Julius Caesar Criticism
by William Shakespeare

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(Shakespeare for Students)

Lawrence Danson
[Danson presents an in-depth overview of Julius Caesar, focusing on how the linguistic strategies in the play's major scenes contribute to the overall tragic progression of the play. The critic also assesses whether Caesar or Brutus is the tragic hero of the drama and examines the circumstances surrounding Caesar's assassination and Mark Antony's subsequent funeral speech (III. ii 73ff.). Danson concludes the essay by briefly contrasting the themes developed in Shakespeare's tragedy with the known historical facts of Brutus's conspiracy and Caesar's murder, ultimately arguing that the two points of view cannot necessarily be reconciled.]

In Julius Caesar we find ... those problems of communication and expression, those confusions linguistic and ritualistic, which mark the world of the tragedies. The play opens with the sort of apparently expository scene in which Shakespeare actually gives us the major action of the play in miniature. Flavius and Marullus, the tribunes, can barely understand the punning language of the commoners ... It is ostensibly broad daylight in Rome, but the situation is dream-like; for although the language which the two classes speak is phonetically identical, it is, semantically, two separate languages. The cobbler's language, though it sounds like the tribunes', is (to the tribunes) a sort of inexplicable dumb show.

And as with words, so with gestures; the certainties of ceremonial order are as lacking in Rome, as are the certainties of the verbal language. The commoners present an anomaly to the tribunes simply by walking "Upon a labouring day without the sign / Of [their] profession" [I. i. 4-5]. To the commoners it is a "holiday," to the tribunes (although in fact it is the Feast of Lupercal), a "labouring day." The commoners have planned an observance of Caesar's triumph—itself, to the tribunes, no triumph but rather a perversion of Roman order—but the tribunes send the "idle creatures" off to perform a quite different ceremony:

Go, go, good countrymen, and for this fault
Assemble all the poor men of our sort;
Draw them to Tiber banks, and weep your tears
Into the channel, till the lowest stream
Do kiss the most exalted shores of all.
[1.1. 56-60]

Thus, in a Rome where each man's language is foreign to the next, ritual gestures are converted into their opposites; confusion in the state's symbolic system makes every action perilously ambiguous. The tribunes, having turned the commoners' planned ritual into its opposite, go off bravely to make their own gesture, to "Disrobe the images" of Caesar [I. i. 64]: but shortly we learn that they have actually been made to play parts in a bloodier ritual (one which, as we shall see, becomes increasingly common in the play). And when, in a later scene, we find Brutus deciding upon his proper gesture, the confusions of this first scene should recur to us.

The second scene again opens with mention of specifically ritual observance, as Caesar bids Calphurnia stand in Antony's way to receive the touch which will "Shake off [her] sterile curse" [I. il. 9]. Perhaps Shakespeare intends to satirize Caesar's superstitiousness; at least we can say that Calphurnia's sterility and the fructifying touch introduce the question, what sort of ritual can assure (political) succession in Rome? Directly, the Soothsayer steps forth, warning Caesar, "Beware the ides of March." But this communication is not understood: "He is a dreamer; Let us leave him. Pass" [I. ii. 24].

What follows, when Caesar and his train have passed off the stage leaving Brutus and Cassius behind, is an enactment—virtually an iconic presentation—of the linguistic problem. More clearly even than the first scene, this scene gives us the picture of Rome as a place where words and rituals have dangerously lost their conventional meanings. As Cassius begins to feel out Brutus about the conspiracy—telling him of Rome's danger and wishes, of Caesar's pitiful mortality, of Brutus's republican...

(The entire section is 52,431 words.)