Scholars generally date the composition of Julius Caesar to 1599, between Shakespeare's Henry V and Hamlet, and suggest that the drama combines the elements of Shakespearean history and tragedy. Set in Rome in 44 b.c., the play depicts the senatorial conspiracy to murder Caesar and the political turmoil that ensues in the aftermath of the assassination. Critics observe that the drama features two potentially tragic figures: the slain emperor and Marcus Brutus, Caesar's close friend and the head of the conspirators. Contemporary scholars have continued the tradition of analyzing the motivations and ambiguities inherent in Shakespeare's dramatization of these historical personages, particularly Brutus. Additionally, modern commentators have studied Shakespeare's intriguing historical reconstruction of early Imperial Rome, with a particular focus on the interrelationship of history, politics, and philosophy in the drama. Summarizing a contemporary understanding of Julius Caesar, John Wilders (see Further Reading) calls the work “a brilliantly constructed political thriller” with powerful resonance in the modern world.
Character-centered study of Julius Caesar has primarily concentrated on the figure of Brutus, who is considered by many critics to be the tragic focus of the play. Although conventional, twentieth-century critical consensus on Brutus has tended to emphasize his nobility and idealism, some critics have stressed the ambivalent nature of his character. William R. Bowden (1966) describes Brutus as intellectually inferior to his coconspirator Cassius, as well as generally unperceptive and deliberately self-serving, despite his attempts to mask these tendencies. In contrast to Bowden's unfavorable portrait of Brutus, Ruth M. Levitsky (1973) remarks on the virtues of this character. Levitsky contends that Brutus's virtue derives from his Stoic persona and ideals, which are the source of his will, purpose, constancy, and passion. Similarly, A. D. Nuttall (1983) admires Shakespeare's finely nuanced portrayal of Brutus. Nuttall traces the ways in which Shakespeare infused Brutus's character with such abstract qualities as Stoicism, pathos, egotism, shame, and rationalization in order to produce a well-rounded, psychologically distinct character capable of eliciting audience sympathy. Julian C. Rice (1973) contends that Julius Caesar promotes a philosophy of character based upon Renaissance Pyrrhonism, a skeptical philosophical position that underscores the antiheroic, fallible, and incongruous attributes of the play's characters.
Throughout most of its history, Julius Caesar has been highly popular on the stage. Directors and audiences alike are attracted to the play's grandiose displays of pageantry, rhetorical eloquence, forceful characterizations, and exciting battle sequences. Director Edward Hall's 2001 to 2002 production of Julius Caesar with the Royal Shakespeare Company generally inspired praise from reviewers. Patrick Carnegy (2001) admires Hall's interpretation, particularly its portrayal of the conspirators, rather than Caesar, as the greater threat to Rome, and notes that the production captured “the ambiguities at the heart of the play.” Russell Jackson (2002) contends that despite Hall's “ruthless” cutting of Shakespeare's text, the director managed an effective Julius Caesar by balancing ideological allusions with innovative perspectives on character, such as Brutus's display of an overarching pride and ambition that nearly matched Caesar's own self-absorbed power. Reviewer Frank Johnson (2002), in contrast, returns a far more critical estimation of the production, arguing that the worn idea of Caesar as a fascist dictator, as in Hall's staging, should be retired. Karin Coonrod's Theatre for a New Audience production failed to impress Bruce Weber (2003), whose appraisal faults its reductive concentration on American partisan politics. In contrast, Weber praises Daniel Sullivan's 2003 production of Julius Caesar staged at the Old Globe Theater in San Diego, particularly its imaginative and politically evocative setting which depicted life after the collapse of the American empire and suggested the destructive legacy imposed by worldly ambition.
Shakespeare's representation of history and politics in Julius Caesar have been a major interest for contemporary critics. Joseph S. M. J. Chang (1970) views Julius Caesar as a demonstration of Shakespeare's historical relativism. According to Chang, the play illustrates that “the past is difficult to retrieve, and that the ends of history are best served by scrupulous objectivity.” Robin Headlam Wells (2002) claims that in Julius Caesar Shakespeare depicted a Machiavellian view of politics and history, but notes the play is “Machiavellian in the sense that it dramatises a pragmatic and sceptical view of politics which recognizes that virtue and utility are not always compatible.” Critics are also interested in the play's depiction of Rome and its affinities with Shakespeare's England. A. W. Bellringer (1970) maintains that the subject of Julius Caesar is essentially Roman, with no significant Elizabethan or modern parallels. Marvin L. Vawter (1973) also explores the play's Roman themes. The critic claims that the drama should be understood as a critique not just of Caesar's tyrannical ambition or the malicious intent of the conspirators, but as a wholesale condemnation of the corrupted Roman nobility for its destruction of natural, communal bonds. Myron Taylor (1973) regards Julius Caesar as a drama concerned with clashing philosophical perspectives: the Epicurean philosophy of Cassius and the superstitious worldview of Caesar. Taylor contends that the play refutes Cassius's atheist and materialist viewpoint and presents the philosophical message that “[m]en are not the masters of destiny, nor is history without moral significance.”
SOURCE: Spevack, Marvin, ed. Introduction to Julius Caesar, by William Shakespeare, 2nd ed., pp. 1-45. Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 2003.
[In the following excerpt, Spevack surveys the dramatic structure, themes, and characters of Julius Caesar.]
Broadly seen, Shakespeare's concern with the private sphere is most evident in his comedies and poetry, with the public sphere in the history plays. Had Shakespeare not resumed writing tragedies with Julius Caesar, the two tragedies which preceded it, Titus Andronicus and Romeo and Juliet, might mutatis mutandis be assigned to the histories and comedies respectively. But the question of genre need not be stretched or stressed. What is apparent from the Yorkist and Lancastrian tetralogies and King John is Shakespeare's interest in public affairs, in problems of power and rule, in the qualities of the ideal governor, in the confrontation of ideologies, in the clash of armies, in civil conflict, in the collision of the high and low members of the body politic, in history qua history. What is even more apparent, and very typical of Shakespeare, is the crystallisation of character in history, the emergence of individual personalities, and thus the inextricability of public and private affairs. This focus, especially since it involves a leading figure who is the key to the fate of all the others, serves to illuminate his individualised psychological features as they emerge from or respond to overt bustle and battle, secret conspiracy and counsel, society and isolation. This inexorable mixture of concerns is in itself a record of human events, one of the major forms of historiography. And the interest in individual responses is also an added structural device for perceiving and ordering the episodes of history. In other words, chronology is complemented by psychology, both contributing to, but not entirely constituting, the overall Weltanschauung of Julius Caesar, for what else emerges with the regularity of ritual—and thus a further structural device—is a sense of the national past, present, and future: that continuity which takes the form of consciousness of one's forefathers, patriotism towards the existing state, responsibility to posterity for the outcome of events. Heritage, in fact, is coupled with destiny, whether personal or national. And destiny, an enveloping dimension, involves more than the accurate report of an individual plight or the dramatisation of the tide of the times. For Shakespeare blends in the extra-sensory: portents, visions, and dreams. He employs metadramatic allusions, analogies between the theatre and the world, playing and being: in the individual, by such means as the distancing use of apostrophes and the large store of mnemonic devices; in the action, by the presence of allegory and the enactment of ritual. Interfused with and yet crowning all is the super-natural: the reference to, if not the superimposed presence of, something ‘outside’: the interplay of a superlunary realm, the operations of fate, the gods, mysterious and undeniable metaphysical forces.
Despite the fact that the action of Julius Caesar is chronological, a shadowing of the historical events outlined in Plutarch and other sources with some distinctive highlighting by Shakespeare, some critics have drawn attention to what appears to be a ‘two-peak’ action. Fleay was among the first to remark on the sharp division between the first three acts and the last two.1 The first part portrays a steadily increasing tension beginning with the quarrel between the tribunes and the plebeians, which not only opens but also foreshadows the ensuing dissension, as do the supernatural omens and portents on a parallel level; continuing with the ‘temptation’ of Brutus by Cassius and the solitary self-questioning and self-divisiveness of Brutus; mounting with the resoluteness and consolidation of the conspirators set against the menacing power and isolation of Caesar; growing complicated with the ambiguities of assessing persons and interpreting events and prophecies; coming to a crescendo in a ritual of assassination which takes place almost privately in the confines of the Capitol; then reverberating in the public display of the body, the perversion of the plebeians, the dispersal of the conspirators, and the burning of Rome—with the disposing of Cinna the Poet in 3.3 as a devastatingly ironic rendition of all that has led up to the climax.2 The second part, beginning with the likewise devastatingly ironic proscription scene (which rehearses in but a few lines the earlier manœuvring and ruthlessness and foreshadows personal and public conflicts to come), also mounts to a resolution, albeit in another key: the increasing political and military unrest and dissension reflected in the altercation and ultimate impossibility of reconciliation of Brutus and Cassius; the growing isolation of Brutus; the swift ascent and yet almost programmed decline of Antony against the growing prominence of a new young man, Octavius; the climactic battles with their ambiguous outcomes and mistaken consequences (like Cassius's suicide); and the final submission of Brutus (like the assassination of Caesar), at once a defeat and a victory—with the whole action of Acts 4 and 5, as in the first part, permeated by reminders of the past, portents regarding the present, and in the presiding ghost of Caesar the personal, political, and cosmological interactions and consequences of human actions.3
Fleay interpreted this structure formally, as the result of a combining of two plays, Caesar's Tragedy and Caesar's Revenge. Although few would agree with his attribution of the structure to dual authorship and the pressure of contemporary dramatic fashions, many do remark that the structure is somehow striking and unusual, for them another indication of the singularity of Julius Caesar. Still, the contours of the action, the dramatic and tragic structure, accord with normal critical as well as Shakespearean modes. The major climax or climaxes in roughly the middle of the play are standard Shakespearean practice in comedy, history, and tragedy; critics from Aristotle to Freytag to Frye would approvingly agree. The apparent anti-climax of what is roughly the fourth and early parts of the fifth acts is not only Shakespearean but also quite natural. Certainly, apart from what is often a convulsive and frantic resolution at the very end, it is hardly surprising that the intensity of the central climaxes cannot be matched: the strain would be too great for audience and author alike. Besides, it is not that there is a lull in the action but that a certain deepening of effect and reorganisation of forces take place. Thus Julius Caesar shares with Romeo and Juliet, recently finished, and Hamlet, in progress, a second half which is marked by the growing isolation of the hero, his estrangement from all around him, indeed his physical displacement to a foreign context (Romeo from Verona, Brutus from Rome, Hamlet from Denmark); by a series of smaller but nonetheless passionate altercations, acts of frustration leading (strangely) to a kind of resoluteness; by a feeling, after the main climaxes, of let-down, of chances missed or mismanaged or misadventured; by a growing awareness of the irreversibility of events and an acceptance of that situation: ‘I am fortune's fool’, Romeo admits; ‘There's a divinity that shapes our ends’, Hamlet acknowledges; ‘Julius Caesar, thou art mighty yet’, Brutus concedes. The catastrophes and dénouements are, in their outlines, so similar as to be ritualistic: a final burst of energy—be it in a graveyard, on the field of battle, in a royal palace—an explosive physical action marked by error or misconception, an action so precipitate that the death of the hero seems self-willed, a suicide. And then the words of reconciliation, the apparent personal and public harmony in a final eulogy, the stillness and rest after the fray.
What is perhaps more precisely characteristic of Shakespearean tragedy, more striking and significant in Julius Caesar than in earlier tragedies, is the reversibility of public and private scenes. It is not so much that there are public and private scenes or that there is a conflict between a public and a private self as that the public scenes tend to develop private concerns as well as public ones, and that the private scenes are simultaneously public ones in intent and result. Notwithstanding modern designations of Julius Caesar—Roman play, revenge play, problem play, or whatever—this inside-out effect is certainly derived from the practice and indeed very nature of Shakespeare's history plays. Richard III's wooing of Lady Anne, widow of the heir to the throne, and Henry V's of Katherine, Princess of France, both employing the conventional military/sexual imagery of the courtship of comedy, are obvious and literal enactments of military and political victories, both soldier-kings portrayed as conqueror-husbands. Lady Anne's acceptance of Richard's ring after he has put up his sword and made his peace and the princess's serio-comic English lessons may be construed as signals of submission, as prefiguring the fall of the House of Lancaster to York in the one instance, the fall of France to England in the other. The lamenting choric diatribes against the ‘hell-hound’ Richard by the three mourning queens (Richard III 4.4.35 ff.), the garden scene (3.4) in Richard II, the tavern scenes in 1 and 2 Henry IV, to cite but three further examples from many, are public scenes in the guise of private ones. In Julius Caesar the great scenes between Brutus and Cassius are private in that the two are alone—as in 1.2.25-177 and, mirror-like, in 4.3.1-123—and asserting their personal, almost domestic claims on each other and yet public in their issues (the first encounter being played against the public celebration of Lupercalia and the second within the context of the military campaign against Octavius and Antony). Their subject is always self and society, not by turns but simultaneously.
Most prominent are two domestic events derived from Plutarch but very typically Shakespearean in the direct presentation of immediately recognisable intimate scenes. Rulers who are uneasy about their crowns are the subjects of Shakespeare's histories and tragedies. They are characteristically sleepless, a state which portrays less their agitation or weakness or self-doubt than their isolation. In such instances Webster may have shown the skull beneath the skin, but Shakespeare is likely to show first the nightcap beneath the crown.4 Both Brutus and Caesar, in the night, alone and awake, are joined by their sleepless wives, Portia and Calpurnia, in adjoining scenes, 2.1 and 2.2, the mighty Caesar in his nightgown. Portia's concern for her husband's strange behaviour, the possibility of his catching cold in the dank morning, her desire to know his ‘secret’ may be traceable to her marriage vow, ‘Which did incorporate and make us one’ (2.1.273), just as it may explain Lady Hotspur's lighter inquisitiveness about her husband's likewise strange and secretive behaviour (1 Henry IV 2.3.37 ff.): both husbands have left the marriage bed, both wives are alarmed by the ‘portents’ signified by the odd behaviour, both use the adjective ‘heavy’ to describe the situation. The argument about husband and wife being ‘incorporate’—made one—is likewise used by both wives (as it had been from the beginning of Shakespeare's career in Adriana's ‘undividable incorporate’ (Comedy of Errors 2.2.122)). What is remarkable about the private scene is its inflection of the public theme: an inquiry into the nature of man's relationship to himself and to the world about him, of rulers to subjects, of nobles to nobles, of husbands to wives.5 The key words are ‘unity’, ‘incorporate’, ‘one’—to which may be added even the polarities of disposition and weather, ‘ungentle’ against ‘gentle’, the ‘dank morning’ against the ‘wholesome bed’, among many others. And with special reference to the conspiracy as well is the resounding of the concern for secrecy, disclosure, keeping counsel. Above all, the keystone of personal and political behaviour, as of marriage, receives its fullest expression in the dominant word ‘constancy’, from the beginning to the end of Shakespeare's career, in poems, comedies, histories, and tragedies, at the heart of the Shakespearean ethic.
The nocturnal scene between Caesar and Calpurnia, which follows directly, deepens the concern. Like Portia, Calpurnia is worried about her husband's well-being. She too, who ‘never stood on ceremonies’ (2.2.13), is made uneasy by portents and omens. She has had bad dreams. Like others in the play—the Soothsayer, Decius, Antony—she is an interpreter and, more important perhaps, a proposer of action based on her assessment of ‘these things … beyond all use’ (25). She knows her husband: ‘Your wisdom is consumed in confidence’ (49). Her judgement, however, is not merely a wife's; it is the judgement of the conspirators. It is the judgement, further, upon which is based that tragedy, formal and human, of the fall of princes. Her reaction to a world of uncertainty and change is traditional: ‘And I do fear them’ (26), echoing or anticipating what constitutes a Shakespearean commonplace, as in ‘Be wary then, best safety lies in fear’, Laertes' caution to Ophelia (Hamlet 1.3.43). Calpurnia's specific advice is not unlike that which Brutus says must govern the conspirators: ‘Hide it [the “monstrous visage” of conspiracy] in smiles and affability’ (2.1.82). Calpurnia's attitude is climaxed in the last words she speaks in the play: they constitute a political message in a private formula. Emphasising Caesar's decision not to go to the Capitol, she instructs Decius to ‘Say he is sick’ (2.2.65).
The simultaneity of public and private concerns implies still another overlapping of structural and thematic consequence. By most medieval and Renaissance historians and poets, history was regarded as a window to the past, the present, and the future. More accurately, perhaps, it was, on the one hand, continuous—updating, the adding of new figures and new scenes, was the standard practice. It was, on the other hand, still to a good measure figural—omnitemporal (‘synchrony’ might be a better translation than ‘omnitemporalness’ of Erich Auerbach's Jederzeitlichkeit), if not in the view that all events in universal history are contained in the one great Christian drama from the Creation to the Last Judgement, then at least in the general habit of thinking and organising human experience in this manner, as is evident—inter alia—in the persistence of mythical or legendary personages and events in Elizabethan historiography and of course in the popularity of allegory.6 This penchant towards synchrony is apparent in various ways in Julius Caesar, affecting structure, theme, and style.
A dominant concern in the play is time. For various dramatic reasons Shakespeare … takes liberties with time: it is his general practice to modify, to compress or expand, time as need be. Within the play, moreover, there is an inordinate interest in time, the vocabulary of which is extensive, the major word-classes amply represented. Apart from the obvious but powerful employment of night and day (affording a context, setting off and emphasising many of the polarities in the play) and the frequent references to the time of day (literally and symbolically useful for events dependent upon synchronisation and precision, like conspiracies, assassinations, battles), the characters and action are not simply looking at an event but are looking back and looking forward in time. Looking back is not a nostalgic view of Rome in the good old days or an easy appeal to patriotic sentiments. For one thing, the Brutus ‘once that would have brooked / Th'eternal devil to keep his state in Rome’ (1.2.159-60) is not merely Brutus's ancestor, he is also his namesake—a neat way of superimposing the past upon the present.7 For another, history superimposes other ancestors, legendary figures of identification, like Aeneas (ever-recurring in Elizabethan times), even larger than life- or legend-size figures, like the Colossus. Similarly, looking forward is not a short-sighted view of Rome in the time of or just after Caesar, concentrating on political and military matters, on ‘who's in, who's out’; it involves more than what will happen tomorrow, on the Ides of March. The future finds expression in omens and prophecies. The future is connected with the present, as with the past, but not simply by the ceaseless movement of the clock—‘from hour to hour, we ripe and ripe, / And then from hour to hour, we rot and rot’, as Touchstone puts it (As You Like It 2.7.26-7)—but by ‘irrational’ and unpredictable forces. The portents and predictions, signs and spirits—the whole assembly of melodramatic clap-trap devices and appearances—are more than Shakespeare's employment of the paraphernalia of the revenge play or some other fashion of the time: they are his expression of something beyond as well as within. In the seemingly cold and calculating Roman world, and for all the rational planning and logical deductions, they prove an undeniable and inexorable force of the future in the present. For the future is not what is to come but the working out of destiny in the moment.
Given this context, it is not necessary to fault Shakespeare for using anachronisms (like the clock striking at 2.1.191) or to apologise for him by pointing out that some are found in North and Amyot or that he was too concerned with more important matters to be bothered by trifles or that he was habitually careless. They are as natural to the historiography he was reflecting as they were to the dramatic tradition which he inherited, as, indeed, to the visual arts around him and of course to the architecture of theatres (not to mention the name and motto of his own theatre) as well as to matters ranging from theatrical gesture and enunciation to staging and costuming.8 In all, there was hardly purity or singleness of form or focus, the age itself tending towards practical eclecticism or at least the co-existence of various styles, even opposites, which marks an age of transition. Seen both within the immediate dramatic context and the larger historiographic one, the discussion of anachronisms as lapses or curiosities is by and large irrelevant.
A further dimension, connecting the structural with the stylistic, is to be found in inflections of a self-conscious historicity practised by the characters themselves. They are not merely characters in a play but characters who seem, at crucial moments, to be aware of the fact that they are characters performing and that what they are performing is being viewed by others and will be so in the future.9 This added dimension, which conveys a certain historical verisimilitude, takes various forms: in actions, stance, even grammar and vocabulary.
Actions of this kind are to be found in enacted rituals, like the Lupercalia, in which the actors assume roles; in Antony's historical identification of Caesar—‘Thou art the ruins of the noblest man / That ever livèd in the tide of times’ (3.1.256-7)—and then his assumption of the role of augurer in interpreting the wounds ‘Which like dumb mouths do ope their ruby lips / To beg the voice and utterance of my tongue’ (3.1.260-1); in Brutus's abstracting and transforming the literal event—‘Let's be sacrificers, but not butchers, Caius’ (2.1.166)10—and in Cassius's famous prophetic utterance in which the ritual becomes the mythic:
How many ages hence Shall this our lofty scene be acted over In states unborn and accents yet unknown!
To which Brutus replies, with some irony (Shakespeare can seldom resist the temptation to make fun of his profession) about the way the scene will be played: ‘How many times shall Caesar bleed in sport’. Actions of this kind are also to be found in the numerous plays-within-plays, most obviously in Cassius's re-enacting (in 1.2), with dialogue and stage business, his saving of the drowning Caesar; and in the quadruple presentation of Caesar's refusing the crown in 1.2: its historicity is confirmed in the first instance by off-stage sounds commented on by Cassius and Brutus and, in the second, by the playlet of Casca, who re-enacts the scene he has witnessed, supplying it synaesthetically with the sight, sound, smell, feel, and taste of the off-stage event. Among many other examples—randomly chosen from some not often noticed—are the ominous and unusual events surrounding and thus punctuating the literal actions: the universal perspective of ‘The heavens themselves blaze forth the death of princes’ (2.2.31); Brutus's assurance to the plebeians that ‘The question of [Caesar's] death is enrolled in the Capitol’ (3.2.32-3); the strikingly ritualistic and self-conscious flyting, even the formula describing it, ‘Words before blows’ (5.1.27); Cassius's reference to the conquered being ‘led in triumph / Through the streets of Rome’ (5.1.108-9); the action-within-the-action of Pindarus's report of Titinius's plight (5.3.28-32); and Brutus's...
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SOURCE: Bowden, William R. “The Mind of Brutus.” Shakespeare Quarterly 17, no. 1 (winter 1966): 57-67.
[In the following essay, Bowden describes Brutus as self-righteous and intellectually limited.]
A bothersome passage in Shakespeare's Julius Caesar is Brutus' accusation of Cassius in the celebrated quarrel scene:
I did send to you For certain sums of gold, which you denied me: For I can raise no money by vile means: By heaven, I had rather coin my heart, And drop my blood for drachmas, than to wring From the hard hands of peasants their vile trash By any indirection: I did send To...
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SOURCE: Levitsky, Ruth M. “The Elements Were So Mix'd …” PMLA 88, no. 2 (March 1973): 240-45.
[In the following essay, Levitsky illuminates Brutus's Stoic virtues and contrasts his character with the less admirable Caesar.]
In a survey of the half-century (1900-50) of scholarship dealing with Shakespeare's Roman plays, J. C. Maxwell commends Sir Mark Hunter's “Politics and Character in Shakespeare's Julius Caesar” as “one of the first among modern attempts to correct the tendency to overidealize Brutus and give him too central a part in the play.”1 In the thirty-odd years since Hunter's study was published this overidealization, I...
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SOURCE: Rice, Julian C. “Julius Caesar and the Judgment of the Senses.” Studies in English Literature 1500-1900 13, no. 2 (spring 1973): 238-55.
[In the following essay, Rice contends that Julius Caesar promotes a philosophy of character based upon Renaissance Pyrrhonism, a skeptical philosophical position that underscores the antiheroic, fallible, and incongruous attributes of the play's characters.]
When Brutus in his oration implores the crowd to awake their senses that they may the better judge (III.ii.17-18), some members of the Globe audience may have been struck by an implicit irony. Given the Pyrrhonic view of the absurd conclusions based on...
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SOURCE: Nuttall, A. D. “Brutus's Nature and Shakespeare's Art.” In Modern Critical Interpretations: William Shakespeare's Julius Caesar, edited by Harold Bloom, pp. 105-20. New York: Chelsea House Publishers, 1988.
[In the following essay, originally published in 1983, Nuttall traces the ways in which Shakespeare infused Brutus's character with such abstract qualities as Stoicism, pathos, egotism, shame, and rationalization in order to produce a well-rounded, psychologically distinct character capable of eliciting audience sympathy.]
The eighteenth century was profoundly excited by the then novel intuition that Shakespeare's works conveyed the nature of the real...
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