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I have perhaps dwelt too long upon these matters, upon which I am certainly incompetent to pronounce an opinion ; it is enough for us that Shakspeare unquestionably contemplated a populace, such as that which, in his time, as in ours, existed in England.
Niebuhr does not mention the election of Coriolanus to the consulate. I have noticed an alleged mistake* (taken from Plutarch) in giving to the plebeians a share in the election ; but I find no light thrown upon this subject by the modern expositors of Roman history.
“ The tragedy of Coriolanus is” (in Johnson's opinion)“ one of the most amusing of our author's performances. The old man’s merriment in Menenius, the lofty lady's dignity in Volumnia, the bridal modesty in Virgilia, the patrician and military haughtiness in Coriolanus, the plebeian malignity and tribunitian insolence in Brutus and Sicinius, make a very pleasing and interesting variety ; and the various revolutions of the hero's fortune, fill the mind with a nxious curiosity.”+
Coriolanus is surely a very fine play, and justice is hardly done to it by the doctor. No doubt it owed much, in our day, to Kemble; but it is, even when read, a splendid drama. The character of Coriolanus, though in small part of * P. 212.
+ Ibid. 86.
Shakspeare's invention, is extremely well sustained; and the criminality of his conduct (for assuredly he was a great criminal,) is covered by its magnificence; a sort of character peculiarly appropriate to tragedy ;-as profligacy covered by kind-heartedness is the ground-work of suc. çessful comedies. Of the ladies I have already spoken. Old Menenius might have been praised for something beyond merriment; and perhaps the high political notions of Dr. Johnson make him too severe upon the tribunes of the people, whose hostility was certainly not unprovoked.
In Coleridge's notice of this play, there is a remarkable instance of error occasioned by not searching Shakspeare's authorities. He asks, “ Whether Cato was quoted, without, or in contempt of historical information.”* I have shewn that the passage was copied (but incorrectly) from Plutarch. † Coleridge and Schlegel differ as to Shakspeare's contempt of the plebeians; Schlegelt thinks it (as I do) very marked and sincere ; Coleridge, who wrote, I believe, in the days of his ultra-whiggery, treats it as “ a good-humoured laugh.”
* Lit. Rem., ii, 137.
This play, which embraces a period of Roman history somewhat less obscure than that which we have lately reviewed, is also taken from Plutarch; not entirely from the life of Cæsar, * but partly from those of Brutust and Antony. A question has been raised,f whether Shakspeare did not avail himself of the play of Julius Cæsar, written by William Alexander, Earl of Sterline, and published in 1607,|| the year in which, according to Malone, Shakspeare composed his play. There is much similarity between some passages in the two plays, I
* North’s Translation of Plutarch's Lives, p. 612. + Ib. 817.
Ib. 754. ♡ See Malone's note in Bosw. xii. 2. || It is to be found in “ Recreations with the Muses,” fol. 1637, p. 185.
See Bosw.xii. 55, 56, 57, and Sterline, 217. See also a passage in Bosw. 47 (as to putting Antony to death), and Sterline, 225.
but none, as it strikes me, which may not have arisen from the use of the same materials by the two poets. And there are essential differences also ;-Lord Sterline taking no notice of the speeches of Brutus and Antony.
Shakspeare's play commences with the disaffection of the tribunes, who are represented as the adherents of Pompey, the offer of the crown to Cæsar by Mark Antony, and the stirring up of Brutus by his brother-in-law Cassius, to rise against Cæsar. All this, with the placards thrown into the house of Brutus, is taken from Plutarch, but the depreciation of the personal bravery of the dictator, as one of the means used by Cassius to excite his friend, * is Shakspeare's own.
It has been strangely said to be taken from Suetonius, t who relates the story of Cæsar saving himself by swimming, at the same time holding his writings above the water, to keep them dry. But this is mentioned by Suetonius, among the instances of his fortitude or constancy. Plutarch | tells the story without comment, but certainly with no view to depreciate Cæsar. Speaking generally, the topic may be said to be judiciously chosen by one who wished to excite jealousy of a man in power; but the
selection is certainly not appropriate. The remainder of the scene is skilful.
Cæsar's apprehension of spare and reflecting men, like Cassius, has better authority ;*
“Let me have men about me that are fat;
“ He reads much;
The reflections of Brutus, on the eve of the Ides of March, are well imagined ;
" It must be by his death; and, for my part, I know no personal cause to spurn at him, But for the general. He would be crown'd: How that might change his nature, there's the ques
tion. It is the bright day that brings forth the adder ; And that craves wary walking. Crown him? ThatAnd then I grant we put a sting in him,
* North, 819.