Imatges de pÓgina
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N° 33

Copyright 1890, by Duprat & Co.

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ANTONY AND CLEOPATRA

BY W. J. ROLFE, Litt. D.

There are no portions of English and Roman history that seem so real to us as those which Shakespeare has made the subjects of his plays. « History, said Macaulay, before he had written history, « should be a compound of poetry and philosophy, impressing general truths on the mind by a vivid representation of particular characters and incidents ». The true poet, then, must be the best of historians. He sees the mere facts or phenomena of the past more clearly than other men do, and his penetrative vision pierces yet deeper to the spiritual forces that work out the phenomena; as the man of science sees the subtle electricity behind the flash of the lightning and the roll of the thunder. History, unless it be of the ideal type described by Macaulay, merely writes the obituary of the dead past; Poetry calls it back from the grave, and makes it live again before our eyes. The moral lessons of history are

Antony and Cleopatra.

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made the more impressive by this vivid presentation. The actual life appeals to our hearts as no « moral » tagged on at the end of the written record of it possibly could.

Shakespeare saw the life of the past with this penetrating poetic vision, and he reproduced it as perfectly as he saw it It does not follow, as some have assumed, that he knew the dry facts of history very thoroughly, as Bacon, for instance, or Ben Jonson did. Ben Jonson wrote Roman plays which, in minute attention to the details of the manners and customs of the time, are far more scholarly and accurate than Shakespeare's. He accompanies them with hundreds of notes, giving classical quotations to illustrate the action and the language. The work shows genuine poetic power as well as laborious research; and yet the result is far inferior to that of Shakespeare's less pedantic treatment of kindred subjects. The latter knows less of classical history and antiquities, but has a deeper insight into human nature, which is essentially the same in all ages.

Those who believe that Francis Bacon wrote the plays ascribed to Shakespeare regard them as conspicuous illustrations of the classical learning of their author. The fact is, they are conspicuous illustrations of his plentiful lack of such learning. How is it then that the ignoramus outdoes the scholar in setting the old Roman life truthfully before us? How is it that the man of « small Latin » reproduces Latin life and character with a skill to which his learned friend and critic could never attain? As we have intimated, it is simply because the inferior scholar is the superior poet. Grant the combination of pre-eminent genius with

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