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An analysis of Shakespeare's Indebtedness to North's Plutarch

From North's Plutarch in Essays in romantic literature by George Wyndham. London: Macmillan and Company.

Shakespeare, the first poet of all time, borrowed three plays almost wholly from North. I do not speak of A Midsummer Night's Dream and The Two Noble Kinsmen, for each of which a little has been gleaned from North's Theseus; nor of the Timon of Athens, although here the debt is larger.2 The wit of Apemantus, the Apologue of the Fig-tree, and the two variants of Timon's epitaph, are all in North. Indeed, it was the 'rich conceit' of Timon's tomb by the sea-shore which touched Shakespeare's imagination, as it had touched Antony's; so that, some of the restricted passion of North's Antonius, which bursts into showers of meteoric splendour in the Fourth and Fifth Acts of Shakespeare's Antony and Cleopatra, beats too, in the last lines of his Timon, with a rhythm as of billows:

'yet rich conceit
Taught thee to make vast Neptune weep for aye
On thy low grave, on faults forgiven.'
But in Antony and Cleopatra, as in Coriolanus and in Julius Caesar, Shakespeare's obligation is apparent in almost all he has written. To measure it you must quote the bulk of the three plays. 'Of the incident,' Trench has said, ' there is almost nothing which he does not owe to Plutarch, even as continually he owes the very wording to Sir Thomas North;3 and he follows up this judgment with so detailed an analysis of the Julius Caesar that I shall not attempt to labour the same ground. As regards Coriolanus, it was noted, even by Pope, 'that the whole history is exactly followed, and many of the principal speeches exactly copied, from the life of Coriolanus in Plutarch.' This exactitude, apart from its intrinsic interest, may sometimes assist in restoring a defective passage. One such piece there is in II. iii. 231 of the Cambridge Shakespeare, 1865:
'The noble house o' the Marcians, from whence came
That Ancus Marcius, Numa's daughter's son,
Who, after great Hostilius, here was king;
Of the same house Publius and Quintus were.
That our best water brought by conduits hither.'
The Folios here read:
'And Nobly nam'd, so twice being Censor,
Was his great Ancestor.'
It is evident that, after 'hither,' a line has been lost, and Rowe, Pope, Delius, and others have tried their best to recapture it. Pope, knowing of Shakespeare's debt and founding his emendation on North, could suggest nothing better than 'And Censorinus, daring of the people'; while Delius, still more strangely, stumbled, as I must think, on the right reading, but for the inadequate reason that 'darling of the people' does not sound like Shakespeare. I have given in italics the words taken from North: and, applying the same method to the line suggested by Delius, you read: 'And Censorinus that was so surnamed,' then, in the next line, by merely shifting a comma, you read on: 'And nobly named so, twice being Censor.' Had Delius pointed out that he got his line simply by following Shakespeare's practice of taking so many of North's words, in their order, as would fall into blank verse, his emendation must surely have been accepted, since it involves no change in the subsequent lines of the Folios; whereas the Cambridge Shakespeare breaks one line into two, and achieves but an awkward result:
'And [Censorinus] nobly named so,
Twice being [by the people chosen] censor.'
The closeness of Shakespeare's rendering, indicated by this use of italics, is not particular to this passage, but is universal throughout the play. Sometimes he gives a conscious turn to North's unconscious humour; as when, in the Parable of the Belly and the Members, North writes, 'And so the bellie, all this notwithstanding laughed at their follie'; and Shakespeare writes in I. i., 'For, look you, I may make the belly smile as well as speak.' At others his fidelity leads him into an anachronism. North writes of Coriolanus that 'he was even such another, as Cato would have a souldier and a captaine to be: not only terrible and fierce to laye aboute him, but to make the enemie afeard with the sound of his voyce and grimness of his countenance.' And Shakespeare, with a frank disregard for chronology, gives the speech, Cato and all, to Titus Lartius (i. iv. 57):
'Thou wast a soldier
Even to Cato's wish, not fierce and terrible
Only in strokes; but with thy grim looks and
The thunder-like percussion of thy sounds,
Thou mad'st thine enemies shake.'
But perhaps the most curious evidence of the degree to which Shakespeare steeped himself in North is to be found in passages where he borrowed North's diction and applied it to new purposes. For instance, in North 'a goodly horse with a capparison' is offered to Coriolanus; in Shakespeare, at the same juncture, Lartius says of him:
'O General,
Here is the steed, we the caparison.'
Shakespeare, that is, not only copies North's picture, he also uses North's palette. Throughout the play he takes the incidents, the images, and the very words of North. You read in North: 'More over he sayed they nourished against themselves, the naughty seede and cockle of insolencie and sedition, which had been sowed and scattered abroade amongst the people.' And in Shakespeare, III. i. 69:
'In soothing them we nourish 'gainst our senate
The cockle of rebellion, insolence, sedition,
Which we ourselves have plough'd for, sow'd and scatter'd.'
Of course it is not argued that Shakespeare has not contributed much of incalculable worth: the point is that he found a vast deal which he needed not to change. When Shakespeare adds, IV. vii. 33:
'I think he'll be to Rome
As is the osprey to the fish, who takes it
By sovereignty of nature,'
he is turning prose into poetry. When he creates the character of Menenius Agrippa from North's allusion to 'certaine of the plesauntest olde men,' he is turning narrative into drama, as he is, too, in his development of Volumnia, from a couple of references and one immortal speech. But these additions and developments can in no way minimise the fact that he takes from North that speech, and the two others which are the pivots of the play, as they stand.

There is the one in which Coriolanus discovers himself to Aufidius. I take it from the Cambridge Shakespeare, and print the actual borrowings in italics (IV. V. 53):
If, Tullus
Not yet thou knowest me, and, seeing me, dost not

Think me for the man I am, necessity
Commands me to name myself. . . .
My name is Caius Marcius, who hath done
To thee particularly, and to all the Volsces,
Great hurt and mischief
; thereto witness may
My surname, Coriolanus: the painful service,
The extreme dangers
, and the drops of blood
Shed for my thankless comitry, are requited
But with that surname; a good memory,
And witness of the malice and displeasure
Which thou shouldst bear me: only that name remains;
The cruelty and envy of the people
Permitted by our dastard nobles, who
all forsook me, hath devour'd the rest;
And suffer'd me by the voice of slaves to be
Whoop'd out of Rome. Now, this extremity
brought me to thy hearth: not out of hope —
Mistake me not — to save my life, for if
I had fear'd
death, of all men i' the world
I would have voided thee; but in mere spite
To be full quit of those my banishers,
Stand I before thee here. Then if thou hast
A heart of wreak in thee, that wilt revenge
Thine own particular wrongs and stop those maims
Of shame seen through thy country, speed thee straight,
And make my misery serve thy turn; so use it
That my revengeful services may prove
As benefits to thee; for I will fight
Against my canker' d country with the spleen
Of all the under fiends. But if so be
Thou darest not this and that to prove mare fortunes
tired, then, in a word, I also am
Longer to live most weary
The second, which is Volumnia's (v. iii. 94), is too long for quotation. It opens thus:
'Should we be silent and not speak, our raiment
And state of bodies would bewray what life We have led since thy exile. Think with thyself How more unfortunate than all living women Are we come hither'
and here, to illustrate Shakespeare's method of rhythmical condensation, is the corresponding passage in North. 'If we helde our peace (my Sonne) and determined not to speake, the state of our poore bodies, and present sight of our raiment, would easily bewray to thee what life we have led at home, since thy exile and abode abroad. But thinke now with thyself, howe much more unfortunately, then all the women livinge we are come hether.' I have indicated by italics the words that are common to both, but even so, I can by no means show the sum of Shakespeare's debt, or so much as hint at the peculiar glory of Sir Thomas's prose. There is no mere question of borrowed language; for North and Shakespeare have each his own excellence, of prose and of verse. Shakespeare has taken over North's vocabulary, and that is much; but it is more than 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 soner marche forward to assault thy countrie, but thy foote shall treade upon thy mothers wombe, that brought thee first info this world'; 'Doest thou take it honourable for a nobleman to remember the wrongs and injuries done him'; 'Thou hast not hitherto shewed thy poore 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. In the blank verse a shorter cadence is disengaged from the ampler movement of prose; here and there, too, a line is added. 'To tear with thunder the wide cheeks o' the air,' could only have been written by an Elizabethan dramatist; even as
'When she, poor hen, fond of no second brood,
Has clucked thee to the wars, and safely home,'
could only have been written by Shakespeare. The one is extravagant, the other beautiful; but the power and the pathos are complete without them, for these reside in the substance and the texture of the mother's entreaty, which are wholly North's. It is just to add that, saving for some crucial touches, as in the substitution of 'womb' for 'corps,' they belong also to Amyot. To the mother's immortal entreaty there follows the son's immortal reply: the third great speech of Shakespeare's play. It runs in Amyot: '"O' mere, que m'as tu fait?" et en luy serrant estroittement la main droitte: "Ha," dit-il, "mere, tu as vaincu une victoire heureuse pour ton pais, mais bien malheureuse et morteUe pour ton filz: car je m'en revois vaincu, par toi seule."' In North: '"Oh mother, what have you done to me?" And holding her hard by the right hand, "Oh mother," sayed he, "you have wonne a happy victorie for yotir countrie, but mortall and unhappy for your sonne; for I see myself vanquished by you alone."' North accepts the precious jewel from Amyot, without loss of emotion or addition of phrase: he repeats the desolate question, the singultus of repeated apostrophe, the closing note of unparalleled doom. Shakespeare, too, accepts them in turn from North; and one is sorry that even he should have added a word.

What, it may be asked, led Shakespeare, amid all the power and magnificence of North's Plutarch, to select his Coriolanus, his Julius Caesar, and his Antonius? The answer, I think, must be that in Volumnia, Calpumia and Portia, and Cleopatra, he found woman in her three-fold relation to man, of mother, wife, and mistress. I have passed over Shakespeare's Julius Caesar; but I may end by tracing in his Antony the golden tradition he accepted from Amyot and North. It is impossible to do this in detail, for throughout the first three acts all the colour and the incident, throughout the last two all the incident and the passion, are taken by Shakespeare from North, and by North from Amyot. Enobarbus's speech (II. ii. 194), depicting the pageant of Cleopatra's voyage up the Cydnus to meet Antony, is but North's 'The manner how he fell in love with her was this.' Cleopatra's barge with its poop of gold and purple sails, and its oars of silver, which 'kept stroke, after the sound of the musicke of flutes'; her own person in her pavilion, cloth of gold of tissue, even as Venus is pictured; her pretty boys on each side of her, like Cupids, with their fans; her gentlewomen like the Nereides, steering the helm and handling the tackle; the ' wonderful passing sweete savor of perfumes that perfumed the wharf-side'; all down to Antony 'left post alone in the market-place in his Imperiall seate,' are translated bodily from the one book to the other, with but a little added ornament of Elizabethan fancy. Shakespeare, indeed, is saturated with North's language and possessed by his passion. He is haunted by the story as North has told it, so that he even fails to eliminate matters which either are nothing to his purpose or are not susceptible of dramatic presentment: as in I. ii. of the Folios, where you find Lamprias, Plutarch's grandfather, and his authority for many details of Antony's career, making an otiose entry as Lamprius, among the characters who have something to say. Everywhere are touches whose colour must remain comparatively pale unless they glow again for us as, doubtless, they glowed for Shakespeare, with hues reflected from the passages in North that shone in his memory. For instance, when his Antony says (I. i. 53):

'To-night we'll wander through the streets and note
The qualities of people,'
you need to know from North that 'sometime also when he would goe up and downe the citie disguised like a slave in the night, and would peere into poore men's windowes and their shops, and scold and brawl with them within the house; Cleopatra would be also in a chamber-maides array, and amble up and down the streets with him'; for the fantastic rowdyism of this Imperial masquerading is all but lost in Shakespeare's hurried allusion. During his first three Acts Shakespeare merely paints the man and the woman who are to suffer and die in his two others; and for these portraits he has scraped together all his colour from the many such passages as are scattered through the earlier and longer portion of North's Antonius. Antony's Spartan endurance in bygone days, sketched in Caesar's speech (i. iv. 59) —
'Thou didst drink
The stale of horses and the gilded puddle
Which beasts would cough at: thy palate then did deign
The roughest berry on the rudest hedge;
Yea, like a stag when snow the pasture sheets,
The barks of trees thou brousedst. On the Alps
It is reported thou didst eat strange flesh,
Which some did die to look on'--
is thus originated by North: 'It was a wonderful example to the souldiers, to see Antonius that was brought up in all fineness and superfluity, so easily to drink puddle water, and to eate wild fruits and rootes: and moreover, it is reported that even as they passed the Alpes, they did eate the barks of trees, and such beasts as never man tasted their flesh before.' For his revels in Alexandria, Shakespeare has taken 'the eight wild boars roasted whole' (II. ii. 183); for Cleopatra's disports, the diver who 'did hang a salt fish on his hook' (II. v. 17). In III. iii. the dialogue with the Soothsayer, with every particular of Antony's Demon overmatched by Caesar's, and of his ill luck with Caesar at dice, cocking, and quails; in III. x. the galley's name, Antoniad; and in III. vi. Caesar's account of the coronation on a 'tribunal silvered,' and of Cleopatra's 'giving audience' in the habiliment of the Goddess Isis, are other such colour patches. And this, which is true of colour, is true also of incident in the first three Acts.

....I doubt if there are many pages which may rank with [the] last of North's Antonius in the prose of any language. They are the golden crown of his Plutarch, but their fellows are all a royal vesture wrapping a kingly body. For the Parallel Lives is a book most sovereign in its dominion over the minds of great men in every age. Henri IV in a love-letter, written between battles, to his young wife, Marie de Medicis, speaks of it as no other such hero has spoken of any other volume, amid such dire surroundings and in so dear a context. But if it has armed men of action, it has urged men of letters. Macaulay claimed it for his 'forte ... to give a life after the manner of Plutarch,' and he tells us that, between the writing of two pages, when for weeks a solitary at his task, he would 'ramble five or six hours over rocks and through copsewood with Plutarch.' 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 Darthur on either side the English Bible.


Footnote 1: Easais, n. iv.

Footnote 2: It is founded on one passage in Alcibiades and another in Antony.

Footnote 3: Plutarch, Five Lectures, p. 66.


How to cite this article:

Wyndham, George. North's Plutarch. From Essays in romantic literature. London: Macmillan and Company, 1919. Shakespeare Online. 20 Feb. 2010. (date when you accessed the information) < >.


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