“Beware the ides of March.”

Julius Caesar

Act One

By Dennis Abrams

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Major Characters

Julius Caesar (later a Ghost)

Calpurnia, Caesar’s wife

The conspirators against Caesar:  Marcus Brutus, Caius Cassius, Casca, Trebonius, Decius Brutus, Metellus Cimber, Cinna and Caius Ligarius

Portia, Brutus’s wife

Lucius, Brutus’s servant

The triumvirs (three co-rulers) after Caesar’s death:  Marc Antony, Octavius Caesar (Julius Caesar’s great-nephew) and Lepidus

Tribunes of the people:  Flavius and Murellus

Senators:  Cicero, Publius and Popillius Laena

Cinna, a poet

A Soothsayer

Artemidorus, a Doctor of Rhetoric

Pindarus, Cassius’s servant

Titinius, an officer in Cassius’s army

Officers and soldiers in Brutus’s army:  Lucillus, Messala, Varrus, Claudio, Young Cato, Strato, Volumnius, Flavius, Dardanius and Clitus

Another Poet

Plebians:  a Cobbler, a Carpenter and others

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Date

The play was seen at the Globe by a Swiss tourist (yes!  true!) in 1599, and other evidence suggests it was written that year for the opening season of the new theater.

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Sources

For Julius Caesar Shakespeare turned for the first time to a massive book that would dominate his subsequent career – Thomas North’s translation of Plutarch, Lives of the Noble Grecians and Romans (1579).  In addition to freely plundering North, he may also have been influenced by the anonymous drama, The Tragedy of Caesar and Pompey (1595).

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Texts

Julius Caesarwas well served in the 1623 Folio where it was first printed – the text is unusually free of errors.

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Act One:  Julius Caesar has triumphed over Pompey in the civil wars, and Rome celebrates with him – much to the annoyance of the tribunes Flavius and Murellus.  Caesar prepares to address the people, ignoring the warnings of the Soothsayer that he should beware.  While Caesar speaks offstage, Cassius and Brutus discuss his increasing power and popularity.  Casca relates to Cassius and Brutus how, during his speech, Caesar was offered the crown but felt obliged to turn it down.  That night, panics spreads as fearful portents continue to appear.  Cassius interprets the signs as omens against Caesar, and encourages Brutus to join a conspiracy against him.

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Looked at as a single unit, the so-called “Henriad” – Richard II, the Henry IVs and Henry V – explores, along with many other things, the major questions regarding government.  Is it better for a monarch to be rightful (like Richard II) or effective (like Henry IV)?  Can there be such a thing as a perfect king?  The play that Shakespeare wrote almost immediately afterwards turns to those imperatives once again, but with a stark difference.  Using for the first time Sir Thomas North’s English translation of Plutarch’s Lives, Shakespeare was free to explore more fundamental questions of kingship and legitimacy.  Julius Caesar, set in classical Rome at the moment that it became the most important and powerful city in the world, asks whether we need monarchs at all.

It begins as the story of a man whose ambition, military success and unparalleled popular support put him with reach – quite literally – of the Roman crown.  Yet, Caesar’s career culminates not in coronation but assassination:  he is brutally cut down by a coalition who claim that defending Rome’s republican ethic made it justifiable murder.  Some Renaissance thinkers agreed, arguing that Caesar was a dangerous tyrant; but for others, he was a blameless hero.  Dante put Brutus and Cassius, the ringleaders of the conspiracy, in the lowest circle of Hell in his Inferno, while the English historian John Stow, arguing that Caesar was “the most ambitious and greatest traitor that ever was to the Roman state,” presumably thought he should take their place.  But often Elizabethan writers have difficulty coming to a final conclusion:  the courtier Sir Thomas Elyot, whose book The Governor influenced a number of Shakespeare’s plays, admired Caesar’s leadership while at the same time deploring his pride; while the anonymous Mirror for Magistrates, a source for Richard II, came to much the same lack of conclusion.

Julius Caesar throws its audience (and us) directly into the turbulent debate about Caesar.  As the play gets underway, Rome is in ferment:  the crowds are out in the streets, “rejoicing” at Caesar’s defeat of his rival (and former co-ruler) Pompey by declaring a holiday.  But the tribunes Flavius and Murellus are aghast at what they see as the mob’s fickleness.  Murellus cries out:

Wherefore rejoice?  What conquest brings he home?

What tributaries follow him to Rome

To grace in captive bonds his chariot wheels?

You blocks, you stones, you worse than senseless things!

O, you hard hearts, you cruel men of Rome,

Knew you not Pompey?

Caesar, Murellus somewhat witheringly notes, has done nothing to deserve Rome’s rejoicing:  its citizens are “worse than senseless” to think that he has.  Recalling the days when Caesar returned from victory in some far-flung corner of the empire with “tributaries” (captives) in tow, Murellus insists that his political domination is not a triumph:  it is a tragedy.

The man himself makes an appearance in the next scene, but the atmosphere surrounding him remains tense and uneasy.  As Caesar enters through throngs of citizens, a Soothsayer is pushed out from the crowd, and warns sinisterly that Caesar should “beware the ides of March” – the “ides” being the midpoint of the month and the next day in the play.  Despite the heavy dramatic irony, however – we the audience know only too well the risk that Caesar is in – the Soothsayer is not given the opportunity to elaborate and Caesar moves on.  As the crowd passes, another pair of men are left on stage, and they, too have little good to say about Caesar.  The fluctuating bond between Brutus and Cassius will become a critical element of the play, but here it’s enough to notice how brilliantly Shakespeare manages to conjure up the different currents of emotion in Rome.  As the two men talk in earnest, their conversation is punctuated by cries from the nearby crowd, shouts of adulations as “new honours,’ Brutus comments, are “heaped on Caesar.”  And though their business is private, it has everything to do what is going on outside, as Cassius rancorously explains:

Why, man, he doth bestride the narrow world

Like a Colossus, and we petty men

Walk under his huge legs, and peep about

To find ourselves dishonourable graves.

Men at sometime were masters of their fates.

The fault, dear Brutus, is not in our stars,

But in ourselves, that we are underlings.

Brutus and Caesar:  what should be in that ‘Caesar?’

Why should that name be sounded more than yours?

Write them together:  yours is as fair a name.

Sound them: it doth become the mouth as well.

Weigh them:  it is as heavy.  Conjure with ‘em:

‘Brutus’ will start a spirit as soon as ‘Caesar.’

Now in the names of all the gods at once,

Upon what meat doth this our Caesar feed

That he is grown so great?

Cassius’s caustic analysis of the mystique of power refuses to admit that Caesar is anything other than a man, but it does so by grotesquely magnifying him – he is a “Colossus” that looms over Rome, a city whose “wide walls,” he continues, ‘emcompa[ss] but one man.”  The nightmare he conjures is of complete tyranny:  a leviathan Caesar whose shadow eclipses the figures of men who are in every way his equal.

Caesar himself soon expresses unease that Cassius ‘looks/Quite through the deeds of men,’ but his skill is not merely that of an observer.  Julius Caesar is Shakespeare’s most subtle analysis of the power of oratory, and Cassius’s words form the first big speech of the play.  They work on us (as is intended) as much as on the stoic Brutus, making us hear the word “Caesar” – the most frequently uttered name in the drama – in new and unsettling ways.  It is much to the point, likewise, that Cassius’s words to Brutus are allowed to eclipse the political crux going on in the wings, which sees Caesar being offered the crown by an increasingly enthusiastic citizenry.  Shakespeare allows us to hear about this scene only through the words of Casca, who narrates that Caesar collapsed in front of the crowd (historically, it seems likely that he suffered from epilepsy) – an event which seems, if anything, to have increased his public standing.  “Three or four wenches where I stood cried ‘Alas, good soul!’ and forgave him with all their hearts,’ Casca observes:

But there’s no heed to be taken of them:  if Caesar had stabbed their mothers they would have done no less.

Caesar’s collapse is made to seem like nothing more than a political strategy to win favor, and for all we know, it is.

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From Harold Bloom:

“Though a persuasive representation, this Caesar is difficult to understand.  Why is it so easy for the conspirators to murder him?  His power pragmatically is all but absolute; where is his security apparatus?  Where indeed are his guards?  There may even be a suggestion that this Julius Caesar on some level courts martyrdom, as a way both to godhood and to the permanent establishment of the empire.  Yet that is left ambiguous, as is the question of Caesar’s decline.  Shakespeare does not foreground his Julius Caesar by reference to Plutarch.  He foregrounds it by the affection for their leader not just of Mark Antony and the Roman populace, but of Brutus himself, who has a filial love for Caesar, which is strongly returned.  What Brutus communicates to us in one way, Antony does in another, and Cassius in a third, with negative power:  Caesar’s greatness is not in question, whatever his decline, and however one reacts to his royal ambitions.

Caesar is the grandest figure Shakespeare ever will represent, the person of most permanent historical importance (except perhaps for Octavius, both here and in Antony and Cleopatra).   Octavius, though, is not yet Augustus Caesar, and Shakespeare evades conferring greatness upon him, in both plays, and indeed makes him rather unsympathetic, the type of the highly successful politician.  Though sometimes silly, even fatuous, Shakespeare’s Julius Caesar is an immensely sympathetic character, benign yet dangerous.  He is, of course, self-centered, and always conscious of being Caesar; perhaps even sensing his deification in advance.  And though he can be very blind, his estimate of Cassius shows him to be the best analyst of another human being in all of Shakespeare:

Caesar:

Antonius

Ant:

Caesar?

Caesar:

Let me have men about me that are fat,

Sleek-headed men, and such as sleep a-nights

Yond Cassius has a lean and hungry look;

He thinks too much:  such men are dangerous.

Ant:

Fear him not, Caesar, he’s not dangerous.

He is a noble Roman, and well given.

Caesar:

Would he were fatter!  But I fear him not:

Yet if my name were liable to fear,

I do not know the man I should avoid

So soon as that spare Cassius.  He reads much,

He is a great observer, and he looks

Quite through the deeds of men.  He loves no plays,

As thou dost, Antony; he hears no music.

Seldom he smiles, and smiles in such a sort

As if he mock’d himself, and scorn’d his spirit

That could be mov’d to smile at any thing.

Such men as he be never at heart’s ease

Whiles they behold a great than themselves,

And therefore are they very dangerous.

I rather tell thee what is to be fear’d

Than what I fear; for always I am Caesar.

Come on my right hand, for this ear is deaf,

And tell me truly what thou think’st of him.

Caesar is accurate, and Antony is not.  Shakespeare scarcely could have found a better way to demonstrate the psychological acuity that made Caesar as great a politician as he was a soldier.  Yet the same speech indicates one of several gathering infirmities, deafness, and the increasing tendency for Caesar to regard himself in the third person:  ‘for always I am Caesar.’”

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And finally, from Harold Goddard, continuing from where we left off in my introduction…

“Brutus is one more study of a man who undertakes a role for which nature never intended him.  In this respect he is a direct descendant of Richard II, Antonio, Romeo, and, in a somewhat different sense, of Hal.  Often the best summary of a play of Shakespeare’s is some line or couplet in the next or a closely succeeding play that seems hidden there by the poet as if on purpose.

He would be crown’d,

says Brutus in soliloquy, of Caesar;

How that might change his nature, there’s the question.

That was the crucial question about Prince Henry, which Henry IV was written to ask and Henry V to answer – the question Falstaff failed to ask himself in time.  The young Henry V ‘killed’ his old friend when he rejected him, putting what he held to be the public good above personal feeling.  Brutus did precisely the same thing when he assassinated Caesar.  The analogy is startling.  Sir John and the mighty Julius make strange bedfellows, but their situations are so similar that it is easy to imagine Falstaff saying to himself at the moment he was rejected, in whatever would have been its Falstaffian equivalent:  ‘Et tu, Henry!’  Indeed, that is just what his silence does say.  [MY NOTE:  This seems incredibly correct to me.]

But if Henry V at the end of Henry IV has an affinity with Brutus, he has a deeper one with Caesar himself in Henry V.  (His affinity with Alexander the Great, Shakespeare himself more than hints at, as we have seen, through the mouth of Fluellen.)  Far apart as the two men seem, the common theme of the two plays to which their names give the titles is imperialism.  The point is that we see the imperialist at different stages of his career.  A conqueror at the outset is different from a conqueror at the end.

The unflattering character of the portrait Shakespeare draws of Julius Caesar is notorious.  The name and spirit of Caesar ring as imperially through the play as they do through history.  But the trembling epileptic the poet depicts seems like a parody of the figure that shook the ancient world.  Historical critics will say that Shakespeare is following Plutarch.  He is, but what of it?  He had no need of Plutarch to teach him what a ‘strong’ man becomes in his last days or at death.  He had already drawn unforgettably the final hours or moments of Cardinal Beaufort, of Warwick, of Richard III and others, to demonstrate that the nemesis of worldly strength is spiritual weakness (a truth that need not be labored in a generation that has witnessed the downfall of so many men of this type).  And he was to go on doing it.  ‘To be called into a huge sphere, and not to be seen to move in’t, are the holes where eyes should be, which pitifully disaster the cheeks.’  That description of a weakling (Lepidus) in his prime is a good characterization of this strong man (Caesar) on the edge of death.

Now does he feel his title

Hang loose about him, like a giant’s robe

Upon a dwarfish thief.

These words concerning Macbeth in his decline fit Shakespeare’s Caesar in his.  If the poet had given us a picture of Caesar’s youth, it might have been as fascinating as that of Hal, or, of his prime, as masterful as that achieved by Bernard Shaw.  But his purpose here is different, and it bears an interesting relation to the story that was cut short by the death of Henry V.  If Henry had lived and held France, it is obvious in it is obvious in what direction he would have developed.  But he died, and the chief defect of Shakespeare’s story is its failure to give any account of the circumstances of his death.  At his funeral, however, the poet has Bedford call upon Henry’s ghost and link it specifically with Julius Caesar:

Henry the Fifth! thy ghost I invocate;

Proper this realm, keep it from civil broils!

Combat with adverse planets in the heavens!

A far more glorious star thy soul will make,

Than Julius Caesar, or bright –

At which moment, a messenger enters to announce the beginning of the end of Henry’s conquests.  It is easy to see what happened in Shakespeare’s imagination.  In a dream, a character will sometimes grow blurry and begin to undergo a chance just as another character enters.  What has happened is that the original character has split in two.  So here.  It is as if after the ‘death’ in the poet’s mind of Henry V the split indicated by the hyphenated name Hal-Henry widened still further, and what was originally one man with a dual nature became two men, Brutus and Caesar.  So regarded, the play in which the two men figure is a sort of metempsychosis of Henry V.

As in life, there are characters in Shakespeare about whom men hold antipodal opinions.  Brutus is among them.  There are those who consider him one of the most noble and lovable figures the poet ever created.  Others cannot conceal their scorn for him.  He was a fool, they say, an egotist, an unconscionable prig.  If this be true, it is a bit odd that almost everyone in the play seems to think highly of him.  ‘This was the noblest Roman of them all,’ Antony declares.  And Antony was Brutus’ enemy.  ‘His life was gentle,’ he goes on to say, and we get the impression that, until the idea of assassinating Caesar infected it, that life was a pattern of domestic and civic virtue.  Integrity was its keynote, a balanced mixture of the elements.  And Antony, as if bent on surpassing what he has already said, shifts at the end from a Roman to a human standard.  He imagines Nature standing up, proud of her masterpiece, declaring to all the world, ‘This was a man!’

And yet the detractors of Brutus have a case.  They are merely talking about another person.  They have turned their attention from the man Nature made to the man Brutus marred.  There is little evidence that Brutus was particularly conscious of his own virtue until he began to consider Caesar’s assassination.  Then he had to exaggerate his own goodness to compensate for the evil that he contemplated.  After which, Nature’s formula no longer fully characterizes him.  We are compelled to add four other words to her original four:  ‘This was a man’ – and Brutus knew it.  And there lies the tragedy, for a man should have no more acquaintance with his virtue than a woman with her beauty.

The shadow on the wall, or the reflection in a distorting mirror, of the most nearly perfect human figure ever created can be grotesque.  Those who disparage Brutus are talking of his shadow.

Tell me, good Brutus, can you see your face?

asks Cassius on the occasion when he first hints at the assassination.

Brutus:

No Cassius, for the eye sees not itself

But by reflection, by some other things.

Cassius:

‘Tis just;

And it is very much lamented, Brutus,

That you have no such mirrors will turn

Your hidden worthiness into your eye,

That you might see your shadow.

It is a case where the speaker uses a word in one sense and Shakespeare in another.  Shadow! it evokes ominous memories of Richard, the Shadow King; and certainly the envious Cassius was not the one to offer a reflecting surface serene enough for the ‘good Brutus’ to catch his image in, whatever may be true of ‘that poor Brutus, with himself at war’ whom Brutus himself has just mentioned.  It was not for nothing that Shakespeare put ‘good Brutus’ and ‘poor Brutus’ side by side.  And so the story is at once the story of a man, and, like that of Hal, of ‘another fall of man.’

Hence, whether we attend to the contrast between Caesar and the noblest Roman of them all, or to the conflict within that Roman between his nobility and his pride, the theme is the same.  It is King John over again with its antithesis between the real and the titular hero.  King John remains history because John was only a king and not a ‘man,’ while Faulconbridge, who was both man and ‘king,’ did not fall.  Julius Caesar becomes tragedy because Brutus both was a ‘man’ and did fall.  Emperor and Galilean is the title of the play Ibsen considered his masterpiece.  Emperor and Man might have been the name of Julius Caesar, had Shakespeare been given to comment in his titles.  He was given to it, but in a more subtle way than Ibsen.  The pride of Brutus is the ghost of Caesar within him as certainly as if at the moment Caesar expired it had literally transmigrated from the dead man to the living one.  And so this Tragedy of Brutus is the story of Julius Caesar’s spirit after death.  The title of the play is precisely the right one.

As the political theme of Henry V is imperialism and war, so the political theme of Julius Caesar is imperialism and revolution.  To say that Shakespeare in this play is asserting that assassination as a political instrument is always, everywhere, for any man, under any circumstances, morally unjustifiable would be asserting too much.  Shakespeare is not given to defending or attacking universal propositions.  Even when Camillo, asked by Leontes to kill Polixenes in The Winter’s Tale, declares,

If I could find example

Of thousands that had struck anointed kings,

And flourish’d after, I’d not do’t; but since

Nor brass nor stone nor parchment bears not one,

Let villainy itself forswear’t.

it is Camillo’s opinion and not necessarily Shakespeare’s, though the absoluteness of the statement is indeed interesting, coming from the author of Julius Caesar.  ‘Shakespeare is no partisan in this tragedy,’ says Professor Kittredge.  ‘He sides neither with Caesar and his avengers nor with the party of Brutus and Cassius.  The verdict, if there must be a verdict, he leaves to history.’  It is a safe statement, if for no other reason than that Shakespeare is never a political partisan.  But if ever Shakespeare left anything beyond doubt it is that this particular man Brutus should never have had anything to do with this particular deed.  Practically every scene of the play contributes something towards this conclusion.  So true it is indeed that Julius Caesar, if you care to take it so, becomes a sort of manual on the art of knowing what your soul is telling you to do, or not to do, of finding out what you think in contrast with what you think you think.”

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My next post:  Sunday evening/Monday morning – More background for the play, continuing Act One.

 

Enjoy.  And enjoy your weekend.

 

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