By Dennis Abrams
Just in time for you to get your post-election political fix (if you’re American of course) we’re on to our next play, Shakespeare’s tautest study of political intrigue, Julius Caesar.
It is not only his tautest, it’s one of his leanest plays: nearly half the size of Hamlet, with the action compressed into just sixteen extremely high-voltage scenes – the result of deft dramaturgy on the part of Shakespeare that demonstrates that he had learned from the experience of his recently completed English histories, which distilled sprawling chronicles narratives into fast-paced popular theatre. This tragedy is also the first to employ Greek historian Plutarch’s richly characterized (and racily written) Lives of the Noble Grecians and Romans. It has often been called the most “Roman” play in the canon: as critic Frank Kermode puts it, Shakespeare’s cast “speak like Romans” throughout, and the measured, cool style of the play – in which even private conversations sound like public oration – can seem somewhat monochromatic at first glance. But the closer you look (and trust me, we’ll be looking closely), the stranger and more intriguing Julius Caesar gets, not least in its thrilling self-consciousness about performance and rhetoric – fittingly, it was one of the first plays to be acted at the new Globe. And…as a play whose supposed protagonist dies early in Act Three (hope I haven’t given anything away), it probes not only the ancient (and still on-going) debate of whether Caesar was a tyrant or the greatest of men, and therefore whether his assassination is defensible or disastrous, but questions whether anyone’s actions can be called heroic amid the cross-currents and riptides of history.
From Harold Bloom:
“Like so many others in my American generation, I read Julius Caesar in grade school, when I was about twelve. It was the first play by Shakespeare that I read, and though soon after I encountered Macbeth on my own, and the rest of Shakespeare in the next year or two, a curious aura still lingers for me when I come back to Julius Caesar. It was a great favorite for school use in those days, because it was so well made, so apparently direct, and so relatively simple. The more often I reread and teach it, or attend a performance, the subtler and more ambiguous it seems, not in plot but in character.
Shakespeare’s stance toward Brutus, Cassius, and Caesar himself is very difficult to interpret, but that is one of the strengths of this admirable play. I say ‘Caesar himself,’ and yet his is only a supporting role in what could have been entitled The Tragedy of Marcus Brutus. Because Caesar is so crucial a figure in history, Shakespeare is obliged to call the play after him, its highest ranking personage. The two parts of Henry IV are Falstaff’s plays, and Hal’s, yet they are named for their reigning monarch, which was Shakespeare’s general practice as a dramatist. Caesar actually appears in only three scenes, speaks fewer than 150 lines, and is murdered in Act III, Scene I, at the exact center of the play. Nevertheless, he pervades all of it, as Brutus testifies when he beholds the self-slain Cassius:
O Julius Caesar, thou art mighty yet!
Thy spirit walks abroad, and turns our swords
In our own proper entrails.
Hazlitt considered Julius Caesar ‘inferior in interest to Coriolanus,’ and many modern critics agree, but I am not one of them. Coriolanus, as Hazlitt first demonstrated, is a profound meditation upon politics and power, but its protagonist fascinates more for his predicament than for his limited consciousness. Brutus is Shakespeare’s first intellectual, and the enigmas of his nature are multiform. Hazlitt pioneered in observing that Shakespeare’s Julius Caesar does not answer ‘to the portrait given of him in his Commentaries,’ an observation that George Bernard Shaw repeated in a severer tone:
‘It is impossible for even the most judicially minded critic to look without a revulsion of indignant contempt at this travestying of a great men as a silly braggart, whilst the pitiful gang of mischief-makers who destroyed him are lauded as statesmen and patriots. There is not a single sentence uttered by Shakespeare’s Julius Caesar that is, I will not say worthy of him, but even worthy of an average Tammany boss.’
Shaw was preparing the way for his own Caesar and Cleopatra (1898), which has not survived a century, while Julius Caesar has better than survived four. Shakespeare’s play has faults, but Shaw’s has little else. Shakespeare’s source, North’s Plutarch, did not show a Caesar in decline; with sure insight, Shakespeare decided that his play required exactly a waning Caesar, a highly plausible mixture of grandeurs and weaknesses.”
“Julius Caesar is a bridge. That it is a bridge between Shakespeare’s Histories and his Tragedies has often been pointed out. It is neither quite the one, it is said, nor quite the other. Undoubtedly this is a suggestive way of taking the play. But held too rigidly, this view of it rests on the assumption that Hamlet is Shakespeare’s first real tragedy, Romeo and Juliet being ruled out because of the part that accident plays in its plot, and Julius Caesar because its protagonist is not its titular hero. I have given what I hope are sound reasons for questioning this attitude toward Romeo and Juliet. To exclude Julius Caesar on account of its title is quite as unjustifiable. It is to subordinate its spirit and total effect to the demands of mere classification and definition. If the story of Brutus is not tragedy, it is hard to know what it is.
Nevertheless, Julius Caesar is a bridge – in a far deeper sense. By way of it Shakespeare finally passes from one world to another. Or, rather, he shifts the center of his universe. Julius Caesar is his Copernican revolution. There are plenty of premonitions in his earlier works of the coming change: in the last act of Richard III, in A Midsummer-Night’s Dream, throughout Romeo and Juliet especially, and in scattered scenes and passages of other plays. But it is in Juliet Caesar that the poet finally crosses the Rubicon.
For he is superstitious grown of late,
says Cassius of Caesar.
Caesar, I never stood on ceremonies,
Yet now they fright me,
You know that I held Epicurus strong,
And his opinion; now I change my mind,
And partly credit things that do presage,
says Cassius near the end. These are not coincidences. It is not that Shakespeare was growing superstitious, or beginning to be frightened by ‘ceremonies.’ Nor on the other hand had he ever held Epicurus strong. But he too at this time was tending in a profounder sense than Cassius to give more and more credit to things that to presage.
He is a dreamer; let us leave him: pass,
says Caesar, dismissing the Soothsayer who called out to him ‘Beware the ides of March.’ The event shows that he dismissed him at his peril. Shakespeare was growing more convinced that we neglect dreams and dreamers at our peril. He was a humanist, to be sure, and remained one to the end of his days. But from Julius Caesar on, his greater characters and greater plays are touched with the dream-light and dream-darkness of something that as certainly transcends the merely human as do the prophets and sibyls of Michelangelo. There were presentiments and visions in Romeo and Juliet. But this play is fairly saturated with omens and ironies, portents and wonders. There were fairies in A Midsummer Night’s Dream, and ghosts in Richard III. But the ghost of Julius Caesar is a being of another order. Brief as are his three utterances, just sixteen words in all, he speaks with a new accent. And it is not the accent of tradition, nor of folklore however well assimilated. Nor of the theater. It is the accent, we instantly know, of something that has happened in Shakespeare’s own soul. The secret of human life, it seems to say, lies beyond that life as well as within it. The ghost of Julius Caesar was as truly a part of Brutus as it was of Caesar. ‘The soul knows no persons.’ That is why a play whose protagonist is one of the two is appropriately named for the other.
In spite of this new note, Julius Caesar is tied to the plays that precede it – and to those that follow – as intimately as anything Shakespeare ever wrote. Which makes it a bridge in a still further sense.”
From Marjorie Garber:
“For many years Julius Caesar was regularly taught in American high schools, often as the first play of Shakespeare assigned. One reason for this may have been the concurrent study of Latin. Caesar’s Gallic Wars, taught in the sophomore year, would have introduced students to the legendary hero of ancient Rome. Another plausible reason for its favor among educators was that Julius Caesar is one of the few Shakespeare plays that contains no sex, not a single bawdy quibble. An equal and opposite relation to adolescent sexuality leads high school teachers to assign Romeo and Juliet instead. Young love and eroticism, especially in a work deemed irreproachably classic – and available, in any case, on the movie screen – are perhaps a more enticing way to introduce the music video generation to Shakespeare than a play concerned, as Caesar is, with political rivalry, martial competition, and the disillusionment of ideals.
Julius Caesar is one of Shakespeare’s most subtle and sophisticated plays, addressing as it does some of the large and important issues that preoccupy the middle plays from Henry IV Part 1 onward: the nature of kingship, the relationship of the public to the private self, the limits of reason, and the necessity of coming to terms with the irrational – the world beyond reason – as it presents itself in omens and portents, soothsayers and signs. In addition, this ‘Roman’ play demonstrates clearly the crucial importance of the classical past for the readers and audiences of the English Renaissance. To Shakespeare’s original audiences, a play about ancient Rome or ancient Troy was not an escapist document about a faraway world, but something very like the opposite: a powerful lesson in modern – that is to say, current, sixteenth century – ethics and statescraft. The Elizabethan view of history suggested that the Greeks and Romans provided models of conduct, that history taught, and that its lessons could – and should – be learned. Plutarch’s Parallel Lives of the Noble Grecians and Romans, in the 1579 translation of Sir Thomas North, had an enormous influence on Shakespeare’s plays and on the ways Elizabethans looked at their own history as it unfolded. The ‘Parallel’ in the title Parallel Lives meant that the author provided not only a biography but also a comparison; thus the Greek general Alcibiades is compared with the Roman Coriolanus, and the Greek orator Demosthenes with the Roman Cicero. Plutarch’s lives of Brutus, Caesar, and Antony were important sources for Shakespeare.
But the comparative method also implied the possibility of adding a third figure, one from the present day. Caesar, like Queen Elizabeth and her father, Henry VIII, was a monumental monarch, both loved and feared. Like Elizabeth, Caesar was a ruler without an heir of his own body, as Shakespeare’s Caesar makes clear in the second scene of the play, when he urges Antony to touch Calpurnia, Caesar’s wife, when he races in the Feast of Lupercal, the ancient festival of fruitfulness and fertility: ‘for our elders say/The barren, touched in this holy chase,/Shake off their sterile curse.’ This episode is not in the Plutarchan source; Shakespeare adds it, to make his point. Caesar’s concern for an heir is one of the things that raise Brutus’s fears, lest Caesar intend to found a dynasty, preempting the free choice of the people, and setting up an hereditary monarchy.
To Elizabethan England, as to the Rome of Julius Caesar, one of the more dreaded political consequences was the threat of civil war – a war that is pictured in this play both in the spectacle of triumvirs against conspirators after the death of Caesar, Antony and Octavius against Brutus and Cassius, and also in the informing spectacle of ‘Brutus, with himself at war.’ Brutus is torn by his own conflicting feelings, between his private friendship with Caesar and his public dislike of kingship and dictatorship – of any absolute rule that approaches the condition of godhead. In short, the circumstances of Caesar’s death, the conspiracy, and the chaos that descended on Rome after the murder would all have had the most direct and lively interest for Shakespeare’s audience. And the topic provided for the dramatist a way of working out some of the political concepts with which he was struggling and coming to terms at the close of Henry V. Some early editors faulted Shakespeare for the historical ‘error’ in act 2, scene 1, where a clock strikes. Since there were no striking clocks in ancient Rome, this detail was deemed an anachronism, and so it is, but that does not make it a mistake. The presence of a modern clock in Caesar’s Rome abruptly reminds the audience of the double time period in which the play is set. Not only a history of the classical past, it is also a story of the present day. The supposed anachronism of the striking clock abruptly jars the audience from any complacency it may be feeling about the difference between ‘then’ and ‘now.’”
This one is going to be interesting.
Our next reading: Julius Caesar, Act One
My next post: Thursday evening/Friday morning