Untir'd spirits and formal constancy : Shakespeare's Roman plays and formal constancy
Critics who have noted the importance of Stoic constancy in Shakespeare 's Roman plays have failed to recognise the full complexity of the idea. It has two forms, both derived from the Stoic principle of homologia (consistency), and centred on the ideal of being always the same: Seneca's constantia sapientis, the rocklike or godlike virtue of the Stoic sage who is unmoved and unchanged by external circumstances; and Cicero's decorum (De officiis I), virtue as the consistent playing of an appropriate part. Seneca is more concerned with heroic self-sufficiency, Cicero with social virtue, but both forms of the ideal contain a tension between concern for inner truth and external appearances. In the late sixteenth century Stoic constancy becomes a subject of fierce debate as it is revived by the Neostoics, who stress the opposition of constancy and "opinion." Shakespeare's view of this debate may derive particularly from Montaigne, who moves from a Neostoic position to a sceptical critique of constancy as unattainable by inconstant man, and as less desirable than self-knowledge and flexibility. Reading North's Plutarch with these themes in mind, Shakespeare sees in the lives of Brutus, Antony, and Coriolanus an Aristotelian pattern of ideal, defective, and excessive constancy - a pattern which he modifies, in the light of his understanding of Seneca, Cicero, and Montaigne, in the three Roman plays. He explores the tension which exists between the Senecan and Ciceronian forms of constancy, and indeed within each of them: a tension between heroic Stoic virtue ("untir'd spirits") and public role-playing ("forrral constancy"). Julius Caesar shows Roman constancy as essentially "formal," resting on pretence and self-deception; in Rome, ironically, constancy depends on "opinion." Coriolanus, by taking constancy to an extreme, demonstrates the self-destructive contradictions within it. Antony and Cleopatra, by contrast, embrace a Montaigne-like ideal of "infinite variety" and inconsistent decorum; Antony fails, but Cleopatra achieves in death a paradoxical fusion of constancy and mutability.