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parts in the middle, and reveals a stage entirely hung in black.
Enter the tribunes Flavius and Marullus; they scold the rabble and drive them home because they are loafing about on a week day without their working clothes and tools - in contravention of a London police regulation, which the public finds so natural that they (and the poet) can conceive it as in force in ancient Rome. At first the audience is somewhat restless. The groundlings talk in undertones as they light their pipes. But the second citizen speaks the name of Cæsar. There are cries of “Hush! hush!' and the progress of the play is followed with eager attention.
It was received with applause and soon became very popular. Of this we have contemporary evidence. Leonard Diggs vaunts its scenic attractiveness at the expense of Ben Jonson's Roman plays:“So have I seene, when Cæsar would appeare, And on the stage at halfe-sword parley were Brutus and Cassius : oh how the Audience Were ravished, with what new wonder they went thence, When some new day they would not brooke a line Of tedious (though well labored) Catiline." 1 The learned rejoiced in the breath of air from ancient Rome which met them in these scenes, and the populace was entertained and fascinated by the striking events and heroic characters of the drama.
1 A drama by Ben Jonson.
A quatrain in John Weever's Mirror of Martyrs tells how
6. The many-headed multitude were drawne
DATE OF COMPOSITION The passage quoted above from Weever's Mirror of Martyrs, which was published in 1601, has led to the conclusion that Shakespeare's drama was probably composed in that or the preceding year. For this allusion to what Antony had said concerning Cæsar's ambition must, it is thought, have been suggested by the speech which Shakespeare puts into his mouth, since, although Plutarch mentions Antony's address, he does not refer to that point.
SUGGESTIVE SOURCES Previous to the composition of this drama, other plays, both in Latin and English, based upon the life of Cæsar, had been written; but it is evident that Shakespeare derived the historical materials for this drama from Sir Thomas North's translation of Plutarch's Lives of Coesar, Brutus, and Antony.
Shakespeare's fidelity to the historian's account has been thus commented upon by Gervinus in his Shakespeare Commentaries : "The component parts of the drama are borrowed from the biographies of Brutus and Cæsar in such a manner that not only the historical action in its ordinary course, but also single characteristic traits in incidents and speeches, nay, even single expressions and words, are taken from Plutarch, even such as are not anecdotal or of an epigrammatic nature, and which any one not unacquainted with Plutarch would consider in form and matter to be quite Shakespearian, being not unfrequently quoted as his peculiar property, and as evidencing the poet's deep knowledge of human nature.
“This fidelity of Shakespeare to his source justifies us in saying that he has but copied the historical text. It is at the same time wonderful with what hidden and almost undiscernible power he has converted the text into a drama, and made one of the most effective plays possible. Nowhere else has Shakespeare executed his task with such simple skill, combining his dependence on history with the greatest freedom of a poetic plan, and making the truest history at once the freest drama. The parts seem to be only put together with the utmost ease, a few links taken out of the great chain of historical events, and the remainder united into a closer and more compact unity; but let any one, following this model work, attempt to take any other subject out of Plutarch, and to arrange even a dramatic sketch from it, and he will become fully aware of the difficulty of this apparently easy task. He will become aware what it is to concentrate his mind strictly upon one theme (as is here the case), to refer persons and actions to one idea, to seek this idea out of the most general truths laid down in history, to employ, moreover, for the dramatic representation of this idea, none but the actual historical personages, and so at length to arrange this for the stage with practised skill or innate ability, that with an apparently artless transcript of history such an ingenious independent theatrical effect can be obtained as that which this play has at no time failed to produce.”
INTERPRETATIVE COMMENTS ON THE PLAY
(From Knight's Pictorial Edition of Shakespeare) Nothing can be more interesting, we think, than to follow Shakespeare with Plutarch in hand. The poet adheres to the facts of history with a remarkable fidelity. A few hard figures are painted upon a canvas;
the outlines are distinct, the colors are strong; but there is no art in the composition, no grouping, no light and shadow. This is the historian's picture. We turn to the poet. We recognize the same figures, but they appear to live; they are in harmony with the entire scene in which they move; we have at once the reality of nature and the ideal of art, which is a higher nature. Compare the dialogue in the first act between Cassius and Brutus, and the same dialogue as reported by Plutarch, for an example of the power by which the poet elevates all he touches, without destroying its identity. When we arrive at the stirring scenes of the third act, this power is still more manifest. The assassination scene is as literal as may be; but it offers an example apt enough of Shakespeare's mode of dramatizing a fact. When Metellus Cimber makes suit for his brother, and the conspirators appear as intercessors, the historian says, “Cæsar at the first simply refused their kindness and entreaties; but afterward, perceiving they still pressed on him, he violently thrust them from him.” The poet enters into the mind of Cæsar, and clothes this rejection of the suit in characteristic words.