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Paul Stapfer

“In the whole range of historical figures it would be difficult to find one more disagreeable, more ugly, and more repulsive than Cæsar's nephew, Octavius, who afterwards became the renowned Angustus, so chanted and glorified by the poets. Not that he was a monster of wickedness; comparatively speaking at least and placed by the side of the more thorough-going ruffians who were members of his august family, he could hardly be called so. But from a poetical point of view this is just where his fault lies; had he been more frankly and boldly wicked he would have been less detestable. Schiller has very truly remarked that a robber gains, poetically speaking, by being also a murderer, and that a man who lowers himself in our æsthetic esteem by some paltry rascality, may raise himself by the commission of a great crime. But in a mean shivering creature, who used to regale himself upon an ounce of bread and a few dried raisins, and in winter wore four tunics under his toga, it is impossible to feel any vivid interest. Military courage, we know, was not one of his virtues. His favourite maxims, ‘Precaution is better ‘than boldness,’ ‘Make haste slowly,’ etc. were of much the same unheroic character as the saying that Louis XI. was so fond of repeating: ‘In war the honour is ‘his who gains the most by it.’ . . . He has often, like many other persons whose whole wit consists in preserving a judicious silence, been taken for a deep thinker, but his solemn and mysterious manner only hides the emptiness beneath. Nothing is more irritating for purposes of analysis than this kind of colourless character, which has nothing original or worth studying about it, and which defies all definition, because its indefinite and varying features cannot possibly be brought into any sort of unity. For instance, Octavius was cruel from inclination as well as from policy, and several instances of his cruelty are related by Suetonius which Caligula himself might have envied: but he had his moments of moderation and clemency notwithstanding, and it is to one of these slight attacks of generosity that he owes the reputation of magnanimity which he has obtained through the too great benevolence of Corneille, who was ever on the watch for what was grand and noble. The death of his enemy Antony inspired him, according to Suetonius, with feelings of delight, but according to Plutarch, he withdrew into his tent and wept and lamented. Shakespeare here, as always, follows Plutarch; but his conduct is not of the slightest importance, nor is it even necessary to suppose that his tears were hypocritical: with this thin coating of sensitiveness he might easily be affected for an instant by the ‘breaking of so great ‘a thing.’ A passive instrument in the hands of fortune, tame and colourless, without one ray of poetry in his nature, Octavius both in history and in Shakespeare is an absolutely vapid and insipid personage. To take him as the representative of an iron will, cold, patient, and certain of his aim, as some commentators have done, and to contrast him with the lavish splendour of a brilliantly gifted nature, whirled away by a fatal passion, like that of Antony, is assuredly to do him too much honour. We meet with many practical men of action in Shakespeare's plays who are tolerably worthy of forming a contrast to the more poetical but less sensible hero, such as Fortinbras in Hamlet, Alcibiades in Timon of Athens, and Cassius in Julius Cæsar; but we may be allowed to doubt whether Octavius had any very real practical merit, and whether the appearance he had of it was not entirely due to the egregious folly and infatuation of his opponent, by force of contrast with which, the faintest signs of ability or wisdom would become magnified. When Antony, after his defeat, challenged Octavius to single combat, it was not necessary for him to be a wise man, to shrug his shoulders at a challenge so obviously absurd,—not to be a hero was quite sufficient. It was not Octavius, but the star of his destiny that won the battle of Actium: Cleopatra took flight, her lover followed her, and Octavius, as usual, had only to let the gods act for him. At most, he only fills in the tragedy the place of the principal agent in Antony's predestined downfall.

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