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Shakespeare’s Plutarch I

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Source: Introduction to Shakespeare’s Plutarch, ed. C.F. Tucker Brooke (New York: Duffield and Company, 1909). Vol. I containing the main sources of Julius Caesar.


The influence of the writings of Plutarch of Chæronea on English literature might well be made the subject of one of the most interesting chapters in the long story of the debt of moderns to ancients. One of the most kindly and young spirited, he is also one of the most versatile of Greek writers, and his influence has worked by devious ways to the most varied results. His treatise on the Education of Children had the honour to be early translated into the gravely charming prose of Sir Thomas Elyot, and to be published in a black-letter quarto ‘imprinted,’ as the colophon tells us, ‘in Fletestrete in the house of Thomas Berthelet.’ The same work was drawn upon unreservedly by Lyly in the second part of Euphues, and its teachings reappear a little surprisingly in some of the later chapters of Pamela. The essay on the Preservation of Good Health was twice translated into Tudor prose, and that on Curiosity suffered transformation at the hands of the virgin queen herself into some of the most inharmonious of English verse.

The sixteenth century was indeed steeped in Plutarch. His writings formed an almost inexhaustible storehouse for historian and philosopher alike, and the age was characterized by no diffidence or moderation in borrowing. Plutarch's aphorisms and his anecdotes meet us at every turn, openly or in disguise, and the translations I have alluded to did but prepare the way for Philemon Holland's great rendering of the complete non-biographical works in the last year of the Tudor era.

But it is as author of the Parallel Lives of the famous Greeks and Romans that Plutarch has most strongly and most healthily affected the literature of modern Europe. Few other books of the ancient world have had since the middle ages so interesting a career; in the history of no other, perhaps—not even the Iliad—can we see so plainly that rare electric flash of sympathy where the spirit of classical literature blends with the modern spirit, and the renascence becomes a living reality. The Lives of Plutarch were early translated into Latin, and versions of them in that language were among the first productions of the printing press, one such edition being published at Rome about 1470. It was almost certainly in this Latin form that they first attracted the attention and the pious study of Jacques Amyot (1514–93).

Amyot's Translations of Plutarch. No writer of one age and nation has ever received more devoted and important services from a writer of another than Plutarch owes to Amyot. Already the translator of the Greek pastorals of Heliodorus and Longus, as well as seven books of Diodorm Siculus, Amyot came not unprepared to the subject of his life's work. Years were spent in purification of the text. Amyot's marginal notes as to variants in the original Greek give hut a slight conception of the extent of his labours in this direction. Dr. Joseph Jäger has made it more evident in a Heidelberg dissertation, ‘Zur Kritik yon Amyots Übersetzung der Moralia Plutarch's’ (Bühl, 1899).

In 1559, being then Abbot of Bellozane, Amyot published his translation of Plutarch's Lives, printed in a large folio volume by the famous Parisian house of Vascosan. The title page of this edition is here reproduced in facsimile as frontispiece to my second volume. The success of the work was immediate; it was pirated largely, but no less than six authorized editions were published by Vascosan before the end of 1579.

Amyot's concern with the Lives did not cease with the appearance of the first edition. Each re-issue contained improvements, and only that of 1619 can perhaps be regarded as giving his final text, though by that time the translator had been twenty-six years in his grave. Yet it was not the Lives solely that occupied him. In 1572 were printed Les Oeuvres Morales et Meslees de Plutarque. Translatees du Grec en Francois par Messire Jacques Amyot. The popularity of this volume, by whose appearance all Plutarch was rendered accessible in the vernacular to French readers, was hardly inferior to that the Lives had attained, and it directly inspired another work, already mentioned, whose importance for English drama was not very greatly inferior to that of North's translation of the Lives: ‘The Philosophie, commonly called the Morals, written by the learned Philosopher, Plutarch of Chæronea. Translated out of Greeke into English, and conferred with the Latin translations, and the French, by Philemon Holland ... London 1603.’

The indebtedness of such writers as Chapman to the Morals of Plutarch is hardly to be measured. Our concern, however, is rather with the lives as they appeared in North's translation from the French of Amyot, in 1579.

Sir Thomas North. Thomas North, or Sir Thomas, as history has preferred to call him, was born about 1535, the second son of Edward Lord North and Alice Squyer his wife. The knightly title in North's case, like that or Sir Thomas Browne, is really an anachronism as regards his literary career. It was a late granted honour, withheld, like the royal pension, which seems to have immediately preceded death, till the recipient's fame had long been established and his work in this world was virtually over. It is simply as Thomas North that he appears on the early title pages of his three books, and as Master North we find him occasionally mentioned in state papers during the long and eventful years that precede 1591. Sometimes, by way of self-advertisement, he alludes to himself rather pathetically as ‘sonne of Sir Edward North, Knight, L. North of Kyrtheling’ or ‘Brother to the Right Honourable Sir Roger North, Knight, Lorde North of Kyrtheling.’

We know little of his life. It appears to have been a long and honourable one, full of incident and variety, darkened till almost the very end by the shadow of poverty, but certainly not devoid of gleams of temporary good fortune, and on the whole, no doubt, a happy life.

There is good reason, but no positive evidence, for believing that he was educated at Peterhouse, Cambridge. In 1557 we find him at Lincoln's Inn; on the 20th of December in that year he dates from there the dedicatory epistle to Queen Mary, prefixed to his Diall of Princes. In 1568 he was presented with the freedom of the city of Cambridge. In 1574 he accompanied his elder brother Roger, second Baron North, on a special mission to the court of Henri III of France. Six years later, under date of August 25, 1580, the Earl of Leicester commends Mr. North to Lord Burghley as one who ‘is a very honest gentleman, and hath many good things in him which are drowned only by poverty.’ During the critical days of the Armada he was Captain of three hundred men in the Isle of Ely, and he seems always to have borne a high reputation for valour.

With 1590 the more interesting part of North's life closes. In 1591 he was knighted. At this period he must apparendy have enjoyed a certain pecuniary prosperity, since eligibility for knighthood involved the possession of land worth £40 a year. In 1592 we hear of him as justice of the peace in Cambridgeshire; the official commission for placing him is dated February 24. Six years later we may infer that he was again in financial straits, for a grant of £20 was made to him by the city of Cambridge. The last known incident of his life was the conferring on him of a pension of £40 per annum from the Queen, in 1601. He may or may not have lived to see the publication of the third, expanded edition of his Plutarch in 1603, to which is prefixed a grateful dedication to Queen Elizabeth.

North was twice married, and we know that at least two of his children, a son and daughter, reached maturity. His literary fame rests on three translations. The first in point of time was a version of Guevara's Libro Aureo, of which an abbreviated translation by Lord Berners had been printed in 1535, with the title ‘The Golden Boke of Marcus Aurelius Emperour and eloquent Oratour.’ North made no such effort at condensation; his rendering appeared first in 1557 and again, with the addition of a fourth book, in 1568, with the following title page: ‘The Dial of Princes, compiled by the reverend father in God, Don Antony of Guevara, Byshop of Guadix, Preacher, and Chronicler to Charles the fifte, late of that name Emperor. Englished out of the Frenche by T. North... And now newly revised and corrected by hym, refourmed of faultes escaped in the first edition: with an amplification also of a fourth booke annexed to the same, emituled The fauored Courtier, never heretofore imprinted in our vulgar tongue. Right necessarie and pleasaunt to all noble and vertuous persones.’ There seems no reason to accept the suggestion that the style of this book was influential in any particular degree in shaping that of Lyly's Eupbues.

North's second translation appeared in 1570. The title page, which contains all the information concerning the work that the reader is likely to require, runs as follows: ‘The Morall Philosephie of Doni: Drawne out of the auncient writers. A worke first compiled in the Indian tongue, and afterwardes reduced into divers other languages: and now lastly Englished out of Italian by Thomas North.’

In the Stationers' Register for 1579 occurs this entry: ‘VIto Die Aprilis.—Thomas vautrollier, master Wighte— Lycenced vnto yem a booke in Englishe called Plutarks Lyves—XVs and a copie.’ This is the first mention of North's translation of Plutarch, which was duly published in the same year, 1579, by the two book-sellers named in the registration notice. A facsimile of the title page appears as frontispiece to this volume. Details as to the later editions of the work will be found on pp. xix-xxi. It is of importance to consider here the exact relation in which North's translation stands to that of Amyot, first printed just twenty years before and definitely claimed by North as his source.

Amyot and North. The dependance of North on Amyot cannot be questioned. Phrase for phrase, generally word for word, the English translation follows the French, with a closeness far exceeding that with which North was ever imitated by his great borrower. Yet the charge of plagiarism is as irrelevant in the one case as the other. The spirit of North was not the spirit of Amyot, nor was there any very great affinity between the spirit of mid-sixteenth century France and that which pervaded England a couple of decades later. Each book is thoroughly representative of its author and its environment.

Amyot ranks, with Montaigne, as one of the creators of modern French prose, and Montaigne himself praises him with a praise that never wearies. ‘I do with some reason, as me seemeth,’ says the latter in the fourth essay of his second book, ‘give prick and praise unto Jacques Amiot above all our French writers, not only for his natural purity, and pure elegancie of the tongue, wherein he excelleth all others, nor for his indefatigable constancie of so long and toylesome a labour, nor for the unsearchable depth of his knowledge, having so successfully-happy been able to ex-plaine an author so close and thorny, and unfold a writer so mysterious and entangled.... but above all, I kon him thanks that be hath had the hap to chuse, and knowledge to cull out so worthy a worke, and a booke so fit to the purpose, therewith to make so unvaluable a present unto his Countrie.’

This is noble and perfectly just commendation for Amyot; it is not the language we should use of North's translation. One would hardly characterize his style by ‘pure elegancy,’ nor would one comment on the unsearchable depth of his knowledge. We shall have to point out in the notes several instances where North has badly mistramlated or obscured his original, and his use of words tends much more towards raci-ness than elegance. Amyot is all that Montaigne and the stylists of later days have called him, but North is something more and different; and it is peculiarly the words of North, we should remember, and not of Amyot, which have touched the imagination of Shakespeare in a way the words of no other man, save possibly Marlowe, seem ever to have done.

Amyot's prose is simple and luminous, redolent of scholarship and precision; yet it appears bare and commonplace when contrasted with the fierce slangy idioms of North, which have all the high colour of the Elizabethan imagination. Instances could be multiplied indefinitely: we take three average ones from a single page of the Life of Brutus. North tells us that ‘Brutus could evil away with the tyranny,’ where Amyot had been content with the simple phrase ‘portoit real patiemment.’ A dozen lines later Amyot's judicial ‘mais ilz ne disent pas la uerité’ becomes vertebrate and personal in North's colloquial rendering, ‘But this holdeth no water.’ And in the next sentence but one, North's imagination being stimulated as it always is by the suggestion of a fight, we read, ‘Cassius rose up on his feet and gave him two good whirts on the ear,’ where the gentle Amyot had written ‘luy donna une couple de soufflets.’

North's influence on ‘Julius Caesar.’ The Lives of Caesar and Brutus printed in this volume were freely used by Shakespeare when he came, about 1601, to write the play of Julius Caesar. At this period the poet was engaged also with Hamlet, and it is not surprising that we find in eight well-known lines of the latter drama (I. i. 113–20) a patent allusion to North's description of the portents which foreshadowed the fall of ‘the mightiest Julius.’ For his play of Caesar Shakespeare employed both the lives here printed, and he made more occasional use also, as the footnotes to the text will show, of the Life of Antonius.

It is important to note that his procedure in the case of the first Roman play did not vary essentially from that he had already followed in constructing the English histories out of the chronicles of Holinshed. That is, his indebtedness in Julius Caesar is primarily one of subject matter, not of language, and it is only occasionally, as in the dialogue between Brutus and Portia, or the scene where the ghost of Caesar visits Brutus's tent, that we perceive the poet to be writing with North's book open before him. In other places —for example, the account of Caesar's assassination and its immediate sequel—we find the three different versions of Plutarch fused with all the masterly subordination of the letter to the spirit which characterizes Shakespeare's treatment of English history. A considerably more intimate relation to North's text manifests itself in the later plays of Antony and Cleopatra and Coriolanus; a discussion of this matter will be found in the introduction to the second volume.

In its presentation of the character of the more famous dramatis personae, Julius Caesar follows pretty faithfully the lines of Plutarch' portraiture. We find all, and rather more of the Greek' disapproval of Caesar, and all his somewhat fantastic championing of Brutus. Cassius and the minor conspirators remain practically unchanged. The greatest alteration probably is in the character of Antony: in Julius Caesar he begins already to assume something of that hero-ship which Plutarch grants him only by snatches and grudgingly, but which in Antony and Cleopatra becomes for all time his.

Editions. North' translation of Plutarch' Lives from the French of Amyot was first printed, as has been said, in 1579. Between this date and that of the appearance of Amyot' editio princeps, twenty years earlier, the latter had been four times legitimately re-issued, and there had been several spurious editions, in Holland and elsewhere. Another reprint was published by authority in this very year 1579. It seems hardly possible to ascertain which of these versions was used by North, nor is the matter of any real consequence. In my notes I quote from the Bodleian copy of Amyot' second, revised, edition of 1565, which is as likely as any other to have been in the hands of the English translator.

North' work waited sixteen years for republication. The second edition was printed in 1595, ‘by Richard Field for Thomas Wight,’ as the title page of the Bodleian copy states, or as other copies have it, ‘by Richard Field for Bonham Norton,’ two publishers being apparently concerned in the transaction. This edition varies in pagination from the first; it adds an index, and the text has been normalized to an injurious extent, archaic idioms and spellings being very frequently supplanted by others more satisfactory probably to a progressive compositor. Thus, the old comparative lenger is invariably replaced by longer, and such a form as conducts reappears in modern orthography as conduits. There is no special indication that North himself supervised this reissue, which does not even contain the obvious correction of the phrase ‘the highway going unto Appius’ into ‘the highway called Appius’ way,' first found in the 1603 folio.

A third issue seems to have been called for in just half the time required to exhaust the first, for in 1603 the next edition appeared, this time with a supplement containing fifteen new lives not written by Plutarch, but translated, like the rest, if we are to believe the title page, by Sir Thomas North.

A reprint of the third edition, with no substantial change, was published in 1612. The separate title page introducing the supplementary lives bears the date 1610, and it is probable that the whole of this, the fourth, edition was printed in that year, though publication was delayed. In 1631 appeared a fifth edition of no special interest, and in 1656–7 a sixth, which again added brief lives of twenty more ‘Eminent Persons,’ translated from the French of Andrew Thevet.

The foregoing editions were all published in London. In 1676 appeared a seventh, published at Cambridge. It will be seen from these statistics that North' Plutarch enjoyed till the close of the seventeenth century a popularity equal to its merits; but its vogue was now interrupted. It was supplanted by a succession of more modern and infinitely less brilliant renderings and was not again reprinted as a whole till 1895. How entirely it had fallen into disrepute in the eighteenth century is evident from the significant verdict of the Critical Review for February, 1771, ‘This was not a translation from Plutarch, nor can it be read with pleasure in the present Age.’ One hopes, and can readily believe, that the critic had not made the attempt to read it.

There is some doubt as to which edition of North was used by Shakespeare. The theory of Mr. A. P. Paros that a copy of the 1603 version bearing the initials ‘W. S.’ was the poet's property has long ago been exploded. From an allusion by Weever in his Mirror of Martyrs, we know that Julius Caesar was in existence in 160 I. The two possible editions, those of x579 and 1595 respectively, often vary a little in wording, but there seems to be no instance where such difference offers any hint as to which text Shakespeare used. No one with a knowledge of the rules and vagaries of Elizabethan orthography will probably lay any stress on the argument which prefers the folio of t595 for the sole reason that on the first page of the Life of Coriolanus it happens to agree in spelling of the word ‘conduits’ with the 1623 Shakespeare, whereas the folio of 1579 gives the older form of ‘conducts.’

If Shakespeare' acquaintance with North was delayed till about 1600, it may be imagined that copies of the second edition would then be the more easily obtainable. If, on the other hand, we derive the allusions in A Midsummer Night' Dream (II. i. 75–80) to Hippolyta, Perigouna, Aegle, Ariadne, and Antiopa from the Life of Theseus, as has been done, though with no very great show of probability, we must then assume the dramatist to have known North' book at a period probably antecedent to the appearance of the second edition. The question is of little import. There seems on other grounds every reason to prefer the text of the editio princeps, which in practically all cases of difference offers an older and apparently more authentic reading than the version of 1595. As has been said, we have no evidence that North was personally responsible for any of the changes in the second edition.

The present text follows the edition of 1579. All variants in the edition of 1595, which are not purely typographical, are recorded in the notes, together with all important alterations in the editions 1603–1631. I have attempted also to quote the readings of Amyot wherever North has departed from his rendering. Unfortunately the scheme of the series to which this book belongs necessitates the modernization of spelling. The capitalization of the original edition is preserved except in a few cases where, judged by Elizabethan usage, it is obviously irregular, and I have been as conservative in the matter of punctuation as has appeared compatible with intelligibility to the modern reader.

The main purpose of the book, as its title indicates, is to make clear the relation in which North stands to Shakespeare. I have therefore marked with stars at the end of the lines all passages from which the latter has apparently borrowed hints for his subject matter. The corresponding lines in Shakespeare are indicated by means of footnotes. Where not only the general purport of the passage, but its wording also, has been incorporated by Shakespeare, daggers appear in place of stars.

The order in which the four lives are printed is neither that of historical chronology nor that in which they are given by Plutarch and his translators. History would, of course, require that the Life of Coriolanus should come first, and Plutarch, while agreeing with the actual sequence of events in that regard, violates it by inserting the Life of Antonius before that of Brutus. I have preferred to arrange the lives according to the order in which Shakespeare used them. The first volume, therefore, contains the main sources of Julius Caesar, written about 1601, while the second volume gives that on which Antony and Cleopatra (1607) is mainly based, followed by that which inspired the still later play of Coriolanus. There is other reason for this procedure than mere convenience; by glancing at the marked passages one sees a continuous advance from the life of Caesar, of which, except for several allusions, Shakespeare used only the last few pages, to that of Coriolanus where the connexion between the dramatist and the biographer is closest of all. References to Shakespeare are to the Oxford edition.

Last modified April 13, 2016