Shakespeare’s Plutarch II

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Source: Introduction to Shakespeare’s Plutarch, ed. C.F. Tucker Brooke (New York: Duffield and Company, 1909). Vol. 2 containing the main sources of Anthony and Cleopatra and of Coriolanus.


A general discussion of North's translation of Plutarch and its relation to Shakespeare's play of Julius Caesar will be found in the introduction to the first volume.

The scope of North's influence on Shakespeare. The extent and precise nature of Shakespeare's debt to North is not easily calculated. Besides the four lives here printed, it has been asserted that he drew upon the Life of Theseus for some five lines in A Midsummer Night's Dream, that he used the Life of Alcibiades for Timon of Athens, that he got a hint for Jufius Caesar; namely, Caesar's fear of sleepless men, from the Life of Cato Censor. It has been suggested that he derived from the comparisons or σνγκρίσ∈ις attached to the Lives of Coriolanus, Caesar, Brutus, and Antonius a few general ideas as to the character of these personages. Professor Skeat, furthermore, has printed in his book, 8hakespeare's Plutarch, the spurious life of Augustus Caesar, which found its way into the 1603 and later editions of North.

It is difficult to set limits to Shakespeare's possible erudition. It is highly probable that he had read much more of Plutarch than he ever openly used; and he may have known all the passages which an unpleasantly microscopic criticism has pointed out; but if so, the matter seems entirely devoid of interest or importance. Only as regards the four lives which are reprinted in this book can there be any true question of debit and credit between North and Shakespeare, and even here the different plays show very different sorts of borrowing.

The relation between Julius Caesar and the Lives has been already discussed, if the connexion had ended with that play there would be no great reason for crediting North with a much higher sort of influence over Shakespeare than that exerted by Holinshed, Painter, Whetstone, Harsnet, and the many other authors whose matter the poet appropriated without reserve and whose manner, save for a phrase here and there, he seems utterly to have repudiated. But the indebtedness of Shakespeare to North is most striking in the latest of his Roman plays, Antony and Cleopatra and Coriolanus. A comparison of the many passages in the lives of Antonius and of Coriolanus here marked by daggers with the corresponding linen in Shakespeare shows that the dramatist was satisfied in no small number of cases to incorporate whole speeches from North with the least change consistent with the production of blank verse. The description of Cleopatra's first visit to Antony, the dying speech of Antony, and the few noble lines that glorify the passing of Cleopatra, the address of Coriolanus to Tullus Aufidius when he throws himself upon the latter's hospitality, and the last all-decisive speech of Volumnia to her son—these passages, all of which rank among the special treasures of Shakespearean poetry, come straight and essentially unaltered out of North.

Nowhere else in Shakespeare is there an instance of verbal borrowing at the height of dramatic intensity which is comparable to these. Even the speech of Portia to Brutus in Julius Caesar offers no parallel, for there we can see plainly the deliberate poetic handling which North's words suffered, fine though they are, before they were allowed a place in the drama. In the passages I have cited there is little evidence of any attempt at improvement; indeed, it may be held in regard to several of them that the palm belongs rather to North's prose than to Shakespeare's poetry. That this should be so is a fact worthy of all wonder and attention, for the like can be said of no other of Shakespeare's rivals or assistants.

Yet it is easy to misinterpret woefully the meaning of the phenomenon. The criticism that blatantly advertises North as the writer who has surpassed Shakespeare in his own art is illogical as well as foolish. It rests on a wrong conception of the nature of Shakespeare's latest work. The probable date of Antony and Cleopatra is 1607, and Coriolanus is somewhat later. During this his last period, the poet's manner is characterized, it need not be said, by qualities of unapproachable grandeur; it is not, however, marked by minute attention to details. In structure as in versification we find a certain looseness; the carelessness of conscious mastery overrides trifling rules before which immaturity had bent. After all, North's style, as we see it in these four lives, is pretty much of a piece, and what Shakespeare had been able to improve on in 1601, when he wrote Julius Caesar, was assuredly not beyond him in 1607. The truth is that Shakespeare's interest in the last two Roman plays is centred nearly exclusively in character, in Antony and Cleopatra, Volumnia and Coriolanus. He has earned the right to ignore rules of syntax and of scansion. He may at this time appropriate without scruple whatever North has written that will serve his purpose and would cost him pains to write better. It is no more than the assertion of genius's privilege of indifference to non-essentials—the natural corollary of the ‘infinite capacity for taking pains,’ where the pains are worth the taking.

The borrowing is a deservedly high compliment to North; it is far from being a reproach to Shakespeare. It is as Archbishop Trench has said in his lectures on Plutarch: ‘shakespeare does not abdicate his royal preėminence, but resumes it at any moment that he pleases.’ To take the dying speech of Charmion and fit it indistinguishably into a setting worthy of it, to borrow nearly unchanged the words of Coriolanus to Aufidius and then to give them their needed consummation in the answer of Aufidius—this surely is a greater achievement than to have new-written the two scenes.

Plutarch and the structure of the Roman Plays. The indebtedness of Shakespeare to Plutarch's Lives has not been fully stated, when we have pointed out that the four lives under consideration presented the dramatist with a graphic picture of nearly every incident and every important character out of which he built up his Roman plays, nor even when we have added to this that the magnificent version of North clothed Plutarch's narrative in an English dress so gorgeous, and at the same time so appropriate, that Shakespeare has justly rendered it the last praise of imitation. Besides thus furnishing the constituent material, and to no small extent the outward form of these plays, North's Plutarch was able to contribute also the innate tragic spirit. The work which Shakespeare had been obliged to do for himself in investing English history with a continuous purpose and a philosophic import, he found done for him when he came to Plutarch. The lives are pervaded by a note of grave fatalism, which constitutes the very essence of tragedy. Particularly is this true of the lives dealing with those last days of the Roman Republic which Plutarch realized so vividly and has so fully and wisely portrayed. It is no mere succession of battles, plots, and murders, such as we know in Holinshed's Chronicle or the Mirror for Magistrates, that meets us in the lives of Brutus or Antonius, or even Coriolanus. The narration of historical incident goes everywhere hand in hand with the true spirit of humanism and the deepest sense of resistless destiny.

Brutus and Antonius are distinctly represented as the victims ot Fate, against which their struggles, however heroic, can avail them nothing. ‘Howbeit the state of Rome (in my opinion),’ says Plutarch, ‘being now brought to that pass, that it could no more abide to be governed by many Lords, but required one only absolute Governor, God, to prevent Brutus that it should not come to his government, kept this victory from his knowledge’ (Vol. I. p. 182). And Antony's love for Cleopatra is throughout made to appear no mere human frailty, but a ‘pestilent plague and mischief’ sent upon him by that Providence by whom ‘it was predestined that the government of all the world should fall into Octavius Caesar's hands.’

We find Shakespeare's broad sane humanity to a very striking degree in Plutarch, who never allows us to lose the sense of the infinite pity of Coriolanus's ruin, or Antony's, even while laying bare with a hand as unsparing as Shakespeare's own the ruinous faults of each. Again, Shakespeare's political views—his feeling of the necessity of one strong head in the state, and his distrust of the commonalty—are closely paralleled by those of Plutarch, who almost welcomes Caesar's assumption of tyrannical power, and looks on the triumph of Octavius as a desirable pledge of peace, though individually neither of the Caesars is a favourite with him. His attitude towards the mob is hardly more friendly than Shakespeare's; and the marginal note to the Life of Coriolanus which North adds, ‘see the fickle minds of common people’ (Vol. II. p. 161), not only sums up the opinion of Plutarch and of Chaucer, but might serve as text for a large number of Shakespeare's scenes.

The Roman plays, of course, contain much that will not be found in Plutarch, or will be found there only in germ. This is more the case with the two later tragedies, which in parts approach North most closely, than in the case of Julius Caesar, where by drawing on three lives at once the dramatist found all the material and variety he could desire. In Antony and Cleopatra and in Coriolanus the kernel of the plot, that is, the conception of the two principal figures of each play, is taken from North practically unchanged. But a Shakespearean play must have breadth as well as depth; two or three characters, however striking, will not serve. The minor dramatis personae therefore, who provide the perspective and fill up the background, are for the most part elaborated by Shakespeare out of very scanty suggestions. This is true of Enobarbus, who, though mentioned two or three times by Plutarch, is entirely re-created by the dramatist and given a quite unhistorical career. It is equally true of Menenius, who appears in Plutarch but once, and then simply as narrator of his well-known fable. Altogether there are in Antony and Cleopatra no less than eight scenes, and in Coriolanus seven at least, which show only the very barest traces, if any, of Plutarchan influence. Conversely, there are, of course, many fine passages in Plutarch, of which the dramatist makes no use, the most striking instance being perhaps the wonderfully vivid and eloquent description of Antony's Parthian expedition. Papers seeking to point out in detail the connexion between Plutarch and the Roman plays will be found in the fahrbuch der deutschen Shakespeare-Gesellschaft, Bd. xvii. 67–81: xviii. 156–82: xxi. 262–317.

North's influence outside the Roman plays. In one other Shakespearean tragedy we find credible traces of borrowing from North. It is at least possible that the first suggestion for Timon of Athens came from the brief account of the misanthrope, which Plutarch interpolates into the Life of Antonius (p. 111–11 3). Certainly, at two points in the last act of the play there is verbal reminiscence of this passage: first, in lines 210–217 of Scene I., and more strikingly in Timon's epitaph (V. iv. 70–73), which Shakespeare quotes from North with the change of only a single word. All visible connexion, however, stops here. The play, as a whole, is based on Paynter's Palace o.t Pleasure (Novel xxviii.), and there is no evidence that Plutarch's further account of Timon in the Life of Alcibiades influenced Shakespeare in any degree.

The non-Shakespearean drama of the Elizabethan age owes a large debt to Plutarch. He furnished the French writer Robert Garnier with the material for his tragedy Marc Antoine, and this play, as translated into English verse by the Countess of Pembroke in 1590, became the progenitor of a school, Senecan in form, Plutarchan largely in subject matter. Samuel Daniel's Cleopatra (1594) was written confessedly with the object of providing a companion piece to the Antonie of his patroness. It deals with the period of Cleopatra's life subsequent to the death of Antony, and is based wholly upon Plutarch. Despite its impossible rhyme scheme and antediluvian machinery, there are lines in Cleopatra which show how the passages that were afterwards to impress themselves on Shakespeare's memory had already touched the imagination of at least one true, if misguided poet. In the fifth act we find a retrospective allusion to the splendour of Cleopatra's progress up the ‘river of Cydnus’ (cf. Life of Antonius, p. 38, 39):—

  • ‘Clear Cydnos she did shew what earth could shew,
  • When Asia all amaz'd in wonder, deems
  • Venus from heaven was come on earth below.’

And later Charmion's death is described in words which, in spite of the distortion caused by the necessity of finding rhymes, are not a great deal farther from North's prose than are Shakespeare's own—

  • ‘And as she stood, setting it (i. e. the crown) fitly on,
  • Loe, in rush Caesar's messengers in haste,
  • Thinking to have prevented what was done,
  • But yet they came too late, for all was past.
  • For there they found stretcht on a bed of gold,
  • Dead Cleopatra, and that proudly dead,
  • In all the rich attire procure she could,
  • And dying Charmion trimming of her head,
  • And Eras at her feet, dead in like case.
  • Clmration, is this well done?” said one of them.
  • “Yea, well,” said she, “and her that from the race
  • Of so great Kings descends, doth best become.”’

In 1605 Daniel published his Philotas, founded on Plutarch's Life of Alexander, which was also the source of another play belonging to the same Senecan school and printed in the same year, the Alexandrœan of Sir William Alexander, Lord Stirling. In 1607 appeared another of Alexander's “Monarchic tragedies,” The Tragedy of Julius Caesar, which owes no less than its predecessor to Plutarch. These last works belong all to a class doomed to speedy extinction. A more vital Plutarchan influence is that we find in Beaumont and Fletcher's play The False One. The plot concerns itself with the stay of Julius Caesar in Egypt, the outline of which comes from the Life of Caesar; in several passages, moreover, reminiscences of the language of North are, in my opinion, to be detected.

Lex hujus editionis. The principles on which the text has been prepared are stated fully in the introduction to the first volume. The present volume contains the Lives of Antonius and Coriolanus, and thus gives the main sources of the last two Roman plays, as well as the source in part of Timon of Athens. The text is that of North's translation as first published in 1579, except that the spelling has been modernized wherever the change involved is a mere matter of typography. Legitimate old forms, like the comparative lenger and the preterite wan for won, have been scrupulously preserved. The punctuation has been normalized, but in doing so I have attempted to make it conform to Elizabethan rather than Victorian ideals. All passages which Shakespeare can be shown to have used are indicated by marginal signs. Where the debt is one of subject matter only, asterisks are employed, but where North's wording also has been borrowed, a row of daggers will be found opposite the lines in question. Foot-notes give references to act, scene, and line, in the Oxford Shakespeare.