Themes and Meanings

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Last Updated on May 6, 2015, by eNotes Editorial. Word Count: 636

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Caligula might be mistaken at first for a historical play. The main character is lifted from history, and many of Caligula’s excesses in the play come straight out of Suetonius’s first century work Lives of the Caesars. When the play is carefully read and put into the context of Albert Camus’s other work, however, its historical content is revealed to be merely a vehicle for his philosophical concerns. More specifically, Camus uses the figure of Caligula to explore the apparent “absurdity” of human existence. Camus does not attempt to prove the validity of the absurdist viewpoint. Rather, he accepts it as a starting point for his explorations of how people live and how they ought to live.

The philosophical content of Caligula is best understood in conjunction with Camus’s essay Le Mythe de Sisyphe (1942; The Myth of Sisyphus, 1955), written at roughly the same time. While Camus had finished Caligula in 1939, the play was not performed until 1945 and was undergoing revision during the interim. (It would be further revised for its 1958 revival.) In The Myth of Sisyphus, Camus rejects two common responses to discovery of the absurd. The first, “physical suicide,” amounts to a form of submission to the absurd. Given the absence of meaning, one ceases to live. Camus also rejects what he calls “philosophical suicide.” This involves shutting down the intellect in order to avoid the logical conclusions of the absurd—this response Camus associates with conventional religion. Here, one goes on living but stops thinking.

What Camus does advocate is acceptance of the absurd without a descent into suicide or an escape into superstition. One must discover those aspects of existence which make life worthwhile even if no transcendent meaning can be attached to it. The individual must cope with the absurd by bonding with other human beings, creating works of art, and struggling toward happiness and justice. The political implications of Camus’s theory would be developed more fully in L’Homme révolté (1951; The Rebel, 1956).

Caligula both illustrates and expands on this theme. With Drusilla’s death, Caligula confronts the absurd directly—presumably for the first time in his life—and his response is different from any of those listed above. Instead of capitulating (by committing suicide), escaping (into religion), or coping (through the quest for happiness), Caligula embarks on a campaign of nihilistic terror in order to educate his subjects as to the true meaning (or meaninglessness) of life and death. (Indeed, the original subtitle of the play was “the meaning of death.”) In addition, he seeks “the impossible,” the divine status needed to create meaning where none exists.

There is more here than meets the eye. In driving even the timid patricians to act against him, Caligula, in essence, makes them the instruments of his suicide; he is, therefore, capitulating to the absurd, but in a unique way. The uprising he spawns against himself constitutes a powerful affirmation of life’s value, an affirmation which is confirmed by Caligula’s fear of death during the play’s closing moments and his final exclamation, which suggests he is clinging to life. All this suggests that Caligula’s real goal is to bring about a convincing refutation of his logic—a refutation which he takes with him to the grave.

In addition, observers have often read more explicitly political meanings into Caligula. This is understandable, given the nature of the times (the early 1940’s) and Camus’s involvement in the Spanish Civil War, left-wing politics, and the French resistance effort against the Nazis. The play clearly does deal with political tyranny; Camus nevertheless denied any specific political purposes. Instead, in this and much of his other work, he seems to be engaged in setting the existential preconditions for many kinds of action, including the quest for political justice.

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