Poetry Explorer- Classic Contemporary Poetry, AT THE MERMAID TAVERN (APRIL 10, 1613), by EDGAR LEE MASTERS



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AT THE MERMAID TAVERN (APRIL 10, 1613), by             Poet's Biography
First Line: Yes, so I said: 'twas labored 'cataline'
Last Line: And then I go.
Subject(s): Dramatists; Plays & Playwrights ; Poetry & Poets; Shakespeare, William (1564-1616); Dramatists


(LEONARD DIGGES is speaking)

Yes, so I said: 'twas labored "Cataline"
Insufferable for learning, tedious.
And so I said: the audience was kept
There at the Globe twelve years ago to hear:
"It is no matter; let no images
Be hung with Caesar's trophies."

And to-day
They played his Julius Caesar at the Court.
I saw it at the Globe twelve years ago,
A gala day! The flag over the Theatre
Fluttered the April breeze and I was thrilled.
And look what wherries crossed the Thames with freight
Of hearts expectant for the theatre.
For all the town was posted with the news
Of Shakespeare's "Julius Caesar." So we paid
Our six-pence, entered, all the house was full.
And dignitaries, favored ones had seats
Behind the curtain on the stage. At last
The trumpet blares, the curtains part, Marullus
And Flavius enter, scold the idiot mob
And we sat ravished, listening to the close.

We knew he pondered manuscripts, forever
Was busy with his work, no rest, no pause.
Often I saw him leave the theatre
And cross the Thames where in a little room
He opened up his Plutarch. What was that?
A fertilizing sun, a morning light
Of bursting April! What was he? The earth
That under such a sun put forth and grew,
Showed all his valleys, mountain peaks and fields,
Brought forth the forests of his cosmic soul,
The coppice, jungle, blossoms good and bad.
A world of growth, creation! This the work,
Precedent force of Thomas North, his work
In causal link the Bishop of Auxerre,
And so it goes.

But others tried their hand
At Julius Caesar, witness "Caesar's Fall"
Which Drayton, Webster, others wrote. And look
At Jonson's "Cataline," that labored thing,
Dug out of Plutarch, Cicero. Go read,
Then read this play of Shakespeare's.

I recall
What came to me to see this, scene by scene,
Unroll beneath my eyes. 'Twas like a scroll
Lettered in gold and purple where one theme
In firmest sequence, precious artistry
Is charactered, and all the sound and sense,
And every clause and strophe ministers
To one perfection. So it was we sat
Until the scroll lay open at our feet:
"According to his virtue, let us use him
With all respect and rites of burial,"
Then gasped for breath! The play's a miracle!
This world has had one Caesar and one Shakespeare,
And with their birth is shrunk, can only bear
Less vital spirits.

For what did he do
There in that room with Plutarch? First his mind
Was ready with the very moulds of nature.
And then his spirit blazing like the sun
Smelted the gold from Plutarch, till it flowed
Molten and dazzling in these moulds of his.
And lo! he sets up figures for our view
That blind the understanding till you close
Eyes to reflect, and by their closing see
What has been done. O, well I could go on
And show how Jonson makes homonculus,
And Shakespeare gets with child, conceives and bears
Beauty of flesh and blood. Or I could say
Jonson lays scholar's hands upon a trait,
Ambition, let us say, as if a man
Were peak and nothing else thrust to the sky
By blasting fires of earth, just peak alone,
No slopes, no valleys, pines, or sunny brooks,
No rivers winding at the base, no fields,
No songsters, foxes, nothing but the peak.
But Shakespeare shows the field-mice and the cricket,
The louse upon the leaf, all things that live
In every mountain which his soaring light
Takes cognizance; by which I mean to say
Shows not ambition only, that's the peak,
But mice-moods, cricket passions in the man;
How he can sing, or whine, or growl, or hiss,
Be bird, fox, wolf, be eagle or be snake.
And so this "Julius Caesar" paints the mob
That stinks and howls, a woman in complaint
Most feminine shut from her husband's secrets;
Paints envy, paints the demagogue, in brief,
Paints Caesar till we lose respect for Caesar.
For there he stands in verity, it seems,
A tyrant, coward, braggart, aging man,
A stale voluptuary shoved about
And stabbed most righteously by patriots
To avenge the fall of Rome!

Now I have said
Enough to give me warrant to say this:
This play of Shakespeare fails, is an abuse
Upon the memory of the greatest man
That ever trod this earth. And Shakespeare failed
By just so much as he might have achieved
Surpassing triumph had he made the play
Caesar instead of Brutus, had he shown
A sovereign will and genius struck to earth
With loss irreparable to Time and ruin
To Caesar's dreams; struck evilly to death
By a mad enthusiast, a brutal stoic,
In whom all gratitude was tricked aside
By just a word, the word of Liberty.
Or might I also say the man had envy
Of Caesar's greatness, or might it be true
Brutus took edge for hatred with the thought
That Brutus' sister flamed with love for Caesar?
But who was Brutus, by the largest word
That comes to us that he should be exalted,
Forefronted in this play, and warrant given
To madmen down the ages to repeat
This act of Brutus', con the golden words
Of Shakespeare as he puts them in his mouth:
"Not that I loved him less, but loved Rome more.
He was ambitious so I slew him. Tears
For his love, joy for his fortune, honor for valor,
Death for ambition. Would you die all slaves
That Caesar might still live, or live free men
With Caesar dead?"

And so it is the echo
Of Caesar's fall is cried to by this voice
Of Shakespeare's and increased, to travel forth,
To fool the ages and to madden men
With thunder in the hills of time to deeds
As horrible as this.

Did Shakespeare know
The worth of Caesar, that we may impute
Fault for this cartoon -- caricature? Why look,
Did he not write the "mightiest Julius," write
"The foremost man of all the world," "the conqueror
Whom death could conquer not," make Cleopatra,
The pearl of all the east, say she was glad
That Caesar wore her on his hand? He knew
What Caesar's greatness was! Yet what have we?
A Caesar with the falling sickness, deaf,
Who faints upon the offering of the crown;
Who envies Cassius stronger arms in swimming,
When it is known that Caesar swam the Tiber,
Being more than fifty; pompous, superstitious,
Boasting his will, but flagging in the act;
Greedy of praise, incautious, unalert
To dangers seen of all; a lust incarnate
Of power and rulership; a Caesar smashing
A great republic like a criminal,
A republic which had lived except for him.

So what was Rome when Caesar took control?
All wealth and power concentered in the few;
A coterie of the rich who lived in splendor;
A working class that lived on doles of corn
And hordes of slaves from Asia, Africa,
Who plotted murders in the dark purlieus;
The provinces were drained to feed the rich;
The city ruled by bribery, and corruption;
Armed gladiators sold their services.
And battled in the Forum; magistrates
Were freely scoffed at, consuls were attacked;
And orators spat in each other's faces
When reason failed them speaking in the Forum;
No man of prominence went on the streets
Without his hired gladiators, slaves.
The streets were unpoliced, no fire brigade,
Safe-guarded property. Domestic life
Was rotten at the heart, and vice was taught.
Divorce was rife and even holy Cato
Put by his wife.

And this was the republic
That Caesar took; and not the lovely state
Ordered and prospered, which ambitious Caesar,
As Shakespeare paints him, over-whelmed. For Caesar
Could execute the vision that the people
Deserve not what they want, but otherwise
What they should want, and in that mind was king
And emperor.

And what was here for Shakespeare
To love and manifest by art, who hated
The Puritan, the mob? Colossus Caesar,
Whose harmony of mind took deep offense
At ugliness, disharmony! See the man:
Of body perfect and of rugged health,
Of graceful carriage, fashion, bold of eye,
A swordsman, horseman, and a general
Not less than Alexander; orator
Who rivalled Cicero, a man of charm,
Of wit and humor, versed in books as well;
Who at one time could dictate, read and write,
Composing grammars as he rode to war,
Amid distractions, dangers, battles, writing
Great commentaries. Yes, he is the man
In whom was mixed the elements that Nature
Might say: -- this was a man -- and not this Brutus.

Look at his camp, wherever pitched in Gaul,
Thronged by young poets, thinkers, scholars, wits,
And headed by this Caesar, who when arms
Are resting from the battle, makes reports
Of all that's said and done to Cicero.
Here is a man large minded and sincere,
Active, a lover, conscious of his place,
Knowing his power, no reverence for the past,
Save what the past deserved, who made the task
What could be done and did it -- seized the power
Of rulership and did not put it by
As Shakespeare clothes him with pretence of doing.
For what was kingship to him? empty name!
He who had mastered Asia, Africa,
Egypt, Hispania, after twenty years
Of cyclic dreams and labor -- king indeed!
A name! when sovereign power was nothing new.
He's fifty-six, and knows the human breed,
Sees man as body hiding a canal
For passing food along, a little brain
That watches, loves, attends the said canal.
He's been imperator at least two years --
King in good sooth! He knows he is not valued,
That he's misprized and hated, is compelled
To use whom he distrusts, despises too.
Why, what was life to him with such contempt
Of all this dirty world, this eagle set
Amid a flock of vultures, cow-birds, bats?
His ladder was not lowliness, but genius.
Read of his capture in Bithynia,
When he was just a stripling by Cilician
Pirates whom he treated like his slaves,
And told them to their face when he was ransomed
He'd have them crucified. He did it, too.
His ransom came at last, he was released,
And set to work at once to keep his word;
Fitted some ships out, captured every one
And crucified them all at Pergamos.
Not lowliness his ladder, but the strength
That steps on shoulders, fit for steps alone.
So on this top-most rung he did not scan
The base degrees by which he did ascend,
But sickened rather at a world whose heights
Are not worth reaching. So it was he went
Unarmed and unprotected to the Senate,
Knowing that death is noble, being nature,
And scorning fear. Why, he had lived enough.
The night before he dined with Lepidus,
To whom he said the death that is not seen,
Is not expected, is the best. But look,
Here in this play he's shown a weak old man,
Propped up with stays and royal robes, to amble,
Trembling and babbling to his coronation;
And to the going, driven by the fear
That he would be thought coward if he failed.
Who was to think so? Cassius, whom he cowed,
And whipped against strong odds, this Brutus, too,
There at Pharsalus! Faith, I'd like to know
What Francis Bacon thinks of this.

My friend,
Seeing the Rome that Caesar took, we turn
To what he did with what he took. This Rome
At Caesar's birth was governed by the people
In name alone, in fact the Senate ruled,
And money ruled the Senate. Rank and file
Was made of peasants, tradesmen, manumitted
Slaves and soldiers -- these the populares,
Who made our Caesar's uncle Marius
Chief magistrate six times. This was the party
That Caesar joined and wrought for to the last.
He fought the aristocracy all his life.
His heart was democratic and his head
Patrician -- was ambitious from the first,
As Shakespeare is ambitious, gifted by
The Muses, must work out his vision or
Rot down with gifts neglected; so this Caesar
Gifted to rule must rule -- but what's the dream?
To use his power for democratic weal,
Bring order, justice in a rotten state,
And carry on the work of Marius,
His democratic uncle. Now behold,
He's fifty when he reaches sovereign power;
Few years are left in which he may achieve
His democratic ideas, for he sought
No gain in power, but chance to do his work,
Fulfill his genius. Well, he takes the Senate
And breaks its aristocracy, then frees
The groaning debtors; reduces the congestion
Of stifled Italy, founds colonies,
Helps agriculture, executes the laws.
Crime skulks before him, luxury he checks.
The franchise is enlarged, he codifies
The Roman laws, and founds a money system;
Collects a library, and takes a census;
Reforms the calendar, and thus bestrode
The world with work accomplished. Round his legs
All other men must peer; and envy, hatred
Were serpents at his heels, whose poison reached
His heart at last. He was the tower of Pharos,
That lighted all the world.
Now who was Brutus?
Caesar forgave this Brutus seven times seven,
Forgave him for Pharsalia, all his acts
Of constant opposition. Who was Brutus?
A simple, honest soul? A heart of hate,
Bred by his uncle Cato! Was he gentle?
Look what he did to Salamis! Besieged
Its senate house and starved the senators
To force compliance with a loan to them
At 48 per cent! This is the man
Whom Shakespeare makes to say he'd rather be
A villager than to report himself
A son of Rome under these hard conditions,
Which Caesar wrought! Who thought or called them hard?
Brutus or Shakespeare? Is it Plutarch, maybe,
Whom Shakespeare follows, all against the grain
Of truth so long revealed?
Do you not see
Matter in plenty for our Shakespeare's hand,
To show a sovereign genius and its work
Pursued by mad-dogs, bitten to its death,
Its plans thrown into chaos? Is there clay
Wherewith to mould the face of Caesar; take
What clay remains to mould the face of Brutus?
Do you not see a straining of the stuff,
Making that big and salient which should be
Little and hidden in a group of figures?
And why, I ask? Here is the irony:
Shakespeare has minted Plutarch, stamped the coin
With the face of Brutus. It's his inner genius,
The very flavor of his genius' flesh
To do this thing. Here is a world that's mad,
A Caesar mad with power, a Brutus madder,
Being a dreamer, student, patriot
Who can't see things as clearly as the madman
Caesar sees them, Brutus sees through books.
A mad-man butchered by a man more mad.
His father mad before him. Why, it's true
That every one is mad, because the world
Cannot be solved. Why are we here and why
This agony of being? Why these tasks
Imposed upon us never done, which drive
Our souls to desperation. So to print
The tragedy of life, our Shakespeare takes,
And by the taking shows he deems the theme
Greater than Caesar's greatness: human will,
A dream, a hope, a love, and makes them big.
Strains all the clay to that around a form
Too weak to hold the moulded stuff in place.
Thus from his genius fashioning the tales
Of human life he passes judgment on
The mystery of life. Which could he do
By making Caesar great, and would it be
So bitter and so hopeless if he did,
So adequate to curse this life of ours?
Why make a man as great as Nature can
The gods will raise a manakin to kill him,
And over-turn the order that he founds.
A grape seed strangles Sophocles, a turtle
Falls from an eagle's claws on Aeschylos,
And cracks his shiny pate.

So at the last
The question is, is history the truth,
Or is the Shakespeare genius, which arranges
History to speak the Shakespeare mood,
Reaction to our life, the truth?

And here
I leave you to reflect. Let's one more ale
And then I go.





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