25. Coriolanus’s Address to Aufidius

After listing a series of dramatic passages in Coriolanus and Antony and Cleopatra that were taken almost verbatim from North, the editor Tucker Brooke wrote:

“[T]hese passages, all of which rank among the special treasures of Shakespearean poetry, come straight and essentially unaltered out of North…

“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.”

— Tucker Brooke, Shakespeare’s Plutarch.

Another editor Felix Emmanuel Schelling also put the translator and dramatist on equal footing: “It has been well said that in North alone among his sources Shakespeare met his match.”[i]

But perhaps it is George Wyndham who most clearly recognized the genius of North and his importance to the Roman plays: While many researchers have noted the extraordinariness of North’s Plutarch, with Robert Adger Law, for example, referring to it as “one of the great monuments of English prose,”[ii] Wyndham goes further and marks it as one of the three greatest examples in the English language. As Wyndham wrote about North’s translation: “Of good English prose there is much, but of the world’s greatest books in great English prose there are not many. Here is one, worthy to stand with Malory’s Morte d’Arthur on either side of the English Bible.”[iii] Indeed, he identifies North’s extraordinary style as so thoroughly infused into the “Shakespearean” dramas that, when it comes to the Roman plays, it becomes well-nigh impossible for him to tease apart the differences in abilities and contributions of the two writers: “Shakespeare’s obligation is apparent in almost all he has written. To measure it you must quote the bulk of the three plays.”[iv]

In an analysis of the climactic scene in Coriolanus, Wyndham emphasizes how the vocabulary, rhythm, and structure of Volumnia’s moving soliloquy all belong to North:

Shakespeare has taken over North’s vocabulary, and that is much; but it is more that behind that vocabulary he should have found such an intensity of passion as would fill the sails of the highest drama. North has every one of Shakespeare’s most powerful effects in his version of the speech: ‘Trust unto it, thou shalt no sooner march forward to assault thy country, but thy foot shall tread upon thy mother’s womb, that brought thee first into this world;’ ‘Doest thou take it honourable for a nobleman to remember the wrongs and injuries done to him; ‘Thou hast not hitherto shewed thy poor mother any courtesy’: these belong to North, and they are the motors of Shakespeare’s emotion. The two speeches, dressed, the one in perfect prose, the other in perfect verse are both essentially the same under their faintly yet magically varied raiment. The dramatic tension, the main argument, the turns of pleading, even the pause and renewal of entreaty, all are in North, and are expressed by the same spoken words and the same gap of silence.[v]

In examining the origins of Antony and Cleopatra, Wyndham portrayed Shakespeare as “possessed,” “haunted,” and “spellbound” by the great translator: “Shakespeare, indeed, is saturated with North’s language, possessed by his passion. He is haunted by the story as North told it.…”[vi] His marginal comment next to this analysis is “Shakespeare possessed by North.”

When Wyndham then turns to the final acts of Antony and Cleopatra, he finds some of the greatest English verse yet penned –- with “flashes of immortal speech which have given the Fourth Act of Antony and Cleopatra its place apart even in Shakespeare.”[vii] But even in this, Wyndham recognizes, the work is dependent upon and follows quite naturally from the supremacy of North’s imagery and language. “I doubt if there are many pages,” wrote Wyndham about the translation, “which may rank with these last of North’s Antonius in the prose of any language.” In Wyndham’s view, North’s and Shakespeare’s accounts of the deaths of Antony and Cleopatra surpass essentially everything else written by other English literati, and they are melded at the base and connected all the way through.

As Wyndham continues to detail the debt owed to North, the two writers appear to blur together:

In all this splendour North is Amyot, and Amyot is Plutarch, while Plutarch is but the reporter of events within the recollection of men he had seen living; so that Shakespeare’s Fourth Act is based on old-world realism made dynamic by North’s incomparable prose…[Examples deleted].”

To the end of the play the poet’s fidelity is as close; and North’s achievement in narrative prose is only less signal than Shakespeare’s in dramatic verse. Every characteristic touch, even to Cleopatra’s outburst against Seleucus, is in North. Indeed, in the Fifth Act, I venture to say that Shakespeare has not transcended his original….[viii]

Consider precisely what Wyndham is admitting when he first identifies the last acts of Antony and Cleopatra as among the best in Shakespeare’s canon, yet then goes on to describe the work as thoroughly soaked with North’s influence, dripping with his phrases and language. Consider what he is admitting when he says that even at the highest flights achieved in these final acts, still “Shakespeare has not transcended his original.”[ix]

[i] Felix Emmanuel Schelling, English Literature During the Lifetime of Shakespeare (New York: Henry Holt and Company, 1910), 280.

[ii] Robert Adger Law, “The Text of ‘Shakespeare‘s Plutarch‘”, The Huntington Library Quarterly (1943) 6(2): 197-203.

[iii] As quoted by Bernadotte Perrin, ed. Plutarch’s Themistocles and Aristides, (New York: C. Scribner’s Sons, 1901), 21.

[iv] George Wyndham, Plutarch’s Lives of the Noble Grecians and Romans, Englished by Sir Thomas North, With an Introduction by George Wyndham, David Nutt (London: David Nutt, 1895), lxxxviii, xc (88, 90).

[v] Wyndham, xcii –xciii (92-93).

[vi] George Wyndham, Plutarch’s Lives of the Noble Grecians and Romans, Englished by Sir Thomas North, With an Introduction by George Wyndham, David Nutt (London: David Nutt, 1895), xciv.

[vii] Wyndham, xcvi (96).

[viii] Wyndham, xcviii- xcix (98-99).

[ix] Wyndham, xcviii- xcix (98-99).

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