Act One, Part Two
By Dennis Abrams
I’m struck by a couple of things:
1. The number of well-known lines and phrases, even just from Act One: “Beware the ides of March,” “Men at some time are masters of their fate. The fault, dear Brutus, is not in our stars, but in ourselves, that we are underlings,” “Yond Cassius has a lean and hungry look; He thinks too much: such men are dangerous,” and Caesar’s “But, for my part, it was Greek to me.” (Although with a bit of research, that line was first “used” by Thomas Dekker in his play “Patient Grisset.”
FAR: Asking for a Greek poet, to him he fails. I’ll be sworn he knows not so much as one character of the tongue.
RIC: Why, then it’s Greek to him.
Which, of course, is different than saying “It’s Greek to me.”
2. And also, I’m struck by just how much easier is it to read Shakespeare at this point in our journey. How much of it is us, and how much is due to his own development as a writer is a different question.
From Tony Tanner:
“Plutarch’s Parallel Lives of twenty-three Romans and twenty-three Greeks (as translated by North in 1579 from Amyot’s French) was probably the most important book Shakespeare read from the point of view of his playwriting. (Terence Spencer reminds us that it was no easy undertaking – he would have had to pore over more than a thousand pages in a very large and heavy folio volume.) No play owes as much to Plutarch’s Lives (Life of Caesar, Life of Brutus, Life of Antonius), as Julius Caesar – all the matters of substance, most of the events, many of the details, and indeed quite a number of lines, are transcribed directly from Plutarch. Of course, Shakespeare made additions, modifications, amplifications, and crucial shifts in interpretative emphasis, and in the event this play is one of his most searching and dramatic explorations of the nature and processes of politics and power. But so close does the play seem to Plutarch that I want to start by quoting a number of passages from his work, as a prelude, perhaps, to appreciating what Shakespeare did with his source material.
Plutarch was a Greek philosopher, writing in the latter half of the first century AD. `His preference was for republican ideals. In Spencer’s words: ‘The triumph of the monarchial principle was something that Plutarch, a Greek philosopher, who looked back on the past of his own country and its brilliant small city-states with admiration and a kind of sentimental regret, detested although he saw its inevitability.’ He regarded Caesar as the cause of the downfall of the Roman republic. And yet, many positive features emerge from his account of Caesar:
‘the Romans, inclining to Caesar’s prosperity and taking the bit in the mouth, supposing that to be ruled by one man alone, it would be a good mean for them to take breath a little, after so many troubles and miseries as they had abidden in these civil wars, they chose him perpetual dictator…And now for himself, after he had ended his civil wars, he did so honorably behave himself, that there was no fault to be found in him.’
The italicized words apply exactly to the Elizabethans, worn out after the Wars of the Roses and the power-struggles of Catholics and Protestants under Edward VI and Mary, and glad to be ‘ruled by one woman alone.’ And we should remember that Brutus finds no actual fault with Caesar. Furthermore, Caesar treated the people with paternalistic fondness and respect:
‘Now Caesar immediately won many men’s good wills at Rome, through his eloquence in pleading of their causes, and the people loved him marvelously also, because of the courteous manner he had to speak to every man, and to use them gently, being more ceremonius therein than was looked for in one of his years. Furthermore, he ever kept a good board…’
Almost Caesar’s words [in the play] are ‘Set on, and leave no ceremony out,’ and I shall be returning to the word I have italicized. We shall also catch a very significant glimpse of Caesar keeping that ‘good board.’
So wherein did he offend? Well, there was the nature of his last ‘triumph into Rome’ (with which the play begins). A reminder of a little actual history might help here. Caesar had defeated Pompey at Pharsalus in 48 BC, and how he has returned from his final triumph over Pompey’s sons in Spain in 45BC. This made him sole dictator; more beneficially, it ended the factional strife which had marred and disturbed civil life under the Republic. But it is true that, with this victory and consolidation of Caesar as dictator, the citizens lost all their power and the Senatorial party lost much of its? Plutarch sees this as a bad moment. ‘But the triumph he made into Rome for the same as he did as much offend the Romans, and more, than any thing that ever he had done before: because he had not overcome captains that were strangers, nor barbarous kings, but had destroyed the sons of the noblest man of Rome, whom fortune had overthrown.’ But – for Plutarch – there was worse. ‘But the chiefest cause that made him mortally hated was the covetous desire he had to be called king: which first gave the people just cause, and next his secret enemies honest colour, to bear him ill will…they could not abide the name of a king, detesting it as the utter destruction of their liberty.’ Given his republican sympathies, Plutarch seems more on the side of Brutus, to whom he gives all the Roman virtues – he was noble minded, lowly, virtuous, valiant, and so on. He ascribes to him only the purest and highest motives for killing Caesar. Yet Plutarch also gives us a troubled Brutus: ‘when he was out of his house, he did so frame and fashion his countenance and looks that no man could discern he had anything to trouble his mind. But when night came that he was in his own house, then he was clean changed: for either care did wake him against his will when he would have slept, or else oftentimes of himself he fell into such deep thoughts of his enterprise, casting in his mind all the dangers that might happen: that his wife, lying by him, found that there was some marvelous great matter that troubled his mind…’(my italics). This is all Shakespeare needs to dramatize a crucial split in Brutus between the public and the private man – between the noble, idealistic, Roman, performer; and the tormented, introspecting, insomniac, individual. And he will make devastating use of that word ‘fashion.’ Plutarch certainly lends no nobility to the actual killing of Caesar – quite the reverse. ‘Caesar…was hacked and mangled among them, as a wild beast taken of hunters.’ In the play Brutus tries to make a ‘sacrifice’ out of the deed, but Plutarch’s description is definitive. And after the assassination, in Plutarch’s description, Caesar’s ‘great prosperity and good fortune that favoured him all his lifetime, did continue afterwards in the revenge of his death, pursuing the murtherers both by sea and land, till they had not left a man more to be executed, all of them that were actors or counsellers in the conspiracy of his death.’ Only, in Shakespeare, it is not Caesar’s ‘good fortune’ which ‘did continue afterward’ but his ‘spirit.’
It has also to be remembered that, by Shakespeare’s time, Caesar and Brutus had acquired symbolic identities in the popular imagination; they were seen as representative world-historical figures who embodied respectively – and I simplify – the monarchial (and imperial) principle, and the republican ideal. It is undeniable that the numerous references to Caesar in Shakespeare’s other plays treat him almost without exception with admiration, if not with something more. We may take one example, from Hamlet which refers to
the most high and palmy state of Rome,
A little ere the mightiest Julius fell…
— as if the time of Julius Caesar was regarded as the high point of Roman history. According to Spencer, ‘Shakespeare’s audience seem to have regarded Caesar’s death as one of the great crimes of history.’ This is line with Ernest Schanzer’s contention in his essay on the play that ‘a large part of the audience were in sympathy with the mediaeval apotheosis of Caesar.’ (And, of course, Dante put Brutus at the bottom of his Inferno.) In the same article however, Schanzer reminds us that during the Renaissance there were also divided and ambivalent readings of the two men – Caesar as boastful tyrant, Brutus as liberator and patriot. As we have seen, there are detectable ambivalences in Plutarch himself. It is certainly true that by the sixteenth century a number of writers openly admired Brutus, and his reputation seems to have increased after Shakespeare’s time – understandable, perhaps, as the monarchial principle faded and waned. The period of Roman history from Julius Caesar to August was of particular importance for a number of Elizabethan and Renaissance political thinkers to confirm the argument in favour of monarchy. As Phillips put it: ‘In the stability which Caesar achieved under his dictatorship, in the civil strife which followed his assassination, and in the peace which returned under the imperial rule of Augustus, Tudor theorists found proof that under monarchy states flourish, under divided authority they decline.’ I hope all this gives some slight idea of the wealth and weight of material, and contradictoriness of opinion and interpretation, which Shakespeare could draw on when he turned to write the play he decided to call Julius Caesar.
I put it that way because, over the years, some commentators have questioned the appropriateness of naming a play after a character who has such a small part (some 130 lines out of 2,500), and who dies in the middle of the action. We may start from a consideration of this – quite accurate – point. Visibly, audibly, Caesar appears on stage for a shorter period than any other major Shakespearian protagonist. Yet his name occurs, re-echoes, throughout the play on more occasions than of any other major protagonist: 211 times to Brutus’s 130. This is a non-trivial point. The body goes: the name lives on. Caesar and Brutus both refer to themselves in the third person, as though it were possible to distinguish between, and separate, the self and the name (e.g. Caesar: ‘I fear him not./Yet if my name were liable to fear…’). In the final battle at Phillipi, for the defeated allies of Brutus it seems as though their names are all that remain to them – Cato: ‘I will proclaim my name above the field’. Lucillus, to protect his leader, announces to the enemy soldiers – ‘And I am Brutus, Marcus Brutus, I;/Brutus, my country’s friend; know me for Brutus!’ And, imprisoning the ‘name,’ they think they have caught the man. Perhaps the most important speech in this connection comes from Cassius early on, when he is trying to ‘seduce’ Brutus to his murderous cause:
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.’
Cassius is a materialist (at this point) – there is nothing in a name. But the mistake articulated in that last line is absolutely central to the play. ‘Brutus’ does not ‘start’ (raise) ‘a spirit’ – ‘Caesar’ does. The possible divorce and discrepancy between the ‘name’ (the concept, the ideal, the image) and the actual thing (person, behaviour, event) is constantly coming to the fore. How lethal this divorce can be is vividly brought out in the short scene in which the plebeians kill Cinna the poet:
I am not Cinna the conspirator.
It is his no matter, his name’s Cinna; pluck but his name out of his heart, and turn him going.
Can you pluck out the name without plucking the heart? No – says the play. The name of ‘Rome’ and ‘Romans’ are as constantly heard (seventy-two times) as in Titus Andronicus, and I will not try to better the comment of Foakes: ‘There is a contrast between the Roman ideal and Romans in action, as seen in the behaviour of the conspirators and the plebeians, similar to that between the ideal and the living person represented in Caesar and Brutus.’ Perhaps the most telling and central dramatized illustration of this split between the bodily self and name (reputation, image) is provided by Antony’s vivid evocation of the death of Caesar – of Caesar the man, that is:
Then burst his mighty heart;
And, in his mantle muffling up his face,
Even at the base of Pompey’s statue
(Which all the while ran blood) great Caesar fell.
O, what a fall was there, my countrymen!
Then I, and you, and all of us fell down,
Whilst bloody treason flourished over us.
The bodily Caesar can fall – we have already had intimations of this in his ‘falling sickness.’
But while the body falls, the statues of previous great men (here Pompey the Great) stand erect after the death of those they commemorate. Monument, reputation, image, name – spirit – these are phenomena which can outlast corporeal terminations.
What do we gather of the living, speaking Caesar of the first two Acts and from his last speeches before the Capitol? Hazlitt – always a commentator to attend to – found the depiction disappointing. ‘We do not much admire the representation here given of Julius Caesar, nor do we think it answers to the portrait given of him in his Commentaries. He makes several vapouring and rather pedantic speeches, and does nothing.’ There is some vapour and pedantry in his speeches, but whether he ‘does nothing’ depends on your sense of action and agency. From one point of view, Caesar, or rather ‘Caesar,’ does almost everything. The play opens with a street festival – Lupercal, a fertility festival which Shakespeare conflates with Caesar’s triumph (which actually took place some five months earlier – there are numerous compressions and compactions in this play, a lot of history sometimes being dramatically squeezed into a single day). Apart from giving us our first glimpse of the people or ‘commoners’ – here quite effervescent and holiday-merry (later to turn mutinous and murderous) – this first scene is most important for the behaviour of the tribunes (representatives of the people and thus on guard against the Senate, never mind ‘kings’) – Flavius and Marullus. The people have festooned the images of Caesar in the city with ‘trophies’ (i.e., ornaments in honour of Caesar, not – here – spoils of war), and the tribunes go around stripping them:
Disrobe the images,
If you do find them decked with ceremonies.
…let no images
Be hung with Caesar’s trophies.
I have mentioned that almost Caesar’s first words are ‘leave no ceremony out,’ and after his death Brutus says ‘we are contented Caesar shall/Have all true rites and lawful ceremonies.’ In these three uses of the word, it means, variously and not mutually exclusively, symbols of state and ritual observances. But the word is used on two other occasions with a different meaning. (The original Latin word – caeromonia – means reverence or dread, and in the plural form came to refer to the rituals by which people express or cope with those feelings; also it came to refer to the respect felt for dread-ful portents.) When Cassius expresses his doubt as to whether Caesar will go to the Capitol he says:
For he is superstitious grown of late,
Quite from the main opinion he held once
Of fantasy, of dreams, and ceremonies.
Here the word means portents or omens. It is used in this sense in the next scene when Caesar’s wife, Calpurnia, tries to persuade Caesar to remain at home because of her ominous dreams and the terrible prodigies seen in the city the previous night. ‘Caesar, I never stood on ceremonies,/Yet now they fright me.’ It is an important part of the movement and atmosphere of the play that Cassius himself, an extreme materialist in the Epicurus line, grows ‘superstitious’ as he end approaches:
You know that I held Epicurus strong,
And his opinion; now I change my mind,
And partly credit things that do presage.
The play is full of superstition of all kinds – soothsayers, prophets or fortune-tellers, auguerers, omens and portents and ‘things that do presage’ – the ‘prodigies’ seen during the storm on the night preceding the assassination which seem to show ‘a civil strife in heaven,’ presaging, indeed, a civil strife on earth (most of the prodigies are from Plutarch, be it said), and of course the ghost of Caesar. In respect of this atmosphere of gathering portentousness, one may adopt the sharp, dismissive sanity if Cicero:
Indeed, it is a strange-disposed time:
But men may construe things after their fashion,
Clean from the purpose of the things themselves.
Or one may hover, awed and respectful, between belief and disbelief. After all, if Caesar had not defied augury and overcome his superstition with some rather bombastic self-grandiloquizing (‘Danger knows full well/that Caesar is more dangerous than he…Caesar shall go forth’ – he might well have lived to fight – and be crowned – another day. Whether or not Shakespeare believed in ghosts, auguries, prodigies and so on, is nothing to the point. What he unerringly understood was that a time when some crisis or catastrophic breakdown of the known social order seems or feels imminent, superstition floods the streets. We have seen it in our era in times of war, and it can be seen in California (in suitably ersatz form) any day of the week. That there are ‘things that do presage’ – straws in the wind, hints in the air, signs of things to come – Shakespeare, of course, knew was simply true.
From the start, then, Caesar is associated with ‘ceremony’ – rituals (with the troubling shadow-meaning of portents), images, symbols, trophies. These, indeed, can all be part of the panoply and mystique of power and hierarchy, but they can also help to maintain and reinforce order, civil regularity, peace – ‘after so many troubles and miseries as they had abbiden in these civil wars.’ Caesar is, in the exact Plutarch-North word – ‘cermonious.’ All these adornments and appurtenances can serve to make Caesar seem almost god-like, and there is no question but that Caesar is approaching this status at the start of the play. The ambiguous cheers of the crowd (reported in scene two) as Caesar is both offered and refuses the crown (three times is too loaded to pass unnoticed in a Christian culture), reveals something of Shakespeare’s insight into mob psychology. It likes to create heroes, or kings, or gods – but, as we later see, it is as equally willing to tear them down.
The tribunes want to do away with ceremony, symbol, image, and strip Caesar down to the poor, forked, fallible, physical body he undoubtedly is. This is the republican-reductive drive at its crudest – no great men, please. (For their pains, they are ‘put to silence’ – in view of the brutal eliminations to come, it is worth noting that this many simply mean they lost their jobs as spokesmen for the people.) But we cannot – or at least should not – take the tribunes’ view of Caesar. If you strip away all the ‘ceremonies,’ it is not clear what might be left to hold the city — the state – together and in order. That Caesar is physically vulnerable even when he is at his most masterful – god-like and imperial – Shakespeare brings out in a little touch which, for once, he did not find in Plutarch. At the end of his wonderfully penetrating and acutely accurate analysis of Cassius, there is a sudden lapse into intimations of mortality:
Such men as he be never at heart’s ease
Whiles they behold a greater than themselves,
And therefore are they very dangerous.
I rather tell thee what is to be feared
Than what I fear; for always I am Caesar.
Come on my right hand, for this ear is deaf…
The deafness is provided by Shakespeare – at our most potent and resplendent, we are already beginning to deteriorate and decay (as the Sonnets everywhere insist). But this is not a matter of contempt – the sort of contempt which Cassius expresses when he describes Caesar shaking like ‘a sick girl’ when he had a fever in Spain. It is hardly to Caesar’s discredit that, whatever else he may be, he is unavoidably corporal and human. Just what Caesar remains is, perhaps, something of an enigma. There are various versions of Caesar, ranging from that of the mean and envious Cassius (‘he doth bestride the narrow world/Like a Colossus’ –to that of the loyal and loving Antony (‘Thou art the ruins of the noblest man/That ever lived in the tide of times’. And there is Caesar’s version of himself, not to mention the crowd’s Caesar. We only see him as he is constructed – fashioned, but I’ll come back to that – by others, and by himself. In this connection, it is pertinent to acknowledge that a good deal of his speech (little enough though we hear of it), is self-aggrandizing and self-inflating, somewhat thransoical and given to self-hyperbolizing. But to suggest that the arrogance of his last speech –
Yet in the number I do know but one
That unassailable holds on his rank,
Unshaked of motion; and that I am he…
is sufficient justification for his assassination, as some critics have, seems to me to submit to conspiratorial homicidal intoxication, and identification with Cassius, that ‘hot, choleric, and cruel man’ (Plutarch). There is one little scene in Caesar’s house on the morning of the murder which seems to me crucial – and here we come to what Plutarch called Caesar’s ‘good board.’ Caesar is surrounded with, supposedly his good friends, actually those who will kill him. Before they set out for the Capitol, Caesar says:
Good friends, go in and taste some wine with me,
And we (like friends) will straightway go together.
To which, Brutus adds a concluding aside:
That every like is not the same, O Caesar,
The heart of Brutus earns to think upon.
Shortly afterwards, in front of the Capitol, Brutus who, as these lines reveal, knows he is only a dissembling friend, says to Caesar – ‘I kiss they hand, but not in flattery, Caesar.’ No, not in flattery – in betrayal. After the ceremonial communal wine of the Last Supper, the Judas kiss. At this point, the Elizabethans would surely have known what they were witnessing.
Brutus is a more complex figure. One reading seems him as a noble, idealistic, exemplary Roman who is ‘seduced’ into the conspiracy by the envious and bloody-minded Cassius
(who knows very well that the ‘work’ he has ‘in hand’ is ‘Most bloody, fiery, and most terrible.) Certainly he hopes that ‘the great opinion/That Rome holds of his name’ will give honour and respectability to their enterprise. Just as Casca hopes that:
that which would appear offense in us,
His countenance, like richest alchemy,
Will change to virtue and to worthiness…
(In the event, Brutus proves to be a failed alchemist – he cannot transform ‘butchery’ into ‘sacrifice,’ betrayal into virtue, murder into worthiness.) This view of Brutus was fostered by Plutarch, and Shakespeare is happy enough to take a Plutarchian line for Antony’s panegyric over the dead Brutus:
All the conspirators save only he
Did that they did in envy of great Caesar;
He, only in a general honest thought
And common good to all, made one of them.
Did he now? All Romans seemingly become ‘noble’ at their death. Brutus calls the vicious Cassius ‘the last of all the Romans’; Antony dubs betrayer-murderer Brutus ‘the noblest Roman of them all’; Octavius Caesar, in a later play casts around for some appropriate respectful things to say about Antony whom he always regarded as a hopelessly debauched defector, but, as we shall see, he cannot even be bothered to finish. These encomiastic elegies are formulaic Roman prescriptions which are, to all intents and purposes, interchangeable. Death can certainly bring dignity in Shakespeare, and it is appropriate at such a moment to let remembered virtues shine while flaws fade. But do not look for the truth of a man – and that includes Brutus – in these conventional orations and exequies.”
So what do you think so far – if you’ve already read the play, and knowing Shakespeare as you know him now…how is it different from what you remember?
A word on scheduling. I’m going to take a relaxed pace for the next month as we read Julius Caesar and then As You Like It – hoping to finish just before Xmas. The play after As You Like It is one I think we’ve all been waiting for – Hamlet – and I want to hold off on that one until after the New Year’s so we can start the year off right, and read it free of holiday distractions. Does that work for all of you?
And if you’re interested…links to the pertinent parallel lives from Plutarch:
Our next reading: Julius Caesar, Act Two
My next post: Tuesday evening/Wednesday morning