Last Updated on May 5, 2015, by eNotes Editorial. Word Count: 603
See also Julius Caesar Criticism (Volume 63).
Much of the recent critical debate regarding Julius Caesar has focused on the political parallels between Elizabethan England and ancient Rome as Shakespeare depicted it. While most critics hesitate to presume knowing Shakespeare's intentions in this matter, many maintain that Shakespeare's use of various themes and concepts supports a comparison of the political climate of ancient Rome and England in the late sixteenth and early seventeenth centuries. John Jump (1974) argues that Julius Caesar, like Shakespeare's English history plays, supports the "Tudor myth" (the justification of Queen Elizabeth I's right to the throne). Shakespeare, Jump maintains, demonstrates this through the play's examination of the conflict between Republicanism and Caesarism, which Jump compares to a monarchist political system, and the strength gained by Caesarism by the end of the play. Mark Rose (1989) suggests an analogy between the tribunes in the play and the Puritan preachers of Shakespeare's time. Rose argues that one of the primary concerns of the play is the controversy over the absolute authority of a ruler and that this same concern was an important issue in Elizabethan England, especially given the close interweaving of religion and politics in that society. Puritan reformers, like the Roman tribunes, Rose demonstrates, felt that power should reside with the people, not with the crown, while religious conservatives up-held the belief that the monarchy is the reservoir of power. In another comparison between Shakespeare's Rome and Elizabethan society, Wayne A. Rebhorn (1990) sees Julius Caesar as a struggle among aristocrats, that is, the senators, to prevent one of their own (Caesar) from transcending his position and thereby destroying the political system which allows aristocrats to wield their power as a class. Rebhorn likens Caesar to the Earl of Essex, who, by leading a revolt against Queen Elizabeth, challenged the absolute authority of the crown, and at the same time threatened the power of the aristocracy by creating turmoil in that class. Rebhorn further supports his argument by comparing the factionalism of Queen Elizabeth's court to that of the Roman senators.
Another issue that has been a topic of scholarly commentary since the eighteenth century is Shakespeare's portrayal of Brutus. Twentieth-century criticism on the character of Brutus has challenged his status as a hero, a characterization established by many earlier critics. Gordon Ross Smith (1954) focuses his attention on Brutus's willfulness, demonstrating that Brutus controls people and situations and is guided by his self-righteous belief in his own virtue. Smith shows that the combination of these factors contributes to Brutus's downfall. In another assessment, Richard A. Levin (1982) questions Mark Antony's praise of Brutus as "the noblest Roman of them all." Levin offers as evidence in his case against Brutus the fact that while the other conspirators killed Caesar primarily out of envy, Brutus murdered someone for whom he had expressed love and friendship.
Scholarly debate also focuses on Shakespeare's treatment of the facts of Roman history that were available to him in Thomas North's translation of Plutarch's Lives of the Noble Grecianes and Romans (1579). T. J. B. Spencer (1955) chronicles the history of criticism regarding this issue, stating that as early as 1680 Shakespeare's treatment of ancient Rome was praised by British poet and playwright Nahum Tate. Spencer reflects that Shakespeare's portrayal of the civilization continues to influence modern thinking on the subject. Arthur Humphreys (1984) analyzes Shakespeare's use of Plutarch's work in creating the drama, commenting on details ignored or embellished upon by Shakespeare and suggesting possible reasons for such adaptations. Humphreys also identifies other sources from which Shakespeare may have drawn, including Suetonius's De vita Caesarum and Appian's Chronicle of the Romans' Wars.
Last Updated on May 5, 2015, by eNotes Editorial. Word Count: 28170
T. J. B. Spencer (lecture date 1955)
SOURCE: "Shakespeare and the Elizabethan Romans," in Shakespeare Survey: An Annual Survey of Shakespearian Study and Production, Vol. 10, 1957, pp. 27-38.
[In the following lecture, Spencer surveys criticism regarding Shakespeare's treatment of the details of ancient Roman life and culture, commenting on the playwright's influence on modernjconceptions of ancient Rome.]
Shakespeare has, at various times, received some very handsome compliments for his ancient Romans; for his picture of the Roman world, its institutions, and the causation of events; for his representation of the Roman people at three critical stages of their development: the turbulent republic with its conflict of the classes; the transition from an oligarchic to a monarchic government which was vainly delayed by the assassination of Julius Caesar; and the final stages by which the rule of the civilized world came to lie in the hands of Octavius Caesar. These are quite often praised as veracious or penetrating or plausible. Moreover, the compliments begin early, and they begin at a time when no high opinion was held of Shakespeare's learning. The name of Nahum Tate, for example, is not a revered one in the history of Shakespeare studies; yet in 1680 he wrote:
I confess I cou'd never yet get a true account of his Learning, and am apt to think it more than Common Report allows him. I am sure he never touches on a Roman Story, but the Persons, the Passages, the Manners, the Circumstances, the Ceremonies, all are Roman.
And Dryden, too, in conversation said "that there was something in this very tragedy of Coriolanus, as it was writ by Shakespeare, that is truly great and truly Roman". And Pope (for all his comparison of Shakespeare to "an ancient majestick piece of Gothick Architecture") declared in his Preface that he found him
very knowing in the customs, rites, and manners of Antiquity. In Coriolanus and Julius Caesar, not only the Spirit, but Manners, of the Romans are exactly drawn; and still a nicer distinction is shewn, between the manners of the Romans in the time of the former and of the latter.
The odd thing is that this veracity or authenticity was approved at a time when Shakespeare's educational background was suspect; when the word "learning" practically meant a knowledge of the Greek and Roman writers; when the usual description of Shakespeare was "wild"; when he was regarded as a member of what Thomas Rymer called "the gang of the strolling fraternity".
There were, of course, one or two exceptions; Rymer wrote, towards the end of the seventeenth century, in his most cutting way about Julius Caesar:
Caesar and Brutus were above his conversation. To put them in Fools Coats, and make them Jackpuddens in the Shakespear dress, is a Sacriledge. … The Truth is, this authors head was full of villainous, unnatural images, and history has only furnish'd him with great names, thereby to recommend them to the World.
There was, too, the problem of Shakespeare's undignified Roman mobs. It was obvious that Cleopatra's vision of a Rome where
With greasy aprons, rules, and hammers, shall
Uplift us to the view
was derived from Shakespeare's own London. And Casca's description: "The rabblement hooted and clapped their chopped hands and threw up their sweaty night-caps … "—this was the English populace and not the Roman plebs. Dennis thought that the introduction of the mob by Shakespeare "offends not only against the Dignity of Tragedy, but against the Truth of History likewise, and the Customs of Ancient Rome, and the majesty of the Roman People". But the opinions of Rymer and Dennis were eccentric; the worst they could say against Shakespeare's Romans was that they were not sufficiently dignified; and this counted for very little beside the usual opinion of better minds that Shakespeare got his Romans right.
More surprising, therefore, was Shakespeare's frequent neglect of details; and it was just at this time that the scholars and critics (if not the theatrical and reading publics) were becoming sensitive to Shakespeare's anachronisms, his aberrations from good sense and common knowledge about the ancients, and were carefully scrutinizing his text for mistakes. It was apparent that, when it came to details, Shakespeare's Romans often belonged to the time of Queen Elizabeth and King James. And the industrious commentators of the eighteenth century collected a formidable array of nonsense from his plays on classical antiquity: how clocks strike in ancient Rome; how Cleopatra has lace in her stays and plays at billiards; how Titus Lartius compares Coriolanus's hm to the sound of a battery; and so on. Above all, it could be observed that Shakespeare was occasionally careless or forgetful about ancient costume. Coriolanus stood in the Forum waving his hat. The very idea of a Roman candidate for the consulship standing waving his hat was enough to make a whole form of schoolboys break into irrepressible mirth. Pope softened the horror by emending hat to cap; and Coriolanus was permitted to wave his cap, not his hat, in the texts of Theobald, Hanmer, Warburton, and Dr Johnson, and perhaps even later. What seemed remarkable and what made the eighteenth-century editors so fussy about these anachronisms was Shakespeare's inconsistency in his historical reconstructions: his care and scrupulosity over preserving Roman manners, alongside occasional carelessness or indifference. The very reason they noticed the blunders was that they jarred against the pervading sense of authenticity everywhere else in the Roman plays.
I take it that Dryden and Pope were right; that Shakespeare knew what he was doing in writing Roman plays; that part of his intention was a serious effort at representing the Roman scene as genuinely as he could. He was not telling a fairy tale with Duke Theseus on St Valentine's Day, nor dramatizing a novelette about Kings of Sicilia and Bohemia, but producing a mimesis of the veritable history of the most important people (humanly speaking) who ever lived, the concern of every educated man in Europe and not merely something of local, national, patriotic interest; and he was conscious of all this while he was building up his dramatic situations and expositions of characters for the players to fulfil. It can, therefore, hardly fail to be relevant to our interpretations of the plays to explore the views of Roman history in Shakespeare's time. It is at least important to make sure that we do not unthinkingly take it for granted that they were the same as our own in the twentieth century to which we belong or the nineteenth century from which we derive. It is worth while tracing to what extent Shakespeare was in step with ideas about ancient Rome among his contemporaries and to what extent (and why) he diverged from them.
"Histories make men wise." Ancient, and in particular Roman, history was explored as the material of political lessons, because it was one of the few bodies of consistent and continuous historical material available. Modern national history (in spite of patriotism) could not be regarded as so central, nor were the writers so good; and the narratives in the scriptures were already overworked by the parson. Roman history was written and interpreted tendentiously in Europe in the sixteenth century, as has happened at other times. In writing his Roman plays Shakespeare was touching upon the gravest and most exciting as well as the most pedantic of Renaissance studies, of European scholarship. Although Shakespeare himself turned to Roman history after he had been occupied with English history for some years, nevertheless it was Roman history which usually had the primacy for the study of political morality. Yet in spite of the widespread interest in ancient culture among educated persons, the actual writing of the history of the Greeks and Romans was not very successful in England in the sixteenth century. There was no history of the Romans in Shakespeare's lifetime comparable (for example) to the History of Great Britain by John Speed or the Generali Historie of the Turkes by Richard Knolles. Sir Walter Raleigh did not get very far in his History of the World and dealt only with the earlier and duller centuries of Rome. Probably the reason for the scarcity of books of Roman history and their un-distinguished nature was that the sense of the supremacy of the ancients and of the impudence of endeavouring to provide a substitute for Livy and Tacitus, was too strong. So explained William Fulbecke, who published a book called An Historicall Collection of the Continuali Factions, Tumults, and Massacres of the Romans in 1601 and dedicated it to Sackville, Lord Buckhurst (the primary author of A Mirror for Magistrates). "I do not despaire" (wrote Fulbecke) "to follow these Romanes, though I do not aspire to their exquisite and industrious perfection: for that were to climbe above the climates: but to imitate any man, is every mans talent." His book is a poor thing. And so is Richard Reynoldes' Chronicle of all the Noble Emperours of the Romaines (1571). And the translations of the Roman historians, apart from North's Plutarch, before the seventeenth century are not particularly distinguished. But for this very reason the books on Roman history are useful evidence for the normal attitude to the Romans and their story in Shakespeare's lifetime. For it is not so much what we can find in Plutarch, but what Shakespeare noticed in Plutarch that we need to know; not merely Plutarch's narrative, but the preconceptions with which his biographies could be read by a lively modern mind about the turn of the seventeenth century; for
men may construe things after their fashion
Clean from the purpose of the things
It is by no means certain that we, by the unaided light of reason and mid-twentieth-century assumptions, will always be able to notice the things to which Shakespeare was sensitive.
First then, the title of William Fulbecke's book is worth attention: An Historical Collection of the Continuali Factions, Tumults, and Massacres of the Romans and Italians during the space of one hundred and twentie yeares next before the peaceable Empire of Augustus Caesar. There is not much of the majesty of the Roman People (which Dennis desiderated) in these continual factions, tumults and massacres. In his preface Fulbecke writes:
The use of this historie is threefold; first the revealing of the mischiefes of discord and civili discention. … Secondly the opening of the cause hereof, which is nothing else but ambition, for out of this seed groweth a whole harvest of evils. Thirdly the declaring of the remedie, which is by humble estimation of our selves, by living well, not by lurking well: by conversing in the light of the common weale with equals, not by complotting in darke conventicles against superiors.
Equally tendentious is what we read on the title-page of the translation of Appian as An Auncient Historie and exquisite Chronicle of the Romanes Warres, both Civile and Foren in 1578;
In the which is declared:
Their greedy desire to conquere others.
Their mortali malice to destroy themselves.
Their seeking of matters to make warre
Their picking of quarels to fall out at home.
All the degrees of Sedition, and all the effects
A firme determination of Fate, thorowe all the
changes of Fortune.
And finally, an evident demonstration, That
peoples rule must give place, and Princes
This kind of material (the ordinary stuff of Roman history in the sixteenth century) does not lend itself to chatter about the majesty of the Roman people. In fact, the kind of classical dignity which we associate perhaps with Addison's Cato or Kemble's impersonation of Coriolanus is not to be taken for granted in Shakespeare's time. The beginning of Virgil's Aeneid, with its simple yet sonorous arma virumque cano, might by us be taken as expressive of true Roman dignity. Richard Stanyhurst, however, in his translation of Virgil in 1582 rendered it:
Now manhood and garboyles I chaunt. …
"Garboyles", it will be remembered, was Antony's favourite word to describe the military and political exploits of Fulvia.
So much for Roman history as "garboyles". Secondly, besides the "garboyles" and encouraging them, there was a limitation in viewpoint due to the fact that the moral purpose of history in general, and of Roman history in particular, was directed towards monarchs. When Richard Reynoldes published his Chronicle of all the noble Emperours of the Romaines, from Julius Caesar orderly. … Setting forth the great power, and devine providence of almighty God, in preserving the godly Princes and common wealthes in 1571, he gave the usual panegyric: "An historie is the glasse of Princes, the image most lively bothe of vertue and vice, the learned theatre or spectacle of all the worlde, the councell house of Princes, the trier of all truthes, a witnes of all tymes and ages … " and so forth. The really important and interesting and relevant political lessons were those connected with princes. It was this that turned the attention away from republican Rome to monarchical Rome: the Rome of the Twelve Caesars and their successors. Republican Rome was not nearly so useful for models of political morality, because in sixteenth-century Europe republics happened to be rather rare. (Venice, the important one, was peculiar, not to say unique, anyway.) Republics were scarce. But there were aspiring Roman Emperors all over the place.
Sometimes the political lesson was a very simple one. In dedicating his Auncient Historie and exquisite Chronicle of the Romanes Warres in 1578, the translator states:
How God plagueth them that conspire againste theyr Prince, this Historie declareth at the full. For all of them, that coniured against Caius Caesar, not one did escape violent death. The which this Author hathe a pleasure to declare, bycause he would affray all men from disloyaltie toward their Soveraigne.
We need not, perhaps, put too much emphasis upon this argument, because the book was being dedicated to the Captain of the Queen's Majesty's Guard. But more sophisticated writers showed the same interest. Sir Walter Raleigh in his History of the World on occasions pointed the suitable political moral. But the problems that interested him and set him off on one of his discussions were those relevant to the political situation in the sixteenth and early seventeenth centuries. The story of Coriolanus, for example, does not interest him at all; he compresses Livy's fine narrative into nothingness, though he spares a few words for Coriolanus's mother and wife who prevailed upon him "with a pitiful tune of deprecation". But the problem of the growth of tyranny fascinates him. He never got as far as Julius Caesar. He had to wind up his History at the beginning of the second century B.C. But he gets Caesar into his discussion. The problem of the difference between a benevolent monarchy and an odious tyranny, and the gradations by which the one may merge into the other—that was the real interest; and Imperial Rome was the true material for that.
So that, in spite of literary admiration for Cicero, the Romans in the imagination of the sixteenth century were Suetonian and Tacitan rather than Plutarchan. An occasional eccentric enthusiasm for one or both of the two Brutuses does not weigh against the fact that it was the busts of the Twelve Caesars that decorated almost every palace in Europe. And it required a considerable intellectual feat to substitute the Plutarchan vision of Rome (mostly republican) for the customary line of the Imperial Caesars. Montaigne and Shakespeare were capable of that feat. Not many others were. The Roman stuff that got into A Mirror for Magistrates naturally came from Suetonius and historians of the later Caesars. One of the educators of Europe in the sixteenth century was the Spaniard Antonio de Guevara. His Dial of Princes (which was a substitute for the still unprinted Meditations of the Emperor Marcus Aurelius) was translated by North with as much enthusiasm as Plutarch was. Guevara, whose platitudinous remarks on politics and morals—he was a worthy master for Polonius—gave him a European reputation, naturally turned to Imperial Rome to illustrate his maxims and observations on life. The Emperor Marcus Aurelius was his model of virtue (though he included love-letters from the Emperor to a variety of young women in Rome—which seems rather an incongruous thing to do for the over-virtuous author of the Meditations); and when Guevara wanted examples of vices as well as virtue, to give more varied moral and political lessons, he again naturally turned to the Roman monarchs. His Decada, in fact, gives lives from Trajan onwards. Among them appears a blood-curdling life of a certain Emperor Bassianus, a name which we shall not remember from our reading of Gibbon, but one with which we are thoroughly familiar from Titus Andronicus. This account of Bassianus is a shocking thing, translated with considerable energy into English in 1577 by Edward Hellowes in A Chronicle, conteyning the lives of tenne Emperours of Rome and dedicated to the Queen. The life of Bassianus (whom we know by his nickname of Caracalla—but Renaissance writers had too much respect for Roman Emperors to use only their vulgar nicknames) is one of almost unparalleled cruelty: how he slew his brother in the arms of his mother; how he slew half the Vestal Virgins because (so he said) they were not virgins, and then slew the other half because (so he said) they were. I will not say that it is a positive relief to pass from the life of Bassianus by Guevara to Shakespeare's Titus Andronicus (and there to find, by the way, that Bassianus is the better of the two brothers). Still, we feel that we are in the same world. Titus Andronicus is Senecan, yes; and it belongs to what Mr Shandy would call "no year of our Lord"; and its sources probably belong to medieval legend. Yet, as made into the play we know, it is also a not untypical piece of Roman history, or would seem to be so to anyone who came fresh from reading Guevara. Not the most high and palmy state of Rome, certainly. But an authentic Rome, and a Rome from which the usual political lessons could be drawn. Titus was entered in the Stationers' Register in 1594 as "a Noble Roman Historye", and it was published the same year as a "Most Lamentable Ro-maine Tragedie", and by sixteenth-century standards the claim was justified. One could say almost without paradox that, in many respects, Titus Andronicus is a more typical Roman play, a more characteristic piece of Roman history, than the three great plays of Shakespeare which are generally grouped under that name. The Elizabethans had far less of a low opinion of the Low Empire than we have learned to have. In fact, many of the qualities of Romanity are in Titus. The garboils; the stoical or Senecal endurance; the many historical properties: senators and tribunes and patricians. It was obviously intended to be a faithful picture of Roman civilization. Indeed, the political institutions in Titus are a subject that has been rather neglected. They are certainly peculiar, and cannot be placed at any known period in Roman history, as can those in Coriolanus or Julius Caesar; and they afford a strange contrast with the care and authenticity of those later plays. In Titus Andronicus Rome seems to be, at times, a free commonwealth, with the usual mixture of patrician and plebeian institutions. Titus is himself elected emperor of Rome on account of his merits, because the senate and people do not recognize an hereditary principle of succession. But Titus disclaims the honour in favour of the late Emperor's elder (and worser) son. Titus is a devoted adherent (not to say a maniacal one) of the hereditary monarchical principle in a common-wealth that only partly takes it into account, and he eventually acknowledges his mistake. He encourages, by his subservience, the despotic rule on which Saturninus embarks, passing to a world of Byzantine intrigue, in which the barbarians (Southern and Northern, Moors and Goths), both by personalities and armies, exert their baneful or beneficent influence. And finally, by popular acclaim, Lucius is elected emperor "to order well the state" (says the second Quarto). Now, all these elements of the political situation can be found in Roman history, but not combined in this way. The play does not assume a political situation known to Roman history; it is, rather, a summary of Roman politics. It is not so much that any particular set of political institutions is assumed in Titus, but rather that it includes all the political institutions that Rome ever had. The author seems anxious, not to get it all right, but to get it all in. It has been suggested that Titus Andronicus was the work of a fairly well-informed scholar. It seems to be a quintessence of impressions derived from an eager reading of Roman history rather than a real effort at verisimilitude. Still, I think that Titus would easily be recognized as typical Roman history by a sixteenth-century audience; the claim that it was a "noble Roman history" was a just one.
Bearing this in mind, one can see why Plutarch was no rival to Suetonius (and his imitators and followers) as a source of impressions of the Romans. Suetonius's rag-bag of gossip, scandal, piquant and spicy personalia, provided the material for a large proportion of the plays written on Roman themes, including a number of University plays. Indeed the estimate of the popularity of Plutarch in the sixteenth century seems to have been rather exaggerated—at least, the popularity of Plutarch's Lives. It was Plutarch's Moralia which were most admired, and most influential, those essays on such subjects as 'Tranquillity of Mind', and 'Whether Virtue can be Taught', and so forth, which constantly provided exercises for translation, including one by the Queen herself. These things came home to men's business and bosoms far more than the parallel lives of the Greeks and Romans, and were admired for much the same reason as Dr Johnson's Ramblers and Martin Tupper's Proverbial Philosophy: they perfectly hit the moral preoccupations of the time; and were the model for Montaigne, and thence for Bacon. It was really the eighteenth century that was the great age of Plutarch's Lives, when there were two complete new translations, many partial ones, and frequent convenient reprints. In Shakespeare's time the Lives were confined to large and cumbrous folios. We, when we want to study the relation between Shakespeare's Roman plays and Plutarch's lives, can turn to those handy selections prepared for the purpose by Skeat or Tucker Brooke or Carr. Or, if we are prompted by curiosity or conscience to set about reading the whole thing, we can turn to the manageable volumes of the Tudor Translations or to the handy little pocket volumes of the Temple Classics. But Shakespeare, when he read Plutarch, could not turn to a volume of selections illustrating Shakespeare's Roman plays. He had to take a very heavy folio in his hands. We have to read 1010 folio pages in the 1579 edition before we come to the death of Cleopatra. (It need not be suggested that Shakespeare read 1010 folio pages before he came to the death of Cleopatra.) It is certainly not a literary experience comparable with picking up a novelette like Pandosto or Rosalynde, or reading a little book about the Continual Factions, Tumults and Massacres of the Romans. It was rather a serious thing for a busy man of the theatre to do. It was probably the most serious experience that Shakespeare had of the bookish kind.
In Shakespeare's three principal Roman plays we see a steadily advancing independence of thought in the reconsideration of the Roman world. In Julius Caesar, it seems to me, he is almost precisely in step with sound Renaissance opinion on the subject. There has been a good deal of discussion of this play because of a supposed ambiguity in the author's attitude to the two principal characters. It has been suggested, on the one hand, that Brutus is intended to be a short-sighted political blunderer who foolishly or even wickedly struck down the foremost man in all the world; Dante and survivals of medieval opinion in the sixteenth century can be quoted here. We have, on the contrary, been told, on very high authority in Shakespeare studies, that Shakespeare followed the Renaissance admiration for Brutus and detestation for Caesar. It has also been suggested that Shakespeare left the exact degrees of guilt and merit in Caesar and Brutus deliberately ambiguous in the play, to give a sense of depth, to keep the audience guessing and so make the whole dramatic situation more telling. But all this, it seems to me, obscures the fact that the reassessment and reconsideration of such famous historical figures was a common literary activity in the Renaissance, not merely in poetry and drama (where licence is acceptable), but in plain prose, the writing of history. In seems hardly legitimate to talk about "tradition", to refer to "traditional" opinions about Caesar and Brutus, when in fact the characters of each of them had been the subject of constant discussion. In the nineteenth century you could weigh up the varying views of Caesar held by Mommsen or Froude or Anthony Trollope or Napoleon III of France, and read their entertaining books on the subject. It was not so very different in the sixteenth century. I am not suggesting that Shakespeare read the great works on the life and character of Julius Caesar by Hubert Goltz (1563) or by Stefano Schiappalaria (1578) where everything about him was collected and collated and assessed and criticized. But other people did. And Shakespeare, writing a play of the subject, could hardly live in such intellectual isolation as to be unaware of the discussion. It would, I think, be quite wrong to suggest by quotation from any one writer such as Montaigne that Caesar was generally agreed to be a detestable character. On the contrary, the problem was acknowledged to be a complicated and fascinating one; and the discussion began early, and in ancient times. Men have often disputed (wrote Seneca in his De Beneficiis, a work translated both by Arthur Golding and by Thomas Lodge), whether Brutus did right or wrong. "For mine owne part, although I esteemed Brutus in all other thinges a wise and vertuous man, yet meseemeth that in this he committed a great errour"; and Seneca goes on to explain the error: Brutus
imagined that such a Citie as this might repossesse her ancient honour, and former lustre, when vertue and the primitive Lawes were either abolished, or wholly extinguished; Or that Iustice, Right, and Law, should be inviolably observed in such a place, where he had seene so many thousand men at shocke and battell, not to the intent to discerne whether they were to obay and serve, but to resolve under whom they ought to serve and obay. Oh how great oblivion possessed this man! how much forgot he both the nature of affaires, and the state of his Citie! to suppose that by the death of one man there should not some other start up after him, that would usurpe over the common-weale.
Likewise William Fulbecke (writing in 1586, though his book was not published until 1601), while seeing the calamities Caesar was bringing upon the Roman state, could not praise Brutus for permitting himself to participate in political assassinations:
M. Brutus, the chiefe actor in Caesars tragedie, was in counsel deepe, in wit profound, in plot politicke, and one that hated the principality whereof he devested Caesar. But did Brutus looke for peace by bloudshed? did he thinke to avoyd tyrannie by tumult? was there no way to wound Caesar, but by stabbing his own conscience? & no way to make Caesar odious, but by incurring the same obloquie?
Fulbecke summarized his position in the controversy: "Questionless the Romanes should not have nourished this lyon in their Citie, or being nourished, they should not have disgraced him."
In writing Julius Caesar and Antony and Cleopatra Shakespeare was keeping within a safe body of story. Those persons had been dignified by tragedies in many countries of Europe and many times before Shakespeare arose and drove all competitors from the field. But with Coriolanus it was different. There was apparently no previous play on the subject. It was more of a deliberate literary and artistic choice than either of the other two Roman plays. He must have discovered Coriolanus in Plutarch. As for Caesar and Cleopatra, he presumably went to Plutarch knowing that they were good subjects for plays. But no one had directed him to Coriolanus. The story was hardly well known and not particularly attractive. The story of the ingratitude he suffered, the revenge he purposed and renounced, was told by Livy, and, along with one or two other stories of Roman womenfolk (Lucretia, Virginia), it was turned into a novella in Painter's Pallace of Pleasure; there is a mention in Titus Andronicus. More than Julius Caesar or than Antony and Cleopatra, Coriolanus (perhaps by the rivalry or stimulation of Ben Jonson) shows a great deal of care to get things right, to preserve Roman manners and customs and allusions. We have, of course, the usual Roman officials, and political and religious customs familiarly referred to; and we have the Roman mythology and pantheon. But we are also given a good deal of Roman history worked into the background. Even the eighteenth-century editors who took a toothcomb through the play for mistaken references to English customs could find very little; and it requires considerable pedantry to check these. Moreover, in Coriolanus there is some effort to make literary allusions appropriate. The ladies know their Homer and the Tale of Troy. The personal names used are all authentically derived from somewhere in Plutarch; Shakespeare has turned the pages to find something suitable. He is taking great care. He is on his mettle. Dozens of poetasters could write plays on Julius Caesar or on Cleopatra. Dozens did. But to write Coriolanus was one of the great feats of the historical imagination in Renaissance Europe.
Setting aside poetical and theatrical considerations, and merely referring to the artist's ability to "create a world" (as the saying is), we may ask if there was anything in prose or verse, in Elizabethan or Jacobean literature, which bears the same marks of careful and thoughtful consideration of the ancient world, a deliberate effort of a critical intelligence to give a consistent picture of it, as there is in Shakespeare's plays. Of course, Ben Jonson's Catiline and Sejanus at once suggest themselves. The comparison between Shakespeare's and Ben Jonson's Roman plays is a chronic one, an inevitable one, and it is nearly always, I suppose, made to Jonson's disadvantage. At least it had its origin in their own time; for Leonard Digges tells us, in his verses before the 1640 Poems, that audiences were ravished by such scenes as the quarrel between Brutus and Cassius, when they would not brook a line of tedious (though well-laboured) Catiline. Of course, Ben Jonson's two plays are superior to any other Roman plays of the period outside Shakespeare (those of Lodge, Chapman, Massinger, Marston, or Webster, or the several interesting anonymous ones). But when Ben Jonson's are compared with Shakespeare's, as they cruelly must, their defect is a lack not so much of art as of sophistication. There is a certain naivety about Ben Jonson's understanding of Roman history. Of course, in a way, there is more obvious learning about Catiline and Sejanus than about Shakespeare's Roman plays. There must have been a great deal of note-book work, a great deal of mosaic work. It is possible to sit in the British Museum with the texts of the classical writers which Jonson used around you and watch him making his play as you follow up his references (not all, I think, at first hand). But the defect of Jonson's Sejanus is lack of homogeneity of style and material. Jonson mixes the gossip of Suetonius with the gloomily penetrating and disillusioned comments on men and their motives by Tacitus. It is the old story; "who reads incessantly and to his reading brings not a spirit and judgment equal or superior" is liable to lose the advantages of his reading. After all, it doesn't require very much effort to seem learned. What is so difficult to acquire is the judgment in dealing with the material in which one is learned. This is not something that can in any way be tested by collecting misspellings of classical proper names in an author whose works have been unfairly printed from his foul papers and prompt-book copies. Shakespeare brought a judgment equal or superior to whatever ancient authors he read however he read them. Ben Jonson did not; his dogged and determined scholarship was not ripe enough; he had the books but not always the spirit with which to read them. There are occasions when we can legitimately place parts of their plays side by side. Consider the portents which accompanied the death of Julius Caesar, something which obviously interested Shakespeare very much. His description of them in Hamlet is unforgettable. His introduction of them in Julius Caesar is beautifully done. Some of the excitable Romans are prepared to believe any yarn about lions and supernatural fires and so forth. The amiable and unperturbed Cicero asks Casca:
Why are you breathless? and why stare you
And he answers Casca's fustian about "a tempest dropping fire" with mild scepticism:
Why, saw you any thing more wonderful?
His response to the contagious panic which Casca has acquired from
a hundred ghastly women,
Transformed with their fear; who swore they
Men all in fire walk up and down the streets,
is to be quite unimpressed by anything that a lot of hysterical old women swore they saw; and he then leaves, with the remark that the weather is too bad for a walk that evening:
Good night then, Casca: this disturbed sky
Is not to walk in.
Compare this with the account of the portents that accompany the conspirators' oath and the blood-drinking in Catiline. (Jonson got little of it from the excellent Sallust but from an inferior source.) It is given no connexion with the varying emotions of the observers, there is no sceptical note: it merely seems to be there because "mine author hath it so". Indeed there is some-thing medieval about it, and about Jonson's treatment of his characters in Catiline. He takes sides emphatically. He does what some critics would like Shakespeare to do in Julius Caesar; that is to tell us plainly which is the good man and which is the bad man. There is a sort of pre-Renaissance naivety about Jonson's setting up Catiline as an example of unmitigated villainy and Cicero as an example of unmitigated virtue. It is comparable with what you find in Chaucer or in Lydgate about the slaying of the glorious and victorious Julius Caesar by that wicked Judas-like figure called Brutus Cassius with bodkins hid in his sleeve. There is a sense of unreality about it, a recurring feeling that Ben Jonson doesn't really know what he is talking about—the feeling of hollowness you get when Jonson starts praising Shakespeare by shouting
Call forth thund'ring Æ schilus,
Euripides, and Sophocles to us,
Pacuvius, Accius, him of Cordova dead,
To life againe, to heare thy Buskin tread,
And shake a Stage. …
Is this the writing of a well-informed person? We can stand for Seneca, of course. But it is hard to include the Greek tragedians, too little known and too little available to make the comparison intelligent; and as for Accius and Pacuvius, there could be few criticisms more pointless than to ask anybody to call forth their meagre fragments, those ghostly writers, mere names in biographical dictionaries. Perhaps it is only Ben Jonson's fun. I would like to think so. But I doubt it. I fear he wants to be impressive. Like a medieval poet, he has licence to mention the names of great authors without their books.
There may very well be, in Shakespeare's writings, a good many vestiges of the medieval world-picture. His mind may have been encumbered, or steadied, by several objects, orts, and relics of an earlier kind of intellectual culture. But it is scarcely perceptible in his Roman plays, which can be brought to the judgment bar of the Renaissance revivification of the ancient world, and will stand the comparison with the major achievements of Renaissance Humanism (as Ben Jonson's will not). We find there a writer who seems in the intellectual current of his times. Shakespeare had what might be described as the scholarship of the educated creative writer—the ability to go and find out the best that is known and thought in his day; to get it quickly (as a busy writer must, for Shakespeare wrote more than a million words in twenty years); to get it without much trouble and without constant access to good collections of books (as a busy man of the theatre must, one often on tour and keeping up two homes); and to deal with his sources of information with intelligence and discrimination. The favourite notions of learning get around in ways past tracing. Anyone who is writing a play or a book on any subject has by that very fact a peculiar alertness and sensitivity to information and attitudes about his subject. Shakespeare did not write in isolation. He had friends. It would be an improbable hypothesis that he worked cut off from the intellectual life of his times. Indeed, all investigations of the content of his plays prove the obvious: that he was peculiarly sensitive to the intellectual tendencies of his age, in all spheres of thought. His scholarship was of a better quality than Jonson's, because (one might guess) he was a better listener, not so self-assertive in the company of his betters, and was therefore more able, with that incomparable celerity of mind of his, to profit from any well-informed acquaintance.
Finally, in understanding the picture of the ancient world in these plays, the part played by Shakespeare himself in creating our notions of the ancient Romans should not be forgotten. It has become difficult to see the plays straight, to see the thing in itself as it really is, because we are all in the power of Shakespeare's imagination, a power which has been exercised for several generations and from which it is scarcely possible to extricate ourselves. It is well known, I believe, that Shakespeare practically created the fairies; he was responsible for having impressed them on the imagination, the dainty, delightful, beneficent beings which have become part of the popular mythology. To suggest that Shakespeare also practically created the ancient Romans might be regarded as irresponsible. Still, the effect that Shakespeare has had on the way the Romans exist in our imaginations is something that might well be explored. We have had in England no great historian of Rome to impose his vision of the Roman world upon readers. Gibbon begins too late; and the English historians of Rome who wrote in the sixteenth, seventeenth and eighteenth centuries are mediocre and practically unread. We have had, on the one hand, no Mommsen; on the other, we have had no Racine, no Poussin, no David, no Napoleon. But since the early nineteenth century generations of schoolboys have been trained on Julius Caesar and Coriolanus. When English gradually penetrated into the schools as a reputable subject, it was in the sheep's clothing of Shakespeare's Roman plays that it entered the well-guarded fold; and so gave the coup de grâce to classical education in England. It can hardly be doubted that Shakespeare's Julius Caesar has had more effect than Caesar's own Commentaries in creating our impressions of his personality. Indeed, Shakespeare has had no serious rival on the subject of Ancient Rome. Neither All for Love nor Cato has stood the test of time and changing tastes. Neither the importation of Ben Hur from America nor the importation of Quo Vadis from Poland has affected Shakespeare's domination over the imagination. Besides, they belong to the wrong period. Novel writers have generally turned to the age of the Twelve Caesars, rather than to the Republic, for precisely the same reasons as did Shakespeare's contemporary playwrights; it is so much more lurid; there are so many more "garboyles". The spirit of Suetonius lives on. Shakespeare, perhaps, chose with a better instinct or with surer taste.
Jean-Marie Maguin (essay date 1974)
SOURCE: "Play Structure and Dramatic Technique in Shakespeare's Julius Caesar," in Cahiers Elisabethains, No. 5, April, 1974, pp. 93-105.
[In the following essay, Maguin argues that the structure and dramatic technique of Julius Caesar reinforce the play's symmetry and offer insight into its meaning.]
A few plain figures may provide the simplest approach to the problems of play structure and dramatic technique in Julius Caesar.
According to F.E. Halliday in a Shakespeare Companion the play totals 2,478 lines only, which makes it a short tragedy, only exceeded in brevity by Macbeth (2,108 lines) and Timon of Athens (2,373 lines), to keep our terms of comparison amongst the tragedies. The average number of lines of the Shakespearian canon play (i.e. excluding Pericles, Henry VIII, and The Two Noble Kinsmen, these being half-size plays anyway) is about 2,880. This makes Julius Caesar 400 lines shorter than the canon average, roughly the length of the play's fourth act.
The first two acts are of equal length, counting approximately 550 lines each, which makes each stand for just above one fifth of the five act play. The third act—upon which the play hinges since it is marked by the disappearance of the title character—is also the longest act of the play with a number of lines slightly superior to 600. Then follow acts of decreasing length. Act IV numbers little more than 400 lines, Act V just over 350. The last act, noticeably the shortest of all, is also the one that includes the highest number of scenes: five, as against three scenes for Acts I, III, and IV, and four scenes for Act II.
Let us also say that the division into acts as given in the only text we have, the 1623 Folio, and into scenes in modern editions, seems reasonable enough. The only textual problem is the apparent malformation of the play at Act IV, scene 3 when the death of Portia is reported twice.
Most critics have attempted to single out Julius Caesar from the rest of Shakespeare's dramatic production by saying that this was the only play in which the title-character disappeared as early as Act III, scene 1. Valid as this distinction may be—even if it makes light of the relative length of acts—when one wishes to compare the play with the rest of Shakespeare's drama, it becomes useless, worse even, misleading, when one decides to examine the internal problems of the play structure.
We contend that it is both more accurate and more useful to describe the disappearance of Julius Caesar as taking place just before the mathematic half-way mark of the play. We are then left with the simple view of a play whose first half prepares the death of a central character and whose second half deals with the human and political consequences of this death. Critics Norman Rabkin and Nicholas Brooke have in perceptive analyses argued that Julius Caesar is above all a revenge play. That Julius Caesar has many features of the revenge play no one would dream of denying, and yet the structure of the play as we have just try to define it is not that of the conventional blood revenge play as exemplified by The Spanish Tragedy or The Revenger's Tragedy. Whereas the last two plays present the original blood offence as having been committed to the detriment of the revenger before the play starts, this offence is not committed in Julius Caesar before one half of the play has elapsed. Therefore it is only the second half of the play that may be strictly be assimilated to the conventional type of the blood revenge play. From this point of view the structure of the action in Julius Caesar is nearer that of Macbeth than that of Hamlet.
In the first half of the play the death of Caesar, either the desire to bring it about or the wish to prevent it, pervades the imaginations of all characters. This is the project that motivates them one way or another and inspires them with a constant sense and awareness of the future. The business of the play with its moves and counter-moves is that of any action-drama pacing forward to a single aim.
In the second half of the play, on the other hand, the death of Caesar, either the desire to avenge it or the eagerness to materialize its political significance in a new form of government, lives alone in the minds of all characters. They all look back to the moment of Caesar's death. This is their motivation. They are possessed by their memories, inspired with a sense of the past. The business of the play is entirely dependent on a past offence; as such it closely resembles that of the conventional blood revenge play.
The conflicting political ambitions of the triumvirs and the Republicans do create an impression of movement forward in the second half of the play but this impression is dispelled at once by close examination. In Act III, scene 2, lines 254-75 and in Act V, scene 1, lines 39-44, Antony, the leading personality of the triumvirate, gives clear indications that his main motive for action is revenge. Brutus' statement in Act V, scene 1, lines 113-14, that
this same day
Must end that work the ides of March begun
proves beyond doubt that since the day of the assassination little of importance has been achieved. Time, in a way, has checked its course when Caesar died.
Thus, for both sides, the moment of Caesar's death is the common, unchanging point of reference. Caesar's death, situated half-way through the play, is the absolute, obsessive moment of the tragedy.
This extremely simple linear structure, dominated by the central event of Caesar's death, is illustrative of the fact that our perception of time, real or dramatic, is structured by a few historic events which, as such, are privileged and capture preceding and subsequent circumstances in their orbit by causal attraction. The force of the play lies in the simplicity of a structure that overrides the classical division into acts.
Wilson-Knight in his essay on The Eroticism of Julius Caesar emphasises the duality of the character of Caesar when he writes:
Antony ( … ) loves Caesar as man and hero and does not like Brutus, distinguish between the two. Cassius despises him as a man, and therefore will not believe in him at all as a hero, and thinks him therefore dangerous.
This limpid analysis stressing the flesh-spirit duality of Caesar is not only helpful within but also without the bounds of character-study. The flesh-spirit duality of Caesar is an all important structural element in the tragedy. This duality is ironically solved half-way through the play by the killing of Caesar. From that moment on, the flesh having been destroyed, Caesar becomes a pure spirit literally and figuratively and dramatically speaking. The conspirators have killed and eliminated what they loved or despised but not what they feared. The revengers have lost what they loved but not what they admire, that is to say the moral type, the political model. The profound irony of the play is inseparable from the above mentioned simple dramatic structure.
Whereas on the level of dramatic and psychological issues, the play moves from duality before to unity after the death of Caesar, on the political level of the embodiment of power, it moves from unity or unicity to complexity since to the power of one man succeed the rivalries of five men: Antony, Octavius and Lepidus on the one hand, Brutus and Cassius on the other.
Pleasing as it may be in its simplicity, the structural pattern of the play: two symmetrical, contrasting halves hinging upon one central event, must not lead us to dispense with an examination of the original nature of each act, or scene. The division into five acts, like the sonnet or other poetic forms is to be analysed, first of all, in its rigidity as a conventional structural clue to specific inventions, and secondly in its degree of pliancy as the writer stretches the universal to fit the particular.
To start with the obvious, Julius Caesar is a tragedy in five acts. We notice straightaway that the five act sequence lends itself particularly well to the above mentioned symmetry around a central event. The third act containing the murder of Caesar is flanked on either side by equivalent groups of two acts each—if of course we consider the acts as such, independently from their respective lengths. The effect of symmetry allowed mathematically speaking by the conventional dramatic pattern is enhanced by the dramatic function and particular atmosphere of the individual acts. At either end of the play, Act I and Act V are very distinctly, almost exclusively, acts of introduction and conclusion, the initial and terminal points of a curve ascending steadily through Act II, culminating in Act III, decreasing through Act IV. This curve alone describes dramatic tension in the play. From the point of view of the atmosphere, the shouting and the bustle of Act I, filled with triumphant marching on and off the stage, is symmetrically echoed by the shouting and the bustle of the battles in Act V.
Acts II and IV, formed in a pendent around Act III, are both domestic acts. In Act II we are successively introduced in the homes of Brutus and Caesar where conjugal peace suffers from the stress of political fears. Act IV, dominated as it is by the third scene, the third longest scene in the play, pictures the wrangling between the triumvirs, then the violent quarrel and final reconciliation between Brutus and Cassius, friends but also brothers-in-law. Here again, as in Act II, we face domestic tensions and domestic peace. The discordant tones of the quarrels in Act IV echo the noise of the storm at the end of Act I and through most of Act II. The visitation of the ghost at the end of Act IV brings back some of the supernatural terrors which mark the end of Act I and most of Act II. Similarly, the gentleness of Brutus with Lucius in Act IV echoes an earlier passage in Act II while Portia, who first appeared in Act II, is reported dead in Act IV.
Act III, the central act of the play, is framed by two murders, that of Caesar by the conspirators at the beginning and, at the end, that of Cinna the Poet by the enemies of Caesar's enemies. The global significance is that violence, in accordance with the grim prophecy of Antony at the end of Act III, scene 1, has become truly universal: both tyrant and poet have perished, the guilty and the innocent will die.
So far, the play's symmetry appears almost perfect. Yet it would be wrong to suggest that it is the act division as such which impresses an audience with a sense of symmetry during a dramatic performance. The division into acts is meant neither to be felt nor to shape the audience's reactions. Although there is a change of setting between Act I and Act II, the night sequence that opens at Act I, scene 3 to end somewhere around Act II, scene 2, line 58 with Decius hailing Caesar, provides an undeniable run-on effect. Similarly, despite swift changes of setting, there is continuity between Act II and Act III. The dramatic hinge is situated in Act II, scene 2, at line 107 when Caesar makes up his mind:
Give me my robe, for I will go.
The only point in the play where the act division corresponds to a time lapse immediately perceptible by an audience is the fracture between Act III and Act IV. When the dramatic thread is taken up again, each political faction has had time to recruit and try the valour of its armed forces. Yet even in this case the change of setting is not effected until the beginning of Act IV, scene 2, when the action is removed from Rome to the rebels' camp near Sardis.
In production the play is too short to tolerate more than one interval. This interval can be placed either at the close of Act III after Antony has swayed the minds of the people or even better we think at the end of Act III, scene 1, following upon the exit of Antony and Octavius' servant bearing the body of Caesar. The second half of the performance would then start with the oratory of Brutus and Antony in the Forum. Thus, in terms of dramatic production, we are back at something less fragmented than a five-part structure: a two-part structure hinging on the death of Caesar. The interval helps to materialise a symmetry that although underscored in some ways by the five-act convention suffers from it in other directions.
The decreasing length of Acts IV and V is remarkable. Act V is just over half the size of Act III. It also counts most scenes: five as against four in Act II and three in Acts I, III, and IV. It is an act dominated by business and, in a sense, marred by it. The dramatic effect is one of 'jumpiness' and forbids the audience to concentrate for very long on any one feature. The difficulty of course is one specific to history plays as a genre. Whilst the destiny of the individuals portrayed is inseperable from the fate of the human masses they have set in motion, the necessarily restricted stage area of a theatre is unsuitable for large numbers. When he wrote Julius Caesar, Shakespeare was already possessed of the experience acquired in the English histories. In his first Roman play he deliberately concentrates all the business of battles in one short act, the last of the play. He also resorts to a technique for keeping numbers off stage while allowing their over-riding importance to be felt. This is the technique of the running commentary on the battle provided by a main or secondary character, Brutus in scene 2, Cassius and Pindarus in scene 3. This is similar to the device resorted to in Act I, scene 1 for the heard but unseen offering of the crown. In both cases the technique, not altogether unlike that of the Chorus of Greek and Latin tragedy, results in an actual extension of backstage business while preventing the stage from becoming overcrowded. However, the effect in Act V is less successful than in Act I. This is due to the exceptionally fascinating nature of the offstage business: fighting and bloodshed. The audience is thwarted in its morbid desire to see and is at least as frustrated as short-sighted Cassius whose infirmity is here conveniently brought in, perhaps in an attempt to have us forget our own predicament by making it shared by a fellow spectator on stage. The shortness of the scenes is a strong witness to the fact that Shakespeare was aware of the dangers of prolonging this type of situation. We cannot help feeling that Act V is largely sacrificed to inescapable dramatic stumbling-blocks. Shakespeare is getting rid of the military business and a few characters as well. They all die swiftly, Cassius rashly, Brutus with quick determination. Titinius' elegiac speech over the body of his friend Cassius, just before his own death, is probably intended as a means to slow down the dizzy swirl of events engulfing men. It partly succeeds.
The examination of Act V was necessary to show that Shakespeare's reliance on the five-act structure is neither careless nor carefree. The varying length of the acts points to a very significant warping or adaptation of the received structure to fit the particular dramatic situation.
Dramatic technique might be defined as the particular handling of received structures. As such, it covers all that is relevant to the playwright's structuring ability, his capacity to create under the face of a chosen convention an entirely original structure serving his specific dramatic requirements. Words and situations are the elements of this original structuring. Their positioning in the play, their recurrence with or without variations create moments of stress or unstress whose relative situation determines in turn an overall structure proper to condition intellectual, moral and aesthetic responses in an audience subjected to these tensions. The framing of Act HI by the death of the tyrant and the death of the poet is an instance of the dramatic technique in Julius Caesar. The concentration of all battles in Act V and of all staged deaths in Acts HI and V are others.
A prominent feature is the use made by Shakespeare of parallel situations within the play. An example of these parallels is afforded by the psychological evolution of characters destined to die or be stricken in their family. Caesar and Calphurnia evolve from scepticism to superstition. Cassius, though an Epicurean, partly gives way to faith in omens at the close of his life. Brutus' defeat is prefaced by the visitation of a ghost. These details are not, it must be remembered, Shakespeare's own creation; he borrows them from North's Plutarch. Yet they are arranged in the play in such a way that rather than the actuality of the omens preceding great men's deaths it is the change of great men's minds, their sudden, anguished focussing upon the world of superstitious terrors that acts as a dramatic warning of their deaths.
In the same way, the repetition of a figure of rhetoric throws a verbal spell on the speakers, acts as a veritable verbal doom. In Act I, scene 2, lines 311-12 Cassius says:
If I were Brutus now, and he were Cassius
He should not humour me.
and in Act HI, scene 2, lines 228-30 Antony tells the citizens:
But were I Brutus
And Brutus Antony, there were an Antony
Would ruffle up your spirits.
Thus, unwittingly, two speakers by separately contemplating an exchange of identity with Brutus create, in effect, beyond their temporary opposition, an indissoluble trio, that of the three noble Romans destined to self-destruction, Cassius and Brutus in the course of the play, Antony later and in another play, in Antony and Cleopatra.
The phantasm of suicide and its actualization, with or without friendly assistance, colour the atmosphere of the whole play which could be defined as a study of the fascination of death. The parallels are numerous and the fact that their elements are situated in all the acts of the play without exception counterbalances the concentration of staged deaths in Acts HI and V only. In Act I, Caesar's epileptic fit, during which he is reported to have offered the Romans the opportunity to cut his throat as a proof of his political honesty, is echoed a scene later by Cassius baring his 'bosom to the thunder stone' to prove to himself, the gods, and men that his cause is just. In Act II, Portia's self-inflicted wound is in a way an inconclusive suicidal gesture to be perfected by her actual suicide reported in Act IV. In Act III, scene 1 Cassius fearing that the conspiracy has been discovered, threatens to do away with himself; in Act IV, scene 3 he offers his dagger to Brutus and begs death of his friend in exactly the same way as Antony had begged death of Caesar's murderers in Act III, scene 1. In Act V, scene 1 Brutus conjures up the memory of Cato's suicide. Scene 3 of the same act is marked by the actual suicides on stage of Cassius and Titinius; scene 5 by that of Brutus. To say that such an impressive series contributes to the creation of the 'Roman' atmosphere intended for the the play is one thing; the particular arrangement of the episodes in the play is quite another: it represents the structuring of maniacal desire, its building up to actualization. Yet within the play there is no discourse on suicide comparable to that which was to appear in the later play of Hamlet.
In a similar way, it is clear that the dramatic structure of Act II is founded on a parallel portrayal of man and wife: Brutus and Portia on the one hand, Caesar and Calphurnia on the other. Here the dramatic technique consists in a parallel mode of presentation aimed at emphasizing differences in character situation and character relationship.
An odd and interesting parallel exists between the offering of a crown to Caesar by Antony in Act I, and the posthumous crowning of Cassius by Titinius in Act V. The similarity is disturbing. It may mean that in both cases there is no other intention in the reported or staged gestures than that of expressing friendship. In retrospect this throws a grave doubt on the reality of Caesar's monarchic ambition as seen by Shakespeare. On the other hand, if we choose not to doubt the political significance of the crown offered to Caesar by Antony in Act I, there is a pathetic derision in the posthumous crowning of Republican Cassius. Neither interpretation can be fairly favoured, and the parallel results in a permanent ambiguity, which is characteristic on the whole play on the political level.
Calphurnia's dream as reported by Caesar in Act II, scene 2, lines 75-82 is the basic theme of a triple variation including not only verbal play but also ritualistic physical display. The first variation is purely verbal. It is the redescription and reinterpretation of the dream by Decius. This follows immediately upon Caesar's original report. The omen of death is twisted into a 'happy' political prophecy. What happens in fact is that Decius answers the initial enigma of the dream by another enigma, relying on Caesar's fundamental self-assurance and love of flattery to make him overlook the basic ambiguity of the image of Rome sucking reviving blood from its leader. Blood to revive what? Prosperity as Caesar thinks, or liberty as Decius does? The second variation illustrating physically the prophetic meaning of Decius' enigma comes in the shape of Brutus' urgent desire to see the Romans perform a ritualistic blood smearing of their hands and swords after the murder of Caesar:
Stoop, Romans, stoop,
And let us bathe our hands in Caesar's blood
Up to the elbows, and besmear our swords:
Then walk we forth, even to the market-place,
And waving our red weapons o'er our heads,
Let's all cry, "Peace, freedom, and liberty!"
The third and last variation is offered in a passage of Antony's speech to the citizens in Act III, scene 2 when he presses them to grab the sacred blood relics of murdered Caesar:
Let but the commons hear this testament,
Which, pardon me, I do not mean to read,
And they would go and kiss dead Caesar's
And dip their napkins in his sacred blood,
Here then are the 'great men' who, according to Decius, were to press 'For tinctures, stains, relics, and cognizance' in fact simple citizens now performing a rite materially no different from that performed by Brutus and his confederates, but of different significance. What they have in mind is neither peace nor liberty but civil war and revenge. These four parallel passages show that the ultimate fickleness in Shakespeare's version of the Caesar story is not that of the mob but that of words themselves whose ambiguity is infinite and tricks Caesar, Brutus, and Decius as easily as it does the commoners of Rome.
Lastly we must mention another feature of the dramatic technique on the verbal level: the creation of an ironic verbal chain that is unwittingly and prophetically forged by the characters to run parallel with the sequence of events over which their control is obviously partial. In order to emphasize the absurd injustice of Caesar's tyranny Cassius says to Brutus in the course of their initial conversation of Act I, scene 2: "Brutus" will start a spirit as soon as "Caesar". He implies that they are equals in that neither can do so. In Act II, scene 1 Brutus exclaims:
We all stand up against the spirit of Caesar
O, that we then could come by Caesar's spirit,
And not dismember Caesar!
In Act IV, scene 3, in answer to Brutus's question, the ghost identifies himself as:
Thy evil spirit, Brutus.
In Act V, scene 1 Cassius, discouraged, mentions the birds of prey that form:
A canopy most fatal, under which
Our army lies, ready to give up the ghost.
In Act V, scene 3 Brutus, facing the body of Cassius, concludes:
O Julius Caesar, thou art mighty yet!
Thy spirit walks abroad, and turns our swords
Into our own proper entrails.
From the initial jocular remark to the last despondent statement the evolution of the whole play can be faithfully traced. While the words are perceived because they appear at crucial moments in the play, the verbal chain thus formed also contains a structuring germ, acts as a true backbone of dramatic composition. When we. isolate it as we have done we obtain an ironic summary of the entire work.
We have given only a few examples of what we feel are the most important features of the dramatic technique. We cannot, on the other hand, overemphasize the danger of suggesting by such a study that dramatic composition is merely an abstract game of construction meant to provide literary critics with an abstract game of analysis. From the playwright's point of view each dramatic statement carries within itself an ideal structure that is a gestalt: the most easily recognizable form of the statement intended. For the critic the genuine test of play structure comes first with the dramatic performance and only later with textual study.
Arthur Humphreys (essay date 1984)
SOURCE: In an introduction to Julius Caesar, by William Shakespeare, edited by Arthur Humphreys, Oxford at the Clarendon Press, 1984, pp. 1-83.
[In the following excerpt, Humphreys offers a detailed overview of the play's background, discussing its place in the Shakespearean canon, the sources used by Shakespeare, and Shakespeare's treatment of Roman values.]
The Play's Date and Place in the Shakespeare Canon
In the autumn of 1599 a Swiss doctor from Basle, Thomas Platter, saw what in all likelihood was Julius Caesar played by the Lord Chamberlain's Men at the newly-built Globe Theatre, finished in the late summer of that year and, as Dover Wilson observes in the New Cambridge edition of the play, conspicuous as its bright yellow thatch rose above the dark older roofs of Bank-side. In his travel notes Platter recorded (in German):
On the 21st of September, after dinner, at about two o'clock, I went with my party across the water; in the straw-thatched house we saw the tragedy of the first Emperor Julius Caesar, very pleasingly performed, with approximately fifteen characters; at the end of the play they danced together admirably and exceedingly gracefully, according to their custom, two in each group dressed in men's and two in women's apparel.
The play was one of the new theatre's first productions, perhaps composed for its opening. It was printed in the First Folio, 1623.
Contemporary references confirm 1599 as its date. Henry V's fifth-act prologue, completed by the summer of that year, shows that Shakespeare was then investigating Plutarch's Lives (in Sir Thomas North's translation of 1579, or its 1595 reprint). The prologue's lines telling how
the senators of th'antique Rome
With the plebeians swarming at their heels,
Go forth and fetch their conqu'ring Caesar in,
draw on Plutarch's observation that 'when Caesar was returned from … Spain, all the chiefest nobility of the city rode many days' journey from Rome to meet him' (Antonius, p. 185). Shakespeare's addition of the plebeians suggests that he was already devising Julius Caesar's opening scene. Moreover, echoes in Julius Caesar of works recorded during 1599 in the registers of the Stationers' Company seem clear. Sir John Davies's Nosce Teipsum, registered on 14 April, probably suggested Cassius' lines on how the eye sees other things but not itself (1.2.51-8; see the Commentary); the idea was semi-proverbial but it is so elaborated in the play that indebtedness seems likely. Samuel Daniel's Musophilus, registered as Poetical Essays on 9 January and published the same year, may well lie behind Cassius' prophecy that 'many ages hence' Caesar's assassination will be enacted 'In states unborn and accents yet unknown' (see the Commentary to 3.1.111-16). The anonymous A Warning for Fair Women, printed in 1599, includes lines about wounds like accusing mouths from which bloody tongues will speak, and these find parallels in Julius Caesar (3.1.259-61, 3.2.218-22); but the simile was not uncommon and its occurrence in both plays may be mere coincidence.
That Julius Caesar was not extant before 1599 is suggested by its absence from Palladis Tamia, Francis Meres's list of notable works, registered on 7 September 1598 and sufficiently up-to-date to include Everard Guilpin's Skialethia, registered on 15 September. Meres names six comedies and six tragedies (four of them, in fact, histories) to prove Shakespeare 'the most excellent in both kinds for the stage', and one would expect so noteworthy a work as Julius Caesar to be included had it already appeared. 1599, then, seems the earliest likely date for its completion.
Since allusions to it sprang up without delay, 1599 is also the latest likely date. Jonson's Every Man Out Of His Humour, registered on 8 April 1600, jests that 'reason long since is fled to animals, you know' (3.4.28-9), a clear take-off of 'O judgement, thou art fled to brutish beasts, And men have lost their reason' (Julius Caesar 3.2.104-5), as also is 'Then reason's fled to animals, I see' of the anonymous The Wisdom of Doctor Dodypoll, registered on 7 October 1600 (Malone Society reprint, 1965, line 907). 'Et tu, Brute' (Julius Caesar 3.1.77) occurs, humorously, in Every Man Out Of His Humour (5.6.70) and again in Samuel Nicholson's Acolastus His Afterwit, 1600—though there the whole line ('Et tu, Brute, wilt thou stab Caesar too?') is verbatim from The True Tragedy of Richard Duke of York (1595), the 'bad quarto' version of 3 Henry VI (in the First Folio 3 Henry VI the line does not occur). The phrase … was seemingly a stage tag, but Jonson and Nicholson presumably brought it in because of its impressive effect in Julius Caesar.
A notable contemporary allusion, in John Weever's The Mirror of Martyrs, consists of the lines in stanza 4:
The many-headed multitude were drawn
By Brutus' speech, that Caesar was ambitious.
When eloquent Mark Antony had shown
His virtues, who but Brutus then was vicious?
Printed in 1601, The Mirror, according to its dedication, had been 'some two years ago … made fit for the print', but it contains echoes of Edward Fairfax's Godfrey of Bulloigne of 1600, so either Weever saw that work in manuscript or he was still writing his poem after 1599; his allusion does not precisely clarify Julius Caesar's date. But that around the turn of the century the play was widely noted is evident, and this at a time, two decades before it was published, when it could be known only from stage performance or (less probably) from access to a manuscript. Jonson's Cynthia's Revels (acted in 1600) and Drayton's The Barons' Wars (revised in 1602 from the Mortimeriados of 1596 and printed in 1603) have what seem clear echoes of Antony's eulogy over the dead Brutus: these are pointed out in the Commentary to 5.5.74-6.
Two other allusions call for a word. The first consists of lines by Leonard Digges prefixed to the 1623 Folio, 'To the Memory of the Deceased Author Master W. Shakespeare', lines which among more general praises commend Romeo and Juliet and Julius Caesar. Digges avers that he will not believe Shakespeare dead until some other author surpasses the passion of the two lovers,
Or till I hear a scene more nobly take
Than when thy half-sword parleying Romans
That the great scene of the quarrel between Brutus and Cassius was in his mind is clear from his later verses, prefixed to the 1640 edition of Shakespeare's poems and probably written for the 1632 Second Folio but held over because they denigrated Ben Jonson, alive until 1637:
So have I seen, when Caesar would appear,
And on the stage at half-sword parley were
Brutus and Cassius: oh, how the audience
Were ravished, with what wonder they went
When some new day they would not brook a
Of tedious though well-laboured Catiline:
Sejanus too was irksome …
The fame of this scene is further illustrated in the discussion of the play's stage history; it captivated its audiences from the first.
The other most striking early allusion is by Ben Jonson himself. Timber; or Discoveries upon Men and Matter (published 1640) contains jottings made between 1623 and his death in 1637. In it he penned his famous praise of Shakespeare ('I loved the man, and do honour his memory (on this side idolatry) as much as any') and then, reflecting on his friend's facility, he mocked—it would seem—a solecism in Julius Caesar (3.1.47-8): 'Many times he fell into those things, could not escape laughter: as when he said in the person of Caesar, one speaking to him; Caesar, thou dost me wrong. He replied: Caesar did never wrong, but with just cause and such like: which were ridiculous.' Then Jonson redressed his stricture with judicious praise: 'But he redeemed his vices with his virtues. There was ever more in him to be praised than to be pardoned.' The same jibe occurs, however, in the Induction (II. 35-7) to The Staple of News (1626): Gossip Expectation says that she can prompt her mates to expect surpassing things of the play 'if I have cause'. The Prologue replies, 'Cry you mercy, you never did wrong but with just cause', the italic type giving way to roman to make clear that this is quotation.
Since the existing text contains neither 'Caesar, thou dost me wrong' nor the alleged solecism, what may have happened has been much discussed. Jonson was known for a good verbal memory and was unlikely so long to relish a mere figment of his imagination. What is teasing is not that Shakespeare may have written a questionable phrase but that as late as 1626, twenty-seven years after Julius Caesar first saw the stage, and three years after it first was printed in the 1623 Folio, the audience at The Staple of News was apparently expected, unprompted, to rise to the joke.
As for the play's place in Shakespeare's canon, he had already tried one Roman subject in the Senecan Titus Andronicus (printed in 1594). Though high notions of Roman role-playing are common to both, this is worlds away from the spirit of Julius Caesar, and far closer to the standard Renaissance view that Rome's story was spasmodic and violent than is its successor's portrayal of noble contestants moved, in general, by high public spirit and expressing themselves with distinction. Shakespeare's sense of Roman history had considerably altered under the influence of Plutarch, who in his great sequence of Parallel Lives deals less with the turbulence of Rome's history than with the greatness of her great men; the title that North (following Amyot's Les Vies des Hommes Illustres Grecs et Romains) gave to his translation was The Lives of the Noble Grecians and Romans (1579). In other plays of the 1590s Shakespeare repeatedly celebrated Caesar's greatness—which indeed was axiomatic—though his references to Brutus (whom Plutarch presents most admiringly) had been censorious, drawn from non-Plutarchan traditions. In I Henry VI, Caesar's soul is the only one in history outshone by the 'far more glorious star' of Henry V (1.1.55-6); in 2 Henry VI, Suffolk proclaims that 'Great men oft die by vile bezonians: … Brutus' bastard hand Stabbed Julius Caesar' (4.1.134-7; 'bastard' hints at the story, unmentioned in Julius Caesar, that Caesar had in fact fathered him); in 3 Henry VI Queen Margaret compares the slaying of her son Prince Edward at Tewkesbury with the foulest precedent she can call to mind, Caesar's murder (5.5.52-5); in Richard III young Prince Edward hails Caesar's immortal fame (3.1.84-8); in 2 Henry IV the rumoured victory of Hotspur is received by his friends as unparalleled 'Since Caesar's fortunes' (1.1.20-3). But that Caesar's greatness might become grandiose Shakespeare recognized too, parodying the famous 'Veni, vidi, vici' with Armado's bombast in Love's Labour's Lost (4.1.68 ff.), and having Falstaff, as he captures Colevile in 2 Henry IV, echo it as from 'the hook-nosed fellow of Rome' (4.3.40-1), Rosalind in As You Like It mock 'Caesar's thrasonical brag' (5.2.29-30), and, later, the Queen in Cymbeline likewise scoff at 'his brag' (3.1.22-4).
These two facets of the great man suggest, though only seminally, the dilemma: does Caesar present real greatness or only the pose of greatness? That, taking all in all, Shakespeare held the former view is suggested in the immediately following tragedy, Hamlet: there, re-calling the prodigies before Caesar's death, Horatio signals the days before 'the mightiest Julius fell' as 'the most high and palmy state of Rome' (1.1.113-14). Brutus and his allies struck down the greatest figure of the Roman world—indeed, it seemed, of all secular history. Yet so persuasive is Plutarch's influence that Brutus, with whatever imperfections on his head, emerges from the play as movingly virtuous, and his confederates, though less admirable, still as men of notable distinction.
Julius Caesar is a crucial play in various ways. As Granville-Barker observed, the problem of the virtuous murderer is peculiarly taxing; 'Brutus best interprets the play's theme: Do evil that good may come, and see what does come!' Julius Caesar points towards the dilemmas, the 'purposes mistook, / Fall'n on th'inventors' heads', of Hamlet, indeed of Othello. It offers the poignant spectacle of a good man creating tragic harm—'a new path opened out for the development of the tragic art'. It is the first of Shakespeare's tragedies in which moral bewilderments become fundamentally important (though some of the English histories—notably the three parts of Henry VI, Richard II, and the two parts of Henry IV—had dealt movingly with these in the context of rule). Moreover, though the English histories had been shaded by the ironies of history, and Romeo and Juliet by the ironies of fate, a more complex sense develops in Julius Caesar of how consequences defeat intentions. Here 'The two elements which Aristotle thought necessary for the profoundest tragedy, peripeteia and anagnorisis, the ironic turn of events which makes an action have the very opposite effect of that intended, and the realization of this by the agent, are thus seen to be fundamental.' With this deepened awareness of the human predicament the play points towards the profound questionings of the tragedies which follow.
Yet along with the later Roman plays, Antony and Cleopatra and Coriolanus, it belongs to the Hegelian category of tragedy, balancing conflicting goods rather than contrasting good and evil. It has evident interminglings of virtues and vices but not those metaphysical oppositions which, in Hamlet, Othello, Macbeth, and King Lear, suggest so deep a religious—even if an agnostic—dimension. It has even been argued that Julius Caesar is less a tragedy in the full sense than, following on the English histories, a dramatized chronicle grounded not in individual afflictions but in the fate of a society. Such a contention, though, goes too far. The play does very much concern itself with individual afflictions, with the mysteries of individual self-direction leading to fatality; so it is indeed tragic. Yet, like its Roman successors, it is so in a special way, as 'a play of overt challenge and debate linked to clear action, whose dilemmas are set out with Roman clarity, Roman simplicity'. Appropriately to a subject disciplined by Roman decorum, its characters, if not always masters of their fates, try at least to be masters of their roles and attitudes. … They have codes of resolution to live up to and these preserve them from the fundamental tragic sense of chaos. They move in the secular world of social and political relationships and within that world we lean this way and that alternately in our attitudes to them, assessing, as befits 'overt challenge and debate', whether this action or that is commendable or not. The pendulum of sympathy swings disconcertingly, and even with so seemingly clear-headed a play the inclination to include it among Shakespeare's 'problem plays' is understandable, though it is by no means as problematical as, say, Hamlet or Troilus and Cressida or Measure for Measure. The fact is simply that, as Dover Wilson observed of Richard II, Shakespeare 'develops the political issue in all its complexity, and leaves judgment upon it to the spectator' (New Cambridge edition, p. xxxv), or, as Coleridge observed of Coriolanus, it 'illustrates the wonderful philosophic impartiality of Shakespeare's polities'. Hence the varied views held about Caesar, Brutus, Cassius, and Antony. Attitudes to each fluctuate in a humanly moving alternation.
Tuning his play to Plutarch's key of noble intentions undercut by human failings, Shakespeare produces a drama of human nature poignantly balanced in its gravity and considerate tenderness. In his canon it stands with a humane, searching thoughtfulness to end a decade filled with histories of England's turbulent story, with comedies of amiable follies and generous affections, and with tragedies of exciting fervour. If not painfully disturbing like Othello and King Lear, or charged with 'thoughts beyond the reaches of our souls' like Hamlet and Macbeth, yet in the deeply-felt and responsible realism with which Shakespeare commemorates high distinction it fittingly foreshadows the works immediately to follow.
Shakespeare's Sources and his Shaping of Them
Nearly all the significant components of the play derive from The Lives of the Noble Grecians and Romans … Translated out of Greek into French by James Amyot: and out of French into English by Thomas North (1579; reprinted 1595). This, North's Plutarch, is a cumbrous volume, the reading of which, for a busy man of the theatre, 'was probably the most serious experience that Shakespeare had of the bookish kind'. Shakespeare drew also on general traditions about Roman life and history, but Plutarch gave him almost all his specific material, along with the sense of Roman distinction—these are indeed 'noble' Romans. Plutarch wrote about 150 years after Caesar's death: that lapse of time, and, more evidently, his leaning towards ethical analysis, led him away from the ruthlessness of politics towards the sense of human distinction.
What Plutarch offered (and, via Amyot, North spiritedly translated) was good narrative and biographies vividly set within their times, their subjects shrewdly analysed as to qualities and motives, and seen to be controlled by a shaping destiny—ideal material for drama even though each Life still needed much modelling and selection. Plutarch gave, it has been said,
whatever seemed appropriate for explanation and interpretation of his hero. The little homily citations of mere gossip, the accounts of venturesome exploits stirring to the reader's imagination, the frequent parentheses, the constant bias towards ethical judgment, have their own integrity as parts of a method of portraiture which has delighted students of human motives, reasonings, and deeds.
He perhaps drew from Greek drama his biographical form, his sense of great persons confidently self-directed yet vulnerable through their failings (even noble failings), and shadowed by the implicit ironies which observers aware of tragic outcomes can perceive. The Lives of Julius Caesar, Marcus Brutus, and Marcus Antonius amply furnished the formidable story of Caesar's fall and its consequences, a story offering drastic reversals of fortune in the killing of the great leader and then in the retribution which Caesar's spirit, working through Mark Antony and the crisis of the Roman state, brought down upon his killers. In addition to these three Lives, Shakespeare would almost certainly scan that of Cicero; if so, he took little if anything from it.
Already, basing his English histories on Holinshed's Chronicles, Shakespeare had shown with what creative modification he could select from long, miscellaneous compilations the components of gripping plots. Plutarch's narrative was much better shaped than Holinshed's, yet it too needed condensing. So, from the first three-quarters of the very full Life of Caesar, Shakespeare picked merely a few details and traits. The details include Caesar's forgiveness of Brutus (and others) for siding with Pompey, his opponents' hesitancy until 'he was grown to be of great strength' and seemed to threaten 'destruction of the whole … commonwealth' (as Brutus ruminates at 2.1.10-34), his famous victory over the Nervii (3.2.167-70), and the facts of his infirmities (in particular epilepsy, the 'falling sickness')—infirmities which in Plutarch Caesar heroically ignores but which in the play the jaundiced Cassius treats as contemptible (1.2.119-28). The more general traits guiding Shakespeare are numerous—Caesar's powerful oratory, outstanding generalship, ambition, and popularity; the alarm he inspired in fellow-patricians; and Rome's critical condition, requiring 'the absolute state of a monarchy and sovereign lord' (Caesar, p. 50).
In the fourth quarter of Caesar these themes are renewed and the events are close to those of the play. Plutarch notes that though Romans disliked Caesar's triumph over Pompey's sons (who were fellow-Romans, not foreigners), yet many hoped that his rule would bring peace; also that though he sought only such honours as became a man, yet supporters and opponents alike lauded him as a demigod, the former obsequiously, the latter intending to discredit him. To former foes he was merciful, and he was unmoved by dangers; when advised to have a bodyguard, he replied that it is 'better to die once than always to be afraid of death' (Caesar, p. 78; compare 2.2.32-7). Ambition made him seek popularity; with this went a zest for achievement, as if he were his own rival, striving always to outgo himself. Yet thus he provoked his foes—'the chiefest cause that made him mortally hated was the covetous desire he had to be called king; which first gave … his secret enemies honest colour, to bear him ill will' (Caesar, pp. 80-1).
The analysis below offers a consecutive discussion of Shakespeare's use and remodelling of Plutarch; the Commentary on the text cites the passages to which he was verbally indebted.
To begin, Shakespeare picks up two hints barely noticeable in Plutarch about the stripping of Caesar's images by the tribunes. Making this event so prominent he focuses sympathy on Caesar's opponents, towards whom up to the assassination we are predominantly to lean. An impulsive populace, idolizing a leader whose 'growing feathers' threaten tyranny, is chidden by seemingly right-thinking men. Preluded by the tribunes' honest egalitarianism, Cassius and Brutus can develop their plot with (save for a few dubious touches) the right ethical tone.
Shakespeare then interweaves elements from Caesar and Antonius. Both accounts present Caesar in triumphal robes presiding over the Lupercalia, but Antonius treats the race as sport, Caesar as a fertility rite. Neither, however, mentions Calpurnia's presence or Caesar's concern for an heir; Shakespeare's additions bring Calpurnia forward and imply Caesar's dynastic hopes. In Caesar the soothsayer's warning about the Ides of March is mentioned, later than the Lupercalia, as uttered 'long time afore': in the play, transferred to Caesar's hour of triumph, it has an electrifying effect. (Neither Brutus nor Antonius records it at all.)
In Antonius, as in the play (1.2.261 ff.), Caesar offers his throat for cutting when the populace applauds his third refusal of the crown. In Caesar he does so on quite a different occasion, after offending the Senate by disdain; yet it is from Caesar that Casca draws his report that he blamed this extravagant gesture on his epilepsy (1.2.267-8). Many large pages in Plutarch separate these two versions, and Shakespeare must have leafed back and forth noting the details which combine in the vivid mosaic of the scene (the phrasing is too close to be merely memorial impression).
Into the Lupercalia and crown-offering he dovetails Cassius' incitements. Plutarch provided the bases for these—Brutus' high repute for republican virtue; his disturbed spirit; and his estrangement from Cassius. Shakespeare accepts the first unqualified but the others he modifies. Plutarch's Brutus is troubled by the conspiracy's risks, Shakespeare's by its ethics. In Plutarch the estrangement results from rivalry for the praetorship; in the play, such self-seeking would be unfitting, and it arises from Brutus' troubled spirit (1.2.36 ff.). A point in Plutarch (Brutus, p. 139) which Shakespeare very notably discards is that Cassius would 'jest too broadly'; the play's Cassius is austere, critical, and unconvivial (1.2.71-8).
Cassius' instigations, including the Tiber swimming (1.2.100 ff.), are mostly Shakespeare's inventions though, as mentioned, Caesar gave him Caesar's courageously borne illness in Spain which Cassius distorts into a sign of weakness. Common to Plutarch and play are appeals to Roman liberty, and Cassius' stress on the very name of 'Brutus' (Brutus, p. 112; 1.2.142-7). When Caesar reenters (1.2.177) the play strikingly alters Plutarch, for it aims at Cassius alone (1.2.194-5) Caesar's suspicion of 'pale-visaged and carrion lean people'—which in Plutarch applies to both Cassius and Brutus (Caesar, p. 85; similarly Antonius, p. 186). More than once in Plutarch Caesar has his doubts about Brutus but these Shakespeare ignores, stressing rather the bonds between the two so that Brutus' moral dilemma and eventual treachery are the more disturbing.
The facts of the crown-offering (1.2.220 ff.) are Plutarchan, but Casca's comic-coarse realism is original. One of the play's notable features is the way it keeps us, at this stage, mainly on the conspirators' side while yet hinting at the ambivalence in their case, through Brutus' rationalizations, Casca's derision, and the bias in Cassius, so evident when he soliloquizes on his machinations (1.2.305-19).
Plutarch relates 'strange and wonderful signs that were said to be seen before Caesar's death' (Caesar, p. 86)—celestial fires, ominous birds in the market-place at noon, men in flames, a slave with blazing hand, a sacrificial animal without a heart, the soothsayer's warning, and Calpurnia's dreams. As manifestations 'perhaps worth the noting' these are retailed with a rather casual and incidental air. Shakespeare adds others, and he uses them all for dramatic excitement but also for distinction of character—Cicero is unmoved, Casca agitated, Cassius exultant and defiant, taking the 'dreadful night' as proving Caesar's alleged (yet unproven) violence.
Brutus' enigmatic soliloquy (2.1.10 ff.) has no Plutarchan precedent. In both source and play his trouble distresses him and Portia, but in Plutarch he broods not on ethical dilemmas but on the risks involving 'the noblest, valiantest, and most courageous men of Rome' (Brutus, p. 116). The change is significant: Shakespeare is exploring the self-divided nature which had shown itself in Richard II and Henry IV and was to develop in Hamlet and Macbeth—Macbeth himself might well speak the anguished lines on 'the acting of a dreadful thing' or on conspiracy too shameful to show its face even by night (2.1.63-9, 77-85).
Shakespeare takes from Plutarch the conspirators' lack of any binding oath, the exclusion of Cicero, and the decision to spare Antony. But to each point he gives a special bearing, since he makes Brutus always the deciding factor. In Plutarch the conspirators never think of taking an oath: in Shakespeare it is Brutus who dissuades them from doing so. Cicero is left out not as in Plutarch for his timidity but because Brutus decides he will not be subservient (a trait ironically Brutus' own). And in Plutarch Antony is spared not only because, as in Shakespeare, Brutus urges that his murder would be 'not honest' (Brutus, p. 124) and that the conspiracy should avoid 'all villainy' (Antonius, p. 188), but also because Brutus thinks him noble, brave, and sure to admire their republican zeal (Brutus, p. 125). Shakespeare retains Brutus' scrupulousness but makes him disparagingly and fatally underestimate Antony (2.1.166, 182-90).
With these lofty attitudes, prevalent yet not immaculate in Plutarch's Brutus, Shakespeare colours the whole role. Plutarch says nothing about Caesar's murder as sacrifice, and in his pages the event is a bloody mêlée. Shakespeare evolves from Brutus' idealism the terrible irony by which the murder, planned on such blameless principles, becomes the butchery which Antony execrates (5.1.40-5). Yet in the orchard scene we feel the spell of Brutus' noble intentions and prestige as strongly as do the conspirators for whom he is the guarantor of spotless virtue, and the devoted intimacy between him and Portia (closely derived from Brutus, pp. 117-19, 122-3) touches the heart.
Decius discloses that Caesar has become superstitious and vulnerable to flattery. These traits derive from Plutarch, though in his story it is Calpurnia who succumbs to superstition. What Plutarch does not give and Shakespeare does is the contrast between Caesar's demigod poses and human vacillations. Plutarch's Caesar feels natural alarm at threatening omens and auguries; Shakespeare's strikes indomitable poses and then unstrikes them. For his grand stances Shakespeare takes points from Plutarch: for instance he combines (2.2.32-7) Caesar's declarations that 'It was better to die once than always to be afraid of death' and that the best death is 'death unlooked for' (Caesar, pp. 78, 88). Such items, along with inventions of his own, he uses to create that autonomous pride which Caesar's waverings so notably offset—waverings in Plutarch of pardonable uncertainty, in Shakespeare of plain inconstancy. We may approve of them as showing concern for Calpurnia, yet Decius readily reverses them (2.2.83 ff.) so that, betrayed by flattery, ambition, and his pose of indomitability, Caesar goes deluded to his death. Yet at this point, invoking our sympathies, Shakespeare adds a moving touch or two: Caesar is genial with the foes he thinks his friends (2.2.108 ff.), and Artemidorus grieves that 'virtue cannot live / Out of the teeth of emulation' (2.3.12-13). The former humanizing touch has no precedent in Plutarch; in Shakespeare, the kindly greeting which the unwitting victim offers his trusted companions is extraordinarily poignant, as the status-ridden dictator unbends to his 'friends'.
As the plot moves towards the assassination and its immediate consequences there is an inexorable sense of tragic doom. The catastrophe is inevitable yet the tension through which it is reached is riveting. First, from auguries mentioned earlier in Plutarch, Shakespeare repeats the Ides-of-March theme heard in the play's second scene. By another significant touch, what prevents Caesar from reading Artemidorus' warning (3.1.3, 6-7)—in Plutarch the throng of suitors—becomes in Shakespeare the impressive 'What touches us ourself shall be last served', a gesture by which he commands our admiration even as he signs his own death warrant.
Thereafter the details of the murder come selectively from Caesar and Brutus (many are common to both). The alarm caused by Popilius Lena, with Cassius jumpy and Brutus unmoved (3.1.13 ff.), is from Brutus (pp. 122-3), as is Trebonius' diverting of Antony (in Caesar Decius does this). Yet Metellus Cimber pleading for his brother is from Caesar (in Brutus it is Tullius Cimber). The conspirators in the play kneel to Caesar with ritual formality, but Antony later accuses them of bowing like bondmen and kissing the man they are betraying (5.1.42-3)—this is from Brutus (p. 123). Antony's further thrust, however, that Casca, standing behind, struck Caesar in the neck, is from Caesar (p. 93), as also is the number of Caesar's wounds (twenty-three in Caesar, p. 95; by a slip thirty-three in the play, 5.1.53). But neither Life has the famous climactic 'Et tu, Brute'. …
Antony refers repeatedly to the violence of the murder. This probably reflects Caesar's gruesome account, that the victim was 'hacked and mangled' and finally horribly stabbed by Brutus 'about his privities' (Caesar, p. 94), though the story in Brutus too is savage enough to make bitterly ironic Brutus' proposal for sacrifice, not butchery (2.1.167). In the play the murder becomes weirdly ritualistic as, to witness to libertarian ideals, forearms are bathed 'in Caesar's blood / Up to the elbows'—an unPlutarchan touch showing the plotters' obsessive wish to be violent according to rule and form.
It is from Caesar that Shakespeare takes Pompey's statue, fatefully presiding over his conqueror's death and running with blood (Caesar, p. 95; compare 3.1.115, 3.2.185-6). And indeed it is mainly Caesar that suggests the hand of destiny prevailing over the great contestants, a theme natural to world-shaking events which must surely have their supernatural correlative. So divine interventions are propounded, 'manifest proofs that it was the ordinance of some god' which caused Caesar to die beneath Pompey's statue, the image seeming to take 'just revenge' (Caesar, pp. 92, 95). But as Pompey ultimately prevailed over his destroyer, so likewise did Caesar—his influence 'did continue afterwards in the revenge of his death' (Caesar, p. 99). 'When beggars die there are no comets seen', as Calpurnia observes, 'The heavens themselves blaze forth the death of princes' (2.2.30-1). In Caesar a comet shines for seven nights after the murder, the sun is dark, harvests fail, and Cassius and Brutus are doomed, Cassius to slay himself with the sword with which he slew Caesar (Caesar, p. 99; 5.3.45-6), Brutus to be haunted by an 'ill angel' or 'evil spirit' (Caesar, p. 100; Brutus, p. 149); the play's 'evil spirit' and '111 spirit' catch at both phrases (4.2.332, 338) and Shakespeare naturally takes it as Caesar's ghost (5.5.17-18). Over and above the details of history it is this Plutarchan sense of retributive destiny which gives the play its unity, Caesar's death being the keystone of the great arch which brings the conspirators up to their triumph and down to their doom. Plutarch already adumbrates this controlling idea.
Between the murder and the entrance of Antony's servant (3.1.121) the play draws vividly upon Caesar and Brutus. There is widespread panic (Caesar, p. 96; Brutus, p. 124); the conspirators wave bloodstained swords and proclaim liberty (Caesar, p. 96; Brutus, p. 125); Brutus tries to calm the Senate (Brutus, p. 125); and Antony and Lepidus hide (Caesar, p. 96; Antonius, p. 188). So, for the moment, the conspirators ride high.
Then comes the event which precipitates the counter-movement. In Shakespeare, Antony's emergence is superbly dramatic. In Plutarch it is far less so; finding himself safe, Antony treats peaceably with the conspirators, sends his son as a pledge, and asks Cassius to supper, as Lepidus does Brutus. The Senate appoints the conspirators to governorships (Caesar, p. 97; Brutus, p. 127), a gesture which probably suggested in the play Cassius' offer that Antony shall share 'In the disposing of new dignities' (3.1.178). Brutus delivers a well-received oration to the Senate and a coolly-received one to the people, who soon turn restive (Brutus, pp. 125-6). Antony proposes Caesar's honourable burial and the open reading of his testament and over Cassius' opposition Brutus agrees (Brutus, p. 127). This concession Plutarch calls his second error, the first being the sparing of Antony.
Much of this Shakespeare takes over. He ignores the confusing manoeuvres which in Plutarch follow the murder, and instead he caps the conspirators' brief triumph with Antony's rise to dominance as soon as his servant has tested the ground. His Antony, 'a shrewd contriver' indeed, proves a strategic virtuoso, whose bold initiative perhaps originated in a hint in Antonius where (p. 188), praised for stabilizing Rome, and 'hoping … to make himself the chiefest man if he might overcome Brutus', he takes the lead with his funeral oration. Yet mainly here it is Brutus which gave Shakespeare what he needed.
His dramatic intensification is again remarkable. He stresses Cassius' wariness as against Brutus' confidence (3.1.138-46); this alerts us to danger. Then he makes the confrontation tense and strong: his Antony is not Plutarch's ambitious rival of Brutus but the deeply moved lover of dead Caesar manoeuvring in perilous straits and in apparent honesty (as Brutus thinks, though not Cassius) proposing a funeral oration. Shakespeare adjusts Plutarch so that Brutus' two orations (Brutus, pp. 125-6), which in Plutarch are quite unrelated to Antony's, become a single address pre-empting Antony's appeal; Plutarch's sequence of unplanned events becomes a drama of strategies.
After the conspirators have left, before the orations, Shakespeare inserts Antony's monologue to the 'bleeding piece of earth' which is all that physically remains of his friend (3.1.254-75). This is wholly Shakespearian save in that it makes ringingly clear the Caesar theme that the dead hero will dominate the action. Then, just before the orations, Antony recognizes Octavius as an ally (3.1.287-9). Shakespeare ignores Plutarch's account of initial enmity between them (Brutus, p. 132; Antonius, p. 191) though later he shows them at odds (5.1.16-20). No such diversionary concern must impede the two sides' polarization, and its development has to wait for Antony and Cleopatra.
So, immediately after the murder, the play reaches a stronger crisis than Plutarch's narrative, and Antony, hitherto barely noticeable, thrusts to the front. From the moment he enters he is so strongly modelled as to make absurd Brutus' notion that 'he can do no more than Caesar's arm / When Caesar's head is off (2.1.183-4).
For the orations Plutarch gave only bare leads. In quite other connections he mentions Brutus' terse Spartan style and Antony's florid 'Asiatic' one. The former of these surely gave Shakespeare the cue for Brutus' noble economy; Antony's style in the play, eloquent but not florid, arises rather from the challenge of the occasion, on which, to quote Plutarch, 'he mingled his oration with lamentable words, and by amplifying of matters did greatly move their hearts and affections' (Antonius, pp. 188-9; similarly Brutus, p. 129).
Plutarch relates that Brutus, 'with the noblest men of the city', mounted the pulpit to respectful attention (Brutus, p. 126) but he says nothing of his speech's contents. Shakespeare fits the oration admirably to Brutus' intellectual-idealist nature and to what Plutarch calls his 'gravity and constant mind' (Brutus, p. 107). Though so soon eclipsed by Antony's it is deeply moving despite its control, moving not by extravagance but by conviction and devotion. Sometimes thought stiff and cold it in fact gains its hearers' hearts (though not their understandings—as the unwittingly ironic 'Let him be Caesar' indicates: 3.2.50). Shakespeare may have wondered how he could make Antony outdo it.
In Plutarch Antony proposes the honourable burial of Caesar and the public reading of his testament, but this reading is done by an unnamed speaker, and only when this has won the crowd over does Antony start his eulogy. Then, 'perceiving that his words moved the common people to compassion, he framed his eloquence to make their hearts yearn the more' (Brutus, p. 129), showing the gashed gown and body, and stirring up 'such a rage and mutiny there was no more order kept'. His hearers pluck up forms and tables, make a funeral pyre in 'the most holy places', fire the conspirators' houses, lynch the poet Cinna, and scare the conspirators into flight (Caesar, pp. 97-8; Brutus, p. 129; Antonius, pp. 188-9).
Shakespeare's rehandling is faithful yet creative. To maintain Brutus' honourable principles he transfers from Antony to him the proposal for Caesar's funeral rites (3.1.240-1), and whereas in Plutarch Antony seems to have no plan for shaping events until they shape themselves, in the play, with the great revenge monologue behind him (3.1.254 ff.), Antony is clearly determined to turn them his way. It is he who reads the testament. But instead of making this his opening bid he keeps it for his trump card; the crowd is not to be bought over, it is to be swayed by Caesar's heroic life and by grief at his loss. Shakespeare ingeniously rear-ranged Plutarch. For Antony's nostalgic 'That day he overcame the Nervii' (the summer evening, Antony recalls, when Caesar first donned the mantle in which he lies dead), Shakespeare cast a long way back into Plutarch, picking out from a mass of detail a victory hailed as outstandingly memorable (Caesar, pp. 41-2). Antony's stress on Caesar's love for Brutus, so treacherously repaid, draws on scattered Plutarchan instances of affection. Straight from Plutarch are the glimpses of Caesar covering his face as Brutus prepares to stab, his fall beneath Pompey's bloody statue (Caesar, p. 95; 3.2.185-6), and the details of the testament (Brutus, p. 128). But though Plutarch provides the bases, the brilliant strategies by which in the play Antony wins against almost impossible odds, controlling each move until he reads the will to show 'how Caesar loved you', are the inventions of Shakespeare's dramatic imagination.
With the death of Cinna, both Plutarch and Shakespeare signal the onset of anarchic violence. Plutarch follows the murder with miscellaneous anecdotes: Shakespeare cuts right through to the ruthless triumvirs, to show the results of Brutus' idealism. Much he takes closely from Plutarch—Lepidus' consent to his brother's death (4.1.2-6; Antonius, p. 194), the division of the spoils (4.1.14; Brutus, p. 137; Antonius, p. 194), and the bills 'condemning two hundred of the noblest men of Rome to suffer death, and among that number Cicero was one' (4.2.223-8; Brutus, p. 137).
But he drops the nasty fact that, to avenge Cicero's death, Brutus kills Antony's brother Caius (Brutus, p. 137; Antonius, p. 196)—this would gravely blot the Brutus who, in general, is honoured as Plutarch honours him, 'for his virtue and valiantness … well-beloved … hated of no man, not so much as of his enemies; because he … had ever an upright mind with him, and would never yield to any wrong or injustice' (Brutus, p. 139).
It is the more striking, then, that in the great quarrel scene Brutus becomes so self-righteous and inconsiderate, opposing a Cassius who, sorely tried and deeply hurt, earns our sympathy. The episode amalgamates three in Plutarch. In the first, Brutus at Smyrna asks Cassius for funds, having spent 'all that he could rap and rend of his side' (which sounds pretty ruthless): Cassius' men urge him not to hand over resources saved by thrift and 'levied with great evil will', just to let Brutus gain favour with his troops—nevertheless he parts with one-third (Brutus, pp. 140-1). The second story, told later, relates how at Sardis Brutus and Cassius quarrelled privately over mutual grievances and how their followers dared not intervene until, 'with a certain bedlam and frantic motion', an eccentric former friend of Cato the Stoic burst in quoting a tag from Homer, whereupon Cassius laughed and Brutus angrily ejected him (Brutus, pp. 145-6). The third story occurs next day: as at 4.2.54-5 Brutus had 'condemned] and noted Lucius Pella', whom the Sardians had accused of peculation, and Cassius protested that this was uncalled for at so ticklish a time; whereon Brutus 'answered that he should remember the Ides of March, at which time they slew Julius Caesar; who neither pilled nor polled the country, but only was a favourer … of all them that did rob and spoil by his countenance and authority' (Brutus, p. 147).
So strikingly does Shakespeare combine these incidents that, as Johnson observed when he annotated the play, 'the contention and reconcilement of Brutus and Cassius is universally celebrated'. He begins with the third story (about Lucius Pella's corruption), follows this with the first (to explain the quarrel's cause, but he alters it—Brutus has not had the funds which in Plutarch Cassius sends), and lightens its end with the crazy philosopher. So doing, he sharply explores the two men's natures. Cassius is the realist we know—campaigns are not won spotlessly—but what shows up newly is his emotional vulnerability which redeems him from the conspiratorial rigour he has hitherto shown. As for Brutus, he appears disconcertingly; unwilling to raise money 'by vile means' (4.2.123), he wants to share what Cassius has so raised, his rectitude hardening into insensitive obstinacy not apparent in Plutarch.
Then, having shown Brutus so unpleasingly, Shakespeare provides Cassius' grieved surrender to lead to restored affection. Why so alter Plutarch? The answer lies in another, a crucial, adjustment. This is the transference of Portia's suicide from where Plutarch records it (in the very last paragraph of Brutus) to precede the quarrel (though Brutus conceals it). Plutarch makes it seem a sad postscript to Brutus' own death (though if read attentively he indicates that it occurred some unspecified time earlier). Shakespeare redeploys these events to moving effect. The disclosure of Portia's death, at this crucial moment, explains Brutus' unwonted agitation, and the whole quarrel takes on a new dimension. Brutus' rigour is seen as the intolerable overstrain of one who, however self-commanding, is 'sick of many griefs', and Cassius' 'How scaped I killing when I crossed you so?' is a measure of the strain Brutus endures. Sympathies which have swung away from the doctrinaire moralist swing back to the stricken husband, and Cassius too, revealed as vulnerably human, moves towards that dignity of nature which is to be our final impression of him. Shakespeare has revised Plutarch's strong but uncoloured narrative of the quarrel to produce this justly renowned scene with its striking range of emotions, a masterpiece of transformation. Then, in a coda of strange significance, the ghost appears (Plutarch's 'evil spirit'), enhancing our sense of Brutus as the leading anti-Caesarian, even as the kindly exchanges with Lucius, Varro, and Claudius (4.2.289-322) confirm the tenderness underlying the self-command. (Plutarch has no Lucius at all.)
In Plutarch the ghost, though not specifically Caesar's, proves that 'the gods were offended', and Caesar's influence pursues his killers to their doom (Caesar, p. 99). The main source here, though a touch or two comes from Caesar, is Brutus (p. 149), where, reading late, Brutus sees a 'monstrous shape', asks whether it be god or man, utters the precise words Shakespeare adopts ('then I shall see thee again'), and calls up his men, who have heard nothing. So the Act ends, with proof that the conspirators are doomed, yet with Brutus and Cassius restored in our esteem.
As events move towards Philippi they have in the play a somewhat episodic air, and an audience may with reason feel a sense of structural disintegration. Yet Shakespeare did much to give coherence to what in Plutarch is a long episodic story. Plutarch's two battles of Philippi, twenty days apart, resulting respectively in the deaths of Cassius and Brutus (Brutus, pp. 160-5), become two stages of one battle, the two friends dying almost simultaneously, with little more than a hundred lines separating Brutus' eulogy over Cassius from Antony's over Brutus. Into the warriors' defiances (5.1.1-66) Shakespeare concentrates items dispersed through earlier pages in Plutarch—tensions between Antony and Octavius, and reminders of the treacherous cruelty involved in Caesar's murder, of Brutus' error in sparing Antony, of Cassius' age and Octavius' youth, and of Antony's reputation as a reveller. Incidental though these details are, they show how Shakespeare keeps actively in mind the constituents of wide-ranging significances.
Through all the battle preliminaries Plutarch is closely followed (especially Brutus, pp. 150-5)—the unfavourable omens, Cassius' wavering in his Epicurean scepticism, his confessing to Messala that he fights against his better judgement, and the Cassius-Brutus discussion on suicide (where an ambiguity in North's translation results in Brutus' apparent self-contradiction; see the Commentary at 5.1.111). Once the battle begins, almost every line draws on Plutarch; to list particulars would be tedious. What unifies the incidental details is the sense of an ending: Brutus and his friends have misread Rome's political destiny, and error follows upon error. Brutus attacks too early, his troops fail to relieve Cassius, and Cassius, misreading Titinius' mission, hastily kills himself. As 'in his red blood Cassius' day is set' so too 'The sun of Rome is set', the hope of a restored republic. The sword which killed Caesar kills Cassius (a symbolic point transported from Caesar, p. 99), and it kills Titinius too. Twice visited by the ghost, Brutus knows that Caesar is 'mighty yet' and 'turns our swords / In our own proper entrails' (5.3.94-6). And with his last words he seeks to appease with his own death the dead leader's spirit (5.5.51-2). This is all entirely Plutarchan, in detail and atmosphere.
Finally, for Antony's eulogy Shakespeare turned back several pages to where in Brutus
Antonius spake it openly divers times that he thought that of all them that had slain Caesar there was none but Brutus only that was moved to do it as thinking the act commendable of itself; but that all the other conspirators did conspire his death for some private malice.
The last touch of all, the care for Brutus' honourable burial, is credited in Plutarch to Antony (Brutus, p. 172; Antonius, p. 196). The play transfers it to Octavius, the future leader of the Roman world. So both he and Antony, elsewhere unpleasing in their opportunism, are allowed a show of generosity, to end the play with the Roman distinction it calls for.
It has been suggested that for his portrait of Brutus Shakespeare drew not only on Plutarch's Life of him but also on the parallel Life of the Greek patriot Dion, and on the Comparison Plutarch draws between the two. The former possibility is unconvincing; all the traits, strong and weak, in the play's Brutus are in Plutarch's Brutus and there are no real signs that, amply supplied from Caesar, Brutus, and Antonius, Shakespeare also took from the long Life of Dion details already to hand in the others. The Comparison, however, may have helped him; it is brief and compact, and it follows immediately after Brutus. Its resemblances to the play are found also in Brutus—after all, Plutarch is summarizing points he has already made—but their reiteration might focus Shakespeare's attention. The Comparison, like Brutus, stresses that Brutus acted solely for the general good; that his very enemies admitted this; that Cassius' instigations were precipitating causes; that Caesar's influence, even after death, prompted the 'stripling' Octavius to assert his own pre-eminence (a point lurkingly present in the play); that none of Brutus' friends failed him, since either he chose them for their honour or else, chosen by him, they became honourable; and that Antony gave him noble burial. The Comparison alone, however, shares with the play the touch by which both Antony and Octavius honour their dead antagonist. This similarity may show influence; equally, it may result from Shakespeare's own sense of dramatic propriety.
Remarkably faithful though Shakespeare is to Plutarch, his creative originality is no less striking. Plutarch furnished the play's grand strategy and many of its infillings—the main character evaluations, the sense of shaping destiny, and a lucidity of style which suited—even perhaps prompted—the play's 'classical' distinction. But Plutarch's scene is far less clarified, his sense of development far less purposeful, his characterization far less salient, his emotion far less deep, and his writing only now and then raised by that heart-felt nobility which is the play's special quality. Shakespeare leaves out many particulars, to create a plot comprising the conspiracy's rise and fall, and Caesar's bodily defeat and spiritual triumph. As a dramatist must, he sees history as relationships, not only as aims and strategies. Far more than in Plutarch do we sense what the conspirators meant to each other, and to Caesar, and he to them and to Antony, and Brutus to Portia (and indeed to minor figures like Lucius), and Antony to his opponents.
Shakespeare's stories, Johnson was to remark, demand Romans or kings, but he thinks only on men. Caesar himself is the sole figure more Roman or king than man; 'figure' is the apt word, for Caesar is a sequence of poses. Even so, he shows a fine imperiousness, crossed with fallibility; role and man interact in a thoroughly human predicament. As for the rest, Shakespeare vividly filled out what Plutarch drew. Energetic and impassioned, the historical figures of long ago are brought near by speech of assured distinction, the very idiom of noble Romans made flesh and blood. Plutarch, delivered through North, is an able recorder: Shakespeare brings the record to finer and fuller life than one would have thought possible.
Compared with Plutarch other sources are barely perceptible. But certain items would in the nature of things register in Shakespeare's literary and dramatic experience. Caesar's cry, 'Et tu, Brute', a Latin intrusion into the English text, was probably a stage tag. It is not found in any classical writer but Caesar's last words in Suetonius' De vita Caesarum are similar—'kai su teknon' ('you also, my son'); they allude to the rumour that Caesar was in fact Brutus' father. The Caius Julius Caesar added in 1587 to The Mirror for Magistrates draws upon Suetonius and Plutarch; it renders the phrase, 'And Brutus thou my sonne' (1. 383). The anonymous Caesar's Revenge (c.1594; printed 1607) has it as 'What Brutus to[o]' (line 1727). Some such lost play as Richard Eedes's Caesar Interfectus, acted at Christ Church, Oxford, in 1582 (only the Epilogue survives) may have originated the Latin form, doubtless also a variant of Suetonius. The first known occurrence of the tag itself is among the piratical additions to 3 Henry VI in the 'bad quarto' of that play, The True Tragedy of Richard Duke of York (printed 1595); it reads 'Et tu Brute, wilt thou stab Caesar too?' The identical line recurs in Samuel Nicholson's Acolastus his Afterwit (1600); and in Jonson's Every Man Out Of His Humour (1600) Carlo Buffone, threatened by Sir Puntarvolo, cries out 'Et tu, Brute ' (5.6.79). That Shakespeare climaxed the gravest moment of Julius Caesar with it suggests that in 1599 it was a familiar expression but not yet felt as melodramatic or comic cliché.
Appian's Chronicle of the Romans' Wars (as translated by W[illiam?] B[arker?], 1578) perhaps gave something. Around AD 160 Appian compiled Greek narratives of Roman history. His account of the plot against Caesar does not materially differ from Plutarch's though he is more ardently Caesarian, and where there are differences Shakespeare is almost always nearer to Plutarch. Yet in a few details he may reflect Appian, and so in a fuller way may his treatment of Antony's oration. Appian presents the murder as a crime against a friend and benefactor, and against religion and the commonwealth, a crime visited by divine vengeance (all this is in Plutarch too, but expressed less vehemently). As for Antony's oration, Appian's account in general gives nothing not in Plutarch, yet it does elaborate the speech with a passion which might point the way for Shakespeare. Antony is portrayed as hymning Caesar as a god, 'holy and inviolate, father of the country, benefactor and governor, … direct[ing] his countenance and hands to Caesar's body, and with vehemency of words open[ing] the fact'. Mixing 'pity and indignation' he commends the crowd for honouring Caesar's corpse, vows vengeance, girds his gown round him 'like a man beside himself, with raised hands rehearses Caesar's victories and booties (see 3.2.88-89), turns from the theme of triumph to lament a dear friend 'unjustly used' while the people join in 'like a choir', and with 'most vehement affections' shows Caesar's body and gashed robe, speaking as if Caesar himself were accusing his killers of treachery and ingratitude. The crowd runs wild, tears Cinna to pieces leaving 'not one part to be put in grave' (see 3.3.28-35; Appian's Cinna, however, is a tribune, not a poet), fires the Senate House, and makes a funeral pyre. The oration in Appian has none of the brilliant ironies so conspicuous in the play, and its contents differ considerably from Shakespeare's version; but it certainly anticipates Antony's intoxicating tone, though there is none of the phrasal identity so notable when Shakespeare is following Plutarch. Whether Appian was an influence is uncertain but the consonance of spirit at this high point of the action is interesting.
Possibly, too, something came from the anonymous Tragedy of Caesar and Pompey. Or, Caesar's Revenge. Acted at some unknown date at Trinity College, Oxford, and printed in 1607, it belongs in style to the early or middle 1590s. It covers far more ground than Julius Caesar, extending from Pompey's defeat at Pharsalia to the conspirators' fates at Philippi, where-upon, having periodically appeared as Chorus, Discord rejoices, and Caesar's ghost, having thrice haunted Brutus, celebrates his revenge. Though most of its resemblances to Shakespeare's play are traceable to Plutarch, certain common features are not entirely Plutarchan. After Calpurnia's bad dreams Caesar bombastically resolves to meet the Senate, until ill auguries dissuade him; in Plutarch he takes alarm from the start. As he goes to the Capitol, a well-wisher proffers a scroll of the conspirators' names: in Plutarch this vaguely contains 'all that he meant to tell him'. On Caesar's death Antony enters with an impassioned monologue on his greatness, the horror of his killing, and the theme of vengeance; nothing in Plutarch corresponds. Discord recurrently invokes the infernal powers, as in Shakespeare Antony summons Ate 'hot from hell'; again Plutarch gives no lead. The ghost foretells to Brutus that 'Thine own right hand shall work my wished revenge', as in Shakespeare both Cassius and Brutus recognize the dead man's power presiding over their suicides; and in both plays Titinius kills himself with Cassius' sword. On these two points Plutarch is less clear, though he does observe that Caesar's 'fortune' pursued his killers to death and that Cassius killed himself with the sword that killed Caesar, and he could be misread as saying that Titinius slew himself with the same sword (Brutus, p. 161). None of this amounts to certain evidence. Shakespeare may have seen the earlier play in manuscript but there is nothing to prove it. To find the events of Julius Caesar treated by an aspiring but undistinguished contemporary is interesting, but there are no convincing signs of Shakespearian indebtedness.
No less doubtful are other proposed 'influences'. Writing Henry V shortly before Julius Caesar, Shakespeare may have found in R. Grenewey's translation of Tacitus' Annals (1598) the idea of the general's incognito night-watch among his men (as in Henry V 4.1); did he also follow Tacitus in presenting an Octavius thrusting to the front of Roman politics? Perhaps, but the trait is much clearer in Antony and Cleopatra, and in any case is deducible from Plutarch. Did Shakespeare cast an eye on Kyd's Cornelia (1594), from the French of Jacques Garnier? If so, he could find, among many less relevant matters, that Caesar's ambitions would endanger Rome, that Cassius would shed his blood for Rome's sake and his own freedom, that Brutus' ancestral traditions should stir him against the dictator, and that Caesar combines vaunting rhetoric with a desire for Rome's welfare, with heroism in peril, and with a preference for fame over long life. Yet all these could readily come from Plutarch. It has been argued that Kyd's dialogue between Cassius, eager for Caesar's death, and the hesitant Brutus (Cornelia 4.1.1 ff.) closely anticipates their discussion in Julius Caesar (1.2.25 ff.) and that Shakespeare's Cassius, 'fiery yet shrewd, envious of Caesar yet full of a genuinely patriotic passion for liberty', owes much to Kyd's, whereas 'only the barest hints are suggested by Plutarch'. But Plutarch makes clear Cassius' zeal for liberty and his powers of instigation, and sources need not be multiplied beyond what is necessary. Shakespeare may have known Cornelia, but that it gave him anything not already to hand in Plutarch is unproven.
As for the portents preluding Caesar's murder (in 1.3 and 2.2), most are in Plutarch—thunder and lightning, fire-charged tempest, slave with flaming hand, men parading in fire, ghosts, 'bird of night' hooting at noon in the market-place ('solitary birds': Caesar, p. 86), comets, sacrifice without a heart, and Calpurnia's dreams. Shakespeare interweaves others. Their precise source is uncertain since they are a general stock-in-trade, but three classical poets who treat of Caesar's death offer parallels. Ovid in particular, a favourite author with Shakespeare, has firebrands in the air, clouds dripping blood, a screech-owl (more specific than Plutarch's 'solitary birds'), armed warriors in the skies, howling dogs (in Shakespeare, neighing horses), and earthquakes (Metamorphoses, xv. 787-98). Lucan's Pharsalia, i. 522-82, along with several items shared with Plutarch and Ovid, has ominous birds and wild beasts (in Shakespeare, a lion prowling (1.3.20) and lioness whelping (2.2.17)). Virgil's Georgics, i. 466-92, along with features shared with the others, has thunderbolts. If Shakespeare wished to save himself trouble, Ovid was available in Golding's translation (1567)—which he certainly knew—and Lucan in Marlowe's (though this was in manuscript until 1600). From whatever source, such things were vivid in his mind, to be used again (open graves, wandering ghosts, meteors, and bloody rain) in his next tragedy, Hamlet.
Shakespeare and Roman Values
'Shakespeare fully submits his imagination to the great idea of Rome', Harley Granville-Barker commented, writing on Julius Caesar in his Prefaces to Shakespeare. Does he really? Critics have differed. According to Nahum Tate, introducing his tragedy The Loyal General (1680), Shakespeare 'never touches on a Roman story but the Persons, the Passages, the Manners, the Circumstances, the Ceremonies, are all Roman'. Dryden, as reported by John Dennis in a letter to Richard Steele (26 March 1719), thought Coriolanus 'truly Roman', and Pope considered Shakespeare 'very knowing in the customs, rites and manners of Antiquity. In … Julius Caesar, not only the Spirit, but Manners, of the Romans are exactly drawn.' Thomas Rymer, on the other hand, in his Short View of Tragedy (1693; p. 148), derided Julius Caesar as absurdly below Roman dignity and thought that it 'put [Brutus and Cassius] in Fools Coats'. For Dennis, the mob in Coriolanus was an affront to 'the Dignity of Tragedy … and the Majesty of the Roman People' and that in Julius Caesar a regrettable 'Rabble'. In the nineteenth century Edward Dowden questioned whether Shakespeare was ever as concerned about corporate life—for instance the conception of Rome—as about the natures of individuals; yet in the twentieth Granville-Barker himself thought that, impressive though Shakespeare found 'the great idea of Rome', he left his Romans a little bloodless, acting by set forms rather than as fully realized persons, and the American critic Mark Van Doren similarly judged that Shakespeare's Romans 'express their author's idea of antiquity rather than his knowledge of life'.
So what Tate, Dryden, and Pope admired, the 'Romanness' of Shakespeare's Romans, has to other critics seemed not wholly convincing, whether as to their Romanness or to their full humanity. Even Johnson, though defending Shakespeare from the charge that he created stereotypes, found himself 'not much affected' with the play except in the great quarrel scene. These Romans, one may feel, spend so much of their time in discussion and speech-making. Caesar enunciates positions as if a god; the rest of them debate, as by second nature, perpetually announcing their attitudes to life. Compared with Ben Jonson's 'tedious though welllaboured Catiline' or 'irksome' Sejanus, Julius Caesar is alive; compared with Shakespeare's English histories is it a little over-decorous, holding the mirror up to a dignified selection from Nature rather than to her full vitality? Yet what non-Shakespearian play on a Roman subject can approach it?
That a Roman subject meant something important to Shakespeare is incontestable. One readily surmises 'that Shakespeare knew what he was doing in writing Roman plays; that part of his intention was a serious effort at representing the Roman scene as genuinely as he could, … producing a mimesis of the veritable history of the most important people (humanly speaking) who ever lived'. In the same spirit one can agree that Julius Caesar 'is full of romanitas, of an imaginative awareness of the unique greatness of Roman power, even in crisis, and of what it must have been like to be at the vortex of that power and to help to exercise it'.
What was this unique greatness? Roman history offered some of the most impressive themes available to the Renaissance, an era when political lessons were ardently sought in antiquity—themes such as despotism and republicanism, strong rule good and bad, the stable and unstable realm, scrupulous and unscrupulous motives, the relations between rulers and subjects (particularly the populace), and so on. What, in general, Roman history presented was Roman arms triumphant abroad, and the Roman state stormily evolving at home. Faced in their own lands with intestine divisions, Renaissance scholars noted with awe the extent and continuity of Roman power, and with keen curiosity the contentions within Rome itself. They found in Livy, Caesar, Cicero, Suetonius, Tacitus, Lucan, Appian, and others the record of Rome's rise to greatness and her turbulent continuance in it. Titus Andronicus, as has been mentioned, with its violence and changes of fortune, accords more with Renaissance views of Roman metropolitan history than do the grandeurs of Julius Caesar, but once Titus Andronicus was left behind Shakespeare's sense of Roman history, under Plutarch's influence, breathed a different air, offering formidable conflicts—as in Coriolanus—but doing so on a grand scale and with an air of heroic dignity.
Shakespeare surely intended his Roman plays, like his English political ones, to be 'always a genuine piece of history'. What did it mean for him to treat a Roman scene? To the Elizabethan, it has been said, a sense of greatness came naturally, and Rome was undeniably great. In The Ruins of Rome, which Spenser translated from the French of Du Bellay, the city is
Renown'd for fruits of famous progeny,
Whose greatness by the greatness of none
But by herself her equal match could be.
'Rome was th'whole world, and all the world was Rome' (Sonnet 26). Kyd's Cornelia abounds in heroic Roman patriotism; Caesar celebrates his conquests and aspires to immortal fame (4.2.25, 93-7, 134-9), and his enemies invoke against him 'our honours and our ancient laws' (5.1.126). Shakespeare's 'god-like Romans', as Dryden was to call them in the prologue to AurengZebe (though in fact they are more human than that), reflect this sense of high pitch, its virtus, its self-command, and its gift for noble utterance. The concluding speeches of both Julius Caesar and Coriolanus, identifying heroism, virtue, and fame, relate to 'the composite heroic image, language, and style' of classical epic. Characters strike impressive attitudes of body and mind, conforming, as Cleopatra was to say, to 'what's brave, what's noble, … the high Roman fashion', and making death proud to take them.
The Roman code presented bracing conceptions to which the noble Roman would be true. Though it meant his living up to the heroic image and, like Caesar and Brutus, fitting himself to a conscious role, it need not make him an automaton, though if carried in literature to an extreme it could result in the stereotypes of Senecan or neo-classical fashion. When less extreme it could produce the demigod stances of a Caesar or Coriolanus. But more sympathetically upheld it pointed towards an admirable distinction. Introducing his History of Rome Livy reflects on the Roman ethos:
So great is the military glory of the Roman People that when they profess that their Father and the Father of their founder was none other than Mars, the nations of the earth may well submit to this … No state was ever greater, none more righteous or richer in good examples, none ever was where avarice and luxury came into the social order so late, or where humble means and thrift were so highly esteemed and so long held in honour.
Those, at least, were the early-republican virtues from which, Livy laments, later corruptions diverted the Roman state; his stress is on the older traditions. When in The Merchant of Venice Bassanio characterizes Antonio he does so in terms of 'the ancient Roman honour' (3.2.297); when in 2 Henry IV Falstaff writes to Hal he aims to 'imitate the honourable Romans in brevity' (2.2.118)—it is 'honourable' that springs to his mind; when in Henry V Fluellen defines military virtue his ideal is 'the pristine wars of the Romans' (3.2.76); when Horatio tries to follow the dying Hamlet he proclaims himself 'more an antique Roman than a Dane' (Hamlet 5.2.333); and so on. Throughout North's Plutarch the word 'noble' sounds recurrently, often for prowess in war (virtually restricted in Coriolanus to valour and patrician dominance yet still a word of glamour, even if haughty glamour), but often carrying also the sense of moral beauty—Brutus, for instance, in words Shakespeare follows closely, prays 'that he might be found a husband worthy of so noble a wife as Portia' (Brutus, p. 119). When in Julius Caesar Brutus proves 'the noblest Roman of them all' this is because of his 'general honest thought' for the public good, his 'gentle' (that is, generously ethical) life, and the equipoise of his temperament.
Such nobility means that one is above self-indulgence. As Rome's early-republican values wane, Caesar is supported by the sensual Antony and opposed by the spare Cassius, who hears no plays and loves no music—an imbalance in him towards the excess of restraint, as Antony's sensuality is an imbalance towards its defect. Whether austere or well-tempered, the true Roman seeks his country's well-being, to gain which Brutus will seek honour and death 'indifferently'. The Roman ideal, exalting liberty and fraternity, does not—unlike that of the French Revolution—include equality (though with high-minded vagueness Brutus offers the uncomprehending citizens 'a place in the commonwealth'; 3.2.42); patricians and plebeians are separate classes, yet meant to harmonize in the well-tuned Roman state. This is like the interdependence of 'high, and low, and lower, … in one consent' which Exeter lauds in Henry V (1.2.180-1). At the patrician level the crux is whether Rome's ruler is first among equals or an autocrat; an authoritarian emperor and obsequious populace flout the traditions. In Jonson's Catiline (5.1.8-19) Petreius, campaigning against the tyrant Catiline, urges his soldiers to defend the Romans' ancient free honour:
to retain what our great ancestors,
With all their labours, counsels, arts, and
For us were purchasing so many years.
… for your own republic,
For the raised temples of the immortal gods,
For all your fortunes, altars, and your fires,
For the dear souls of your loved wives and
Your parents' tombs, your rites, laws, liberty,
And, briefly, for the safety of the world.
The Roman achieves his highest selfhood through public service—in war or government or both. In either sphere, in victory or defeat, in life or death, he has one aim—honour: it is the subject of the Roman story, as of Cassius'. It is a concept Shakespeare had already evaluated. Hotspur had extravagantly idolized it, Falstaff as extravagantly derided it. Henry V, coveting it only as the heroic leader of his band of brothers, had truly embodied it. In the English histories honour and glory are frequently objects of aspiration; in the Roman ones they are the presiding values, coupled with the idea of the noble, a word ranging from the self-assertion of a Coriolanus to the disinterested idealism of a Brutus. For Cassius, honour is the autonomy of the man 'born free as Caesar' and refusing to obey the flat of another. 'Believe me for mine honour' is Brutus' appeal to his hearers. And even Antony's derision of the 'honourable men' has a curiously elevating effect. Though, as Antony insists, the deed which the conspirators think 'honourable' is in fact shocking, and though save for Brutus their motives are mixed, yet a kind of bracking high-mindedness presides over the conspiracy, as, in later plays, over the career of Coriolanus and over that side of Antony which struggles against Cleopatra. In one light the conspiracy is a shady affair activated by self-persuasion and personal antipathy, with a shrewd contriver, Cassius, manoeuvring a scrupulous patriot into a dreadful act. But Julius Caesar does not feel like that. The conspirators' lofty aims, if ambiguous in the mouths of Cassius and Decius, have in that even of the sardonic Casca a true ring (1.3.118-20), and to the revived Ligarius they promise 'Any exploit worthy the name of honour' (2.1.318). So often is the Roman ideal of virtue mentioned that it becomes a colour-filter giving a high quality to acts in themselves dreadful. It is this quality, of high human distinction whatever failings the characters may have, that, as has been mentioned, puts the Roman plays into the Hegelian tragic category where good struggles not with evil but with incompatible good—republican virtue with imperial efficacy in Julius Caesar, heroic leadership with civic justice in Coriolanus, disciplined duty with erotic fulfilment in Antony and Cleopatra. The esteem earned by honour is not that of Hotspur's bravado, it is that deserved by courage, patriotic service, moral straightness, self-sacrifice when needed, constancy, and indomitableness.
The effects are striking. In these Romans there is much to admire, indeed to like. Yet, however they touch the heart by nobility of sentiment, and moving though their fates are, they remain at a certain small distance, not intimately known as Hamlet, Lear, and Macbeth are known (Othello may, in his different way, be analogous to them as the noble alien). And what they find out about themselves in the tragic action is not some new moral dimension, a discovered world within, but how their code enables them to face success or failure. 'In the process of achieving a maximum of loyalty and devotion from its citizens, Rome restricts their access to wisdom, especially to self-knowledge' [Paul Cantor, Shakespeare's Rome, Republic and Empire, 1976]. That is the weakness of any code, yet its strength also, the acceptance of a form through which the individual disciplines himself, guided by what is expected and making his life a work of art as well as of nature. Brutus, his less friendly critics say, ends as he began, the man of virtue not doubting his motives or judgements or actions, gravely assured that more glory will accrue to him 'from this losing day' than his foes will win by their 'vile conquest', and consoled that no man has been untrue to him—the pure example of the means sibi conscia recti. His code protects him from self-scrutiny. Yet the result is stirringly impressive, as indeed, granted greater qualifications, it is with the other characters. The Brutus of Plutarch, 'having framed his manners of life by the rules of virtue and study of philosophy, and having employed his wit, which was gentle and constant, in attempting of great things' (Brutus, p. 102), stands as a model for the others. The Brutus of Shakespeare, largely cleared of such blemishes as Plutarch still admits in him (ingratitude to Caesar, rivalry with Cassius, Caesar's doubts about him, and his killing of captured slaves), lives and dies by the best of Rome's ethics, so humanized that Johnson, asking the notable question 'What should books teach but the art of living?', might have had him in mind.
To the extent that Shakespeare's characters recognize what, as Romans, is expected of them, or what they expect of themselves, they look and sound like Romans. But they also look and sound like human beings. The sense of high pitch, honour, valour, and integrity is still that which we recognize in real life, and Shakespeare has again pulled off the feat of giving his personages a local habitation and a name—the great name of Rome—while yet, in the dramatic tensions this involves them in, making them convincingly human. Brutus knows what it is to be a virtuous republican, yet in deciding to act he goes through a phantasma or hideous dream. Cassius is the shrewd manipulating politician of old Roman faith, yet he yields to Brutus' moral prestige and proves poignantly vulnerable in his feelings. Even Caesar, behind the grand poses, has evident signs of the mortal man. Though Shakespeare makes us conscious of a formulaic ideal, his characters present the dilemmas of life.
Politics and Morality
What pointers does the play offer as it presents its Roman action? The first and fundamental point of attention is the antithesis between republican 'virtue' and imperial 'tyranny', both words in inverted commas since neither is a clear-cut case. Republican 'virtue' is blemished in a way which idealizations of 'liberty' ignore. Cassius on principle hates an overlord, yet much of his utterance suggests the 'envy of great Caesar' which motivates all save Brutus. Brutus kills in moral muddle, and he stands on his spotless principles while expecting to share in Cassius' extortions. His followers revere freedom, yet they misread Rome's prospects and are redeemed only by the dignity of their deaths. As for 'tyranny', that amounts merely to Caesar's imperiousness; Brutus himself admits his moderation, and only in Cassius' hostile bias are Plutarch's accusations of violent ambition reflected. Caesar is by turns grand, arrogant, pompous, fallible, genial, dignified, and (in his will) generous. His overthrow proves to be sacrilege. The second question the action poses is that of personal morality under political pressure, of private conscience under partisan strain.
The play bases itself on ambiguities, the central one being the ambiguity of Caesar, demigod and fallible man, monopolist of power yet the essential axle of Rome's wheel. The tenor of Shakespearian histories, English or Roman, suggests a Shakespeare sharing his countrymen's instincts for the settled order of society, constituted authority being revered as long as it serves its subjects' needs for justice. The conspirators cry out for 'Liberty, freedom, and enfranchisement', but this has really little graspable content. They equate the rights of all with their own senatorial dignities, and their 'pity for the general wrong of Rome', though nobly felt, directs itself to such 'wrong' as they feel about the infringement of their prerogatives. Caesar's authority and popularity are in fact Rome's safeguards, and the generosity his will reveals does more for the common good than does republican idealism. The symbolism of the storm, which Cassius takes for proof of Caesarian violence, is actually a supernatural warning of chaos to come; as Sir Thomas Elyot observes in The Governor (1531; 1. ii), 'the best and most sure governance is by one king or prince, which ruleth only for the weal of his people'; contention for power 'bringeth all to confusion', as Caesar's murder is so fatally to do.
Nevertheless, the republican side is treated sympathetically, and the play can be taken as endorsing Brutus, a martyr for those liberties which are every man's birthright. Always in Shakespeare political attitudes stem from personality, and in Julius Caesar the conspiracy takes its tone mainly from Brutus, who aspires to turn politics into ethics. As for Cassius, he figures in Plutarch as choleric, cruel, and, though always a hater of'tyrants', moved less by idealism than by jealousy of Caesar. But Shakespeare develops him from the shrewd intriguer to the emotionally sensitive and brave ally in a doomed cause, not incongruously mourned by Brutus as 'The last of all the Romans'. Whatever the political rights and wrongs of the situation, it is for most readers the republican cause which moves the heart.
If the play offers the figure of Caesar as its major ambiguity, it is only following centuries of tradition. 'The mightiest Julius' (Hamlet 1.1.114) presented a classic case of ambivalence. His extraordinary abilities, the enigma of his intentions, and the motives of his assailants were and are matters of inexhaustible interest. From his own time onwards there was no agreed view on these matters save that he was, as Brutus recognizes, 'the foremost man of all this world' (4.2.74), whose destruction at the climax of his power was the most stupendous reversal of fortune imaginable. Cicero and many others admired his abilities yet feared his ambitions. Dio Cassius' Roman History balanced his pride and clemency evenly, attributing his faults largely to his flatterers and his murder to a 'baleful frenzy' which seized his enemies through envy of his power. Sallust, a beneficiary of his patronage, praised him for opposing senatorial corruption during the Catiline conspiracy and began the process of glorification which was to develop strongly: Gaius Velleius Paterculus, for instance, who had served in his wars, lauded him as being of divine descent and as one 'whose soul rose above the limits of man's nature'. On the other hand Lucan's Pharsalia supported his rivals Pompey and Cato and looked on him as a restless force of destruction. Plutarch is remarkable for the pros and cons he offers. In Caesar's favour are his eloquence, his courage and leadership in war, his mercy to opponents, and his popularity gained through courtesy. Against him stand his ambitious unscrupulousness and 'his covetous desire to be called king [which] made him mortally hated': yet, Plutarch admits, only 'an absolute Prince' could now govern Rome, and, this being so, his assassins were punished by the relentless gods. 'Shall Rome stand under one man's awe?' Cassius asks. Plutarch would answer that she could not do otherwise. Lucius Florus in his Epitome of Livy thinks back admiringly, like Livy, to republican days, yet he admits that Rome could only be ruled imperially; he praises Caesar, blames Brutus and Cassius. Appian highly honours Caesar, whom the Romans did 'fear as a lord, and honour … as a merciful minister', who even promoted those who had fought against him. His dismissal of the tribunes, Appian admits, caused suspicions of tyranny since their office was holy; yet his killers destroyed 'such an officer, as never was the like, so profitable to all men and to his country and empire'. As for Brutus and Cassius, Appian leaves open the interpretation of their motives—'either for envy … or, as they said, for the love of their country's liberty'. Appian offers a dual theme, of Caesar's great nature and deeds, and of Brutus' and Cassius' lofty aims blemished by their ill-judged deed to one who had been magnanimous.
So, by the end of the classical epoch, 'the main features of the chief characters in the fall of the Republic were well established … The ambivalence found in Cicero and developed by Plutarch affected the whole Caesar tradition.' The great protagonists each displayed two contrasted aspects—Caesar the heroic leader and fine orator, kind and clement, yet ambitious and on occasion ruthless; Brutus the noble patriot, yet guilty of killing his benefactor and misinterpreting Rome's needs; Cassius the ardent republican, yet cunning and harsh; Antony the sensualist, emerging from indulgence to vindicate Caesar, yet relapsing through his infatuation with Cleopatra.
Medieval and Renaissance views were similarly varied. In popular tradition Caesar was the world conqueror, one of the Nine Worthies, and for his murder Dante consigned Brutus and Cassius to the lowest circle of Hell (Inferno, xxxiv. 61-6). In Orosius' Historia adversus Paganos (c. AD 500), his killing is stigmatized as a crime; Chaucer in The Monk's Tale (B3885-900) deplored his murder by 'This false Brutus and his othere foon' and Lydgate followed suit (The Fall of Princes, vi. 2862 ff.). Petrarch, though in his Trionfi exalting the republicans, in De Viris Illustribus condemned Brutus and Cassius as ungrateful and treacherous. Shakespeare's early views were favourable to Caesar, unfavourable to his opponents. On the other hand many Renaissance sources idolized Brutus, and for John Stow's Chronicle (1580) Caesar was 'the most ambitious and greatest traitor that ever was to the Roman state'. Often the same writers urged views for and against each side. As Plutarch had done, they stressed Caesar's value and dangerousness, Brutus' virtue and misjudgment. Montaigne highly praised Caesar yet offset his virtues with the superhuman ambitions which brought disaster to his country. Elyot's The Governor likewise takes Caesar as an example of the great leader in war and peace (I. xvii, xxiii, II, v), yet in time becoming 'radicate in pride' (II. v), inordinately ambitious, and the subverter of 'the best and most notable public weal of the world' (III. xvi). As for Brutus and Cassius, Elyot admits their 'excellent virtues' yet sees their deaths as 'convenient [i.e. appropriate] vengeance for the murder of so noble and valiant a prince' (III. vi). The Caesar of the 1587 Mirror for Magistrates not unnaturally laments the 'cruel bloody deed' against his 'noble heart' and takes his killers' deaths as proofs of Jove's justice, but then he recognizes that he was guilty of pride and tyranny and himself fell by Jove's will. And William Fulbecke's The Continual Factions … of the Romans (written 1586, printed 1601) admits that Caesar was an oppressor, yet condemns Brutus for political assassination.
The variety of views sampled above—and others could be added—has been well documented. It was reflected in the many plays which treated the Caesar story, starting with Marc Antoine Muret's Latin Julius Caesar of 1544 which provided a model. In it Caesar boasts his power and conquests, Brutus and Cassius kill him to restore liberty, and his ghost foresees doom for his killers and fame for himself; admiration and sympathy are accorded to both sides and fairly balanced in the choric commentaries. Similar ambivalences recur, for instance in Jacques Grévin's Julius César (1561), Jacques Garnier's Cornélie (1574) which Kyd translated, the anonymous Caesar's Revenge (c.1594?), and Sir William Alexander's Julius Caesar (1604). The dual traditions on both sides, of great leader and ambitious braggart on Caesar's, and of virtuous republican and misguided killer on Brutus', are the seemingly incongruous elements which Shakespeare so strikingly made to coalesce. And he allows both sides to end with distinction. However faulty, Brutus and Cassius restore themselves after their quarrel; however fallible in life, Caesar in death is a majestic influence; however shocking the proscriptions, Antony and Octavius rise to magnanimity after their victory—Antony particularly, yet Octavius too unless his final speech is cynically misinterpreted.
Despite its apparent straightforwardness Julius Caesar reveals many subtle shadings and implications. The range of response runs all the way from Dowden's 'In the characters of Julius Caesar there is a severity of outline; they impose themselves with strict authority upon the imagination', to Wilson Knight's insistence in The Imperial Theme on 'a brilliant erotic vision which sees a flaming spirit in history, in action, in man' [E. Dowden, Shakespeare, His Mind and Art, 1875]. The truth lies between these extremes. The Roman scene has something of 'strict authority', something too of 'erotic vision', but Dowden's view, unqualified, makes it too frigid, Knight's, unqualified, too emotional (though it does well to stress how often the participants express loving attachments to each other). Within the impressive decorum of Roman conduct there are passionate impulses, and the result is a presentation of Roman life as both disciplined and ardent.
To pass to the second aspect: if such is the play's balance of political consideration, what of its moral bearing, that 'imaginative statement about something of permanent importance, … the connexion between observable events in the public world and their causes in the deeper places of personal life'? [L.C. Knights, 'Personality and Politics in Julius Caesar', in Further Explorations, 1965]. Any such 'statement' can only be implicit, integral to the action. No one gives as much choric guidance as do Enobarbus in Antony and Cleopatra or various commentators in Coriolanus. There are brief pointers to judgement—Caesar assessing Cassius, Brutus admitting Caesar's impartiality, and Antony eulogizing the dead Brutus (his oration over Caesar, despite its memorable truths, is highly tendentious)—but moral evaluation is deducible only from the whole context. The main moral idea, the relationship between the public and private roles of those in power, is one already prominent in Shakespeare's English histories; it is the more evident in Julius Caesar, since romanitas firmly prescribes the public image controlling the private conduct. The implicit 'statement' (that political good cannot flow from moral evil) is still a clear by-product of Roman behaviour, though capable of wider relevance.
The question that so much role-playing provokes—and romanitas inevitably prescribes role-playing—is how far the roles limit the humanity which makes up true personality, how far distort the moral and understanding nature. How far does partisanship, even when high-minded, blind its practitioners to true values? Politics, like morals, should further humane relationships, and the moral tragedy framed within the political is that the two great leaders can form affectionate relationships yet allow imperious superhumanity on the one side and virtuous republicanism on the other to provide the formula for disaster. Caesar, the demigod, elevates himself into those images of bird of prey, colossus, lion, northern star, and Olympus which seem to justify his assassination. Brutus, prompted by family tradition and his own reputation, betrays the love which unites him and Caesar and supplants what he knows with what he theorizes about his friend. As for Cassius, encased in his affronted senatorial prerogatives, he can see only the Caesar of his prejudices. His fellows adopt the libertarian slogans of their upbringing as eternal truths. The opportunist Antony, on the other hand, unconditioned by conceptions of himself, and deeply moved by Caesar's death, adopts every pose his strategy calls for. Octavius, too, reveals no discrepancy between person and persona; he does not so much play a role as identify himself with what the situation requires. When politics takes over, humanity fades. But then Antony and Octavius are not caught between ambiguous situations. Caesar, Brutus, and Cassius are involved in a deep commitment to the welfare of Rome and a histrionic sense of how to fulfil it, histrionic in the sense that they act out their conceptions. This is apparent in almost every line from Caesar. As for his opponents, they see themselves as 'heroes of an archetypal drama' [John Anson, 'The Politics of the Hardened Heart', Shakespeare Studies 2: 1966]: Brutus urges his partners to bear themselves 'as our Roman actors do'; Cassius imagines future ages reenacting 'our lofty scene' (3.1.112).
Yet to be too admonitory over the restrictions of romanitas would falsify our sense of the play. Whatever the strains imposed by the high ideas they form of themselves these Romans are figures of moving power, often noble in utterance, and accompanied in their falls by our grieved admiration for aims so intended for the general good. Throughout the English histories Shakespeare had shown himself
profoundly impressed, in a way the modern artist is seldom impressed, with the essential relation of the individual to that larger society which is called a nation; and with the influences which a man's feelings towards the community can have upon his whole life and character [E. de Selincourt, English Poets and the National Ideal, 1915].
This concern, explored poignantly in Richard II, triumphantly in Henry V (if with some shadings), is the groundwork of Julius Caesar. The 'nation' is less intimately felt than in the English plays, yet devotion to Rome promotes in her champions a courageous largeness of spirit; within this there is ample room for the warmth of attachments which time and again stir the heart. If implicitly Julius Caesar warns against the doctrinaire, or theories which supplant true knowledge, yet its human affections and dignities raise morality into wisdom and the Roman idea to moving distinction.
The Play's Style
The style is lucid and vigorous; the Roman world asks for temperate magniloquence, practical enough for real life in real locations (public walks, gardens, Pompey's Porch, Capitol, market-place), spirited for argument or the surge of action, uncomplicated and honourable, a style in which men firmly command their utterance, and words like 'virtue' and 'noble' have their full value. Styles which in Shakespeare's English histories had been strong and urgent, and in the comedies richly melodious, combine and temper these qualities to exactly what the Romans need, an unhurried cogency borne on fluent and assured rhythms with 'a limited perfection, … an impression of easy mastery and complete harmony, but not so strong an impression of inner power bursting into outer life' [A. C. Bradley, Shakespearean Tragedy, 1904]. Yet if the strenuous pressures of the histories are generally (not always) forgone in favour of a dignified directness, yet the style is the perfect vehicle for the elevated character, orderly plot, and decorous tone so evident in the play. It is in a degree intellectual, with 'a philosophical air which … manifests itself not only in the judicious citation of "saws" and "common proofs" but also in the extraordinary orderliness of the whole' [Richard David, The Janus of Poets, 1935]. It looks predominantly clear and disciplined. Yet it is more than that: it can be passionate and picturesque, strong and direct certainly but also emotive, richly suggestive, and insistent in its drive. Along with 'philosophical' qualities there is a personal expressiveness, a perpetual presence of the human voice. Even the arguments are persuasions, coloured by temperamental appeal.
As presented through their historians and Plutarch, disciplined public speech and resonant cogency were the signs of the Romans' distinction, their badge of status. The predominant style of Julius Caesar is that of fine public address. Even when delivered privately it expounds, however sympathetically. The similes and anecdotes with which it enlivens its meanings are clear, illustrative analogies. What strikes the ear from the start is the exact balance between meaning and metre, the flow and adjustment of sense within line, and the unforced undulation of speeds and rhythms as though swing and poise were the most natural things in the world. Indeed, from these speakers who need seldom struggle for their meanings they are natural. This might be called 'rational lyricism', 'rational' in that firm ideas readily available are its content, and 'lyricism' in that the sense lithely recognizes the sway of the metre. From the moment when Marullus reproves the celebrating citizens, the lines sound with supple and living dignity. His words run almost to stanzaic phasing, the ideas not bursting out individually but offering themselves in coherent summations. As, reconciled, Brutus and Cassius contemplate the prospects of the battle (5.1.93-126), their manner, gravely courteous, bravely poignant, thoughtfully decisive and semi-oracular, is the central note of the play, the speech not of supermen but of a noble mortal race. The style has often the decorum of natural art, modulated by deep feeling; the thought and emotion, felicitously at one, give the verse spirit yet remain harmoniously contained within it.
The unforced patterns of phrasing show how well, with skill which is second nature, the speakers verbally command their strategies—'command their strategies' because they are so often exercising modes of persuasion. The patterns are not those of show but of ideas evolved with intelligent order. Thus Cassius urges Brutus on, persuading him to emulate his forebears (1.2), Brutus instructs his allies (2.1), Portia pleads with him (2.1), Caesar enunciates his flats (3.1, and elsewhere), Brutus and Cassius press their quarrelling arguments and later discuss battle strategy (4.2). Finally, brief though it is, Antony's eulogy over Brutus (5.5.69-76) has the same methodical lucidity as, line by line, it defines its subject's qualities. This controlled vigour of suasion reaches its climaxes in the orations of Brutus and Antony, that of Brutus so formed and formal, in wave-like successions of Euclidean sequence, that of Antony, its opposite in spirit and intention, yet equally controlled in balance and measure, trying position after position on its hearer's minds.
The passion of Antony's oration points to an essential quality in the play, the warmth of its feelings. But other aspects of clarity and assurance need mentioning first. One is the cogency which comes from characters who know their positions and formulate them indomitably. Caesar's mode consists of little else; with majestic resonance, grand or grandiose, it formulates, determines, pronounces, so that his mere 130 lines loom large through finality of meaning measured out with semidivine authority. In a different tone but with equal decisiveness, when Brutus expresses his Roman resolution (e.g. 1.2.82 ff., 162 ff.) there is a spare Wordsworthian strength (that, say, of the Ode to Duty), a selection of the language really used by men, purified from the commonplace and sounding with disciplined resonance. Brutus develops this manner in the great speech against oath-taking, public utterance inspired by enlightened resolution. In quieter, graver mood, but with like uncomplicated firmness, Portia invokes the spirit of Cato to vouch for her integrity.
This style can express arrogance but seldom does it sound mere bombast, the besetting fault of much 'classical' drama in English; the characters generally have too much integrity merely to make heroic noises. Caesar comes nearest to it, equating himself with the northern star, yet he does genuinely express the height of imperial objectivity, and his absoluteness sounds splendid. He may impose upon himself, yet it is with an ideal which, as Caesar, he ought to live up to. He is sometimes guilty of the thrasonical, but his general note is that of lofty majesty. To attack him is to attack the voice of Rome's imperial will and power.
Many devices of style convey the sense of status. Developing them,
Shakespeare was not 'following' anyone but 'growing' the kind of speech-manner that seemed right to the dramatic occasion, that would set these noble Romans apart from ordinary mortals to act their scene on the stage of history. The relatively bare and austere manner, more Latin than Latinate, is one of the ways in which Shakespeare, like Plutarch, turned the generals and politicians of history into noble heroes of an ideal antiquity.
Characters adopt the third person, for themselves or their addressees, as if they were autonomous human objects, the name standing for the individual. Status-ridden though this habit is with Caesar (damagingly so), the effect elsewhere is of characters living up finely to an ideal of themselves. To be 'Brutus' or 'Portia' or 'Cassius' is to stand for what the name represents. Indeed, names have a talismanic value; one should be what one's name implies since it is a proudly borne badge of worth, individual rather than individualistic, honoured for integrity. Then too there are the suasive devices of oratory, apostrophes, declarations, rhetorical questions, persuasions: speakers steer their utterance purposefully.
It is, up to a point, 'a direct and manly play; and one filled with straight talk' [J. I. M. Stewart, Character and Motive in Shakespeare, 1949]. Yet it is more complex than a sequence of speakers unambiguously seeking to impress others. Not infrequently through the apparent confidence there show strains of the self persuading, even the obsessive. Characters sway others by what they urge; equally, they sway themselves or, having already done so, show by tendentiousness the irrationality they are censoring from themselves. Cassius, cogent though his criticism of Caesar is, colours every expression with the tones of prejudice, and his obsessions, so compellingly enforced (to himself as well as to Brutus), betray through his insistence the jaundice of his judgement. Brutus argues himself into conviction that Caesar must die, yet beneath his self-persuasion he senses that the case is dubious ('Fashion it thus') and develops specious metaphors to validate the threat he hypothesizes from Caesar and his conviction that the murder will be a sacrifice. Caesar hypnotizes himself by self-idolizing diction, 'talking himself into consistency' amid his vacillations by verbal ruses which impose on himself. These are the ironies of incomplete self-knowledge. Shakespeare's Romans, however concerned to be rational, are human enough to use rationality as a mask for assumption, and this shows by many a slant of diction, stress, or tone. 'Honesty to honesty engaged' is the ideal of their behaviour and of their address, but the inevitable ambiguities behind the openness make for interestingly conditioned expression.
This is not the diversion from the matter of style which it may seem. Varying 'the dilemmas … set out with Roman clarity, Roman simplicity' there are pressures evident in such qualities of utterance as grandiloquence, excitability, high-mindedness, irritation, or (as with Antony's oration) tendentiousness. These shadings are effectively catered for by the way the written word demands the speaking voice. The varying tones of reproof, command, reserve, indignation, insistence, and the rest are all but audible from the page. The out-standing examples are the orations of Brutus and Antony, but speech after speech dictates its character of expression. To say this is to say the obvious: Shakespeare is the most expressive of dramatists, and dramatic writing is writing for the voice. Yet the play is often discussed as if it were formal and deliberate in its speech styles whereas hardly a line lacks temperamental nuance. Even Brutus' hesitation while he deliberates, subdued in tone though it is, has the speech poise of his adjudicating nature. To take the other extreme, while he and Cassius quarrel every word rings with acrimony or distress. The wide range of expressive styles should dispel any idea that Shakespeare sacrificed dramatic idiosyncrasy to romanitas. Everyone speaks a living idiom.
Nevertheless, Julius Caesar stands out among Shakespeare's plays as unelaborated in style, and this presumably suggests a 'Roman' air. Often, even when most impressive, it is very little figurative, depending rather on cogency of pronouncement, modulated rhythm, and speech tone. Some of Caesar's great utterances, such as that beginning 'Cowards die many times before their deaths' (2.2.32 ff.), make their effect by aphoristic directness as plain as a Doric portico. Once Brutus has finished exhorting his fellows (2.1.190) the rest of Act 2 has little imagic or metaphoric colour. The servant who enters as Antony's ambassador speaks finely but plainly (3.1.123 ff.), though this is not to say that his lines, hinting at significant action and strategy, and charged with thematic words ('noble, wise, valiant, and honest, … mighty, bold, royal and loving, … honour', and so on), lack dramatic life. What follows between Antony and the conspirators is a clear display of their positions, given spirit on both sides by expressive tone and rhythm. The riveting effect of Brutus' funeral oration results from the integrity of its manner and the pithy semantics of its phrasal balances. Such speeches, short or long, resound with spirit but do so by plain and direct means.
Yet there is much also of vivid picture and stimulating image. Little is abstract or generalized; Shakespeare abounds in sensory effects. Scores of details, untouched by Jonsonian deliberation, create the Roman scene, its trades and homely life as well as its public policies, its ceremonials and processions and flourishes of music as well as its swarming and excitable citizenry on stage or off, seen in their throngs, heard shouting for Caesar, or evoked by picture and allusion as once they hailed Pompey and now crowd after their new hero, or flee in panic, or rise in mutiny. Human moods, behaviour, and bodily or facial expressions are flashed on the mind's eye—the populace vanishing tongue-tied in guiltiness; Brutus neglecting the show of love once so evident to Cassius or, with himself at war, inwardly vexed; Caesar with the pallid lips of fever or the angry spot glowing on his brow; Cassius lean and seldom smiling; Portia intimately describing Brutus' abstraction, and he admitting 'All the charactery of [his] sad brows', and so on repeatedly. One may reverse Dryden's comment and say that when he describes anything 'you more than feel it, you see it too'. There is much vivid narration of off-stage events—the triumphs of Pompey, the Tiber swimming-match, Caesar spurning the crown 'with the back of his hand, thus', as the populace cast up their sweaty nightcaps, Casca and Calpurnia describing the portents of doom, Antony re-creating the murder of Caesar (which he never in fact witnessed); the list could be long. Actions are metaphorically rendered—Cassius holding before Brutus the mirror of self-recognition, or working Brutus' 'mettle', or whetting him against Caesar; Brutus sitting high in all the people's hearts, or urging a cause to steel melting spirits with valour, or refusing to stain the even virtue of their enterprise. Body and spirit are in vivid relationship; Romans are thewed like their ancestors yet degenerate in mind; the genius and mortal instruments within Brutus are in rebellious council; bodily and spiritual Caesar can equally be dominant; no earthly bounds 'can be retentive to the strength of spirit'. Such evident points should not need labouring, but they are often ignored in talk about stylistic austerity.
Within its prevalent clarity the play is strikingly picturesque. Time is made real, the historic past by vivid reminiscence, the present and future by frequent intimations—hours, days, dates, the Ides of March, clocks striking, appointments, rendezvous, what the morrow will bring, and how future ages will view the present action or shed glory on Brutus' 'losing day'. The tides in the affairs of men are dynamically felt. There are climatic and atmospheric colourings, night fearful with storm, apparitions and exhalations, dawn with grey lines that fret the clouds on the fatal day, the blood-red sun setting on Cassius' life and the conspirators' defeat. There are lively vignettes from the natural or mythical-natural worlds: Caesar as falcon, as wolf to the Roman sheep, as lion preying on hinds, yet in his vanity fooled with fables of deluded unicorns, bears, or elephants. In the subversion of order a lion 'glaze[s]' before the Capitol, owls hoot by day, a lioness whelps in the market-place, horses frenziedly neigh, and the heavens themselves blaze forth the death of princes. These details come mostly from Plutarch, Virgil, or Ovid, yet they are fresh on Shakespeare's page, re-created through the narrators' excitement, figuring not as melodrama but as supernatural symbolism of the calamities to follow. Blood likewise figures symbolically in many guises—the blood of noble race, the lifestream of heroic figures, the guarantee of Roman quality, the warmth of the heart, the enriching or shocking evidence of Caesar's death (whether as sacrifice or butchery), blood metaphorical or physical. There is in fact a great deal which presents the play's meanings in lively sensory form.
So to limit the play to an ordered dignity is to ignore its throbbing pulse, its variegated colour. It is animated with feelings which, however under command, play against 'philosophical' decorum. At one pole it shows the Roman ideal of self-mastery, at the other, the vitalities which that mastery cannot repress. As Pope would put it in An Essay on Man (i. 165-70),
Better for us, perhaps, it might appear,
Were there all harmony, all virtue, here; …
But All subsists by elemental strife,
And Passions are the elements of Life.
Shakespeare's Romans are human, and of humanity passion is a deeper power than reason.
Last Updated on May 5, 2015, by eNotes Editorial. Word Count: 14231
Norman Sanders (essay date 1964)
SOURCE: "The Shift of Power in Julius Caesar" in A Review of English Literature, Vol. 5, No. 2, April, 1964, pp. 24-35.
[In the following essay, Sanders traces the movement of political power in the play, arguing that Octavius regains the power formerly possessed by Caesar.]
It has frequently been noted that Julius Caesar has a special atmosphere which sets it apart from both Shakespeare's other Roman plays and his tragedies in general. Many critics have seen this atmosphere, in the main to be a product of the distinctive style that Shakespeare fashioned for the play. T. S. Dorsch, the play's most recent editor, has suggested that the language is 'in keeping with the gravity and dignity traditionally associated with the Roman character', and instances the clarity and simplicity of the speeches, the comparative lack of humour, and the relative absence of highly descriptive poetry. All this is true, but the appropriateness of the style goes further than this. Julius Caesar is a play of which the impact is predominantly intellectual; even in the theatre the characters' thoughts and actions demand judgement rather than strong emotional sympathy. In addition, it is also a 'masculine' play—the only one in the canon apart from Henry V in which the female principal has no leading role: Portia and Calpurnia are severely functional and exist dramatically only in relation to their husbands. At the centre of the piece is the interaction of the male principals thinking and acting in a context where political power in its public and personal manifestations is the dominant influence. From one point of view the play may be regarded as a dramatic essay on the nature of such power, its characteristic features, and the motives of the men of widely different tempers who seek to manipulate or harness it.
To write such an essay Shakespeare has taken a moment in history when the power inherent in a great civilization is released by a shift of control, and there ensues the basic political pattern of chaos sandwiched between two effective authorities. In selecting Rome as his subject he was free to consider his theme divorced from national allegiance, monarchic preconceptions, and any traditional prejudice rooted in the subject itself on both his own behalf and that of his original audience. There was, so far as we know, no orthodox Elizabethan view of Caesar and the conspiracy against him; in the Republican Eternal City, Shakespeare was free to consider political power itself.
In the opening of the play the power of Rome is effectively in the hands of a single individual—Caesar. The immediate introduction of the mob with the undertones of fickleness and irresponsibility, and the rebellious attitude of the Tribunes stress certain aspects of the power that Caesar holds. At the same time the mob's response to Flavius and Marullus illustrates the possibility of control; for, with the knowledge of a status quo represented by Caesar, the citizens of Rome can be sent packing like naughty children. The way in which Marullus voices his antagonism implies a consciousness of Caesar's position:
And do you now strew flowers in his way
That comes in triumph over Pompey's blood?
[The Works of Shakespeare, Sir A. Quiller-Couch
and J. Dover Wilson, eds., 1921, (I.i. 54-5)]
And Flavius reinforces the impression in the final lines of the scene:
These growing feathers plucked from Caesar's
Will make him fly an ordinary pitch,
Who else would soar above the view of men
And keep us all in servile fearfulness.
The scene also achieves two other effects. It gives the audience one direction from which antagonism to Caesar can derive, thus preparing them for the central conspiracy and broaching the theme of a shift of power. More important, in showing the Tribunes' allegiance to the dead Pompey, the scene reminds us of the previous moment when the power of Rome was in the balance, that the coming two hours' traffic of the stage is but a single episode in the march of history, and that the status quo which, in different ways, both the mob and the Tribunes accept has a similar transience.
The public figure of Caesar implied in the first scene is reinforced by his appearance in the second, and the audience's sense of expectancy is rewarded. In the twenty-four lines following the entrance of Caesar up to his exit to attend the Lupercalian Games, nothing is done to detract from the Caesarean image. It is significantly Casca who isolates Caesar's words: 'Peace, ho! Caesar speaks … Bid every noise be still'; and Cassius who takes up his tone: 'Look upon Caesar.' There is no indication that there is any irony in Casca's officiousness; indeed, such public sycophancy is perfectly consistent with his subsequent posturings as cynic, his superstitious fear in the strom scene, and the classic position of cowardly betrayal from which he strikes Caesar. Antony underlines Casca's and Cassius' deference by a similar use of the third person: 'When Caesar says "do this", it is performed'; and Caesar himself acts out the Caesar image in either brief commands or absolute judgments: 'Speak, Caesar is turned to hear … Set him before me, let me see his face … speak once again … He is a dreamer … pass.' He, no less than the others, uses the name Caesar in a way that divorces it from its possessor, and endows it with an objective power. In this short scena Shakespeare has gone some way towards equating the word and the man in his public capacity with the power of Rome.
In the Brutus-Cassius duologue that follows, the idea of Caesar is used at two levels. The name is still the potent force divorced from the man, and it is Cassius who makes first mention of 'immortal Caesar'. In Brutus' mouth it is linked with absolute rule and the plaudities of the mob. Throughout Cassius' narration of the swimming episode it carries the idea of the public figure even while it is being set against the personal weaknesses of the man. The very attempts at denigration are submerged beneath the grandeur of the Caesarean idea: we hear the recital of the epileptic sick girl and the spent swimmer calling out for aid, but it is the god whose 'tongue … bade the Romans Mark him and write his speeches in their books', and who bestrides the world like a Colossus, that catches the imagination. Even when the name itself is seized upon by Cassius to be sounded with that of Brutus to prove its lack of inherent verbal magic, what emerges for the audience, if not for Brutus, is the fact that Caesar is grown so great. Up to this point, then, the power of Rome and Caesar are synonymous both for characters and audience alike.
In making Caesar the physical repository of political power for the first three acts of the play, and its symbol until the final scenes, Shakespeare was faced with a problem; and his solution to it has plagued critics of the play ever since. To depict a figure of legendary greatness, one of the nine worthies with whom even the groundlings would have been familiar, Shakespeare needed to make a dual impact—that of the man and that of the idea. Caesar had to be credibly a name to conjure with, and an acceptable holder of political power; but, as the mise en scene of the play is Rome, he had also to appear to the other characters as primarily a human being, albeit an extraordinary one. In other words both the immediate Julius and the wider Caesar had to be portrayed. Shakespeare solved this problem basically by showing Caesar on the stage mainly as a man with his share of human weaknesses, but conscious of and, in part, living through his Caesar image; and by suggesting the traditional stature in an implied verbal acceptance of it by some, or a reaction against it, amounting almost to an obsession, by others.
Up to his death the political Caesar we see is in keeping with his reputation. On his return from the Games after his epileptic fit his masterly analysis of Cassius' character is that of an astute politician. His treatment of the Soothsayer is a consummate piece of play-acting, particularly if what Cassius says of Caesar's growing superstition of late is true. When before the mob at the Games, he also indulges in the histrionics of popular leadership that are expected of him. The theatrical image in Casca's sour account of Caesar's behaviour is perfectly appropriate and an indication of Caesar's political acumen:
If the tag-rag people did not clap him and hiss him according as he pleased and displeased them, as they use to do the players in the theatre, I am no true man.
For, if the naked power of Rome in the play is symbolized by the mob, then Caesar's politically skilful dramatics are a measure of the sureness of his control. It is noticeable, too, that the only politician among the conspirators comparable with Caesar, Cassius, makes use of devices of the same kind to seduce the noble Brutus only thirty lines further on:
I will this night,
In several hands, in at his windows throw,
As if they came from several citizens,
Writings, all tending to the great opinion
That Rome holds of his name …
The party set against Caesar is altogether more confused as a political unit. Cassius, almost in spite of himself, accepts verbally Caesar's present position. Even in his spleen, he weighs the Colossus Caesar against himself as a 'wretched creature, and must bend his body If Caesar carelessly but nod on him'. He questions only Caesar's human, and more specifically physical, weaknesses and confuses these, as many critics of the play have done, with the man's qualities as a politician. Such a man as Cassius, driven as he is by an obsession, must act. But in order to make the assassination practicable, to turn a personal grudge into a political reality, he must have the aid of a man like Brutus.
Alongside Cassius, Brutus emerges as an uncertain thinker whenever thought must lead to action, as it always must in a political context. He is idealistic, fully conscious of his own worth, and of the connotations of the name he bears. As John Palmer has well expressed it:
His convictions required him to take the lead in a political conspiracy which, for its success, called for great agility of mind, a deft and callous adjustment of means to ends, acceptance of the brutal consequences which attend an act of violence, and insight into the motives of men less scrupulous and disinterested than himself.
Brutus is ultimately contrasted with the other conspirators in that he alone did what he did not in envy of great Caesar; he alone is aware of the responsibilities of power, and is genuinely puzzled about the uncertain future, and the possibilities of his own and Caesar's actions:
How that might change his nature, there's the
It is the bright day that brings forth the adder;
And that craves wary walking … Crown
And then, I grant, we put a sting in him,
That at his will he may do danger with.
Th'abuse of greatness is when it disjoins
Remorse from power.
Throughout this speech Brutus moves continually away from the immediate application of such thoughts to Caesar to general principles (a characteristic mode of thought in the non-active man): from Caesar crowned to the usual behaviour of those who achieve greatness, from the possible sting in royalty to the certain poison of the adder, from the proven truth of Caesar's non-swaying affections to the common proof of the abstract lowliness which has climbed ambition's ladder, and from the supposition of Caesar as the embryo serpent to the actuality of the dangerous reptile. By 'fashioning it thus' he moves from a quarrel which will 'bear no colour for the thing he is' to the decision to prevent 'lest he may'. For Brutus, politics are ideals, abstractions, concepts and traditional values; they are never actions, save, of course, the fatal one he takes in the play.
Brutus, therefore, unlike Cassius, is not striking at an infirm human being who holds the reins of power, but at an idea, or rather the physical manifestation of a possibility. It is thus appropriate that it is to him that the ghost of Caesar appears, for it is he who wished he 'could come by Caesar's spirit, and not dismember Caesar'. The difference between the two conspirators is one that is underlined throughout the play, even at the moment when they kill themselves. Cassius is to assert to the end Caesar's physical reality and his own:
with this good sword
That ran through Caesar's bowels search this
Caesar, thou art revenged,
Even with the sword that killed thee.
Brutus, on the other hand, harks back to Caesar's unquiet spirit:
Caesar, now be still:
I killed not thee with half so good a will.
Once Brutus has thrown in his lot with the conspirators on the basis of generalities and an uncertain frame of mind, the force that is to destroy the controller of Roman power is shown for the divided thing it is. On the one hand Cassius' essentially destructive politics seek to extend themselves to include Antony; on the other Brutus shows some inkling, though an imperfect one, of the responsibilities of the power they will inherit as the destroyers of its holder. At the assassination itself it is Brutus who is seen to kill Caesar finally both in verbal and visual terms, and this is appropriate, for on one level he is the effective leader of the conspiracy; but more complexly, only in Brutus was Caesar mistaken, a basic error of judgement implied in the last words he speaks. This miscalculation on Caesar's part is surely too a reflection of Brutus' personal error in decision; and errors of this kind are beyond the understanding of politicians and within that only of poets.
As soon as the murder is committed, the inadequacy of Brutus' leadership, and, by implication, the flaw in his thinking, are immediately apparent. His rooted uncertainty shows itself in his seizing on Casca's surely ironic platitude as a means of excusing his action:
Casca. Why, he that cuts off twenty years of
Cuts off so many years of fearing death.
Brutus. Grant that, and then is death a benefit:
So we are Caesar's friends, that have abridged
His time of fearing death.
Similarly, his ineptitude as a leader manifests itself in stagey impracticalities and showy ritual:
Stoop, Romans, stoop,
And let us bathe our hands in Caesar's blood
Up to the elbows, and besmear our swords:
Then walk we forth, even to the marketplace,
And waving our red weapons o'er our heads,
Let's all cry 'Peace, freedom and liberty!'
This rapid mental leap from sticky reality to abstract concept is of a piece with his garden meditations.
Yet the power rests with the conspirators for but a short time; indeed, it is slipping from their grasp even as they stand round Caesar's corpse. This shift is heralded by a stage direction, 'Enter a Servant to Antony', which appears at the moment Cassius has persuaded Brutus into positive action:
Cassius. Brutus shall lead, and we will grace
With the most boldest and best hearts of
Brutus. Soft! who comes here? A friend of
The decision to act is thus transformed by Brutus' weakness and Antony's persuasion into the permission for Antony to speak at Caesar's funeral. But Antony's political drive is as negative as was the conspirators'; he is able to promise the dead Caesar not a usurping or harnessing of the conspirators' power, merely a destruction of it:
Domestic fury and fierce civil strife
Shall cumber all the parts of Italy;
Blood and destruction shall be so in use,
And dreadful objects so familiar,
That mothers shall but smile when they
Their infants quartered with the hands of war;
All pity choked with custom of fell deeds.
The power which Antony threatens to wrest from the conspirators does not, however, pass into his own hands, and Shakespeare hints at yet another shift of power to come by the use of the same device as he had used one hundred and fifty lines earlier, namely the entrance of a servant—in this case that of Octavius.
In the oration scene, the power of Rome is in effect unharnessed, a fact which is stressed by the importance given to the mob, and the way in which both Brutus and Antony feel the need to explain themselves to it. The fickleness and irresponsibility suggested in the opening scene are taken up and reiterated in stronger terms, and the mob's powder-keg potentialities illustrated. Brutus makes no attempt to seize the power that has been wrested from Caesar by death. His speech to the crowd is really an extension of his earlier self-excusing; but in this case this impression is due not so much to the subject matter of what he says as to the form of expression he employs. The reiterated positive assertion is the giving of offence rather than Caesar's evil potentialities, the awareness is of his own violation of friendship rather than its necessity, and the final note is his readiness to sacrifice himself with the same dagger.
Antony in his oration also never attempts to attract the power of Rome to himself. Rather, what he does achieve by verbal means is what the conspirators did physically in the case of Caesar: that is, to deprive someone else of power. On the symbolic level Antony is in fact delivering the power of Rome back to the source from whence Caesar had it—to the Romans themselves; or in dramatic terms, into the hands of the mob. There is a double irony in Antony's designation of the crowd as Caesar's heirs: they are the heirs to Caesar's power indeed, and their use of it is
Revenge! About! Seek! Burn! Fire! Kill! Slay!
But even as the mob goes out, another hint of the ultimate control of the unchecked power they represent is given as Octavius' servant again enters to inform Antony of his master's presence in Rome.
For a single scene we see the power of Rome in its nakedness. The crowd that in the first scene of the play were goodhumouredly dismissed by the Tribunes now tear to pieces an innocent poet who happens to have the same name as one of the conspirators. In the last production of the play at the Royal Shakespeare Theatre, Stratford-upon-Avon, the point of this scene was brought out well in theatrical terms. The elevated area, which had acted as both the throne on which Caesar was murdered and the rostrum for Antony's oration, was also employed as the site of Cinna's death. As the crowd moved away, the poet's body was left draped like a sacrificial offering on both Caesar's and Antony's altar.
In the scenes immediately following we see the behaviours of the two parties competing to secure the power that Antony has released. The Triumvirate are uneasily grouped. Antony's role in the play as the mover of power rather than its possessor is again stressed: even as he had condemned Brutus and Cassius by the use of his tongue, so does he Lepidus. His denigration of the latter as 'a slight unmeritable man, Meet to be sent on errands … a barren-spirited fellow … a property' as effectively damns Lepidus as a sharer of the three-fold world divided, as his proscriptive spot does his own sister's son. Set against this disunity is the greater one in the camp of the conspirators. Each is individually disqualified from the possession of authority by personal weakness; neither has the necessary public face nor the political acumen to submerge their differences beneath a created one. They quarrel like children over the question of precedence, lose their tempers and gesture with a theatricality similar to that which they begrudged Caesar. Cassius is forced once again to back down to Brutus for a last time, and their final weak decision is taken.
It is obvious, by the beginning of Act V, that the power of Rome is moving into the hands of Octavius. Up to this point the indications have been only slight, but now the shift is underlined at many levels. On the personal level Octavius asserts himself wilfully against Antony in lines which bear the authentic Caesarean note:
Antony. Octavius, lead your battle softly on,
Upon the left hand of the even field.
Octavius. Upon the right hand I; keep thou
Antony. Why do you cross me in this exigent?
Octavius. I do not cross you; but I will do so.
On the verbal level also the two Caesars are merged: in the Billingsgate before the battle, the word 'Caesar' is mentioned nine times in some forty lines. Sometimes it applies to Julius and sometimes to Octavius, and once is made to apply ironically to both at the same time. Antony sets the pattern with
No, Caesar, we will answer on their charge.
This is the first occasion he has addressed Octavius in this way. In his next speech he refers to Julius in the same terms:
Witness the hole you made in Caesar's heart,
Crying 'Long live! hail, Caesar!'
and the name chimes three times through his next six lines. Octavius takes up the cue and refers to his uncle and to himself:
I draw a sword against conspirators;
When think you that the sword goes up again?
Never, till Caesar's three and thirty wounds
Be well avenged, or till another Caesar
Have added slaughter to the sword of traitors.
In the final exchange between Brutus and Octavius the verbal drawing together is made ironically complete:
Brutus. Caesar, thou canst not die by traitors'
hands,… Octavius. So I hope;
I was not born to die on Brutus' sword.
It is possible, too, that this verbal effect is indirectly connected with the appearance of the ghost to Brutus and its promise 'thou shalt see me again at Philippi'. Even as the battle is about to commence Cassius makes a final suggestive equation between the two Caesars in a line which also looks back to the first scene:
Be thou my witness that, against my will,
(As Pompey was) am I compelled to set
Upon one battle all our liberties.
At the end of the play a single figure is virtually in control. Antony, in his role of verbal manipulator, is allowed to speak Brutus' epitaph, but it is Octavius who realizes that the body of the one idealist among the conspirators is a valuable political property now the life is fled. Thus Brutus' bones shall be used according to his virtue, with all respect, and lie within Octavius' tent. The cycle of control-opposition-chaos-control has worked itself out, echoing the pattern of every political change. And, as with such patterns in life, the emerging figure who exemplifies the final control is powerful and enigmatic, and one whose possibilities lie still within the womb of time.
Richard Henze (essay date 1970)
SOURCE: "Power and Spirit in Julius Caesar," in University Review, Vol. XXXVI, No. 4, June, 1970, pp. 307-14.
[In the following essay, Henze identifies the primary power struggle in the play as the conflict between Caesarism and Republicanism.]
In Shakespeare's Julius Caesar, Brutus tells the other conspirators that they will "stand up against the spirit of Caesar, / And in the spirit of men there is no blood" (The Complete Works of Shakespeare, George Lyman Kittredge, ed., 1936, II.i. 167-168). Then Brutus kills Caesar in order to get at that spirit, but the spirit survives the onslaught, inflames the mob, brings on civil war, and finally enters Brutus's tent at Sardis, and says it has become Brutus's "evil spirit." Caesar's spirit becomes Brutus's evil spirit—it changes its abode—but it does not change in symbolic value. The ghost, I suggest, represents power, the major force in the play, a force divided, with two sides at war with each other; it is a force that destroys Caesar, Cassius, and Brutus, and it promises continued conflict between Antony and Octavius.
Some critics feel that the political implications of the play are ambiguous; others declare that there are no political implications at all. Virgil Whitaker, like J. E. Phillips, considers Caesar the hero struck down by rebels who prevent the establishment of divine monarchy in a corrupt country. Irving Ribner, on the other hand, considers Caesar "an adventurer who, by force, has replaced another adventurer, Pompey"; Ribner believes that Caesar more nearly destroys the noble Roman republic than Brutus murders a divinely ordained king. I feel that neither of these views is exactly implied by the tragedy.
One conflict quite clearly develops between what we might call Caesarism and Republicanism, but Caesar alone does not destroy the noble Roman republic any more than Brutus saves it. Rather, the republic was destroyed before Caesar—even before Pompey. Caesarism is the result of that destruction. The cause lies within the nature of a republic itself, within the people who do not wish to have a republic and who utter a great deal of stinking breath, as the author says, crying for a Caesar. They make a republic impossible and a Machiavellian political structure inevitable.
The larger conflict in the play is not between Caesar and Brutus but between the two sides of the force of power. One aspect of power is that each man desires power over others. Caesar would be king; the tribunes would pluck feathers from the wings of Caesar; Brutus would decide who shall live and who shall die for the sake of Rome; Cassius would kill the weakling who cried in a fever. The commoners would burn and kill. Each man in the play, and by implication every man, desires power.
The other side of power is the need of each man to surrender to some force greater than himself. The commoners would worship Caesar; the tribunes would worship Pompey. Cassius, who cares not how low he is so long as others are no higher, nevertheless places Brutus higher. Cassius is the better conspirator, but because Brutus would have Antony live, Antony lives. Cassius is the better soldier, but because Brutus would fight at Philippi, Cassius dies at Philippi. The very power that Cassius cannot tolerate in the hands of Caesar he willingly surrenders to Brutus.
The opposing sides of power are presented immediately in the play in the conflict between the tribunes and the commoners, and the movement of the first scene is in miniature the movement of the play. The tribunes try, as Brutus does, to temper one man's power. They think that Caesar, when some feathers "are plucked," will fly nearer to earth. But the plucking is itself an act of power, a tribute to the spirit of Caesar.
Flavius and Marullus, like Caesar and then Brutus, are "put to silence" (I.ii.289) by a superior power that flies his turn near the sun. Flavius and Marullus fail because the commoners are determined to give Caesar power, to surrender to him. Rome can never be "free" because the people do not wish it to be free. They are, as Marullus says, blocks and stones, "worse than senseless things." Antony's opposing cry later that the people are not blocks or stones already possesses its ironic opposite.
The cobbler is attractive enough alone, or with a few of his holiday friends; but the cobbler in a mob is no longer so likeable. The mob will have what it likes; as Casca says later, the "tagrag people" will clap or hiss as they please (I.ii.261-263). The mob likes to give power to whom it chooses and, paradoxically, demands the power to surrender itself to its choice. The cobbler makes holiday "to see Caesar and to rejoice in his triumph" (I.i.35-36). He will have his hero; he rejoices in having him. Yet, if that hero is deposed, he will immediately accept another. The name does not matter to a commoner: Pompey, Caesar, Brutus, Antony, Octavius; whatever the succession, one will replace another.
As Cassius tells Brutus, if one conjures with names, '"Brutus' will start a spirit as soon as 'Caesar'" (I.ii.147). Brutus sees that power corrupts; he does not, however, anticipate the vacuum that the death of Caesar will create and that the mob will fill with another man whom the spirit of Caesar possesses. The cobbler will not weep purifying tears for Pompey, nor will he weep for Caesar or Brutus. Instead, the cobbler will react violently—burning and murdering—until another hero appears and orders him back to work. Such are the men that Brutus would save from Caesar.
The commoners demonstrate that the day of Caesarism is at hand, that Brutus's republican idealism will probably fail. With the seduction of Brutus by Cassius and Brutus's surrender to the temptation of power the failure is assured. Brutus asks Cassius, "Into what dangers would you lead me, Cassius,/ That you would have me seek into myself/ For that which is not in me?" (I.ii.63-65). The nail is his squarely. Cassius is leading Brutus into the danger of Caesarism—the exertion of power over others. Cassius would have Brutus strike the blow, exercise the power, that will make Brutus another Caesar.
Brutus would not seek that which he thinks is not within him, but the irony is that within Brutus too is the spirit of Caesarism—the ability to use power callously—for which Cassius serves as a mirror to "modestly discover to yourself / That of yourself which you yet know not of" (I.ii.69-70). Ironically, Cassius is a better mirror than he knows, for he also has the need to give someone power over himself. If Brutus were to see truth in the mirror, he would see the futility of killing one half of Caesar; "with himself at war," (I.ii.46) he should recognize the conflict within all men between the desire to control destiny for other men and the need to recognize some force to control oneself. But Brutus, the idealist who gives no thought to how another Caesar can be avoided, who never questions anyone's motives, who continually considers himself reasonable, lacks such practical vision.
Cassius, on the other hand, is eminently practical. He knows how to commit murder, knows how to select his confederates, knows how to influence other people in such a way as to lead them to do just what he is leading them to do. And Cassius for the most part succeeds in his aims. He cares not at all for Rome; he cares only for his own status. He wants to lower Caesar, and he succeeds. He fails finally because he is not Machiavellian enough, because he cares for Brutus and allows Brutus to make decisions that Cassius knows will bring trouble.
Antony, the one who most nearly succeeds in this play, practices Cassius's sort of political craft better than Cassius does. He is even more cunning, more expert in hypocrisy and indirection, and he is more practical. He has no difficulty convincing the butchers other than Cassius that he is "meek and gentle" (III.i.255), and, although he is shocked and angry at the death of Caesar, he remembers to warn Octavius to avoid Rome until he tries "In my orations how the people take / The cruel issue of these bloody men" (III.i.293-294). Perhaps one implication of the play is that, in this world of men who are stones and blocks, cunning practicality gets one much further than does idealistic vision.
Cassius, aware of the need to be a hypocrite, easily wins over Brutus with emotional leading (the same technique that Antrony uses on the mob) as he appeals to Brutus's patriotism and pride of name and family:
Well, Brutus, thou art noble; yet I see
Thy honourable mettle may be wrought
From that it is dispos'd …
For who so firm that cannot be seduc'd …
The devil proves his point; all men are but men after all—except for Cassius himself; "If I were Brutus now and he were Cassius, / He should not humour me" (318-319). But Cassius is like other men too; Brutus does influence him. Cassius, like Brutus, is unaware of the other side of power: that after Cassius proves himself superior to Brutus, he must surrender himself to Brutus nevertheless. He has the power to free himself from bondage to Caesar by killing Caesar, but from all bondage the only escape is death. Life, "weary of these worldly bars, / Never lacks power to dismiss itself" (I.iii.96-97); but the very act of power that brings complete liberty is itself a surrender—the absolute, ultimate surrender to death. I have such power too, says Casca, "So every bondman in his own hand bears / The power to cancel his captivity" (II.iii.101-102). Men are at some times masters of their fates, but if complete mastery is, finally, the exertion of power by surrender to death, such mastery is pretty empty.
Brutus decides to exercise his mastery. He wants to return Rome to freedom, but it is to be his own particular brand of freedom. He is the one to have the power to decide when a general is attaining too much power and should be killed—murdered sacrificially, but murdered nevertheless. Brutus's attack on Antony's morality, on Caesar's power, later on Cassius's ethics, all stem from his belief that he is the oracle with the vision whereby other men must live. He never, not even at the moment of his death, recognizes that his is a tyranny no less damaging to freedom than is Caesar's.
Mary Louise Berneri, in Journey Through Utopia, calls every visionary political scheme authoritarian in that the creator of the scheme is his Utopia's highest power. Even Thomas More's Utopians are only as free as More allows them to be. No one may travel in Utopia without permission; punishment for disobedience is slavery. Everyone has to work when and where the state decides. As Thomas More perhaps jokingly said, one of the pleasantest dreams was that of himself as the ruler in his own utopia. Brutus's dream, while not formally Utopian, is much the same.
Yet Brutus knows that he has no personal reason to destroy Caesar, and even "the general" reason is somewhat shaky, for Caesar has not yet proved himself a tyrant. "He would be crowned," Brutus decides, and how that will "change his nature, there's the question" (II.i.13). But this is not the question. The question is whether Caesar's death through a brutal use of power will change the nature of Brutus and of the Rome that he thinks he represents. Brutus, not Caesar, is disjoining remorse from power and abusing greatness. Caesar may be ambitious, but one cannot murder all potentially ambitious men. Brutus's argument, instead of proving that he ought to murder Caesar, should prove that he ought to be very wary about murdering Caesar. He has the power to get Caesar murdered. The question is how that power might change Brutus's nature.
Brutus disjoins the personal realm from the general political realm and constructs a separate code of ethics for each realm. To pose as a friend in the personal realm when not a friend "The heart of Brutus yearns to think upon" (II.ii.129). But to murder a possible tyrant in the political realm, even though he be a friend, is matter of "good cheer" (III.i.89). Brutus, as well as Cassius, fails to recognize that the two realms depend on one another, that the death of human feeling in the political realm leads to disruption of all realms. One cannot arbitrarily murder a Caesar and then ride home to a pleasant dinner with one's wife. The exchange between Portia and Brutus, after he decides to murder his friend, emphasizes the human relationships that Brutus disrupts in order to become a Caesar himself.
Having decided to murder Caesar, Brutus attempts to make his decision honorable. He opposes Cassius' oath: "Do not stain / The even virtue of our enterprise, / Nor the insuppressive mettle of our spirits" (II.i.132-134) by swearing an oath, says Brutus. But the murder of a friend is hardly a virtuous matter, and the "insuppressive" spirit is that of Caesarism, not the spirit of "honorable" conspiracy.
And so the conspiracy proceeds. But Caesar might not come forth. Decius answers, "Never fear that. If he be so resolv'd, /I can o'ersway him" (II.i.202-203). Even with Caesar, the one who sways is overswayed. Brutus, who feels that the use of power is limitable, believes that murderers may be
sacrificers, but not butchers, Caius.
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!
Brutus fails to recognize that, as one murders Caesar, one frees Caesar's "spirit" to range wide as hell. "In the spirit of men" there may be no blood, but in the spirit of Caesar and the use of power that it represents there is machinery for much blood. Purification fails because the spirit of Caesarism with its two-sided power requirement is not a force to be purified. Brutus could "come by" Caesar's spirit only by letting him live, by avoiding the exertion of power, by not dismembering Caesar. When Caesar, "must bleed for it" others must bleed for it too for power breeds power and the spirit of Caesar thrives on power. Brutus would carve Caesar as a "dish fit for the gods,/ Not hew him as a carcass fit for hounds" (II.i.173-174). The gods who would appreciate such a sacrifice to power are the very gods who would allow Cassius to kill himself in order to be "free"; Brutus would have the murderers be "called purgers, not murderers" (1.180). If men are to be purged of their inclination to use power by murdering them, after nine Indians have fallen the last one will have to shoot himself.
The murder scene itself is carefully orchestrated to make first Brutus, then Antony gain our sympathy. In the first part of the scene, Caesar is the arrogant tyrant who cannot be fooled, thawed, moved, or lifted up. Brutus is the preserver of liberty and slayer of the giant. But then Caesar is dead, bloody, and murderers are murderers after all. Brutus cries, "Let no man abide this deed / But we the doers" (III.i.94-95). Let no man pay but the guilty. But all must pay. The movement of power from man to man is inevitable now. The spirit is free.
The conspirators enjoy their moment of triumph, but it is only a moment. Cinna cries out "Liberty! Freedom! Tyranny is dead!" (1. 78). Brutus assures the people that no more will die, only Caesar. Metallus shows his fear for himself: "Stand fast together, lest some friend of Caesar's / should chance—" (1. 87). But "honorable" Brutus heads off the street fight: "Talk not of standing," and continues the ritual by bathing his hands in Caesar's blood. Let's walk forth, says Cassius. "Brutus shall lead, and we will grace his heels / With the most boldest and best hearts of Rome" (11. 120-121). That is the end of the triumph.
Antony requests an explanation, and Brutus, who thinks that all men are sincere because he is so himself, gives his word of honor that Antony will not be harmed. Antony immediately displays the eloquence that should warn Brutus from allowing him to speak at the funeral. He pleads that they kill him there by Caesar "whilst your purpled hands do reek and smoke" (1. 158). But Brutus, affected by Antony's emotionalism, begins to apologize:
O Antony, beg not your death of us!
Though now we must appear bloody and
Our hearts you see not. They are pitiful;
And pity to the general wrong of Rome
(As fire drives out fire, so pity pity)
Hath done this deed on Caesar.
Again Brutus is separating the spheres of action, and again such separation is impossible. If Brutus were the sort of fellow who could engage in assassination with impunity, he would either be unmoved by Antony's emotion and would proceed very practically to kill him, or he would recognize the effect that emotion has on him, gauge the effect that such emotion in the hands of an effective orator might have on the crowd, and prevent Antony from ascending the pulpit. But Brutus is neither so practical nor so perceptive.
Antony's words remind us of another friendship, that between Antony and Caesar that parallels the friendship that Brutus talked about between himself and Caesar. And we see the sacrifice in another light:
O, pardon me, thou bleeding piece of earth,
That I am meek and gentle with these
Thou art the ruins of the noblest man
That ever lived in the tide of times.
Sacrifice becomes butchery, and the vain tyrant a noble man who inspired the love and respect of Antony. Brutus's action seems no longer so easily justified. Antony prophesies over the corpse of Caesar that civil strife will follow murder; that pity, denied by the conspirators, will disappear; that Caesar's spirit will range for revenge. Now that Caesar's spirit is free of the confines of Caesar's body, a naked struggle for power will ensue. Caesar's death was no sacrifice to freedom; it was a sacrifice to power.
We move to the forum where the funeral is to be held. The mob demands satisfaction, and Brutus promises that "public reasons shall be rendered / Of Caesar's death" (III.ii.7-8); but his "reasons" are little more reasonable and little less emotional than Antony's famous oration. Brutus appeals to the mob to respect him for his honor and to "Censure me in your wisdom" (III.ii.16). I killed Caesar, he cries, "not that I lov'd Caesar less, but that I lov'd Rome more. Had you rather Caesar were living, and die all slaves, than that Caesar were dead, to live all freemen?" (III.ii.23-26).
The noble, reasonable Brutus is begging the question. Then come the either-or assertions: Who is here so base that would be a bondman? If any, speak; for him have I offended. Who is here so rude that would not be a Roman? If any, speak; for him have I offended. Who is here so vile that will not love his country? If any, speak; for him have I offended. I pause for a reply" (11. 31-38). The mob answers "None, Brutus, none." Who wants to be a traitor? "Then none have I offended" answers the reasonable Brutus, having offered no reasons at all. Then comes the final, perfect touch: "as I slew my best lover for the good of Rome, I have the same dagger for myself when it shall please my country to need my death" (11. 49-51). The mob shouts "Live, Brutus! … Bring him with triumph home … Give him a statue with his ancestors" (11. 53-55).
Brutus shall have a statue with his ancestor, Lucius Junius Brutus, who drove the Tarquins from Rome and gave the people freedom and peace. Then comes the immediate, terribly ironical "Let him be Caesar." How far below Brutus's picture of the people that Romans really are is never clearer in the play. These people do not want freedom; they will have their Caesar, whether his name be "Caesar," "Brutus," or "Antony." Brutus's failure is already sufficient; the rest of the play makes, the failure complete.
Antony's oration is hardly less reasonable than Brutus's, but it is longer and more effective. He mentions his own bereavement; he appeals to patriotism and greed; he refers to Caesar's humility and generosity. And the citizen reflects: "Me thinks there is much reason in his sayings" (1. 114). "Poor soul," says another of Antony, "his eyes are red as fire with weeping" (1. 121). Then Antony mentions the will, and the mob demands to hear it.
It is not meet you know how Caesar lov'd
You are not wood, you are not stones, but
We see that Marullus was right after all. The mob is adamant. Antony gives in and has them make a ring "about the corpse of Caesar," a ritual gesture. The ritual now belongs no longer to Brutus's actions. The will is read; the mob demands revenge: "Seek! Burn! Fire! Kill! Slay!" These are the noble Romans that Brutus would have lead themselves. Antony has one more message: I am a "plain blunt man"
But were I Brutus,
And Brutus Antony, there were an Antony
Would ruffle up your spirits, and put a
In every would of Caesar that should move
The stones of Rome to rise and mutiny.
And the stones do rise: "We'll mutiny."
After a flash of anarchy from the "citizens," the play moves on to the dry, sterile political reality of the dialogue between Antony, Octavius, and Lepidus as they coldly decide who must die. The language is different from Brutus's earlier when he decided who should die, but the political fact remains the same: those who have the power will use it. Each decision to kill a political opponent echoes Brutus's decision in his orchard, and the repetition of that decision without the rhetoric and faulty logic strips that disguise from Brutus's decision.
Brutus never realizes his fault. The same self-righteous morality that leads him to hope that Antony will "take thought, and die" because he is "given / To sports, to wildness, and much company" (II.i.187-189) gives rise to the pious but ignorant assertion later that
I shall have glory by this losing day
More than Octavius and Mark Antony
By this vile conquest shall attain unto.
Brutus remains ignorant to the last, crying out that he is "Brutus, my country's friend" (V.iv.8). True only to his own vision, Brutus never recognizes that he has been used and that in the process he has become more of a tyrant than the man he killed for the freedom of Rome.
And once more the eloquent oratory of Antony, a Machiavellian politician (who knows what the right words are to men who followed Brutus), disguises the truth:
This was the noblest Roman of them all.
all the conspirators, save only he
Did that they did in envy of great Caesar;
He, only in a general honest thought
And common good to all, made one of them.
His life was gentle, and the elements
So mix'd in him that Nature might stand up
And say to all the world, "This was a man!"
"This was a man" involved as all men in the play are in a struggle for power that destroys friendship, marriage, government, but a struggle that seems nevertheless inevitable. Although Brutus is "honest" and "noble," he is also very ignorant, emotional, and illogical. His actions do not suit his idealistic philosophy. He murders a friend in order to achieve a political structure that no longer fits Rome and her people, if it ever did. He never recognizes that his ideal is impractical, that the people demand a Caesar, that rulers are what the people will have them be, at least in Shakespeare's Rome.
Brutus is too self-confident, too full of pride in his own honesty, never aware that pride in one's virtue may be a fault. He attempts to destroy the physical Caesar in order to get at Caesarism, at tyranny—but succeeds only in destroying the body of Caesar. The spirit of Caesar lives on in the crowd's reply to Brutus's funeral speech ("Let Brutus be Caesar"), in the reaction to Antony's speech ("Let's mutiny, burn, kill"), in the sterile tyranny of the triumvirate ("These many then shall die"), and finally, the ghost tells Brutus, within Brutus himself—as "Thy evil spirit, Brutus."
Brutus does finally sense, however, the power of the ghost, even though he does not see his own fault:
O Julius Caesar, thou art mighty yet!
Thy spirit walks abroad and turns our
In our own proper entrails.
The spirit continues to give men the power to free themselves from bondage by killing themselves, but such freedom is meaningless after all.
The play Julius Caesar does not present a hero, finally, who is truly master of his fate. There may be, as Brutus says, "a tide in the affairs of men / Which, taken at the flood, leads on to fortune" (IV.iii.218-219); but Brutus misses the current and gets "bound in shallows and in miseries" (1. 220). Had he killed Antony or prevented the oratory that brought on the civil war; had he accepted the crown himself when the crowd cried "Let Brutus be Caesar"; had he then somehow managed to do away with the envious Cassius who could no more have borne a Brutus as a Caesar than he did a Caesar as one; the civil war might have been averted. But had he done any one of these things, Brutus would not have been the idealistic, often humane, republican that he thinks he is. Instead he would have been a Machiavellian schemer aware of the nature of power and no Brutus. And so Brutus misses the occasion, the tide that leads on to fortune.
The view of man that emerges in Julius Caesar is not very optimistic or encouraging. The best of men are members of the same ranks as the worst of men. The worst of men kill Cinna the poet because his name is "Cinna"; the best of men kill Caesar for scarcely better reasons—because he does not swim very well, because he gets fevers, because he is superstitious, because he might be as bad as those who kill him.
All too easily, the noblest Roman of them all disjoins remorse from power and murders his friend. Less hope remains for Romans who are not so noble.
Robert S. Miola (essay date 1985)
SOURCE: "Julius Caesar and the Tyrannicide Debate," in Renaissance Quarterly, Vol. XXXVIII, No. 2, Summer, 1985, pp. 271-89.
[In the essay that follows, Miola examines Shakespeare's portrayal of Caesar as a tyrant, noting that Shakespeare alters Plutarch's depiction of Caesar in order to emphasize the ambiguous nature of Caesar's rule.]
The rich and important debate over tyrannicide, in which Julius Caesar figures centrally, engaged the best political minds of antiquity, the Middle Ages, and the Renaissance and raged with particular intensity during Shakespeare's time. The tremendous upheaval of the Reformation and Counter-Reformation ignited fiery polemics on the rights of subjects and on the nature and foundations of civil order. At various times Protestants and Catholics arose to challenge the authority of the earthly crown and to claim the right of deposition and tyrannicide. Monarchomachs like Christopher Goodman, John Ponet, George Buchanan, François Hoffman, Théodore de Bèze, the author of Vindiciae Contra Tyrannos, the Ligue, and the Jesuits Robert Persons, Francisco Suarez, and Juan de Mariana drew upon the classics (especially Aristotle), the Bible, and other works (especially those of Aquinas, Salutati, and Bartolus) to reexamine fundamental assumptions about political order.
The question of tyrannicide (with all of its attendant inquiries) preoccupied the England of Shakespeare's time as it did the rest of Europe. The homilies against rebellion, the doctrine of passive obedience, the rhetoric of the divine right theory, the ubiquitous condemnation of civil strife—all evidence presumptively the vitality and importance of the tyrannicide question in England. Preachers and politicians had good reason for protesting too much. Trouble menaced from the left, from moderate Protestant reformers like Thomas Cartwright and John Field, whose proposed system of presbyterian organization threatened Elizabeth's authority. Elizabeth's campaign against radical Puritans resulted in the punitive Act Against Seditious Sectaries (1593) and in the executions of Henry Barrow, John Greenwood, and John Penry. Trouble also menaced from the right, from Catholics who wanted to assassinate Elizabeth and replace her with Mary Queen of Scots. Pius V deposed and excommunicated Elizabeth, "pretensa Angliae regina"; Sixtus V accused her of "exercysinge an absolute Tyrannie"; radical Catholics like Robert Persons called upon Philip of Spain to invade and conquer the heretical kingdom. Elizabethan plays, especially Shakespeare's histories and tragedies, reflect the political turmoil and the current absorption with tyrannicide.
A significant point of dispute in the tyrannicide debate was the controversial assassination of Julius Caesar. Unlike Nero, Domitian, and Caligula—all universally reviled as hateful tyrants—Caesar evoked the full spectrum of Renaissance opinion and so did his assasination. Salutati, for example, praised Caesar as "the father of his country, the lawful and benignant ruler of the world" and justified Dante's consignment of the traitors Brutus and Cassius to the lowest circle of hell.
Suarez, however, condemned Caesar as a usurper of sovereign power "through violence and tyranny," lauded the assassination, and seconded Cicero's praise of Brutus and Cassius's courage. The medieval John of Salisbury and the late Renaissance John Milton, like many others, took a position between the extremes: both recognized that Caesar unlawfully assumed power and in so doing acted the part of a tyrant; but both also expressed regret about the assassination, respecting Caesar's virtues and showing ambivalence toward Brutus and Cassius. Still others, like Richard Reynoldes and William Fulbecke, took no serious and consistent stand, contenting themselves instead with solemn moralizations as well as various and contradictory political bromides about the evils of pride, tyranny, and rebellion.
The tyrannicide debate, featuring Caesar in a prominent and polemical position, contributes much to the form and substance of Shakespeare's Julius Caesar. This debate defined precisely those questions important to the play: how to tell a tyrant from a just king; how to tell envious murderers from heroic republicans; how and when to justify assassination. The tyrannicide debate aired all the major issues of the play and set forth the criteria for judgment likely to be used by contemporary audiences. Moreover, it guided Shakespeare's adaptation of Plutarchan character and incident. By its light, Shakespeare transformed a confused welter of historical fact and legend into taut, balanced, and supremely ambivalent drama.
Pleb. This Caesar was a tyrant.
Pleb. Nay, that's certain.
[The Riverside Shakespeare, ed. G. Blakemore Evans, 1974, III.ii. 69]
The word "tyrant" and its cognates are crucially important to the play. The plebeian identification of Caesar as tyrant echoes other references. Cassius avers that suicide can defeat "tyrants" and "tyranny" (I.iii. 92, 99); he queries: "And why should Caesar be a tyrant then?" (I.iii. 103). Brutus incites the others against "high-sighted tyranny" (Il.i. 118). After the assassination the conspirators proclaim, "Liberty! Freedom! Tyranny is dead!" (III.i. 78). At the end of the play Young Cato pronounces himself "A foe to tyrants" (V.iv. 5). Yet the plebeians who confidently pronounce Caesar a tyrant soon mourn the fallen leader and seek revenge on the traitors who slew him. The term "tyrant" in this play—as in Jacques Grévin's César (1561), Orlando Pescetti's II Cesare (1594), Thomas Kyd's Cornelia (1594) (a translation of Robert Gamier's Cornélie ), and the anonymous Caesars Revenge (1607), as well as in the accounts of Plutarch and Appian—evokes an important set of criteria for judging the assassination.
Examination of the term "tyrant" can clarify the nature of these criteria. In antiquity the term referred to a ruler who came to power by usurpation, without constitutional warrant. In the works of Plato, Aristotle, and others, however, the term came to describe any evil ruler, any one who governed by whim for personal gain instead of by law for the general welfare. Deriving mainly from Aristotle, long lists like the exhaustive catalogue of Egidius Romanus Colonna itemized the distinctive characteristics of tyrants and kings and contrasted their styles of government. Medieval and Renaissance theorists, notably Aquinas and Bartolus, officially recognized both the earlier and later conceptions of tyrants, declaring that a man could prove himself a tyrant in entrance, ex defectu tituli, or in execution, exparte exercitii. By Shakespeare's day, then, the term "tyrant" could apply to any usurper of power by force as well as to any lawful ruler who governed viciously.
Does Shakespeare depict Caesar as a tyrant "in entrance," ex defectu tituli? Cassius repeatedly emphasizes the unnaturalness of Caesar's rise to power. According to him, Caesar is a feeble mortal who has, incredibly, now "become a god" (I.ii. 116). Cassius queries: "Upon what meat doth this our Caesar feed / That he is grown so great?" (I.ii. 149-50). Images of hideously unnatural growth, opposed to the normal processes of maturation and developement, appear again in the storm scene. The monstrous portents of the strange night, according to Cassius, reflect the disorder of "A man no mightier than thyself, or me, / In personal action, yet prodigious grown" (I.iii. 76-77). After pointing to Caesar's human frailty—his near-drowning in the Tiber, his fever in Spain—Cassius compares him to a "Colossus," a huge, artificial, and empty construction. Cassius here echoes several contemporary tyrannicide discussions, wherein the Colossus simile likewise describes the tyrant about to fall. Castiglione's Courtier, as Robert C. Reynolds noted [in "Ironic Epithet in Julius Caesar," Shakespeare Quarterly, 24 (1973)], compares the tyrant and Colossus: both appear magnificent but are filled with "towe and ragges"; both "throughe their owne waightinesse overthrowe them selves." La Bóetie echoes the latter point [in Anti-Dictator, trans. Harry Kurz, 1942] when urging people to withhold support from the tyrant: "then you will behold him, like a great Colossus, whose pedestal has been pulled away, fall of his own weight and break in pieces."
Shakespeare takes pains to corroborate Cassius's opinion of Caesar's unnatural usurpation. To open the play, he takes his cue from Plutarch, who observes that Caesar's triumphal celebration
did as much offend the Romanes, and more, then any thing that ever he had done before: bicause he had not overcome Captaines that were straungers, nor barbarous kinges, but had destroyed the sonnes of the noblest man in Rome, whom fortune had overthrowen. And bicause he had plucked up his race by the rootes, men did not think it meet for him to triumphe so, for the calamities of his contrie.
In the play Murellus and Flavius rebuke the populace for celebrating Caesar's victory over "Pompey's blood" (I.i. 51). Not merely guilty of impropriety, these commoners are guilty of hypocrisy, self-interest, and ingratitude. The reference to "Pompey's blood," i.e., to his sons, also suggests the sin of impietas. These Romans applaud the conqueror whose sword carves up Roman families and cuts the line of future Roman citizens.
The references to Roman history also suggest the un-constitutionality of Caesar's entrance to power. The story of Junius Brutus's revolt against the tyrannical Tarquin, twice alluded to in the play (I.ii. 158ff., II.i. 53ff.), reminds the audience, as it does the later Brutus, that Roman government was representative. Government by a single ruler violated Roman constitutional and legal traditions and signalled the degeneration of the city and its inhabitants. Cassius exclaims: "Age, thou art sham'd! / Rome, thou hast lost the breed of noble bloods! / When went there by an age since the great flood / But it was fam'd with more than with one man?" (I.ii. 150-53). Other references to past glory days and to present decay emphasize the point. Cassius calls fellow Romans "sheep," "hinds," and "weak straws," and equates present-day Rome with "trash," "rubbish," "offal," and "base matter" (I.iii. 105-10). Pertinent too are the allusions to Cato, admired avatar of Republicanism who died rather than submit to Caesar's rule; and to Pompey, who shared glory, fame, and power with Caesar. Cicero's very presence reminded an audience who had parsed their Latin on his orations that Roman government was representative.
Clearly, evidence in the play indicates that Shakespeare's Caesar, then, is a tyrant ex defectu tituli. From this perspective Brutus' resolve to think Caesar "as a serpent's egg, / Which, hatch'd, would as his kind, grow mischievous" and to "kill him in the shell" (II.i. 32-4) is perfectly proper and expedient. For the tyrant in entrance, a significant number agreed, had to be slain as soon as possible, before his tyranny could gain rooting or, worse yet, legitimacy through oath or pact. With a marginal reference to Brutus, Pierre Charron gives two counsels: "at his [the tyrant's] entrance to stay and hinder him lest he get the mastry; being en-stalled and acknowledged, to suffer and obey him." The conspirators do not kill Caesar prematurely, then, as is often alleged, but at the last morally defensible moment.
Shakespeare, however, does not let the case rest so easily; he takes care to justify Caesar's entrance to power. Cassius, the man who paints a picture of Caesar as a tyrant, is lean and hungry, a character with questionable motives and methods. Adroitly he flatters Brutus and appeals to his ambition:
Brutus and Caesar: what should be in that
Why should that name be sounded more than
In a soliloquy early in the play, he makes a sinister observation: "Well, Brutus, thou art noble; yet I see / Thy honourable mettle may be wrought / From that it is dispos'd (I.ii. 308-10). He rejoices at the success of his plot in language that suggests corruption and deceit: "For who so firm that cannot be seduc'd?" (I.ii. 312). In order to enlist Brutus in the conspiracy he resorts to forgery:
I will this night,
In several hands, in at his windows throw,
As if they came from several citizens,
Writings, all tending to the great opinion
That Rome holds of his name; wherein
Caesar's ambition shall be glanced at.
Shakespeare radically changes Plutarch here, who records in the "Life of Caesar" and in the "Life of Brutus" that the people wrote letters to Brutus and cast them upon his chair (V, 63; VI, 191). The changing of the popular appeal into a cheap trick darkens the character of Cassius and makes suspect his motivations and judgment.
The impression that the conqueror of "Pompey's blood" is, ipso facto, a tyrant in entrance is also counterbalanced and qualified. Again Shakespeare alters received tradition to legitimize Caesar's rise to power. Most historians and commentators agreed that Antony's offering of the crown and Caesar's subsequent refusals were parts of a political charade, a test of the people by the ambitious would-be ruler. Shakespeare, however, leaves the entire matter in some question. He does not stage a reprise of Gloucester and Buckingham at Baynard's Castle, but places the action off stage. We hear only the shouts of popular acclaim and the biased account of Casca, a future conspirator:
I can as well be hang'd as tell the manner of
it: it was mere foolery, I did not mark it. I
Antony offer him a crown—yet 'twas not a
neither, 'twas one of these coronets—and as I
he put it by once; but for all that, to my
thinking, he would fain have had it. Then he offer' d it to him again; then he put it by again; but, to my thinking, hewas very loath to lay his fingers off it. And then heoffer'd it the third time; he put it the third time by.
The nervous rhythms here, the tone of ridicule, and the tendency to qualify and interpret all vividly characterize the speaker and make the account personal not objective. By repeating "I" four times in nine lines and "to my thinking" twice, Casca emphasizes the subjectivity of his account. His impressionism simply does not constitute sufficient evidence to conclude deception. Similarly, Shakespeare does not depict the well-known historical conflict between Caesar and the Senate, strong evidence of a tyrant in entrance, of one who arrogates to himself unlawful prerogatives and powers. Instead, we are twice told that the Senate plans to crown Caesar in the Capitol on the ides of March (I.iii. 85-88; Il.ii. 93-94).
Nor do the references to Roman history and to past Republicans conclusively mark Caesar as a tyrant ex defectu tituli. As Aristotle outlined and as Elizabethans well knew, history consisted of various changes in government, of a cyclical series of political metamorphoses. The conspirators may depict Caesar as a subversive revolutionary, but he depicts himself as a man of destiny, as one uniquely fitted to assume command of Rome. Magisterially upholding one of his decrees, he declares:
But I am constant as the northern star,
Of whose true-fix'd and resting quality
There is no fellow in the firmament.
[In "Clemency, Will, and Just Cause in 'Julius Caesar'," Shakespeare Survey 22, 1969] John W. Velz rightly points to the "unmistakable connotations of kingship" in these lines and observes that Ovid is probably the source for Caesar's self-apotheosis. The reference to the stars and the submerged allusion to Metamorphoses evoke an imperial vision of Roman history that strongly contrasts with the Republican vision of the conspirators. According to the imperial view, that held variously by Horace, Vergil, and Livy, Julius Caesar was destined to precede Augustus and to establish the glorious Roman empire, "imperium sine fine" (Aen. I. 279). Later Christian historians, espousing the theory of the world's four monarchies, supported this view by according the Roman empire the special distinction of hosting the birth of Christ.
Whatever one decides about Caesar's status as a tyrant ex defectu tituli, one must still determine whether he is a tyrant in practice, de parte exercitii. These questions are related but distinct. Bartolus discusses the practical necessity of working with tyrants in entrance in order to lessen their injuries, i.e., in order to prevent them from becoming tyrants in practice. The author of the Vindiciae notes instances of violent intruders who in time became mild rulers. Both Robert Bellarmine and Théodore de Bèze cite Caesar as an example of a tyrant in entrance who eventually became a good and lawful ruler. Conversely, Suarez (with blazing eyes fixed on Whitehall) argues that a tyrant in practice can suffer deposition and thereby become a tyrant ex defectu tituli.
Shakespeare's Caesar has some of the salient characteristics of the tyrant in practice. He fears plots and conspiracies, twice observing early in the play that such men as Cassius are "dangerous" (I.ii. 195, 210). Despite stirring denunciations of fear, Caesar orders a sacrifice in response to the unnatural portents of the storm. Calphurnia persuades him of the threat to himself and he fashions an excuse for staying home, "Mark Antony shall say I am not well" (II.ii. 55). He shows superbia, arrogant pride, another distinguishing characteristic of the tyrant. Shakespeare's Caesar considers himself a special creation, far superior to ordinary mortals. Cimber's supplication, Caesar avers, "Might fire the blood of ordinary men" (III.i. 37), but not his. Others are "flesh and blood, and apprehensive," but only Caesar "unassailable holds on his rank, / Unshak'd of motion" (III.i. 67, 69-70). Such superbia leads Caesar to willfullness, another identifying mark of the tyrant. Citing Erasmus's discussion of tyrannical will, Bernard R. Breyer observes that Caesar continually talks of his will in Act II Scene ii. After changing his mind and resolving not to go to the Senate, Caesar responds to Decius's request for a reason: "The cause is in my will, I will not come: / That is enough to satisfy the Senate" (71-72). Such nonchalant substitution of personal caprice for just cause and law marks the tyrant in execution. That Caesar changes his mind once again and decides finally to go to the Senate underscores the arbitrariness of his will and, by extension, the instability of his tyrannical rule.
Shakespeare's Caesar not only looks and sounds like a tyrant, he acts like one. From Plutarch's brief and bland account of the petitions preceding the assassination (V, 67), Shakespeare creates a highly charged scene of tyrannical action. First, Caesar announces that he and "his Senate" (III.i. 32) are ready to redress grievances, thus assuming ownership of the Roman legislative and judicial body. Then he imperiously refuses to repeal the decree banishing Cimber's brother: "If thou dost bend, and pray, and fawn for him, / I spurn thee like a cur out of my way" (III.i. 45-46). Caesar does not discuss the crime committed or the merits of the petition, but simply refers to his past decision, in other words, to his will. As Caesar was justly famous for his clemency and since, as Seneca and others declared, clemency was a characteristic virtue of a good king, Shakespeare takes pains here to mark Caesar's rule as tyrannical.
The self-love so flagrantly evident in Caesar's disregard for senatorial authority and for kingly virtue appears earlier in more subtle and more dangerous form. Caesar, we are told, puts the tribunes Murellus and Flavius "to silence" for pulling scarves off his images (I.ii. 285-86). Shakespeare changes Plutarch's "diadems" to scarves to stress the triviality of the offense and thus to underline the severity of the punishment. Whereas Plutarch tells us that Caesar deprived the tribunes of their office (V, 63), Shakespeare leaves their fate ominously uncertain, hinting at the possibility of murder. These alterations portray Caesar as vain, ruthless, and unjust, as a tyrant who capriciously punishes citizens who displease him. No wonder the stock animal metaphors for the tyrant cluster around Caesar. Casisus describes him as a wolf who preys on sheep, a lion on hinds (I.iii. 104, 106). Brutus, we have noted, sees him as a serpent and later draws an image from falconry "So let high-sighted tyranny range on, / Till each man drop by lottery" (II.i. 118-19). For such a ruler, classical, medieval, and Renaissance authorities insisted, there could be only one end: a sudden and violent death. The assassination of Caesar in Act III, then, testifies strongly, if circumstantially, to his tyrannical character.
Although Shakespeare endows Caesar with some of the attributes of a tyrant, he draws the portrait in light and shade, with many qualifying brushstrokes. Caesar may fear plots but he loves and trusts his fellow Romans. He is close to Antony and warmly invites Brutus and the other conspirators to share wine: "Good friends, go in, and taste some wine with me, / And we, like friends, will straightway go together" (Il.ii. 126-27). How unlike the typical tyrant who lives sequestered from his people, surrounded by a guard of foreign mercenaries. Kindly, he leaves to the people his "private arbors and new-planted orchards, / On this side Tiber" (III.ii. 248-49), thus making all citizens "heirs for ever" (250). This provision for the distribution of personal possessions neatly opposes the avarice described in I Sam. 8:14, a passage that portrayed the typical tyrant for many, including Erasmus, Ponet, and Goodman: "And he wil take your fieldes, and your vineyardes, and your best olive trees, and give them to his servants." In direct contrast to the typical tyrant's greed, Caesar's posthumous generosity unites all Romans as familial legatees and characterizes him as the magnanimous pater patriae. And though, granted, Caesar shows superbia, he places self last and others first on at least one crucial occasion. After Artemidorus urges him to read a letter exposing the conspiracy, Caesar responds, "What touches us ourself shall be last serv'd" (III.i. 8), and sweeps on to his death. Shakespeare here diverges from Plutarch's account (V, 66), wherein Caesar tries many times to read the letter but cannot because of the crowd; he portrays instead the self-sacrificing ruler more concerned with public welfare than his own.
It is true that Caesar is willful but so are others in the play. Brutus overrules the wishes of his fellows on at least three important decisions: 1) he urges the sparing of Antony; 2) he allows Antony to speak at Caesar's funeral; 3) he meets the enemy at Philippi. In fact, as some have noted, Brutus resembles Caesar in significant ways: both command the respect of Romans, both have night scenes with their wives, both proclaim their honor and Romanitas, both spurn fear of death. In quarrel with Cassius, Brutus sounds the note of self-glorification prominent in Caesar's northern star speech:
There is no terror, Cassius, in your threats;
For I am arm'd so strong in honesty
That they pass by me as the idle wind,
Which I respect not.
This series of parallels may ironically reveal tyrannical tendencies in the self-proclaimed tyrant-slayer. Yet, it may just as well suggest that Brutus has those qualities of willfullness necessary in any leader, especially in one who undertakes so great a task. Antony, who leads the countermovement of the play, is also willful as is Octavius, who stubbornly defies Antony and holds to the right side of the battlefield, saying "I will do so" (V.i. 20).
Upon closer examination then, Shakespeare seems to qualify Caesar's tyrannical characteristics by dramatic context. Caesaer refuses clemency but so do many good rulers, we uneasily realize. Brutus says he knows "no personal cause to spurn at" and admits his innocence: "to speak truth of Caesar, /I have not known when his affections sway'd / More than his reason" (19-21). He agrees perfectly with Plutarch: "it seemed he [Caesar] rather had the name and opinion onely of a tyranne, then otherwise that he was so in deede. For there never followed any tyrannicall nor cruell act …" (VI, 237). Flatly concluding the quarrel will "bear no color for the thing he is" (29), Brutus fashions justifications. Later he mentions a record of offences (III.ii. 37-40), but we never see it. The conspirators do not make an issue of Caesar's silencing the tribunes and Shakespeare likewise ignores other incriminating material from Plutarch: the bribing of magistrates (V, 31); the dream of incest with his mother (V, 35); the war against Pompey (V, 35ff.); the robbery of Saturn's temple (V, 38); the affair with Cleopatra (V, 50-51); the burning of the library at Alexandria (V, 51); the promotion to "perpetuali Dictator" (V, 57); the desire to be called "king" (V, 60). Instead, he gives us a man who wants "great Rome" to suck his "Reviving blood" (II.ii. 87-88) and to take from it "tinctures, stains, relics, and cognizance" (89). This aspiration marks the difference between Caesar and the typical tyrant, who is himself blood-thirsty. Like the "man-eater" of Homer's famous description (Iliad I. 231) and subsequent accounts, the typical tyrant devours others. In contrast, the vision of Caesar nourishing Rome with his blood borrows from Christian myth and ritual as well as from the stock political image of the king as fountain to characterize Caesar as a ruler just and good.
The hints and half-guesses of tyranny in this play look slight and insubstantial next to the lurid obscenities of Shakespeare's other tyrants, of Richard III and Macbeth, for example. It is no small irony that the conspirators, not Caesar, shock the audience with bloody butchery. And it is the new triumvirate, not Caesar, who exhibits tyrannical ruthlessness and cruelty in the Proscription (IV.i.).
The debate over tyrannicide naturally focused on the assassins as well as on the tyrant. In Renaissance treatises the right to resist or slay the tyrant rested precariously on two ideological foundations: 1) on the religious conception of earthly authority as divinely granted and, therefore, subject to the will of God; 2) on the secular conception of earthly authority as popularly granted and, therefore, subject to the will of the people. A just tyrannicide, then, acted on authority delegated to him, explicitly or implicitly, from God or from fellow citizens or, more usually, from some combination of the two.
If the mandate for assassination was primarily religious, then the murder became a sacrifice to God. This line of reasoning is especially pertinent to Julius Caesar, a play steeped in the language and imagery of religious ceremony. The conspirators continually invoke the gods to witness and approve their sacrifice. Brutus exhorts the gods to "speed" him, for example; Cassius swears by them several times (I.ii. 128, 148) and envisions them as strengthening the weak and defeating tyrants (I.iii. 91-92). Brutus unequivocally identifies the murder as a holy offering to the gods, exhorting his followers:
Let's kill him boldly, but not wrathfully;
Let's carve him as a dish fit for the gods,
Not hew him as a carcass fit for hounds.
The will of the gods in Julius Caesar, however, is not so easily read. The conspirators invoke them to justify the assassination; Artemidorus invokes them to protect Caesar (II.iii. 8). Antony calls upon the gods to witness Caesar's love for Brutus: "Judge, O you gods, how dearly Caesar lov'd him" (III.ii. 182). Both Brutus and Cassius call upon the gods in their quarrel (IV.iii. 41, 46). Cassius's prayer that the gods "stand friendly" at Philippi (V.i. 93) so that he and Brutus might see old age is flatly denied. The play simply does not support the conspirators' assumption of divine approval for the assassination. Instead it plunges the viewer into a strange, unfathomable universe, wherein the gods are capricious and inscrutable, wherein characters continually misconstrue and misunderstand their wishes. Caesar believes that the gods send the augury of a heartless beast to shame cowardice (II.ii. 41) and confidently walks off to his death. Brutus confronts Caesar's spirit in astonished perplexity: "Art thou any thing? / Art thou some god, some angel, or some devil?" (IV.iii. 278-79). He, too, proceeds to his death. The divinely inspired storm evokes different reactions and conflicting interpretations. Casca fears that there is "civil strife in heaven" or that the gods are punishing the world (I.iii. 11-13); Cassius, rejoicing, thinks that the storm and portents are "instruments of fear and warning" which signify divine disapproval of Caesar (I.iii. 70). Brutus calmly reads by the light from "exhalations whizzing in the air" (II.i. 44); Cicero adamantly refuses comment and withdraws (I.iii. 33-36). The sacrifice of Caesar itself, the repeated stabbings in the Capitol and the gory blood smearing, looks more like foul treason than divine sacrifice.
Although the gods in Julius Caesar are mysterious shadows, the people are tangible presences. Much evidence in the play suggests that the conspirators act on behalf of the populace for the public good, just as the various tyrannicide theorists prescribed. The word "Rome" and its cognates recur frequently in the planning and signify the heroic community, past and present, whom the conspirators revere and obey. Cassius urges the conspirators to show themselves "true Romans" (II.i. 223). Brutus slays his best lover "for the good of Rome" (III.ii. 45). Judgment of the motives and character of the conspiracy will largely reflect judgment of Brutus, who never hopes for personal gain or satisfaction but perseveres though he loses much—his friend Caesar, Portia, his place in the city, and finally his life. Shakespeare alters Plutarch in order to illuminate Brutus' character and his role as public defender. In Plutarch's account Brutus visits Caius Ligarius to enlist his aid (VI, 191); in Shakespeare's version, Caius Ligarius comes to Brutus. Hailing Brutus as "Soul of Rome" (II.i. 321), Ligarius discards his sickness, healed and revivified by Brutus' magical presence, and vows to follow his leader anywhere. Even Antony in his moving elegy commends Brutus for "general honest thought" and concern for the "common good to all" (V.v. 71-72). Clearly, Shakespeare depicts the conspirators as acting on public authority with the consent of the people.
And yet, the lines between public and private in the play are tenuous and fluctuating. Brutus may believe that he acts on behalf of the Romans, but the audience, like Antony, may suspect "private griefs" (III.ii. 213). Persistent concern about the appearance of virtue, not the substance, and about the manipulation of appearances for "the common eyes" (II.i. 179) raises doubts about Brutus' conception of himself and the assassination. Brutus encourages the conspirators to comport themselves like "Roman actors" (II.i. 226) and to let their hearts "as subtle masters do, / Stir up their servants to an act of rage, / And after seem to chide 'em" (II.i. 175-77). His two major miscalculations appear in the play as attempts to curry public favor: Brutus spares Antony so the course will not "seem too bloody" (II.i. 162); he allows him to speak, thinking that such generosity "shall advantage more than do us wrong" (III.i. 242). Such attempts to gain popular support ill sort with the conception of Brutus as public defender, as the appointed instrument of the general will.
Even more disturbing, however, are the revelations of petulance, vanity, and hypocrisy in the quarrel scene. Brutus angrily accuses Cassius of having "an itching palm," of contaminating his fingers "with base bribes" and selling "the mighty space" of their large honors for gold (IV.iii. 10-25). While haughtily claiming that he "can raise no money by vile means," Brutus condemns Cassius for not sending the gold to him. The shadows thus cast over Brutus and the conspirators lengthen further when we recall that Caesar does inspire popular adulation, as the first scenes illustrate, and does win all but formal approval from the Senate.
These shadows grow darker as the play progresses. The bloodshed of the Proscription, portrayed in the casual bartering of human lives (IV.i. 1-6), and the reports of the senatorial purge (IV.iii. 173-80), under-cuts justification of the murder as necessary tyrannicide. So too does the civil war which rages at the end of the play and which fulfills, at least in part, Antony's grim prophecy of civil discord:
A curse shall light upon the limbs of men;
Domestic fury and fierce civil strife
Shall cumber all the parts of Italy;
Blood and destruction shall be so in use,
And dreadful objects so familiar,
That mothers shall but smile when they
Their infants quartered with the hands of war;
All pity chok'd with custom of fell deeds;
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 smell above the earth
With carrion men, groaning for burial.
According to the traditional view, one could licitly slay a tyrant only if by so doing he could spare his country from future outrage. Aquinas is clear on the point: "utilius est remissam tyrannidem tolerare ad tempus, quam contra tyrannum agendo multis implicare periculis, quae sunt graviora ipsa tyrannide." And Suarez, summarizing past opinion, likewise stipulates that one may slay a tyrant only if "there is not fear lest the state suffer, in consequence of the slaying of the tyrant, the same ills as it endures under his sway, or ills even more grave." The domestic fury following Caesar's death, then, provides damning evidence against Brutus and Cassius.
Since no one could licitly slay a tyrant without the consent (express or tacit) of the people, Shakespeare's portrayal of the Roman citizens takes on special importance. After first appearing to celebrate Caesar's triumph, they, abashed by the tribunes' rebuke, quietly withdraw, only to appear again as the crowd thronging about Caesar, then Brutus, then Antony, then Caesar again. Their vacillation in the Forum scene, wherein they change from doubt to admiration to anger, and their cruel fury toward Cinna the poet characterize them as dangerously unstable. These incidents render meaningless the question about whether the people consent (expressly or tacitly) to the assassination. Such consent could be only capricious whim. Shakespeare's portrayal of the fickle mob here, largely an innovation from Plutarch, does not merely reflect anti-democratic prejudice or suggest the necessity for a strong ruler. Instead, it completes his depiction of a society without any divine or secular basis of authority. In the arbitrariness of their will the plebeians are the exact counterpart of the feckless Senate, the conspiring patricians, and, most important, the ambitious Caesar. In Julius Caesar no trustworthy source of sovereignty arises to direct Rome; there is only the politics of the market-place, a confusing cacophony of claims and counter-claims. In this world the origins of civil government and sovereignty lie in the possession of power, pure, simple, and amoral.
The treatises on tyrannicide shape Julius Caesar in important ways: they define its political and moral framework and structure its ambivalences. From the tyrannicide debate Shakespeare creates a work which challenges its origins, those confident, fiercely advocative polemics on politics and morals. For the play dramatizes the differences between history, mysterious and unpredictable, and political theory; life resists legal definition and the formulations of jurists. Julius Caesar reveals only too clearly the difficulty of judging rulers, of categorizing them as tyrants or kings. It exposes also the difficulties inherent in tyrannicide—the temptation of self-interest, the lurking corruptions of deceit and political demagoguery, the everthreatening danger of the untrammeled consequence. Human judgment is uncertain, the play suggests, and men regularly "construe things after their fashion, / Clean from the purpose of the things themselves" (I.iii. 34-35). The images of public hero and vain self-deluder are every bit as protean as those of tyrant and just king.
Last Updated on May 5, 2015, by eNotes Editorial. Word Count: 15662
Gayle Greene (essay date 1980)
SOURCE: "The Power of Speech / To Stir Men's Blood': The Language of Tragedy in Shakespeare's Julius Caesar," in Renaissance Drama, Vol. XI, 1980, pp. 67-93.
[In the following essay, Greene argues that in Julius Caesar, Shakespeare equates language with power and creates a setting in which the fate of the characters is dependent on their ability to employ the art of rhetoric to their advantage.]
Eloquence hath chiefly flourished in Rome when the common-wealths affaires have been in worst estate, and that the devouring Tempest of civili broyles, and intestine warres did most agitate and turmoile them.
Montaigne, "Of the Vanitie of Words"
When Antony concludes his funeral oration by modestly disclaiming the powers of rhetoric he has so abundantly displayed—
I am no orator, as Brutus is; …
But (as you know me all) a plain blunt man …
For I have neither wit, nor words, nor worth,
… nor the power of speech
To stir men's blood; I only speak right on.
[The Arden Shakespeare, ed. T. S. Dorsch, 1955, III.ii.219-225]
—he draws attention to the very arts of oratory which have enabled him to seize triumphant control of his world. Indeed, his rhetorical tour de force turns the course not only of the action of the play, but of the tide of times. Effecting the shift of power from Brutus to Antony, it marks the end of the Republic and the beginning of events which will issue in the Empire; and, as his words "inflame" (1. 146) his audience, their "fire" (1. 117) becomes more than metaphorical, to spark the actual blaze that burns Rome. Nor is the oration an isolated instance: it is but one of a series of persuasion scenes on which the play as a whole is structured, wherein language is used to "work," "fashion," "move," "fire," its listeners. Earlier in this scene, Brutus persuaded the crowd to accept a version of the assassination, as, earlier in the play, Cassius persuaded Brutus—his words, too, "struck … fire" (I.ii.175-176); and, in soliloquy, Brutus "fashion[ed]" (II.i.30) an argument to persuade himself.
In the Rome of Julius Caesar, language is power and characters rise or fall on the basis of their ability to wield words. Their awareness of the importance of language is indicated by terms they associate with it. Words are associated with weapons—"speak, and strike" (II.i.56)—and, at various times, with friendship, love, and life itself. Conversely, powerlessness and incapacitation are suggested by terms such as "silence," "speechless," and "tongue-tied." These Romans identify with their names and reiterate their own and one another's names, "sound[ing]" them almost as though "conjur[ing] with 'em" (I.ii.143, 144). Even the most private scenes, between husband and wife, are characterized by a declamatory style and stance: Portia calls on "vows" (II.i.272) and her Roman virtues to persuade Brutus to tell her what troubles him; Calphurnia, alone with Caesar, argues to prevent him from going to the Capitol.
The markedly rhetorical style has often been noted, and Dr. Johnson's opinion that "Shakespeare's adherence to … Roman manners [was] cold and unaffecting" has been echoed by critics such as Mark Van Doren, who characterizes the play as "more rhetoric than poetry" and its characters as "more orators than men." But rhetoric in this play is a theme as well as a style: accorded prominence by structure and imagery, it is integral to characterization, culture, and to the central political and epistemological concerns. In Shakespeare's depiction of Rome as a society of skilled speakers whose rhetorical expertise masks moral and political truth is implied a criticism of rhetoric and of language itself which is central to the play's tragic vision.
Problems of language are related—historically and philosophically—to problems of knowledge. Thus an understanding of language in Julius Caesar begins from a consideration of its epistemological meaning; and both must be seen in relation to the skepticism and nominalism of the late Renaissance. Whereas traditional readings of the play concentrated on its political meaning, attempting to establish Shakespeare's sympathies as republican or monarchical, recent critics have found the ambiguity to be deliberate, concluding that Shakespeare intentionally obscured the political issues in order to emphasize problems of knowledge. The play suggests a sense of the limits of knowledge and fallibility of judgment, of the fatal human tendency to—as Cicero cautions—impose subjective distortions on objective realities:
But men may construe things, after their
Clean from the purpose of the things
Indeed, Cicero, as the representative of rhetoric for the Renaissance, is the most appropriate figure in the play to understand this danger, and seems to appear solely to speak these lines.
Faced with questions of Caesar's nature and potential, Brutus choses to kill him, and though his action plunges Rome into civil war, nothing we are shown of Caesar enables us to assess Brutus's assessment of him. Since our opinion of Caesar determines our views of the justice of his death, the presentation of Caesar as a public man caught up in posturing and posing obscures the central political problem: our inability to know the "real" Caesar confuses our judgment of the assassination and the assassins. Uncertainty is further suggested by a recurrence of the same or similar words to express contradictory points of view about the same subjects: Brutus's view of the conspirators as "sacrificers, but not butchers" (II.i.166) is qualified by Antony's "butchers!" (III.i.255), the discrepancy impugning the validity of both versions. Further ambiguities are created by a pattern in which characters "construe" various phenomena—the omens of blood and fire, the beast without a heart, Calphurnia's dream of Caesar's statue spouting blood—to arrive at contradictory interpretations which reveal more about the characters themselves than the reality they are describing. If we sympathize with Brutus, we will read the omens as signs of Caesar's tyranny and new life to the state, but if we side with Caesar, they signify the conspirators' guilt and civil strife. Thus at the heart of the play is ambiguity of an ultimate sort, uncertainty about what the symbolism is symbolizing. Titinius's comment on Cassius's suicide, "Alas, thou hast misconstrued every thing" (V.iii.84), and Mesalla's apostrophe to "error" as the perception of "things that are not" (1. 69), have resonances beyond their immediate contexts, to reflect on the entire enterprise. Like Romeo, Brutus "thought all for the best" (Romeo and Juliet, III.i.104); but, acting with limited awareness of external circumstances and, above all, himself, he incurs tragic consequences. The play suggests a sense of man's tragic blindness—a skepticism comparable to and probably influenced by Montaigne's—which would find further expression, within a few years, in Hamlet and Troilus and Cressida.
But an attitude toward knowledge implies an attitude toward language, since when truth is thought to be beyond man's reason, it is also usually thought to be beyond his powers of description, and skepticism is utimately skepticism of the word. Thus Montaigne is as wary of the ability of words to represent reality as he is of man's ability to know that reality. A corollary to the skepticism implied in Julius Caesar is a skepticism concerning language which may be seen against a background of cultural revolution. Written on the eve of the seventeenth century, Julius Caesar reflects Shakespeare's awareness of processes at work in the age: the shift from early Renaissance belief in language and eloquence to modern nominalism and an ideal of the plain style, which would lead to the views of Hobbes, Locke, and the Royal Society. The seventeenth century no longer assumed the right relation of language to reality, but, recognizing its arbitrary and conventional nature, saw it as a hindrance to understanding. Similitude (which included analogy and metaphor) was no longer thought to be a reflection of the world's shape and nature, but a source of error and confusion. This sense of the division of language from reality—one of the meanings implied in the myth of the Fall—is expressed most clearly, in Shakespeare's day, by Montaigne and Bacon. Bacon criticizes language as a main source of error, and Montaigne insists on a plain style to compensate for the distortions inherent in the verbal medium.
It may seem strange to attribute to Shakespeare views which prefigure seventeenth-century nominalism; certainly, it is not the most pronounced aspect of his thought. Shakespeare was the supreme expression and embodiment of Renaissance eloquence; he used more words than anyone before or since, reveling in them for their sounds, textures, and rhetorical arrangements as well as for their sense. But in proportion as he knew the power of language, so did he know its danger, and there is another side to his relation to language, a sense implied in a number of the plays, of its capacity to corrupt, conceal, and misconstrue. In Julius Caesar, an ambivalence toward language is suggested, a complex awareness of its potentials, from a number of perspectives—psychological, social, political, and epistemologica!—which corroborates Montaigne's and Bacon's worst criticisms and casts doubts on the value of poetry itself.
An analysis of four crucial "persuasion" scenes will demonstrate how language functions to "work," "fashion," "move," "fire" its listeners, leaving the central political questions veiled in obscurity. Brutus is, as we hear repeatedly from him and from others, an honorable man and a man of reason, a stoic who prides himself on reason and is forever urging "reasons" to others; this leads us to expect that his participation in the conspiracy will be undertaken with deliberation and cause. But if we look to the secnes where we most expect to find cause for Caesar's assassination—the scene in which Cassius "seduces" (I.ii.309) Brutus to come into the conspiracy; the soliloquy in which Brutus "fashions" (II.i.30) an argument for himself to join the conspiracy; the forum scene, where first Brutus, then Antony, "move" (III.ii.231) the crowd, Antony "working" (1. 262) and "inflaming" (1. 146) them to riot and mutiny—we find no reasons, only a rhetoric that obscures questions of Caesar's ambition and the justice of his death.
The "seduction scene" (I.ii.31-175), in which "Cassius first did whet [Brutus] against Caesar" (II.i.60), is the first place where we would expect to hear the case against Caesar, or at least some specific grievance. Yet, as Schanzer observes, "in this crucial scene … Cassius … does not mention any specific acts of tyrannical behaviour" (p. 26). Schanzer concludes that Cassius is not well suited to his role of guileful seducer. His case against Caesar is made in terms like "this age's yoke" (I.ii.61), "these hard conditions as this time / Is like to lay upon us" (11. 172-173)—hardly convincing enough to warrant murder. In fact, on the surface, Cassius and Brutus seem barely to hear or to speak to one another. In the first part of the scene (to line 88), they essay one another, Cassius trying both to ascertain Brutus's feelings and to persuade him of his own point of view, without actually stating that point of view, while Brutus, partly defensive, partly enticed, simultaneously backs off and beckons him on. Twice, Brutus asks directly what Cassius wants of him ("Into what dangers would you lead me, Cassius?" [1. 62]; "wherefore do you hold me here so long?" [1. 82]), and twice, Brutus's attention is deflected so that Cassius does not have to reply. On neither occasion does Brutus seem to notice or object. The first time, Cassius merely continues his line of thought, without any indication that he has even heard Brutus's question (1. 65); and the second time, rather than waiting for a reply to his question, Brutus continues his own line of thought (11. 84-88). Twice, Cassius declares intentions to speak of subjects he never again refers to: Brutus's "hidden worthiness" (1. 56) and "honor." Though he announces "honor is the subject of my story" (in the first of the two long speeches, 11. 91-130, which comprise the second movement of the scene), honor is not his subject; it is, rather, his outrage at Caesar's physical infirmities.
Yet by the end of the exchange, they have communicated, and Brutus indicates, in veiled, vague terms, that he assents:
What you would work me to, I have some
How I have thought of this, and of these
I shall recount hereafter …
… What you have said
I will consider; what you have to say
I will with patience hear, and find a time
Both meet to hear and answer such high
In measured, balanced phrases (as though a control of language could assure a control of reality), he refers the whole matter to another time.
Though Brutus nowhere, here or later, insists on clearer definition of Cassius's suggestions, he is persuaded because something else is going on in the exchange. Cassius's real appeal is made in veiled, allusive terms which communicate, not through what they state but through what they suggest: "thoughts of great value, worthy cogitations (1. 49), noncommital terms with enticing innuendoes which Brutus is echoing by the end of the scene—"such high things" (1. 168). The real argument is made through indirection and insinuation because the actual grounds of Cassius's appeal are not the sort he can state: they are to Brutus's vanity and image of himself as a noble Roman, and are inarticulated because inadmissible.
Cassius reveals these terms in solioquy at the end of the scene, when he describes the petitions he plans to throw in at Brutus's window:
… all tending to the great opinion
That Rome holds of his name; wherein
Caesar's ambition shall be glanced at.
"Opinion," "Rome," the "name"—and only then is Caesar's ambition "obscurely glanced at." Indeed, these terms are implicit throughout the "seduction," and are the power of an otherwise nonexistent argument. When Cassius offers to be Brutus's "glass" (1. 67) to show him an image of his "hidden worthiness" (1. 56), Brutus's acknowledgment that "the eye sees not itself / But by reflection, by some other things" (11. 51-52) is an admission of his dependence on the opinions of others for knowledge of himself. A few lines later, Cassius again evokes the imaginary audience he knows is so essential to Brutus's self-esteem, mirrors without which he cannot see and does not know himself: "many of the best respect in Rome / … Have wish'd that noble Brutus had his eyes" (11. 58-61). A similar appeal is contained in his second long speech ("Why, man, he doth bestride the narrow world" [11. 133-59], where he weaves the words "Rome," "man," "Brutus," "Caesar," "name," "fame," and "shame" into a pattern that creates an ideal of Roman manhood: an ideal represented by the name ("yours is as fair a name," 1. 142), by opinion ("When could they say, till now, that talk'd of Rome …" [1. 152], by "our fathers" and the first Brutus (11. 156-157). According to this ideal, Cassius urges Brutus to define himself, and this "works" (11. 161, 306) more strongly than logical argument.
"Rome," "honor," "name" are words which are loaded with affective connotations that make them capable of kindling powerful responses. Though for the moment Brutus says nothing, their effect on him is obvious later when, again asked to "see thyself" (II.i.46), he responds with an outburst about Rome and his ancestors (11. 52-54). These words are powerful because they enshrine the dominant cultural values, the thought and belief of the past—libertarian ideals of republican Rome passed down through what "our fathers say" (1. 156). They contain what Bacon calls "common and general notions," to which "the individual is bound unless he takes care to distinguish them well" (Dignity and Advancement of Learning, IV, 431). They "annex to them"—in Locke's terms—"obscure and uncertain notions," implicit assumptions which are confusing because unexamined:
Men having been accustomed from their cradles to learn words … before they knew, or had framed the complex ideas, to which they were annexed, or which were to be found in the things they were thought to stand for; they usually continue to … [use them] all their lives; and without taking the pains necessary to settle in their minds determined ideas, they use their words for such unsteady and confused notions as they have … [which] manifestly fills their discourse with abundance of empty unintelligible noise and jargon, especially in moral matters, where … [the words'] bare sounds are often only thought on, or at least very obscure and uncertain notions annexed to them.
["Of the Abuse of Words," An Essay Concerning Human Understanding, The Works of John Locke, 1824]
These words and notions are bound up with Brutus's conception of himself, determining the way he experiences himself and reality.
The most important of these is "honor." Honor words are used so frequently by Brutus or with reference to him that they become, as Charney notes [in Shakespeare's Plays: The Function of Imagery in the Drama, 1961], "almost an identifying tag for his character" (p. 227, n. 19). Brutus's susceptibility to what touches his honor is indicated by his outburst in this scene:
Set honour in one eye, and death i' th' other,
And I will look on both indifferently;
For let the gods so speed me as I love
The name of honour more than I fear death.
Though his general intention is clear, his language is not, and this is typical of Brutus's confusions when his imagination has been kindled and of his real confusions concerning honor: it is, as he says, "the name of honor" he loves. This conception of honor—as "name" or "reputation"—was associated, by the Renaissance, with classical antiquity, and is an aspect of Shakespeare's depiction of Rome. But the idea of honor as a social attribute conferred by the "opinion" of the community is a notion of which Shakespeare is elsewhere critical, one which he associates elsewhere, as here, with confusion in language. For if honor is reputation, it is "a word," as Falstaff observed (Henry IV, Part 1, V.i.134), following—or anticipating—Montaigne, who begins his essay "Of Glory" with the statement that the argument about fame is an argument about language, and the relation of a man to his reputation is as tenuous as that between word and thing:
There is both name, and the thing: the name is a voice which noteth and signifieth the thing; the name, is neither part of thing nor of substance: it is a stranger-piece joyned to the thing, and from it.
Brutus's uncritical acceptance of the Roman ideal both results from and reinforces the confusions in language which make him obtuse to the real terms of Cassius's appeal.
The real strengths of Cassius's argument are thus weaknesses in Brutus's character—his concern with reputation and appearance, his subtle vanity and pride—and it is on these grounds that the noble Brutus is seduced. Depending on the opinions of others for his image of himself, Brutus does not know himself, and is vulnerable to whoever provides the desired "reflection." Indeed, the entire exchange begins with Cassius's assurance that he loves Brutus, and ends with Brutus's "That you do love me, I am nothing jealous" (1. 160), as though its entire purport had been to assure Brutus only of this—which, in a way, it has. It is Brutus's confusion of real and professed motives that accounts for Cassius's verbal obliquity: Cassius "palters with him in a double sense," with different meanings for the heart and ear, seeming to appeal to "honor" and concern for "the general good" (1. 84), while actually appealing to vanity. He is, contrary to what Schanzer says of him, an extremely guileful seducer, who looks quite through the words of men to their real concerns and appeals to the one while seeming to appeal to the other.
But Brutus's fatal confusions are most apparent when, in soliloquy (II.i. 10-34), he defends his decision to take part in the murder of a man he protests he loves. He is, as Antony says, the only conspirator not motivated by "envy of great Caesar" (V.v.70), so we look to these lines when he is alone with himself—the only time in the play—for a cause why Caesar should be killed. Yet the issue disturbingly blurs, disappearing into a tangle of strange and disconnected images of uncertain relevance to one another or to their supposed subject, Caesar. Brutus's language, always more metaphorical than the other characters', is even more metaphorical than usual in this speech. Attempts to make sense of the soliloquy—like John Dover Wilson's "Brutus' theme is the effect of power upon character"—probably represent something like what Brutus would have liked to have said, but nothing this coherent emerges until we have supplied certain missing logical links, and in making this much sense of it, we are ignoring what the language is communicating. Its broken rhythms, uncompleted thoughts, and associational movement present a glimpse into the mind of a man who has not slept for weeks and who has never, in his clearest moments, defined the issues that are tearing him. The sequence of thought and statement is not logical, the conscious, active intellect is not in control, and what emerges is a sense of exhaustion, a linguistic image of the "phantasma" (II.i.65) Brutus describes a few lines later.
Brutus begins with "It must be by his death" (1. 10)—words which have more clarity and conviction than any in the soliloquy, until, perhaps, the final "kill him in the shell" (1. 34). Finding "no personal cause to spurn at him" (1. 11), he looks to "the general" (1. 12), but finding no "general" cause either, by the third line, he has shifted to the conditional: "He would be crown'd: / How that might change his nature, there's the question" (11. 12-13). Now, instead of evidence from Caesar's past or present conduct to answer the "question" he has posed about a hypothetical future, Brutus reaches for a metaphor:
It is the bright day that brings forth the adder,
And that craves wary walking.
Again he returns to the question of Caesar's potential—"Crown him?—That;—" (1. 15). The broken thought creates the sense of groping, but what Brutus is groping for is not, as we might expect, reasons for supposing that Caesar is like an adder; rather, he develops the metaphor: "And then I grant we put a sting in him" (1. 16).
Brutus's next statement is a generalization, somewhat confusingly worded, about the misuse of power: "Th'abuse of greatness is when it disjoins / Remorse from power" (11. 18-19). But he has difficulty applying this generalization specifically to Caesar, since he can find nothing in Caesar's conduct to warrant it:
… and, to speak truth of Caesar,
I have not known when his affections sway'd
More than his reason.
So he makes another generalization—"But 'tis a common proof" (1. 21)—which he supports with a metaphor: "… That lowliness is young ambition's ladder" (1. 22). Though he has admitted difficulty in applying his general principle to Caesar, finding an appropriate metaphor seems to suffice and relieve him of having to justify its applicability. The relevance of this image to Caesar is even less obvious than that of the "adder"; perhaps, in view of the associational movement of the lines, it is there because it rhymes. It is startling, as Schanzer points out, "to find Brutus … speak of Caesar as if he were still at the beginning of his career" (p. 55). But it seems to satisfy Brutus because he develops it for the next seven lines, until the "climber-upward" attains "the upmost round' and,
… then unto the ladder turns his back,
Looks in the clouds, scorning the base degrees
By which he did ascend.
Though strangely ineffectual for the weight it carries in the argument, the figure seems to serve Brutus's need, demonstrating his general principle about the effect of power upon purpose, while still not specifying its relevance to Caesar. What follows weakens the argument even further: "So Caesar may; / Then lest he may, prevent" (11. 27-28). The only possible application of "vehicle" to "tenor" puts the whole case back in the conditional. Since "the thing he is" (1. 29) will not warrant killing him, Brutus states his intention to "fashion," "color," "And therefore think him," and thus takes the leap that clinches the argument—once more, reaching for metaphor:
And since the quarrel
Will bear no colour 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, hatch'd, would as his kind, grow
And kill him in the shell.
There is the same incongruity about this metaphor as the last: Caesar is not "in the shell"; he is, as Brutus himself calls him, "the foremost man of all this world" (IV.iii.22).
What Brutus has said in this soliloquy is that there is no complaint about Caesar as he is or has been, but, on the basis of what often happens to people when they get power, Caesar might, given power, change. Brutus cites no "reasons," no cause, for supposing that he would change: images of "adder," "ladder," and "serpent's egg" develop his argument, carrying it to the conclusion to which he is committed. His thought moves back and forth between general observations about human behavior and metaphors that illustrate them, and nowhere does he look outside this self-referential linguistic construct to the supposed subject, Caesar himself. Brutus could "think him" anything on the basis of metaphors enlisted to support "common proofs," and his interpretation need bear no more, or less, relation to his subject than "a serpent's egg"; but the progression of tenses in the soliloquy, from the tentative "might" (1. 13) to "may" (1. 17), to the final "would" (1. 33), indicates that he has blurred the distinction between the hypothetical or metaphorical and the actual. The tentativeness of the subordinate clauses and appositions of the last five lines are overriden by the inexorable rhythms of "And since … And therefore … And kill," with their strong sense of causal necessity; the uncertain, choppy rhythms find release in the smooth, clinching "kill him in the shell." With his conscious mind relaxed, the conceptual controls dulled by exhaustion, the mechanism of Brutus's fatal construing is obvious: his willingness to let words do his thinking for him. A sense of the dangers of figurative language is implied comparable to that expressed by Hobbes, who called metaphors "useful only to deceive." An influence of language on thought is suggested like that described by Bacon:
… words plainly force and overrule the understanding and throw all into confusion, and lead men away into numberless empty controversies and idle fancies … (New Organon, IV, Aphorism XLIII, 55).
For men believe that their reason governs words; but it is also true that words react on the understanding … (New Organon, IV, Aphorism LIX, 61).
The strategies of deception that work privately, between a man and his friend, and, more insidiously, between a man and himself, are merely subtler, less obvious versions of the rhetorical tactics used publicly in the funeral orations. Brutus's oration (III.ii.12-41), his prose, "attic" statement of "public reasons" (1. 7), is traditionally contrasted to Antony's impassioned "asiatic" style, and is usually read as an appeal to the intellect rendered powerless by Antony's more effective appeal to the emotions. These misreadings of Brutus's lines are extremely revealing, since they are based on effects which Brutus himself carefully creates. Brutus explicitly, in the first lines, establishes his authority as a man of reason addressing the reason of others—
Romans, countrymen, and lovers, hear 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.
—associating himself, by the repetition of key words, with honor, wisdom, and judgment. The technique is ethos, establishing the personal character of the speaker, on the basis of the principle—stated by Aristotle—that we are likely to accept the argument of a good man. And despite the confusions Brutus has manifested, critics seem simply to have taken him at his word, interpreting the oration, nearly unanimously, as an appeal to the reason—a "straightforward statement" of "real reasons" "logically delivered." Yet when we look more closely, no reasons appear, no argument that could appeal to logic. The one accusation of Caesar—"he was ambitious" (1. 27)—is slipped in among protestations of Brutus's love for him and is nowhere supported or even referred to again. Caesar's ambition is again, in Cassius's phrase, "obscurely … glanced at" (I.ii.316-317), in a linguistic construction which makes use of formal patterning, abstract terminology, and brevity to gloss over issue and event. Yet critics who have read the oration as an appeal to the reason are taking their cues from actual elements in it, from rhetorical and syntactical effects carefully contrived to create the illusion Brutus desires.
Brutus's most effective device is to present the issue as though it were a choice between two alternatives which leave no choice but to assassinate Caesar, but which rest on unexamined assumptions concerning Caesar: so that, again, the argument is a self-referential construct that makes sense in its own terms but casts no light outside itself to its supposed subject. He is aided in this by rhetorical figures that are related to logical processes and enable him to suggest logical distinctions and relationships, while actually falsifying the distinctions they imply. The first three sentences (quoted above) make use of one such figure, "antimetabole," a figure which "repeats words in converse order, often thereby sharpening their sense" (Joseph, p. 305). But, while seeming to "sharpen the sense," its function in Brutus's speech is simply tautology: "Believe me for mine honor and for mine honor believe." The necessity of choice between two mutually exclusive alternatives, love of Caesar and love of Rome, is asserted in the line, "Not that I lov'd Caesar less, but that I lov'd Rome more" (III.ii.21-22); but nowhere does Brutus substantiate that these were the alternatives, or that they excluded one another. The question he then springs ("Had you rather Caesar were living, and die all slaves, than that Caesar were dead, to live all freemen?" 11. 23-25) again implies logical distinction and the necessity of choice between alternatives suggested to be mutually exclusive—living in freedom or dying in bondage—but again, without evidence that these were the real alternatives. Both these distortions involve "enthymeme," an abridged syllogism, in which the omission of one premise results in "a strong tendency to accept the conclusion without scrutinizing the missing premise on which the argument rests" (Joseph, p. 178). The implicit premise on which all these claims depend is an assumption about Caesar: that Caesar's nature was such that it was necessary to choose between love of him and love of Rome, that Caesar living would have necessitated their "dying all slaves." This is the missing premise, nowhere confronted or supported, on which Brutus bases his entire case. The rhetorical questions which conclude his oration again present a choice between alternatives that again rest on an unexamined assumption regarding Caesar: "Who is here so base that he would be a bondman? If any, speak, for him have I offended" (11. 30 ff.). Brutus creates a context wherein any objection would be an admission of rudeness, baseness, or vileness—so that, within this circular construct, it is indeed true, "Then none have I offended" (1. 37).
There are, moreover, close-knit causal relationships implied within nearly every line that further this illusion of logic. The first three sentences make use of a construction that twice implies causality—"for" (on account of) and "that" (in order that). The next two lines are conditional clauses setting up "if … then" relationships. Brutus uses the figure "taxis" to mete reward and penalty in a syntactical arrangement implying distribution of effect according to cause: the cumulative effect of "as Caesar was … so I," repeated three times, lends finality to the concluding "but, as he was ambitious, I slew him" (1. 27). Of the sixteen sentences in the oration, six begin with "if," lending the final "Then none have I offended" a weight that clinches the argument. Even his last lines, which are not part of the argument but merely refer his audience to the record in the Capitol, use a construction that metes out reward and punishment in logical distribution: "his glory … wherein he was worthy … his offences … for which he suffer'd death" (11. 39-41). Such syntactical arrangements occur from beginning to end of his speech, creating an illusion of irrefutable logic, causing the mind to fill out the pattern suggested by the syntax and to perceive reasons where there are none.
The oration is far from an appeal to the intellect with "real reasons"; nor is it an ineffective piece of oratory showing the intellectual's inability to communicate with the masses, as it has also been interpreted. It is a brilliant piece of oratory, brilliantly suited to manipulating a difficult crowd, while resorting to none of the obviously cheap tricks so conspicuous in Antony's performance. Thus it enables Brutus to preserve his conception of himself in his own eyes and others' as a rational man reasonably motivated—an effect he accomplishes with spectacular success, judging from critics' misreadings. In fact, in its use of balance and parallelism to create the illusion of control, it is subject to Bacon's criticisms of Ciceronian rhetoric:
… men began to hunt more after words than matter; and more after the choiceness of the phrase, and the round and clean composition of the sentence, and the sweet falling of the clauses, … than after the weight of matter, worth of subject, soundness of argument, life of invention, or depth of judgment (Advancement of Learning, III, 283).
This is what Bacon calls "the first distemper of learning, when men study words and not matter." As an instrument of "the severe inquisition of truth, and the deep progress into philosophy" (Advancement of Learning, III, 284), such language is useless; but as a technique of rhetorical persuasion, it is effective.
All Antony does in the opening speech of his remarkable oration—"Friends, Romans, countrymen" (11. 75-109)—is to pretend to accept Brutus's claim, Caesar "was ambitious," and then set about undermining it, by twisting a few crucial words. Merely by repeating, at regular and strategic intervals within a subtly changing context, "Brutus says he was ambitious and Brutus is an honorable man," he causes the words "honor" and "ambition" to assume opposite and ironic meanings, and Brutus's claim to redound on itself; the repetition is "antiphrases, or the broad flout … irony of one word" (Joseph, p. 139). Thus twenty-one lines into the speech, "Brutus says he was ambitious, / And Brutus is an honorable man" actually means, "Caesar was not ambitious, nor is Brutus honorable," and by line 155, the crowd itself can draw the conclusion which Antony nowhere has to state: "They were traitors; honorable men!" Master of irony, Antony is a master of language who has power to make words mean what he wills.
His power derives from his understanding of irony, his skill in adapting language to audience, and his superior insight into the value of pathos in persuasion. The oration is a lurid and dramatic appeal to a whole range of feelings, from grief for the loss of a leader and friend, desire to honor the dead, to curiosity, greed, fury, and revenge. At the end of this first long section, Antony pauses, ostensibly to compose himself, actually to calculate his effect on the crowd, and from this point on, he makes use of techniques and props to supplement the verbal: the will, the bloody mantle, and the body. In the next long speech (11. 171-199), he "comes down," has the crowd make a ring around the corpse, and, holding up the bloody mantle, reenacts the murder. Antony's language and action are all concentrated on evoking the deed, with effects quite opposite to Brutus's distancing, obfuscating techniques. Injunctions occur at the beginnings of four lines—"Look" (1. 176), "See" (1. 177), "Mark" (1. 180), "Judge" (1. 184)—building to the final moment when he reveals the body itself: "Look you here" (1. 198). His language is characterized by a quality R. W. Zandvoort describes as "animation," the ascription of life to lifeless objects, somewhat in the manner of the pathetic fallacy (p. 65): Caesar's wounds are "poor, dumb mouths" which "speak for me" (11. 227-228); the "blood of Caesar" followed Brutus's sword "As rushing out of doors to be resolv'd / If Brutus so unkindly knock'd or no" (11. 181-182); while Pompey's statue "all the while ran blood" (1. 191). This is the key to the vitality of his language, the energy that enables him to seize hold of his world. Finally, sweeping aside the garment to reveal the body, he releases forces of chaos and destruction: "Revenge! About! Seek! Burn! Fire! Slay!" (11. 206-207).
Having worked them to this pitch, Antony is now so confident that he can afford to play, so audacious that he can disavow the very arts of oratory he has so lavishly displayed—"wit," "words," "power of speech" (11. 223-224)—in a triumphant flourish of his own showmanship. This gesture is an appropriate conclusion to a performance which is pervaded with irony, for irony is the essence of his oration, from his persona of "a plain blunt man / That … speak[s] right on" (11. 220-225), to the more specific rhetorical forms of "antiphrases" and "paralipsis." "Paralipsis," a mode of irony which works by disclaiming the very things the speaker wishes to emphasize, is one of his most effective techniques. Repeating the word "wrong" six times within four lines (11. 125-129), he insinuates that wrong has been done in the very process of denying that it has. Pretending to try to quiet the crowd, to dissuade them from "mutiny and rage" (11. 123-124), he achieves his ends even as he disclaims them. His handling of the will, "which, pardon me, I do not mean to read" (1. 133), similarly makes use of "paralipsis": in enumerating all his reasons for withholding the will, he describes exactly the ways it will "inflame" (1. 146) them.
Not the least of his ironies is his claim to appeal to the reason: "O judgment! thou art fled to brutish beasts, / And men have lost their reason" (11. 106-107). Yet in a sense, for all his histrionics, Antony does offer more information about Caesar than Brutus did, offering at least the assertions, "He was my friend" (1. 87), he brought captives home to Rome (1. 90), he wept for the poor (1. 93), he thrice refused the crown (1. 99). But at least two of these statements have been contradicted by other characters. With reference to the second, we have Marullus's words, "What conquest brings he home? / What tributaries …" (I.i.32-33). And to Caesar's refusal of the crown, we have Casca's wry commentary, "but, to my thinking, he was very loath to lay his fingers off it" (I.ii.237-238)—even without which, we would be a little more judicious than to leap to the crowd's conclusion, "Therefore 'tis certain he was not ambitious" (III.ii.115). Thus nothing Antony says of Caesar leaves us more enlightened than we were as to his character, and though his language evokes the murder visually and dramatically, questions of Caesar's ambition and the justice of his death are, again, "obscurely glanced at."
Antony's last long speech begins and ends with references to mutiny, at the end of which the mob takes its cue and cries, "We'll mutiny" (11. 233), proclaiming it as their own idea. The chaos he has prophesied has come; or rather, he has brought it about. Antony wins the day because he is the greatest actor of them all, his is the greatest show, a play within the play—complete with gesture, action, and props—which reverses the course of the play itself. Unconcerned with morality or truth, his energies are undivided, all geared to the manipulation of others: this is why he so effectively keeps his footing on such "slippery ground" (III.i. 191). The fire imagery associated with his oration (III.ii. 117), his feigned reluctance to "inflame" them (1. 146), suggests that his words spark the actual blaze: "We'll burn [Caesar's] body … And with the brands fire the traitors' houses … Go fetch fire" (11. 256-259). In his soliloquy at the end of the scene—"now let it work" (1. 262)—Antony uses the same verb that Cassius used to describe his seduction of Brutus. Though Cassius's persuasion of Brutus was subtler, his words, too, "worked" and "struck … fire" (I.ii.306, 175).
Thus each oration creates its own Caesar, or its own illusion of Caesar. Both cannot be true, yet nothing we have seen of Caesar enables us to know which to accept. The Roman mob first applauds Brutus, then, under the influence of Antony's oratory, shifts its allegiance to Antony, demonstrating what Montaigne called
… that foolishnesse and facilitie which is found in the common multitude, and which doth subject the same to be managed, perswaded, and led by the eares by the sweet, alluring and sense-entrancing sound of his harmonie, without duely weighing, knowing, or considering the trueth of things by the force of reason ("Vanitie of Words," I, li, 152).
The crowd reflects its rulers, and their behavior is consistent: in the forum, as with Cinna the poet, they care only for the word, not the reality, and do not bother with fine distinctions between the two—"It is no matter, his name's Cinna. Pluck but his name out of his heart" (III.iii.33-34). Casca's identification of the mob with an audience, "clap[ping]" and "hiss[ing]" as they "do the players in the theatre" (I.ii.255-258), implies, as well, an identification of the audience with the mob. We have, finally, no better basis than they to judge the truth of Brutus's or Antony's claims, and are left as much at the mercy of rhetoric—"led by the ears" rather than the "force of reason." It is this which accounts for the play's central ambiguities: if a point of view is persuasively stated, it passes for truth.
It also accounts for the sense we have of the characters as constantly observing one another, on the alert for unguarded gestures or natural expressions which might afford a truer glimpse than language does into character and motive. Cassius "observes" less "show of love" from Brutus (I.ii.33); Caesar wishes to see the soothsayer's face (I.ii.20); Brutus observes the angry spot on Caesar's brow, the expression in Cicero's eyes (I.ii. 180-186); Caesar remarks on Cassius's lean and hungry look and on his ability to see "through the deeds of men" (11. 191, 199). And in fact, such nonverbal physical signs provide, in this play, more reliable bases for knowledge than language does.
Brutus's language functions in several ways to reshape reality. In accepting the issues as Cassius presents them, he accepts words such as "honor" and "Rome" as explaining more than they actually do, substituting them for precise evaluation of complicated realities. His own verbal techniques—the construing figures of the soliloquy, the complex rhetorical patterns of the oration—are ways of distancing and avoiding, of not assigning names to realities. Nor is the soliloquy the only instance of his use of figurative language to support fatal decisions. Brutus similarly envisions the murder as a sacrificial rite (II.i. 166-174), defends the decision to spare Antony on the grounds that Antony is "but a limb of Caesar" (II.i. 165), and urges the battle at Philippi on the basis of "a tide in the affairs of men" (IV.iii.217)—a particularly compelling image with which he overrides Cassius's objections and any further discussion, assured that the "tide" is "now" (1. 221). Confronted with problems requiring careful assessment, his judgment is confounded by these habits of language.
Julius Caesar follows a pattern familiar in Shakespeare's tragedies: the protagonist's error, his misjudgment of external reality, is related to lack of self-knowledge and to self-deception, and his confusions are facilitated by language. But, as M. M. Mahood observes, the protagonist's disillusionment, his discovery of evil and deception from within and without, usually involves a discovery about language: that words do not necessitate the existence of the things they name (pp. 181-185). Thus Lear understands that "flattery" has been his undoing (IV.vi.96) and Macbeth realizes that "equivocation" has been his (V.v.42). Hamlet and Troilus express skepticism of "words, words, words" (II.ii.192; V.iii.108), and Timon curses language as though it were the root of evil itself: "let … language end" (V.i.220). But Brutus dies deluded, consoling himself that no man was ever false to him; and because he does not awaken to his own self-deception, he never awakens to the deceptions involved in language to express a disenchantment like that of the others. His confusions are too deeply sanctioned by a society that assumes honor is a name and rhetoric is reality. In fact, as the consequences of his deeds unravel before him, Brutus shows even less ability to confront the meanings of things, and there is, in these last scenes, a sense of strain and self-righteousness about him that makes him resemble, increasingly, the man he has murdered. And when "Brutus' tongue / Hath … ended his life's history" (V.v.39-40), Antony's epigraph preserves the fiction of "the noblest Roman of them all" (1. 68).
But there is another kind of "actor" in the play who does not confuse the self with the role. Whereas Brutus and Caesar are lost in their own language and posturing and beguiled by the rhetoric and role playing of others, Antony and Cassius keep private selves separate from public personae and understand distinctions between words and realities. The pairings are familiar from Richard II and Othello, where self-deluded word spinners are similarly destroyed by undeluded, unprincipled nominalists. Victors are differentiated from victims in t̀hese plays by their understanding of words.
If figurative language functions only as an instrument of fatal error, then poetry, too, is deprived of meaning or value in educating. This sense of language casts light on the two "poet" scenes—strange, grotesque little episodes which are so puzzling that the second, at least, is usually omitted in production.
The errors and fates of both poets reflect those of the main characters. Cinna has an intuition of truth, a premonition of disaster, but ventures forth to Caesar's funeral in spite of it. (As with Brutus, the "charging" of "fantasy" is "unlucky" [III.iii.1-2].) Asked his name and warned to "Answer … directly … briefly … wisely … and truly" (11. 9-12), he does not answer directly, and his quibbling enrages the mob. As with the main characters, verbal indirection, along with a fatal confusion of name with reality, cost him his life. The second poet acts according to his "fashion" (IV.iii.134) and "humor" (1. 135) rather than a sense of the "time"—as Brutus can see with him, though not with himself. Bursting in to reconcile the quarreling generals just when they have reconciled themselves, he pronounces his advice:
Love, and be friends, as two such men should
For I have seen more years, I'm sure, than ye.
Like Cinna, he has some intuition of truth; like Brutus, he is well-intentioned; but his advice is ill-timed, it is bad poetry, it contains a non sequitur, and if Brutus's dismissal of him as a "jigging fool" (1. 136) is unkind, it is not inappropriate.
Whatever intuition either character has is beside the point: it has no effect on the action, of others or of their own. Both poets are ineffectual, and their scenes are the closest to anything like "comic relief in the play. With the second of these episodes, Shakespeare made two significant changes in his source: whereas in Plutarch, a cynic philosopher intervenes and actually stops the quarrel, Shakespeare makes him a poet who bursts in too late. So much for the lofty humanist ideal of the poet, as truth-teller, educator, counselor, and adviser to the prince. The poet in Julius Caesar is denied a positive, meaningful function; he is ludicrous, trivial, torn limb from limb. Rome is no country for poets: "What should the wars do with these jigging fools?" (IV.iii.136) Nor will the next age in England be.
In Julius Caesar, it is the negative potentials of language that are most strongly emphasized. Rhetoric is an instrument of appearance which can make, as Plato says, the worse appear the better. Stimulating passion and imagination, it disrupts the proper workings of the mind, perpetuating psychological and social disorder which, in Christian terms, repeats the error of the Fall. Its strength is in human weakness, the corrupt will and unreason: pandering vanity in Brutus and Caesar, it kindles worse passions in the mob. Though language is supposedly man's medium for "coming to terms with the objective world" (as Cassirer calls it), it can be enlisted in the service of subjectivity, of seeming rather than signification, to facilitate the perception of "things that are not" (V.iii.69)—to "misconstrue every thing" (V.iii.84). Bacon's criticism of the scholastics for creating verbal systems based on linguistic logic rather than empirical foundations applies as well to these characters and accounts for their tragic confusions. Speaker and listener are locked in what Bacon calls a "contract of error":
… for as knowledges have hitherto been delivered, there is a kind of contract of error between the deliverer and the receiver; for he who delivers knowledge desires to deliver it in such form as may be best believed, and not as may be most conveniently examined; and he who receives knowledge desires present satisfaction, without waiting for due inquiry; and so rather not to doubt, than not to err … (Dignity and Advancement of Learning, IV, 449)
Such confusions account for the chain of events which begins with Cassius's persuasion of Brutus, leads to Brutus's persuasion of himself, Caesar's assassination, and Antony's victory—ending in a new age of Caesar. It was Shakespeare's genius to integrate these criticisms of language into an epistemological focus which is central to the play's tragic vision.
E. A. J. Honigmann (essay date 1989)
SOURCE: "Politics, Rhetoric, and Will-Power in Julius Caesar," in Myriad-Minded Shakespeare: Essays Chiefly on the Tragedies and Problem Comedies, Macmillan Press, 1989, pp. 21-42.
[In the essay that follows, Honigmann contrasts Shakespeare's use of rhetoric in Julius Caesar and in other plays.]
All of Shakespeare's history-plays and most of his tragedies deal with political problems, yet his critics, until quite recent times, have refused to take his politics seriously. I am particularly irritated by those who assume that in Julius Caesar the political implications are obvious, and are exactly the same as the politics in Shakespeare's other works. The dramatist, we have read often enough, supported the 'Elizabethan settlement', a strong central government that promises the best chance of political order in unsettled times, and would have seen Julius Caesar as a regal figure, the Roman equivalent of Queen Elizabeth. To assassinate Queen Elizabeth would be manifestly wicked, we are told, in the eyes of all right-thinking Englishmen, therefore the murder of Julius Caesar is wicked, therefore all the political and moral questions raised by the play admit of straightforward solutions. Brutus and Cassius should not have done it; Rome needed Caesar, as England needed Elizabeth—is that really what Shakespeare thinks in this penetratingly political play?
Two objections immediately suggest themselves. First, the Caesar-Elizabeth, Rome-England parallels are not as clear-cut as has been suggested. True, the Pope had excommunicated Queen Elizabeth, attempts to assassinate her were frequent in her last thirty years, and rumoured and suspected attempts on her life were even more numerous. The two political parties in Julius Caesar loosely reflect the division of Shakespeare's England: Queen Elizabeth suppressed the 'old faith', establishing Tudor Protestantism with herself as head of Church and State, and Caesar threatened the old republicanism, replacing it with a new form of government, which he headed as perpetual dictator. In Rome, as in Elizabeth's England, the old 'order' and the new were indeed locked in battle; Caesar, however, is presented in the play as a dangerous innovator, whereas Elizabeth was hailed as her country's innovating saviour. Caesar and Elizabeth stood for entirely different political values, and so, despite superficial similarities, their political positions are not the same. Even if it was wicked to assassinate Queen Elizabeth, the moral and political implications of a plot against a perpetual dictator are not so easily resolved.
Second: is it likely that someone as brilliantly original as was Shakespeare, in his understanding of individual human beings, would have no new ideas when he analyses groups of human beings, in their political relationships? The notion that Shakespeare simply and unquestioningly accepted the politics of his Tudor masters, and had no political ideas of his own, was once widespread; T. S. Eliot spoke for many others when he said that Shakespeare, like Dante, adopted the political-intellectual framework of his age. 'I can see no reason', said Eliot, 'for believing that either Dante or Shakespeare did any thinking on his own.… Neither Shakespeare nor Dante did any real thinking—that was not their job.' I shall assume, on the contrary, that 'real thinking' is the job of a writer, and that one as alert as Shakespeare might also develop in his thinking. The moral and political implications of Julius Caesar may resemble those of Shakespeare's other plays, yet must be examined separately, and will probably turn out to be unique—as all important features of a Shakespearian play always prove to be unique, the more closely we look at them.
When Shakespeare set out to write Julius Caesar, in 1599, at the age of thirty-five, a new phase began in his writing-career, whether or not he knew it at the time. Hitherto he had specialised in comedy, and in English history-plays; Julius Caesar was not only his first mature tragedy, it was also his first mature play with a consciously non-Christian background: which affects the play's treatment of husbands and wives, masters and servants, suicide, the supernatural—and politics. We can be sure, I think, that the decision to move off in these new directions was not taken lightly. In addition, though, there is another reason for regarding Julius Caesar as a very special departure. Shakespeare had been publicly chastised, some years earlier, as an 'upstart crow' who dared to compete with his betters—with the 'university wits', Oxford and Cambridge graduates who flaunted their classical know-how in their plays and poetry. Now, for the first time, Shakespeare himself, though not a graduate, undertook to write a play about classical Rome, aware that any theatre-goer who had been to grammar-school would certainly know about the age of Caesar (the age of Livy, Horace, Virgil), whereas his previous historical plays would not have been subjected to the same expert scrutiny (since English history was not on the curriculum in English schools). So it behoved him to be on his guard: a second public attack on him as an upstart, muscling in on classical territory in which he was not really at home, would have been most unfortunate. Moreover, a new young dramatist had recently appeared on the literary scene, a 'pestilent fellow' with a sharply critical tongue, a bricklayer's son (as his enemies alleged) who had studied the classics more intensively than Shakespeare, and was later to refer to Shakespeare's 'small Latin and less Greek'. Ben Jonson, and others, could be expected to look for faults in Shakespeare's play—and indeed we know that Jonson pounced on Julius Caesar. Many times, according to Jonson, Shakespeare 'fell into those things [which] could not escape laughter; as when he said, in the person of Caesar, one speaking to him, "Caesar, thou dost me wrong", he replied. "Caesar did never wrong without just cause"—and such like; which were ridiculous.'
Writing a play about Julius Caesar therefore involved several kinds of risk. The man from provincial Stratford, who was rumoured to have been in his younger years a schoolmaster in the country (Jonson once remarked contemptuously that a schoolmaster 'sweeps his living from the posteriors of little children')—the 'upstart crow', it would be said, was trying to get above himself. And Shakespeare must have anticipated this reaction. How, then, did he prepare for it and try to outflank it?
For those who think they know the story of Julius Caesar the play is full of surprises. First and foremost there is the portrait of Caesar himself, falling apart physically and mentally—deaf in one ear, superstitious, childishly proud of his shrewd judgement, easy game for flatterers (weaknesses largely invented by Shakespeare). This in itself is a warning to us that the dramatist was not afraid of pedantic fault-finders, such as Jonson, and interprets and rearranges history freely, as in the English history-plays. Shakespeare's Cicero, Cassius, and Antony are also surprising—for example, Antony's subservient, almost servile, relationship with Caesar in the first half of the play.
Antony. Caesar, my lord!
Caesar. Forget not in your speed, Antonius,
To touch Calphurnia; for our elders say
The barren, touched in this holy chase,
Shake off their sterile curse.
Antony. I shall remember.
When Caesar says 'Do this', it is perform'd.
According to Plutarch, Antony had already reached high political office, second only to Caesar; Shakespeare transforms Antony into something close to a lackey. It follows that he was not trying to impress classicists by painting historically unimpeachable portraits of the principal characters.
As many commentators have said, Shakespeare's special effort went into the language of Julius Caesar. Apart from the poets and prose-writers that I have already mentioned (Livy, Horace, Virgil), the Rome of Julius Caesar bred orators, such as Cicero, trained in the schools—and Shakespeare's unique achievement was that he recreated a world dedicated to speech-making and the arts of persuasion. Deciding to go 'extra-territorial' and to compete with dramatists who could boast a finished classical education, the 'upstart crow' invites his audience to attend to a new rhetoric—loosely based on Latin models in its self-conscious artistry, its sheer professionalism. I suspect that Ben Jonson perceived that this was the special achievement of Julius Caesar, and thought he would go one better in his own two Roman plays by offering more authentic speeches—those interminable orations that crush the life out of his Sejanus and Catiline.
Of course, Shakespeare had written many plays before Julius Caesar in which 'speech-making' is important, notably Henry V . I am not sure why Julius Caesar seems more 'classical' in this respect than its predecessors—partly, no doubt, the feeling is influenced by the high concentration of 'Roman allusions'.
Wherefore rejoice? What conquest brings he
What tributaries follow him to Rome
To grace in captive bonds his chariot wheels?
You blocks, you stones, you worse than
O you hard hearts, you cruel men of Rome,
Knew you not Pompey?
This, the first 'big speech', centres on Pompey; Cassius's 'Well, honour is the subject of my story', on Caesar; and Portia's appeal to Brutus climaxes in another name with historic associations.
I grant I am a woman; but withal
A woman well reputed, Cato's daughter.
Think you I am no stronger than my sex
Being so father'd and so husbanded?
Pompey, Caesar, Cato—magic names. These, and the many allusions to Roman landmarks and customs, help to create the impression that we are listening to 'Roman' oratory. But the rhetoric of Julius Caesar differs from that of Shakespeare's earlier plays in at least one other point: again and again the big speeches exhort stage-listeners to abandon their purposes, to change their minds. Compare Henry V, the nearest rival to Julius Caesar in speech-making, and you find the very opposite: Henry wants to go to war, and the Archbishop of Canterbury encourages him; his men are there to fight, at Harfleur and Agincourt, and Henry cheers them on; at the end, everyone wants peace, and Burgundy speaks for all. These orations, like the chorus-speeches, lift the listeners by reinforcing a wish or a mood already present in them. In Julius Caesar the orator swims against the tide, not with it, quells the mood of his listeners, and changes the course of events. The tribune Marullus subdues the skylarking of the plebeians in Act I scene 1, till they creep away, 'tongue-tied in their guiltiness'; Cassius talks to an unwilling Brutus, pushing him in a direction he had not intended to go; Portia also compels Brutus to do what he had not wished. These are forensic speeches, moving from point to point with a professional expertise till they reach an irresistible conclusion, which is followed, as often as not, by a kind of surrender from the listener.
O ye gods,
Render me worthy of this noble wife!
This is Brutus's polite way of saying, as many a husband has said since, 'O God, what a wife!' (He doesn't quite say 'O God, she's got round me again!') And these speeches all lead up to Antony's 'Friends, Romans, countrymen', where, again, the rhetoric totally changes the mood of the listeners and drives them to actions they had not contemplated.
It is, therefore, the professionalism of its rhetoric that so sharply distinguishes Julius Caesar from earlier histories and tragedies. The speakers, when they want to persuade, know exactly how to go about their business, because they belong to a tradition—a Roman tradition—of oratory. One senses this professionalism when the speaker plays his acecard to maximum effect, as a last resort, as when Portia suddenly reveals her wound, or Antony at last spells out the provisions of Caesar's will—namely, that the whole thing was planned, step by step, by one who anticipated and shaped an inevitable response. I feel it, too, when the speaker, having finished, congratulates himself on a job well done—
Well, Brutus, thou art noble; yet, I see,
Thy honourable metal may be wrought
From that it is dispos'd.
Similarly, Antony rubs his hands at the end of the Forumscene.
Now let it work. Mischief, thou art afoot,
Take thou what course thou wilt.
These, again, are signals to us that the speaker has not drifted aimlessly but has fulfilled a conscious purpose.
Having observed the technical proficiency of those who resort to rhetoric in Julius Caesar, and how effortlessly men and women in this Roman world, in public and private situations, switch on the arts of persuasion, we must next note that a failure to speak effectively becomes all the more meaningful. Julius Caesar, at home 'in his night-gown', is not only superstitious and pompous, he is positively garrulous—a tendency already visible when he protests too much that he does not fear Cassius.
Would he were fatter! But I fear him not.
Yet if my name were liable to fear
I do not know the man I should avoid
So soon as that spare Cassius.…
I rather tell thee what is to be fear'd
Than what I fear: for always I am Caesar.
Such uncontrolled, 'give-away' speaking is all the more remarkable set beside the highly wrought rhetoric of this play. Similarly, when the uncouth Casca explains how Caesar was offered a crown, and the scene's verse gives way to stumbling prose, a point is made about the standards one could expect from an educated Roman.
I can as well be hanged as tell the manner of it: it was mere foolery; I did not mark it. I saw Mark Antony offer him a crown—yet 'twas not a crown neither, 'twas one of these coronets—and, as I told you, he put it by once; but for all that, to my thinking, he would fain have had it. Then he offered it to him again; then he put it by again.… (I.2.234)
He pours it all out, drawing from Brutus the remark
What a blunt fellow is this grown to be!
He was quick mettle when he went to school.
Brutus refers disparagingly to one who does not know how to express himself properly, though he would have been told how in elegant lectures 'when he went to school'.
Even more significant than the gap between careless and careful speakers is the contrast between different kinds of competence exhibited by a single speaker. Brutus's Forum-speech proves him to be highly skilled in oratory (many critics have condemned it as weak and ineffective but, as Granville-Barker observed, 'it is certainly not meant to be ineffective, for it attains its end in convincing the crowd'). When the conspirators meet at his house, Brutus also speaks fluently. All the more surprising, therefore, that so practised a speaker seems so helpless when Portia sets about him, that he wards off her rhetorical flow with short phrases totally devoid of rhetorical art—
I am not well in health, and that is all.
Brutus is wise, and, were he not in health,
He would embrace the means to come by it.
Why, so I do. Good Portia, go to bed.
Portia finds her second wind—as wives sometimes do, in these domestic situations—and sails off into another beautifully measured speech, and he avoids answering, saying simply, 'Kneel not, gentle Portia.' Now, when Cassius had appealed to him in Act I with similar emotionalism, Brutus did not refuse to engage with him rhetorically—quite the opposite. The turn of his sentences, their deliberate patterning, matches Cassius's verbal artistry, warding him off, as it were, with his own weapon—and the same speech, or one very like it, could have been made to Portia.
That you do love me, I am nothing jealous;
What you would work me to, I have some
How I have thought of this, and of these
I shall recount hereafter. For this present
I would not, so with love I might entreat you,
Be any further mov'd.
Why does Brutus not silence Portia's pleading with a similar speech? I believe that, although his short replies to Portia are sometimes spoken as if he is only half-listening to her (a typical husband?), a more likely explanation is that he is overwhelmed by her vehemence. For a while the skilled orator is speechless.
Brutus's feeblest speech, in my view, comes at the end of the quarrel-scene, when he plucks up courage to address that 'monstrous apparition', the Ghost of Caesar.
Brutos. Speak to me what thou art.
Ghost. Thy evil spirit, Brutus.
Brutus. Why com'st thou?
Ghost. To tell thee thou shalt see me at
Brutos. Well; then I shall see thee again?
Ghost. Ay, at Philippi.
Brutus. Why, I will see thee at Philippi then.
This is an extraordinary example of not knowing what to say: 'Why, I will see thee at Philippi then—if you say. so.' The fact that in Plutarch almost the same words are used would be no excuse for such a feeble line—except that feebleness is right at this moment, expressing Brutus's shock and confusion, which he admits in the very next line: 'Now I have taken heart thou vanishest.'
In this play, then, we find a complete rhetorical range, from formal orations and other long speeches that set out to persuade down to mumbled excuses and near-helpless echoing of what another has said. Perpetually switching from speech-making to talk, from one register to another, Shakespeare draws attention to rhetoric as a basic fact of Roman life, a mental discipline that he has woven into the fabric of this studiously Roman play, just as he very deliberately threads in allusions to Roman history and topography. I want to give one more example, from the scene that contemporaries seem to have admired above all—the quarrel-scene. It is one of the master-strokes of this great scene that it dips so suddenly from Brutus's high-toned
Remember March, the ides of March
Did not great Julius bleed for justice sake?
down to exchanges that sound like the wrangling of five-year-olds:
1—Go to; you are not, Cassius.
—I say you are not.
2—Did I say 'better'?
—If you did, I care not.
3—I denied you not.
—I did not.
Lifted out of context, these exchanges sound almost laughable. Yet they are absolutely natural in a quarrel (and intimate, among other things, that Brutus and Cassius, who call each other 'brother', have probably known each other since childhood, and can relapse into the speech-habits of earlier years); and, in addition, they make us all the more conscious of other ups and downs, of the scene's rhetorical texturing.
So far I have argued that in Julius Caesar Shakespeare presents a Roman world highly conscious of the powers of rhetoric, one where the skilled orator uses words as weapons that can change the course of events. The tribune Marullus and Cassius in Act I; Portia in Act II, and Decius Brutus, persuading Caesar to go to his death; Mark Antony in Act III—these are some of the prize exhibits of what rhetoric can actually achieve. But Shakespeare was not so naïve as to believe that the best argument, or the best speech, always wins, in a political situation. The very opposite is often true. This very 'political' play shows, again and again, that crucial decisions are made because one person imposes his will on others; Shakespeare rewrites history to prove that the man who can dominate others by force of personality, rather than force of argument, must rise to the top. The 'man of destiny', the Napoleonic man, the Thatcher phenomenon, may employ argument, but wins political battles because he or she is the dominant baboon in a wilderness of monkeys—he is 'constant as the northern star' to the conviction that he is always right, 'for always I am Caesar'. As Napoleon put it, 'Wherever I am not, there is chaos'—expressing the supreme self-confidence that is both the strength and the fatal flaw of every Caesar or Thatcher in history.
Shakespeare underlines this point most unmistakable in dramatising Brutus's ascendancy over his fellow conspirators. In Act II, Cassius makes several proposals and Brutus, every time, immediately makes counterproposals—and anyone who knows the story knows that Brutus's are errors of judgement. If only Cicero had been brought into the conspiracy, as Cassius wished, Cicero—the greatest orator of his generation—could have presented the case for the murder of Caesar so much more convincingly than Brutus that Antony would not have dared to turn the tide of opinion. If only Antony had been killed with Caesar, or had been forbidden to speak at Caesar's funeral, the course of history might have been different. Shakespeare draws attention to the fact that something other than reason prevails when Brutus compels Cassius, against his better judgement, to march to Philippi.
Brutus. What do you think
Of marching to Philippi presently?
Cassius. I do not think it good.
Brutus. Your reason?
Cassius. This it is:
Tis better that the enemy seek us;
So shall he waste his means, weary his
But Brutus, having just won the clash of wills in the quarrel-scene, loftily insists that he knows best. 'Good reasons must, of force, give place to better.' Cassius still objects, Brutus remains arrogantly overbearing, and at last Cassius submits. 'Then, with your will, go on.' A curious phrase, 'Then, with your will, go on.' How many times, one wonders, have cabinet ministers, Pyms and Priors, mumbled their submission, against their better judgement, in similar words? 'Then, with your will, go on, Prime Minister.'
Not only in the clashes of Brutus and Cassius but in many other scenes Shakespeare is concerned, in Julius Caesar, with the triumph of will over reason. Whatever powers the aging Julius Caesar of the play has lost—and the commentators are agreed that Shakespeare chose to depict the great Roman in decline—we are left in no doubt that Caesar believes himself to be pre-eminent because he sees himself as a man of irresistible will.
And tell them that I will not come to-day.
Cannot, is false; and that I dare not, falser;
I will not come to-day. Tell them so, Decius.
The cause is in my will: I will not come.
The play shows, of course, that one's strength of will can decline, as do other mental and physical abilities, but Caesar's vision of himself as the man of unshakable purpose, even if grotesquely untrue of the man he has become, reveals what he was, or believed himself to be, when he rose to the top as 'the noblest man / That ever lived in the tide of times'. You may outlive yourself, and lose your decisiveness (as Napoleon did) but you remember what it was that lifted you above the common pack of men.
I could be well mov'd, if I were as you;
If I could pray to move, prayers would move
But I am constant as the northern star,
Of whose true-fix'd and resting quality
There is no fellow in the firmament.
Shakespeare shows that a leader of men, whether Caesar or Brutus, may misunderstand people, arguments, and even the very situation in which he finds himself, and yet can dominate others, who see more clearly, by sheer force of will. This shocking political insight—so very different from the dear old 'Elizabethan World Picture'—emerges as the 'philosophy of history' in Julius Caesar, if I may use so grand a phrase. For the play undeniably suggests that the next 'man of destiny', though neither outstanding as a general nor as a thinker, possesses the one gift that matters.
Antony. Octavius, lead your battle softly on,
Upon the left hand of the even field.
Octavius. Upon the right hand I: keep thou the
Antony. Why do you cross me in this exigent?
Octavius. I do not cross you; but I will do so.
Shakespeare's thesis, that sheer will-power is the decisive political factor and overcomes almost all opposition, surfaces in many ways.
Nor stony tower, nor walls of beaten brass,
Nor airless dungeon, nor strong links of iron,
Can be retentive to the strength of spirit.…
Brutus's interview with Portia is another example. It begins as quiet pleading, and ends as a fearful clash of wills, when Portia discloses the 'great gash' in her thigh. The fact that she was able to bide her time, while the blood was flowing beneath her robes, until the psychological moment when the sight of her wound will destroy Brutus's resistance, proves her 'strength of spirit', her will to succeed. Not her eloquence, but this exercise of pure will, overcomes Brutus. And in her case Shakespeare shows, I think, that devotees of will-power may conquer others but, in the end, overthrow themselves as well. The strength that inflicted her 'great gash' must be connected with that even more extraordinary exploit, her suicide by 'swallowing fire'. Caesar's determination also contributes indirectly to his death, in so far as he insists on remaining 'constant as the northern star' when surrounded by opposing wills: his 'constancy' blunts his perception. As for Brutus, whenever he forces Cassius and the rest in a direction they do not wish to follow, we feel each time that his need to dominate blinds his reason and hurries him to his destruction.
A. C. Bradley once remarked that the quarrel-scene in Julius Caesar 'can hardly be defended on strictly dramatic grounds'. Perhaps we can defend it by saying that it presents the play's most exciting clash of wills, bringing to a head one of its central interests, which, we may add, explains Shakespeare's rearrangement of some of the incidents of the Forum-scene. In Plutarch's Life of Marcus Brutus these are described as follows:
[The conspirators] came to talk of Caesar's will and testament, and of his funerals and tomb. Then Antonius, thinking good his testament should be read openly, and also that his body should be honourably buried, … Cassius stoutly spake against it. But Brutus went with the motion, and agreed unto it.… When Caesar's testament was openly read among them, whereby it appeared that he bequeathed unto every citizen of Rome 75 drachmas a man, and that he left his gardens and arbours unto the people.… The people then loved him, and were marvellous sorry for him. Afterwards, when Caesar's body was brought into the market-place, Antonius, making his funeral oration in praise of the dead, … framed his eloquence to make their hearts yearn the more.…
Closely as the play appears to follow this narrative, there is some significant retouching of detail. In Plutarch, the contents of Caesar's testament are published before Antony's funeral oration; in Shakespeare, we hear almost invariably of Caesar's will, and its contents are revealed later, as the climax of Antony's oration; the plebeians are kept dangling, so to speak, to give maximum repetition to an ominous word that has already caught our attention.
—We'll hear the will. Read it, Mark Antony!
—The will, the will! We will hear Caesar's
—The will! Read the will!
—You will compel me then to read the will?
—Why, friends, you go to do you know not
Wherein hath Caesar thus deserv'd your
Alas, you know not: I must tell you then.
You have forgot the will I told you of.
—Most true. The will! Let's stay and hear the
(III.2.139-40, 155-6, 236-40)
Not only has Shakespeare given greater emphasis to 'the will' by making Antony's oration circle round it, and by verbal repetition. He also contrives to suggest that the man who had dominated Rome by his will ('The cause is in my will: I will not come') somehow wills the mischief and mutiny that follow from the reading of his testament.
Caesar's will survives him as a political force, and, like his 'spirit, ranging for revenge', continues to dominate the Roman world—a point also underlined for us by a stage-direction in Act IV: 'Enter the Ghost of Caesar. ' In Plutarch there is no hint that this 'wonderful strange and monstrous shape' appears in the likeness of Caesar; 'I am thy evil spirit, Brutus', it explains (in the Life of Marcus Brutus), or, alternatively, 'I am thy ill angel, Brutus' (in the Life of Caesar). Even without the Folio's stage-direction, though, we might well have guessed that the play's ghost ought to take the shape of Caesar, after what Brutus had said earlier about 'the spirit of Caesar'.
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!
The spirit of Caesar and the will of Caesar are just about identical in the play: the Ghost appears as a dismembered, menacing will, and does not even have to explain its reason for coming. Brutus knows—
O Julius Caesar, thou art mighty yet!
Thy spirit walks abroad and turns our swords
In our own proper entrails!
Reading Julius Caesar as a political play, in which the author contrasts 'strength of spirit' and rhetoric as mighty opposites, the two political forces that really matter, one wonders about Shakespeare's own assessment of the rights and wrongs of the Roman political situation. It has been said that he 'makes it abundantly clear that the rule of the single master-mind is the only admissible solution' for the problems of Rome. I am not so sure. Shakespeare demonstrates, I think, that the so-called master-mind has outlived itself, and has become a mere husk of itself: the 'master-mind' is a prey to superstition, flattery, a neurotic wife, and megalo-mania. Under Caesar, the political system appears to work, but does it? The senate is treated by him with contempt, and he himself is manipulated by other men, and is portrayed by Shakespeare as an amalgam of rigid prejudices and an almost unbelievable capacity for dithering. Caesar has in effect destroyed the political institutions of Rome; Antony, a consul at the time of the Feast of Lupercal, actually offers his political master a crown, but he lacks the will to take it; the tribunes 'Marullus and Flavius, for pulling scarfs off Caesar's images, are put to silence' (I.2.280). What does it mean, 'put to silence'? They would know in a police-state, where people are dragged from their homes in the small hours, and are never seen again. Caesar's Rome is a fascist state, which began its rule with the murder of Pompey, where opponents are 'put to silence' or banished, where mob-rule is the ultimate source of power. (We are not told with what honeyed words Antony offered the crown to Caesar, but clearly this was an appeal to the mob, as was Antony's later funeral-oration.) Caesar and his gang have highjacked the government of Rome, much like the generals who have seized power of late in many parts of the world; and Shakespeare seems to me to have very little sympathy with General Caesar's political methods or aspirations.
Antony prophesies that after the death of Caesar
Domestic fury and fierce civil strife
Shall cumber all the parts of Italy.
Shakespeare, however, retouched the historical picture in many ways to suggest that the political system had already broken down before Caesar's death, which, I think, makes the conspiracy of Brutus and Cassius more understandable, and perhaps justifiable.
Shakespeare's play presents a political jungle, in which one man has temporarily gained control. Yet the dramatist no more commits himself to the view that Rome needs Caesar than to any other political solution: Caesar simply follows Pompey as the next cowboy who thinks he can ride the political bronco, and gets thrown like Pompey. Shakespeare's attitude is fairly cynical where politicians are concerned, as in most of his other plays. He makes it clear that Caesar has not solved Rome's problems, and, accentuating Caesar's weaknesses, more than hints that with such a leader things must fall apart, the centre cannot hold. He also rewrites history to suggest that Caesar's chief opponent, Brutus, lacks the political instinct to be a successful leader of men, turning Brutus into Cassius's dupe, which he was not in Plutarch. The play's Cassius decides
I will this night,
In several hands, in at his windows throw,
As if they came from several citizens,
Writings, all tending to the great opinion
That Rome holds of his name.…
Plutarch's Brutus receives genuine letters, not fakes, from his 'friends and countrymen'. It is surely significant that, in Shakespeare's account, the two principal figures, Caesar and Brutus, are both intellectually down-graded: both are made the dupes of other men, both suffer from an inflated sense of their own importance, and both speak pompously of themselves, in the third person.
Danger knows full well
That Caesar is more dangerous than he.
We are two lions litter'd in one day
And I the elder and more terrible.…
It is sheer fantasy. A man who believes that will believe anything—and Caesar seems to believe it. Brutus, too, fantasises about himself—
My heart doth joy that yet in all my life
I found no man but he was true to me.
After Brutus's treachery to Caesar, his sense of his own honour and truth becomes less and less plausible, as Antony helps us to understand: 'For Brutus is an honourable man.' Shakespeare, of course, invented the special way Caesar and Brutus speak and fantasise about themselves, and thus intimates that these leading politicians are dangerously out of touch with reality.
Politics can only be as good as the politicians. Shakespeare seems to have set out to prove that the supposedly great men of Caesar's Rome, despite all their talk about high principles, have been ridiculously overrated—a cynical reappraisal that affects not only Caesar and Brutus but also secondary figures. Cicero, who battled courageously against Caesar's ambitions, becomes an ineffectual bystander in the play. 'Did Cicero say anything?' asks Cassius, after Caesar was offered the crown. 'Ay, he spoke Greek.… Those that understood him smiled at one another, and shook their heads'—a glimpse of the man added by Shakespeare that subtly degrades him. Strange, too, that in a play containing such memorable orations, Cicero is given nothing memorable to say.
Shakespeare's cynicism about the heroic figures of the classical past must have astounded his contemporaries, such as Ben Jonson; at times the play reads like a deliberate exercise in debunking, in the manner of Troilus and Cressida. His cool rewriting of history is evident not only in his portraits of individuals but in many incidental touches—for example, the six lines that begin Act IV scene 1, where Antony and Octavius and Lepidus haggle over the lives of a brother and nephew.
Antony. These many, then, shall die; their
names are prick'd.
Octavius. Your brother too must die. Consent
Lepidus. I do consent.
Octavius. Prick him down, Antony.
Lepidus. Upon condition Publius shall not live,
Who is your sister's son, Mark Antony.
Antony. He shall not live; look, with a spot I
Plutarch thought this proscription quite outrageous. 'In my opinion,' he wrote, 'there was never a more horrible, unnatural, and crueller [ex]change than this was. For thus [exchanging murder for murder, they did as well kill those whom they did forsake and leave unto others, as those also which others left unto them to kill.' Shakespeare, however, made it an even blacker incident by omitting all signs of reluctance, whereas, according to Plutarch, 'they could hardly agree whom they would put to death: for every one of them would kill their enemies, and save their kinsmen and friends'. Shakespeare turns it into a kind of poker-game, a test of nerves where no one flinches and every man watches the others for signs of weakness. On the surface, all is harmony and restraint—but, introducing slight pauses, the actors can signal to us that this is not a rational discussion at all; it is, quite simply, a clash of wills:
—Your brother too must die. Consent you,
—I … do consent.
The scene develops in masterly fashion to expose the basest political opportunism. 'Lepidus, go you to Caesar's house', says Antony;
Fetch the will hither, and we shall determine
How to cut off some charge in legacies.
Just two lines are needed to demonstrate Antony's total unscrupulousness. The next forty lines continue the poker-game, as Antony tries to persuade Octavius that Lepidus is 'a slight, unmeritable man', and Octavius pretends not to believe him. On the surface they argue about Lepidus; the real issue is different: which one will win an ascendancy over the other? Antony places himself in the weaker position by talking down to Octavius ('Octavius, I have seen more days than you'), only to find that the younger man turns the tables on him—by giving him permission to do as he chooses.
You may do your will;
But he's a tried and valiant soldier.
Antony then makes the mistake of appealing to Octavius—
So is my horse, Octavius, and for that
I do appoint him store of provender.
Trying to justify himself when Octavius has already given his consent, Antony proves himself the weaker man—and such small verbal advantages can lead to larger victories, as when Octavius refuses to accept Antony's orders at Philippi; and to the overthrow of empires.
Julius Caesar is a play that hums with 'political' implications. Even in private or domestic conversation the participants jockey for advantage, and Shakespeare expects us to know enough about Roman history to understand how private clashes can affect the larger political scene. In the fifth act, however, the play's wonderful coherence, its simultaneous exploration of the outer and the inner world, seems to me to be succeeded by writing of a lower order—a change that has long puzzled me. In the few minutes that remain I want to consider the purpose of Act V, and how it connects with what went before.
At one time my simple-minded solution to this problem was that Shakespeare, exhausted by the Forum-scene and the quarrel-scene, those twin glories of the play, lost interest in the story and hurried with indecent haste to the end—perhaps because he was already pondering his next work, The Tragedy of Hamlet, Prince of Denmark. To accuse Shakespeare of such irresponsibility is always dangerous, and I have to admit that the loss of power in Act V is less evident in the theatre than in the study. Nevertheless, the switch to battle-scenes, the absence of 'big' speeches, the general sense of diminuendo, demands an explanation. What did Shakespeare think he was doing in this very strange fifth act?
It may be that we can answer this question by considering the prominence given to Cassius's birthday.
This is my birth-day; as this very day
Was Cassius born. Give me thy hand,
Here Shakespeare dramatises, without comment, a sentence from Plutarch:
Messala writeth that Cassius, having spoken these last words … he bade him farewell and willed him to come to supper to him the next night following, because it was his birthday.
Shakespeare, however, returned to the fact that Cassius died on his birthday (which, incidentally, seems to have been Shakespeare's own fate as well)—and made Cassius comment as follows:
This day I breathed first: time is come round,
And where I did begin, there shall I end;
My life is run his compass.
It suited Shakespeare to make this point about the circularity of life because, when you think about it, the fifth act as a whole seems to make the same point about history, and the events of the play. That is, although the fifth act appears to cobble together the final, confused events in the lives of the principal conspirators, Brutus and Cassius, below the surface it re-traverses the ground of the first four acts, and suggests that history keeps on repeating itself. Cassius asks Pindarus to kill him with the very sword that killed Caesar—
with this good sword.
That ran through Caesar's bowels, search this
Cassius covers his face before Pindarus stabs him, and no doubt Brutus also does so before his death, exactly repeating Caesar's gesture as described by Antony—
Then burst his mighty heart;
And in his mantle muffling up his face,
Even at the base of Pompey's statua,
Which all the while ran blood, great Caesar
History repeats itself, since Caesar was in effect responsible for Pompey's death, and dies 'at the base of Pompey's statua'; then Brutus and Cassius kill Caesar, and later kill themselves with the same swords, and, it seems, with the very same dying gesture. History also repeats itself in so far as Caesar was hunted to death—
Here wast thou bay'd, brave hart;
Here didst thou fall; and here thy hunters
—and the 'low alarums' that close in on Brutus in the final scene repeat this image: a pack of pursuers hunting a doomed man to death.
The use of déjà vu being so important, we must remember that it could be reinforced by production-methods that have disappeared from the text. As I have already mentioned, Shakespeare remodelled Brutus in the likeness of Caesar, giving him similar speech-habits, and a similar sense of being a very special person; and both men, of course, are similarly hero-worshipped by their followers. The irony that the two men, Caesar and Brutus, who take it upon themselves to set Rome to rights, both have to pay the price with their lives, could be underlined choreographically—by making the survivors flow away from, or tip-toe towards, the bodies, so as to remind the audience that it has seen some-thing like it before.
I feel, too, that the unexpected appearance of young Cato, about a hundred lines before the end of the play, needs a similar explanation.
I am the son of Marcus Cato, ho!
A foe to tyrants, and my country's friend.
I am the son of Marcus Cato, ho!
He speaks five lines, and is immediately killed. What is the point of it? Being the son of Cato, he is the brother of Portia—and, since it is stressed that he is young to be a soldier, he might well have been played by the very boy-actor who had taken the part of Portia. Thus, again, the producer can bring out that history repeats itself—that Portia's passionate spirit lives on in another, and again tries to protect Brutus.
The idea that history repeats itself has been present from the beginning of the play. Brutus feels obliged to resist Caesar's ambitions because his 'ancestors did from the streets of Rome/The Tarquàn drive, when he was call'd a king' (II. 1.53). In the fifth act Shakespeare powerfully reactivates this idea—suggesting that those who think they are in control of their own destiny, and who think they can control the destiny of nations, are in the grip of invisible forces that bring about Caesar's death 'at the base of Pompey's statua', and Cassius's death on his birthday, with the very sword that killed Caesar, and so on. Despite all the intense political activity of the human actors, a higher force seems to have willed and prearranged the outcome, imposing a beautiful symmetry that, in effect, mocks the efforts of mere mortals to take charge of the world themselves. The confusion and misunderstanding of the battle-scenes mirror the political events of the first four acts, and bring out unmistakably that the leading figures have all misunderstood themselves, and the situations in which they exercised their political talents. Shakespeare's disenchanted comment on the great events of the play is heard, I think, in Titinius's despairing cry when he discovers the body of Cassius—
Alas! thou hast misconstrued everything!
It is a line that reaches into all parts of the play, wonderfully right about Cassius, and equally relevant to Caesar, Brutus and Antony, the play's leading politicians—
Alas! thou hast misconstrued everything!
It is a magical if one-sided summing-up line for this cynical play, but, I have to admit it, it is also a slightly unfortunate summing-up line at the end of a lecture.
Last Updated on May 5, 2015, by eNotes Editorial. Word Count: 15405
Gordon Ross Smith (essay date 1959)
SOURCE: "Brutus, Virtue, and Will," in Shakespeare Quarterly, Vol. X, No. 3, Summer, 1959, pp. 367-79.
[In the essay, Smith maintains that Brutus's most distinguishing trait is his willfulness, which is strengthened and guided by his self-righteous belief in his own virtue.]
For the last century and a half the most frequent critical comments upon Shakespeare's portrait of Brutus have been that he is imperfectly realized, that Shakespeare himself did not understand him, or that he is too virtuous a person ever to have been alive. Coleridge asked, "What character did Shakespeare mean his Brutus to be?" E. E. Stoll wrote that the chief thing in Brutus is "the neglect of analysis or motivation.… He is acting from some lofty and solemn sense of duty—he is a reformer, though without a cause or motive—we can see no more.… His conduct … is, as conceived by Shakespeare, unjustified." Granville-Barker repeatedly laid his burden at Shakespeare's door by writing, "Shakespeare himself is still fumbling … and why should his Brutus not be fumbling too?" And further on, "The plain fact is, one fears, that Shakespeare, even if he can say he understands Brutus, can in this last analysis make nothing of him.… Shakespeare … is not sufficiently attuned to this tragedy of intellectual integrity, of principles too firmly held". So also Margaret Webster, Donald Stauffer, and most recently, J. C. Maxwell: "Brutus is a puzzle." M. W. MacCallum, Brander Matthews, Hardin Craig, Harold C. Goddard, and many others have considered Brutus' nature too delicate and fine for the harsh world he lives in.
The first of the two chief theses of the present interpretation is that the central quality of Brutus is not his virtue. It is his will. His virtue is the splendid muffling that clothes his will, that hides it from all cynical, envious eyes, that garbs a thoroughly egotistical willfulness in the white radiance of incorruptible principle. His virtue is his preoccupation, whence his unworldliness, and his virtue is his self-justification, whence his invariable insistence upon his own way. With his virtue he fools everyone, even himself. A close inspection of his lines shows that his will is the chief constant of his behavior, and that that will is impregnably fortified with his rock-solid belief in his own virtue. His strength is as the strength of ten because he thinks his heart is pure. This pattern was further enhanced by the fact that both friends (I. iii. 157-160; II. i.90-93) and enemies (V. v. 68-77) took him at his own face value, reinforcing by look, gesture, and voice his own opinion of himself.
The second main thesis here is that Brutus' character is not a mystery, not something beyond anyone's—including Shakespeare's—comprehension, but instead is a presentation of the surface of a recurrent personality type that certainly embodies conflicts but that is certainly not inexplicable. The demonstration of this second thesis is dependent upon a demonstration of the first.
The conspicuous virtue for which Brutus had a reputation was recognized by the conspirators and they planned to make use of it (I.iii.161-164). What they apparently had not counted on was his assuming full control immediately. This assumption of control appears in everything, from major questions of policy to the most trivial matters. Although it does not appear until immediately after Brutus joins the conspirators, it is foreshadowed in the first scene. Cassius says to him: "You bear too stubborn and too strange a hand / Over your friend that loves you" (I.ii.35-36). In context this means that Brutus has been less friendly to Cassius than was usual, but on a more general level it describes perfectly the behavior that Brutus will display. The play contains at least fourteen ocasions in which Brutus proceeds to dominate or to domineer over his fellows. These occasions are the following:
- When Cassius brings the conspirators to Brutus' house (H.i.86), he and Brutus whisper together while the rest make polite small-talk about the sunrise (II.i. 101-111). Their subject, where the sun will come up, has symbolic irony, since they are met to bring about a sunrise of "Peace, freedom, and liberty" (III.i.110), which they will never see. When Brutus and Cassius return to the group, Brutus speaks first: "Give me your hands all over, one by one" (II.i. 112). Cassius suggests they swear, but Brutus at once over-rules him:
No, not an oath! If not the face of men,
The sufferance of our souls, the time's
If these be motives weak, break off betimes,
And every man hence to his idle bed.
There follows a long lecture of high moral tone.
- When the lecture ends, Cassius, Casca, Cinna, and Metellus concur in the opinion that Cicero should be included, but Brutus overrules them:
O, name him not; let us not break with him,
For he will never follow anything
That other men begin.
Virtuous Brutus is not like that. Has he not joined the conspirators late? almost last? The suggestion that Cicero be included is dropped.
- Decius then asks if anyone else should be "touch'd", and Cassius says Antony is too close to Caesar and too dangerous to be spared (II.i. 154-161). Brutus at once overrules him:
Our course will seem too bloody, Caius
To cut the head off and then hack the limbs,
Like wrath in death and envy afterwards;
For Antony is but a limb of Caesar.
Let's be sacrificers, but not butchers, Caius.
That last line of seemingly gentle moral admonition is patronizing in its assumption of the moral superiority of the speaker over the admonished and allows no room for the dissent of anyone but a butcher. Uncontradicted, Brutus soars up to the perfectly fatuous:
Caesar must bleed for it! And, gentle friends,
Let's kill him boldly, but not wrathfiilly;
Let's carve him as a dish fit for the gods,
Not hew him as a carcass fit for hounds;
We shall be call'd purgers, not murderers.
But murder is murder though it be called a rose, and Brutus' choice of euphemism certainly anticipated a comparable usage of the twentieth century.
- Cassius objects again: "Yet I fear him; / For in the ingrafted love he bears to Caesar—" (II.i. 183-184). Brutus interrupts and overrules again:
Alas, good Cassius, do not think of him.
If he love Caesar, all that he can do
Is to himself—take thought and die for
Brutus has not even listened to Cassius' reasons. Instead, he offers his own: " … he is given / To sports, to wildness, and much company" (II.i. 188-189). Brutus is so infatuated with his own seriousness and what he thinks is his own superiority that he thinks anyone so frivolous as Antony must be a weak and shallow thing. What he doesn't realize is that the lack of inhibition in such a person as Antony may be the very thing that releases such enormous energies. However, Brutus' opinion wins:
Treb. There is no fear in him; let him not die;
For he will live, and laugh at this hereafter.
- These lines of Trebonius have a jolly, indulgent ring, and we can imagine all the conspirators but Cassius agreeing here, with sage nods and smiles and much head-bobbing, as with the consideration of Cicero, whereupon Brutus again asserts control: "Peace! count the clock" (II.i. 192). At his exclamation, the whole group falls silent and for a few moments remains so. Following the preceding incidents, this famous anachronism—so insignificant by itself—becomes a superb demonstration of Brutus' psychological necessity to exercise control. The incident makes clear that Brutus demands control for its own sake, and that the most trivial pretext imaginable will suffice.
- Metellus presently inquires why Caius Ligarius has not been asked, and Brutus, who has just joined the conspiracy, not Cassius, who organized it, answers:
Now, good Metellus, go along by him.
He loves me well, and I have given him
Send him but hither, and I'll fashion him.
Brutus is in charge, and the word "fashion" implies that he will work his will.
- When Ligarius appears, Brutus does not say, "Come with me"; he says, "Follow me" (II.i.334).
- The next morning at Caesar's house, Caesar dominates the scene, but Brutus, in his way, is there. Caesar asks, "What is't o'clock?" There are nine other persons present who might have answered, but it is Brutus who does so (II.ii.114).
Brutus, it must be granted, could not have exercised this power had the people around him not allowed it, and one can see this, for example, in a remark by the already-much-overruled Cassius shortly after Caesar's murder:
Dec. What, shall we forth?
Cas. Ay, every man away.
Brutus shall lead; and we will grace his heels
With the most boldest and best hearts of
Antony, moreover, sends his servant not to Cassius but to Brutus (III.i. 122-137). Brutus, on the other hand, had not been accorded this leadership unless he had been ready, willing, and more than willing to exercise it.
- Immediately after the assassination Metellus cries out for the conspirators to be wary: "Stand fast together, lest some friend of Caesar's / Should chance—" (III.i.87-88). Brutus interrupts and redirects activity:
Talk not of standing. Publius, good cheer;
There is no harm intended to your person,
Nor to no Roman else. So tell them, Publius.
His estimate of the mob is not shared by Cassius: "And leave us, Publius; lest that the people, / Rushing on us, should do your age some mischief" (III.i.92-93). Being by implication overruled, Brutus takes refuge in the explicit expression of virtue, namely, of the very attitude of responsibility already implied in Cassius' preceding lines: "Do so: and let no man abide this deed, / But we the doers" (III.i.94-95). Later in the same scene his attitude toward the mob has changed: "Only be patient till we have appeas'd / The multitude, beside themselves with fear" (III.i.179-180). The word "appeas'd" could suggest something to fear, but the next line is so very patronizing that "appeas'd" is probably used only in the sense of "soothe" or "pacify". Both his trust and his patronage are misplaced.
- When Antony makes his second long address to the dead Caesar, Cassius' qualms are aroused again and he asks where Antony stands (III.i.211-217). Antony's answer, a friend on condition of knowing "Why or wherein Caesar was dangerous" (III.i.220-222), gives Brutus his chance for an apparently moral but really self-righteous reentry:
Or else were this a savage spectacle.
Our reasons are so full of good regard
That were you, Antony, the son of Caesar,
You should be satisfied.
He does all the dealing with Antony from there to the end of the scene.
(11) When Antony requests permission to speak at Caesar's funeral, Cassius objects twice, but he is again overruled by Brutus:
Cas. … Know you how much the people
may be mov'd
By that which he will utter?
Bru. By your pardon.
I will myself into the pulpit first
And show the reason of our Caesar's death.
Cas. I know not what my fall; I like it not.
Bru. Mark Antony, here, take you Caesar's
You shall not in your funeral speech blame
Brutus' decision here is the fatal mistake; he and Cassius are never in agreement about Antony until the end, and although Cassius proves to have been right (V.i.45-47), it is Brutus' bad judgment that always prevails.
- The self-righteous willfulness of Brutus stands most fully revealed to us in the second and third scenes of Act IV. Cassius comes charging down on the expectant (IV.ii.13-19) Brutus with the declaration, "Most noble brother, you have done me wrong" (IV.ii.37). Brutus' answer drips with injured innocence and un-conscious hypocrisy: "Judge me, you gods! wrong I mine enemies? / And, if not so, how should I wrong a brother?" (IV.ii.38-39). This answer, so full of sanctimonious, imitation surprise, contains some fascinating assumptions, namely, that if one would not wrong an enemy, he could not wrong a friend, that Brutus never wrongs an enemy, and therefore that Brutus, like Caesar, "doth not wrong". But Caesar had been Brutus' friend, had shown him his love, and had advanced him to the praetorship; yet Brutus led the faction that murdered him. The rationalization by which he talked his virtue into acquiescence will be discussed presently.
Cassius is not to be put off with humbug. He makes one of those Shakespearian answers that forward the plot and at the same time express a general truth: "Brutus, this sober form of yours hides wrongs" (IV.ii.40).
Brutus' answer is to plead the impropriety of their wrangling before the troops, and so they enter the tent. In the ensuing quarrel (IV.iii.1-110) Brutus bears down Cassius on every point with moral indignation (eight times) or with naked will (nine times). The cause of the quarrel is Brutus' condemnation of Cassius' man Lucius Pella for extortion (IV.iii.1-28), and yet one of the reproaches Brutus throws at Cassius is that he failed to send to Brutus gold to pay his legions with (IV.iii.69-77). Brutus' position is illogical to the point of being irrational: he demands Cassius produce the funds for all their forces and he denies him the only means by which it could be done. Both logically and practically the wronged man in this argument is Cassius. Nevertheless Cassius is consistently undermined by Brutus' flamboyant and specious virtue; to that and to Brutus' remorseless anger Cassius loses the argument. Halfway through it he breaks, bleats, and retracts:
You wrong me every way; you wrong me
I said an elder soldier, not a better.
Did I say "better"?
But Brutus carries on again as long, and not until Cassius offers his dagger to Brutus to kill him with (IV.iii.105) is Brutus sure enough of his victory to be satisfied. Having won again, he can subside:
O Cassius, you are yoked with a lamb
That carries anger as the flint bears fire;
Who, much enforced, shows a hasty spark,
And straight is cold again.
It is no hasty spark that burns twice as long as the opposition, and no lamb that rages on until that opposition is reduced from recantation to distraction and then to abject humiliation. Brutus likes to think of his virtue as being his strength:
There is no terror, Cassius, in your threats,
For I am armed so strong in honesty
That they pass by me as the idle wind,
Which I respect not.
From this virtue he thought his righteous will derived, but as this quarrel shows, his virtue is the shining armor of his will, and in this scene his angry will shatters that dazzling casing.
- On the very next occasion of difference with Cassius, Brutus again insists upon his own way:
Bru. Well, to our work alive. What do you
Of marching to Philippi presently?
Cas. I do not think it good.
Bru. Your reason?
Cas. This it is:
'Tis better that the enemy seek us.
So shall he waste his means, weary his
Doing himself offence; whilst we, lying still,
Are full of rest, defence, and nimbleness.
Bru. Good reasons must, of force, give place
He then offers military grounds for his view. Cassius begins to object: "Hear me, good brother" (IV.iii.213). He gets no further. Brutus offers more good reasons, apparently military ones, and when he runs out of those, he shifts into his moral high gear with the famous lines about the tide in the affairs of men (IV.iii.218-221). Whether these lines be generally true who knows? But certainly they were not true either of Brutus' situation or of his proposal. The abundance and diversity of his reasons indicate rationalization. Cassius acquiesces (IV.iii.224-225), but subsequent remarks by Antony and Octavius (V.i.1-12) show Cassius to have been right and Brutus wrong—again.
- That Cassius has been effectively subordinated to Brutus' will is well shown by how they say good night:
Bru. Everything is well.
Cas. Good-night, my lord.
Cassius, for the first time in the play, calls him "my lord". Brutus, who has had his way in everything and with whom "everything is well", can now be all sweetness and light, virtue and loving kindness: "Bru. Good-night, good brother."
Of these fourteen occasions only about half can be said to have a nominal source in Plutarch. The rest are entirely Shakespeare's addition, as is his handling of them all. On most of these occasions we can see that Brutus uses his own and others' belief in his virtue as a cloak for relentless willfulness and that the judgment this willfulness implements is usually bad. Such handling, derived from the slightest hints in Shakespeare's source, converts his Brutus into a substantially different figure from the Brutus of Plutarch.
A natural concomitant to Brutus' need to run everything, and to his use of his own well-advertised virtue as justification for doing so, is his conscious conviction that he has no substantial faults: he is pure intellect and pure virtue happily united in a self-sufficient team. This attitude is well shown by the measured tone, considerate, thoughtful, and noncommittal, of his reply to Cassius' first overtures (I.ii.162-175), by his irritation at Casca's flippant and cynical reportage (I.ii.220-300), and by his grave, impartial leave-taking from Cassius (I.ii.307-310).
However, in the soliloquy in which he decides that Caesar must be murdered (II.i. 10-34) one can see his virtue and his intellect working together to produce only rationalization. He admits that he has no personal reason to kill Caesar (II.i. 10-12); he admits Caesar has shown no sign of his emotions overpowering his reason (II.i. 19-21); although he says he fears what the crown might do to Caesar's character (II.i.12-17, 21-27), he admits that there were no grounds for supposing a change would come about:
And, since the quarrel
Will bear no colour for the thing he is,
Fashion it thus: that what he is, augmented,
Would run to these and these extremities.
In spite of this evident lack of grounds, Brutus refers to Caesar not twenty minutes later as "high-sighted tyranny" (II.i. 118). That was what he wanted to think. Actually, Brutus' sole grounds for murdering Caesar are such generalizations as this: "Th' abuse of greatness is when it disjoins / Remorse from power" (II.i.18-19). The irony of those lines is that they apply to Brutus, not to Caesar. It is certainly psychologically as well as dramatically significant that this soliloquy opens with what should properly be its conclusion: "It must be by his death" (II.i. 10). It seems unlikely that crowning Caesar could have augmented any further the power he already wielded. Knowing what we now do of Brutus' will, we can surmise that Brutus agreed upon the assassination because he could not bear the thought of anyone's being able to rule over him.
Brutus, upon a grim joke by Cassius, also rationalizes Caesar's death with incongruous but characteristic paraphernalia of benignity:
Cas. Why, he that cuts off twenty years of life
Cuts off so many years of fearing death.
Bru. Grant that, and then is death a benefit;
So are we Caesar's friends, that have abridg'd
His time of fearing death.
It is also characteristic of Brutus that he verbalizes what was already implied in Cassius' brief remark. (Cf. III.i.89-95, 111-116.)
Brutus also rationalizes repeatedly in the quarrel with Cassius, already discussed, and in his arguments for marching to Philippi, which move proved so disastrous in the event. We are probably intended to suppose that his real reason for wanting to march to Philippi was to get the battle over with.
A person like Brutus, who orders his life according to reason and virtue, may make mistakes, but he thinks he can scarcely have faults. Feeling free of faults himself, he can take out his aggressions in a consciousness of other people's faults, and while virtue dictates that the observation of them should be kindly, virtue also dictates that one should be firm.
"Fault", "blame", and their more specific variants are common words with Brutus. When he rings for his boy Lucius, who proves asleep, he reflects: "I would it were my fault to sleep so soundly" (II.i.4). This remark is not the same as merely saying, "I wish I could sleep so soundly", or "I wish I could barter my cares for his peace". It also means that Brutus is virtuously tending to his responsibilities and that the boy is at fault for not doing the same. When the conspirators depart, he again lets the boy sleep with similar remarks about their respective conditions, thereby once more demonstrating his virtue (II.i.229-233). When after Cassius' departure on the night Brutus sees the ghost Lucius proves asleep again, Brutus says: "What, thou speak'st drowsily? / Poor knave, I blame thee not; thou art o'erwatch'd" (IV.iii.240-241). When he receives his dressing gown and finds the missing book he says: "Look, Lucius, here's the book I sought for so; /I put it in the pocket of my gown" (IV.iii.252-253). Lucius' answer shows that he had been blamed for it:
Luc. I was sure your lordship did not give it
Bru. Bear with me, good boy, I am much
This last line is the only outright apology he ever makes. When the boy falls asleep again, he says: "Gentle knave, good-night. / I will not do thee so much wrong to wake thee" (IV.iii.269-270). If to wake him would be to wrong him, to let him sleep must be virtuous. But a very few minutes later, after he brazens the ghost back into thin air, he once more wakens that stuporous boy to ask the silliest question ever, namely, Had he spoken in his sleep? (IV.iii.290-297). In brief, if the boy does not supply Brutus' wants upon demand, he is to blame; if the boy is allowed to sleep because Brutus wants nothing, Brutus is virtuous for leaving the boy alone.
In his quarrel with Cassius he says: "I do not like your faults" (IV.iii.89). Cassius in his distraction summarizes Brutus' behavior toward himself:
… Cassius is aweary of the world;
Hated by one he loves; brav'd by his brother;
Check'd like a bondman; all his faults observ'd,
Set in a note-book, learn'd and conn'd by rote
To cast into my teeth.
The closest Brutus comes to admitting his own fault in this scene is in the following exchange:
Cos. Hath Cassius liv'd
To be but mirth and laughter to his Brutus,
When grief and blood ill-temper'd vexeth
Bru. When I spoke that, I was ill-temper'd
Cas. Do you confess so much? Give me your
The incident of the intruding poet (IV.iii.124-138), although perhaps included to provide a few moments of comic relief, also illuminates Brutus' character. The poet delivers to Brutus the same kind of moral indignation as he has been so recently plying Cassius with, and on a point that Brutus had himself already made at the beginning of the scene (IV.ii.42-45); nevertheless, and in spite of his usual self-vaunted kindliness to the lowly, Brutus rejects him with angry contempt:
Bru. Get you hence, sirrah; saucy fellow,
Cas. Bear with him, Brutus; 'tis his fashion.
Bru. I'll know his humour, when he knows
What should the wars do with these jigging
Lean and hungry Cassius is here the more tolerant of the two. Brutus' versions of kindness and virtue both seem to depend upon his not being crossed. That he himself should be blamed is intolerable. His second line to Antony, when he gives him permission to speak in Caesar's funeral, is this: "You shall not in your funeral speech blame us" (III.i.245). Before the battle of Philippi, when Antony taunts Brutus and Cassius so unmercifully, Cassius reminds Brutus of their past differences:
… Now, Brutus, thank yourself;
This tongue had not offended so to-day
If Cassius might have rul'd.
Brutus admits no fault by making no reply at all, and as soon as he can, he compensates by twice parading his conspicuous virtue before Octavius:
Bru. Caesar, thou canst not die by traitors'
Unless thou bring'st them with thee.
Oct. So I hope;
I was not born to die on Brutus' sword.
Bru. O, if thou wert the noblest of thy strain,
Young man, thou couldst not die more
Brutus' last use of the term "blame" occurs when Cassius asks him what he will do if they lose the battle. For lack of anything better, Brutus trots out his old trumpery again, but it can not do service any more, and he senses it. The broken sentences and distracted language of his answer demonstrate the spiritual bankruptcy to which his arrant will and curdled virtue have brought him:
Even by the rule of that philosophy
By which I did blame Cato for the death
Which he did give himself,—I know not how,
But I do find it cowardly and vile,
For fear of what might fall, so to prevent
The time of life:—arming myself with
To stay the providence of some high powers
That govern us below.
He cannot openly abandon his philosophy, even though continued adherence to it implies condemnation of his beloved Portia, who had so recently committed suicide for him. Cassius, as keen-minded as ever, offers the alternative: to march captive in a triumphal procession. To Brutus that is equally impossible. He promptly contradicts himself with more of the old hollow noise:
No, Cassius, no. Think not, thou noble
That ever Brutus will go bound to Rome;
He bears too great a mind.
His philosophy, which had never been more than a specious structure of rationalizations for the various impulses of his character, he abandons, and, though it be "cowardly and vile," he chooses "to prevent the time of life" by running upon his sword rather than submit to the humiliation of someone else's triumph. But right to the end he preserves his habitual mask of kindly virtue: "My heart doth joy that yet in all my life /I found no man but he was true to me." (V.v.34-35) Caesar could not have said so much, and perhaps we are meant to suppose that ironic fact present in Brutus' mind as he dies: "Caesar, now be still; / I kill'd not thee with half so good a will" (V.v.50-51). Self-conscious and deliberate virtue and reason, the apparently infallible guides of conduct, proved inadequate. The best remark on Brutus is a multi-level one made by sleepy-headed Lucius: "The strings, my lord, are false" (IV.iii.292).
So much of Brutus' apparent high-mindedness, integrity, thoughtfulness and consideration have been shown to be either conditional or masks for something less admirable that it may be thought he has no good left in him. However, his diluted or deflected virtues are evidence of a wish to do what is right, and however misguided, they are more admirable than Caesar's megalomania or Antony's amorality. The fact that Brutus' virtue misfired is to be attributed to his will rather than to intrinsic fault in the virtue.
One of the more commendable aspects of his virtue is that he evidently did feel both guilt and remorse over Caesar's murder. He says that all the conspirators were full of pity (III.i.165-176), but there is no evidence that Cassius, Casca, or Cimber felt any, and Brutus' remarks may be interpreted as both guilt and projection. Somewhat earlier, Brutus describes the paralyzing conflict within himself (II.i.61-69), and he shows a momentary revulsion when the conspirators arrive (II.i.77-85). When Caesar invites the conspirators as friends to drink some wine (II.ii.126-127), Brutus in an aside grieves that he can not drink as a friend (II.ii.128-129). His response is very different from the treacherous aside of Trebonius (II.ii.124-125). When the assassination has been committed, Brutus more than anyone displays a terrible cheerfulness (III.i.89-121) that masks his inner desolation, which in turn betrays itself in the need for social and cosmic reassurance (III.i.89-90, 116-118, are social; 111-116 are cosmic). In the quarrel with Cassius evidence of guilty feelings reappears in his mention of Caesar as "the foremost man of all this world" (IV.iii. 19-22). It is natural that in a quarrel with his chief confederate, doubts as to the wisdom of his decisions should reactivate his sense of guilt. The last evidences of his guilty feelings appear as fortune goes against him at Philippi (V.iii.94-96), and when he takes his punishment with a mixture of dismay (V.v.35-38) and relief (V.v.50-51).
The happiest thing about Brutus is his relationship with his wife. Except for the curious second report of her death (IV.iii. 181-195), this relationship is in all respects commendable and illustrates the best side of his character. Portia's speeches are long, in contrast to his, but he suffers them to roll out their length. Her reproaches are engaging:
You've ungently, Brutus,
Stole from my bed.
Am I yourself
But, as it were, in sort or limitation,
To keep with you at meals, comfort your bed,
And talk to you sometimes? Dwell I but in
Of your good pleasure? If it be no more,
Portia is Brutus' harlot, not his wife.
The fact that she can make these reproaches, especially the last quoted, demonstrates the non-authoritarian character of their marriage, in contrast to the lord-and-master one of Caesar and Calpurnia. And in contrast to Caesar, Brutus grants her request, as can be seen from the subsequent confusion between Portia and Lucius (II.iv). This equality between man and wife which allows no differences not peculiar to physiology or the accidents of vocation is psychologically and ethically the most admirable marital relationship. It has probably existed in all ages, as has its antithesis. Brutus also performs on several occasions small acts of kindness for other people—as when he bids his men to sleep (IV.iii.246-250) or when he takes the lute from the sleeping boy (IV.iii.271-272).
To summarize, we may say that Brutus' faults are seated at the very heart of his character. Although his behavior, even to himself, is clothed in the habit (both dress and custom) of virtue, his basic motivation is egotistical satisfaction of his will, for, as has been shown, he rules or overrules on all occasions, with brandished virtue if possible, without it if he must. In spite of all the external kindliness, he is more overbearing than Caesar, for Caesar allowed himself to be talked out of going to the capàtol and then back into it, but Brutus never bends so much. By various processes he elevates himself above his fellows even more than Caesar. Caesar demanded the outward forms of domination: Brutus, the essence. It is small wonder, then, that he fell in with Cassius' plans. As a means of implementing his will he engages in what might be called the conspicuous consumption of virtue. His own brand of virtue he elevates into an idol which no man may question except on pain of being morally corrupt. Brutus' character fault is overbearing will; his moral fault is Greek hybris or Christian pride—pride in his virtue and his righteousness. His specific virtues, therefore, which are in such frequent evidence, are nevertheless peripheral. He is apparently high-minded, honest, kind, and trusting; more important, he is capable of proper feelings of guilt and remorse. Whether the everyday practice of his peripheral virtues outweigh the less obvious but central faults must be a matter of private judgment.
As was said much earlier in this article, Shakespeare has presented us with the surface of a character. It is a many-faceted surface, with what to many people seem to be inconsistencies, and there is no direct revelation in the play of the source traits or the basic character structure that it would be so pleasant to be able to suppose Shakespeare had in mind when he constructed Brutus. Moreover, it is a portrait different from the one in Plutarch. Although we obviously cannot project twentieth-century concepts backward in time and suppose them to exist in a sixteenth-century dramatic representation, the present writer would like to suggest as the second main thesis of this article that Brutus is nevertheless a fairly full surface presentation of a re-current type of human being which does regularly show comparable surface traits and which does have an internal, psychological consistency. Certainly it is not possible to speak of Brutus as having been equipped by Shakespeare with all the modern apparatus of un-conscious mental life; but equally certainly it is possible to say that the behavior of Brutus parallels the surface behavior of modern persons whose unconscious mental life is explicable in analytic terms.
In one of his last books Freud divided the mental life of the human being into three main realms: superego, ego, and id. The superego is popularly equated with conscience; it is a collective term designating the functions of unconscious mental life that have to do with introjected values. Id is a collective term for the many unconscious and often anti-social forces in mental life; one such force is the need to control, to dominate, or to domineer. Ego is the term for the functions of mediation between the individual and external reality; it has "originated in the experiences of the perceptual system". Freud declared that the ego had three harsh masters: the superego, the id, and external reality.
In impractical and ineffectual reformers, do-gooders, and like persons obsessed with one or more systems of ethics who, like their Puritan prototypes, are also determined to see that things are run "properly", we see the effects of a tyrannical superego in its struggle against both id and ego. The superego tyrannizes over the ego but it cannot affect the id, which exerts equal or greater pressure on the ego for its own satisfactions. In this war between id and superego, the ego is not so much a battleground as a much-mauled mediator, and in trying to compromise the demands of the insatiable id and of the inexorable superego, the ego is not only proliferates rationalizations but also quite fails to perform what in less tormented persons is its proper function, namely, the effective manipulation of external reality. From such internal conflicts it is evident that such a person (1) will be highly idealistic, (2) will be very conscious of his own moral superiority, (3) will think he is best fitted to direct affairs, (4) will make incessant mistakes in his evaluations of external reality, (5) will ignore or deny these errors rather than deny the superego—conceived as "principles"—which is responsible for the errors, and (6) will employ rationalization to bolster (2) and (3) or to mitigate blame for the results of (4) and (5).
Clearly this little constellation of patterns is the essence of Brutus' character. How well Shakespeare understood their inextricable interdependence, I should not want to say. But it may be significant that Antony, who shows no signs of being tormented by "principles", and whose lusts for pleasure, power, or vengence suffer no inhibition, proves in this play to be so much more competent in dealing with comparable external realities.
Mark Sachar off (essay date 1972)
SOURCE: "Suicide and Brutus' Philosophy in Julius Caesar," in Journal of the History of Ideas, Vol. XXXIII, 1972, pp. 115-22.
[In the following essay, Sacharoff examines Brutus's apparent contradiction regarding his views on suicide and explores several schools of thought from which Shakespeare may have derived Brutus's philosophy.]
Perhaps the most controversial passage in Julius Caesar occurs in V.i., when Cassius asks Brutus what he is determined to do if they lose the impending battle against Octavius and Antony. Brutus replies;
Even by the rule of that philosophy
By which I did blame Cato for the death
Which he did give himself—I know not how,
But I do find it cowardly and vile,
For fear of what might fall, so to prevent
The time of life—arming myself with patience
To stay the providence of some high powers
That govern us below.
(The Complete Works of Shakespeare, ed. George
Lyman Kittredge, 1936, V.i. 100-107)
Commentators of previous centuries were quick to point out that Brutus' manifest opposition to suicide as "cowardly and vile" in these lines cannot be taken as his last word on the subject. For when Cassius asks him if he will be "contented to be led in triumph / Thorough the streets of Rome," Brutus rejects this fate, saying that "He bears too great a mind," and suggests that Cassius and he may never see each other again (11.108-14). Moreover, as we all know, Brutus later on actually does take his own life.
Thus, some critics have seen a contradiction between Brutus' more elaborate statement on suicide and his later words and actions. Amyot's mis-translation of Plutarch (and North's retention of it) has been proposed as the cause of the "confusion." And one critic even sees the apparent discrepancy as evidence of Shakespeare's careless use of sources. However, as Mason and Ritson, as well as Melvyn Faber in his comprehensive study of suicide in Shakespeare, have convincingly argued, Brutus does not truly contradict himself: he merely states in effect that he opposes suicide generally, but would make an exception if he were facing the dishonor of captivity and public exhibition.
But Brutus' reflections on suicide have produced another problem which has so far escaped the attention of the critics. I am speaking of the philosophy to which Brutus refers, and on the basis of which he blames Cato for committing suicide. With surprising regularity, many of the best editors of Shakespeare have mistakenly identified this philosophy as Stoicism. Kittredge, Dorsch, H. T. Price, S. F. Johnson, Ribner, J. H. Walter, Charney have all passed on this interpretation, apparently the product of early twentieth century editors, right into the present decade. For instance, Kittredge states, without reservation, "The Stoics held that suicide is cowardly and wrong." The near-unanimity of editors on this point would not be surprising, if Stoicism were not as well-known as it is for its approval, rather than for its disapproval, of suicide. Indeed, the most famous Stoics—Seneca, Epictetus, and Marcus Aurelius—maintain that death by one's own hand is always an option and frequently more honorable than a life of protracted misery.
Seneca in particular (and Seneca was quite familiar to the Renaissance and to Shakespeare) dwells on the theme of a noble death by one's own hand and scorns those who drag themselves through a wretched life out of fear of death. He argues that "the wise man will live as long as he ought, not as long as he can … As soon as there are many events in his life that give him trouble and disturb his peace of mind, he sets himself free." Again, he mocks those men "who have gone so far as to profess wisdom and yet maintain that one should not offer violence to one's own life." He asks, "If the body is useless for service, why should one not free the struggling soul?" He also catalogues admirable suicides by gladiators. Indeed, as Eduard Zeller suggests, Seneca regards a wide variety of misfortunes as sufficient grounds for suicide.
Epictetus, although in one passage he advises men to endure life until God calls them, favors suicide in at least nine other passages. His favorite metaphor on this subject, which virtually becomes a leit-motif, is that "the door is always open" by which one can leave this life. In another place, he expresses the idea of choosing no longer to live as leaving the game and playing no longer. Elsewere, he maintains that suicide is preferable to a false life which is not in accordance with nature, and that suicide can be a true action for the sake of freedom. He also employs another favorite metaphor of the Stoics, that of leaving a smoky house. Epictetus' support of honorable suicide, then, far out-weighs the one statement he makes which seems to advocate traditional religious views.
Marcus Aurelius does not appear to refer to suicide as often as Seneca and Epictetus. However, he speaks of the subject at times in much the same decisive, rational, and careless tone: "But if men do not permit thee, then get away out of life.… The house is smoky, and I quit it." Similarly, he counsels, "Take thy departure then from life contentedly." He does, however, seem to oppose an ignoble and hysterical end: "Or even depart at once from life, not in passion, but with simplicity and freedom and modesty." This call for a graceful and dignified departure resembles Seneca's: "Stop whenever you choose; only see to it that the closing period is well turned."
As far as the lesser Stoics are concerned, Diogenes Laertius reports that Zeno killed himself by holding his breath (or perhaps starved or hanged himself) because he "tripped and fell, breaking a toe." Similarly, Cleanthes deliberately fasted to death, while Antipater, according to Zeller, followed their example. Cicero too, in whose eclecticism the Stoic philosophy plays an important role in spite of his criticisms of it, justifies suicide more often than not. In the De Finibus Bonorum et Malorum, he maintains that when the wise man "possesses or sees in prospect a majority of contrary things, it is appropriate for him to depart life." Again, using Plato's image of the Cave, Cicero argues that when "God Himself has given a valid reason as He did in the past to Socrates, and in our day to Cato, and often to many others, then of a surety your true wise man will joyfully pass forthwith from the darkness here into the light beyond." To be sure, Cicero in one of his most famous works, "Scipio's Dream," maintains, "nor are you, without the order of that Being who bestowed them [body and soul] upon you, to depart from mundane life, lest you seem to desert the duty assigned you by God"; and he adopts the same position earlier in the very passage in which he approves of suicide directed by God. But it seems clear that permission from God provides great latitude, since not only Socrates and Cato, but "many others" received it; and that any degree of eminence could be used by Cicero's contemporaries as grounds for a call, or as evidence of selection by God.
Another indication of the great respectability of suicide among the predominantly Stoical Romans is their response to the suicide of Cato, who himself was a Stoic and who for a long time was the model of Stoical rectitude because of his dramatic suicide. We have already seen that Cicero regarded Cato's act as sanctified by God. Likewise, as Zeller remarks, "To Seneca, the deed of the younger Cato appears not only praiseworthy, but the crowning point of success over destiny, the highest triumph of the human will." Even the Caesarian who wrote the history of Caesar's African campaign against Cato praises him. Virgil, Horace, Livy, Lucan, and Sallust extol Cato and his final act, some of them going so far as to contrast him to Caesar—Cato representing liberty and Caesar representing tyranny.
Thus, it seems clear that Brutus could not have been referring to the Stoical philosophy in his speech, since with few reservations all the important and lesser Stoics recommended suicide and since Roman writers as a whole, let alone the Stoics, admired and approved of Cato's manner of death.
If, then, we must rule Stoicism out, what philosophy must Brutus have been referring to instead? We could begin with Plato in the Phaedo, for there Socrates, although he accepts and carries out judicial suicide, nevertheless states unequivocally early in the dialogue: "Then he, or any man who has the spirit of philosophy, will be willing to die; but he will not take his own life, for that is held to be unlawful." Moreover, Socrates proceeds to discuss "why, when a man is better dead, he is not permitted to be his own benefactor, but must wait for the hand of another." In explanation of this prohibition against suicide, he reasons that "the gods are our guardians, and that we men are a possession of theirs," and that hence, "a man should wait, and not take his own life until God summons him, as he is now summoning me." Thus, Socrates represents suicide as generally unlawful, with exceptions only for judicial suicide and for men whom God summons. In the Laws Plato again appears to justify a person's suicide if "the law requires him," and implies a measure of vindication for those "under the compulsion of some painful and inevitable misfortune" or those suffering "from irremediable and intolerable shame," but he clearly reprehends the man "who from sloth or want of manliness imposes upon himself an unjust penalty." Indeed, the punishment of such a man after death indicates the degree of Plato's opposition to this kind of suicide: "They who meet their death in this way shall be buried alone, and none shall be laid by their side; they shall be buried ingloriously … in such places as are uncultivated and nameless, and no column or inscription shall mark the place of their interment." Thus, on the balance, Plato—both in the Phaedo and the Laws—seems to regard suicide in general as unlawful, with the clearly defined exceptions of suicide required by law or prompted by the gods, and with other possible exceptions in cases of extreme and intolerable suffering.
Aristotle's opposition to suicide was somewhat more single-minded and decisive, and indeed comes closest to the sentiment expressed by Brutus in his criticism of the act:
But to seek death in order to escape from poverty, or the pangs of love, or from pain or sorrow, is not the act of a courageous man, but rather of a coward; for it is weakness to fly from troubles, and the suicide does not endure death because it is noble to do so, but to escape evil.
Elsewhere, Aristotle maintains that the suicide commits an injustice against the state and that therefore "suicide is punished by certain marks of dishonor."
Three other philosophies might anachronistically have been Shakespeare's source of Brutus' view: Plotinus, the Neo-Stoicism of Shakespeare's period, and Saint Augustine's. Plotinus prohibited suicide except in the case of impending insanity—largely because in taking one's life one "is not liberated from passion." The NeoStoics, especially Lipsius and Du Vair, de-emphasized the possibility of suicide and merged Stoical imperturbability and courage with Christian forbearance. Saint Augustine, who was probably the most influential critic of suicide and who probably more than any other writer codified the Christian prohibition against it, argues in a manner that seems to foreshadow Hamlet's reasoning that "no man ought to inflict on himself a voluntary death, thinking to escape temporary ills, lest he find himself among ills that are unending."
All in all, then, it seems quite plausible that Shakespeare was unwilling to allow his central figure Brutus to follow the pagan philosophy of Stoicism, which Brutus clearly follows in Plutarch and almost as clearly in Amyot and North, (in spite of the mis-translation). Instead, Shakespeare gives Brutus a basic philosophy which could have had its roots in the mutually related outlooks of Plato, Aristotle, Plotinus, Augustine, traditional Christianity, and neo-Stoicism—namely, a philosophy opposed in general to suicide. A small but significant piece of evidence for the Platonic element in Brutus' thinking appears in Plutarch: "Now touching the Graecian philosophers, there was no sect nor Philosopher of them, but he heard and liked it: but above all the rest, he loved Platoes sect best."
Nevertheless, this simplest and most economical explanation—that Shakespeare invested Brutus' thinking with Platonism, Christian Platonism, and Christian Stoicism—is not quite satisfying. For one thing, Augustine has a passage which truly piques the curiosity, since it refers to specific individuals who opposed Cato's suicide and to whom Brutus may have been partially referring in his speech. For Cato's learned friends, according to Augustine, "declared their own opinion that it [suicide] springs from a feeble rather than a strong mind, being an act that exhibits not self-respect guarding against dishonour, but weakness unable to bear adversity." This passage apparently refers to Plutarch's "Cato the Younger," in which on the evening of Cato's death he argues vehemently with a Peripatetic philosopher on the question "that only the good man is free, and all the evill be slaves," a debate which all present recognize to be really on the question of suicide. Later on, when Cato's behavior continues to convince, his son and the philosopher-friends that Cato is contemplating suicide, Demetrius and Apollonides reason with him and try to persuade him (the exact nature of their arguments being omitted), but fail and depart weeping from his chamber. It seems reasonable that in Brutus' speech Shakespeare, who must have been acquainted with this description of Cato's end in North's Plutarch, might have been thinking of the philosophers who tried to dissuade Cato from suicide as those who later blamed Cato for his deed.
Moreover, additional considerations force us to regard Brutus' remark on Cato as somewhat more complicated: For, probing further into the historical background of Brutus and Cato we discover a set of curious contradictions. First, Cato was Brutus' uncle and, as Plutarch says, was the one whom Brutus "studied most to follow of all the Romans." Indeed, Brutus' education was the responsibility of Cato, and Cato may rightly be said to have molded him. As Plutarch reports, the philosophy of Antiochus and Ariston, which Cato favored, became one of the dominant influences on Brutus. Brutus' repudiation of Cato's suicide, then, may involve some unspoken historical factors other than those we have just considered. These unspoken historical factors, of course, would have had to be available to Shakespeare, if we are to maintain with any validity that they played a part in Brutus' apparently contradictory rebuke to his dead mentor.
Once again, it is Plutarch—indeed, the chapter on Brutus himself—which provides us with some insight into the shifting relationship between nephew and uncle. At the beginning of the war between Caesar and Pompey, Brutus surprised many by his support of Pompey, because it was Pompey who had killed his father; but in this decision, Brutus was also allying himself with Cato, and his loyalty to his uncle must have been a factor in his choice. However, when Caesar defeated Pompey at Pharsalia, Brutus made the fateful decision of bolting to Caesar, who forgave him along with Cicero and Cassius; whereas Cato remained adamantly opposed to Caesar and fled to Africa. Furthermore, while preparing his expedition against Cato in 47BC, Caesar elevated Brutus to governor of Cisalpine Gaul. Hence, Brutus underwent a transformation after Pharsalia from the disciple and loyal ally of Cato to the defeated follower and administrator of Cato's worst enemy. In 46B.C. the news of Cato's suicide reached Rome. Brutus' reaction was understandably full of misgivings. As Max Radin suggests, Brutus, Cicero, and Cassius all lacked the "immovably stead-fast principles" of Cato and entered into their new subservience to Caesar with a sense of moral compromise for the sake of survival, which contrasted to Cato's uncompromising decision. Lily Ross Taylor also points out that "Cicero felt frankly envious of Cato's fame and wished that he had had the courage to die in like manner." Both Brutus and Cicero wrote eulogies of Cato—another detail contradicting Brutus' disapproval of Cato's suicide, especially since Brutus himself commissioned Cicero's laudation, which became "the foundation of the Cato legend that went down into the empire."
Since these historical details were available to Shakespeare in Plutarch's essays, we can entertain the hypothesis that Shakespeare knew of Brutus' sense of relative dishonor in his submission to Caesar's mercy and in his support of Caesar while Caesar waged war against Cato. Shakespeare, could further have deduced Brutus' regret and misgivings about his famous uncle's uncompromising suicide from Brutus' attempt to glorify Cato to posterity in his own and Cicero's eulogies. On the basis of these considerations, we can also find plausible the tendency of Brutus, some years after Cato's death, to justify his own moral compromise by casting doubts upon the justifiability of Cato's act. Moreover, Caesar's own reaction to the death of his most formidable adversary—a pamphlet called the Anti-Cato, apparently a virulent attack on Cato's private life and vices—suggests too that Brutus, still under the influence of his bolt to Caesar, may have felt constrained to accept his new leader's view of the matter, even after the assassination.
Indeed, the political implications of the long-standing clash between Caesar and Cato may furnish us with a final dimension to this complex problem of Brutus' views on Cato's suicide. For the Romans clearly began to regard Cato as the leading symbol of republicanism, pitted against a Caesarism which must have had subtle resonances of monarchism to the Elizabethan audience. Hence, to the allegorizing minds of Shakespeare's contemporaries, to glorify Cato would have been to glorify the leading symbol of the anti-monarchic forces of antiquity, and thus to tread upon the dangerous area of seditious doctrine. For this reason, as well as for the numerous philosophical and theological reasons already cited, Shakespeare would have been in fact highly unorthodox to present Cato in a favorable light. Indeed, if his play was to show the ultimate in-advisability of regicide and the ultimate self-deception and mistaken judgment of Brutus, then Cato, the archetypal rebel, whose rebellion against Caesar historically foreshadowed that of the conspirators, must appear as a wrong-minded individual as well.
We have had to consider these numerous aspects of Brutus' paradoxical rebuke of Cato for an additional reason: namely, that Shakespeare, from his reading of Plutarch's essays on Brutus, Cato, and Caesar, must have known that Brutus, from all outward historical evidence, greatly admired and honored his dead uncle. Moreover, both in the original and in Amyot's and North's translations, Brutus refers to his doubts about Cato's suicide as merely the opinion of an inexperienced young man which in his present condition he rejects in favor of the conviction that he will commit suicide in the event that he and Cassius lose the battle. Yet, Shakespeare, confronted in his source with this unambiguous approval of suicide by the mature Brutus, decided to reshape the rhetorical structure of the passage and to transform the subordinate "although" idea of opposition to Cato into a main idea, at the same time suppressing Brutus' main idea in the source, which favored suicide. Hence, we are obliged to explain this change, which all evidence indicates was a knowledgeable one rather than one based on ignorance of Brutus' character as portrayed by Plutarch.
Our attempts at an explanation not only of Brutus philosophy but of Shakespeare's change of his source, have resulted in a multiplicity of hypotheses. The simplest, that Shakespeare, in attempting to portray Brutus in as favorable a light as possible, suppressed his Stoical conclusions and made him into a quasi-Christian, or at least into a quasi-Christian Platonist or neo-Stoic, somehow is not fully satisfying. As a complement to this partial explanation, the possibility that Shakespeare, recalling Plutarch's description of Cato's death, was alluding to those learned friends of his who tried to dissuade him from ending his life, has a certain appeal. Similarly, the idea that Brutus, who submitted to Caesar rather than die, was justifying his act by rebuking Cato's as cowardly, has some historical basis with which Shakespeare was familiar Finally Shakespeare's allegiance to monarchism and his ultimate vindication of Julius Caesar suggest a reluctance on his part to present the arch-republican favorably. These hypotheses are by no means mutually exclusive, and—as in many problems in scholarship—multiple causation may finally be the best solution, even though, where possible, a conclusive single solution is always more satisfying. But, whether or not we are willing to accept some or all of these hypotheses, what remains conclusively evident is that Brutus could not have meant Stoicism as "that philosophy," and editors of the play should no longer transmit this fallacious belief.
Richard A. Levin (essay date 1982)
SOURCE: "Brutus: 'Noblest Roman of Them All'," in Ball State University Forum, Vol. XXIII, No. 2, Spring, 1982, pp. 15-25.
[In the following essay, Levin questions Brutus's status as the "noblest Roman," distinguishing him from the other conspirators, who slew Caesar out of envy, by his willingness to murder someone for whom he expressed friendship and love.]
In your bad strokes, Brutus, you give good
Witness the hole you made in Caesar's heart,
Crying, "Long live! hail, Caesar!"
Mark Antony, V.i.30-32
For a few readers of Julius Caesar, Brutus fully deserves the praise heaped on him by many characters during the play and by Mark Antony at the end:
This was the noblest Roman of them all.
All the conspirators save only he
Did that they did in envy of great Caesar;
He only, in a general honest thought
And common good to all, made one of them.
His life was gentle, and the elements
So mix'd in him, that Nature might stand up
And say to all the world, "This was a man!"
[New Arden Julius Caesar, ed. T. Dorsch, 1955,
Many readers have qualified admiration for Brutus. They too can find support in this speech: although Antony uses superlatives, he is eulogizing a dead man, and may therefore exaggerate. Brutus's flaws have been variously described. For some critics, he has the short-comings of the idealist or the liberal intellectual. In an effort to achieve perfect good, he kills Caesar; later he undermines the revolution by refusing to follow an expedient course. Other critics blame Brutus for praising himself and allowing his friends to flatter him. Not many critics go further and ask whether Brutus alienates the audience. Shakespeare presents him as a controversial figure about whom men's judgments differ widely. Except at the end, Antony speaks strongly against Brutus: for his sharpest attack, see the epigraph to this essay. In due course I hope to show that Antony's eulogy (just quoted) is ironic: one may construe it as blame, not praise. I propose to develop the case against Brutus, without denying that the evidence is ambiguous.
Antony sets the terms of our debate. The other conspirators envied Caesar. Among them, did Brutus alone act not for himself, but for his country, attempting to preserve its republican traditions? If we say yes, our best evidence would seem to be the contrasting role of Cassius, who often serves as a foil to Brutus. Cassius himself invites the comparison. In his soliloquy in I.ii., he observes that Brutus is "noble" (305, 308), and made of "honourable mettle" (306), whereas he, Cassius, conspires for his own gain. Cassius is not only blunt about his motives, but quick to act. He cunningly plays on the weaknesses of others, including Brutus; and once the conspiracy takes shape he recommends a bloody course of action. When, after the murder, war breaks out, Cassius apparently takes bribes or extorts money. Unlike Brutus he expresses no moral reservations.
But Shakespeare suggests that the two men are in some ways alike. Antony's drawing a distinction between Brutus and the others implies that some blurring might otherwise take place. Brutus, after all, "made one" with the conspirators; their actions were his actions. Brutus and Cassius are supposedly friends. As joint leaders, they fight Antony and Octavius. Their deaths, although separate, occur in parallel scenes.
The similarities are striking; moreover, certain differences may be illusory. Caesar returns from the festival races to find Brutus and Cassius talking together, discussing in fact his possible murder. Caesar, noticing Cassius's "lean and hungry look," mentions it to Antony. In Plutarch the corresponding description links Brutus and Cassius, who are both "pale and lean men." By changing the drift of his source, Shakespeare might appear to insist on a contrast between the two men. But the point may be that Caesar always trusts Brutus. Possibly Shakespeare kept the men look-alikes as in Plutarch, so that the audience would wonder whether Caesar had measured one man and not the other, a man whose present motives are questionable. When Caesar goes on to denigrate Cassius by comparing him with Antony, we may wonder whether the same contrast holds true for Brutus and Antony. Cassius "loves no plays," "hears no music," and "seldom smiles." Such men, Caesar concludes, are "never at heart's ease / Whiles they behold a greater than themselves." Before Caesar entered, Brutus had contrasted his own serious nature with Antony's "gamesome," "quick spirit" (27-28); and he had described himself as deep in "thought" (62). Perhaps Brutus, like Cassius, "thinks too much."
Brutus may be a certain kind of deceptive person. He is not like Iago; for the latter, even while praising himself in public and enjoying a reputation for virtue, knows himself to be evil, whereas Brutus does not. Brutus seems more like the self-deceived Angelo in the earlier part of Measure For Measure, although Angelo is a far more complicated character. Angelo's puritanical insistence on virtue is an attempt to control repressed desires that seethe within and take contorted form. Brutus merely has too much of the natural human desire to think well of oneself; refusing to see his own faults, he lets them run free. Of course, in these circumstances, any man must find ways of satisfying his conscience. Brutus does so by protesting his virtue too strongly and by finding socially approved forms for his destructive emotions; his public-mindedness conceals personal envy. But although he feels some inner conflict, he is not a proper object of sympathy. Unlike Macbeth or even King Claudius of Denmark, he is never shown struggling with his conscience. That struggle is in the background; in the foreground, he polishes his own image.
Cassius sees himself as tempting and corrupting the "honourable" Brutus. A subtler but equally plausible reading of their first interview is that Brutus also tempts him. When Caesar leaves to watch the races, all follow except Brutus. When Cassius urges him to join the group, Brutus could excuse himself in any number of ways, but he chooses to intimate that he is "with himself at war" (45), debating action while others cheerily surround Caesar. Cassius therefore knows that the subject of conspiracy will find a receptive audience. His first move is bold: he offers flattery. "Can you see your face?" he asks (50), implying that Brutus is too modest. When Brutus demurely replies in the negative, Cassius volunteers to show him his features, and goes on to imply, none too ambiguously, that Brutus (not Caesar) is a worthy leader of Rome. "Into what dangers, Cassius, would you lead me?" asks Brutus (62), protecting his honor but also inviting Cassius to continue. Cassius then declares: "I, your glass [mirror], / Will modestly discover to yourself / That of yourself which you yet know not of" (67-69). Can we take Cassius literally? Is he offering himself as a mirror of Brutus? Confirmation follows. Cassius promptly describes his own resentment at Caesar's power. Although Brutus does not agree directly, he finds other means of encouraging Cassius to continue.
Twice when shouting is heard in the distance, Brutus expresses the fear that further honors are falling to Caesar (78-79; 130-32). Early in the conversation he indicates a willingness to do whatever is necessary for the "general good" (84). And in closing the interview, Brutus not only asks highmindedly for time to reflect, but tantalizes Cassius with the likelihood that he will join the conspiracy. "My noble friend, chew upon this," Brutus says (169), and proceeds to indicate that he will not passively accept the "hard conditions" now laid upon Romans. Clearly, Brutus wants to be counted in. As far as he is concerned, the real purpose of the interview is to maintain his own appearance of virtue. He must seem reluctant and must let Cassius do the wooing.
Although Brutus wears the mask of a judicious person, we long to know what lies behind. Act II opens early the next morning with Brutus soliloquizing in his orchard. The first line arrests attention: "It must be by his death" (10). Apparently, Brutus has already settled on an extreme course of action, the murder of Caesar. Perhaps we have misunderstood, perhaps we have interrupted his thoughts? The lines which follow only confirm that Brutus has already arrived at his conclusion and merely seeks to justify it. The speech proceeds with two voices debating. As Brutus sees it, one of these expresses his own personal sentiments; the other, his public conscience. "I know no personal cause to spurn at him [Caesar]," Brutus begins. The verb "spurn" is interesting; with it, Brutus suggests that he at least is without the petty desire to "kick at" Caesar as "one despised". But the public voice intervenes with the reminder that Caesar "would be crown'd"; as a king, he would be free to indulge personal feelings. The personal voice, insistently fair, replies that Caesar has never yet allowed his "affections" to dominate his "reason." The public voice, without further considering Caesar's nature, imagines Caesar in the generalized figure of the "climber-upward" who finally "looks in the clouds, scorning the base degrees / By which he did ascend" (23, 26-27). This is a tellingly emotive image, conveying the same envy and resentment that Cassius introduced earlier: "Why, man, he doth be-stride the narrow world / Like a Colossus, and we petty men / Walk under his huge legs" (I.ii. 133-35). Although Brutus made no direct reply to Cassius, alone his response is immediate. Because Caesar "may" do as this straw man (the climber) does, he should be murdered (28).
The logic that has brought Brutus to this point is weak indeed. Should he accept as fact Casca's intimation that Caesar wants the crown? Even if Caesar does want it, must he be given it? Should one act on a hypothesis? How likely is Caesar to abuse great office? Brutus does not believe his own argument—witness the "cover-up" that he initiates: "Since the quarrel / Will bear no colour for the thing he is, / Fashion it thus." He goes on to "fashion" Caesar a serpent's egg that must be killed in the shell. Shakespeare uses both italicized words elsewhere in contexts involving deceptive manipulation. Brutus seems to recognize that he must obscure his argument with false rhetoric.
Not only, then, is the logic of the soliloquy strained, but even Brutus does not believe it. We must look for his underlying motive, as a Renaissance audience certainly did, for it knew that sophistical reasoning arises from a perversion of the will. We have seen personal animosity peep through in the speech; even in the last lines quoted above, the word "quarrel" hints at hostility, although editors offer as a gloss the Latin querela, cause of complaint (II.i.28-29n). Brutus's very insistence that he acts only for the public good raises suspicions, confirmed when the boy-servant Lucius interrupts the soliloquy with a message he has discovered in Brutus's study. We know that Cassius has had the message placed there (I.iii. 144-45), and Brutus at first identifies it as one of many "instigations" to murder Caesar that he has received. But soon, in an apostrophe beginning "O Rome," he imagines that the solicitations accurately represent popular feeling, and that he as a patriot must take action (II.i.46-58).
Brutus represents a threat not only to Caesar, but to his fellow conspirators. No sooner does he decide to join the plot, than he hears that Cassius has arrived with other muffled men. Surprisingly, Brutus moralizes on evil's "mask" of "monstrous visage" (81). Does he now recognize that his own intentions are evil? Or—projecting his guilt—does he think of others as evil, but not himself? When Cassius enters, he resumes his flattery; but Brutus, far from being irresolute, welcomes all the conspirators. He apparently counts himself among them, and they seem to have obtained exactly what they had prayed for—"O Cassius, if you could / But win the noble Brutus to our party" (I.iii. 140-41).
Ironically, at this very moment their cause is undone. Brutus—at great cost to them—now asserts his moral supremacy. When Cassius suggests that everyone should be bound by an oath, Brutus contradicts him: an oath would "stain / The even virtue of our enterprise" (ILL 132-33). Brutus now also describes Rome as oppressed by tyrannical conditions, a flat contradiction of his recent soliloquy, which discussed only a hypothetical danger. Cassius, upon hearing Brutus's soaring rhetoric, immediately thinks of another man, Cicero, who could lend dignity to their undertaking; "silver hairs," he says, can "buy men's voices to commend our deeds" (144-46). But when the intriguers, one after another, welcome the idea, Brutus sharply rejects it: Cicero, he says, "will never follow any thing / That other men begin" (151-52). Brutus here describes himself. Cassius speaks up again: Antony should be killed with Caesar. Brutus rebukes Cassius in a grandiloquent manner: "Let's be sacrificers, but not butchers." He then goes back to speak of Caesar's death in equally exalted terms: "Let's kill him boldly, but not wrathfully; / Let's carve him as a dish for the gods, / Not hew him as a carcass fit for hounds" (172-74). These words cannot describe a real stabbing, a bloody business; instead, they allow Brutus to conceal his own evil from himself and to think that he provides moral leadership at an otherwise disreputable gathering. But we can challenge Brutus's assessment, and say instead that he shows to disadvantage. There is, after all, such a thing as "honor among thieves," and Brutus lacks it: he betrays the others by blocking any successful strategy.
Julius Caesar is deeply concerned with loyalty and disloyalty and carefully develops a context that allows for a judgment of Brutus. Every political act in the play also affects a personal relationship, and intimate feelings may often provide the real motive for action. Although, for example, on the political level Caesar's rise to power endangers the republic, on the personal level the conspirators hate to see one of their peers rise to eminence. Cassius, tempting Brutus, recalls an incident of youthful competition when he not only out-swam Caesar but heard that rival crying out for his help. The recollection is revealing, for the men, Brutus included, still feel towards one another the jealousies of youth. Brutus is not distinguished by his envy but by his willingness to betray those for whom he expresses affection. He alone offers to play upon another man's "love," thereby luring him into the conspiracy (II.i.219). He alone expresses "love" for Caesar (I.ii.81, III.i.182), his intended victim.
Brutus can also be judged by certain positive examples of friendship offered in the play. Cassius, wisely trying to convince Brutus of the danger Antony poses, mentions Antony's "ingrafted love" for Caesar (II.i.184), and although Brutus will not allow the murder of Antony, the conspirators carefully lead that friend of Caesar aside at the time of the assassination. Caesar has another loyal friend in Artemidorus, who, discovering the plot against Caesar, writes a warning message, which he signs, "thy lover" (II.iii.8). Finally, Caesar himself is capable of friendship. The night leading into the Ides of March with its storm, unnatural events, and omens troubles Caesar, as it does everyone, but when the morning comes and men he likes gather around him he relaxes. When Decius Brutus arrives to escort him out, a trusting Caesar confesses his fears to Decius "because," as he says, "I love you" (II.ii.74). No sooner has Decius quieted these fears than seven conspirators enter. Because Cassius is absent, we can believe that Caesar is sincere when he welcomes each man warmly. To one he begs the chance to do a favor. At the end of the scene, he calls his "good friends" to drink with him, before, "like friends," they proceed to the capitol. In an aside, Brutus echoes Caesar's words: "That every like is not the same, O Caesar! / The heart of Brutus yearns [grieves] to think upon." Brutus's are crocodile tears, however; far from changing his plans, he quickly joins the conspirators who hover around Caesar.
In planning the murder, the conspirators draw upon their intimate knowledge of Caesar in order to make him look his worst. Metellus Cimber petitions for his brother's recall from exile, knowing that the issue has already become a test of Caesar's firmness. The conspirators have surmised that not only will Caesar not give way, but also he will feel irritated at being asked again. If Caesar displays excessive pride as well, he has been baited: Metellus, refused, asks for another to second his plea; and Brutus, moving forward, gives Caesar a Judas kiss. Caesar is surprised and annoyed that Brutus, whom he loves, should press him at this awkward moment. Cassius then kneels and Caesar, as the men have foreseen, hardens in his position and boasts of being constant. Cinna comes forward, then Decius Brutus; finally Brutus himself kneels—at which Casca strikes Caesar from behind. In this way is Caesar's friendliness repaid.
Brutus is judged separately. Caesar says nothing when he is attacked until he notices Brutus: "Et tu, Brute?—then fall Caesar!" The sudden Latin in the intimate form of address points to the significance of the occasion; Shakespeare's audience knew that dying men proverbially speak with insight. "The foremost man of all this world," as Brutus later calls Caesar (IV.iii.22), cares that a friend betrays him, cares so much that life becomes not worth living. To the familiar Renaissance question, "whether love lead fortune, or else fortune love" (Ham. III.iii.203), Caesar gives a decisive answer: that without love all fortune is worthless. Hence at his death Caesar proves the conspirators wrong; he is not without attachments to others. At the same time Caesar, perhaps unintentionally, points an accusing finger at Brutus: Brutus, not Caesar, fails the test of friendship. The accusation made, Caesar falls dead, and all our attention turns to Brutus's response.
At first, caught in the exigencies of the moment, Brutus reveals nothing. Then, in the uncertain situation, Casca, always fearful, remarks that death merely cuts off one's fear of dying. Brutus quickly embellishes the thought and shapes it for his own ends: "So are we Caesar's friends, that have abridg'd / His time of fearing death" (III.i.104-105). Then Brutus recommends and is the first to adopt an outrageous course of action. He dips his hands up to the elbows in Caesar's blood and prepares to display the spectacle publicly as a symbol of a righteous cause. With this defiant gesture, Brutus answers Caesar—but on the instant his fortunes turn. A "friend" of Antony brings Antony's offer to come and pledge his support. Brutus assents and turns to Cassius with a revealing remark: "I know that we shall have [Antony] well to friend" (III.i.143). He thinks the occasion safe to display magnanimity. Antony enters, and against Cassius's clear advice, Brutus goes even further, and allows Antony to speak at Caesar's funeral. In permitting this speech Brutus may not be a misguided idealist, as some have thought. Although he understands little about politics, he knows less about friendship, and that lack is his undoing. At Caesar's funeral he claims to have loved Caesar well but Rome more; his words, however, ring hollow beside Antony's impassioned rhetoric, motivated as it is by love, loyalty, anger, and the desire for revenge.
As a result of Antony's speech, "Brutus and Cassius / Are rid like madmen through the gates of Rome" (III.ii.270-71). Like Milton's Satan returning to Pandemonium, they have expected applause but got hisses instead. What is more, momentum passes to the other side; Antony and Octavius unite with Lepidus in planning a military campaign. When Brutus reappears at the beginning of the quarrel scene, the focus (as Bradley notes) is not on the plot but on "internal changes." Lacking acclaim and facing possible defeat, Brutus feels more sharply than ever the need to set himself apart as the moral guardian of the revolution. To vindicate his own role, Brutus blames Cassius for betraying the ideals of their cause. A similar kind of scape-goating is described in the preceding scene, where Antony plans to use Lepidus as a beast of burden who will carry the opprobrium that rightly belongs to all the triumvirs (IV.i. 19-27). Antony, however, responds to the realistic need for public esteem, whereas Brutus thinks mostly of bolstering his own self-esteem.
Cassius has left himself open to attack. Needing money to pay for his troops, and faced with a local population that "grudg'd contribution" (iii.205), he has accepted bribes when distributing military offices, and has probably extorted money from peasants (iii.73-75). And yet, while Brutus is denouncing these misdeeds, we may wonder whether Cassius is not in the right. He might well retort with the words Antony later offers Octavius: "Why do you cross me in this exigent?" (V.i.19). Cassius did what he must do, if he is to wage war. This point becomes clear when Brutus hurls an additional charge at Cassius: in the same breath in which he condemns Cassius for raising money by "vile means" and boasts of his own unwillingness to employ similar methods, he scolds Cassius for refusing his request for funds (iii.65-82). In thus demanding money from Cassius's soiled hands, Brutus is a pander; his behavior in this scene seems only one example of his common practice. Shakespeare makes the incident particularly damaging because Cassius shows a certain candor and generosity of spirit. Having himself taken bribes, he defends one Lucius Pella for bribe-taking, though to do so he must admit his own wrongdoing and leave himself open to Brutus's immediate attack (1-12). The elementary facts at issue in the quarrel tell against Brutus; he is even more culpable for the manner in which he charges Cassius, as we shall see.
Cassius, like Brutus, is affected by the sudden reverses both have suffered. When he had anticipated victory, he seemed a leader, a man who loved liberty and possessed abundant courage. But now, intimidated by Brutus's moral pose, he cowers before him. Meanwhile, Brutus, giving him no quarter, insists that his own righteousness entitles him to chastise his fellow general. Cassius pleads, "Brutus, bait not me" (28), but Brutus goads him, "Away, slight man!" (37). Brutus seems intent on undermining Cassius's composure and driving him either to violence against Brutus or to humiliating capitulation.
Cassius does not at first know how to counterattack. But after one particularly withering blast (65-82), he gropes toward an effective defense: "A friend should bear his friend's infirmities; / But Brutus makes mine greater than they are" (85-86). Brutus, complacent, misses the significance of these words. "I do not like your faults" (88), he says haughtily. But Cassius, beside himself, makes a histrionic gesture. Taking out his dagger, he offers it to Brutus: "Strike, as thou didst at Caesar; for I know, / When thou didst hate him worst, thou lov'dst him better / Than ever thou lov'dst Cassius" (104-6). This raises the question of whether Brutus is capable of friendship—whether he hates those whom he says he loves. More specifically, the lines point to an extraordinary parallel between Brutus's treatment of Cassius and his earlier treatment of Caesar; one relationship seems to pick up where the other left off. Though the situation is different, and he now wields words, not a dagger, Brutus betrays a destructive instinct.
His response to Cassius is a precise measure of himself. Although clearly troubled by the charge, Brutus admits wrongdoing neither to himself nor to Cassius. Instead, in a volte face intended to portray generosity of spirit, he tells Cassius, "Sheathe your dagger," and promises in the future to indulge Cassius's "rash humour." Grudging though the concession is, Cassius seizes it; the two "bury all unkindness" and drink to their renewed friendship. But they never have displayed real affection. When Cassius spoke of his "love" for Brutus in Act I, he prepared the way to tempt Brutus. At that time, Brutus responded with the highly qualified willingness to "number" Cassius among many "friends" (I.ii.42-43); and we have seen the unconscious use that Brutus had for Cassius. Circumstances draw them together later. Joint leaders in a doubtful enterprise, they nevertheless quarrel. But Cassius is too weak to brook Brutus's displeasure, and Brutus retreats fearing discovery. Up to this point, at least, their behavior toward each other has lacked all the affection they now express in so exaggerated a fashion. Before the play is over, Brutus in a metaphoric sense takes up the dagger Cassius offered him and strikes home.
Brutus sets out to prove that Cassius betrayed the revolution; he ends by hearing Cassius imply that Brutus's own motives were vitiated from the first. The reconciliation between the men serves Brutus's immediate need to obscure the truth of Cassius's remark, but he remains troubled by the accusation. He moves to regain moral authority, explaining his treatment of Cassius as occasioned by his just having heard of Portia's death. Cassius being properly impressed, Brutus seeks to reassert his dominance. On a question of military tactics, Cassius recommends resting the army and waiting for the enemy to approach. Brutus, however, sharply overrules him, insisting that they seek out the foe. For the same reason that Brutus fears in-action, he fears being alone with his thoughts. As soon as Cassius leaves for the night, Brutus asks Lucius to play music and invites two soldiers to sleep in his tent. When Lucius follows the soldiers in falling asleep, Brutus tries to read. But the ghost of Caesar enters, evidence of a troubled conscience (although the ghost also has an objective existence). Brutus is abashed; but when the ghost leaves, he characteristically rallies his confidence and wants it to return so that he can face it down. The ghost, however, does not oblige. On the instant, Brutus sends orders for Cassius to march and apparently makes no further effort to sleep. When Act V opens, battle is imminent; and Cassius, shaken by Brutus's precipitate actions, has developed a morbid fear of death (V.i.77-89). But Brutus, self-absorbed, gives no thought to the effect of his actions on Cassius.
Brutus has almost succeeded in composing himself. He holds his own in the flyting match between the generals, and in replying to Octavius's "I was not born to die on Brutus' sword," he seems almost smug, although his assertiveness betrays the pricking of conscience: "If thou wert the noblest of thy strain, / Young man, thou could'st not die more honourable" (V.i.59-60). Shortly afterwards, Cassius turns to Brutus with his worries about a possible defeat, and Brutus grandly asserts that he himself will never commit suicide. But when Cassius puts before him the concrete image of captivity, Brutus abruptly changes his tune; he says that he bears "too great a mind" to endure such humiliation. No "philosophy" (101) now guides Brutus. Nor is he concerned with anything so practical as military tactics, nor so commendable as his responsibility to subordinates or friends. What he really wants he reveals by his self-conscious effort to contrive a "well made" parting with Cassius: he wants to win glory that will vindicate his part in "that work the ides of March begun" (119, 114). He may gain this glory either in victory or in defeat, though he naturally prefers the former.
Brutus, restless, throws himself into battle prematurely, but fights with determination and prevails against the opposing flank. Cassius meanwhile suffers some reverses and, overcome by "melancholy," sees conditions as worse than they actually are. He wrongly concludes that Titinius, sent out to scout, has been captured. Calling this almost anonymous figure (mentioned only once before, at I.ii.126) his "best friend," whom to survive would be shameful (V.iii.34-35), Cassius falls on a sword held by a servant. He seeks a death that will measure up to Brutus's ideals. Messala prepares us to expect that Brutus will be grief-stricken: but upon discovering the body, Brutus postpones his tears—and the funeral—and quickly resolves, "Let us to the field" (107). Victory eludes him, however, and with defeat imminent, he carefully fashions his own suicide.
Brutus and Cassius die in similar circumstances and by the same method. The two death scenes differ primarily in that Brutus's attempt to vindicate his life is far more elaborate. He speaks to a small group of survivors:
My heart doth joy that yet in all my life
I found no man but he was true to me.
I shall have glory by this losing day
More than Octavius and Mark Antony
By this vile conquest shall attain unto.
As far as Brutus is concerned, even in defeat he achieved "glory." The victory of Antony and Octavius is merely a "vile conquest." Brutus takes as evidence of his "glory" the loyalty he has received from others. But we know the conspirators merely used him to add respectability to their undertaking. Brutus also implied that the loyalty of followers repaid his own. Yet we have reason to doubt he served others well. Shakespeare carefully plants a reminder of Brutus's treacheries. Among those who have been "true" to him are the men gathered about him now. Their presence comforts him; yet he once denied Caesar this very comfort. The dying Caesar knew that the men around him had not been loyal to him. Still, Brutus believes that by committing suicide he will more than settle his accounts: "Caesar, now be still; / I kill'd not thee with half so good a will" (V.v.49-50). Our response to this passage may be illuminated by T. S. Eliot's analysis of the speech preceding another suicide, Othello's. Eliot, noting that "nothing dies harder than the desire to think well of oneself," finds in Othello's lines a "terrible exposure of human weakness." By "escap[ing] reality," Othello absolves himself of moral responsibility and reasserts his heroic self-image. Whether Eliot is correct about Othello or not, I believe that he describes Brutus exactly.
The victorious army enters to find Brutus dead, whereupon Antony offers a eulogy. I can now return to the question I raised at the outset: what are Antony's real feelings about Brutus? The question is important, for if, at his death, even Brutus's enemy thinks well of him, Shakespeare is guiding the audience to a favorable verdict. If, however, we have reason to doubt Antony's sincerity, then the play ends with an inconclusive judgment. That Antony has hated Brutus from the time of the assassination until this moment there can be no doubt. At Caesar's funeral, Antony singled Brutus out, first ironically praising him as an "honourable man," and then forthrightly accusing him of making "the unkindest cut of all," a remark that perhaps comments on Shakespeare's staging, for in Plutarch Brutus strikes at Caesar's genitals. Antony's anger does not abate, as may be seen from his words to Brutus during the flyting match. Antony's judgment is a firm one, and remains unchanged, but he has acquired a motive that explains the eulogy. When Brutus's general, Lucilius, is captured, Antony orders that he be treated with "kindness": "I had rather have / Such men my friends than enemies" (V.iv.28-29). Octavius adopts Antony's strategy just prior to the eulogy: "All that serv'd Brutus, I will entertain them" (V.v.60). Brutus is a legend in his own time; Antony can do nothing to destroy that legend, and besides, he does not want to. A pragmatist, he uses his great skills as a rhetorician to win Brutus's followers. The audience should therefore hear in Antony's voice the same bitter irony that underlay his ostensible admiration for Brutus throughout the opening movement of his funeral oration.
Brutus is not a "tarnished but good" man. In the real world, many a reputation is undeserved. Brutus may have virtues to offset his faults, but I am not convinced. Critics often cite in his defense his incidental kindnesses. But the solicitude he shows for Lucius, for example, comes when he has dirty work at hand and buys easy points for his conscience. By the same token, his kind words for Portia in the early morning cold seem designed to invite her sympathy for his sleepless night. I also find it hard to believe that Brutus feels deep sorrow at losing Portia; he uses her death for his own advantage, no matter whether the first report of it, or the second, or both, represent Shakespeare's final intentions. Brutus is no more motivated by human warmth than he is by the high ideals he espouses.
Critics have long discussed the difficulty of identifying the focus of Julius Caesar. The problem arises from the controversial nature of Caesar and therefore of the crime against him, and from the presence in the play of four major figures: Brutus, Caesar, Cassius, and Antony. Caesar has special claim on our attention, not only because he is the titular character, but because he is always in people's minds. His dramatic importance actually increases after his death. In retrospect, he appears to have been essential to Rome's political stability; his assassins seem to know this, and they certainly feel guilt about the murder. Conceivably, therefore, the man who is loyal to Caesar and to his memory, Antony, is the play's most sympathetic character. Shakespeare has made the judgment complicated by giving Antony certain flaws. He admits that Caesar's funeral redounds to his own benefit: "Fortune is merry, / And in this mood will give us any thing" (III.iii.268-69). In the next act, Antony, as one among the triumvirs, coolly composes a death list. Critics have held against him not only this deed, but his apparent insouciance when he complies with Lepidus's petulant demand that he add his own nephew to the names of those who will die. On the other hand, he immediately sends Lepidus on an errand and then erupts in a bitter tirade against him.
Antony at least shows to advantage when Brutus denounces Cassius in the scene that follows. Although Brutus's criticisms of Cassius are less justified than Antony's of Lepidus, Brutus assumes a high moral tone, as Antony does not. But if Antony is admirable, it is certainly not because he is without faults. He and Caesar both have faults in abundance, but they are joined together as true friends, just as Cassius and Brutus are joined together as false ones. While the latter pair conspire, the former "converse and waste the time together," as Shakespeare defines friendship elsewhere (MV III.iv. 12). Antony's love of revelry is symbolic, as is Caesar's appreciation of this trait in Antony and his own often jovial good spirits. Antony and Caesar have not lost their humanity, and therefore Caesar cares that Brutus is among the assassins, and Antony cares when Caesar dies. Antony's devotion to Caesar's memory sets a standard beside which the ostentatious avowals of friendship between Cassius and Brutus ring hollow. In Antony and Cleopatra. Antony again feels the pull between love and politics, and love prevails, even more decisively. In Julius Caesar Antony is the most attractive figure—and Brutus the least.
These judgments are corroborated by one of Shakespeare's contemporaries, who apparently saw an early production of the play:
The many-headed multitude were drawne
By Brutus speach, that Caesar was ambitious,
When eloquent Mark Antonie had showne
His vertues, who but Brutus then was vicious?
Last Updated on May 5, 2015, by eNotes Editorial. Word Count: 20838
John Jump (lecture date 1974)
SOURCE: "Shakespeare and History," in Critical Quarterly, Vol. 17, No. 3, Autumn, 1975, pp. 233-44.
[In the following lecture, Jump compares Julius Caesar with Shakespeare's English history plays, arguing that in none of these plays does Shakespeare question the "Tudor myth," which justified Queen Elizabeth I's right to the throne.]
I first read Julius Caesar at the age of fourteen or fifteen. Even then I was surprised to find that the character who gave his name to the play was killed early in Act III, that is, before the play was half over. Was Shakespeare playing fair when he called it The Tragedy of Julius Caesar?
Granted, he gives us a memorable portrait of an ailing dictator. Caesar has been an able and courageous soldier and is evidently an able and courageous political leader. But he has serious weaknesses. We do not depend upon the malice of Cassius for our knowledge of these; nor am I thinking merely of physical disabilities.
Caesar is arrogant. He prides himself on being quite distinct from 'ordinary men' (III.i.37); he asserts that unlike them he is 'constant as the northern star' (III.i.60); and he claims uniqueness in that he 'unassailable holds on his rank,/Unshaked of motion' (III.i.69-70). At the same time, he is vain and susceptible to flattery. Shakespeare exposes this weakness in an especially damaging way. When the conspirators foregather, there is some doubt whether Caesar will attend the meeting at which they mean to assassinate him. Decius undertakes to get him there by flattery, which Caesar says he hates. Then, in the following scene, Decius flatters him and duly gets him there. Clearly, Caesar's arrogance, vanity, and self-deception both isolate him and render him vulnerable.
A character as admirable and as flawed as this could make a tragic hero of the neo-Aristotelian kind. But does he have a chance of becoming anything of the sort when he lives through little more than two of the five acts? When I asked this question years ago I was assured that Caesar, though dead, continues to dominate the play. His spirit lives on in the minds of his friends and foes, and twice it appears visibly to Brutus. I must confess that this justification of the title The Tragedy of Julius Caesar satisfied me at the time. Unfortunately, my doubts gradually revived.
When this happened, I began to think of the play as The Tragedy of Brutus, a tragedy to which an artistically irresponsible Shakespeare had given a title with a stronger box-office appeal. A good case can be made for Brutus as the tragic protagonist. To begin with, he speaks more lines than anyone else. In addition, he survives until the final minutes of the play; and Antony and Octavius round it off with his obituary.
Brutus is a sincere, benevolent, and idealistic republican. But his doctrinaire convictions are too little qualified by any habit of direct fellow-feeling with individual fellow-men. In the service of his creed, he is willing to murder his friend, and to do so not for what he thinks that friend is but for what he thinks that friend may become. Sometimes the doctrine inspires a more benevolent course of action, as when he allows Antony to survive Caesar's death and then permits him to speak in Caesar's funeral. But even here Brutus' behaviour betrays his failure to see individual fellow-men as they are.
In short, he is in danger of growing hardened in political conceit. Certainly he goes far enough in this direction to dictate tactics to a more experienced soldier and to demand from Cassius funds raised by methods which Brutus thinks himself too noble to employ. His political conceit and self-righteousness show him to harbour within himself a potential Robespierre. Roberspierre, after all, was a disciple of the benevolent Jean-Jacques Rousseau.
Fortunately, this potentiality remains unrealized. There is a true nobility in Brutus' dissuasion of the conspirators from staining the 'even virtue' of their 'enterprise' (II.i.133) by an oath. There is equally a true nobility, a fidelity to his high principles, in his unrealistic toleration of Antony. He shows other amiable attributes, too: for example, his tenderness towards Lucius; his deep, undemonstrative affection for Portia; and his friendship with Cassius—despite his bitterness early in the quarrel scene.
Even his enemies pay tribute to him in their concluding speeches. Antony says:
This was the noblest Roman of them all:
All the conspirators save only he
Did that they did in envy of great Caesar;
He only, in a general honest thought
And common good to all, made one of them.
His life was gentle, and the elements
So mixed in him that Nature might stand up
And say to all the world 'This was a man!'
—and Octavius completes the play with a further six lines in a similar vein.
Can we really describe Julius Caesar as the tragedy of this misguided idealist, Brutus? We may admit that the play includes such a tragedy. But it includes also a number of matters more fully developed than is needed for The Tragedy of Brutus. Does that tragedy require a full-length portrait of Cassius, the envious, restless realist who allies himself with an idealist in order to act out his envy and grows to love the idealist as that more self-centred individual can never love him? Does it require a full-length portrait of Antony, the handsome and talented good-timer, devoted to Caesar, effortlessly able to command popularity, skilled in rabble-rousing, politically unscrupulous, but capable of appreciating an enemy's nobility? Does it even require so complex a portrait of Caesar himself?
In no other of Shakespeare's tragedies do we find as many as four of the dramatis personae who are so nearly equal in importance. So close to equality do they come that some years ago a single film of the play could give us four top-ranking actors in these four parts, Louis Calhern as Caesar, James Mason as Brutus, John Gielgud as Cassius, and Marlon Brando as Antony. This characteristic makes it difficult to describe Julius Caesar either as the tragedy of Caesar or as the tragedy of Brutus. What is it?
I suggest that we try thinking of it as a history play, though one concerned with Roman, not English, history. Shakespeare's English history plays take their titles from the names of the monarchs whose reigns they represent. These monarchs are naturally important in their plays; but they are not necessarily the most important characters in them. While Richard III and Henry V dominate their plays, Henry VI is subordinate dramatically to Duke Humphrey of Gloucester in Part I and to other characters in Parts II and III, King John is subordinate dramatically to the Bastard Faulcon-bridge, and Henry IV attracts less of our attention than does Prince Hal or Harry Hotspur or Sir John Falstaff.
Shakespeare evidently wished to stage an historical pageant in which the monarch would play a more or less active, more or less dominant, part from reign to reign. In Julius Caesar, I suggest, he planned a play on similar lines about Roman history and named it accordingly after the man whom he recognized as exercising virtually monarchial power. But this likeness is merely superficial. Does the resemblance go any deeper?
We must ask what Shakespeare is doing in his English history plays.
If we exclude the outliers, King John and Henry VIII, we have eight plays that form a continuous historical sequence. Shakespeare did not write these in the chronological order of the historical events they stage. He first wrote the four that deal with the later events—Henry VI, Parts I, II, and III, and Richard III— and then went on to write the four that deal with the earlier events—Richard II, Henry IV, Parts I and II, and Henry V. Collectively, they survey English history over practically a century, from the reign of Richard II late in the fourteenth century to the death of Richard III and the accession of Henry VII late in the fifteenth.
To Shakespeare and his contemporaries, this was the recent past, the past out of which had grown the immediate present which they knew at first hand. It occupied much the same place in their imaginations as is occupied today in the imaginations of vast numbers of English men and women by a recent past composed of a triumphant Victorian age, two world wars, the rise of organized labour, and the loss of Empire. In the imaginations of Shakespeare and his contemporaries, Richard III and Henry V had much the same prominence as have Stalin, Hitler, and Churchill in our imaginations today. In staging the deposition of Richard II, the victories of Henry V, the rivalry of York and Lancaster, the Wars of the Roses, the tyranny of Richard III, and the establishment of the Tudor dynasty by Henry VII, Shakespeare was presenting a version of what was fairly common knowledge.
But in presenting it Shakespeare had to do more than respect a series of historical facts with which the audience would have some prior acquaintance. He had also to respect a particular interpretation of those facts. This interpretation justified the reigning Tudor dynasty; it was promulgated by official historians and propagandists such as Hall and Holinshed; the public accepted it with virtual unanimity; and Shakespeare himself shows no sign of questioning it. Modern writers refer to it as the Tudor myth.
This presented the Tudors—the dynasty to which Elizabeth I, the reigning queen, belonged—as the monarchs who had brought England peace and happiness after a century of troubles. It traced the troubles back to the dethronement and murder of the legitimate, anointed king, Richard II, in 1399. The penitence of the perjured Henry IV, who supplanted him, could not prevent his rule from being uneasy, his power challenged by rebellion. But his son, Henry V, who succeeded him in 1413, was brave and pious, an admirable king. During his reign, the inevitable punishment of the ruling family and the nation for the dethronement and murder of Richard II was deferred. Only for the duration of his splendid reign, however. On his death in 1422, his infant son became Henry VI. The new reign was nothing less than calamitous; England lost her French possessions and was torn apart by the Wars of the Roses. The king and his people were suffering for the crimes of Henry IV.
These three Henries belonged to the house of Lancaster. The house of York had a better title to the throne; but its members were guilty of perjury and murder. By their agency, Henry VI was dethroned and killed in 1471, and the Yorkist Edward IV became king. His brother, Richard III, who succeeded him in 1483, was the evil counterpart of the virtuous Henry V. 'There could not be,' says Hall, 'a more crueller tyrant appointed to achieve a more abominable enterprise.' The nation could not enjoy peace and security until Henry, Earl of Richmond, the founder of the Tudor dynasty, defeated Richard III in battle in 1485. Ascending the throne as Henry VII, he healed all discord by his marriage with a Yorkist princess. Their son was to become Henry VIII, one of their grand-daughters Elizabeth I.
By speaking of this as a myth, I do not mean to imply that it is simply untrue. It is neither more nor less untrue than the British myth of Dunkirk, the Russian myth of the October Revolution, or the American myth of the Revolution which gave the colonists their freedom. In each instance, a compound of selected facts and apt fictions sustains an interpretation which a society finds acceptable, even inspiring, perhaps necessary. So it was with the Tudor myth. It had a considerable factual basis. At the same time, we may doubt, for example, whether Richard III was quite the monster the myth made him. But the myth needed a monster at this climax in its unfolding, a monster who would be defeated and slain by the heaven-sent founder of the new dynasty. Richard III had to take on the part and was made up accordingly.
In the eyes of those who accepted the myth, rebellion was always wrong. It was especially wrong when directed against the legitimate king, Richard II; but it was also wrong when directed against the anointed usurper, Henry IV, or against his anointed grandson, Henry VI. This is all very well, but was not Henry, Earl of Richmond, a rebel against the tyrannical but anointed Richard III? An orthodox political theorist would have replied that this is the exception that proves the rule. When a patently heaven-sent deliverer destroys a patently diabolical tyrant, we are witnessing divine intervention, not rebellion.
When I speak of 'the inevitable punishment of the ruling family and the nation' for their offences against Richard II, and when I speak of Henry VII as 'heavensent', I am acknowledging that the Tudor myth exemplifies the providential theory of history. This Christian conception derives ultimately from Augustine and Orosius. It sees all past events as contributing to the unfolding of God's plan, and it sees all men and nations as subject to the working of divine retributive justice. The particular respects in which the Tudor myth exemplified the theory hardly need specifying now.
Theoretically distinct from this Christian conception was another conception of history current in the age of Shakespeare. This was the classical conception derived from the historians, philosophers, and rhetoricians of pagan antiquity. Those who held it sought to trace historical happenings to human and political causes. Instead of invoking divine providence and justice, they explained things in a worldly way in terms of human character and of political and military facts. Among the leading exponents of this humanist theory were the Italians Machiavelli and Guicciardini.
Though I have described the two conceptions as theoretically distinct, we find in practice that providentialists sometimes offer humanist explanations, and humanists sometimes offer providential explanations. Evidently the two conceptions could at this date still achieve a peaceful coexistence in one and the same skull. Religious men of scientific bent could believe that God fulfilled his providential purpose, and enacted his justice, through second causes such as the humanists chose to investigate.
Where does Shakespeare stand?
As I have already suggested, he shows no sign of questioning or challenging the Tudor myth. He depicts the deposition and murder of Richard II as a horrible crime and sin. The usurper, Henry IV, endures a troubled and frustrated reign, not the least of his burdens being the apparent delinquency of his son and heir, Prince Hal. This prince develops in due course into the ideal warrior-king, Henry V. He lives piously and grieves at his father's offence; he remembers it, for example, on the eve of his glorious victory at Agin-court. When he is succeeded by his infant son, Henry VI, however, calamities overwhelm the family and the nation. The French possessions are lost, law and order are subverted by the murder of the just counsellor Humphrey of Gloucester, the Yorkist faction among the nobility challenges the ascendancy of the house of Lancaster, and the Wars of the Roses ravage the country. Henry VI, saintly but ineffective in his kingly office, is overthrown and killed. Two Yorkist brothers occupy the throne in turn: the self-indulgent perjurer Edward IV, and the ruthless monster Richard III. Only a deliverer chosen by God himself can heal division and restore peace and prosperity.
This is the interpretation we find in the eight English history plays upon which I am concentrating. Nowhere does it conflict with the Tudor myth as already out-lined. This fact has encouraged some critics to represent Shakespeare as simply a loyal retailer of official propaganda.
I have two observations to make on this view. Firstly, it was at that time hardly possible, and certainly not safe, for a man of the theatre openly to oppose the political authorities. Chapman and Jonson went to gaol for jokes in Eastward Ho! about the dispersion of the Scots and the cash price of the knighthoods conferred by a newly crowned Scottish king of England; for a time they were in danger of having their noses slit and their ears cut off. Middleton's A Game at Chess attacked the same monarch's pro-Spanish foreign policy. The performance of the play was prohibited, and the incident may well have hastened the termination of Middleton's dramatic career. Clearly, it was prudent to leave the political establishment alone.
But would Shakespeare have wished to challenge it in any case? He developed as a playwright during the decade or so following the defeat of the Spanish Armada (1588). Only a radically disaffected Englishman could have escaped the euphoria of the nation during these years. A queen who had passed the age of child-bearing, and who was therefore necessarily the last of her line, had crowned the century of internal peace which her dynasty had given the country by leading her people to repel their main external foe; and, it seemed, God had demonstrated his approval by sending the storm which scattered and wrecked the defeated Spanish fleet. Some scholars today incline to believe that Shakespeare invented the English history play as we know it. He may have done so, or he may have taken over the invention of other men. But he certainly wrote most of his English history plays while the country was enjoying a mood of extraordinary elation and confidence. We need hardly be surprised that a man writing on such subjects at such a time found it easy and natural to accept the Tudor myth as truth.
Not, however, as the whole truth. Just as the historians had recourse both to providential and to humanist explanations of events, so Shakespeare enriched and transformed his received material by explaining the providential sequence in terms of human character and the realities of political and military life. No doubt Richard III was a scourge of God sent to chastise a factious nation; he was also a natural product of the preceding decades of violence and turpitude. No doubt he fell before a heaven-sent deliverer; he was also the victim of an overwhelming natural revulsion which caused humanity to rise and crush him. His fate as the victim of such a natural revulsion anticipates that of Shakespeare's Macbeth.
Not only in Richard II but also throughout the English history plays, Shakespeare provides natural explanations of events which could also be seen as contributing to a divine plan. Richard II is not merely a royal victim. He is a sentimentalist whose self-centredness makes him callous to the sufferings of others and at the same time temptingly vulnerable; he almost invites deposition. Henry IV is not simply an efficient usurper. He is an opportunist who, finding himself drawn into a power-vacuum, makes himself to the best of his ability a conscientious monarch.
Shakespeare's exploration of human causes goes along with an exploration of human consequences. Recent productions of these plays at Stratford-upon-Avon, on television, and elsewhere have brought home to us what should already have been very evident—namely, that from beginning to end they chronicle deeds of the basest treachery and the most sickening violence. History in them does indeed seem what Gibbon called it: 'little more than the register of the crimes, follies, and misfortunes of mankind'. The death of Richard Plantagenet, Duke of York, the pretender to the throne, may here stand for a whole series of atrocities. His captors place him on a molehill, put a paper crown on his head, mock him, give him to wipe away his tears a napkin stained with the blood of his young son whom they have murdered, and finally stab him to death and decapitate his corpse.
Later in the same play, Henry VI, Part III, Shakespeare voices the pity of it all in what is perhaps the finest scene in the trilogy. The battle of Towton is being fought. Henry VI, sad, devout, almost saintly, sits helplessly nearby. Soliloquizing, he grieves deeply at the sufferings which he is incapable of alleviating but which a better king might have prevented. He wishes he had been born 'a homely swain'(II.v.22), free to work, rest, and pray in quiet seclusion. There enter in succession two soldiers, each with the body of a man whom he has killed and means to rob. The first discovers with horror and anguish that his victim is his own father. 'O piteous spectacle!' exclaims the king.
O bloody times!
Whiles lions war and battle for their dens,
Poor harmless lambs abide their enmity.
The second soldier discovers with equal horror and anguish that his victim is his own son. The king grieves and prays:
Woe above woe! grief more than common
O that my death would stay these ruthful
O pity, pity, gentle heaven pity!
This scene is far from naturalistic. The grieving king, the anguished son, and the anguished father do not act in the least as we should expect such people to act in real life; and together they form a group such as we should hardly expect to encounter in actuality. Even within the conventions of poetic drama, Shakespeare could at a later date offer a much closer imitation of life than this: for example, Hamlet's learning that his father was murdered. But the artificiality of the present scene permits it to achieve a comprehensive expression of the sorrows both of a country torn by 'civil fury and domestic strife' and of its well-meaning and compassionate but impotent monarch. The expression is direct, formal, ceremonial; the three persons speak as representative figures, not as unique individuals. The scene has a quite exceptional range and power of suggestion. It reminds us of morality-drama.
Shakespeare's feeling of the pity of it all finds expression also in more individual terms. The young princes who are to be killed in the Tower by order of their uncle, Richard III, behave in a way that quickly wins our affection. The elder speaks with a grave consciousness of his seniority and higher rank, the younger with a mischievous wit. They are affectionate and spirited boys. Even their murderers, 'fleshed villains, bloody dogs' (IV.iii.6), weep to tell of their deaths.
So Shakespeare humanizes the official providential sequence by showing how individual human beings contribute to the course of events and how these events impinge upon individual human existences. In most of his history plays the result is that the providential scheme is not exactly forced upon us. It is present, of course. But what holds our attention from scene to scene is human action and human suffering.
In two plays, however, Shakespeare was obliged to give special prominence to the official myth. Richard III had to end with a St. George slaying a dragon. Shakespeare makes the entire play a most elaborate study of retributive justice. Henry V had to present an ideal hero-king. This man had to exercise great power with complete rectitude and without losing the common touch; and he had to achieve a miraculous victory against the French.
In Henry IV, Shakespeare had already shown him, as Prince Hal, winning the regard of men of all sorts. In particular, he was a member of Falstaff's circle. But he never involved himself in anything really shameful. He stood always a little apart from his squalid companions, friendly, but slightly mocking. Naturally, we could not wish the heir-apparent to disgrace himself. But his ability to mingle with the riff-raff without being of it, and even in a famous soliloquy to assure us that he knew what he was doing and that everything was under control, chilled us slightly. He really was admirable: a loyal, honourable, and patriotic young man. But was he perhaps a irifle too cool?
We continue to ask the question after he becomes king. Yet his conduct as a monarch can hardly be faulted. He satisfies himself that he has just cause for a war against France, he wages that war as humanely as possible, his own conduct during the compaign shows his courage and piety, and on the eve of Agincourt he proves that he does indeed possess the ability to communicate with all sorts among his subjects. Why, then, the reservations that haunt so many students of the play? Why, for instance, should a critic who is far from unsympathetic describe him as too coldly official? Is it perhaps that he is too briskly and efficiently exemplary? Even in the wooing scene, where he exhibits a notable inaptitude for the business he is about, his tone of frank and hearty good-fellowship is well adapted to gratify English theatregoers and readers—and it does, after all, win him the lady! His all-round competence and almost effortless superiority evoke admiration but tend to inhibit any warmer regard.
Some critics have been more severe and have tried to represent him as a brutal militarist. They question his sincerity when he asks his counsellors whether he has just cause for a war against France; and they regard his speech to the Governor of Harfleur as a tissue of violent threats. But the fact that his counsellors had selfish motives for the advice they gave does not prove him insincere in inviting and acting on that advice; and what he says to the Governor of Harfleur is not a tissue of threats but a grim and realistic prediction. If the Governor does not now surrender the city, the calamity that Henry describes will befall it in full accordance with the contemporary laws of war, and the king will be powerless to prevent it.
For a play celebrating a famous victory, Henry V is remarkably free from thoughtless sabre-rattling. We are not shown merely the pride, pomp, and circumstance of glorious war. Shakespeare juxtaposes the mean and absurd incidents involving Pistol, Bardolph, and Nym with the stirring military achievements; he balances the four worthy captains, Gower, Fluellen, Macmorris, and Jamy, with the honest grousers, Bates and Williams; he has Henry tell us of the horrors of war; and he has Burgundy tell us of the unnatural waste and wildness it promotes.
So neither the king nor the play can be fairly described as simply glorifying war. The play celebrates national unity under the wise and dedicated leadership of a truly popular monarch. The celebration is eloquent and judicious. The king speaks and acts admirably in a wide variety of situations; he can be humorous or earnest, down-to-earth or inspiring, as each particular situation requires. Yet we have rarely any intimate sense of the man behind this stirring performance, this dazzling and resourceful rhetoric. Is this why so many who enjoy and admire the play cannot dispel the stubborn reservations which I have mentioned?
I wish now to speculate groundlessly. I can produce no hard evidence in favour of the guesses I am about to make, but I shall employ them only as a convenient way of introducing the critical judgments with which I mean to close.
Let us suppose that Shakespeare had an uncomfortable awareness of the reservations of which I have spoken. He had written a brilliant play that was to enjoy great success in the theatre. But the subject of that play was one concerning which there was an official view and a complementary popular expectation that were irresistible. He had handled the subject with the utmost permissible freedom and flexibility. He had shown the hideous cruelty and wastefulness of war, and the seamy side of military life, while also acknowledging the courage and loyalty of many of those involved; he had exposed unscrupulous scheming, and even treacherous conspiracy, in high places, while also revealing the patriotism and integrity of numerous men of all ranks. At the centre, he had portrayed an ideal hero-king, as required by the national myth. He had made him manly, versatile, and dazzlingly articulate. But when Shakespeare came to review his finished creation—remember that I am developing a baseless speculation—he must have perceived that his Henry was a beautifully integrated assembly of external attitudes rather than a man moving and speaking from a single independent centre of vitality.
The play had evidently interested Shakespeare greatly; its very dialogue has a zest which there is no mistaking. So what could be more natural than that he should decide to write another history play? But this time he wanted a freer hand. He would choose a subject that was unburdened by providential interpretation in favour of the Tudors. The story of the death of Julius Caesar occurred to him. It was well-known—Polonius, for example, was later to claim to have performed in a version of it during his university days—but the remoteness of its subject from contemporary England left an artist at liberty to interpret its persons and their deeds as seemed just to him. Rebellion, for example, was not necessarily as reprehensible as it would have been had Julius Caesar been an anointed Christian king. I do not wish to imply that Shakespeare was writing against the grain in his English history plays. On the contrary, there is every indication that he wrote them as a sincere supporter of the Tudor establishment. But I am suggesting that when he turned to Julius Caesar, apparently within a year of finishing Henry V, he wished to give his historical and political imagination more scope than it had previously known.
Julius Caesar, I am arguing, is the work that crowns Shakespeare's progress through the long line of English history plays. In it he chronicles the affairs of a society in transition from a republican to a monarchist political system. The spirit of Caesar dominates the play in that Caesarism, or monarchy, is in the ascendant. The populace desires it and is ready to support a Pompey, a Caesar, an Octavius. When the republican Brutus pleases the plebeians, one of them cries out, with unintentional irony, 'Let him be Caesar' (III.ii.51).
Shakespeare explores the varieties of political behaviour found in such circumstances. Brutus is a political idealist trying to preserve the dying republican institutions and resorting to political murder for this purpose.
Cassius and, even more strikingly, Casca act with him out of envy of the likely monarch. Antony, devoted to the murdered man, nevertheless takes ruthless advantage of his opportunities. Octavius is a cool, deliberate politician, Lepidus a mere political stooge or 'front man'. The play as a whole records the developing strength of Caesarism or monarchy.
The qualities which came together in the hero-king Henry V are here parcelled out among various characters. Brutus has the idealism, Antony the high spirit, Octavius the ability to calculate and to take the long view. None of these characters is totally admirable. The quality by which I have distinguished Octavius is one that Shakespeare had felt obliged to allow Henry both before and after his coronation. It distinguished him as Prince Hal from the romantic egoist Harry Hotspur and from the self-indulgent egoist Falstaff. At the same time, it was a quality that we sometimes found a little chilling. In Octavius it is so developed to the exclusion of Henry's other qualities that the future emperor impresses us as a frigid boy of daunting strength of will. But to say this is to look forward to Antony and Cleopatra; and that is another story.
Mark Rose (essay date 1989)
SOURCE: "Conjuring Caesar: Ceremony, History, and Authority in 1599," in English Literary Renaissance, Vol. 19, No. 3, Autumn, 1989, pp. 291-304.
[In the essay that follows, Rose draws a comparison between the political state in England at the time Julius Caesar was written and the political atmosphere of ancient Rome as depicted in the play.]
Julius Caesar opens with Marullus and Flavius rebuking the plebeians for transferring their allegiance from Pompey and making a holiday to celebrate Caesar's triumph. It is commonplace to remark that the plebeians in this scene, the cheeky cobbler who makes puns about mending bad soles and the other workmen, are more Elizabethan than Roman. But it is not usually noted that the tribune Marullus sounds strikingly like an indignant Puritan calling sinners to repent:
O you hard hearts, you cruel men of Rome,
Knew you not Pompey? Many a time and oft
Have you climb'd up to walls and battlements,
To towers and windows, yea, to chimney-tops,
Your infants in your arms, and there have sat
The livelong day, with patient expectation,
To see great Pompey pass the streets of
And when you saw his chariot but appear,
Have you not made an universal shout,
That Tiber trembled underneath her banks
To hear the replication of your sounds
Made in her concave shores?
And do you now put on your best attire?
And do you now cull out a holiday?
And do you now strew flowers in his way,
That comes in triumph over Pompey's blood?
Run to your houses, fall upon your knees,
Pray to the gods to intermit the plague
That needs must light on this ingratitude.
Besides the emotionalism and rhetorical urgency which were characteristic of the Puritans and their "spiritual" style of preaching, we can note that the imagery of hard hearts, plagues, chariots, and trembling waters recalls that favorite Old Testament story of the reformers, Exodus. In 1599, when Julius Caesar was first performed, similarly styled calls to prayer and repentance might be heard from pulpits all over London.
In the tangled world of Elizabethan England, religion and politics were more often than not indistinguishable, and we need not be surprised to find that Shakespeare, trying to understand the nature of the political contentions of ancient Rome as he found them described in Plutarch's Lives, should think of the contemporary struggle in the church. A crucial point of contention between Anglican conservatives and Puritan reformers was whether a clergyman's authority came from above or from below, from the crown or from the congregation. Anglican clergy maintained the importance of episcopal ordination, and thus also the principle of the monarch as the final reservoir of power. The reformers insisted that authority derived from the inward call of the spirit, confirmed by the outward call of the congregation. The prescribed role of the Roman tribunes of the people—the "tongues o' th' common mouth" as Coriolanus contemptuously calls them—was as spokesmen and defenders of plebeian rights. Furthermore, the tribunes were not appointed but elected by the plebeians themselves. Perhaps then the reformers' claim to an authority derived not from the crown but from God and the congregations of the faithful led Shakespeare to conceive an analogy between the ancient tribunes and the Puritan preachers of his day.
That Shakespeare was in fact making this connection is only speculation of course, but the readiness with which this analogy might come to mind is suggested by the fact that a few years later King James made a similar association. Irritated by the independence of the English parliament, he asserted in 1605 that there were in the House of Commons "some Tribunes of the people, whose mouths could not be stopped, either from the matters of the Puritans, or of the purveyance." Moreover, a number of details in the play suggest that some such analogy might be at work in Shakespeare's mind. Casca reports that "Marullus and Flavius, for pulling scarfs off Caesar's images, are put to silence" (1.2 282-83), a phrase that recalls precisely the action which was commonly taken against a Puritan who had become a thorn in the side of authority. In a well-known episode in 1586, for example, Archbishop Whitgift intervened in the running debate at Temple Church between the orthodox Richard Hooker and his Puritan deputy Walker Travers by prohibiting Travers from further preaching, or in Hooker's phrase, enjoining him to silence. And in 1599 Laurence Barker complained that Londoners would rush to hear any preacher "that will not sticke to reuile them that are in authoritie, that his sectaries may crie he is persecuted, when hee is iustly silenced."
Also suggestive is the exchange at the end of the opening scene when the tribunes go off to "disrobe" the images:
Flavius. Disrobe the images,
If you do find them deck'd with
Marullus. May we do so?
You know it is the feast of Lupercal.
Flavius. It is no matter; let no images
Be hung with Caesar's trophies.
The language seems to glance at the controversies over garments and the use of images; in the word "ceremonies"—Plutarch speaks of "diadems"—Flavius employs a term of great contemporary resonance, one containing within itself nearly the entire history of fifty years of passionate struggle. Again and again the Puritans condemned what they called "superstitious" and "filthy" ceremonies, the "chains," as one put it, "whereby we were tied to popish religion." With equal determination, the Anglican establishment insisted on the retention of those ceremonies necessary to maintain, in the words of the Book of Common Prayer, "a decente ordre, and godlye discipline" (1599, sig. DI). Over the years the term "ceremony" had been used so often and had acquired so many associations that it had become, as W. Gordon Zeeveld remarks, "a word of extraordinary emotive power with verbal and conceptual values instantly resonant in the theatre."
One form of ceremony that offended the Puritans was the keeping of holidays—the term still carried much of the old sense of holy day—other than those specifically appointed in the Bible. Flavius' dismissive attitude toward the feast of Lupercal may well have sounded Puritanical in the late 1590s when the reformers were making a point of refusing to stop work to celebrate such feasts as saints' days. His comment here recalls the contempt with which he chastises the workmen at the play's start:
Hence! home, you idle creatures, get you
Is this a holiday? What, know you not,
Being mechanical, you ought not walk
Upon a labouring day without the sign
Of your profession?
From the first lines of the scene, then, even before Marullus' harangue, a certain aura of Puritanism clings to the tribunes.
The confrontations between the Puritans and the Anglicans often focused on matters of ritual or ceremony, but as the phrase "decent ordre" in the Book of Common Prayer implies, the issues raised were felt to be fundamental and far reaching. The discarding of the symbols of religious authority might lead, as many understood, to the questioning of other images of social authority, and thus to a challenge to the crown itself: no bishop, no king. At stake ultimately was the matter of power in the realm—which is of course also at stake at the opening of Julius Caesar.
Although the tribunes themselves do not reappear after the first scene, the opposition between puritanical antiritualism and a more conservative belief in the efficacy of ceremony is at work throughout the play. Caesar's first appearance shows his concern about ceremonies as he enters speaking about the Lupercalian rite and his desire to have Antony touch Calphurnia. "Set on," he commands, "and leave no ceremony out" (1.1.11). Later Cassius remarks to the conspirators that Caesar "is superstitious grown of late, / Quite from the main opinion he held once / of fantasy, of dreams, and ceremonies" (2.1.195-97). "Ceremonies" here may refer to portents or omens, as it does when Calphurnia comments that although she "never stood on ceremonies" (2.2.13) they now frighten her, but the word's other sense is not lost. We can note, too, Cassius' Puritanical dislike of plays and music, pointed out by Caesar; and in this context Casca's sour dismissal of the ceremony of the offering of the crown as "foolery" may also be suggestive.
In a general way, then, the anti-Caesar parties—both the tribunes and the bitter republicans of the second scene, Cassius and Casca—are associated with anti-ritualism. But Brutus, whom the play carefully distinguishes from the other opponents of Caesar, is no enemy to ceremony as such. Indeed, it is precisely because of his belief in the power of ritual that he comes to the conclusion that Caesar must die. As Frank Kermode observes, anachronistic assumptions about the significance of a coronation ceremony are at work in Brutus' soliloquy in his orchard. For Plutarch, Caesar is already a king de facto. But Brutus, thinking more like an Elizabethan subject than a Roman citizen, attaches great importance to the actual crowning: "He would be crown'd: / How that might change his nature, there's the question" (2.1.12-13). Crown Caesar and he will be put beyond reprisal. The ritual itself is what must be prevented.
From the solemn shaking of hands in 2.1 to the bathing in Caesar's blood, the conspiracy is, under Brutus' direction, carried out in a conspicuously ceremonial manner. As Brents Stirling and others have noted, onstage the ritualistic character of the assassination is clear. One by one the conspirators kneel to Caesar, begging him to repeal Publius Cimber's banishment although they know he will not. By arrangement Casca strikes first, rearing his hand over Caesar's head. Each conspirator then stabs in turn, after which they bathe in the blood. But long before the event, Brutus insists that the assassination must be conducted as a sacrifice. His well-known speech evokes both ritual slaughter and the notion of purging or bleeding a sick commonweal in a medicinal act that he conceives as a kind of exorcism of Caesar's spirit.
Let's be sacrificers, but not butchers, Caius.
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. And, gentle friends,
Let's kill him boldly, but not wrathfully;
Let's carve him as a dish fit for the gods,
Not hew him as a carcass fit for hounds.
And let our hearts, as subtle masters do,
Stir up their servants to an act of rage,
And after seem to chide 'em. This shall make
Our purpose necessary, and not envious;
Which so appearing to the common eyes,
We shall be call'd purgers, not murderers.
Interestingly, some of these motifs recur when Caius Ligarius enters dressed like a sick man and explicitly refers to Brutus as an "exorcist" who can give health: "Brave son, deriv'd from honourable loins! / Thou like an exorcist, hast conjur'd up / My mortified spirit" (2.1.321-24).
There is, however, an ambifuity in Caius Ligarius' speech, for in Elizabethan usage "exorcise" can mean to raise a spirit as well as to expel one, and this ambiguity perhaps foreshadows the ironic turn that events in Rome are to take. Is Brutus an exorcist or a conjurer, Rome's doctor or the means by which the spirit of Caesar is permanently established in the state?
Early in the play, Cassius rather sardonically introduces the notion of conjuration when he attempts to move Brutus against Caesar by speaking of the relative power of their names:
Brutus and Caesar: what should be in that
Why should that name be sounded more than
Write them together, yours is as fair a name;
Sound them, it doth become the mouth as
Weigh them, it is as heavy; conjure with 'em,
"Brutus" will start a spirit as soon as
Later, in his soliloquy over Caesar's corpse, Antony imagines civil war in Italy with "Caesar's spirit, ranging for revenge" (3.1.270). Antony no doubt is only speaking metaphorically, and yet, together with other allusions to exorcism and conjuration, his picture of the ranging spirit invites us to consider the play's action as an attempt at exorcism that turns into a conjuration, two rituals that are dangerously similar in that each involves the demonstration of power over spirits. In any case, the play makes much of Caesar's spirit, and at the end that spirit does literally range the world, manifesting itself to us as well as to Brutus before the battle of Philippi.
But to speak of Julius Caesar in terms of spirits and conjuration perhaps seems odd. We may be more accustomed to thinking of this play as a hard-headed political study, one that treats Brutus' attempt to ritualize and purify the assassination with scornful irony. Our approach tends to be in the skeptical vein of Cassius or in that of Antony, who regards the assassination as exactly what Brutus sought to avoid, a butchery. And yet although Antony, the cynical manipulator of the plebeians, may be disenchanted, Julius Caesar, with its ghost, its soothsayer, its prophetic dreams and supernatural prodigies, is not. The world of this play is fundamentally mysterious. Minor mysteries such as Cassius' death falling on his birthday are emphasized, and the play implies that Caesar was right to have grown superstitious, to have changed his opinion about dreams: the portents that prefigure the assassination are not merely daggers of the mind. By the play's end even Cassius has lost some of his enlightened skepticism and come to grant some credit to omens.
Of course we do not need to believe that Shakespeare himself had to be superstitious to write Julius Caesar. The Elizabethan stage was filled with supernatural beings such as witches, fairies, conjurers, and ghosts. Purged from the church by the new enlightenment of the Reformation, magic reappeared in the ostensibly circumscribed and make-believe world of the theater. If sixteenth-century Englishmen could no longer experience the real physical presence of God on the altar in church, they could still experience the pretended physical manifestation of demons and spirits in the theater. We are sometimes inclined to dismiss the Puritan objections to the theater as sour crankiness, but their antagonism can perhaps be sympathetically comprehended as part of their larger campaign against superstition and idolatry. Moreover, there is a real connection between magic, ritual, and drama, and it is some-times hard to say where the boundary lies between attending a play that is about ritual and participating in a ritual.
Julius Caesar is a case in point. The assassination is so conspicuously ritualized—the conspirators kneeling before Caesar, the repeated stabbing, the ceremonial bathing in Caesar's blood, the clasping of purpled hands when Antony enters—that an audience may well feel that it is not only witnessing but participating in a kind of ceremony. Indeed, in its dramatic self-consciousness, the play calls attention to its special quality as a kind of ritual when, immediately after the death, Cassius speaks of it as an event that will provide high drama in future tongues and states:
Cassius. Stoop then, and wash. How many ages
Shall this our lofty scene be acted over,
In states unborn, and accents yet unknown!
Brutus. How many times shall Caesar bleed in sport,
That now on Pompey's basis lies along,
No worthier than the dust!
Cassius. So oft as that shall be,
So often shall the knot of us be call'd
The men that gave their country liberty.
This ritual quality is directly related to the special historical status of this play's subject: for the Elizabethans as for ourselves, the assassination of Julius Caesar was probably the single most famous event in ancient history. It would have been quite possible for Shakespeare to have suppressed our knowledge of this history in the interest of illusionism, of making us forget that we are attending a performance, but in fact he does the opposite. For example, the soothsayer who appears in the second scene and again just before the assassination activates our own retrospective foreknowledge. Again and again, Shakespeare in effect reminds us that the story is famous and the outcome known. What does the night of prodigies signify? What is the meaning of the beast in which Caesar's augurers cannot find a heart? What does Calphurnia's dream portend? For the characters these are riddles, and indeed the difficulty of interpreting becomes an important motif in the play. As Cicero says on the night of prodigies, "men may construe things, after their fashion, / Clean from the purpose of the things themselves" (1.3.34-35). But the audience has no difficulty in construing these signs because we are participating in a reenactment of an event whose most important meanings are already known. Why should the name Caesar be sounded more than any other? Because, as we know, this name will become a title greater even than king. Why should the ghost of Caesar range the world? Because, as we know, the assassination was not the end of Caesarism but effectively the beginning.
A few words about the play's structure as historical drama are necessary. Julius Caesar is built upon a tautology: Caesar becomes Caesar, the past becomes the completed past that we know. Much like ourselves, the Elizabethans seem to have imagined ancient Rome in architectural terms, thinking of pillars, arches, and statues; and Shakespeare's Rome is notably a city of statues: Caesar's images, Junius Brutus' statue, the statue of Pompey the Great. Cassius warns Brutus that Caesar has turned himself into a Colossus, and indeed Caesar, who repeatedly suppresses his private fears in order to play out his historical role as "Caesar," does present himself as a kind of monument. As a historical tragedy, then, Julius Caesar is built upon the tension between the present tense of dramatic reenactment and the past of history, between the ordinary flesh and blood of life and the immobile statues of antiquity. The play insists throughout upon Caesar's fleshly vulnerability: his falling sickness, his deafness, his near drowning in the Tiber, and his fever in Spain. What Shakespeare shows us is—to employ the grotesque imagery of Calphurnia's dream—marble statues spouting blood; or, conversely, it shows us flesh and blood aspiring to monumentality. Ironically, it is precisely because of his aspiration to a monumentality as fixed as the north star that Caesar is vulnerable to the conspirators' plot. "Hence! Wilt thou lift up Olympus?" (3.1.74) he exclaims the moment before the assassination. This is hubris of course, but in the different sense that the play's historical perspective provides, it is true. "Et tu, Brute?" As Caesar leaves behind the frailty of the flesh and enters history, Shakespeare gives him the one Latin line in the play, underscoring the transformation. The vulnerable man has been revealed as the marmoreal figure of history. Caesar has become Caesar.
What I am suggesting is that the play's mystifications, its magical elements, are associated with this tautological design. Couched in terms of prophecies and omens, our knowledge of events is represented in the drama as a magical necessity embedded in history. The result is that dramatic irony is raised to a metaphysical level and presented as fate. In this manner the play creates a feeling of necessity and persuades its audience that in witnessing Caesar's death and the collapse of the republican cause it has witnessed something inevitable.
Why should Caesar's assassination and apotheosis as an immortal spirit be ceremonially repeated on the stage of the Globe? Why should Shakespeare conjure up Caesar? Considered not merely as a play about ritual but as itself a version of ritual, Shakespeare's historical drama becomes a ceremony of sacrifice and transcendence that I would like to term a kind of political Mass. As David Kaula has pointed out, there are Eucharistic overtones in Brutus' ceremonial charge to the conspirators to wash their hands in Caesar's blood, an action that echoes the New Testament invocations of Christ having "washed us from our sins in his blood" (Rev. 1.5). So, too, there are allusions to Christian sacrifice in Decius Brutus' interpretation of Calphurnia's dream, in which he claims that the statue spouting blood signifies that Caesar will be the source of renewal for Rome and that Romans will come to him, as to a saint, for "relics" (2.2.83-90). And there are similar overtones when Mark Antony, speaking over Caesar's body, tells the populace that if they heard Caesar's testament they
would go and kiss dead Caesar's wounds,
And dip their napkins in his sacred blood,
Yea, beg a hair of him for memory,
And, dying, mention it within their wills,
Bequeathing it as a rich legacy
Unto their issue.
"Behind all the oblique allusions to Christian sacrifice," Kaula remarks, "lurks the notion that what the conspirators produce is a disastrous imitation of the true redemptive action." The assassination of Caesar is in other words merely a parody of Christian sacrifice. What I want to suggest by speaking of the play as a kind of political mass, however, is an alternative way of understanding these Eucharistie overtones. Brutus may be misguided in his conception of the assassination, Decius Brutus may be trying to flatter Caesar in order to persuade him to go to the Senate House, and Mark Antony may be a demagogue manipulating a crowd; nevertheless, like the mass, Julius Caesar centers upon a sacrificial death that initiates a new era in history, the emergence of imperial Rome. Perhaps the association of Caesar and Christ is not wholly ironic.
Let us recall again the intermingling of religion and politics in the sixteenth century. The struggle within the church, glanced at in the opening scene, represents one aspect of this intermingling. Another is the way the crown penetrated the church. The penetration was literal; in place of the holy rood the royal coat of arms was erected in the chancel arch of English churches. At the same time, religious forms such as the figure of the double nature of the man-god Christ were systematically displaced onto the political sphere. Drained out of the official religion, magic and ceremony reappeared not only on the stage, but in the equally theatrical world of the court, where, for example, something reminiscent of the rejected cult of the Virgin reappeared as the cult of Gloriana with its attendant rites and ceremonies such as the spectacular Accession Day celebrations.
Particularly interesting, given the statues in Julius Caesar, the destruction of "popish idols" was paralleled by the rise of the sacred image of Elizabeth, forever young and beautiful. Shakespeare's Caesar turns himself into a monument of greatness; Shakespeare's Queen did something not altogether different, presenting herself as a living idol to be worshiped. Moreover, the Roman imperial theme had immediate significance in sixteenth-century England where Elizabeth, determined to maintain her independence from the threatening powers of Catholic Europe, dressed herself in the symbolism of an empress, the heir ultimately of the Caesars. Even Caesarian triumphs were part of her style. In 1588 she marked the defeat of the Spanish Armada with an entry into London in the ancient Roman manner, and one of the most famous of her late portraits, the procession picture attributed to Robert Peake, is as we now understand a version of the triumph á l' antigue with affinities to Mantegna's Triumph of Caesar. Probably many in Shakespeare's audience would have been prepared to see parallels between the first Emperor, as Caesar was commonly if erroneously regarded, and the great Queen.
I hardly mean to suggest that Julius Caesar is to be taken as an allegory, although some in Shakespeare's audience may have interpreted it in this way, as they evidently did Richard II a few years later. Nevertheless, the play does have political dimensions, and as a representation of the transformation of the Roman Republic into the Empire, Julius Caesar may be understood as yet another of the many originary myths of the Imperial Tudor State, a fable parallel in its way to that of the descent of true British authority from the ancestral figure of Trojan Brute, or to that of the apocalyptic union of the red rose and the white. Furthermore, by transforming the historical fact of the defeat of Brutus and the republican movement in Rome into a metaphysical confirmation of the inevitability of imperial greatness, Shakespeare's play implicitly confirms the legitimacy of the Tudor state. And yet, even as it does this, Julius Caesar is far from univocal. Shakespeare's Caesar may be great, may even be the greatest man who ever lived in the tide of times, but he is also inflexible and pretentious. Nor is Brutus a foul traitor condemned to the deepest circle of Hell like Dante's Brutus, but rather a patriot and an idealist, albeit a misguided one.
In the last years of the sixteenth century it became increasingly difficult for the old Queen to play the role of Gloriana. Elizabeth was still of course a figure of awe and admiration to her people, most of whom, including Shakespeare, had never known any other ruler; nevertheless, many of her loyal subjects were impatiently looking forward to the end of her reign. Office-seekers were anxious for advancement and for the titles of honor that Elizabeth so rarely bestowed, and the Puritans were waiting for a monarch more disposed to continuing the reformation of the church. To make matters worse, the old Queen obstinately refused to name her heir. Perhaps Julius Caesar incorporates, in significantly displaced form, something of the ambivalence and frustration with which many regarded the resident deity of England in her final years. In any event, a suggestive doubleness inheres in the play, which allows us at once to do away with Caesar and to submit to him.
Drama, like any form of narrative, has as one of its functions the mediation of contradictions that lie too deep in the culture to be resolved or, sometimes, too deep even to be effectively articulated. Two years after Julius Caesar was performed, there was a confused and traumatic revolt in England, the Essex uprising. But this was not a revolution, for no general principles lay behind it, and it was pursued, significantly, in the form of loyalty to the Queen. The last years of Elizabeth's reign are still a long way from the Civil Wars and the public bleeding of King Charles. Nevertheless, the Puritan reformers, however loyal to the person of the Queen they might be as individuals, had made an important step toward the future with their subversive claim to an authority derived not from the crown but from the congregation. No bishop, no king. At stake in the controversy over discarding the ceremonies in the church and the attendant symbols of social legitimation was indeed the matter of power in the realm. In its strategic ambivalence, Shakespeare's play can perhaps be understood as mobilizing some of the contradictory feelings toward the absolute authority of the crown that were beginning to be felt even as early as 1599.
Wayne A. Rebhorn (essay date 1990)
SOURCE: "The Crisis of Aristocracy in Julius Caesar," in Renaissance Quarterly, Vol. XLIII, No. 1, Spring, 1990, pp. 75-111.
[In the following essay, Rebhorn suggests that in Julius Caesar Shakespeare uses aspects of Roman history to reflect on the state of England and its aristocracy.]
In the late summer or autumn of 1599, … Shakespeare's company brought to the stage the tragedy of Julius Caesar. Although it is often read as a play about the killing of a king and expressing a real ambivalence on that score, it would be equally productive to see it as depicting a struggle among aristocrats—senators—aimed at preventing one of their number from transcending his place and destroying the system in which they all ruled as a class. In this perspective, then, the assassination is not regicide, but an attempt to restore the status quo ante. The conspirators strike down an individual, Julius Caesar, whose behavior displays and is characterized in terms that could not help but suggest emulation to an Elizabethan. However, the assassination is carried out by individuals whose actions are presented in the play in exactly the same way. In other words, although the motives of the conspirators, and especially those of Brutus, must be distinguished from Caesar's as well as Antony's and Octavius' in many respects, all are nevertheless animated by the same fundamental drive, the drive to excel all others, to "out-imitate" their fellows.
All the Roman senators can thus be read as versions of the same basic character type. Critics have, for instance, commented on the way that Julius Caesar actively deconstructs the opposition between Brutus and Caesar which it simultaneously seems to insist upon: although it invites the spectator to separate the "gentle" Brutus from the pompous Caesar who repeatedly speaks of himself in the third person, it simultaneously yokes the two men together, distinguishing them from all the other characters in the play both by virtue of their similar situations—both have wives and are seen in domestic settings—and, more important, by virtue of their shared character traits: an intolerance of others' opinions, a susceptibility to flattery, an overweening self-confidence. Such similarities have been used to qualify Brutus' status as the hero of the play, to identify moral failings in him that constitute his "tragic flaw." I would argue that the play not only undermines—without cancelling—the differences between Brutus and Caesar, but, more important, as it links the pair together, it stresses their resemblances to all the other aristocrats as well and identifies emulation as the common denominator of the entire group.
I would argue that if the play presents the characters and values of Brutus, Cassius, and the others to create an image of ancient Roman civilization, it simultaneously holds "the mirror up to nature" in Shakespeare's own world, showing "the very age and body of the time his form and pressure." Just as Hamlet feels a play about a murder in Vienna has application to the world of Denmark, so Elizabethans in general read literature and history with an eye to their topical interest, their application to the present. In his preface to The History of the World (1614), for instance, Sir Walter Ralegh remarks: "It is enough for me … to write of the eldest times, wherein also why may it not be said that in speaking of the past I point at the present, and tax the vices of those that are yet living in their persons that are long since dead?" Even more striking, Elizabeth read herself in Richard II as she condemned the publication of John Hayward's Life and Raigne of Henry UH in 1599, and the Essex conspirators who had Shakespeare's Richard II staged for them just before their attempted rebellion clearly found topical applications in that particular swath of history. Moreover, because of their classics-centered education, Elizabethans were accustomed to comparing contemporaries to figures from the Roman past: Sir Philip Sidney, for instance, was called a "Britane Scipio" by Fulke Greville and was identified with Scipio as well as Hannibal, Cicero, and Petrarch in one of the epitaphs for him which appeared in Spenser's Colin Clouts Come Home Againe (1595). Even more striking, Elizabethan political writers such as Sir Thomas Smith, in his De Republica Anglorum (written 1562-1565), and William Harrison in The Description of England (published 1587), when describing the contemporary social order, stress the basic analogy between the classes of English society and those of ancient Rome. Thus, it is reasonable to infer that Elizabethans coming to Julius Caesar would have seen in the play not just a recreation of the revered Roman past but a re-presentation of aspects of their contemporary social and political order.
What they would have seen in particular in the play, thanks to the parallels created among Brutus, Cassius, and the rest, is the presentation of the Roman aristocracy as a distinct class that is remarkably similar to the Elizabethan aristocracy and that is defined and defines itself in two basic ways. First, it does so by distinguishing itself from those who are not aristocrats, from the plebeians, who are rebuked by the Tribunes as "blocks" and "stones" (1.1.35) and disparaged by Casca as "rabblement" (1.2.244). But the aristocrats are also defined in the play, as I suggested above, by emulation; they are recognizable not merely because they enjoy a particular position in the social order relative to other groups, but because they possess a shared "character." Such a concern with aristocratic self-definition was of vital interest in Elizabethan culture and was in good measure the result of the dislocations caused by social mobility and the ontological insecurity that mobility produced for Englishmen used to living in a seemingly immutable, intensely hierarchical society. Aristocratic identity was a problem, and writers responded to it with a vast outpouring of courtesy books, poetry, essays, and even epics such as The Faerie Queene, all concerned with the fashioning—and hence the defining—of the gentleman or the nobleman. These works all participated in the large-scale cultural project of defining aristocratic behavior and values and distinguishing them from what characterized commoners, just as royal proclamations, for instance, tried to impose such distinctions by means of sumptuary restrictions. Thus they sought, in different ways, to reconfirm some version of the stratified, hierarchical social order described by Smith, Harrison, and other political writers. Julius Caesar, of course, shares Elizabethans' concern to define aristocratic identity, although the perspective offered by the play is, as I shall argue, hardly that of a Peacham or a Spenser, let alone a Smith or a Harrison.
The historical context to which Julius Caesar refers, then, is both a mass of texts concerned with defining aristocratic behavior and values, and actual gentlemen and aristocrats, many of whom read those texts and to whom those texts referred. Moreover, the relation between the play and this context is far from simple. The play may be said to reflect its context insofar as it is seen as merely presenting the preoccupations of many of Shakespeare's contemporaries. But at the same time, it also participates in the constitution of that context: it defines the shape of Elizabethans' preoccupations for them, in a sense supplying the very language they needed to articulate their fears and desires. In other words, Julius Caesar, like any text, is not a repetition of its context, but a representation of it; it does not simply reiterate what is already known but reforms it, thereby actually helping to constitute the very context of which it is a part. It is not a mirror but a shaping presence. What is more, as a shaping presence, as a representation, the play must be recognized as having an active, rather than a passive, merely reflective, relation to what it represents as well as to the audience viewing that representation: that is, the play offers a particular perspective on its context, seeking both to define the shape of what it represents and to shape its audience's response to that representation. Consequently, I shall argue that Julius Caesar, although certainly voicing—and hence repeating—its culture's concern with aristocratic identity, goes beyond mere reiteration by defining and clarifying that concern and by articulating its own, distinctive point of view on the problem. To be specific, I shall argue that the heterocosm of the play constitutes an anatomy—a critical analysis and clarification—of what it represents. It aims to show that the behavior and values of its aristocrats, like Sir Philip Sidney's on the battlefield at Zutphen, lead them irrevocably, albeit unintentionally, to self-destruction and specifically to the multiple suicides with which the play concludes.
The central value that directs the behavior of all the aristocrats in Julius Caesar is emulation in the several, contradictory senses of that word. To focus on one of its aspects: the emulation they all feel appears in the form of their omnipresent rivalry with one another, in their competition for preeminence, in their factionalism that leads to assassination and civil strife. Emulation is explicitly identified as the primary motive behind their slaying of Julius Caesar whose "virtue," according to the minor character Artemidorus who tries to warm him of the conspiracy, "cannot live / Out of the teeth of emulation" (2.3.12-13). Because of his famous "lean and hungry look" (1.2.195), Cassius seems the perfect embodiment of this quality, but as he recounts his "history" of the swimming match with Julius Caesar in the second scene of the play, he reveals that Caesar, who initially proposed the contest, is fully as emulous as he. When Cassius bests his opponent, he winds up carrying the exhausted Caesar on his shoulders in a gesture that he compares to that of the archetypal Roman, Aeneas, carrying his father out of Troy. Shakespeare would use the same motif "straight" in As You Like It, a play written almost contemporaneously with this one, in order to underscore Orlando's filial piety and willingness humbly to serve another. Here, although Cassius uses it for purposes of self-celebration, Shakespeare employs it ironically as indicating the triumph of one man over another, not as humble service to an acknowledged superior and moral authority. This "history" thus reveals that Julius Caesar is certainly right in being wary of Cassius because of his "lean and hungry" look, but it also reveals that what Julius Caesar sees in Cassius is at least in part a projection of qualities he himself possesses.
Cassius' behavior in "saving" Caesar typifies the play's conception of heroism that no longer means the service to the "patria" for which "pius Aeneas" was known from antiquity to the Renaissance. Rather, heroism has degenerated into competition within the patria, as the members of the ruling class jockey for positions of dominance over their fellows. Significantly, the Roman senators in Julius Caesar are presented as participating in a political struggle rather than military conquest directed at a common enemy or aiming to extend the bounds of the empire. Even Caesar is characterized in terms of his rivalry with other senators rather than as the conqueror of the Gauls or the Britons. Indeed, there is virtually no mention in the play of his past victories or triumphs; instead, the stress falls on his present physical weaknesses and other defects: his epileptic fainting fit at the stadium, his deafness in one ear, perhaps even his superstitiousness. Moreover, not only does Julius Caesar reveal that the Roman aristocrats no longer seek to serve the interests of the patria, but it suggests that their behavior, which is still defined in ideal terms as that of warriors and heroes, actually opposes them to it. The emulation at the roots of their being pits them against each other in destructive, internecine combat, and it generates contests, such as the swimming match Caesar proposed to Cassius, which needlessly expose them to danger and even destruction and which serve no military end whatsoever. Such contests are willful, gratuitous forms of risk-taking that purchase identity at the price of potential personal extinction and that are carried forward without a thought for the good of the state. Indeed, so little do these Roman aristocrats resemble "pius Aeneas" that they seem much more like his opponents or like those defective heroes in the Aeneid, Nisus and Euryalus, whose willful pursuit of personal glory interferes with service to the patria and leads to their deaths.
Shakespeare's aristocrats in Julius Caesar share a conception of identity which might well be called that of the "imperial self." They possess an urge to personal aggrandizement, a will to extend the terrain of the self until it entirely dominates the human landscape, like the Colossus Caesar under whose giant legs Cassius claims he and his fellow aristocrats, "petty men," walk about in search of graves (1.2.135-38). In a recent study of Senecanism, Gordon Braden relates the drama of Shakespeare's age to that of the Roman Silver Age, arguing that both articulate this notion of the imperial self. Braden sees the competitive ethos of the ancient world, its celebration of heroic self-assertion, as reaching a logical conclusion in the Silver Age in the symbolic figure of Nero: all serious heroic rivals having been eliminated thanks to the emasculation of the Roman aristocracy, the deranged emperor, having almost no one left with whom to compete, unleashes an orgy of destruction and self-destruction in a desperate, paradoxical effort at self-affirmation. Seneca's plays reflect this world that is reduced only to conquerors and victims, and they offer a definition of the imperial self, one that is fashioned through violent competition in radical isolation from the community. Initially, Senecan Stoicism seems the opposite of such a conception, but upon closer inspection it actually turns into its Doppelgänger, for Stoicism is a philosophy of will in which the wise man, like the warrior, becomes a hero, in this case by conquering the self. Filled with anger at the world, the Stoic consciously masters this feeling and retreats inside the self where he replicates classical heroism in his triumph over himself, a triumph that finds its final expression and validation in the act of suicide that allows him to garner glory in the form of recognition in the eyes of others as well as eternal survival in history.
According to Braden, the Renaissance turned to Seneca less as a source of stylistic tricks and purple passages than because it shared a similar set of ideals linking the urge to master the world with the Stoic's desire for self-mastery. Although it felt Christian reservations about those urges, it still read and imitated Seneca, and its imitation of him helped determine its distinctive style of emulation. Admittedly, Julius Caesar is set well before the start of the Silver Age and the orgies of destruction associated with Tiberius, Caligula, and Nero, but it nevertheless presents a Renaissance vision of the imperial self whose drive for mastery during the chaos unleashed by the Civil War in Rome has been turned away from the vast expanse of the empire and inward towards the ruling class itself.
Shakespeare's aristocrats see in the "room enough" (1.2.156) of Rome a competitive arena in which to achieve mastery, to erect colossal statues to their own memory, or to put on the play of assassination so that future ages may celebrate them (3.1.111-19). Characteristically, they come together not as a community, but as factions (for instance, 2.1.77) organized about Caesar and Brutus, factions that are, because of the emulation inspiring them, necessarily factious and la-bile. Indeed, as the play opens it recalls the rift between Caesar and Pompey; it then depicts the many tensions besetting the association of Brutus and his friends; and it not only shows the impermanence of the Second Triumvirate of Octavius, Antony, and Lepidus, in that the first two plot the elimination of the third almost from the inception of their association, but it hints as well at the ultimate breach between Octavius and Antony. True to the pattern Braden analyzes in his book, Shakespeare's aristocrats also tend to be Stoics in their philosophical orientation, valuing self-mastery as Caesar does when he reproves himself for having been momentarily swayed by Calpurnia's fears and as Brutus does more memorably when he refuses to betray any emotion to Cassius over Portia's death. Brutus, Cassius, and Titinius also reveal their Stoicism when at the end they play the "Roman's part" (5.3.89) and slay themselves, suicides that Brutus presents as the supreme form of conquest: by killing himself, he says, "I shall have glory by this losing day / More than Octavius and Mark Antony / By this vile conquest shall attain unto" (5.5.36-38). Suicide thus becomes a final flexion of the imperial will, an act not of self-annihilation but of self-assertion and self-definition, of "glory." It trumpets human beings' conviction that they can shape their own identities and control their destinies by a supreme gesture of denial.
Propelling everyone forward in an endless quest for glory, the emulation at the heart of the imperial self essentially makes human relationships into a "zero-sum game." That is, it makes characters act as though the status they could accrue were a fixed commodity in limited supply so that one man's rise must literally entail another's fall, or alternatively, each man sees the rise of another as an impairment of his personal status and importance, as a degradation or loss of rank even when such a loss has not actually occurred. This fear of personal degradation lies at the heart of Caesar's analysis of Cassius' inability to stand anyone greater than himself (1.2.204-5). Honor for Cassius is a matter of total equality with Caesar: "I had as lief not be as live to be / In awe of such a thing as I myself" (1.2.95-96). The fear of degradation is even more clearly seen in the consistent hostility of Shakespeare's Roman senators to Caesar because of his successful manipulation of the populace. In Cassius' mind, if Caesar becomes a "Colossus," then the rest of them necessarily are—or feel they are—as good as dead, "petty men" who "Walk under his huge legs and peep about / To find ourselves dishonorable graves" (136-38). Cassius, however, is not the only aristocrat filled with this fear and repulsion. Cicero, when he returns from the stadium in the second scene of the play, is said to have fiery eyes (180), apparently deeply offended by the offering of the crown to Caesar. Later, Brutus says they should not add Cicero to the conspiracy despite the propaganda advantage involved because he would want to have thought it all up himself (2.1.145); Brutus thus judges Cicero to be as emulous as any of them, and the play provides no grounds for doubting his assessment. Casca epitomizes aristocratic attitudes when he mocks Caesar's performance in the stadium as "foolery" (1.2.236), a ridiculous spectacle that lessens Caesar's own dignity, thus making him a fool before the populace he courts, but that also makes fools of all the others, the aristocrats included, insofar as Caesar's elevation may be felt to deprive them of power and importance, reducing them to the status of being his fools. Even the Tribunes who appear at the very start of the play ironically behave like the senators whose interests they were theoretically supposed to have resisted in the name of the plebeians. Using quite suggestive language, they articulate their disturbance at Julius Caesar's rise, indicating their wish to strip the people from him as feathers from the wing of a bird, lest in his flight above them he keep them in "servile fearfulness" (1.1.74). Clearly for all these Roman aristocrats, then, Caesar's imperial ascent means their personal, degrading fall.
Although Antony singles out Brutus at the end of the drama as "the noblest Roman of them all" (5.5.68), someone supposedly free of envy who aimed only at the common good of Rome, this statement, which may be contrived as much to ennoble its speaker as it does the subject of his praise, is a half-truth at best. From the start, Brutus is concerned with honor (1.2.87) and would rather be a "villager" than be subject to the "hard conditions" of the time (172, 174): in other words, he cannot accept the notion of any sort of inferiority to Julius Caesar and yet remain a true "son of Rome" (173). Thus, even though he frames the assassination as a rejection of tyranny, invoking the memory of his ancestor who drove out Tarquàn (2.1.65) and later claiming, in his argument with Cassius in Act 4, that justice was always their primary concern (3.20), he, like Cassius, clearly feels a sense of having been degraded by Julius Caesar's rise. In fact, in the soliloquy rationalizing his participation in the conspiracy, Brutus articulates this fear as he imagines Julius Caesar climbing the ladder of ambition and, once he has reached the top, turning his back on everything below, "scorning the base degrees / By which he did ascend" (2.1.26-27). Those "base degrees," the rungs of the ladder, are citizens and senators—and in that group one must presumably place men such as Brutus himself, who had been an adherent to Caesar's faction and instrumental in his rise. Brutus' assessment in his soliloquy of Julius Caesar's character and future behavior may be unclear and self-deceiving, as some critics have argued, but it does rest firmly on a logical perception of character and on an understanding of the emulousness of Roman aristocrats such as Caesar—and Brutus himself.
As I noted above, critics have observed the striking resemblances between Brutus and Caesar that Shakespeare underscores especially in the parallel first and second scenes of Act 2, focusing in particular on their desire for dominance and their susceptibility to flattery. Like his great opponent, Brutus will brook no rivals in the faction he heads, and accordingly rejects the suggestion that they invite Cicero's adherence, not out of some tactical or propaganda concern, but because Cicero will supposedly never follow another's plans and always wishes to take the credit for every action he engages in (2.1.150-52). Since Brutus is himself rejecting someone else's idea at this very moment, just as he will later reject out of hand Cassius' recommendations about killing Antony and fighting the battle at Philippi, one cannot help but feel that what Brutus says of Cicero could be applied directly to Brutus himself. In some ways half-deaf just like Caesar, Brutus, though a far more sympathetic character, expresses his will to dominate in his sure sense of his own Tightness and superiority and in his conviction that he can easily "fashion" other senators as members of the conspiracy (2.1.220), just as he is sure he can shape the responses of the inferior plebs after the assassination. Finally, Brutus embraces a Stoic attitude towards suicide, seeing it as the supreme form of self-possession, the achievement of worldly glory. Though Brutus reproves Cato for having committed suicide, in his own case he sees it as being synonymous with greatness of mind, especially in contrast with the degradation involved in being dragged bound to Rome (5.1.110-12). At the end, faced with the defeat of all his hopes, he tells Volumnius that suicide is consistent with nobility: "Our enemies have beat us to the pit / It is more worthy to leap in ourselves, / Than tarry till they push us" (5.5.23-25). And a few moments later, he insists on the "glory" he gains, not despite, but because of, their "losing day" (36), as though the defeat and anticipated suicide were but the last glorious chapters in his "life's history" (40). Thus, although Brutus does not seek to become king or emperor like Caesar and consciously identifies his personal motives as service to the state and to his class, the emulousness he shares with his fellow aristocrats does lead him to create a faction he seeks utterly to dominate and to envisage suicide as a final triumph over all his rivals on the greatest battle-field, that of history. Clearly, Brutus' self, like those of his great rivals, is imperial and aggrandizing, albeit in a qualified and perhaps "nobler" way.
Just before the killing of Julius Caesar, perhaps because of a need to inspire themselves and overcome any last lingering doubts and hesitations, the conspirators stage an exaggerated, almost parodie show of the total humiliation they feel his rise would entail: they abjectly beg him for favors and eventually kneel about him, physically acting out the degradation which fills them with fear and horror. Moreover, Caesar plays into these feelings by presenting himself as the lofty "northern star" and as mount Olympus (3.1.60, 74), images meant to confirm his integrity and refusal to compromise his principles, but that also dramatize his sense of his superiority, his distance above those who cluster about him. Practically indicating himself and justifying what is about to happen to him, Caesar symbolizes the imperial selfhood in its most extreme form; he is an example of how emulation means unqualified competition and leads to the total elevation of one individual over his nominal equals who are completely de-graded and debased as a result.
By killing Caesar, the conspirators may be seen as striving to do two things. First, they seek to correct an imbalance in their political system where one man and his faction have come to power and threaten to turn a republic into a monarchy. Accordingly, all the conspirators view their action as a restoration, a return to the past, rather than an innovation; their action is actually presented as a repetition of ancient heroism to Brutus who is urged at one point to imitate his ancestor of the same name who drove out Tarquin, the last king of Rome (1.2.158-61), thereby inaugurating the present system of republican rule that Caesar's successes threaten to undermine. Second, the conspirators also share a desire to purify the state; they would be participants in a ritual, as Brutus insists, "purgers" (2.1.180) who would offer up Caesar as a sacrifice "fit for the gods" (173). Although this second motive could be read as a variant of the first, it could also be seen as entailing a desire to eliminate the aggressive and destructive component of emulation which they obviously feel has been fully revealed in the behavior of Caesar. The latter thus will serve as their scapegoat whose ritual extermination will seemingly allow them to purify the emulation they share with him, to deny its aggressive, competitive aspect in their own behavior. By killing Caesar, who has merely carried emulation to its logical conclusion, they can thereby suppress awareness of the negative aspects of the identical drive in themselves; they can, to return to Fulke Greville's terms for Sidney, mystify their deed as springing from the "un-spotted emulation" of their hearts. With its clear-sighted analysis of aristocratic values and behavior and with its insistence on the parallels between Caesar and the men who kill him, however, Shakespeare's play demystifies their deed from the start, revealing that the conspirators' emulation is every bit as spotted as Caesar's. Sharing the very quality they would ascribe to Caesar alone, Brutus and his associates simply cannot turn their opponent into a scapegoat; indeed, as the action of the play unfolds, their attempt to do so turns into miserable failure.
For Shakespeare's Roman senators, assassination is as inevitable as the desire to be king. Both derive from emulation, which leads to factionalism and civil strife, and are the products of the very system of values and actions that, ironically, Caesar's assassins wish not to abolish but merely to restore to a more perfect form by their deed. One should recall in this connection the fact that Brutus' actions are presented as a repetition of what his ancestor did long before with Tarquin; the Roman state—and in particular, its ruling class—is always at odds with itself, continually plagued with emulous factions and sliding towards kingship, ever in need of violent restorative measures. Despite the many mysterious portents and signs accompanying it, the civil war as Shakespeare's play envisages it does not appear some accident visited upon Rome by a malignant fate or the end-product of an historical evolution; rather, it is the most direct expression of the Roman character, or at least of the character of its aristocratic leaders. Nor will emulation, factionalism, and civil strife be absent from the new order brought about by Antony and Octavius. They will simply repeat what Julius Caesar did and take that emulation to its logical conclusion, fighting one another until the aristocracy is effectively destroyed as a class and only a single figure is left on stage to exert his imperial will—a process Shakespeare obviously understood and whose final stages he would depict in the later Antony and Cleopatra. Even in Julius Caesar, however, he knew where the Roman state was heading; he revealed directly how the senators, in killing Caesar because of his emulous ambition, were really striking at the defining principle of their class. To put it most directly: Brutus, Cassius, and other conspirators are Caesar; in assassinating him, they are consequently plunging their swords symbolically into their own vitals even before they would literally do so at Philippi.
If Brutus and his fellow conspirators fail to see themselves and their own emulation mirrored in Julius Caesar, that failure is not due simply to blindness but to the complicated and contradictory nature of emulation itself, for if emulation contains within it impulses to rivalry, struggle, envy, hate, and destruction, it simultaneously contains impulses to identification and even love and brotherhood. After all, if emulation meant nothing but rivalry and competition, then a class that defined itself so centrally by means of such a principle would simply self-destruct at the start. This one has survived, however, for a very long time, specifically because emulation also entails the counter-principles of imitation and identification. While Julius Caesar clearly reveals the negative qualities contained in emulation, it also dramatizes the positive ones as it stresses the class solidarity among the conspirators and repeatedly insists on the love or friendship that binds them together and that generates what G. Wilson Knight long ago characterized as the highly charged erotic atmosphere of the play. Despite their professed Stoic attitudes, Shakespeare's Romans are distinctly passionate beings, especially in their commitments to one another; they are bound by ties of fraternal love that are at once both political and personal. Revealingly, when the conspirators kneel to Julius Caesar in the assassination scene, they do so in order to beg the recall of the symbolically significant brother of one of their number. Later, when they attempt to recruit Antony after the assassination, they promise to extend to him, from "hearts / Of brothers' temper," their "kind love" (3.1.176-77), and Antony cunningly replies in the same terms: "Friends am I with you all, and love you all" (221). Note that with practically his first words in the second scene of the play, Cassius complains that he has lost some of Brutus' affection (1.2.32-36), and although the soliloquy at the end of that scene reveals that Cassius is cunningly manipulating Brutus in order to bring him into the conspiracy, the soliloquy identifies his treatment of Brutus as a seduction (312), a word that, albeit meant primarily as a metaphor here, retains a strong suggestion of passionate, if not sexual, involvement.
Passionate love is also the key to the quarrel that breaks out between Brutus and Cassius in the fourth act of the play. That quarrel is meant to be contrasted with the cold calculation of the Triumvirs in Act 4, scene 1, and the brief battle of wills between them in Act 5, scene 1, for Antony and Octavius represent the new order that will triumph as the old aristocracy of Brutus and Cassius goes down to defeat, a new order that will retain the competitiveness involved in emulation but completely dispense with the love. In the quarrel of Act 4, by contrast, although one can read Brutus' anger as an expression of righteous indignation over Cassius' morally compromised proceedings in obtaining money for their armies, a base course that he feels sullies the justice of the assassination and lowers them to the level of peasants and tradesmen, love is really the main issue. Brutus' first move is to accuse Cassius' cool treatment of the messenger he was sent as betokening a sickening and decay of love (4.2.18-21), and in the quarrel that then ensues, matching the ego of one imperial self against that of another, the vehemence of the insults traded points directly to deep feelings of personal betrayal. These feelings emerge directly when Cassius blurts out "You love me not" (4.3.89), and when he later offers his dagger rather melodramatically to Brutus, saying that he welcomes death because he is no longer loved (93-106). After this climactic moment, the breach between them is healed, and with bowls of wine they finally make a lovers' pledge. As Cassius puts it, "My heart is thirsty for that noble pledge. / Fill, Lucius, till the wine o'erswell the cup; /I cannot drink too much of Brutus' love" (159-61).
Significantly, they perform this act of communion and rededication just after Brutus has revealed to Cassius that Portia is dead. This sequence makes sense in the play because it points to the way in which the loving emulation linking these Roman aristocrats together may be read as a displacement, perhaps even a usurpation, of the attachment between man and wife. Significantly, all male bonds with women in the play are either depreciated in favor of males' relationships with other males, or they are valuable insofar as they are mediated through other males, albeit the mediation takes on different forms. Thus, Caesar, though temporarily swayed to stay home by Calpurnia's forebodings, is persuaded by Decius Brutus to reject those fears as foolish and to feel ashamed of having yielded to his wife. Then, after having essentially dismissed her and her prophetic dream, he proposes to cement his bond to the other senators, his "friends" (2.2.128), by drinking wine with them just as Cassius and Brutus would do after their quarrel in Act 4. Moreover, Caesar's relationship to Calpurnia as husband to wife is presented as incomplete without the specific mediation of Antony whom Caesar asks to touch her during the race of the Lupercalia in order to remove the "sterile curse" (1.2.9) on her; Caesar inserts his devoted, loving friend (3.1.130ff.) between himself and his wife so that they may have children. Similarly, for Portia to establish a significant relationship with Brutus, to gain his confidence and be treated as a real partner in their marriage, to become truly his other "self," his "half" (2.1.274), she correctly concludes that she must abandon her female identity and establish herself as a male. Thus, she wounds herself in the thigh, thereby supposedly proving herself "stronger than my sex" (296), the equal of Roman men, and she emphasizes her link to her father, calling herself "Cato's daughter" (295), as though by evoking Cato she could use his spirit to mediate a relationship of equality with Brutus. Portia's self-wounding uncannily anticipates her own and the conspirators' suicides—even as it recalls the heroic wounds of Pelham and Sidney—and it directly identifies the emulous male aristocratic behavior she unwittingly parodies as a form of self-destruction, more specifically, of self-castration. It also points to the primacy of male aristocrats' erotic bonding in the play whose power she seeks to repossess by emulating their behavior. Nevertheless, she fails, for despite Brutus' real love for Portia and grief over her demise, he has only one brief scene with her, and the next time we see her, she is alone and desperate in the streets, worrying over her weakness as a woman (2.4.8-10, 39-40), while Brutus and his fellow conspirators are carrying out the assassination. In essence, Brutus' closest relationship is with these men, his "brothers" (3.1.176); they, more than Portia, form his truest family.
To be a Roman aristocrat means to be moved by emulation, and to be moved by emulation means both to want to destroy and to identify with and love the other members of one's class. A paradox, emulation involves simultaneously centrifugal and centripetal drives; it makes for class disintegration as well as class cohesion and places the individual in a state of utter self-contradiction. Twice over, then, the slaying of Julius Caesar could be read as an unwitting suicidal impulse. As has already been shown, it amounts to self-destruction insofar as the killing of Caesar because of his emulation logically entails the destruction of the conspirators who derive their identity from exactly the same principle. And the assassination also leads to self-destruction because it is a negation of love, of the identification involved in imitation, which, as much as competition and rivalry, serves as the basis of aristocratic identity. In this connection, it is significant that the deaths of the conspirators at the end of the play are presented specifically not as responses to their defeat, especially since the outcome of the battle is still uncertain, but as gestures of love. When Cassius kills himself, for example, he does so explicitly because he has supposedly allowed his "best friend" (5.3.35) Titinius to be taken by the enemy right before his eyes, and as he dies on his own sword, he identifies it as the one that killed Caesar. In both of these moments, then, although Cassius' suicide should be read as being already logically contained in the slaying of Julius Caesar, whose emulous competitiveness is really no different than Cassius' own, that suicide may also be taken as a gesture of love as he identifies with his friend and follower Titinius, and he may then well see his act as a guilty compensation for having destroyed the bond of love linking him to Caesar.
Even more than Cassius, Brutus kills himself out of love for Caesar. Brutus' suicide follows those of Titinius and Cassius and could be read as a matter of imitating them, but it is also directly related by Brutus to the assassination. Earlier, in his speech in the forum, Brutus identifies Caesar as his "best lover" (3.2.45), underscoring the passionate and political commitment he felt. For, having been spared by Caesar after the defeat of Pompey, to whom Brutus was initially allied, he attached himself to Caesar's party, and this attachment explains, better than any general scruples over assassination, his initial hesitation in entering into the conspiracy. This attachment likewise informs the aside Brutus delivers at the very end of the scene in Caesar's house when the latter invites the conspirators to share a bowl of wine with him, for in that aside Brutus grieves openly over his anticipated betrayal of his friend (2.2.129-30). Finally, the love bond linking the two men is confirmed by Brutus' holding back at the assassination—he is the last to stab Caesar—and by the latter's pained "Et tu Brute?" (3.1.77) which records his terrible sense of betrayed loyalty. Early in the play Brutus characterizes himself as being at war with himself (2.1.67-69), a statement that may suggest a basic opposition in him between passion and reason. Could it not also be read, in addition, as an implicit recognition that his wish to kill Julius Caesar because of the latter's imperial ambition is really an uneasy, half-conscious with to kill himself, since he shares that ambition in his own way as part of his aristocratic identity? There is another sense, however, in which Brutus is truly at war with himself; he is split between his Roman imperial will, which cannot accept Caesar's dominance, and his passionate love for and identification with the man. In other words, Brutus experiences within himself the paradoxical opposition lying at the very heart of the emulation that defines him as an aristocrat.
Brutus' suicide, then, like Cassius', is a confirmation of the two-fold self-destruction involved in the assassination: Brutus' killing himself is logically entailed in the assassination since in that act he was really destroying a man because of an essential, identity-determining trait he shared with him; and, more simply, he kills himself in order to atone for the love he betrayed. Through suicide he is able to exorcise the ghost that has haunted him since Philippi and which has really been With him since the Ides of March, and he consequently welcomes death with relief: "Caesar now be still. /I kill'd not thee with half so good a will" (5.5.50-51). At this moment of truth, Brutus recognizes that such an end is what his life has been aiming at all along; as he puts it, "my bones would rest, / That have but labor'd to attain this hour" (41-42).
If being a Roman aristocrat, according to Shakespeare's play, means to be emulous, so did being an Elizabethan aristocrat. Emulation was both an essential quality to be cultivated and simultaneously a danger to be avoided. On the one hand, it was encouraged in the informal education provided at home, fathers promoting emulation among their sons, a practice to which Francis Bacon strenuously objected in his essay "Of Parents and Children." Emulation was also central to formal education, since rhetorical training, which served as the core of that education, was basically a training in imitative, competitive disputation and rivalrous display, and schoolmasters were encouraged to sow among their students "matter of all honest contention and laudable emulation," "honest" and "laudable," like Greville's "unspotted," here being meant to minimize, if not deny, the harshly aggressive and competitive aspects of emulation. Characteristically, Sir William Cornwallis, in his essay "Of Aemulation," opens by declaring it "the refined issue of Envy," but he then goes on to qualify this negative assessment by stressing how valuable emulation is as it leads human beings towards virtue, and he concludes by completely reversing his opening move and celebrating what he calls an "honest Aemulation" (26-27). Moreover, not only did one rival one's fellows in argument, but one also sought in history and literature great figures worthy of emulation. For instance, according to Thomas Fiston in his 1596 preface to Caxton's Auncient Historie of the Destruction of Troy (London, 1596), by reading chivalric literature—something that schoolmasters normally disparaged in comparison with ancient texts—youth would be inspired with "an ardent desire of imitating, if not matching or over-going the most glorious attempts of the greatest and most excellent." As Anthony Esler has demonstrated, the generation growing up in the 1580s and 1590s not only had aspiring minds like Tamburlaine's, but developed an ideology of competition, aspiration, and excelling, in short, of emulation. All sought sovereignty and honor, and as Bacon shrewdly noted in his essay, "Of Honour and Reputation," honor "that is gained and broken upon another hath the quickest reflection," thus suggesting the indispensable role rivals had in enabling the acquisition of personal glory.
Although emulation, involving both identification and competition with valued others, was thus regarded as a positive source of identity—and particularly aristocratic identity—in Shakespeare's age, it was also seen as especially difficult to control and dangerous both to the moral character of the individual and to the stability of the state. Often the word was simply used as a synonym for envy, as in the passage from Cornwillis cited above, or in Bacon's defense of himself against the charge that he betrayed his friend Essex at the latter's trial. Sir Robert Naunton, describing the nature of Queen Elizabeth's reign in his Fragmenta Regalia, is generally critical when he speaks of emulation, which he sees as the chief motive of Leicester and as some-thing even the queen herself might be conceived to have felt when she refused to allow Sir Philip Sidney to become king of Poland. Strikingly, he diagnoses as "a kind of emulation" (53) Essex's insulting of Sir Charles Blount when the latter wore a jewel given to him by the queen, an incident that led to a duel between them in which Essex was wounded. The emulation, obviously most "spotted" indeed, which was felt by Elizabethan aristocrats turned the court into a power keg of rivalry and factionalism; Francis Allen wrote to Anthony Bacon in 1589 that there "was never in court such emulation, such envy, such back-biting, as is now at this time." Emulous rivalry among aristocrats was also a problem away from the court. Essex wrote from Zutphen of the private wars occurring among the noble leaders of the English forces, and in one letter he described at length the emulous rivalry between Sir William Pelham and Sir John Norreys. Obviously, Sidney was not the only aristocrat to feel the sting of emulation at Zutphen, even if he was the only one to die as a result of it. Naunton acknowledges the problem of emulation and its attendant factionalism at Elizabeth's court, for although he praises her for tightly controlling the aristocratic factions she allowed to arise and through which she ruled, he admits that her success depended on her "starv[ing] … all emulations, which are apt to rise and vent into obloquious acrimony (even against the Prince)." Similarly, Thomas Wilson, in his State of England Anno Dom. 1600, regards emulation negatively and acknowledges its dangers by praising "some good Lawes made to avoid emulacion amongst noblemen and gentlemen and also factions which are tedious to repeat." Bacon, more astute than most, also recognized the dangerous instability caused by emulation and its attendant factionalism, and he opened his essay "Of Faction," which is focused on contemporary factionalism, with the simple assertion that it is not wise for a prince to rule "according to the respect of factions" (211)—something everyone recognized Elizabeth was doing.
For political reasons, Bacon never names Elizabeth and her court in this essay which appeared in the early edition of the Essays in 1597. What he does talk about, however, in analyzing the factionalism produced by emulation and rivalry, is especially pertinent to Julius Caesar: Bacon illustrates the dangers of factionalism, and especially the tendency of factions to split into rival groups, by reference to ancient Rome. Specifically, he mentions the faction of Caesar and Pompey which broke apart after the authority of the Senate was pulled down, and he continues: "The faction or party of Antonius and Octavianus Caesar against Brutus and Cassius held out likewise for a time, but when Brutus and Cassius were overthrown, then soon after Antonius and Octavianus brake and subdivided" (211). Similarly, Sir William Cornwallis in "Of Friendship & Factions," though clearly concerned with contemporary politics, illustrates his points by referring to the Roman "Triumviri" (25). He and Bacon thus reveal a normal tendency in their day to see Elizabethan politics through the lens of ancient Rome.
More important than references in Bacon's works, there is evidence in one of Shakespeare's own plays linking Julius Caesar to the emulous rivalries and intensely factional politics of the present. In the Chorus that begins the fifth act of Henry V, he compares the crowd that welcomed Henry back to England after his victory over the French to the senators and plebeians of Rome going forth to "fetch their conqu'ring Caesar in" (28). Shakespeare then goes on to make another comparison, this time linking both Henry and Caesar to "the general of our gracious Empress' returning from Ireland with "rebellion broached on his sword" (30, 32). This allusion most editors assume is to Essex who was on his last, desperate, heroic campaign in Ireland during 1599, the year in which both Henry V and Julius Caesar were initially performed. If Shakespeare thinks of Essex as Julius Caesar in Henry V, is it not then most likely he was thinking about him as well in Julius Caesar, which is so totally preoccupied with the aristocracy?
As the reference to Sir Robert Naunton's Fragmenta Regalia revealed, Essex was certainly seen by his contemporaries as an exemplar of emulation and recognized as the leader of one of the two chief factions in Elizabeth's court during the 1590s. Celebrated as a heroic figure in the popular imagination, Essex was the heir apparent to Sir Philip Sidney, having served with Sidney at Zutphen, received Sidney's best sword as a bequest, and married Frances Walsingham, Sidney's widow. Like Sidney, Essex was frequently moved by the "unspotted emulation of his heart" to perform flamboyant, heroic—though also reckless and potentially self-destructive—feats. In 1589, for instance, during the attack on Lisbon, he thrust his pike into the gates of the city, challenging the Spaniards inside to a joust; and at the assault on Cadiz of 1596, he scaled the city walls with his troops and personally led them into the central square. Such actions gained Essex renown, but they also necessitated great personal risk and sometimes involved something closer to dereliction of duty, as when he left his troops leaderless in France and needlessly crossed enemy territory in order to make a splendid entry into the allied camp of Henri IV at Compiègne in 1591. This action prompted an official rebuke from the Privy Council which was speaking on behalf of the queen, and in another letter she herself reproved him for exposing himself to unnecessary dangers and leading his men to be slaughtered. At home in the court Essex also revealed his emulousness in his prickly pride, competitiveness, and insistence on preeminence: he fought a duel with Sir Charles Blount; challenged the Lord Admiral Charles Howard to one; and clamored for the Earl Marshall's office which would give him precedence over all other peers at court and which he obtained in 1597. In 1598, he quarreled with the queen herself over the command of the Irish campaign, turned his back on her, and then scandalized everyone by reaching for his sword when she responded to his insulting gesture by boxing his ears. According to Lacey Baldwin Smith, there is in all of Essex's emulous, self-aggrandizing behavior, and especially in his deliberate courting of danger in battle in response to personal setbacks or affronts, an "emotional, almost suicidal, flamboyance." Indeed, Essex's letters record him responding to setbacks at court and the queen's lack of affection both by withdrawing physically from her presence and by seeking to affirm his identity as a soldier on the battlefield. At Flushing, for instance, he says he seeks "una bella morire"—a heroic end that will rebuke an ungrateful queen—whereas in Ireland he despairingly yearns for death as his campaign there fails. Granted such statements, Smith's reference to suicidal flamboyance hardly seems an exaggeration.
Fully recognizing how he was "tied to mine own reputation," tied to the reputation for heroism he had created for himself, Essex sought out the command of that Irish expedition in 1599 in a last, desperate attempt to repair his faltering fortunes, a suicidal enterprise involving the enormous risk of defeat and disgrace which Essex recognized only too well. That defeat and disgrace were occurring during the summer of 1599 just as Shakespeare's company was, most likely, preparing to put on Julius Caesar. Essex's failures in Ireland and the intense dissatisfaction of the queen with his progress were known outside the immediate circle of the court, as three of John Chamberlain's letters written in June and August of that year make abundantly clear. Essex's enemies at court were doubtless gloating over the Irish debacle and anticipating his fall from grace. In the most negative construction of the situation, they could be imagined as conspiring to undo him—a view that Shakespeare, on the periphery of the Essex circle, could have encountered and that is most suggestive for the action of Julius Caesar.
Essex not only epitomized the emulation motivating Elizabethan aristocrats, but he was specifically connected with both Roman antiquity in general and Julius Caesar in particular. In fact, Essex not only regarded himself as an ideal knight—Sir Philip Sidney redivivus—but he also viewed himself as a Roman hero. Thus, when warned about the opportunity he was providing his enemies by absenting himself from the court after the Queen boxed his ears in 1598, he replied that he was better off away from it: "when I was in the court," he wrote to the Lord Keeper Thomas Egerton, "I found them [his enemies] absolute: and therefore I had rather they should triumph alone, than they should have me attendant on their chariots." Anticipating his possible defeat here, Essex clearly thought of himself as an ancient hero who would be forced to endure the humiliation of a "Roman" triumph staged by his enemies. In the same vein, towards the end of his disastrous Irish campaign, Essex saw others, like so many Roman conquerors, succeeding where he had failed: they would "achieve and finish the work, and live to erect trophies." He even thought of himself at times as Julius Caesar: according to Lacey Baldwin Smith, one of Essex's favorite phrases, which he used after his appointment as Lord Lieutenant over the army being sent to Ireland, was Caesar's famous "The die is cast."
Moreover, others saw Essex both as a Roman hero and as Julius Caesar. After his triumph at Cadiz in 1596, for example, he was popularly compared to the great soldiers of the ancient world, and a Latin poem from that period explicitly identified him with Hercules and, with its play on "Veni, vidi, vici," may have linked him to Julius Caesar as well: "Vere Dux, Deverux, et verior Hercule: Gades / Nam semel hic vidit: vicit ac ille simul" ("True Duke, Devereux, and truer Hercules: For no sooner did he see Cadiz than he conquered it"). Moreover, the passage about factions from Bacon's essay, which was mentioned above, certainly invited contemporaries to compare Caesar and Pompey and the other Romans to Essex and Cecil who were engaged in factional struggles throughout the 1590s. Invoking a different era of Roman history, Greville in his Life of Sidney at one point compared Essex to Remus threatening to leap over the walls of Rome (176-77). Most noteworthy, Sir Robert Naunton directly compared the followers and advisors of Essex during the rebellion to the followers of Julius Caesar: they were "intoxicated with hopes," having sucked in too much nourishment from their great nurse the Queen, "and so like Caesars [followers] would have all or none." Finally, in a letter written to Essex just before his Irish campaign, Francis Bacon not only warned him of the dangers involved, but paralleled him directly to the Roman hero Scipio and then went on to compare his fight with the "savage" Irish to the Romans' wars with the Germans and Britons, a flattering comparison that certainly evokes the exploits of Julius Caesar.
The comparison between Essex and Caesar must have impressed itself upon the minds of men such as Naunton, Bacon, and Shakespeare because of the many striking parallels one could easily draw between the two figures: both were self-publicizing, heroic warriors and conquerors; both successfully courted the common people and commanded powerful factions among the aristocracy; and both were seen as aspiring to king-ship. Thus, Essex remained a heroic figure in the public imagination to the very end, and he was also seen, as his life neared its climax and certainly well before his attempted insurrection in 1601, as seeking popular favor and wishing to place himself at the head of the state. In 1596, for instance, Bacon warned him that his courting of the populace was dangerous because it could be seen as a threat to the sovereignty of the queen, and he consequently advised Essex to speak openly against popularity before her. William Cecil, in a treatise of fatherly advice written for his son Robert, also clearly identified Essex's image as involving the pursuit of power through "popularity." And John Chamberlain referred to that same image when he remarked that Essex had "ever lived popularly" and wished to leave a good opinion of himself with the people at the end of his life. It is noteworthy that in a short work written in Latin, Imago Civilis Julii Caesaris, Bacon constructed an image of Caesar that also stressed as one of its major components "studium popularitatis" ("the pursuit of popular favor").
That Essex really did seek and enjoyed popular favor is clear from a variety of sources. He courted public opinion, for instance—and annoyed the queen—by writing a letter to Anthony Bacon and arranging to have it printed in order to defend himself from attacks that he favored war on Spain for purely personal reasons. Bacon not only warned him against such actions but reveals that they apparently succeeded when he warned the queen, after she had placed Essex under house arrest following his return from Ireland, that she ran the risk of alienating the populace because of his great fame among them. Moreover, a letter written to a Venetian correspondent by Francis Cordle and dated 21 July 1599 also documents Essex's popularity: although Essex "has little grace at Court" because of his failures in Ireland, Cordle writes, the "common people still favour the Earl." There were apparently so many popular manifestations of support for Essex after his return from Ireland and placement under house arrest that the Court of Star Chamber eventually had to move to suppress them. Finally, contemporary reports on Essex's insurrection indicated that the people seemed "to pity his case," and only an official proclamation naming him traitor kept them from rising up on his behalf.
Elizabethans considered the courting of popularity to be virtually identical with the pursuit of political supremacy. Bacon's warning to Essex cited above establishes this connection, as does Sir William Cornwallis' condemnation of popularity: one who pursues it is "a subject engrossing subjects," who usurps the "love of the people, the generalitie and grosse body of which is destinated onely to the Prince" (103). Consequently, despite Essex's insistence at his trial that he did not aim at the crown—an insistence that there is good reason to credit—his courting of popularity alone suggested such a motive to his contemporaries, and it is this motive, of course, on which the "Declaration" condemning him, written largely by Balcon and presented at the trial, insists. Essex's pursuit of political supremacy by means of popularity may be seen as reaching a kind of public consciousness well before his attempted coup d'état, for in February of 1599 "John Hayward published and dedicated his life and Raigne of Henry IIII to the Earl," thus linking him "with the overmighty Bolingbroke who had defied the divinity that 'doth hedge a king' and had set himself up as Henry IV." Essex's pursuit of rule also comes to a different kind of consciousness in Julius Caesar, for in his play Shakespeare chooses virtually to ignore Caesar's heroism—perhaps one might say that he simply assumes its past existence—and to place, instead, the major emphasis on his other traits—his courting of the plebs, his factional leadership, and his desire for kingship. Looking back over the Essex affair, Sir Robert Naunton in his Fragmenta Regalia implicitly presents it as a tragedy in which the "son of Bellona" (55), infused with the spirit of ambition and glory by his family, friends, and creatures, undid himself and brought about his final "Catastrophe" (54). In 1599, Shakespeare had, in a sense, already written that tragedy in Julius Caesar, well before it was ever performed on the boards of history.
Shakespeare's play is no simple allegory, however, no pièce à clé, no Tragedie of Essex. If Caesar may be paralleled to Essex, one would be hard pressed to find other correspondences, such as between Brutus and William or Robert Cecil. Moreover, Essex is not deaf in one ear, nor is Caesar the favorite of a reigning queen. In this connection, it is important to remember that Shakespeare's play invites interpretation of Caesar as an extreme case of typical aristocratic behavior. Similarly, contemporaries may have regarded Essex less as an exception than as an extreme version of the rule. After all, he was not the only center of an aristocratic faction during Elizabeth's reign, nor was he the only figure who was regarded as a would-be king. Both of the Cecils, for instance, incurred similar charges, contemporaries accusing William Cecil Lord Burghley of wanting to establish a "Regnum Cecilianum," while a popular ballad dating from 1601 ascribed the same motives to his son Robert after Essex's fall: "Little Cecil trips up and down, / He rules both Court and Crown." To be sure, the connections between the Caesar of Shakespeare's play and Essex are far more extensive and powerful than those between Caesar and any other contemporary historical figure. Perhaps Shakespeare crafted it thus because of the charismatic presence of Essex in the minds of his contemporaries, or perhaps because of his own distant and indeterminate relationship, through his sometime patron the Earl of Southampton, to the Essex faction. However, the important point is that the essential connections between Shakespeare's Caesar and Essex are the common features that define them as aristocrats in their respective worlds, rather than the unique, idiosyncratic features that make them individuals. Caesar can thus be read as Essex if both are taken as representative types, illustrations of aristocratic emulation and factionalism that were played out to their logical, tragic conclusions.
The title of this essay is borrowed from Lawrence Stone's The Crisis of the Aristocracy: 1558-1641 (London, 1967). In that classic study, Stone analyzes the transformation of the English aristocracy between the reign of Henry VIII and the Civil War. In the fifteenth and early sixteenth centuries, the aristocracy was a class of feudal magnates who defined themselves primarily as warriors, commanded troops of loyal retainers and dependents, and enjoyed considerable power in the country. Over the next one hundred years or so, because of the efforts of ever more absolutist monarchs to concentrate power in their own hands, the aristocracy became a class of courtiers who often had little or no military experience and who exercised power primarily insofar as those monarchs were willing to grant it to them. These courtiers were placed in often desperate financial straits by the general price rise in the period and by the enormous expenses of life at court and in London, and they became increasingly dependent for honors and financial rewards on kings and queens whose resources, no matter how freely given, were never able to satisfy them sufficiently. Spending more and more of their time in the city away from their estates, they alienated the peasants on those estates, especially after the accession of James I, by jacking up rents in order to meet expenses, and they became associated with courts whose licentiousness scandalized the populace generally and especially that part of it inclined towards Puritanism. Gradually, the aristocracy lost so much of its prestige and influence that, on the eve of the Civil War, it was totally unable to control electrons to Parliament as it normally did. This decline, which Stone describes at length, does not tell the whole story, however, for he argues that 1640 marked the nadir, not the end, of the aristocracy. In the later seventeenth century the class, though shaken and transformed, recovered much of the power and influence it had lost. It embraced the new, more privatized conception of individual identity which first appeared among the puritan bourgeoisie, thus eliminating much of the need for costly, arrogant public display that previously depleted its resources. Increasingly well educated, it became the arbiter of taste. And, most important, thanks to more efficient estate management, it regained a financial stability that enabled it to control, through the power of the purse to buy votes, the party politics that developed after the Interregnum. It is this general, almost cyclical development that Stone insists on with the key metaphor in his title: he sees the aristocracy as going through something like a prolonged sickness in the Renaissance and reaching a "crisis" of identity and power that passes with the Civil War, a crisis from which the patient, admittedly much changed by the experience, finally recovers its health.
What I wish to argue about Julius Caesar is that the play uses Roman history in order to hold a mirror up to the state of Shakespeare's England, and in particular, to reflect and reflect on, to identify and provide terms for imagining, what Stone has called the crisis of the aristocracy. Like Stone, the play suggests that the aristocracy is undergoing a profound change that will eventuate in its ultimate loss as a class of any real power and influence, in its marginalization by increasingly absolutist monarchs who actually saw themselves reflected in the Roman emperors who came to power when Octavius finally triumphed and ended the civil wars whose initial stages Julius Caesar depicts. To be sure, the analytical perspective offered by the play is not Stone's: where the latter emphasizes economics and social history, the former presents the situation in moral terms. Shakespeare's play is analytical, revealing the self-destruction, the suicide, to which an entire class is being impelled by its essential values and mode of self-definition, by its emulation and factionalism.
Like Stone, but in a far less casual manner, Julius Caesar characterizes the aristocracy and the state they inhabit as being sick, from the opening scene with its cobbler's jokes about being a "surgeon to old shoes" (1.1.23-24), through the epilepsy of Caesar, the physical ailment of Caius Ligarius, and the internal insurrection of Brutus that has made him unwell, down to the assassination itself that is imagined as making "whole" men "sick" (2.2.328). The crucial difference between Shakespeare's paly and Stone on this score, however, is that the metaphors of Julius Caesar define the moral condition of a society going through an enormous change, identifying that change itself as illness, while Stone's metaphor of crisis is a rhetorical ploy, merely a conceptual instrument used to give shape to the history of the period. Moreover, the play does not benefit from Stone's hindsight. It presents the aristocracy on the way down, in the throes of a moral and social sickness from which it holds out no real hope of a recovery. Aristocratic emulation spells factionalism and civil strife, and it leads inevitably, tragically, to the dead-end of suicide. Lacking the advantage of Stone's longer view, Julius Caesar depicts a sick world in the process of succumbing to centralized, absolutist, one-man rule not because of the exceptional talents of characters such as Caesar and Octavius, but because of the emulation, the imperial will, which animates the behavior of the entire class of aristocrats and leads ineluctably to their unintended, collective self-destruction. Driven by the hunger of emulation to extend endlessly the terrain of the self, they destroy and will keep destroying one another until the stage is bare and only a single imperial will is left. As a character in another play, a play also concerned with emulation and factionalism, sums it up with fitting finality: the appetite driving them on is "an universal wolf"; it will "make perforce an universal prey / And last eat up himself" (Troilus and Cressida, 1.3.121, 123-24).
Last Updated on May 5, 2015, by eNotes Editorial. Word Count: 430
Anson, John. "Julius Caesar: The Politics of the Hardened Heart." In Shakespeare Studies: An Annual Gathering of Research, Criticism, and Reviews, edited by J. Leeds Barroll, 1966, pp. 11-33.
Argues that contrary to previous critical analyses, Julius Caesar should be read as a Roman play with a social and historical purpose rather than as a character study.
Berry, Ralph. "Julius Caesar: A Roman Tragedy." In Dalhousie Review 61, No. 2 (Summer, 1981): 325-36.
Analyzes Julius Caesar from the assumption that Rome is the social determinant of the play's action and maintains that the meaning of "Roman" is a central concern.
Chi, Chi'iu-Lang. "Julius Caesar: The Tragedy of a Blind Idealist in Politics." In Tamkang Journal: Liberal Arts, Business, Sciences, and Engineering 20 (May, 1983): 389-402.
Maintains that Brutus causes his own destruction by adhering to misguided political idealism.
McAlindon, T. "Julius Caesar." In Shakespeare's Tragic Cosmos, pp. 76-101. Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 1991.
Examines several aspects of Julius Caesar, including its central themes, characterization, historical context, and its accuracy with regard to Roman history.
Palmer, D. J. "Tragic Error in Julius Caesar." In Shakespeare Quarterly XXI, No. 4 (Autumn, 1970): 399-409.
Argues that unlike other sixteenth-century playwrights, Shakespeare focuses on the personal characteristics, motives, choices, and decisions of the characters in Julius Caesar, especially on the errors of judgment made by the main characters.
Peterson, Douglas L. '"Wisdom Consumed in Confidence': An Examination of Shakespeare's Julius Caesar." In Shakespeare Quarterly XVI, No. 1 (Winter, 1965): 19-28.
Exploration of the "Caesar problem," that is, Shakespeare's ambiguous portrayal of Caesar as both tyrant and sympathetic character. Peterson contends that Shakespeare's intention was to show that while Caesar did possess character flaws that made him vulnerable to the plot of the conspirators, his death was in no way justified.
Prior, Moody E. "The Search for a Hero in Julius Caesar." In Renaissance Drama II (1969): 81-101.
Makes a case for viewing Julius Caesar as a play, written after Shakespeare's history plays and before his great tragedies, that retains the insightfulness and methodology developed in the history plays and that anticipates the distinguishing features of the plays to follow.
Thomas, Vivian. Julius Caesar. New York and London: Harvester Wheatsheaf, 1992, 134 p.
Focuses on Julius Caesar as a political play and its characters as political as well as human beings. The critic includes discussion of the play's stage history, critical reception, style, and Shakespeare's use of Plutarch's text.
Wilson, Richard. Julius Caesar. London and New York: Penguin, 1992, 125 p.
Examines the play within the context of "modern cultural and literary theories" and analyzes the power struggles within Shakespeare's Rome and the conflicting ideologies of Elizabethan and Jacobean politics.
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