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TROILUS AND CRESSIDA
The fourteenth Earl of Derby, in his learned translation of Homer's Iliad, feared that the taste for classical literature was declining in Britain. In his preface to the fifth edition of his translation, however, while gratified at the success of his labours, he retracted this opinion with evident satisfaction. It is indeed remarkable how many learned influential Englishmen during the nineteenth century have proclaimed their admiration for Greek and Roman literature. While Lord Derby and Mr Gladstone dwelt chiefly on Greek writers, Macaulay often alludes to both Greek and Roman literature in his essays and English History. In his beautiful poem, The Lays of Ancient Rome, he enters thoroughly into the spirit of classic times. Some previous British writers had greatly contributed to inspire a taste for classic literature, but usually in a more cold, unsympathetic manner. Bacon, in his “Wisdom of the Ancients," Ben Jonson and Addison, in their tragedies of Sejanus and Cato, alike showed their interest in classic times and personages, as did the French dramatists, Corneille and Racine. But Shakespeare was perhaps the first, at least among British dramatists, to describe Greeks and Romans according to nature. He presents them as living realities before a reading public. Jonson, in his remarkable tragedy of Sejanus, describes that unfortunate Roman statesman once the chief minister
1 Published in 1865.
of Tiberius Cæsar and the patron of Pontius Pilate, for a short time all-powerful in Rome, yet fated to be executed at the instigation of his despotic, suspicious sovereign. The noble words of the French poets, Corneille and Racine, in their classic dramas, never inspire their personages with the life, vigour, and interest with which Shakespeare and Jonson endowed their personages. Yet in every respect Shakespeare, in knowledge of character, originality, power of language, and depth of thought, infinitely excels his contemporary. Though Shakespeare is generally believed to have had little classical education, his exceptional genius and knowledge of human nature enable him to describe people of all ages and countries with a profound knowledge, insight, force, and interest never equalled by other writers, who yet had far more acquaintance with, or experience of, national distinctions, local particulars, and historical events. His play of Troilus and Cressida, laid in Troy, describes to some extent the memorable siege of Troy by the Greeks. It is by no means among the best of Shakespeare's classical dramas; neither it nor Timon of Athens portray the ancient Greeks with the same interest and power with which their Roman successors are described in the magnificent plays of Julius Cæsar, Antony and Cleopatra, and Coriolanus. Yet Troilus and Cressida contains some noble passages which are to this day remembered and admired. Thus of all Shakespeare's lines none for its length is more known and repeated than :
“ One touch of nature makes the whole world kin.”
These words are spoken by the sage Greek warrior Ulysses, and the great truth they express is transmitted in Shakespeares matchless words to most civilised peoples of the present time. They are attributed to the Greek chief, who with the king, Agamemnon, and the other chiefs, Achilles and Ajax, besiege Troy, then ruled by an aged king, Priam. This old monarch with his valiant sons, Hector, Troilus and Paris, defend their unfortunate city with a determined valour, which rivalled that of the besieging Greeks.