Commentaries on Shakespeare’s Tragedies
Shakespeare, William. Julius Caesar (Norton Tragedies, 2nd ed. 257-321).
Act 1, Scene 1
At the beginning of the play, Shakespeare introduces a Roman world where all people should know their place. Why is the carpenter not wearing the clothing he should be wearing? The cobbler introduces another theme—the idea that something is broken and must be mended. This is a holiday time when the ordinary laws that restrain and govern people seem to have been suspended. The strongest Romans on the scene are certain that their moral pronouncements and symbolic acts will set things right again, but in this belief, we must already begin to sense, they are gravely mistaken. The common people would just as well forget the past and live entirely in the present.
Act 1, Scene 2
In this scene we get our first view of Julius Caesar himself. He seems a grand enough figure, ordering great men about in an intimate way. Still, what Julius says to Marc Antony reminds us that his wife is unable to have children. In a way that has profound political implications, Julius is alone in the middle of this admiring crowd, and he must depend upon Marc Antony. Caesar will not listen to the soothsayer. Immediately afterwards we are treated to the first conversation between Brutus and Cassius, a conversation that turns upon the issue of representation tied together with the all-important Roman preoccupation with honor. Simply put, Cassius wants Brutus to see himself through the eyes of others who expect him to save the Republic. The honest reply that Brutus gives reminds us how difficult it is for a person to be self-contained, self-defining. It is clear that Brutus has been thinking along the same lines as Cassius—he would not find it tolerable for Julius to become king. But Brutus is circumspect about speaking what he feels. Cassius obviously resents and envies Caesar, and seems to hold him in contempt. His reference to Virgil’s Aeneid puts Cassius in place of Aeneas and Julius Caesar in the place of that hero’s father, who, readers of Virgil will remember, did not make it all the way to Italy after the Trojan remnant had set sail from their burning city. Cassius does not so much seek justice as the opportunity to take power for himself. He also sees a deep disjunction between what ordinary people think Caesar is and what he actually is to those who know him best. We like to think of the Romans as thoroughly upstanding and ancient times as somehow simpler and more noble, but the fact is that Roman political culture was at least as sophisticated as ours is today: “spin” would hardly have been a foreign concept to Roman politicians. Cassius tries to stir similar resentment in the breast of Brutus, and connects him to his illustrious ancestor Lucius Junius Brutus, who helped drive out the last Tarquin King from Rome. Brutus seems naïve concerning the motives of his friend since he labels the speech something “high.” Brutus is an idealist who can’t help but transform everyone around him into something more noble and high-minded than is really the case.
Julius Caesar speaks to Marc Antony again, and makes it clear that he does not trust Cassius, finding in him an anxiety-provoking degree of pride. It is also manifest that Caesar surrounds himself with people willing to tell him what he wants to hear. He is always on stage, a quality that Casca’s comments reinforce.
Casca is scornful of Caesar’s “act” in the presence of the common people who would make him king. The “tag-rag” crowd seems like an ordinary Elizabethan rabble. They follow their own appetites and are greedy for emotional spectacle, which is exactly what they get when Caesar swoons in an epileptic fit.
At the end of the second scene, Cassius clarifies his scheme after Brutus makes his exit—the plan is to manipulate Brutus by taking advantage of his noble honesty. In this play, there are characters who stick to their ideals (or who idealize others), and there are cynical realists like Cassius.
Act 1, Scene 3
Cicero proves unwilling when he speaks to Casca to buy into all the high talk about prodigies and omens. Cicero believes what’s happening is all a matter of interpretation. Casca fears the omens, but Cassius is contemptuous, comparing Julius Caesar to such thunder and lightning. The man is fearful, and a Roman must confront his fears if he would be free. As far as Cassius is concerned, Caesar’s greatness is a mark of the people’s degeneracy. Of course, this comment shows the weakness in the entire conspiratorial plan: if Romans are in fact sheep, how are they supposed to maintain the virtuous Republic of old, even if an assassination restores that form of government? If they are fit only to be led, why then, someone must lead them. So the argument is really over who will dominate the populace. As Thomas Carlyle will later write, “In the long run, every government is the exact symbol of its people.” Democracies and republics die when the citizenry are no longer worthy of such noble experiments or capable of sustaining them. This is not to say that Shakespeare or his audience were sympathetic to republican arguments—monarchy was generally considered the best form of government in Shakespeare’s time. Both Casca and Cassius want to borrow Brutus’s connection to heroic Roman history, thinking to render their own bloody deeds noble and acceptable by reference to violent acts that helped found the Republic.
Act 2, Scene 1
Brutus says that he acts for the general good, not because he has anything in particular against Caesar, who has always been a friend to him and a man of reason. (As the introduction points out, Shakespeare brackets out the way Julius Caesar attained the level of power he held at the time of his murder. However, his bringing destruction to northern Europe’s tribes and crossing the Rubicon aside, it remains true that Caesar was a man of considerable merit—he was a cultivated man, not a brute.) The main argument Brutus makes is the abstract one that power would surely corrupt his friend, so it is necessary to extrapolate what that friend might do if given absolute power. A man who would be king is a serpent, and must be dealt with as such. Brutus himself is very much taken with the heroic past connected to his family name, and like many good Romans he is firmly wedded to the past.
At line 63, it becomes apparent how much of a toll taking part in a conspiracy has begun to exact upon Brutus: “Between the acting of a dreadful thing / And the first motion, all the interim is / like a phantasma, or a hideous dream.” When he is introduced to the conspirators, he finds it necessary to explain just how un-Roman it is to require an oath in such matters as they are about to undertake, and he makes haste to check the bloodiness of their intent. Protecting Marc Antony turns out to be a mistake, of course, but it shows Brutus’s nobility of mind all the same. It’s possible to attribute to Brutus some degree of less than high-minded strategizing when he says that Antony “can do no more than Caesar’s arm / When Caesar’s head is off” (182-83), but perhaps that would be ungenerous. Brutus seems quite naïve throughout this scene, nowhere more so than when he says of Caesar, “Let’s carve him as a dish fit for the gods, / Not hew him as a carcass fit for hounds” (173-74). As always, Brutus is most comfortable with theories and abstractions, and with ritual and ceremony rather than practical action: the conspirators are first and foremost “butchers,” whatever their intentions towards the state. Brutus recognizes that Caesar’s blood must be spilled, but it’s hard to see how his words connote recognition of the full horror in such a deed.
At line 233 and following, Portia shows herself to be perhaps the only character who understands Brutus, with the possible exception of Octavius, who treats him as a worthy opponent. She requests in strong terms that Brutus let her in on what is troubling him, and he promises to do so, although he is subsequently interrupted by Caius Ligarius. But he must tell her subsequently since later on she seems aware of what is afoot. In speaking to Caius Ligarius, Brutus again employs the metaphor of sickness and health—it seems he sees himself as a physician or a surgeon as well as a priest with respect to the body politic.
Act 2, Scene 2
When talking to his wife, Caesar seems genuinely magnificent in his disregard for death, but he also seems rather pompous in declaring himself more dangerous than danger itself. On the whole, he is a politician who has come to believe his own PR—always a dangerous thing to do because it unfits a person to exercise power in real-life, real-time situations. Because Decius Brutus understands this weakness in Caesar, he is able to use it to bring the man out to the Capitol, where he will meet his fate. I think Shakespeare follows the general line that the time had already come for Rome to turn imperial, but the fat and fond Julius Caesar he portrays is not the right man to wield such enormous power. None of this is to say that Caesar is to be portrayed as an old fool or a clown; rather, it seems likely that Shakespeare’s representation of this “great man” pays tribute to the difficulty of settling on any one image of such a colossal, polarizing figure as Julius Caesar. On display are certain physical and character weaknesses and a tendency towards exaggeration, but counter-balancing these traits, in almost any worthwhile production, will be the impressive pageantry, the sheer spectacle, surrounding Caesar’s every move.
Act 3, Scene 1
In the famous assassination scene, the conspirators crowd around Caesar, with the ostensible purpose of getting him to revoke his banishment of one Publius Cimber, brother of the conspirator Metellus Cimber. Caesar’s words make him seem grandiose and ungenerous, and he is instantly cut down. As in some ancient accounts, Caesar is most surprised to find Brutus amongst those who have betrayed him. (See Suetonius’ highly regarded narrative of the murder, which has Caesar maintaining dignified silence.)
Both Cassius and Brutus make bold to consider the historic nature of what they have just done, treating it as if it were a piece of stagecraft for the ages. Brutus is particularly concerned to strike the right ceremonial note, telling his fellow conspirators to bathe their hands in the blood of the slain ruler and make their way to the marketplace, where they will proclaim “Peace, freedom, and liberty” (110) for all. But subsequent audiences, of course, know perfectly well how the whole affair turned out—the death of Julius Caesar brought not the restoration of republican ways, but rather the supremely competent imperial rule of Augustus after a period of civil strife. So when we see the conspirators on stage smearing themselves with the blood of the man they have just killed, we are likely to concentrate more on the viciousness of their deed than on the high-minded ideals that set Brutus, at least, in motion.
Act 3, Scene 2
Immediately after the assassination, Brutus makes the fatal mistake of trusting Marc Antony. Antony appears diabolically skillful throughout this scene, beginning with his earnest-seeming demand to know why Caesar deserved to die and his eerie willingness to shake hands with the blood-spattered killers before him, then proceeding to his obviously genuine and yet carefully stage-managed outbursts of feeling for the murdered Caesar and his request to pay his respects at the man’s funeral. Cassius suspects the worst, but Brutus will have none of it, and he brushes aside Cassius’s objections with the ridiculous stipulation that he himself will speak first and thereby provide sufficient explanation for what has been done. He has just agreed to serve as the warm-up act for a master rhetorician who does not mean him well, and we shall see what Antony makes of the demand that he not blame the “honorable” conspirators. Operating by the ancient code of revenge, Antony plans to “let slip the dogs of war” (273) after his stirring words have driven the conspirators out of Rome. The deed that these deluded men believed would bring order and liberty, Antony correctly understands as the harbinger of violence and chaos. For the moment, these are his elements, and with them he will set to work forging a new order with Octavius.
The speech that Brutus makes to the Roman mob, while noble, is also absurd because it issues a call to Romanness to people thoroughly incapable of any such thing. Brutus insists that he has placed love of country above love for his old friend Caesar, and he may indeed have done so. But the rogues and peasants to whom he speaks have no understanding of such idealism. They value persons over principles, favors over sacrifice. They are moved by Brutus’s words, but their instinct is to offer him the crown they had meant to offer Caesar.
Marc Antony’s speech is a masterpiece, full of power and deception, strong feeling and a call to personal loyalty. Casting himself as Caesar’s friend, Antony highlights the qualities of Julius in this capacity: friendship, or amicitia, was amongst the highest Roman virtues, and Brutus has betrayed a man who loved and honored him. (In The Divine Comedy, Dante places Brutus and Cassius in the lowest section of the inferno for that reason: they are traitors to their lord.) If a man betrays his friend, you cannot believe anything he says or trust him in any action. ( Cicero wrote a fine treatise called De Amicitia, or “On Friendship,” and Seneca’s Letters deal with the concept insightfully.) He attacks the notion that Caesar was ambitious or selfish, and employs a species of repetition to savage effect respecting the word “honorable,” which comes to signify the opposite quality after its first few uses. In the end, Antony does what he promised Brutus not to do: he calls the conspirators traitors. He convinces his audience that they have lost a generous, unique benefactor at the hands of men who do not even understand that all-important Roman concept, “honor.” Honor consists in standing by your friends, which is exactly what Marc Antony tells the irrational, inflamed crowd to do now. Fortune favors those willing to ride the waves of passion that arise from great and terrible events, not those who, like Brutus, believe troubled human affairs can be set to rights by the dispassionate operations of reason. The latter assumption hardly seems a good bet in the third scene, when the rabble decide that it isn’t even worth distinguishing Cinna the poet from Cinna the assassin.
Act 4, Scene 1
Antony the man of feeling now shows another side of himself—the side that allows him to “lay honors” on his fellow Triumvir Lepidus and yet call the man an ass when he’s out of earshot. This brazen contempt for “a tried and valiant soldier” (28) surprises the youthful Octavius, but Antony won’t change a word of his dismissive pronouncement against Lepidus. It’s time to head for the wars Brutus and Cassius are stirring up.
Act 4, Scenes 2-3
Back at the camp, Brutus and Cassius become embroiled in a bitter argument about funding for their armies—Cassius’s corrupt favoritism has made him deny Brutus necessary pay for his men. Although the fight sounds like schoolboy squabbling, it has a serious side: Cassius’ offense is a dangerous one for the cause since a mutinous army is no help, and his charge of untenderness on the part of Brutus seems genuine, so it reinforces the play’s interest in the importance of Roman honor and friendship. “A friend should bear his friend’s infirmities” (86), pleads Cassius, and in the end he brings Brutus around. Shakespeare was capable of shredding cherished notions of classical chivalry, as he does in his later play Troilus and Cressida (1601-02), but here in Julius Caesar no such thoroughgoing cynicism seems to be afoot. When Cassius’s Thersites-like “cynic” struts onstage to offer his saucy rhymes, Brutus makes Cassius dismiss the fellow as untimely and impertinent.
Brutus and Cassius disagree more civilly about military strategy around line 200. Brutus comes down in favor of marching out to meet the enemy rather than waiting: “There is a tide in the affairs of men, / Which taken at the flood, leads on to fortune; / Omitted, all the voyage of their life / Is bound in shallows and in miseries” (218-21). This is one of the most famous pronouncements in the play, but the “tide” metaphor is also revealing—although Brutus counsels heroic action, he still sees this action as a reaction, as a principled response to what the rhythm of life brings. Contrast this attitude with Marc Antony and Octavius. Antony in particular, at least in this play if not in Antony and Cleopatra, is closer to the view of Edmund in King Lear: “all’s meet with me that I can fashion fit.” We might argue that Brutus, for all his unrealistic idealism, is at crucial points more grounded in reality as something given that must be acknowledged than his adversaries are. Antony is a supreme opportunist, but his manner of handling the opportunity that comes to him as a gift from Brutus is masterful, active, and creative: a fine word-chef, he whips up a generous Julius bound to please the common people. By the end of Act 4, Brutus is afflicted with a second vision of Caesar as his “evil spirit” (281). Even the supernatural is arrayed against him; history is not on his side in the struggle between republican principles and monarchical rule.
Act 5, Scenes 1-3
Brutus and Cassius exchange angry words with Octavius and Marc Antony, and a bit later Brutus says to Cassius that he abhors the prospect of suicide—evidently, he assumes he will either be victorious or be killed in battle. But when the battle goes against his side, he must confront the suicide of his own friend Cassius, who requires his Parthian servant to stab him with the very sword he had used during the assassination of Caesar. Brutus sees this act as the work of Julius Caesar’s vengeful spirit.
Act 5, Scenes 4-5
In the end, Brutus decides to run upon his own sword rather than face capture. He leaves it to the people of the future and to history to judge his actions, expressing confidence in the outcome: “I shall have glory by this losing day / More than Octavius and Marc Antony” (36-37). Octavius and Antony are impressed with the end Brutus makes, and Antony declares him “the noblest Roman of them all” (5.5.68) He acted for the general good rather than for his own personal interest. On the whole, I think we find in Julius Caesar not so much a wholesale or cynical rejection of the principles enunciated by the noble Brutus as a complex, at times ambivalent exploration of those principles. Ideals seldom, if ever, match events on the ground: participation in almost any kind of politics compels even the best people to abandon or at least compromise their noblest aspirations and their customary civility. This is not to abandon politics since that really isn’t possible; it is to see things as they are without flinching or dissembling.
Edition. Greenblatt, Stephen et al., eds. The Norton Shakespeare. 2nd edition. Four-Volume Genre Paperback Set. Norton, 2008. ISBN-13: 978-0-393-93152-5.
Copyright © 2012 Alfred J. Drake