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Paul Heyse

“ Two natures are here brought in contact, which, in good qualities as well as bad, are as completely complemental to each other, as their elevation is high above the average of mankind. A ruler of the universe, who has tasted to the last drop all that the world offers both of toil and of self-indulgence, meets a queen who can also say that nothing human is alien to her. Both stand at the very highest hey-day of life, and are in complete fullness of their powers. Long before reaching this point, both would have been, in modern phrase, blasés, had not the inexhaustible, classic life of the senses endowed each of them with eternal youth. Thus nature, by a species of necessity, binds them to each other; each beholds a recognised counterpart in the opposite sex. It is in both a final passion, which, because it is the last, blazes up with all the intensity of a first love; in a moment, it makes these two mature, world-worn beings, children again, and, with the same lightheartedness, as ever a Romeo or a Juliet, wafts them above all dangers of their time, and all duties of their station. The only difference between them and those two young lovers is that they were conscious of their state and had reduced their intoxicating revel to a system, and diversified their enjoyments with all the refinement of an exquisite art of living.

(Page vi): Up to this point [where Anthony leaves Octavia and returns to Cleopatra] the general public will understand the hero, and follow his conduct with sympathy. Thus far he differs in no respect from other enamoured heroes, who ‘sich ‘mit Männern schlagen, mit Weibern sich vertragen,’ 1 and to whom a pardon for even some suspicious weaknesses will be extended for the sake of a certain romantic chivalry. But when, at the very crisis of his fate, he leaves the naval battle because his mistress from womanish timidity sets sail and flies,—from that moment he forfeits, in the opinion of the majority, all claim to any tragic sympathy, and it is doubtful if, throughout the rest of the play, he ever quite regains it. Here is a point, where, in my opinion, the psychological problem becomes too fine, too exceptional, too deep for a dramatic performance. The conception of a woman, with a power so demoniacal that it mystifies both sense and reason, as here floated before the imagination of the poet, perhaps before his memory,—for we must seek in the confessions of the Sonnets for the earliest studies of this Cleopatra,—will rarely find on the stage an incarnation, which, even to a certain extent, will justify the hero, in holding indifferent the gain or loss of a hemisphere in comparison with separation from his enchantress. When we can be brought to believe in such an elemental power of this passion, then and then only can we face the shame of this hero, not with a disapproving shrug, but with that tragic shock, which the horror of every inexorable fate always awakens in us. I must deny myself the illustration by separate examples of that lavish exuberance of characteristics wherewith the hand of genius has set forth the figure of the Egyptian Queen. I honestly believe it to be the very greatest masterpiece of female characterisation; alongside of which there can be placed no more richly devised figure in the whole literature of modern romance, whereof the strength lies in psychologic analysis and vivid contrasts. With equal poetic power and depth is the character of Anthony depicted to the very last; both are to be measured separately, just as both separately are overtaken by a fate so completely interwoven that the flame of passion, which transfigures them at the close with a wondrous glory, reflects its glow back to the beginning of the play and illumines many a shadow. The scholastic view, which turns Shakespeare into a conscientious moralist, above all things anxious to display, in the fate of mortals, the equipoise of guilt and expiation, appears, as it seems to me, in no single play in such embarrassing perplexity as in the presence of this tragedy; which undoubtedly preaches with a hundred tongues the lesson, in Goethe's striking words, that ‘self-indulgence and achievement are incompatible.’ But a single principle, founded on experience, and, among others, objectively contained in a poem, cannot on that account claim to be considered the soul of the whole work. If the poet had chosen this material in order to warn the world against being fooled by self-indulgence, because it disables the power of achievement, he would have devised the development very differently. In spite of the gross stain wherewith this hero of self-indulgence, this heroic roué, has defiled himself, his character decidedly over- shadows the discreet, cool, efficient, and, in fact, victorious rival. Extremely few readers will waver in their choice as to which they would give the preference, to the cold-blooded Cæsar or to the warm-blooded Marc Anthony. And even an audience of women would not remain insensible to Cleopatra's charm. But if a majority could be really found, who, in spite of the tragic downfall, did not cease to deem the aristocratic autocracy of these natures as criminal, the minority could console themselves that they had on their own side the poet himself. There arose before him the dazzling apparition of such a pair, that ‘stood up peerless,’ and it stimulated his creative power. Whatsoever was holy and unholy in such a tie, everything that an average morality could plead against it, was undoubtedly as ever present to him as to his critics of today. And although it may not have stood written in history, his higher comprehension and knowledge of the world taught him the inflexible law that even the most highly endowed man must succumb as soon as he ‘would make his will ‘Lord of his reason.’ Shakespeare, with his incorruptible honesty, neither concealed all this, nor adorned it. Nay, there are traces of even a certain defiance in the sharp prominence given to what is hateful and mean. He allows it freely to unfold itself in sharp realistic features of every-day life. In his heart, however, he is aware that he has but to await the propitious moment to melt all this dross into an irresistible glow and refine it. He could not have been the poet that he is, the richly endowed son of Mother Nature, had he not known himself to be a blood relation to whatsoever of nobility she had brought forth. When he saw, in this pair, the powers of a luxurious life bloom forth and wither in obedience to the law of all earthly things, a tragic pain broke from his heart, which had no rest until he had adorned their grave with all the treasures of poesy, and, by the most affecting funeral ceremony, rendered their death immortal.

1 That is, ‘who fight with men, and flirt with women,’ from a Student-song by Goethe.—Ed.

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