Pagina-afbeeldingen
PDF
ePub

many of the leading characters, as well as the manners and spirit of that time, are far better delivered by Sir Walter Scott in The Fortunes of Nigel than in any so-called authentic history of the same period. And it may be safely affirmed that in this drama, as in others of an historical nature, the Poet never cares to draw upon his inventive powers, save when by so doing he can bring out the truth of his characters more vividly, more dramatically, and even more fairly, than it is conveyed in the forms and incidents which the history offered him; not to mention that he often extracts and concentrates the life and efficacy of many incidents in one representative invention ; thus giving the substantial truth of them all, without the literal truth of any one.

Nor, closely as he here works to the record, is there any one of his dramas wherein he shows a more fertile and pregnant inventiveness; many of the scenes being perfectly original, and at the same time truer to the history in effect than the history is to itself. For it is not too much to say that he had the art to express what was in his persons far better than they knew how to express it themselves. How he could thus endow them with his own intellect, or with so much of it as they needed, without disturbing their individuality at all, or impairing their proper self-consciousness, is a mystery which perhaps no effort of criticism can solve.

Historic Outline.

Soon after the overthrow of Brutus and Cassius at Philippi, which occured in the Fall of the year B.C. 42, the Triumvirs, Octavius, Antony, and Lepidus, partitioned the Roman world among themselves, Antony taking the Eastern provinces as his share. The next year, while on his way with an army against the Parthians, he summoned Cleopatra to meet him in Cilicia, and give an account of her recent doings in aid of Brutus and Cassius. She responded in the celebrated adventure in which she caught the amorous Triumvir, and "pursed up his heart upon the river of Cydnus.” In his account of this conquest, the Poet does little more than translate the delectable old narrative of Plutarch into dialogue. The result of the affair was that Cleopatra led Antony captive to Alexandria, where he lost himself in the prodigious revelries and sensualities of the Egyptian Court. Thereupon his ferocious wife, Fulvia, together with his brother Lucius, who was then Consul, raised a war in Italy against Octavius, her pupose being, it was said, to disenchant her husband and draw him back to Rome. In the Spring, however, of the year 40 B.C., Fulvia died; from which event dates the opening of the play.

In the course of the same year Antony was married to Octavia; by which marriage the difficulties of the two Triumvirs were expected to be permanently healed; though, as the issue proved, “the band that seemed to tie their friendship together was the very strangler of their amity." This was followed, the next year, by the treaty with Sextus Pompey at Misenum.

some four years, Antony, in form at least, kept his faith with Octavia, who bore him two children. But, with all her beauty and wisdom and illustrious virtues, she could make no abiding impression upon him: his thoughts kept flying back to Egypt. In the year 1.c. 36, he set forth on another expedition against the Parthians, and sent an invitation to Cleopatra to join him ; and on her doing so he fell more hopelessly than ever under her enchantment, lavishing realms and cities upon her as if the whole world were his, and he valued it only that he might give it to her. I will here condense a brief portion of North's Plutarch, by way of indicating how the Poet uses the historian :

“Then began the pestilent mischief of Cleopatra's love to kindle again as soon as Antony came near unto Syria, and in the end did put out of his head all honest and commendable thoughts. Whilst he was preparing to make war with the Parthians, his wife, whom he had left at Rome, would needs take sea to come to him. Her brother was willing to it, not so much for any respect to Antony, as that he might have a colour to make war with him, if he should misuse her. But, when she was come to Athens, she received letters from Antony, willing her to stay there until his coming. Though much grieved at this, knowing it was but an excuse, yet she asked him by her letters whether he would have those things sent to him which she had brought, being great store of apparel for soldiers, sums of money and gifts to bestow on his friends and captains, and two thousand men well armed. When one of Antony's friends brought this news from Octavia, and withal did greatly praise her, Cleopatra, fearing she would be too strong for her, and win him away, subtly seemed to languish for love of Antony, pining her body for lack of meat. Furthermore, she so framed her countenance, that, when Antony came to see her, she cast her eyes upon him like a woman ravished with joy. Straight, again, when he went from her, she fell a-weeping, and still managed that he should often find her weeping; and, when he came suddenly upon her, she made as though she dried her eyes, and turned away her face as if unwilling he should see her weep. Then her flatterers blamed Antony, telling him he was a hard-natured man and had small love in him, that would see a poor lady in such torment for his sake. 'For Octavia,' they said,

66

that was only married to him because of her brother's affairs, hath the honour to be called Antony's lawful wife; and Cleopatra, born a queen, is only named Antony's leman; yet she disdained not to be so called, if she might enjoy his company and live with him ; but, if he once leave her, then it is impossible she should live.' By these flatteries they so wrought his effeminate mind that, fearing lest she should make herself away, he returned to Alexandria.”

Once again at the Egyptian capital, Antony sank forthwith into a full-blown voluptuary. The accounts of his gigantic profligacy are indeed almost incredible, and would be thoroughly so, but for the support they derive from the well-known customs of the “gorgeous East." Still, however, Antony, as a Roman thought struck him," varied his debaucheries from time to time with fits of spasmodic heroism in the camp and the field ; though ever returning from these to plunge still deeper in the turbid stream of Oriental voluptuousness. In these fierce bacchanalian orgies, the Queen was always at hand, pampering his grosser appetites with rank and furious indulgences, and stimulating his flagging zest in them by cunning surprises: whenever he showed a reviving taste for nobler pleasures, she was prompt to gratify it with works of art and literature ; and sometimes, when the mood was on, she would call in the aids of philosophy and criticism, to reinforce the spells under which she held him. At length, she wound up the climax of extravagance by arraying herself in the garb and claiming the prerogatives of the goddess Isis, at the same time inducing Antony to usurp the 'titles and attributes of the god Osiris. The notion that a man might rise to union with deity had gradually hardened into a custom of admitting the royal right of apotheosis. Some years before, Antony had assumed the character and style of Bacchus at Athens. He now came forth as the Nile-god, or fructifying power of the Coptic mythology, to claim the religious veneration of the Egyptian people.

All these mad doings were closely watched by the cold-, blooded and astute Octavius, who worked them with terrible effect against his rival at Rome. And his purpose herein was greatly furthered by the noble behaviour of Octavia, who still kept her husband's house at Rome, and devoted herself religiously to the care of his children, both her own and those that Fulvia had borne him, as if she thought of nothing but to approve herself in every thing a true and loyal wife. By this course she only knit the hearts of the Roman people still more firmly to her cause ;. so that they resented Antony's sins against her almost as much as, they did those against the national honour and religion,

The quarrel thus engendered and fostered came to a head in the great battle of Actium, which took place in September of the year B.C. 31. Stripped of fleet and army, and covered with shame and foul dishonour, Antony returned to Egypt to brood sullenly over the past. The next year, Octavius followed with an army, and his work there was finished by the death of Cleopatra in August. So that the events of the play cover a period of a little more than ten years ; the scene shifting to various parts of the Empire, Alexandria, Rome, Misenum, Athens, the plains of Syria, and several fields of battle.

I must add one more short passage from Plutarch as aptly showing the minuteness of detail with which the drama follows the history. It refers to the intercourse of Octavius and Antony after the marriage of the latter with Octavia : “With Antony there was a soothsayer of Egypt, that could

[ocr errors]
« VorigeDoorgaan »