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The principal modifications that history undergoes when dramatised by Shakespeare are due to the tendency to idealisation, which forms the great distinction between poetry and history. Bacon calls poetry feigned history, and well remarks that “the use of this feigned history hath been to give some shadow of satisfaction to the mind of man in these points wherein the nature of things doth deny it, the world being in proportion inferior to the soul; by reason whereof there is agreeable to the spirit of man a more ample greatness, a more exact goodness, and a more absolute variety, than can be found in the nature of things. Therefore, because the acts or events of true history have not that magnitude which satisfieth the mind of man, poesy feigneth acts and events greater and more heroical: because true history propoundeth the successes and issues of actions not so agreeable to the merits of virtue and vice, therefore poesy feigns them more just in retribution and more according to revealed providence; because true history representeth actions and events more ordinary and less interchanged, therefore poesy endueth them with more rareness, and more unexpected and alternative variations; so as it appeareth that poesy serveth and conferreth to magnanimity, morality, and to delectation. And therefore it was ever thought to have some participation of divineness, because it doth raise and erect the mind, by submitting the shows of things to the desires of the mind; whereas reason doth buckle and bow the mind unto the nature of things.” Every point of contrast between history and poetry that Bacon insists upon in this fine passage might be strikingly illustrated by the changes that Shakespeare
makes history undergo before he can invest it in the garb of dramatic poetry.
The process of idealisation in the composition of Shakespeare's dramas produces less modification of the narratives of Plutarch than of ordinary histories, inasmuch as Plutarch himself idealises history in order to inculcate moral lessons and give impressive pictures of great men. However, Plutarch cannot invent purely fictitious events, and is more strictly bound down to the facts of history than the poet who dramatises his biographies. Plutarch idealises to some extent, but Shakespeare idealises more. We see this in the superiority of Shakespeare's Cassius as compared with the Cassius of Plutarch. Plutarch represents Cassius as prompted to hatred of Cæsar, because the latter had taken away from him some lions that he had provided for the sports to be celebrated during his ædileship, and had made him only an ordinary prætor, while giving Brutus the more honourable city prætorship, on which account he also quarrelled with Brutus. Shakespeare also makes Cassius hate Cæsar, and the estrangement between him and Brutus referred to in I. ii. 31-35 is no doubt suggested by the story of their rivalry for the city prætorship, but Shakespeare ennobles the character of Cassius by making no mention of the trivial causes that roused his spleen. Again, Cassius in Shakespeare is so full of earnestness that he "seldom smiles" (1. ii. 202), and evidently regards a “common laugher" as the most contemptible of mankind (1. ii. 71); in Plutarch we find, to our surprise, that he was a common laugher, “too familiar with his friends, and would jest too broadly with them.” The process of idealisation is still
more clearly illustrated by the treatment of the character of Brutus, who is both by the biographer and the dramatist held up to our admiration as a model of virtue. Plutarch does not choose to tell us of Brutus's harsh dealings with his Salaminian debtors, and of the usurious interest he wanted Cicero to extort from them by force. He does not relate how Brutus without reason divorced his first wife Claudia, in order that he might marry Portia. He does, however, record his hero's promise to allow his soldiers to sack Lacedaemon and Thessalonica, which Shakespeare omits. Shakespeare also omits, as derogatory to Brutus's dignity, the disease that attacked him at Dyrrachium in the form of a “cormorant and unsatiable appetite to eat.” From the same tender regard for the dignity of Brutus, he abstains from mentioning the doubt as to his descent from L. Junius Brutus, and the scandalous gossip that he was a bastard son of Caesar's, although both these possibilities are discussed by Plutarch. Plutarch more than once praises the remarkable gentleness of Brutus's disposition. Shakespeare brings this characteristic into greater prominence by inventing the incident of Lucius falling asleep over his instrument. Plutarch relates that the conspirators, after killing Caesar, took refuge in the Capitol, until they were assured that they could leave it with safety. Shakespeare omits this, as such careful regard for his safety might seem to be unworthy of Brutus, especially at the moment of his triumph. Therefore Brutus in Shakespeare goes straight to the market-place. It is true that, later on, Shakespeare relates the hurried flight of Brutus and Cassius from Rome. But this is after Mark Antony's speech, the effect of which has to be manifested by the contrast between the former confidence of the conspirators and their subsequent headlong flight. For the same reason Shakespeare is not content with simply relating, as Plutarch does, that they fled. In order that the contrast may be more emphasised, they are reported by the servant to have “rid like madmen through the gates of Rome.” In this sudden turn of the wheel of fate in the direction of retribution, we have an example of Shakespeare's idealisation of justice, which we must next proceed to consider. The idealisation of justice in Shakespeare's plays does not usually result in the carrying out of what is called poetic justice, the reward and punishment of the good and bad in exact proportion to their goodness and badness. In Shakespeare, as in real life, vice is always punished, but often the virtuous suffer and die without being restored to happiness. Shakespeare would be false to fact if he satisfied our mind by always representing the triumph of virtue. He does, however, idealise justice not only by making the punishment of the wicked according to their deserts more evident than it is in real life, but also by introducing a special relation of appropriateness between the crime and the punishment, as when in Hamlet we see the “enginer hoist with his own petar,” and as in Julius Caesar the spirit of their victim makes the conspirators turn the very swords, which they had used in the assassination, into their proper entrails (V. iii. 46, 95). Justice is also idealised by being regarded as a manifestation of Nemesis. A peculiar satisfaction is afforded to the mind by the connection expressed in the proverb that pride comes before a fall. Therefore, as we have seen, Caesar's overthrow in Shakespeare is partly explained as a satisfaction to the Nemesis he had provoked by his victory over Pompey, and there is no mention of the fact recorded by Plutarch that Caesar had propitiated Nemesis by setting up again the statues of Pompey, which had been thrown down. The conspirators in their turn are represented as provoking Nemesis by the additional incident of their bathing their hands up to the elbows in Caesar's blood, which Shakespeare adds to the incidents recorded in Plutarch's narrative of the murder. It is not only in the idealisation of great characters and of justice that poetry corrects the facts of history so as to make them more agreeable to the spirit of man. The same principle is seen at work whenever the poet by his imagination and constructive art embellishes the plain facts of history. Among the most conspicuous examples of such amplification and embellishment are the speeches of Satan in Paradise Lost and Paradise Regained, and the speech of Antony in Julius Caesar. With regard to Antony's funeral harangue, Plutarch only says that “when he saw that the people were very glad and desirous also to hear Caesar spoken of, and his praises uttered, he mingled his oration with lamentable words; and by amplifying of matters did greatly move their hearts and affections unto pity and compassion. In fine, to conclude his oration, he unfolded before the whole assembly the bloody garments of the dead, thrust through in many places with their swords, and called the malefactors cruel and cursed murderers.” On this very small foundation