The Man Shakespeare
Part 5 out of 7
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
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, 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 self-revealing 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
thirty-seven, 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):
Be not deceived: if I have veiled my look
I turn the trouble of my countenance
Merely upon myself. Vexed I am
Of late with passions of some difference,
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 Brutus, 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."
Coleridge's comment on 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 conqueror? 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 "grow mischievous"? 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."
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 "the
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
name as Cinna the conspirator, and the lower classes are despised as the
"rabblement," "the common herd," with "chapped hands," "sweaty
night-caps," and "stinking breath."
It is Dr. Brandes' idea and not Shakespeare's that Brutus is a "man of
uncompromising character and principle." That is the Brutus of Plutarch,
who finds in his stern republican love of the common good an ethical
motive for killing the ambitious Caesar. But Shakespeare had no
understanding of the republican ideal, and no sympathy with the public;
accordingly, his Brutus has no adequate reason for contriving Caesar's
death. Shakespeare followed Plutarch in freeing Brutus from the
suspicion of personal or interested motive, but he didn't see that by
doing this he made his Brutus a conspirator without a cause, a murderer
without a motive. The truth is our gentle poet could never find a
convincing ground for cold-blooded murder. It will be remembered that
Macbeth only murders, as the deer murders, out of fear, and the fact
that his Brutus can find no justification of any sort for killing
Caesar, confirms our view of Shakespeare's gentle kindness. The
"uncompromising character and principle" of the severe republican we
find in Plutarch, sit uneasily on Shakespeare's Brutus; it is apparent
that the poet had no conception of what we call a fanatic. His
difficulties arise from this limitation of insight. He begins to write
the play by making Brutus an idealized portrait of himself; he,
therefore, dwells on Brutus' perfect nobility, sincerity, and
unselfishness, but does not realize that the more perfect he makes
Brutus, the more clear and cogent Brutus' motive must be for undertaking
In this confusion Shakespeare's usually fine instinct is at fault, and
he blunders from mistake to mistake. His idealizing tendency makes him
present Brutus as perfect, and at the same time he uses the historical
incident of the anonymous letters, which goes to show Brutus as
conceited and vain. If these letters influenced Brutus--and they must be
taken to have done so, or else why were they introduced?--we have a noble
and unselfish man murdering out of paltry vanity. In Plutarch,
where Brutus is depicted as an austere republican, the incident of the
letters only throws a natural shade of doubt on the rigid principles by
which alone he is supposed to be guided. We all feel that rigid
principles rest on pride, and may best be led astray through pride. But
Shakespeare's Brutus is pure human sweetness, and the letters are worse
than out of place when addressed to him. Shakespeare should never have
used this incident; it is a blot on his conception.
All through the first acts of the play Brutus is incredible, for he is
in an impossible position. Shakespeare simply could not find any valid
reason why his alter ego, Brutus, should kill Caesar. But from
the moment the murder is committed to the end of the play Brutus-
Shakespeare is at peace with himself. And as soon as the dramatist lets
himself go and paints Brutus with entire freedom and frankness, he rises
to the height of tragic pathos, and we can all recognize the original of
the portrait. At first Brutus is merely ideal; his perfect
unsuspiciousness--he trusts even Antony; his transparent honesty--he
will have no other oath among the conspirators
"Than honesty to honesty engaged";
his hatred of bloodshed--he opposes Cassius, who proposes to murder
Antony; all these noble qualities may be contrasted with the subtler
shortcomings which make of Hamlet so vital a creation. Hamlet is
suspicious even of Ophelia; Hamlet is only "indifferent honest"; Hamlet
makes his friends swear to keep the ghost's appearance a profound
secret; Hamlet lives from the beginning, while Brutus at first is a mere
bundle of perfections individualized only by that personal intimate
confession which I have already quoted, which, however, has nothing to
do with the play. But later in the drama Shakespeare begins to lend
Brutus his own weaknesses, and forthwith Brutus lives. His insomnia is
"Since Cassius first did whet me against Caesar,
I have not slept."
The character of Brutus is superbly portrayed in that wonderful scene
with Cassius in the fourth act. With all the superiority of conscious
genius he treats his confederate as a child or madman, much as Hamlet
treats Rosencrantz and Guildenstern:
"Shall I be frighted when a madman stares?"
Cassius is mean, too, whereas Brutus is kindly and generous to a degree:
"For I can raise no money by vile means:
By heaven, I had rather coin my heart,
And drop my blood for drachmas, than to wring
From the hard hands of peasants their vile trash
By any indirection....
* * * * *
When Marcus Brutus grows so covetous,
To lock such rascal counters from his friends,
Be ready, gods, with all your thunderbolts,
Dash him to pieces."
And, above all, as soon as Cassius appeals to his affection, Brutus is
"O Cassius, you are yoked with a lamb
That carries anger, as the flint bears fire;
Who, much enforced, shows a hasty spark,
And straight is cold again."
This is the best expression of Shakespeare's temper; the "hasty spark"
is Hamlet's temper, as we have seen, and Macbeth's, and Romeo's.
And now everything that Brutus does or says is Shakespeare's best. In a
bowl of wine he buries "all unkindness." His affection for Cassius is
not a virtue to one in especial. The scene in the fourth act, in which
he begs the pardon of his boy Lucius, should be learned by heart by
those who wish to understand our loving and lovable Shakespeare. This
scene, be it remarked, is not in Plutarch, but is Shakespeare's own
invention. His care for the lad's comfort, at a time when his own life
is striking the supreme hour, is exquisitely pathetic. Then come his
farewell to Cassius and his lament over Cassius' body; then the second
fight and the nobly generous words that hold in them, as flowers their
perfume, all Shakespeare's sweetness of nature:
"My heart doth joy, that yet in all my life
I found no man, but he was true to me."
And then night hangs upon the weary, sleepless eyes, and we are all
ready to echo Antony's marvellous valediction:
"This was the noblest Roman of them all;
* * * * * *
His life was gentle; and the elements
So mixed in him, that Nature might stand up
And say to all the world, 'This was a man!'"
But this Brutus was no murderer, no conspirator, no narrow republican
fanatic, but simply gentle Shakespeare discovering to us his own sad
heart and the sweetness which suffering had called forth in him.
DRAMAS OF REVENGE AND JEALOUSY: HAMLET.
"A beautiful, pure and most moral nature, without the strength of nerve
which makes the hero, sinks beneath a burden which it can neither bear
nor throw off; every duty is holy to him,--this too hard. The impossible
is required of him,--not the impossible in itself, but the impossible to
him. How he winds, turns, agonizes, advances and recoils, ever reminded,
ever reminding himself, and at last almost loses his purpose from his
thoughts, without ever again recovering his peace of
mind...."--"Hamlet" by Goethe.
Goethe's criticism of Hamlet is so much finer than any English criticism
that I am glad to quote it. It will serve, I think, as a standard to
distinguish the best criticism of the past from what I shall set forth
in the course of this analysis. In this chapter I shall try to show what
new light our knowledge of Shakespeare throws on the play, and
conversely what new light the play throws on its maker.
The first moment of disillusion brought out, as we have seen in Brutus,
all the kindness in Shakespeare's nature. He will believe in men in
spite of experience; but the idealistic pose could not be kept up:
sooner or later Shakespeare had to face the fact that he had been
befooled and scorned by friend and mistress--how did he meet it? Hamlet
is the answer: Shakespeare went about nursing dreams of revenge and
murder. Disillusion had deeper consequences; forced to see other men as
they were, he tried for a moment to see himself as he was. The outcome
of that objective vision was Hamlet--a masterpiece of self-revealing.
Yet, when he wrote "Hamlet," nothing was clear to him; the significance
of the catastrophe had only dawned upon him; he had no notion how
complete his soul-shipwreck was, still less did he dream of painting
himself realistically in all his obsequious flunkeyism and ungovernable
sensuality. He saw himself less idealistically than heretofore, and,
trying to look at himself fairly, honestly, he could not but accuse
himself of irresolution at the very least; he had hung on with Herbert,
as the sonnets tell us, hoping to build again the confidence which had
been ruined by betrayal, hoping he knew not what of gain or place, to
the injury of his own self-respect; while brooding all the time on quite
impossible plans of revenge, impossible, for action had been "sicklied
o'er with the pale cast of thought." Hamlet could not screw his courage
to the sticking point, and so became a type for ever of the philosopher
or man of letters who, by thinking, has lost the capacity for action.
Putting ourselves in Shakespeare's place for the moment we see at once
why he selected this story for treatment at this time. He knew, none
better, that no young aristocrat would have submitted patiently to the
wrong he had suffered from Lord Herbert; he created Laertes to show how
instant and determined such a man would be in taking murderous revenge;
but he still felt that what others would regard as faults, his
irresolution and shrinking from bloodshed were in themselves nobler, and
so, whilst half excusing, half realizing himself, he brought forth a
masterpiece. This brooding on revenge, which is the heart and
explanation of his great play, shows us how little Shakespeare cared for
Herbert, how completely he had condemned him. The soliloquy on this
point in "Hamlet" is the most characteristic thing in the drama:
"This is most brave,
That I, the son of a dear father murder'd
Prompted to my revenge by heaven and hell,
Must, like a whore, unpack my heart with words,
And fall a-cursing like a very drab."
Shakespeare is thinking of Herbert's betrayal; "here I am," he says,
"prompted to revenge by reason and custom, yet instead of acting I fall
a-cursing like a drab." But behind his irresolution is his hatred of
bloodshed: he could whip out his sword and on a sudden kill Polonius,
mistaking him for the king (Herbert), but he could not, in cold blood,
make up his mind to kill and proceed to execution. Like his own Hubert,
Shakespeare had to confess:
"Within this bosom never enter'd yet
The dreadful motion of a murderous thought."
He had none of the direct, passionate, conscienceless resolution of
Laertes. He whips himself to anger against the king by thinking of
Herbert in the king's place; but lackey-like has to admit that mere
regard for position and power gives him pause: Lord Herbert was too far
"There's such divinity doth hedge a king,
That treason can but peep to what it would."
Shakespeare's personal feeling dominates and inspires the whole play.
One crucial instance will prove this. Why did Hamlet hate his mother's
lechery? Most men would hardly have condemned it, certainly would not
have suffered their thoughts to dwell on it beyond the moment; but to
Hamlet his mother's faithlessness was horrible, shameful, degrading,
simply because Hamlet-Shakespeare had identified her with Miss Fitton,
and it was Miss Fitton's faithlessness, it was her deception he was
condemning in the bitterest words he could find. He thus gets into a
somewhat unreal tragedy, a passionate intensity which is otherwise
wholly inexplicable. This is how he talks to his mother:
"Have you eyes?
Could you on this fair mountain leave to feed,
And batten on this moor? Ha! have you eyes ...
... ... ... What devil was't
That thus cozen'd you at hoodman-blind?
Eyes without feeling, feeling without sight,
Ears without hands or eyes, smelling sans all,
Or but a sickly part of one true sense
Could not so mope.
O, shame! where is thy blush?"
If anyone can imagine that this is the way a son thinks of a mother's
slip he is past my persuading. In all this Shakespeare is thinking of
himself in comparison with Herbert; and his advice to his mother is
almost as self-revealing, showing, as it does, what he would wish to say
to Miss Fitton:
"Repent what's past; avoid what is to come;
And do not spread the compost on the weeds
To make them ranker....
Assume a virtue if you have it not...."
In his description of the king and queen we get Shakespeare's view of
Lord Herbert and Miss Fitton: the king (Herbert) is "mildew'd" and foul
in comparison with his modest poet-rival--"A satyr to Hyperion."
Hamlet's view of his mother (Miss Fitton), though bitterer still, is yet
the bitterness of disappointed love: he will have her repent, refrain
from the adultery, and be pure and good again. When the Queen asks:
"What shall I do?"
"Not this, by no means, that I bid you do:
Let the king tempt you again to bed;
Pinch wanton on your cheek; call you his mouse;
And let him, for a pair of reechy kisses,
Or paddling in your neck with his damned fingers...."
Maddened with jealousy he sees the act, scourges himself with his own
lewd imagining as Posthumus scourges himself. No one ever felt this
intensity of jealous rage about a mother or a sister. The mere idea is
absurd; it is one's own passion-torture that speaks in such words as I
have here quoted.
Hamlet's treatment of Ophelia, too, and his advice to her are all the
outcome of Shakespeare's own disappointment:
"Get thee to a nunnery: why wouldst thou be a
breeder of sinners?"
We all expect from Hamlet some outburst of divine tenderness to Ophelia;
but the scenes with the pure and devoted girl whom he is supposed to
love are not half realized, are nothing like so intense as the scenes
with the guilty mother. It is jealousy that is blazing in Shakespeare at
this time, and not love; when Hamlet speaks to the Queen we hear
Shakespeare speaking to his own faithless, guilty love. Besides, Ophelia
is not even realized; she is submissive affection, an abstraction, and
not a character. Shakespeare did not take interest enough in her to give
her flesh and blood.
Shakespeare's jealousy and excessive sensuality come to full light in
the scene between Hamlet and Ophelia, when they are about to witness the
play before the king: he persists in talking smut to her, which she
pretends not to understand. The lewdness, we all feel, is out of place
in "Hamlet," horribly out of place when Hamlet is talking to Ophelia,
but Shakespeare's sensuality has been stung to ecstasy by Miss Fitton's
frailty, and he cannot but give it voice. As soon as Ophelia goes out of
her mind she, too, becomes coarse--all of which is but a witness to
Shakespeare's tortured animality. Yet Goethe can talk of Hamlet's "pure
and most moral nature." A goat is hardly less pure, though Hamlet was
moral enough in the high sense of the word.
There are one or two minor questions still to be considered, and the
chief of these is how far, even in this moment of disillusion, did our
Shakespeare see himself as he was? Hamlet says:
"I am very proud, revengeful, ambitious; with more
offences at my beck than I have thoughts to put them in,
imagination to give them shape, or time to act them in. What should such
fellows as I do crawling between heaven and earth? We are arrant knaves,
all; believe none of us."
All this is mere rhetoric, and full of clever self-excusing. Hamlet is
not very revengeful or very ambitious; he is weakly-irresolute, and
excessively sensual, with all the faults that accompany these frailties.
Even at this moment, when he must know that he is not very revengeful,
that forgiveness were easier to him, Shakespeare will pose to himself,
and call himself revengeful: he is such an idealist that he absolutely
refuses to see himself as he is. In later dramas we shall find that he
grows to deeper self-knowledge. Hamlet is but the half-way house to
Fortunately we have each of us an infallible touchstone by which we can
judge of our love of truth. Any of us, man or woman, would rather be
accused of a mental than a physical shortcoming. Do we see our bodily
imperfections as they are? Can we describe ourselves pitilessly with
snub nose, or coarse beak, bandy legs or thin shanks; gross paunch or
sedgy beard? Shakespeare in Hamlet can hardly bear even to suggest his
physical imperfections. Hamlet lets out inadvertently that he was fat,
but he will not say so openly. His mother says to Hamlet:
"You are fat and scant of breath."
Many people, especially actors, have been so determined to see Hamlet as
slight and student-like, that they have tried to criticize this phrase,
and one of them, Mr. Beerbohm Tree, even in our day, went so far as to
degrade the text to "faint and scant of breath." But the fatness is
there, and comes to view again in another phrase of Hamlet:
"O, that this too, too solid flesh would melt,
Thaw, and resolve itself into a dew."
No thin man ever spoke of his flesh in that way. Shakespeare was
probably small, too. We know that he used to play Adam in "As You Like
it," and in the play Orlando has to take Adam up and carry him off the
stage, a thing no actor would attempt if the Adam had been a big man.
Shakespeare was probably of middle height, or below it, and podgy. I
always picture him to myself as very like Swinburne. Yet even in Hamlet
he would make himself out to be a devil of a fellow: "valiant Hamlet," a
swordsman of the finest, a superb duellist, who can touch Laertes again
and again, though lacking practice. At the last push of fate Shakespeare
will pose and deceive himself.
It is curiously characteristic of Shakespeare that when Hamlet broods on
retaliation he does not brood like a brave man, who gloats on
challenging his enemy to a fair fight, and killing him by sheer force or
resolution; his passion, his revenge, is almost that of an Italian
bravo. Not once does Hamlet think of forcing the king (Herbert) to
a duel; he goes about with ideas of assassination, and not of combat.
"Now might I do it pat"
he cries as he sees the king praying; and he does not do it because he
would thus send the king's soul to Heaven--shrill wordy intensity to
excuse want of nerve. Whenever we get under the skin, it is
Shakespeare's femininity which startles us.
One cannot leave this great picture of Hamlet-Shakespeare without
noticing one curious fact, which throws a flood of light on the
relations of literary art to life. Shakespeare, as we have seen, is
boiling with jealous passion, brooding continually on murderous revenge,
and so becomes conscious of his own irresolution. He dwells on this, and
makes this irresolution the chief feature of Hamlet's character, and yet
because he is writing about himself he manages to suggest so many other
qualities, and such amiable and noble ones, that we are all in love with
Hamlet, in spite of his irresolution, erotic mania and bloody thoughts.
In later dramas Shakespeare went on to deal with the deeper and more
elemental things in his nature, with jealousy in "Othello," and
passionate desire in "Antony and Cleopatra"; but he never, perhaps, did
much better work than in this drama where he chooses to magnify a
secondary and ancillary weakness into the chief defect of his whole
being. The pathos of the drama is to be found in the fact that
Shakespeare realizes he is unable to take personal vengeance on Herbert.
"Hamlet" is a drama of pathetic weakness, strengthened by a drama of
revenge and jealousy. In these last respects it is a preparatory study
In "Hamlet" Shakespeare let out some of the foul matter which Herbert's
mean betrayal had bred in him. Even in "Hamlet," however, his passion
for Mary Fitton, and his jealousy of her, constitute the real theme. We
shall soon see how this passion coloured all the rest of his life and
art, and at length brought about his ruin.
DRAMAS OF REVENGE AND JEALOUSY: PART II "OTHELLO"
There is perhaps no single drama which throws such light on Shakespeare
and his method of work as "Othello": it is a long conflict between the
artist in him and the man, and, in the struggle, both his artistic
ideals and his passionate soul come to clearest view. From it we see
that Shakespeare's nature gave itself gradually to jealousy and revenge.
The fire of his passion burned more and more fiercely for years; was
infinitely hotter in 1604, when "Othello" was written, than it had been
when "Julius Caesar" was written in 1600. This proves to me that
Shakespeare's connection with Mary Fitton did not come to an end when he
first discovered her unfaithfulness. The intimacy continued for a dozen
years. In Sonnet 136 he prays her to allow him to be one of her lovers.
That she was liberal enough to consent appears clearly from the growth
of passion in his plays. It is certain, too, that she went on deceiving
him with other lovers, or his jealousy would have waned away, ebbing
with fulfilled desire. But his passion increases in intensity from 1597
to 1604, whipped no doubt to ecstasy by continual deception and wild
jealousy. Both lust and jealousy swing to madness in "Othello," But
Shakespeare was so great an artist that, when he took the story from
Cinthio, he tried to realize it without bringing in his own personality:
hence a conflict between his art and his passion.
At first sight "Othello" reminds one of a picture by Titian or Veronese;
it is a romantic conception; the personages are all in gala dress; the
struggle between Iago and the Moor is melodramatic; the whole picture
aglow with a superb richness of colour. It is Shakespeare's finest play,
his supreme achievement as a playwright. It is impossible to read
"Othello" without admiring the art of it. The beginning is so easy: the
introduction of the chief characters so measured and impressive that
when the action really begins, it develops and increases in speed as by
its own weight to the inevitable end; inevitable--for the end in this
case is merely the resultant of the shock of these various
personalities. But if the action itself is superbly ordered, the
painting of character leaves much to be desired, as we shall see. There
is one notable difference between "Othello" and those dramas, "Hamlet,"
"Macbeth," and "Cymbeline," wherein Shakespeare has depicted himself as
the protagonist. In the self-revealing dramas not only does Shakespeare
give his hero licence to talk, in and out of season, and thus hinder the
development of the story, but he also allows him to occupy the whole
stage without a competitor. The explanation is obvious enough. Dramatic
art is to be congratulated on the fact that now and then Shakespeare
left himself for a little out of the play, for then not only does the
construction of the play improve, but the play grows in interest through
the encounter of evenly-matched antagonists. The first thing we notice
in "Othello" is that Iago is at least as important a character as the
hero himself. "Hamlet," on the other hand, is almost a lyric; there is
no counterpoise to the student-prince.
Now let us get to the play itself. Othello's first appearance in
converse with Iago in the second scene of the first act does not seem to
me to deserve the praise that has been lavished on it. Though Othello
knows that "boasting is (not) an honour," he nevertheless boasts himself
of royal blood. We have noticed already Shakespeare's love of good
blood, and belief in its wondrous efficacy; it is one of his permanent
and most characteristic traits. The passage about royal descent might be
left out with advantage; if these three lines are omitted, Othello's
pride in his own nature--his "parts and perfect soul"--is far more
strongly felt. But such trivial flaws are forgotten when Brabantio
enters and swords are drawn.
"Keep up your bright swords, for the dew will rust them."
is excellent in its contemptuous irony. A little later, however, Othello
finds an expression which is intensely characteristic of a great man of
"Hold your hands,
Both you of my inclining, and the rest;
Were it my cue to fight, I should have known it
Without a prompter."
This last line and a half is addressed especially to Iago who is bent on
provoking a fight, and is, I think, the best piece of character-painting
in all "Othello"; the born general knows instinctively the moment to
attack just as the trained boxer's hand strikes before he consciously
sees the opening. When Othello speaks before the Duke, too, he reveals
himself with admirable clearness and truth to nature. His pride is so
deep-rooted, his self-respect so great, that he respects all other
dignitaries: the Senators are his "very noble and approved good
masters." Every word weighed and effectual. Admirable, too, is the
expression "round unvarnished tale."
But pride and respect for others' greatness are not qualities peculiar
to the man of action; they belong to all men of ability. As soon as
Othello begins to tell how he won Desdemona, he falls out of his
character. Feeling certain that he has placed his hero before us in
strong outlines, Shakespeare lets himself go, and at once we catch him
speaking and not Othello. In "antres vast and deserts idle" I hear the
poet, and when the verse swings to--
".... men whose heads
Do grow beneath their shoulders,"
it is plain that Othello, the lord and lover of realities, has deserted
the firm ground of fact. But Shakespeare pulls himself in almost before
he has yielded to the charm of his own words, and again Othello speaks:
"This to hear
Would Desdemona seriously incline,
But still the house-affairs would draw her thence,
and so forth.
The temptation, however, was overpowering, and again Shakespeare yields
"And often did beguile her of her tears
When I did speak of some distressful stroke
That my youth suffered."
It is a characteristic of the man of action that he thinks lightly of
reverses; he loves hard buffets as a swimmer high waves, and when he
tells his life-story he does not talk of his "distress." This
"distressful stroke that my youth suffered" is manifestly pure
Shakespeare--tender-hearted Shakespeare, who pitied himself and the
distressful strokes his youth suffered very profoundly. The
characterization of Othello in the rest of this scene is anything but
happy. He talks too much; I miss the short sharp words which would show
the man used to command, and not only does he talk too much, but he
talks in images like a poet, and exaggerates:
"The tyrant Custom, most grave senators,
Hath made the flinty and steel couch of war
My thrice-driven bed of down."
Even the matter here is insincere; this is the poet's explanation of the
Captain's preference for a hard bed and hard living: "has been
accustomed to it," says Shakespeare, not understanding that there are
born hunter and soldier natures who absolutely prefer hardships to
effeminate luxury. Othello's next speech is just as bad; he talks too
much of things particular and private, and the farther he goes, the
worse he gets, till we again hear the poet speaking, or rather mouthing:
"No, when light-winged toys
Of feathered Cupid seel with wanton dullness
My speculative and officed instruments,
That my disports corrupt and taint my business,
Let housewives make a skillet of my helm,
And all indign and base adversities
Make head against my estimation."
Again when he says--
"Come, Desdemona: I have but an hour
Of love, of worldly matters and direction
To spend with thee; we must obey the time,"
I find no sharp impatience to get to work such as Hotspur felt, but a
certain reluctance to leave his love--a natural touch which indicates
that the poet was thinking of himself and not of his puppet.
The first scene of the second act shows us how Shakespeare, the
dramatist, worked. Cassio is plainly Shakespeare the poet; any of his
speeches taken at haphazard proves it. When he hears that Iago has
arrived he breaks out:
"He has had most favourable and happy speed;
Tempests themselves, high seas, and howling winds,
The guttered rocks and congregated sands--
Traitors ensteeped to clog the guiltless keel--
As having sense of beauty, do omit
Their mortal natures, letting go safely by
The divine Desdemona."
And when Desdemona lands, Cassio's first exclamation is sufficient to
establish the fact that he is merely the poet's mask:
The riches of the ship is come on shore!"
And just as clearly as Cassio is Shakespeare, the lyric poet, so is
Iago, at first, the embodiment of Shakespeare's intelligence. Iago has
been described as immoral; he does not seem to me to be immoral, but
amoral, as the intellect always is. He says to the women:
"Come on, come on; you're pictures out of doors,
Bells in your parlours, wild cats in your kitchens,
Saints in your injuries, devils being offended,
Players in your housewifery, and housewives in your
Iago sees things as they are, fairly and not maliciously; he is "nothing
if not critical," but his criticism has a touch of Shakespeare's erotic
mania in it. Think of that "housewives in your beds"! He will not
deceive himself, however; in spite of Cassio's admiration of Desdemona
Iago does not imagine that Cassio is in love with her; "well kissed," he
says, "an excellent courtesy," finding at once the true explanation.
[Footnote: At the end of this scene Iago says:
"That Cassio loves her I do well believe it,"
but that is merely one of the many inconsistencies in Shakespeare's
drawing of Iago. There are others; at one time he talks of Cassio as a
mere book soldier, at another equals him with Caesar. Had Coleridge noted
these contradictions he would have declared them to be a higher
perfection than logical unity, and there is something to be said for the
argument, though in these instances I think the contradictions are due
to Shakespeare's carelessness rather than to his deeper insight.]
But having taken up this intellectual attitude in order to create Iago,
Shakespeare tries next to make his puppet concrete and individual by
giving him revenge for a soul, but in this he does not succeed, for
intellect is not maleficent. At moments Iago lives for us; "drown cats
and blind puppies ... put money in your purse"--his brains delight us;
but when he pursues Desdemona to her end, we revolt; such malignity is
inhuman. Shakespeare was so little inclined to evil, knew so little of
hate and revenge that his villain is unreal in his cruelty. Again and
again the reader asks himself why Iago is so venomous. He hates Othello
because Othello has passed him over and preferred Cassio; because he
thinks he has had reason to be jealous of Othello, because-----but every
one feels that these are reasons supplied by Shakespeare to explain the
inexplicable; taken all together they are inadequate, and we are apt to
throw them aside with Coleridge as the "motive hunting of motiveless
malignity." But such a thing as "motiveless malignity" is not in nature,
Iago's villainy is too cruel, too steadfast to be human; perfect
pitiless malignity is as impossible to man as perfect innate goodness.
Though Iago and Othello hold the stage for nine-tenths of the play
Shakespeare does not realize them so completely as he realizes Cassio,
an altogether subordinate character. The drinking episode of Cassio was
not found by Shakespeare in Cinthio, and is, I think, clearly the
confession of Shakespeare himself, for though aptly invented to explain
Cassio's dismissal it is unduly prolonged, and thus constitutes perhaps
the most important fault in the construction of the play. Consider, too,
how the moral is applied by Iago to England in especial, with which
country neither Iago nor the story has anything whatever to do.
Othello's appearance stilling the riot, his words to Iago and his
dismissal of Cassio are alike honest work. The subsequent talk between
Cassio and Iago about "reputation" is scarcely more than a repetition of
what Falstaff said of "honour."
Coleridge has made a great deal of the notion that Othello was justified
in describing himself as "not easily jealous"; but poor Coleridge's
perverse ingenuity never led him further astray. The exact contrary
must, I think, be admitted; Othello was surely very quick to suspect
Desdemona; he remembers Iago's first suspicious phrase, ponders it and
asks its meaning; he is as quick as Posthumus was to believe the worst
of Imogen, as quick as Richard II. to suspect his friends Bagot and
Green of traitorism, and this proneness to suspicion is the soul of
jealousy. And Othello is not only quick to suspect but easy to
convince--impulsive at once and credulous. His quick wits jump to the
conclusion that Iago, "this honest creature!" doubtless
"Sees and knows more, much more, than he unfolds."
On hinted imputation he is already half persuaded, and persuaded as only
a sensualist would be that it is lust which has led Desdemona astray:
"O curse of marriage!
That we can call these delicate creatures ours,
And not their appetites."
He is, indeed, so disposed to catch the foul infection that Iago cries:
"Trifles light as air
Are to the jealous confirmations strong
As proofs of holy writ."
And well he may, for before he uses the handkerchief or any evidence, on
mere suspicion Othello is already racked with doubt, distraught with
jealousy, maddened with passion; "his occupation's gone"; he rages
against Iago and demands proof, Iago answers:
"I do not like the office;
But, sith I am entered in this cause so far
* * * * * *
I will go on."
This is the same paltry reason Richard III. and Macbeth adduced for
adding to the number of their crimes, the truth being that Shakespeare
could find no reason in his own nature for effective hatred.
Othello gives immediate credence to Iago's dream, thinks it "a shrewd
doubt"; he is a "credulous fool," as Iago calls him, and it is only our
sense of Iago's devilish cleverness that allows us to excuse Othello's
folly. The strawberry-spotted handkerchief is not needed: the magic in
its web is so strong that the mere mention of it blows his love away and
condemns both Cassio and Desdemona to death. If this Othello is not
easily jealous then no man is prone to doubt and quick to turn from love
The truth of the matter is that in the beginning of the play Othello is
a marionette fairly well shaped and exceedingly picturesque; but as soon
as jealousy is touched upon, the mask is thrown aside; Othello, the
self-contained captain, disappears, the poet takes his place and at once
shows himself to be the aptest subject for the green fever. The emotions
then put into Othello's mouth are intensely realized; his jealousy is
indeed Shakespeare's own confession, and it would be impossible to find
in all literature pages of more sincere and terrible self-revealing.
Shakespeare is not more at home in showing us the passion of Romeo and
Juliet or the irresolution of Richard II. or the scepticism of Hamlet
than in depicting the growth and paroxysms of jealousy; his overpowering
sensuality, the sensuality of Romeo and of Orsino, has sounded every
note of love's mortal sickness:
"Oth. I had been happy if the general camp,
Pioneers and all, had tasted her sweet body,
So I had nothing known.
* * * * *
Damn her, lewd minx! O, damn her!"
We have here the proof that the jealousy of Othello was Shakespeare's
jealousy; it is all compounded of sensuality. But, and this is the
immediate point of my argument, the captain, Othello, is not presented
to us as a sensualist to whom such a suspicion would be, of course, the
nearest thought. On the contrary, Othello is depicted as sober
[Footnote: Shakespeare makes Lodovico speak of Othello's "solid
virtue"--"the nature whom passion could not shake." Even Iago finds
Othello's anger ominous because of its rarity:
"There's matter in't, indeed, if he be angry."]
and solid, slow to anger, and master of himself and his desires; he
expressly tells the lords of Venice that he does not wish Desdemona to
"To please the palate of my appetite
Nor to comply with heat--the young affects,
In me defunct--and proper satisfaction."
Shakespeare goes out of his way to put this unnecessary explanation in
Othello's mouth; he will not have us think of him as passion's fool, but
as passion's master; Othello is not to be even suspicious; he tells
"'Tis not to make me jealous
To say--my wife is fair, feeds well, loves company,
Is free of speech, sings, plays and dances well;
Where virtue is, these are more virtuous:
Nor from mine own weak merits will I draw
The smallest fear or doubt of her revolt;
For she had eyes and chose me."
It was all this, no doubt, that misled Coleridge. He did not realize
that this Othello suddenly changes his nature; the sober lord of himself
becomes in an instant very quick to suspect, and being jealous, is
nothing if not sensual; he can think of no reason for Desdemona's fall
but her appetite; the imagination of the sensual act throws him into a
fit; it is this picture which gives life to his hate. The conclusion is
not to be avoided; as soon as Othello becomes jealous he is transformed
by Shakespeare's own passion. For this is the way Shakespeare conceived
jealousy and the only way. The jealousy of Leontes in "The Winter's
Tale" is precisely the same; Hermione gives her hand to Polixenes, and
at once Leontes suspects and hates, and his rage is all of "paddling
palms  and pinching fingers." The jealousy of Posthumus, too, is of
the same kind:
"Never talk on 't;
She hath been colted by him."
[Footnote 1: Iago's expression, too; cf. "Othello," II. 1, and "Hamlet,"
It is the imagining of the sensual act that drives him to incoherence
and the verge of madness, as it drove Othello. In all these characters
Shakespeare is only recalling the stages of the passion that desolated
The part that imagination usually plays in tormenting the jealous man
with obscene pictures is now played by Iago; the first scene of the
fourth act is this erotic self-torture put in Iago's mouth. As Othello's
passion rises to madness, as the self-analysis becomes more and more
intimate and personal, we have Shakespeare's re-lived agony clothing
itself in his favourite terms of expression:
"O! it comes o'er my memory,
As doth the raven o'er the infected house,
Boding to all,--he had my handkerchief."
The interest swings still higher; the scene in which Iago uses Cassio's
conceit and laughter to exasperate further the already mad Othello is
one of the notable triumphs of dramatic art. But just as the quick
growth of his jealousy, and its terrible sensuality, have shown us that
Othello is not the self-contained master of his passions that he
pretends to be and that Shakespeare wishes us to believe, so this scene,
in which the listening Othello rages in savagery, reveals to us an
intense femininity of nature. For generally the man concentrates his
hatred upon the woman who deceives him, and is only disdainful of his
rival, whereas the woman for various reasons gives herself to hatred of
her rival, and feels only angry contempt for her lover's traitorism. But
Othello--or shall we not say Shakespeare?--discovers in the sincerest
ecstasy of this passion as much of the woman's nature as of the man's.
After seeing his handkerchief in Bianca's hands he asks:
"How shall I murder him, Iago?"
Manifestly, Shakespeare is thinking of Herbert and his base betrayal.
Othello would have Cassio thrown to the dogs, would have him "nine years
a-killing"; and though he adds that Desdemona shall "rot and perish and
be damned to-night," immediately afterwards we see what an infinite
affection for her underlies his anger:
"O, the world hath not a sweeter creature: she might
lie by an emperor's side and command him tasks."
And then Shakespeare uses his brains objectively, so to speak, to excuse
his persistent tenderness, and at once he reveals himself and proves to
us that he is thinking of Mary Fitton, and not of poor Desdemona:
"Hang her! I do but say what she is.--So delicate with her needle!--An
admirable musician! O, she will sing the savageness out of a bear.--Of
so high and plenteous wit and invention."
Shakespeare himself speaks in this passage. For when has Desdemona shown
high and plenteous wit or invention? She is hardly more than a symbol of
constancy. It is Mary Fitton who has "wit and invention," and is "an
The feminine tenderness in Shakespeare comes to perfect expression in
the next lines; no woman has a more enduring affection:
"Iago. She's the worse for all this.
Oth. O! a thousand, a thousand times. And, then of so gentle a
Iago. Ay, too gentle.
Oth. Nay, that's certain:--but yet the pity of it, Iago!--O,
Iago, the pity of it, Iago!"
The tenderness shrills to such exquisite poignancy that it becomes a
universal cry, the soul's lament for traitorism: "The pity of it, Iago!
O, Iago, the pity of it!" Othello's jealous passion is at its height in
the scene with Desdemona when he gives his accusations precise words,
and flings money to Emilia as the guilty confidante. And yet even here,
where he delights to soil his love, his tenderness reaches its most
"O thou weed,
Who art so lovely fair, and smell'st so sweet,
That the sense aches at thee--would thou hadst ne'er
As soon as jealousy reaches its end, and passes into revenge,
Shakespeare tries to get back into Othello the captain again. Othello's
first speech in the bedchamber is clear enough in all conscience, but it
has been so mangled by unintelligent actors such as Salvini that it
cries for explanation. Every one will remember how Salvini and others
playing this part stole into the room like murderers, and then bellowed
so that they would have waked the dead. And when the foolish mummers
were criticised for thus misreading the character, they answered boldly
that Othello was a Moor, that his passion was Southern, and I know not
what besides. It is clear that Shakespeare's Othello enters the room
quietly as a justicer with a duty to perform: he keeps his resolution to
the sticking-point by thinking of the offence; he says solemnly:
"It is the cause, it is the cause, my soul--"
and, Englishman-like, finds a moral reason for his intended action:
"Yet she must die, else she'll betray more men."
But the reason fades and the resolution wavers in the passion for her
"body and beauty," and the tenderness of the lover comes to hearing
"[Kissing her."] O balmy breath, that dost almost persuade
Justice to break her sword!--one more, one more.--
Be thus when thou art dead, and I will kill thee,
And love thee after.--One more, and this the last.
So sweet was ne'er so fatal. I must weep,
But they are cruel tears; this sorrow's heavenly;
It strikes where it doth love.--She wakes."
So gentle a murderer was never seen save Macbeth, and the "heavenly
sorrow" that strikes where it doth love is one of the best examples in
literature of the Englishman's capacity for hypocritical self-deception.
The subsequent dialogue shows us in Othello the short, plain phrases of
immitigable resolution; in this scene Shakespeare comes nearer to
realizing strength than anywhere else in all his work. But even here his
nature shows itself; Othello has to be misled by Desdemona's weeping,
which he takes to be sorrow for Cassio's death, before he can pass to
action, and as soon as the murder is accomplished, he regrets:
"O, insupportable! O heavy hour!"
His frank avowal, however, is excellently characteristic of the soldier
"'Twas I that killed her."
A moment later there is a perfect poetic expression of his love:
"Nay, had she been true
If Heaven would make me such another world
Of one entire and perfect chrysolite,
I'd not have sold her for it."
Then comes a revelation of sensuality and physical fastidiousness so
peculiar that by itself it proves much of what I have said of
"Oth. ... Ay 'twas he that told me first;
An honest man he is, and hates the slime
That sticks on filthy deeds."
For a breathing-space now before he is convinced of his fatal error,
Othello speaks as the soldier, but in spite of the fact that he has
fulfilled his revenge, and should be at his sincerest, we have no word
of profound self-revealing. But as soon as he realizes his mistake, his
regret becomes as passionate as a woman's and magical in expression:
"Cold, cold, my girl!
Even like thy chastity."
Another proof that Shakespeare discards the captain, Othello, in order
to give utterance to his own jealousy and love, is to be found in the
similarity between this speech of Othello and the corresponding speech
of Posthumus in "Cymbeline." As soon as Posthumus is convinced of his
mistake, he calls Iachimo "Italian fiend" and himself "most credulous
fool," "egregious murderer," and so forth. He asks for "some upright
justicer" to punish him as he deserves with "cord or knife or poison,"
nay, he will have "torturers ingenious." He then praises Imogen as "the
temple of virtue," and again shouts curses at himself and finally calls
upon his love:
My queen, my life, my wife! O Imogen,
Othello behaves in precisely the same manner; he calls Iago that
"demi-devil," and himself "an honourable murderer"; and Iago calls him a
"credulous fool." Othello, too, cries for punishment; instead of
"torturers ingenious," he will have "devils" to "whip" him, and "roast
him in sulphur." He praises Desdemona as chaste, "ill-starred wench,"
"my girl," and so forth; then curses himself lustily and ends his lament
with the words:
"O Desdemon! dead, Desdemon! dead! O!"
The same changes in mood, the same words even--the likeness is so close
that it can only be explained as I have explained it; from beginning to
end of "Cymbeline" Posthumus is Shakespeare, and as soon as jealousy,
pity, remorse, or any tender emotion seizes Othello he becomes
Shakespeare too, and speaks with Shakespeare's voice.
From here on, it is all good work if not great work to Othello's last
speech, which merits particular consideration. He begins as the captain,
but soon passes into the poet; and then towards the end talks again in
quick measure as the man of action. I quote the whole speech, [Footnote:
This speech is curiously like the long speech of Richard II. which I
have already noticed; at the beginning Shakespeare speaks as a king for
a few lines, then naturally as a poet, and at the end pulls himself up
and tries to resume the character.] putting into italics the phrases in
which the poet betrays himself:
"Oth. Soft you; a word or two, before you go.
I have done the State some service, and they know it;
No more of that.--I pray you in your letters,
When you shall these unlucky deeds relate,
Speak of me as I am; nothing extenuate,
Nor set down aught in malice; then must you speak
Of one that loved not wisely, but too well;
Of one not easily jealous, but being wrought
Perplexed in the extreme; of one whose hand,
Like the base Indian, threw a pearl away
Richer than all his tribe; of one whose subdued eyes,
Albeit unused to the melting mood,
Drop tears as fast as the Arabian trees
Their medicinal gum. Set you down this;
And say, besides, that in Aleppo once,
When a malignant and a turban'd Turk
Beat a Venetian, and traduced the State,
I took by the throat the circumcized dog
And smote him--thus."
All the memorable words here are the words of the gentle poet revealing
his own nature ingenuously. The relief given by tears is exquisitely
expressed, but the relief itself is a feminine experience; men usually
find that tears humiliate them, and take refuge from their scalding
shame in anger. The deathless phrases of the poet's grief must be
contrasted with the braggart mouthings of the captain at the end in
order to realize how impossible it was for Shakespeare to depict a man
In the first two acts Shakespeare has tried to present Othello with some
sincerity and truth to the dramatic fiction. But as soon as jealousy
touches Othello, he becomes the transparent vessel of Shakespeare's own
emotion, and is filled with it as with his heart's blood. All the
magical phrases in the play are phrases of jealousy, passion, and pity.
The character of the captain in Othello is never deeply realized. It is
a brave sketch, but, after all, only the merest sketch when compared
with Hamlet or Macbeth. We know what they thought of life and death, and
of all things in the world and over it; but what do we know of Othello's
thoughts upon the deepest matters that concern man? Did he believe even
in his stories to Desdemona?--in the men whose heads do grow beneath
their shoulders? in his magic handkerchief? in what Iago calls his
"fantastical lies"? This, I submit, is another important indication that
Shakespeare drew Othello, the captain, from the outside; the jealous,
tender heart of him is Shakespeare's, but take that away and we scarcely
know more of him than the colour of his skin. What interests us in
Othello is not his strength, but his weakness, Shakespeare's
weakness--his passion and pity, his torture, rage, jealousy and remorse,
the successive stages of his soul's Calvary!
DRAMAS OF LUST: PART I
Troilus and Cressida
"He probed from hell to hell
Of human passions, but of love deflowered
His wisdom was not...."
--Meredith's Sonnet on Shakespeare.
With "Hamlet" and his dreams of an impossible revenge Shakespeare got
rid of some of the perilous stuff which his friend's traitorism had bred
in him. In "Othello" he gave deathless expression to the madness of his
jealous rage and so cleared his soul, to some extent, of that poisonous
infection. But passion in Shakespeare survived hatred of the betrayer
and jealousy of him; he had quickly finished with Herbert; but Mary
Fitton lived still for him and tempted him perpetually--the lust of the
flesh, the desire of the eye, insatiable, cruel as the grave. He will
now portray his mistress for us dramatically--unveil her very soul, show
the gipsy-wanton as she is. He who has always painted in high lights is
now going to paint French fashion, in blackest shadows, for with the
years his passion and his bitterness have grown in intensity. Mary
Fitton is now "false Cressid." Pandarus says of her in the first scene
of the first act:
"An her hair were not somewhat darker than Helen's--well,
go to--there were no more comparison between
Mary Fitton's hair, we know, was raven-black, but the evidence
connecting Shakespeare's mistress with "false Cressid" is stronger, as
we shall see, than any particular line or expression.
"Troilus and Cressida" is a wretched, invertebrate play without even a
main current of interest. Of course there are fine phrases in it, as in
most of the productions of Shakespeare's maturity; but the
characterization is worse than careless, and at first one wonders why
Shakespeare wrote the tedious, foolish stuff except to get rid of his
own bitterness in the railing of Thersites, and in the depicting of
Cressida's shameless wantonness. It is impossible to doubt that "false
Cressid" was meant for Mary Fitton. The moment she appears the play
begins to live; personal bitterness turns her portrait into a
caricature; every fault is exaggerated and lashed with rage; it is not
so much a drama as a scene where Shakespeare insults his mistress.
Let us look at this phase of his passion in perspective. Almost as soon
as he became acquainted with Miss Fitton, about Christmas 1597,
Shakespeare wrote of her as a wanton; yet so long as she gave herself to
him he appears to have been able to take refuge in his tenderness and
endure her strayings. But passion in him grew with what it fed on, and
after she faulted with Lord Herbert, we find him in a sonnet threatening
her that his "pity-wanting pain" may induce him to write of her as she
was. No doubt her pride and scornful strength revolted under this
treatment and she drew away from him. Tortured by desire he would then
praise her with some astonishing phrases; call her "the heart's blood of
beauty, love's invisible soul," and after some hesitation she would
yield again. No sooner was the "ruined love" rebuilt than she would
offend again, and again he would curse and threaten, and so the
wretched, half-miserable, half-ecstatic life of passion stormed along,
one moment in Heaven, the next in Hell.
All the while Shakespeare was longing, or thought he was longing for
truth and constancy, and at length he gave form and name to his desire
for winnowed purity of love and perfect constancy, and this consoling
but impalpable ideal he called Ophelia, Desdemona, Cordelia. But again
and again Miss Fitton reconquered him and at length his accumulated
bitterness compelled him to depict his mistress realistically. Cressida
is his first attempt, the first dramatic portrait of the mistress who
got into Shakespeare's blood and infected the current of his being, and
the portrait is spoiled by the poet's hatred and contempt just as the
whole drama is spoiled by a passion of bitterness that is surely the
sign of intense personal suffering. Cressida is depicted as a vile
wanton, a drab by nature; but it is no part even of this conception to
make her soulless and devilish. On the contrary, an artist of
Shakespeare's imaginative sympathy loves to put in high relief the grain
of good in things evil and the taint of evil in things good that give
humanity its curious complexity. Shakespeare observed this rule of
dramatic presentation more consistently than any of his predecessors or
contemporaries--more consistently, more finely far than Homer or
Sophocles, whose heroes had only such faults as their creators thought
virtues; why then did he forget nature so far as to picture "false
Cressida" without a redeeming quality? He first shows her coquetting
with Troilus, and her coquetry even is unattractive, shallow, and
obvious; then she gives herself to Troilus out of passionate desire; but
Shakespeare omits to tell us why she takes up with Diomedes immediately
afterwards. We are to understand merely that she is what Ulysses calls a
"sluttish spoil of opportunity," and "daughter of the game." But as
passionate desire is not of necessity faithless we are distressed and
puzzled by her soulless wantonness. And when she goes on to present
Diomedes with the scarf that Troilus gave her, we revolt; the woman is
too full of blood to be so entirely heartless. Here is the scene
embittered by the fact that Troilus witnesses Cressida's betrayal:
"Diomedes. I had your heart before, this follows it.
Troilus. [Aside.] I did swear patience.
Cressida. You shall not have it, Diomed, faith you shall not;
I'll give you something else.
Diomedes. I will have this: whose was it?
Cressida. It is no matter.
Diomedes. Come, tell me whose it was?
Cressida. 'Twas one that loved me better than you will,
But, now you have it, take it."
The scene is a splendid dramatic scene, a piece torn from life, so
realistic that it convinces, and yet we revolt; we feel that we have not
got to the heart of the mystery. There is so much evil in Cressida that
we want to see the spark of goodness in her, however fleeting and
ineffective the spark may be. But Shakespeare makes her attempt at
justification a confession of absolute faithlessness:
"Troilus, farewell! one eye yet looks on thee,
But with my heart the other eye doth see.
Ah! poor our sex! This fault in us I find,
The error of our eye directs our mind."
This is plainly Shakespeare's reflection and not Cressida's apology, and
if we contrast this speech with the dialogue given above, it becomes
plain, I think, that the terrible scene with Diomedes is taken from
life, or is at least Shakespeare's vision of the way Mary Fitton
behaved. There's a magic in those devilish words of Cressida that
"'Twas one that loved me better than you will,
But, now you have it, take it."
"Sweet, honey Greek, tempt me no more to folly:"
The very power of the characterization makes the traitress hateful. If
Mary Fitton ever gave any gift of Shakespeare to Lord Herbert, the
dramatist should have known that she no longer loved him, had in reality
already forgotten him in her new passion; but to paint a woman as
remembering a lover, indeed as still loving him, and yet as giving his
gift to another, is an offence in art though it may be true to nature.
It is a fault in art because it is impossible to motive it in a few
lines. The fact of the gift is bad enough; without explanation it is
horrible. For this and other reasons I infer that Shakespeare took the
fact from his own experience: he had suffered, it seems to me, from some
such traitorism on the part of his mistress, or he ascribed to Mary
Fitton some traitorism of his own.
In sonnet 122 he finds weighty excuse for having given away the
table-book which his friend had given to him. His own confessed
shortcoming might have taught him to exercise more lenient judgment
towards his frail love.
But when Shakespeare wrote "Troilus and Cressida" a passion of
bitterness possessed him; he not only vilified Cressida but all the
world, Agamemnon, Nestor, Achilles, Ajax; he seems indeed to have taken
more pleasure in the railing of Thersites than in any other part of the
work except the scourging of Cressida. He shocks us by the picture of
Achilles and his myrmidons murdering Hector when they come upon him
One or two incidental difficulties must be settled before we pass to a
"Troilus and Cressida" has always been regarded as a sort of enigma.
Professor Dowden asks: "With what intention and in what spirit did
Shakespeare write this strange comedy? All the Greek heroes who fought
against Troy are pitilessly exposed to ridicule?" And from this fact and
the bitterness of "Timon" some German critics have drawn the inference
that Shakespeare was incapable of comprehending Greek life, and that
indeed he only realized his Romans so perfectly because the Roman was
very like the Briton in his mastery of practical affairs, of the details
of administration and of government. This is an excellent instance of
German prejudice. No one could have been better fitted than Shakespeare
to understand Greek civilization and Greek art with its supreme love of
plastic beauty, but his master Plutarch gave him far better pictures of
Roman life than of Greek life, partly because Plutarch lived in the time
of Roman domination and partly because he was in far closer sympathy
with the masters of practical affairs than with artists in stone like
Phidias or artists in thought like Plato. The true explanation of
Shakespeare's caricatures of Greek life, whether Homeric or Athenian, is
to be found in the fact that he was not only entirely ignorant of it but
prejudiced against it. And this prejudice in him had an obvious root.
Chapman had just translated and published the first books of his Iliad,
and Chapman was the poet whom Shakespeare speaks of as his rival in
Sonnets 78-86. He cannot help smiling at the "strained touches" of
Chapman's rhetoric and his heavy learning. Those who care to remember
the first scene of "Love's Labour's Lost" will recall how Shakespeare in
that early work mocked at learning and derided study. When he first
reached London he was no doubt despised for his ignorance of Greek and
Latin; he had had to bear the sneers and flouts of the many who
appraised learning, an university training and gentility above genius.
He took the first opportunity of answering his critics:
"Small have continual plodders ever won,
Save bare authority from others' books."
But the taunts rankled, and when the bitter days came of disappointment
and disillusion he took up that Greek life which his rival had tried to
depict in its fairest colours, and showed what he thought was the seamy
side of it. But had he known anything of Greek life and Greek art it
would have been his pleasure to outdo his rival by giving at once a
truer and a fairer presentation of Greece than Chapman could conceive.
It is the rivalry of Chapman that irritates Shakespeare into pouring
contempt on Greek life in "Troilus and Cressida." As Chapman was for the
Greeks, Shakespeare took sides with the Trojans.
But why do I assume that "Troilus and Cressida" is earlier than "Antony
and Cleopatra?" Some critics, and among them Dr. Brandes, place it
later, and they have some reason for their belief. The bitterness in
"Troilus and Cressida," they say rightly, is more intense; and as
Shakespeare's disappointment with men and things appears to have
increased from "Hamlet" to "Timon," or from 1602 to 1607-8, they put the
bitterer play later. Cogent as is this reasoning, I cannot believe that
Shakespeare could have painted Cressida after having painted Cleopatra.
The same model has evidently served for both women; but while Cleopatra
is perhaps the most superb portrait of a courtesan in all literature,
Cressida is a crude and harsh sketch such as a Dumas or a Pinero might
It is more than probable, I think, that "Troilus and Cressida" was
planned and the love-story at least written about 1603, while
Shakespeare's memory of one of his mistress's betrayals was still vivid
and sharp. The play was taken up again four or five years later and the
character of Ulysses deepened and strengthened. In this later revision
the outlook is so piercing-sad, the phrases of such pregnancy, that the
work must belong to Shakespeare's ripest maturity. Moreover, he has
grown comparatively careless of characterization as in all his later
work; he gives his wise sayings almost as freely to Achilles as to
"Troilus and Cressida" is interesting because it establishes the opinion
that Chapman was indeed the rival poet whom Shakespeare referred to in
the sonnets, and especially because it shows us the poet's mistress
painted in a rage of erotic passion so violent that it defeats itself,
and the portrait becomes an incredible caricature--that way madness
lies. "Troilus and Cressida" points to "Lear" and "Timon."
DRAMAS OF LUST: PART II
Antony and Cleopatra
We now come to the finest work of Shakespeare's maturity, to the drama
in which his passion for Mary Fitton finds supreme expression.
"Antony and Cleopatra" is an astonishing production not yet fairly
appreciated even in England, and perhaps not likely to be appreciated
anywhere at its full worth for many a year to come. But when we English
have finally left that dark prison of Puritanism and lived for some time
in the sun-light where the wayside crosses are hidden under climbing
roses, we shall probably couple "Antony and Cleopatra" with "Hamlet" in
our love as Shakespeare's supremest works. It was fitting that the same
man who wrote "Romeo and Juliet," the incomparable symphony of first
love, should also write "Antony and Cleopatra," the far more wonderful
and more terrible tragedy of mature passion.
Let us begin with the least interesting part of the play, and we shall
see that all the difficulties in it resolve themselves as soon as we
think of it as Shakespeare's own confession. Wherever he leaves
Plutarch, it is to tell his own story.
Some critics have reproached Shakespeare with the sensualism of "Romeo
and Juliet"; no one, so far as I can remember, has blamed the Sapphic
intensity of "Antony and Cleopatra," where the lust of the flesh and
desire of the eye reign triumphant. Professor Dowden indeed says: "The
spirit of the play, though superficially it appear voluptuous, is
essentially severe. That is to say, Shakespeare is faithful to the
fact." Antony and Cleopatra kill themselves, forsooth, and thus
conventional virtue is justified by self-murder. So superficial and
false a judgement is a quaint example of mid-Victorian taste: it reminds
me of the horsehair sofa and the antimacassar. Would Professor Dowden
have had Shakespeare alter the historical facts, making Antony conquer
Caesar and Cleopatra triumph over death? Would this have been sufficient
to prove to the professor that Shakespeare's morals are not his, and
that the play is certainly the most voluptuous in modern literature?
Well, this is just what Shakespeare has done. Throughout the play Caesar
is a subordinate figure while Antony is the protagonist and engages all
our sympathies; whenever they meet Antony shows as the larger, richer,
more generous nature. In every act he conquers Caesar; leaving on us the
gorgeous ineffaceable impression of a great personality whose superb
temperament moves everyone to admiration and love; Caesar, on the other
hand, affects one as a calculating machine.
But Shakespeare's fidelity to the fact is so extraordinary that he gives
Caesar one speech which shows his moral superiority to Antony. When his
sister weeps on hearing that Antony has gone back to Cleopatra, Caesar
bids her dry her tears,
But let determined things to destiny
Hold unbewailed their way ..."
This line alone suffices to show why Antony was defeated; the force of
imperial Rome is in the great phrase; but Shakespeare will not admit his
favourite's inferiority, and in order to explain Antony's defeat
Shakespeare represents luck as being against him, luck or fate, and this
is not the only or even the chief proof of the poet's partiality.
Pompey, who scarcely notices Caesar when Antony is by, says of Antony:
Is twice the other twain."
And, indeed, Antony in the play appears to be able to beat Caesar
whenever he chooses or whenever he is not betrayed.
All the personages of the play praise Antony, and when he dies the most
magnificent eulogy of him is pronounced by Agrippa, Caesar's friend:
"A rarer spirit never
Did steer humanity; but you, Gods, will give us
Some faults to make us men."
Antony is even permitted at the last to console himself; he declares
exultantly that in the other world the ghosts shall come to gaze at him
and Cleopatra, and:
"Dido and her Aeneas shall want troops."
Shakespeare makes conquering Caesar admit the truth of this boast:
"No grave upon the earth shall clip in it
A pair so famous."
To win in life universal admiration and love, and in death imperishable
renown, is to succeed in spite of failure and suicide, and this is the
lesson which Shakespeare read into Plutarch's story. Even Enobarbus is
conquered at the last by Antony's noble magnanimity. But why does
Shakespeare show this extraordinary, this extravagant liking for him who
was "the bellows and the fan to cool a gipsy's lust," for that Marc
Antony who might have been the master of the world, and who threw away
empire, life, and honour to be "a strumpet's fool?" There is only one
possible explanation: Shakespeare felt the most intense, the most
intimate sympathy with Antony because he, too, was passion's slave, and
had himself experienced with his dark mistress, Mary Fitton, the
ultimate degradation of lust. For this reason he took Plutarch's
portrait of Antony, and, by emphasizing the kingly traits, transformed
it. In the play, as Dr. Brandes sees, Antony takes on something of the
"artist-nature." It is Antony's greatness and weakness; the spectacle of
a high intellect struggling with an overpowering sensuality; of a noble
nature at odds with passionate human frailty, that endeared him to
Shakespeare. The pomp of Antony's position, too, and his kingly
personality pleased our poet. As soon as Shakespeare reached maturity,
he began to depict himself as a monarch; from "Twelfth Night" on he
assumed royal state in his plays, and surely in this figure of Antony he
must for the moment have satisfied his longing for regal magnificence
and domination. From the first scene to the last Antony is a king of men
by right divine of nature.
It is, however, plain that Antony's pride, his superb mastery of life,
the touch of imperious brutality in him, are all traits taken from
Plutarch, and are indeed wholly inconsistent with Shakespeare's own
character. Had Shakespeare possessed these qualities his portraits of
men of action would have been infinitely better than they are, while his
portraits of the gentle thinker and lover of the arts, his Hamlets and
his Dukes, would have been to seek.
The personal note of every one of his great tragedies is that
Shakespeare feels he has failed in life, failed lamentably. His Brutus,
we feel, failed of necessity because of his aloofness from practical
life; his Coriolanus, too, had to fail, and almost forgoes sympathy by
his faults; but this Antony ought not to have failed: we cannot
understand why the man leaves the sea-battle to follow Cleopatra's
flight, who but an act or two before, with lesser reason, realized his
danger and was able to break off from his enchantress. Yet the passion
of desire that sways Antony is so splendidly portrayed; is, too, so
dominant in all of us, that we accept it at once as explaining the
In measure as Shakespeare ennobled Antony, the historical fact of
ultimate defeat and failure allowed him to degrade Cleopatra. And this
he did willingly enough, for from the moment he took up the subject he
identified the Queen of Egypt with his own faithless mistress, Mary
Fitton, whom he had already tried to depict as "false Cressid." This
identification of himself and his own experience of passion with the
persons and passions of the story explains some of the faults of the
drama; while being the source, also, of its singular splendour.
In this play we have the finest possible example of the strife between
Shakespeare's yielding poetic temperament and the severity of his
intellect. He heaps praises on Antony, as we have seen, from all sides;
he loved the man as a sort of superb alter ego, and yet his
intellectual fairness is so extraordinary that it compelled him to
create a character who should uphold the truth even against his heart's
favourite. Dr. Brandes speaks of Enobarbus as a "sort of chorus"; he is
far more than that; he is the intellectual conscience of the play, a
weight, so to speak, to redress the balance which Shakespeare used this
once and never again. What a confession this is of personal partiality!
A single instance will suffice to prove my point: Shakespeare makes
Antony cast the blame for the flight at Actium on Cleopatra, and manages
almost to hide the unmanly weakness of the plaint by its infinitely
"Whither hast them led me, Egypt?
A little later Cleopatra asks:
"Is Antony or we in fault for this?"
and at once Enobarbus voices the exact truth:
"Antony only, that would make his will
Lord of his reason. What though you fled
. . . . . .
. . . why should he follow?"
Again and again Antony reproaches Cleopatra, and again and again
Enobarbus is used to keep the truth before us. Some of these reproaches,
it seems to me, are so extravagant and so ill-founded that they discover
the personal passion of the poet. For example, Antony insults Cleopatra:
"You have been a boggler ever."
And the proof forsooth is:
"I found you as a morsel cold upon
Dead Caesar's trencher."
But to have been Caesar's mistress was Cleopatra's chief title to fame.
Shakespeare is here probably reviling Mary Fitton for being deserted by
some early lover. Curiously enough, this weakness of Antony increases
the complexity of his character, while the naturalistic passion of his
words adds enormously to the effect of the play. Again and again in this
drama Shakespeare's personal vindictiveness serves an artistic purpose.
The story of "Troilus and Cressida" is in itself low and vile, and when
loaded with Shakespeare's bitterness outrages probability; but the love
of Antony and Cleopatra is so overwhelming that it goes to ruin and
suicide and beyond, and when intensified by Shakespeare's personal
feeling becomes a world's masterpiece.
We have already seen that the feminine railing Shakespeare puts in the
mouth of Antony increases the realistic effect, and just in the same way
the low cunning, temper, and mean greed which he attributes to
Cleopatra, transform her from a somewhat incomprehensible historical
marionette into the most splendid specimen of the courtesan in the
world's literature. Heine speaks of her contemptuously as a "kept
woman," but the epithet only shows how Heine in default of knowledge
fell back on his racial gift of feminine denigration. Even before she
enters we see that Shakespeare has not forgiven his dark scornful
mistress; Cleopatra is the finest picture he ever painted of Mary
Fitton; but Antony's friends tell us, at the outset, she is a "lustful
gipsy," a "strumpet," and at first she merely plays on Antony's
manliness; she sends for him, and when he comes, departs. A little later
she sends again, telling her messenger:
"I did not send you: if you find him sad,
Say, I am dancing; if in mirth, report
That I am sudden sick: quick, and return."
And when Charmian, her woman, declares that the way to keep a man is to
"cross him in nothing," she replies scornfully:
"Thou teachest, like a fool, the way to lose him."
She uses a dozen taunts to prevent her lover from leaving her; but when
she sees him resolved, she wishes him victory and success. And so
through a myriad changes of mood and of cunning wiles we discover that
love for Antony which is the anchor to her unstable nature.
The scene with the eunuch Mardian is a little gem. She asks:
"Hast thou affections?
Mar. Yes, gracious madam.
Mar. Not in deed, madam; for I can do nothing.
But what indeed is honest to be done;
Yet have I fierce affections, and think
What Venus did with Mars.
Cleo. O, Charmian!
Where think'st thou he is now? Stands he, or sits he?"
She is with her lover again, and recalls his phrase for her, "my serpent
of old Nile," and feeds herself with love's "delicious poison."
No sooner does she win our sympathy by her passion for Antony than
Shakespeare chills our admiration by showing her as the courtesan:
"Cleo. Did I, Charmian,
Ever love Caesar so?
Char. O, that brave Caesar!
Cleo. Be choked with such another emphasis!
Say, the brave Antony.
Char. The valiant Caesar!
Cleo. By Isis, I will give thee bloody teeth
If thou with Caesar paragon again
My man of men.
Char. By your most gracious pardon,
I sing but after you.
Cleo. My salad days,
When I was green in judgement: cold in blood,
To say as I said then!"
Already we see and know her, her wiles, her passion, her quick temper,
her chameleon-like changes, her subtle charms of person and of word, and
yet we have not reached the end of the first act. Next to Falstaff and
to Hamlet, Cleopatra is the most astonishing piece of portraiture in all
Shakespeare. Enobarbus gives the soul of her:
"Ant. She is cunning past man's thought.
Eno. Alack, sir, no; her passions are made of nothing
but the finest part of pure love....
Ant. Would I had never seen her!
Eno. O, sir, you had then left unseen a wonderful
piece of work; which not to have been blest withal would
have discredited your travel."
Here Shakespeare gives his true opinion of Mary Fitton: then comes the
"Age cannot wither her, nor custom stale
Her infinite variety. Other women cloy
The appetites they feed; but she makes hungry
Where most she satisfies."
Act by act Shakespeare makes the portrait more complex and more perfect.
In the second act she calls for music like the dark lady of the Sonnets:
"Music--moody food of us that trade in love,"
and then she'll have no music, but will play billiards, and not
billiards either, but will fish and think every fish caught an Antony.
And again she flies to memory:
"That time--O times!--
I laughed him out of patience; and that night
I laughed him into patience; and next morn,
Ere the ninth hour, I drunk him to his bed;
Then put my tires and mantles on him, whilst
I wore his sword Philippan."
The charm of it all, the deathless charm and the astounding veracity!
The messenger enters, and she promises him for good news "gold and her
bluest veins to kiss." When she hears that Antony is well she pours more
gold on him, but when he pauses in his recital she has a mind to strike
him. When he tells that Caesar and Antony are friends, it is a fortune
she'll give; but when she learns that Antony is betrothed to Octavia she
turns to her women with "I am pale, Charmian," and when she hears that
Antony is married she flies into a fury, strikes the messenger down and
hales him up and down the room by his hair. When he runs from her knife
she sends for him:
"I will not hurt him.
These hands do lack nobility, that they strike
A meaner than myself."
She has the fascination of great pride and the magic of manners. When
the messenger returns she is a queen again, most courteous-wise:
"Come hither, sir.
Though it be honest, it is never good
To bring bad news."
She wants to know the features of Octavia, her years, her inclination,
the colour of her hair, her height--everything.
A most veracious full-length portrait, with the minute finish of a
miniature; it shows how Shakespeare had studied every fold and foible of
Mary Fitton's soul. In the third act Cleopatra takes up again the theme
of Octavia's appearance, only to run down her rival, and so salve her
wounded vanity and cheat her heart to hope. The messenger, too, who
lends himself to her humour now becomes a proper man. Shakespeare seizes
every opportunity to add another touch to the wonderful picture.
Cleopatra appears next in Antony's camp at Actium talking with
"Cleo. I will be even with thee, doubt it not.
Eno. But why, why, why?
Cleo. Thou hast forspoke my being in these wars,
And say'st it is not fit."
Each phrase of the dialogue reveals her soul, dark fold on fold.
She is the only person who strengthens Antony in his quixotic-foolish
resolve to fight at sea.
"Cleo. I have sixty sails, Caesar none better."
And then the shameful flight.
I have pursued this bald analysis thus far, not for pleasure merely, but
to show the miracle of that portraiture the traits of which can bear
examination one by one. So far Cleopatra is, as Enobarbus calls her, "a
wonderful piece of work," a woman of women, inscrutable, cunning,
deceitful, prodigal, with a good memory for injuries, yet as quick to
forgiveness as to anger, a minion of the moon, fleeting as water yet
loving-true withal, a sumptuous bubble, whose perpetual vagaries are but
perfect obedience to every breath of passion. But now Shakespeare
without reason makes her faithless to Antony and to love. In the second
scene of the third act Thyreus comes to her with Caesar's message:
"Thyr. He knows that you embrace not Antony
As you did love but as you feared him.
Thyr. The scars upon your honour therefore he
Does pity as constrained blemishes,
Not as deserved.
Cleo. He is a god, and knows
What is most right. Mine honour was not yielded,
But conquered merely.
Eno. [Aside.] To be sure of that
I will ask Antony.--Sir, sir, thou'rt so leaky
That we must leave thee to thy sinking, for
Thy dearest quit thee."
And when Thyreus asks her to leave Antony and put herself under Caesar's
protection, who "desires to give," she tells him:
"I am prompt
To lay my crown at his feet, and there to kneel."
Thyreus then asks for grace to lay his duty on her hand. She gives it to
him with the words:
"Your Caesar's father oft,
When he hath mused of taking kingdoms in,
Bestowed his lips on that unworthy place
As it rained kisses."
It is as if Antony were forgotten, clean wiped from her mind. The whole
scene is a libel upon Cleopatra and upon womanhood. When betrayed, women
are faithless out of anger, pique, desire of revenge; they are faithless
out of fear, out of ambition, for fancy's sake--for fifty motives, but
not without motive. It would have been easy to justify this scene. All
the dramatist had to do was to show us that Cleopatra, a proud woman and
scorned queen, could not forget Antony's faithlessness in leaving her to
marry Octavia; but she never mentions Octavia, never seems to remember
her after she has got Antony back. This omission, too, implies a slur
upon her. Nor does she kiss Caesar's "conquering hand" out of fear.
Thyreus has told her it would please Caesar if she would make of his
fortunes a staff to lean upon; she has no fear, and her ambitions are
wreathed round Antony: Caesar has nothing to offer that can tempt her,
as we shall see later. The scene is a libel upon her. The more one
studies it, the clearer it becomes that Shakespeare wrote it out of
wounded personal feeling. Cleopatra's prototype, Mary Fitton, had
betrayed him again and again, and the faithlessness rankled. Cleopatra,
therefore, shall be painted as faithless, without cause, as Cressid was,
from incurable vice of nature. Shakespeare tried to get rid of his
bitterness in this way, and if his art suffered, so much the worse for
his art. Curiously enough, in this instance, for reasons that will
appear later, the artistic effect is deepened.
The conclusion of this scene, where Thyreus is whipped and Cleopatra
overwhelmed with insults by Antony, does not add much to our knowledge
of Cleopatra's character: one may notice, however, that it is the
reproach of cold-heartedness that she catches up to answer. The scene
follows in which she plays squire to Antony and helps to buckle on his
armour. But this scene (invented by Shakespeare), which might bring out
the sweet woman-weakness in her, and so reconcile us to her again, is
used against her remorselessly by the poet. When Antony wakes and cries
for his armour she begs him to "sleep a little"; the touch is natural
enough, but coming after her faithlessness to her lover and her
acceptance of Caesar it shows more than human frailty. It is plain that,
intent upon ennobling Antony, Shakespeare is willing to degrade
Cleopatra beyond nature. Then comes Antony's victory, and his passion at
length finds perfect lyrical expression:
"O thou day o' the world,
Chain mine armed neck; leap thou, attire and all,
Through proof of harness to my heart, and there
Ride on the pants triumphing."
At once Cleopatra catches fire with that responsive flame of womanhood
which was surely her chiefest charm:
"Lord of lords!
O infinite virtue! Com'st thou smiling from
The world's great snare uncaught?"
What magic in the utterance, what a revelation of Cleopatra's character
and of Shakespeare's! To Cleopatra's feminine weakness the world seems
one huge snare which only cunning may escape.
Another day, and final irremediable defeat drives her in fear to the
monument and to that pretended suicide which is the immediate cause of
"Unarm, Eros: the long day's task is done,
And we must sleep."
When Antony leaves the stage, Shakespeare's idealizing vision turns to
Cleopatra. About this point, too, the historical fact fetters
Shakespeare and forces him to realize the other side of Cleopatra. After
Antony's death Cleopatra did kill herself. One can only motive and
explain this suicide by self-immolating love. It is natural that at
first Shakespeare will have it that Cleopatra's nobility of nature is
merely a reflection, a light borrowed from Antony. She will not open the
monument to let the dying man enter, but her sincerity and love enable
us to forgive this:
"I dare not, dear,--
Dear my lord, pardon,--I dare not,
Lest I be taken...."
Here occurs a fault of taste which I find inexplicable. While Cleopatra
and her women are drawing Antony up, he cries;
"O quick, or I am gone."
And Cleopatra answers:
"Here's sport, indeed!--How heavy weighs my lord!
Our strength has all gone into heaviness,
That makes the weight."
The "Here's sport, indeed"! seems to me a terrible fault, an inexcusable
lapse of taste. I should like to think it a misprint or misreading, but
it is unfortunately like Shakespeare in a certain mood, possible to him,
at least, here as elsewhere.
Cleopatra's lament over Antony's dead body is a piece of Shakespeare's
self-revealing made lyrical by beauty of word and image. The allusion to
his boy-rival, Pembroke, is unmistakable; for women are not contemptuous
"Young boys and girls
Are level now with men; the odds is gone,
And there is nothing left remarkable
Beneath the visiting moon."
When Cleopatra comes to herself after swooning, her anger is
characteristic because wholly unexpected; it is one sign more that
Shakespeare had a living model in his mind:
"It were for me
To throw my sceptre at the injurious gods;
To tell them that this world did equal theirs
Till they had stolen our jewel. All's but naught."
Her resolve to kill herself is borrowed:
"We'll bury him; and then, what's brave, what's noble,
Let's do it after the high Roman fashion,
And make death proud to take us."
But the resolution holds:
"It is great
To do that thing that ends all other deeds,
Which shackles accidents and bolts up change."
It is this greatness of soul in Cleopatra which Shakespeare has now to
portray. Caesar's messenger, Proculeius, whom Antony has told her to
trust, promises her everything in return for her "sweet dependency." On
being surprised she tries to kill herself, and when disarmed shows again
that characteristic petulant anger:
"Sir, I will eat no meat, I'll not drink, sir;
. . . . . This mortal house I'll ruin,
Do Caesar what he can."
And her reasons are all of pride and hatred of disgrace. She'll not be
"chastised with the sober eye of dull Octavia," nor shown "to the
shouting varletry of censuring Rome." Her imagination is at work now,
that quick forecast of the mind that steels her desperate resolve:
"Rather on Nilus' mud
Lay me stark nak'd, and let the water-flies
Blow me into abhorring."
The heroic mood passes. She tries to deceive Caesar as to her wealth,
and is shamed by her treasurer Seleucus. The scene is appalling; poor
human nature stripped to the skin--all imperfections exposed; Cleopatra
cheating, lying, raging like a drab; her words to Seleucus are merciless
"O slave, of no more trust
Than love that's hired."
This scene deepens and darkens the impression made by her unmotived
faithlessness to Antony. It is, however, splendidly characteristic and I
think needful; but it renders that previous avowal of faithlessness to
Antony altogether superfluous, the sole fault in an almost perfect
portrait. For, as I have said already, Shakespeare's mistakes in
characterization nearly always spring from his desire to idealize; but
here his personal vindictiveness comes to help his art. The historical
fact compels him now to give his harlot, Cleopatra, heroic attributes;
in spite of Caesar's threats to treat her sons severely if she dares to
take her own life and thus deprive his triumph of its glory, she outwits
him and dies a queen, a worthy descendant, as Charmian says, of "many
royal kings." Nothing but personal bitterness could have prevented
Shakespeare from idealizing such a woman out of likeness to humanity.
But in this solitary and singular case his personal suffering bound him
to realism though the history justified idealization. The high lights
were for once balanced by the depths of shadow, and a masterpiece was
Shakespeare leaves out Caesar's threats to put Cleopatra's sons to
death; had he used these menaces he would have made Caesar more natural
in my opinion, given a touch of characteristic brutality to the
calculating intellect; but he omitted them probably because he felt that
Cleopatra's pedestal was high enough without that addition.
The end is very characteristic of Shakespeare's temper. Caesar becomes
nobly generous; he approves Cleopatra's wisdom in swearing falsehoods
about her treasure; he will not reckon with her like "a merchant," and
Cleopatra herself puts on the royal robes, and she who has played wanton
before us so long becomes a queen of queens. And yet her character is
wonderfully maintained; no cunning can cheat this mistress of duplicity:
"He words me, girls, he words me that I should not
Be noble to myself."
She holds to her heroic resolve; she will never be degraded before the
base Roman public; she will not see
"Some squeaking Cleopatra boy my greatness."
It is, perhaps, worth noting here that Shakespeare lends Cleopatra, as
he afterwards lent Coriolanus, his own delicate senses and neuropathic
loathing for mechanic slaves with "greasy aprons" and "thick breaths
rank of gross diet"; it is Shakespeare too and not Cleopatra who speaks
of death as bringing "liberty." In "Cymbeline," Shakespeare's mask
Posthumus dwells on the same idea. But these lapses are momentary; the
superb declaration that follows is worthy of the queen:
"My resolution's placed, and I have nothing
Of woman in me: now from head to foot
I am marble-constant; now the fleeting moon
No planet is of mine."
The scene with the clown who brings the "pretty worm" is the solid
ground of reality on which Cleopatra rests for a breathing space before
rising into the blue:
"Cleo. Give me my robe, put on my crown; I have
Immortal longings in me. Now no more
The juice of Egypt's grape shall moist this lip.--
Yare, yare, good Iras! quick.--Methinks I hear
Back to Full Books