By Dennis Abrams
Act Three: At the Capitol, Caesar rejects Artemidorus’s letter but instead listens to a petition requesting that the banishment of Metellus’s brother be repealed. When he refuses, the conspirators stab him to death. Antony arrives at the scene and mourns Caesar’s death but promises to delay judgment until the murders have explained themselves at Caesar’s funeral at which Antony intends to speak. At the funeral all seems to be going well for the conspirators when the popular Brutus speaks, but Antony’s address to the crowd quickly wins them over. Convinced of their treason, the crowd begins to howl for the conspirator’s blood, but they have already escaped. In the ensuing riot, citizens murder a poet named Cinna, mistaking him for the conspirator of the same name.
Samuel Taylor Coleridge: “How too could Brutus say he finds no personal cause, i.e. none in Caesar’s past conduct as a man? Has he not passed the Rubicon? Placed his Gauls in the Senate? Shakespeare (it may be said) has not brought these things forward. True! and this is the just ground for my perplexity. What character does Shakespeare mean his Brutus to be?”
The moment the assassins are out of earshot, Antony exclaims to Caesar’s corpse, “O pardon me, thou bleeding piece of earth,/that I am meek and gentle with these butchers.” It is as if he’s turning Brutus’s feeble words back on him. In the long term, he prophesies, “Domestic fury and fierce civil strife/Shall cumber all the parts of Italy.” In the shorter term, he does everything within his power to ensure that the conspirator’s triumph rapidly turns into disaster.
The contest between those views becomes the centerpiece and climax of the play. Brutus announces his intention to “appease/the Multitude” almost as soon as Caesar is dead, and sets to work convincing the restless crowd of his good intentions. “Romans, countrymen, and lovers,” he begins,
Here me for my cause, and be silent that you may hear. Believe me for mine honour, and have respect to mine honour, that you may believe. Censure me in your wisdom, and awake your senses, that you may the better judge.
So he continues, arguing calmly that his hands are bloody not because “I loved Caesar less, but that I loved Rome more.” And the strategy works: as Brutus prepared to leave, the people are behind him, promising to “give him a statue with his ancestors.”
But as anyone who watches The Simpsons knows, the mob’s calm can’t last. In another well-meaning yet fatal mistake, and against Cassius’s better judgment, Brutus allows Antony to speak to the crowd. The results are both infamous, and, for the conspirators/murderers, fatal. “Friends, Romans, countrymen, lend me your ears,’ Antony begins, reusing Brutus’s words in an attempt to reclaim the crowd. Then he begins to work them:
I come to bury Caesar, not to praise him.
The evil that men do lives after them;
The good is oft interred with their bones,
So let it be with Caesar. The noble Brutus
Hath told you Caesar was ambitious.
If it were so, it were a grievous fault,
And grievously hath Caesar answered it.
Here, under leave of Brutus and the rest –
For Brutus is an honourable man,
So are they all, all honourable men –
Come I to speak in Caesar’s funeral.
He was my friend, faithful and just to me.
But Brutus says he was ambitious,
And Brutus is an honourable man.
And so it goes on, each clanging “honourable” another nail in the conspirator’s collective coffin. In this extraordinary speech, Antony makes use of many rhetorical techniques – the most insistent being one that Shakespeare would have learned at school, whereby as phrases are repeated they grow in intensity, the words meaning gradually evolving from apparent straightforwardness to biting sarcasm. The persuasive rhythms of Antony’s speech aptly recreate what Plutarch himself labeled Antony’s “study of eloquence,” and, with devastating irony, he conforms entirely to the argument agreed on with the conspirators, while effectively destroying their entire operation.
Antony has his way, and the crowd immediately revolts. The terrible dangers that are unleashed by the power of his words are underlined when a poet whose name happens to be Cinna is torn apart by citizens under the impression that he is one of the conspirators, and soon Rome slides – as predicted – into a bitter civil war.
“Brutus is not the only one whose sleep is interrupted the night before the assassination and who will not let his wife save him. The same is true of Caesar. Three times Calpurnia dreams that her husband is murdered, that his statue runs blood in which many Romans bathe their hands. And the augurers confirm her fear. Caesar decides not to go to the Capitol. But Decius Brutus, by a strained reinterpretation of the dream and by dangling the hope of a crown before him, gets him to change his mind. Brutus leads him to Brutus. The crown he is to receive is death.
Even at the last moment he might have been saved if he had regarded the Soothsayer or had received the petition of Artemidorus, the philosopher, who in some unexplained way – possibly because the conspirators had not bound themselves to secrecy by an oath – had got a hint of the conspiracy.
What touches us ourself shall be last serv’d,
he cries, brushing Artemidorus aside. What looks like magnanimity is inverted pride.
Merellus Cimber kneels before Caesar begging the repeal of his brother’s banishment. If Caesar’s decision had been made a genuine test of his fitness to live, the spectator might feel more sympathy with the conspirators. But his death is ordained regardless of how he decides. Brutus, with a kiss that reminds us more of Judas than of the Brutus who expelled Tarquin from Rome, seconds the petition of Metellus Cimber. Caesar, refusing, justifies his unwillingness to change his mind by comparing himself to the Northern Star and to Olympus. It is assumption of divinity. The man is infatuated. The moment has come. Casca stabs him from behind, the others follow. Brutus, significantly, striking last. ‘Et tu, Brute? Then fall, Caesar!’ How much deeper into Brutus’ heart those words must have sunk than did the dagger that made ‘the most unkindest cut of all’ into Caesar’s flesh. It was Caesar who stabbed Brutus.
Liberty! Freedom! Tyranny is dead!
Liberty, freedom, and enfranchisement!
Peace, freedom, and liberty!
cries Brutus, and unconsciously fulfilling Calpurnia’s dream, he bids his fellows bathe their hands to the elbows in Caesar’s blood. (Is this the man we saw bending over a sleeping child but a few hours before?)
How many ages hence
Shall this our lofty scene be acted over
In states unborn and accents yet unknown!
cries Cassius as he complies with Brutus’s bloody suggestion.
How many times shall Caesar bleed in sport,
That now on Pompey’s basis lies along
No worthier than the dust!
cries Brutus, echoing Cassius. It is significant that while the first prophecy is political, the second is theatrical. How many times since then both have been fulfilled. ‘So oft as that shall be,’ Cassius concludes,
So often shall the knot of us be call’d
The men that gave their country liberty.
What they did give it is best seen by turning over a few pages of the text to the opening of Act IV, where Antony, Octavius, and Lepidus, the new rulers of Rome, sit around a table pricking off the names of those who must die that their own regime may base itself in safety. So soon can tyranny succeed violent revolution. And if the immediate fruits of the assassination are depicted in this play are insufficient, the reader may turn to Antony and Cleopatra to behold its remoter harvest.
But this is anticipating. [MY NOTE: Antony and Cleopatra is one of my top three plays by Shakespeare.]
Antony, whom Brutus spared, begs leave to speak over Caesar’s body at his funeral, and, in the face of Cassius’ protest, Brutus consents. In a speech that will precede Antony’s he will placate the people. The two orations, or rather Brutus’ oration and Antony’s speech, have been declaimed and dissected in innumerable classrooms. Yet the contrast between them remains a better treatise on the relation of sincerity to style than a shelf of textbooks.
Though everybody sees that the wily Antony puts his speech over, as we say, while Brutus does not, just as a speech Brutus’ effort has usually been declared a good one by academic authority. It was merely too good for the mob, it is said. On the contrary it is one of the worst speeches ever made by an able and intelligent man. In symmetrical structure, its balanced sentences, its ordered procedure, its rhetorical questions, its painfully conscious and ornamental style, its hopelessly abstract subject matter, all stamp it as the utterance of a man whose heart is not in his words. It is a dishonest speech.
The cry of the Third Citizen, ‘Let him be Caesar,’ measures its practical effectiveness. Those four words have often been pointed out as one of the most crushing ironies in the play. They are, and with the other comments of the populace show how hopeless the cause of the conspirators was. These people did not deserve liberty. They were ready for slavery.
Antony’s speech, on the other hand, for all its playing on the passions of the people, and for all its lies, is at bottom an honest speech, because Antony loved Caesar. Because to that extent he has the truth on his side, he is as concrete as Brutus was abstract. A sincere harangue by a demagogue is better than the most ‘classic’ oration from a man who speaks only with his lips. It is like Henry IV and Falstaff. The good form is one side, the veracity on the other.
Now let it work,
cries Antony in an accent with which our own day has made us well acquainted,
Mischief, thou art afoot,
Take thou what course thou wilt!
And Shakespeare devotes a little scene to Cinna, the poet, whom the mob mistakes for Cinna the conspirator. What if they do have hold of the wrong man! They go ahead anyway – on sound lynching principles. It is the Jack Cade motif over again. Mythology is wrong. It is not love, it is passion that is blind.
Meanwhile, before this, word has come to Antony that Brutus and Cassius
Are rid like madmen through the gates of Rome.
Instead of liberating Rome, Rome has ‘liberated’ them. But a few hours before they were crying ‘Tyranny is dead!’ and so soon it all seems like a dream.”
And, from Tony Tanner:
“From the very start, Brutus, by his own account, is ‘with himself at war.’ Cassius offers to be his ‘glass,’ a mirror which:
Will modestly discover to yourself
That of yourself which you yet know not of.
He does know it, as we shall see, but he does not want to know that he knows it. Shakespeare is nowhere more brilliant in this play than in showing the operations and stratagems of self-deception. At the end of the scene, Cassius is content with his work:
Well, Brutus, thou art noble; yet I see
Thy honorable mettle may be wrought
From that it is disposed…
For who so firm that cannot be seduced?
There are number of references to ‘mettle’ in the play (the people, not surprisingly, are regarded as ‘the basest mettle’) and there is always an implicit play on ‘mettle’ (disposition) and ‘metal’ (a material which can be ‘wrought’). In this play, people can be sharp or blunt or dull, but, more importantly, they can be ‘wrought.’ The dictionary glosses that as meaning ‘fashioned or formed.’ It is the past participle of ‘work’ – another important word in the play. Crowds, of course, can be ‘wrought’ – now this shape, now that. And so can individuals, as when Brutus says of Caius Legarius – ‘Send him but hither, and I’ll fashion him.’ The vocabulary bespeaks a manipulative and instrumental – not to say materialistic – view of people at the last. Perhaps Shakespeare thought this was very ‘Roman’ – though what price ‘honour’ and ‘nobility’ in such metallic people? But there is an even more insidious form of ‘fashioning,’ as emerges in Brutus’s first soliloquy. His first words to himself are – ‘It must be by his death.’ That is, deep inside him, the decision has been taken – Caesar, his best friend, is to be killed. Make no mistake, this Brutus is a murderer, though not the usual ambitious regicide of other Tudor plays. Now he has to find some reasons for the deed – political imperatives to mask the personal compulsion. Has to find them because – ‘for my part/I know no personal cause to spurn at him’ and ‘to speak truth of Caesar,/I have not known when his affections swayed/More than his reason.’ So he moves from the indicative tense – Caser as he is – to the subjunctive and conditional, drawing hypothetical scenarios. If Caesar is crowned, he ‘may do danger’ – ‘So Caesar may’. Always ‘may’ is allows to supplant ‘is.’ Then this, which is decisive:
And, since the quarrel
Will bear no color for the thing he is,
Fashion it thus: that what he is, augmented,
Would run to these and these extremities;
And therefore think him as a serpent’s egg
Which hatched, would as his kind grow mischievous,
And kill him in the shell.
Fashion is thus – words and arguments are like people, as far as Brutus is concerned; you can mould and shape them to suit, and justify, any ulterior intention. But this perverse substitution of the possible for the actual, is a step into anarchy – of self, and then of state. His own internal anarchy is revealed in a following soliloquy which starts: ‘Since Cassius first did what me against Caesar,/I have not slept.’ Note ‘whet’ – by which Brutus depicts himself as a tool which has been sharpened. He goes on – in a speech which anticipates Macbeth – to describe the ‘phantasma’ and nightmare inner world he is living in:
The genius and the mortal instruments
Are then in council, and the state of a man,
Like to a little kingdom, suffers then
The nature of an insurrection.
Brutus has been ‘at war’ with himself since the beginning, and what he effectively does is to extend that inner ‘insurrection’ to the state at large.
As the conspirators come in with their heads cloaked and concealed – as Portia says, they ‘hide their faces/Even from darkness’ – Brutus reveals, by his words, that he is well aware of the evil nature of the deed they are premeditating.
Sham’st thou to show thy dang’rous brow by night,
When evils are most free? O, then by day
Where wilt thou find a cavern dark enough
To mask thy monstrous visage? Seek none, conspiracy;
Hide it in smiles and affability…
‘Monstrous’ is an important word for Shakespeare, indicating something which is in nature, since it is undeniably there, but also horribly unnatural as well. Nature against itself. Brutus could hardly have chosen a more self-incriminating, self-damning word. He also reveals a Machiavellian streak as he indicates the need for concealment, simulation and dissembling:
And let our hearts, as subtle masters do,
Stir up their servants to an act of rage,
And after seem to chide ‘em.
Calculated self-manipulation and strategic self-deception – let our hearts goad our hands to the act of murder, then afterwards, ‘seem’ to reproach them for doing it. What a splitting of the self! No wonder he can’t sleep. But perhaps the key metaphor comes from the stage. As the conspirators are dispersing, Cassius says ‘show yourselves true Romans,’ immediately followed by this exhortation from Brutus:
Good gentlemen, look fresh and merrily.
Let not our looks put on our purposes,
But bear it as our Roman actors do,
With untired spirits and formal constancy.
‘False face must hide what the false heart doth know,’ as Macbeth will say. We have had the stage mentioned before – while Caesar was dallying with the crown, the people, according to Casca, did ‘clap him and hiss him, according as he pleased and displeased them, as they use to do the players in the theater.’ After the assassination, in a strange self-conscious moment, Cassius says:
How many ages hence
Shall this our lofty scene be acted over
In states unborn and accents yet unknown…
and Brutus: ‘How many times shall Caesar bleed in sport.’ It seems as if ‘true Romans’ have to be ‘Roman actors’ and that public Rome – street, Capitol, Forum – is akin to theatre (Brutus, indeed, refers to ‘our performance’).
At this moment, in the theatre of Rome, Caesar is bleeding in dead earnest (although of course in the Globe Theater he is even now bleeding ‘in sport.’) As the blood ‘streams forth’ from Caesar’s ‘wounds’ – ‘rushing out of doors, to be resolved/If Brutus so unkindly knocked, or no,’ as Antony remarkably puts it, stirring up the people – we seem to have entered a blood storm: ‘bloody men’ with ‘bloody hands’ at their ‘bleeding business,’ reducing Caesar to a ‘bleeding piece of earth’:
Pardon me, Julius! Here wast thou bayed, brave hart;
Here dist thou fall, and here thy hunters stand,
Signed in thy spoil and crimsoned in thy lethe…
and ‘all the while’ Pompey’s statue ‘ran blood.’
In the ‘play’ as Brutus plans it he will act the role of high priest and doctor of the republic – ‘Let’s be sacrificers, but not butchers…purgers, not murderers’ – but Shakespeare knew that Plutarch’s hunting image was the right one. Hunters and butchers. In the event, the conspirators fall on Caesar and ‘hew him as a carcass fit for hounds.’ There will be blood everywhere – as if still streaming from Caesar’s wounds – until the end of the ensuing civil war. As foretold by Antony:
Over thy wounds now do I prophesy…
Domestic fury and fierce civil strife
Shall cumber all the parts of Italy;
Blood and destruction shall be so in use…
And Caesar’s spirit, ranging for revenge,
With Ate by his side come hot from hell,
Shall in these confines with a monarch’s voice
Cry ‘Havoc,’ and let slip the dogs of war,
That this foul deed shall small above the earth
With carrion men, groaning for burial.
This pretty exactly describes the rest of the play, which will be dominated by Caesar’s ‘spirit,’ and in which Antony will prove to be one of the fiercest of the ‘dogs of war’ (his opening words in Act IV – ‘These many then shall die’ – are as, if not more, ominous as Brutus’ ‘It must be by his death.’ By the end, Brutus is more than justified in his comment – ‘Slaying is the word;/It is a deed in fashion.’
Naively (to be generous), Brutus seems to think that after the assassination, it will be enough if they go into the streets and ‘cry ‘Peace, freedom, and liberty!’, as if the republic will somehow run itself, without any structured authority. (However idealistic he may be, Brutus is a disastrously bad practical politician: he does not dispatch Antony; he lets Antony address the people; he insists on the wrong military tactics at Philippi – in all these matters, from a purely political point of view, Cassius is right. That they should quarrel after the assassination, and thus weaken their cause, seems almost inevitable – a case, as I see it, of rogues falling out.) Caesar kept, and represented, a central control of power. In killing him – as a ‘tyrant’ – Brutus merely releases chaos, anarchy, and civil war as different factions struggle for the masterless power let loose. Brutus has not purged the republic, but destroyed allgovernment, and helped to usher in the new tyranny of the triumvirate, which will prove to be far more cruel, oppressive, and terrible than anything associated with the rule (if not reign) of Caesar. (The triumvirate, at first dominated by Antony, kill one hundred senators, including Cicero, and deliberately – nastily – including a number of each others’ relatives – thus eliminating the senatorial party. Antony also tried to fiddle Caesar’s will. Before Caesar’s death, Antony appeared headstrong and passionately loyal – though Cassius knew him for a ‘shrewd contriver.’ Afterwards he becomes both greedy and barbarous. A dog of war indeed.)
Before the assassination, Brutus says to his fellow conspirators:
We all stand up against the spirit of Caesar.
And in the spirit of men there is no blood.
O, that we then could come by Caesar’s spirit,
And not dismember Caesar! But, alas,
Caesar must bleed for it.
They do dismember Caesar, and he certainly bleeds; but they do not ‘come by’ his spirit, which escapes and returns to haunt and hunt them – ‘ranging for revenge’ as Antony predicts. Caesar seems to have a terrible posthumous power…”
So what do you think? How does the play read to you?
Our next reading: Julius Caesar, Act Four
My next post: Sunday evening/Monday morning
Enjoy. And enjoy your weekend.