Pagina-afbeeldingen
PDF
ePub

The likenesses between Brutus and Hamlet are so marked that even the commentators have noticed them. Professor Dowden exaggerates the similarities. “Both (dramas)," he writes, “are tragedies of thought rather than of passion; both present in their chief characters the spectacle of noble natures which fail through some weakness or deficiency rather than through crime; upon Brutus as upon Hamlet a burden is laid which he is not able to bear; neither Brutus nor Hamlet is fitted for action, yet both are called to act in dangerous and difficult affairs." Much of this is Professor Dowden's view and not Shakespeare's. When Shakespeare wrote “ Julius Caesar " he had not reached that stage in self-understanding when he became conscious that he was a man of thought rather than of action, and that the two ideals tend to exclude each other. In the contest at Philippi Brutus and his wing win the day; it is the defeat of Cassius which brings about the ruin; Shakespeare evidently intended to depict Brutus as well “fitted for action."

Some critics find it disconcerting that Shakespeare identified himself with Brutus, who failed, rather than with Caesar, who succeeded. But even before he himself came to grief in his love and trust, Shakespeare had always treated the failures with peculiar sympathy. He preferred Arthur to the Bastard, and King Henry VI. to Richard III., and Richard II. to proud Bolingbroke. And after his agony of disillusion, all his heroes are failures for years and years Brutus, Hamlet, Macbeth, Lear, Troilus, Antony, and Timon-all fail as he himself had failed.

There is some matter for surprise in the fact that Brutus is an ideal portrait of Shakespeare. Disillusion usually brings a certain bitter sincerity,

7

a measure of realism, into artistic work; but its first effect on Shakespeare was to draw out all the kindliness in him; Brutus is Shakespeare at his sweetest and best. Yet the soul-suffering of the man has assuredly improved his art: Brutus is a better portrait of him than Biron, Valentine, Romeo, or Antonio, a more serious and bolder piece of selfrevealing even than Orsino. Shakespeare is not afraid now to depict the deep underlying kindness of his nature, his essential goodness of heart. A little earlier, and occupied chiefly with his own complex growth, he could only paint sides of himself; a little later, and the personal interest absorbed all others, so that his dramas became lyrics of anguish and despair. Brutus belongs to the best time, artistically speaking, to the time when passion and pain had tried the character without benumbing the will or distracting the mind: it is a masterpiece of portraiture, and stands in even closer relation to Hamlet than Romeo stands to Orsino. As Shakespeare appears to us in Brutus at thirtyseven, so he was when they bore him to his

grave

at fifty-two-the heart does not alter greatly.

Let no one say or think that in all this I am drawing on my imagination; what I have said is justified by all that Brutus says and does from one end of the play to the other. According to his custom, Shakespeare has said it all of himself very plainly, and has put his confession into the mouth of Brutus on his very first appearance (Act i. sc. 2):

Cassius
Be not deceived: if I have veiled look
I turn the trouble of my countenance
Merely upon myself. Vexed I am
Of late with passions of some difference,

my

Conceptions only proper to myself,
Which gives some soil, perhaps, to my behaviours,
But let not therefore my good friends be grieved,
Among which number, Cassius, be you one,-
Nor construe any further in neglect,
Than that poor

atus, with himself at war, Forgets the shows of love to other men.”

What were these “ different passions," complex personal passions, too, which had vexed Brutus and changed his manners even to his friends ? There is no hint of them in Plutarch, no word about them in the play. It was not “poor Brutus,” but poor Shakespeare, racked by love and jealousy, tortured by betrayal, who was now at war with himself."

I assume the identity of Brutus with Shakespeare before I have absolutely proved it because it furnishes the solution to the difficulties of the play. As usual, Coleridge has given proof of his insight by seeing and stating the chief difficulty, without, however, being able to explain it, and as usual, also, the later critics have followed him as far as they can, and in this case have elected to pass over the difficulty in silence. Coleridge quotes some of the words of Brutus when he first thinks of killing Caesar, and calls the passage a speech of Brutus, but it is in reality a soliloquy of Brutus, and must be considered in its entirety, Brutus says:

“ 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 crowned :-
How that might change his nature, there's the

question? It is the bright day that brings forth the adder, And that craves wary walking. Crown him?-that;

And then, I grant, we put a sting in him
That at his will he may do danger with.
The abuse of greatness is, when it disjoins
Remorse from power: and to speak truth of Caesar,
I have known his affections swayed
More than his reason. But 'tis a common proof,
That lowliness is young ambition's ladder,
Whereto the climber-upwards turns his face;
But when he once attains the topmost round,
He then unto the ladder turns his back,
Looks in the clouds, scorning the base degrees
By which he did ascend. So Caesar may:
Then, lest he may, prevent. And since the quarrel
Will bear no colour for the thing he is,
Fashion it thus; that, what he is, augmented,
Would run to these and these extremities:
And therefore think him as a serpent's egg,
Which, hatched, would as his kind grow mischievous;
And kill him in the shell."

on

.

Coleridge's comment this deserves notice. He wrote: “ This speech is singular; at least, I do not at present see into Shakespeare's motive, his rationale, or in what point of view he meant Brutus' character to appear. For surely nothing can seem more discordant with our historical preconceptions of Brutus, or more lowering to the intellect of the Stoico-Platonic tyrannicide, than the tenets here attributed to him—to him, the stern Roman republican; namely, that he would have no objection to a king, or to Caesar, a monarch in Rome, would Caesar but be as good a monarch as he now seems disposed to be! How, too, could Brutus say that he found no personal cause-none in Caesar's past conduct as a man? Had he not passed the Rubicon? Had he not entered Rome as a conquerer? Had he not placed his Gauls in the Senate? Shakespeare, it may be said, has not

brought these things forward. True ;—and this is just the ground of my perplexity. What character did Shakespeare mean his Brutus to be?"

All this is sound criticism, and can only be answered by the truth that Shakespeare from the beginning of the play identified himself with Brutus, and paid but little attention to the historic Brutus whom he had met in Plutarch. Let us push criticism a little further, and we shall see that this is the only possible way to read the riddle. We all know why Plutarch's Brutus killed Caesar; but why does Shakespeare's Brutus kill the man he so esteems? Because Caesar may change his nature when king; because like the serpent's egg

he

may chievous”? But when he speaks“ truth” of Caesar he has to admit Caesar's goodness. The " serpent's egg reason then is inapplicable. Besides, when

. speaking of himself on the plains of Philippi, Shakespeare's Brutus explicitly contradicts this false reasoning:

I know not how
But I do find it cowardly and vile,
For fear of what might fall, so to prevent
The term of life.

grow mis

66

[ocr errors]

66 the

It would seem, therefore, that Brutus did not kill Caesar, as one crushes a serpent's egg, to prevent evil consequences. It is equally manifest that he did not do it for “ the general,” for if ever general ” were shown to be despicable and worthless it is in this very play, where the citizens murder Cinna the poet because he has the same

as Cinna the conspirator, and the lower classes are despised as the “rabblement," the common herd,” with “chapped hands," “ night-caps,” and “ stinking breath.”

name

6 sweaty

« VorigeDoorgaan »