebeians who had been compelled to become their debtors, and who were consequently liable to be claimed as their slaves.* And it was on this occasion that Menenius Agrippa related the celebrated fable of the Belly and the Members,-f- and also that tribunes of the people were first appointed.| The complaint
* Niebuhr, i. 562; Arnold, i. 137. These writers say, "that where there were several creditors, they might actually hew the body of the debtor in pieces, and whether a creditor cut off a greater or a smaller piece than in proportion to its debt, he incurred no penalty." It is, ^hey^say, a modern error, that the cutting up was to be understood of the debtor's property, not of his person. It is with difficulty that I can believe them right!
t Malone says (Bosw. xiv. 12, and ii. 457), that Shakspeare must have taken his version of the fable, in part, from Camden's Remains ; but I think that North is sufficient. % North, 187.
was, not of power usurped, or arbitrarily used by an aristocracy privileged by birth, so much as of "the rich men who had driven them out of the
city and that they were hurt with continual
wars and fighting in defence of the rich mans goods." It was the moneyed aristocracy* by which they were oppressed. And though the old man, in the moral of his fable, likens the nourishment afforded by the belly to the wholesome counsels of the senate, yet the fable itself rather describes the possessors of wealth, who were said "to send it out again for the nourishment of other parts."
It is in conformity with Plutarch that Coriolanus (now only known as Caius Marcius), is represented as stern, contemptuous, and unpopular; and so of other remarkable traits of his character.
"This man also is a good proof to confirm some men's opinions, that a rare and excellent wit untaught doth bring forth many good and evil things together: as a fat soil that lieth unmanured bringeth forth both herbs and weeds. For this Marcius' natural wit and great heart did marvellously stir up his courage to do and attempt notable acts. But, on the other side, for lack of education, he was so cholerick and impatient, that he would yield to no living creature: which made him churlish, uncivil,