Front Page Titles (by Subject) PREFACE TO JULIUS CÆSAR. - The Works of Voltaire, Vol. X The Dramatic Works Part 1 (Zaire, Caesar, The Prodigal, Prefaces) and Part II (The Lisbon Earthquake and Other Poems).
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PREFACE TO JULIUS CÆSAR. - Voltaire, The Works of Voltaire, Vol. X The Dramatic Works Part 1 (Zaire, Caesar, The Prodigal, Prefaces) and Part II (The Lisbon Earthquake and Other Poems). 
From The Works of Voltaire, A Contemporary Version, (New York: E.R. DuMont, 1901), A Critique and Biography by John Morley, notes by Tobias Smollett, trans. William F. Fleming. Vol. X The Dramatic Works Part 1 (Zaire, Caesar, The Prodigal, Prefaces) and Part II (The Lisbon Earthquake and Other Poems).
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PREFACE TO JULIUS CÆSAR.
A Letter from Signor Algarotti, to Signor Franchini, Envoy at Florence.
(On the Tragedy of “JULIUS CÆSAR,” by M. de Voltaire.)
I have deferred sending you the “Julius Cæsar” which you desired, till now, that I might have the pleasure of communicating to you the tragedy on that subject, as written by M. de Voltaire. The edition of it printed at Paris some months ago is extremely faulty; one may easily perceive in it the hand of some of those gentlemen whom Petronius calls “Doctores Umbratici.” It is even so shamefully defective as to give us verses that have not the proper number of syllables. This piece, notwithstanding, has been as severely criticized as if M. de Voltaire himself had published it: would it not be cruelly unjust to impute to Titian, the bad coloring of one of his pictures, that had been daubed over by a modern painter? I have been fortunate enough to procure a manuscript fit to be sent to you; you will see the picture exactly as it came out of the hand of the master: I will even venture to accompany it with the remarks which you desired of me.
Not to know that there is a French language and a French theatre, cannot show a greater degree of ignorance, than not to know to what perfection Corneille and Racine carried the drama. It seemed, indeed, as if, after these great men, nothing remained to be wished for, and that all which could be done was to endeavor to imitate them. Could one expect anything in painting after the “Galatæa” of Raphael and yet the famous head of Michelangelo, in the little Farnese, gave us an idea of a species more fierce and terrible, to which this art might be raised. In the fine arts, we do not perceive the void till after it is filled up. Most of the tragedies of the great masters I just now mentioned, whether the scene lies at Rome, Athens, or Constantinople, contain nothing more than a marriage concerted, or broken off: we can expect nothing better in this species of tragedy, wherein love makes peace or war with a smile. I cannot help thinking that the drama is capable of something infinitely superior to this. Julius Cæsar is to be a proof of it. The author of the tender “Zaïre” breathes nothing here but sentiments of ambition, liberty, and revenge.
Tragedy should be an imitation of great men; it is that which distinguishes it from comedy; but if the actions which it represents are likewise great, the distinction is still better marked out, and by these means we may arrive at a nobler species. Do we not admire Mark Antony more at Philippi than at Actium? I am apprehensive, notwithstanding, that reasonings of this kind will meet with the strongest opposition. We must have very little acquaintance with human nature not to know that prejudice generally gets the better of reason; and above all, those prejudices that are authorized by a sex that imposes laws upon us, which we always submit to with pleasure.
Love has been too long in possession of the French theatre to suffer any other passions to supplant it, which inclines me to think that Julius Cæsar will meet with the fate of Themistocles, Alcibiades, and many other great men of Athens, that of being admired by all mankind; while ostracism banished them from their own country.
In some places M. de Voltaire has imitated Shakespeare, an English poet, who united in the same piece the most childish absurdities and the finest strokes of the true sublime. He has made the same use of him as Virgil did of Ennius, and taken from him the last two scenes, which are, doubtless, the finest models of eloquence which the stage ever produced.
What is it but the remains of barbarism in Europe, to endeavor to make those bounds which power and policy have prescribed to separate states and kingdoms, the limits also of science, and the fine arts, whose progress might be so widely extended by that commerce and mutual light which they would throw on each other; a reflection which may be more serviceable to the French nation than any other, as it is exactly in the case of an author, from whom the public expect more in proportion to what they have already received from him. France is so highly polished and cultivated that we have a right to demand of her, not only that she should approve, but that she should adopt and enrich herself with everything that is excellent among her neighbors:
There is one objection to this tragedy, which I should not have mentioned to you, but that I heard it made by many, that it has but three acts; this, say the critics, is against all the rules of the stage, which require that there should be exactly five. It is certainly one of the first rules of the drama that the representation should not take up more time than the real action. They have therefore very rationally limited that time to three hours, because a longer would weary the attention; and, at the same time, would prevent our uniting in the same point of view, the different circumstances of the action. Upon this principle, we have divided the play into five acts, for the convenience of the spectators, and of the author also, who has leisure to bring about, during these intervals, any incident necessary to the plot or catastrophe. The whole of the objection, then, is no more than that the presentation of “Julius Cæsar” lasts but two hours instead of three; and if that is no fault, neither can the division of its acts be esteemed as one; because the same rule which requires that an action of three hours should be divided into five acts, will require also, that an action of two hours should be divided into three only. There is no reason why, because the utmost extent of the play is limited to three hours, we should not make it less; nor can I see why a tragedy, where the three unities are observed, which is interesting, and excites terror and compassion, which in short does everything in two hours, that others do in three, should not be equally good. A statue wherein the fine proportions and other rules of the art are observed, is not a less fine statue, because it is smaller than another, made by the same rules. Nobody, I believe, thinks “The Venus de Medici” less perfect in its kind than “The Gladiator,” because it is but four feet high, and “The Gladiator” six. M. de Voltaire, perhaps, gave his “Cæsar” less extent than is usually allowed to dramatic performances, only to sound the opinion and taste of the public by an essay, if we may give that name to so finished a piece. It would have made a kind of revolution in the French theatre, and had been, perhaps, too bold a venture, to talk of liberty and politics for three hours together, to a nation that had been so long accustomed to see Mithridates fighting and whining, when he was just on the point of marching to the capitol. We are surely obliged to M. de Voltaire for his conduct, and should by no means condemn him for not bringing love or women into his play; born, as they are, to inspire soft and tender sentiments, they would have played an absurd and ridiculous part between Brutus and Cassius, atroces animæ. They make indeed such conspicuous figures elsewhere, that they have no reason to complain of being excluded from “Cæsar.” I shall pass over the many detached beauties to be met with in this piece, the strength of its numbers, and the variety of images and sentiments scattered throughout. What might we not expect from the author of “Brutus” and “La Henriade.” The scene of the conspiracy is one of the finest we have ever seen on any stage: it has called into action that which we never met with before but in dull narration.
Even the death of Cæsar passes almost in sight of the spectators, and thus prevents a recital of it, which howsoever beautiful, must have been comparatively cold and languid; events of this kind, together with every circumstance attending them, being already known to all the world.
I cannot sufficiently admire this tragedy, when I consider what a variety of incidents there are in it, how great the characters are, and how finely supported; what a noble contrast between Brutus and Cæsar! What makes this subject most difficult to handle is the great art required to describe, on the one hand, Brutus with a savage, ferocious virtue, and even bordering on ingratitude, but at the same time engaged in a righteous cause, at least to all appearances, and conformable to the times he lived in; and on the other hand, Cæsar, full of clemency and the most amiable virtues, heaping favors on his enemies, and yet endeavoring to destroy the liberty of his country. We are strongly interested for both of them during the whole action of the piece, though it should seem as if the passions must hurt and destroy each other reciprocally in the end, like two several weights equal and opposed to each other, and consequently could produce no effect but that of sending the spectators back disgusted, and without any emotion. Some such reflections most probably induced a brother poet1 to declare, that he looked upon this subject as the rock of dramatic authors, and that he would gladly propose it to any of his rivals. But M. de Voltaire, not content with these difficulties, seems desirous of creating more, by making Brutus the son of Cæsar; which, however, is founded on history. He has even, by these means, found an opportunity of introducing some charming scenes, and throwing into his piece a new interest, which is united to the action, and brings on the catastrophe. The harangue of Antony produces a fine effect, and is, in my opinion, a model of seducing eloquence. Upon the whole, we may with truth assert that M. de Voltaire, in this tragedy, has opened a new path, and, at the same time, trod in it with the highest success.
VOLTAIRE THE LISBON EARTHQUAKE AND OTHER POEMS
[1 ] M. Martelli, who wrote several tragedies in Italian. He made use of a new species of rhymes, in the manner of Alexandrines, a novelty which was by no means favorable to his performances.