Pagina-afbeeldingen
PDF
ePub

that Dryden's All for Love has been acted ten times oftener than Shake. speare's Antony and Cleopatra.

“Dryden's Marc Antony is a weak voluptuary from first to last. Not a sentence of manly virtue is ever uttered by him that seems to come from himself; and whenever he expresses a moral feeling, it appears not to have grown up in his own nature, but to have been planted there by the influence of his friend Ventidius, like a flower in a child's garden, only to wither and take no root. Shakespeare's Antony is a very different being. When he hears of the death of his first wife, Fulvia, his exclamation, “There's a great spirit gone!' and his reflections on his own enthralment by Cleopatra mark the residue of a noble mind. A queen, a siren, a Shakespeare's Cleopatra alone could have entangled Mark Antony, while an ordinary wanton could have enslaved Dryden's hero."

[From Mrs. Jameson's Characteristics of Women.”*] 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,

* American ed. (Boston, 1857), p. 304 fol.

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 colours 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 accoinplishments, 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 colouring of the character; all these con

tradictory elements has Shakspeare seized, mingled them in their extremes, and fused them into one brilliant impersonation of classical elegance, Oriental voluptuousness, and gypsy 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 !"* 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 admir'd."
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

* Grave, in the sense of mighty or potent.

66

report: this cannot be cuming in her; if it be, she makes a shower of rain as well as Jove.

We learn from Plutarch that it was a favourite 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 warın affections and kindly feeling, or rather what we should call, in these days, a constitutional good-nature; and was lavishly generous to her favourites 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 [ii. 5] 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. .. The pride and arrogance of the Egyptian queen, the blandishiment 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

B

astonishing power, and truth, and skill in feminine nature. More wonderful still is the splendour and force of colouring 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 ;* 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....

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. 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 Cleo

* The well-known violence and coarseness of Queen Elizabeth's manners, in which she was imitated by the women about her, may in Shakspeare's time have rendered the image of a royal virago less offensive and less extraordinary.

« VorigeDoorgaan »