[Danson presents an in-depth overview of Julius Caesar, focusing on how the linguistic strategies in the play's major scenes contribute to the overall tragic progression of the play. The critic also assesses whether Caesar or Brutus is the tragic hero of the drama and examines the circumstances surrounding Caesar's assassination and Mark Antony's subsequent funeral speech (III. ii 73ff.). Danson concludes the essay by briefly contrasting the themes developed in Shakespeare's tragedy with the known historical facts of Brutus's conspiracy and Caesar's murder, ultimately arguing that the two points of view cannot necessarily be reconciled.]
In Julius Caesar we find ... those problems of communication and expression, those confusions linguistic and ritualistic, which mark the world of the tragedies. The play opens with the sort of apparently expository scene in which Shakespeare actually gives us the major action of the play in miniature. Flavius and Marullus, the tribunes, can barely understand the punning language of the commoners ... It is ostensibly broad daylight in Rome, but the situation is dream-like; for although the language which the two classes speak is phonetically identical, it is, semantically, two separate languages. The cobbler's language, though it sounds like the tribunes', is (to the tribunes) a sort of inexplicable dumb show.
And as with words, so with gestures; the certainties of...
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[Shalvi seeks to determine whether Shakespeare condemns or condones Caesar's assassination. The critic argues that while Shakespeare makes it evident that Brutus's fears of Caesar's tyranny are justified, he nonetheless presents the murder as an immoral act that must be avenged. In Shalvi's opinion, Brutus's sole motive for participating in the plot against Caesar is to safeguard the liberty of the Roman citizens; ironically, however, it is this noble purpose that causes his political ineptitude and contributes to the failure of the conspiracy. Despite the play's insistence on the idea that "blood will have blood," the critic argues, Julius Caesar is more than a revenge tragedy, for it dramatizes the effect of Caesar's assassination not just on the murderers, but also on the Roman populace, who, in another example of irony, will suffer greater injustice under the rule of Octavius and Antony than under Caesar. Although Julius Caesar ends tragically, Shalvi concludes, it affirms humankind's essential goodness by showing how Brutus and Cassius are ennobled through suffering and eventually become aware of the relation between their acts and their destinies.]
The mature comedies which Shakespeare wrote at the turn of the century posited an ideal of nobility, goodness, generosity and moderation—an ideal, based both on chivalry and on Christian-Humanist teaching, which was the guide of the Elizabethan gentleman in his every...
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Public and Private Values
[Mack discusses the public and private values of Brutus and Caesar in terms of what he views as the primary theme of the play: "the always ambiguous impact between man and history." The private Brutus, the critic asserts, is a gentle, sensitive, and studious man who loves Caesar and deplores violence, while the public figure is a noble idealist who participates in the conspiracy because he believes he must act on behalf of the state. Mack contends that in the first half of the drama Shakespeare focuses on "human will as a force in history" by portraying individuals, such as Brutus, choosing courses of action and controlling events; in contrast, the second half of Julius Caesar demonstrates the inadequacies of noble intentions, rationalism, and human will, once they are displayed in action, in influencing history. Caesar's dual nature, the critic continues, similarly dramatizes Shakespeare's thesis that history is only partially responsive to human will. The private Caesar, an ordinary man plagued by physical weaknesses and susceptible to superstition, cannot escape being assassinated. However, the public Caesar is the "marble superman of state," the "everlasting Big Brother—the Napoleon, Mussolini, Hitler, Franco, Peron, Stalin, Kruschev, to mention only a handful of his more recent incarnations ... who must repeatedly be killed but never dies."]
I am one of those who believe that Shakespeare can be taught to almost any...
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[Stirling discusses the significance of ritual and ceremony to the thematic design of Julius Caesar. According to the critic, the play is structured around a central ceremonial rite—Brutus's attempt to raise Caesar's assassination to the level of formal sacrifice. Nearly every scene prior to Caesar's murder, Stirling asserts, features a ceremony, which is then followed by a counter-ritual mocking it. The effect of these satirical scenes, the critic argues, is to reveal Brutus's self-deception in thinking he can purify Caesar's assassination through ceremony. After Caesar's death, Stirling continues, the hollowness of the ritual surrounding the murder and the savagery of the conspirators' act are further underscored by Antony in another series of counter-rituals. Stirling also notes that Shakespeare's portrait of Brutus is consistent with the sixteenth-century view of Roman history, for most Elizabethans acknowledged the figure's honorable intentions but questioned the validity of both his political goals and his efforts to justify Caesar's assassination.]
Modern readers are prone to find the tragedy of Brutus in his rigid devotion to justice and fair play. Many members of the Globe audience, however, believed that his virtues were complicated by self-deception and doubtful principle. In sixteenth-century views of history the conspiracy against Caesar often represented a flouting of unitary sovereignty ... and...
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Imagery and Language
[Charney provides a detailed analysis of the principal image patterns in Julius Caesar—the storm and its supernatural elements, blood, and fire—and demonstrates how each set of images connotes two contradictory meanings that contribute to the thematic ambiguity of the play. According to the critic, the violent storm in Act I, scene iii can be interpreted as evidence of either the evil of Caesar's tyranny or the evil of the conspirators who plot to assassinate him. Charney also suggests that blood imagery in the play may, on the one hand, be viewed as a symbol of the injustice of Caesar's murder and the conspirators' guilt or, on the other, as a ritual blood-letting that restores the Roman political state to new health. Similarly, fire may be regarded as a purifying force that eliminates political treachery (either Caesar's tyranny or the evil of the conspiracy) or as a destructive force symbolizing civil strife. Additionally, the critic points out, fire imagery is used to signify passion and its power to enkindle emotion. Charney also stresses that regardless of the way the storm, blood, and fire imagery are interpreted in Julius Caesar, the action of the play progresses from chaos to restoration of order.]
... The chief image themes in Julius Caesar are the storm and its portents, blood, and fire. All of these have two opposed meanings, depending upon one's point of view. With reference to the conspirators,...
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[Schanzer suggests that Shakespeare intentionally presented an enigmatic, or contradictory, portrait of Caesar to satisfy the different views of him held by Elizabethan audiences. By the close of Act III, the critic declares, various characters offer evaluations of Caesar's nature that bear little resemblance to one another. Shakespeare calls into question the validity of each of these estimates, at the same time presenting Caesar as a figure who is alternately pompous, shrewd, and benevolent. The dramatist thus provides no direct response to the question of who is the real Caesar. Noting that our view of Caesar depends to a large extent on our estimate of the justifiability of the assassination, Schanzer asserts that although Shakespeare points up the futility of the murder through his emphasis on Caesar's spirit in the last two acts of the play, he offers no conclusive judgment of the morality of the conspiracy.]
Julius Caesar is one of Shakespeare's most controversial plays. Commentators have been quite unable to agree on who is its principal character or whether it has one; on whether it is a tragedy and, if so, of what kind; on whether Shakespeare wants us to consider the assassination as damnable or praiseworthy; while of all the chief characters in the play contradictory interpretations have been given. To illustrate this polarity of views it will be enough to quote two of its editors. Professor Dover...
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T. S. Dorsch
[Dorsch argues that critics have generally viewed Brutus as a more admirable person than Shakespeare intended him to be. While acknowledging Brutus's honor and virtue, Dorsch contends that he is arrogant, self-righteous, and opinionated. According to the critic, Brutus honestly believes that Caesar's death will benefit Rome, but he is blind to the consequences of the assassination and to his fellow conspirators' lack of moral principles. Dorsch does note, however, that Brutus is capable of expressing love and tenderness, as shown by his relationships with his wife Portia and his servant Lucius.]
Brutus is the dramatic hero of Julius Caesar. He is the most prominent figure, and at almost every stage our interest is focused on his deliberations and decisions. Obviously Shakespeare was greatly interested by the mind of Brutus. As presented by Plutarch, he was a man of great probity and integrity, and of sound judgement backed by a philosophical training, and he was loved and esteemed by his compatriots. Yet he slew the one undoubted genius of his age, partly, we gather from Plutarch, because he was ambitious of succeeding him as leader of the state, partly because of some not clearly specified private quarrel, and partly because he was incensed against him by Cassius. His hatred of tyranny, which is mentioned almost in passing, made him the readier to listen to Cassius's promptings. We may suppose that Shakespeare...
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M. W. MacCallum
[Focusing on Cassius's intellectual preoccupations, self-sufficiency, championship of liberty and equality, and rejection of the supernatural, MacCallum contends that the character's behavior is guided by his belief in the philosophy of Epicureanism. Epicurus was a Greek philosopher who asserted that pleasure was the highest good in life. For Epicurus, the greatest joy derived from emotional calm and serenity; he therefore considered intellectual activities superior to all others. The philosopher also extolled the virtues of freedom and denied that gods had any control over human affairs. MacCallum also discusses Cassius's strengths and weaknesses of character, faulting his spitefulness, jealousy, and lack of fortitude, but praising his enthusiasm for the cause of republicanism and his keen powers of judgment.]
The main lines of [Cassius's] character are given in Caesar's masterly delineation, which follows Plutarch in regard to his spareness, but in the other particulars freely elaborates the impression that Plutarch's whole narrative produces,
Yond Cassius has a lean and hungry look:
He thinks too much: such men are dangerous ...
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...
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[Granville-Barker maintains that on the surface Antony appears to be a "good sort," initially supporting the conspirators after they have assassinated Caesar; but underneath he is really an instinctive politician, the critic declares, who demonstrates his opportunism by manipulating the crowd to avenge Caesar's death. Granville-Barker further contends that Antony's rousing the Roman populace is not altogether mischievous; rather, it also reflects his empathy for them because he considers himself a common man whose sensibilities are outraged at the injustice of Caesar's murder.]
There is a tide in the affairs of men
Which, taken at the flood, leads on to fortune ...
[IV. iii. 218-19]
Mark Antony cannot always talk so wisely, but he takes the tide that Brutus loses. He is a born opportunist, and we see him best in the light of his great opportunity. He stands contrasted with both Cassius and Brutus, with the man whom his fellows respect the more for his aloofness, and with such a rasping colleague as Cassius must be. Antony is, above all things, a good sort.
Shakespeare keeps him in ambush throughout the first part of the play. Up to the time when he faces the triumphant conspirators he speaks just thirty-three words. But there have already been no less than seven separate references to him, all significant. And this careful preparation...
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