Last Updated on July 28, 2015, by eNotes Editorial. Word Count: 833
Written after such Shakespearean histories as Henry V and before such tragedies as Hamlet, Julius Caesar has been described by critics as a play that contains elements of both genres. Julius Caesar has also been regarded as a "problem play," due to Brutus's ambiguous status as a tragic hero who may or may not be justified in conspiring to assassinate Caesar. Scholarly examination has also linked the play's depiction of political and social conflict with events occurring in Shakespeare's England at the close of the reign of the aging Queen Elizabeth. Recent discussion of Julius Caesar has focused on the treatment of social class—more specifically, on the antagonism between classes as well as between members of the same class, and the extent to which class tensions contributed to the fall of the Roman republic.
The importance of class structure goes to the very heart of the play's performance. In his discussion of staging issues, Stuart Vaughan (1996) remarks that like other plays by Shakespeare, Julius Caesar has been performed in a variety of settings—most notably when Orson Welles shifted the play to the post World War I, fascist Rome of Mussolini. However, Vaughn warns that such "transplantation" should be done with care so that Shakespeare's "essential" meaning is not lost—a view shared by Sidney Finkelstein (1961). Finkelstein contends that setting Julius Caesar in fascist Italy results in a misrepresentation of the play's fundamental social conflicts. In other words, while dissent against Mussolini took the form of a democratic movement centered in the working class, the rebellion against Caesar was led by aristocrats, or patricians, and did not include the common people, or plebeians, who in fact regarded Caesar as their champion against the abuses of the patrician class. Jan H. Blits (1981) takes a somewhat different view, arguing that republican Rome depended on harmony between the patrician and plebeian classes and that this harmony has already disappeared by the start of the play when, during the feast of Lupercal (I.i), the plebeians demonstrate adherence to Caesarism, or "the voluntary surrender of their liberty" to a power such as Caesar's. Mary Hamer (1998) also connects disarray among the classes with the impending destruction of the republic. She, however, looks at the feast of Lupercal from the point of view of the tribunes who reveal their "fear" of the rise of Caesar and the dissolution of the republic by berating plebeians—that is, members of the very class they are appointed to protect. In contrast, Timothy Hampton (1990) and Wayne A. Rebhorn (1990) explore the connections between the Roman patricians and the aristocracy of Renaissance England. According to both critics, symbols and symbolic action are what distinguish the ruling class from the aristocratic class. Hampton asserts that both Caesar in Shakespeare's play and the rulers of sixteenth-century Europe relied on rhetoric and the image of the "virtuous ruler" to maintain control over the classes. Meanwhile, Rebhorn observes, the fact that the Elizabethan aristocracy was headed toward destruction as each member tried to surpass the other in dangerous feats of heroism is mirrored by a similar preoccupation between the patricians Brutus and Cassius. Ralph Berry (1988) places the demise of the republic and of the power of the patrician class at the feet of the members of the class themselves, asserting that the conspirators' plot was doomed to failure once they deferred to Brutus, not because he was right, but by virtue of his noble lineage.
Another aspect of Julius Caesar that has garnered scholarly interest is the importance of to the play. Just as did Hampton and Rebhorn, Naomi Conn Liebler (1981) draws a connection between ancient Rome and Elizabethan England when she remarks that Renaissance viewers of the play would have identified the plebeians' indulgence in Lupercalian rites with their own English celebrations; additionally, she remarks that these rituals—which serve as the opening to the play and which the tribunes complain have been perverted by the plebeians—also prepare the audience for subsequent perverse blood rituals undertaken by Brutus and his co-conspirators. Marjorie B. Garber (1974) and Lawrence Danson (1974) see the rituals and omens found throughout Julius Caesar as an important source of its tragic elements. For Danson, the tragedy is generated through misunderstanding of signs; for Garber, tragedy is achieved through the ultimate and genuine ritual of Brutus's self-sacrifice through death in the closing act of the play.
The role of Brutus as a tragic hero and as leader of the patrician class has been discussed by numerous critics. By contrast, David Lowenthal (1982) examines the play's namesake, arguing that Shakespeare presents Caesar as "the perfection of political or honor-seeking man" who all the same remains unconcerned with the plebeians who support him. Marshall C. Bradley (1994) looks at the Cynic Casca as a source of commentary on the various philosophies—Stoicism, Epicureanism, and proto-Christianity—that exist in the play; he also looks at Caesar's "bondman" as a "link between Caesar . . . and the greater body of conspirators"—in other words, between the ruler and the patrician class.
Last Updated on May 6, 2015, by eNotes Editorial. Word Count: 2867
Stuart Vaughan (essay date 1996)
SOURCE: "Introduction to Commentary" in William Shakespeare: Julius Caesar, edited by Maurice Charney, Applause Books, 1996, pp. xix-xxv.
[In the following essay, Vaughan looks at Julius Caesar from the point of view of performance, discussing such elements as setting, stage design, casting, and directorial modifications to the play.]
Shakespeare's Julius Caesar is both tragedy and history play, but however readers and critics approach it, stage directors must deal with it as a play written for performance in the theatre.
The author of a play to be played in the neutral, architectural theatre of Shakespeare's day had only, in order to set place and time of day, to provide indications early in the dialogue of each scene as to when and where the new unit of action was occurring. Thus, scene design was a matter of words.
Notice how, in the first scene of Julius Caesar, Flavius says (1. 3) " . . . ought not walk/upon a labouring day," and later (1. 27) says, " . . . lead these men about the streets?" When the time of day changes, at the beginning of Act I, Scene iii, Cicero's first words are, "Good even, Casca." At 1. 3 ff., Casca and Cicero both describe the "tempest," setting the scene further, and Cassius, entering later, is greeted by Casca saying, "What night is this!" And so it goes through the plays, with verbal description doing the jobs of defining place and time.
With only an occasional bench or chair to bring on, the action could flow from scene to scene without those stops which the scene changes of the modern theatre so often demand. Also, this neutral stage was utterly flexible, instantly taking on whatever guise the playwright required. At the beginning of Act II, when Brutus enters calling his servant and asking for a taper in his study, we sense right away that we are "at home" with Brutus, and when he talks about the "progress of the stars," we know he is outside and it is still night, as it had been in the previous scene. Shakespeare's audience in the theatre had no need for the written description "in his orchard" which precedes this scene, or for any of the other scenic descriptions which have been placed at the beginnings of scenes to help the reader. The speed and flexibility of Shakespeare's stage allowed him a dramatic structure of swift development and unfettered imagination.
At the Restoration of the monarchy in 1660, Charles II and his courtiers came back from their travels in exile wanting to see plays on the new-fangled Italianate proscenium, or "picture frame," stage. From that time until very recently, proscenium stages were the standard and expected stages for all sorts of dramatic and musical entertainments requiring a theatre. This stage, with its "open mouth," demands scenery to fill it. The art of perspective painting was quick to answer. An interest in archaeology led to "authentic" period settings and costumes for Shakespeare in the 19th Century. Realism and the proscenium theatre abetted one another on into the 20th Century. After World War II, the British director Tyrone Guthrie, having created a production in a Tudor church hall, realized the advantages of the open stage and the three-sided auditorium for Elizabethan drama. At Stratford, Ontario, and later in Minneapolis, he inspired the building of such theatres. Since then, open stages confronting three-sided auditoriums have sprung up across the United States.
For Shakespeare production, that has been a very good thing. The absence of a curtain behind which scenery can be changed forces Shakespeare's speed, flexibility, and scenic neutrality on the modern director and frees him from the constraints of proscenium staging.
This open stage, with the audience on three sides, pushes the director into special choreographic solutions. In the proscenium theatre, actors are arranged in what amounts to a line across the stage so they are all visible from the house simultaneously. With the open stage, if people on thesides are to see, the movement must be circular, like a wheel, instead of back and forth. Too, there must be enough circulation for all the members of the audience to see what is important most of the time. This makes for exciting visual compositions, flowing into each other with ceaselessly vigorous movement. Instead of "tricking" the actors into a straight line, the director can place the important elements center and group the other actors around that center in a much more natural way. Indeed, on such a stage, one can "block" a whole Shakespeare play in one day, by simply telling the actors to stand in a circle and walk toward whomever they are addressing.
Take the assassination scene in Julius Caesar (II.i). On the picture frame stage, one would probably place Caesar on a center platform three or four steps tall, with the conspirators and other senators spread out on either side of him. How much more interesting this can look on the open stage, using the same central platform for Caesar, but placing the others in a full circle around him. Each one can speak to Caesar from where he is without regard to "opening up the picture." Casca, who has been deputed to strike first, can get into place behind Caesar without the maneuvering necessary on a picture frame stage, and the confusion after Caesar falls can be arranged much more spectacularly. Then, after Antony enters, he can move to Caesar's body and later to each of the conspirators, ranged in their circle, without the unnatural parading back and forth which the proscenium stage enforces.
Modern directors of Shakespeare must be prepared to mount their productions on both types of stages, or "in-the-round" as well, and very different productions will result, in terms of amount of scenery, nature, and number of properties, and the shape of the stage pictures and movement patterns. While "in-the-round" and the open stage may not be suitable for all types of plays, most modern directors prefer the open stage for Shakespeare.
Julius Caesar is placed in Roman times and is about historical figures from that period. It deals with major events of that time which actually occurred, even though Shakespeare has compressed and interpreted as his artistic needs dictated. It might appear at first glance that no question would then arise as to the period in which the play would be set and costumed.
Since at least the 1920s, however, directors have been transplanting classics, and especially Shakespeare's plays, from their ostensible period to other times, political climates, and modes of behavior.
Today, finding a "resonance" between some other historical time and the play's stated period offers a basis for transplanting period: "as if," say, The Merchant of Venice were to take place in a country very like Nazi Germany, with SS men, and concentration camps, and yellow arm bands, and the trappings of "the final solution." Orson Welles, as Maurice Charney notes, set his famed Mercury Theatre production of Julius Caesar in a Fascist state, with Brutus and Cassius as reformers bent on overthrowing a dictator. A recent Julius Caesar turned Rome into a "banana republic" under the yoke of a Noriega-like strongman.
Such comments on the text can indeed be revealing. Often, however, the attempt to establish relevance to today only obscures the play's special connection with its own time and the way that time can speak to ours. What seems to me important is that, regardless of directorial or design concepts, the play convey its essential meaning, speak in its own voice clearly, and accomplish for today's audience, insofar as is possible, what its author hoped to do with his.
Visual Elements Essential for Julius Caesar
Whatever historical period the director chooses for Julius Caesar, or whether he is to work on a proscenium stage, an open stage, or "in-the-round," he must reckon with certain scenic demands the play itself imposes. From its opening through the unleashing of the mob and the following quiet scene with the triumvirs (IV.i), we are in Rome. Suggesting the various places—Brutus' garden, streets, Caesar's house, the Capitol—will probably involve structural elements, realistic or not, which can contain the action. Columns, arches, walls, hangings—these can be turned, closed in, opened up, changed in relationship to one another. After IV.i, the play moves out of Rome. The action seems to require open spaces. Brutus' tent (IV.ii) will surely be a portable affair, brought on by soldiers, to be set up at the beginning of the scene and taken away as they leave the tent to go to battle. For the rest of the play, that battlefield is the scene. So, from the end of IV.i, the physical structures which contained Rome must be cleared away, leaving the stage more bare, more open. Solving this need for a transition from containment to openness dictates the physical production for Julius Caesar. Not working in the theatre for which Shakespeare's plays were written demands adjustments and compromises which irrevocably individualize each director's production of each of the plays.
What Julius Caesar is About
Maurice Charney, in his introduction to the play, has admirably situated Julius Caesar among Shakespeare's history plays in terms of a "regicide" upsetting "order" and the play ending with the restoration of that order. He also discusses how Shakespeare gives us an ambiguous picture of Caesar himself in order not to "stack the deck" of the conflict at the outset.
This play is special in that audience interest is divided among three or four chief figures, rather than being focused on a single hero like Hamlet or Macbeth. Brutus, Caesar, Antony, and, though not to quite the same extent, Cassius all occupy the foreground of our interest. This division of interest, I believe, helps to focus audience attention on "process" rather than on "sympathy." Shakespeare apparently wants us to be concerned with "hows" and "whys" rather than with our identification with "who." This, I think, is why we get a Caesar who is alternately imperious and heroic, monumental and human. Antony is not just a classic "hero" but underneath this surface an astute politician. Cassius is a manipulator, too, with a resemblance to Iago, but he is a passionate admirer of Brutus and patriotically devoted to their cause. Brutus and the rest share noble Roman virtues, but, though Brutus may be "the noblest Roman of them all," Shakespeare gives us here a man attempting to act ethically from an ethically flawed position.
Shakespeare's tragedies and histories usually illuminate through their action some simply-stated moral precept. In the case of Julius Caesar, I think the play shows us that "no end is justified which must be attained by evil means." Brutus is the protagonist through whose struggle this thesis is demonstrated. We see him resisting and then being propelled by faulty logic and the influence of others into a course of action which he tries to justify. He falls apart, committing serious practical errors, as he realizes that what he did was wrong. The action of the first part of the play builds through the forming of the conspiracy toward Caesar's murder and its immediate consequence, Antony's swaying of the crowd against the conspirators. The second part of the play deals with the downfall of Brutus and Cassius, which occurs, in part, as a result of Brutus' loss of heart.
The reader's imaginary enactment of the play will be enhanced by keeping in mind some sense of how its roles might be cast for a production. One need not visualize specific movie greats in particular roles, but being aware of appropriate physical type and emotional tone for the principal parts will help the reader "see" the play as he reads.
Caesar's lean face, thinning hair, his fifty or so years will be familiar to most readers from pictures of busts in history books. The role demands a robust voice and a commanding physical presence, along with enough charisma to mark a leader of men.
Brutus would seem to be in his thirties—athletic, solid, clear-eyed. His speeches would benefit from the round tones of a low baritone voice, secure and masculine.
Cassius, with his "lean and hungry look," is described by Shakespeare. He is the same age as Brutus, and surely tall, with a hawk face. He needs a flexible and resonant voice, probably somewhat more tenor than Brutus', to ensure musical variety in their scenes. There is a mercurial, passionate side of him, too, which the actor must achieve.
Antony must deceive us. "Antony, that revels long a-nights," Caesar calls him. We meet him ready to race in the Lupercal, probably in his late twenties. He is the Antony with whom Cleopatra fell in love. He should look like a glorious, heroic, brainless, Greek statue. He is seen by the others as a mere "play-boy," and only Cassius senses something dangerous beneath the pose. In the young Prince Hal, Shakespeare gives us such a person, but there the audience is shown glimmers along the way of the king who is to come. Antony reveals himself only when he is left alone with the corpse of Caesar, and only after the oration does the audience grasp how astute he really is. Act IV, Scene i shows him as not only clever but ruthless.
Octavius is not introduced until that scene, and we find him young, probably just turned twenty. He is quiet and watchful, and yet his shrewd assessment of Antony at the end of that first scene tells something about the cold and canny young man who will later battle Antony for the known world in Antony and Cleopatra.
This is a man's play, and the two women in it are there to shed light on their husbands, who occupy the center of our author's attention. One senses in Portia a woman as much her husband's equal as Shakespeare's time (the time of Queen Elizabeth) would allow. She is meant to embody all those steadfast virtues of the Roman matron literature had made familiar to Elizabethans. Calphurnia, on the other hand, is the younger wife of an older man. Caesar is alternately indulgent and dismissive with her, but he seems to need to appear decisive in her eyes.
Other characters in the play will be cast in relation to their function as conspirators, servants, soldiers, etc., and casting questions of interest will be dealt with in the commentary as they enter.
Does this casting chart seem to suggest a bias toward "type casting"? Certainly it does, if one means that an informed reader would find such choices obvious, because they are the choices suggested by the author's text, his descriptions, and the conflicts in which the characters find themselves. Good casting involves finding actors who can clearly embody the characteristics and tensions in the play, and putting those actors together in a resonant way. No wonderful actor is right for all the wonderful parts. A play is telling a story, and just as it must take place in an appropriate physical environment, so it must be inhabited by people emotionally and physically suitable for the author's characters. Please note that the castings described above are racially color-blind. In today's society and today's theatre, the case has been won for using the best actor available for the part, without regard to racial stereotypes. This does not mean that Antony can be successfully played by a 5' 6" wimp, without regard for the physical and emotional attributes Shakespeare wants for his man. The balances and contrasts of the emotional forces within the play must be understood and respected if the casting of the play is to "work."
Other Production Problems
Julius Caesar, like most of the other plays of Shakespeare, offers some problems in production specific to itself. How much blood should there be in which the conspirators bathe their swords? If the actors are in white togas, how do they keep the blood off them? How does one handle the progress from the street into the Capitol just before Caesar's murder? How does one execute the storm so it is effective but also so the actors can be heard? How does one stage Caesar's Ghost? How many actors will constitute a believable mob for the particular production in question?
I have tried to address these and similar questions in context as the reader encounters the problems in the play. My effort throughout has been to help the reader sense Julius Caesar as a script for the theatre. The director and actors are involved in an exciting search, a form of detective work, to see what the author intended to happen on stage and how to find modern equivalents to satisfy the play's needs. The commentary which accompanies the text is designed to let the reader in on the pleasures of that search. If the reader finds, as he encounters my notions of how to stage the play and my thoughts about what is going on in the scenes, that he would do the scene or the moment or the staging in some other way, he will have taken his own steps down the path of artistic selection which makes working in the theatre on these great plays so gratifying.
Last Updated on May 6, 2015, by eNotes Editorial. Word Count: 22013
David Lowenthal (essay date 1982)
SOURCE: "Shakespeare's Caesar's Plan," in Interpretation: A Journal of Political Philosophy, Vol. 10, No. 2 & 3, May & September, 1982, pp. 223-50.
[Below, Lowenthal argues that Shakespeare portrays the character Julius Caesar as a great but ruthless leader, uninterested in either justice or the welfare of the common people but focused instead on the continuance of Caesarism.]
Only one of Shakespeare's thirty-seven plays deals with an historical figure of the first rank. Coriolanus, Antony, Cleopatra, Henry V were of lesser greatness; Macbeth, Lear, Hamlet would have been lost in historical obscurity but for Shakespeare himself. With Julius Caesar, however, Shakespeare chose a man of almost unrivalled glory. Why Caesar and no other? Why four of ten tragedies about ancient Rome? What was Shakespeare's understanding of Caesar and Rome?
Designed in such a way as to mirror the complexity of their subjects, Shakespeare's plays were all bound to elicit a variety of interpretations and judgments. Parts stand out and speeches impress, but, as with the universe itself, the overall meaning remains elusive. To this common state Julius Caesar adds a complication deriving from the partisan political passions it provokes. Even Coriolanus is not its match in this respect, for the conflict between plebs and patricians is less profound than the conflict between one great man and the mixed republican rule of the few and the many that he overthrows. Because the rise of Caesar signified the ruin of the old republic and the establishment of the empire, those living in ages or societies capable of appreciating the difference between the two regimes tend to side with one or the other, thus mirroring the bitter and violent clash that originally took place between their supporters in Rome. In Caesar republicans see a prodigious tyrant deserving assassination, and in the conspirators mighty heroes even as they go down to defeat. To his own partisans, however, Caesar looms up as a great king—perhaps the greatest of all—whose prominent abilities alone could preserve justice, order, peace, civilization in a period of republican decay, and whose assassination was therefore as foolish as it was unjust and base.
It is mystifying to observe that Shakespeare seems to encourage both viewpoints, allowing Caesar's supporters to locate the tragedy in his assassination early in Act III, and his republican opponents to locate it in the suicides of Cassius and Brutus at the end of Act V. But is it not strange that a play named after Caesar should begin on the last day of his life and devote most of its pages to events following his death? Does this disproportion, coupled with the final memorable depiction of republican heroism, indicate where Shakespeare's sympathies ultimately lay?
These difficulties are compounded by one more central, for it is hard to tell whether Shakespeare felt any admiration or sympathy for Caesar at all, or just what he meant by the portrait he presented. We get to know Caesar in the first part of the play through an intricately woven series of direct appearances and reactions by others. The direct appearances occur at and after the games of Lupercal (I.ii), in Caesar's home early the next morning (Il.ii), and, finally, on his way to and at the senate house (III.i). Indirect impressions or reactions come from commoners, tribunes, conspirators, a sophist and a soothsayer, the lengthiest in speeches by Cassius, Casca and Brutus. The resulting portrait is well-nigh incomprehensible. Caesar seems imperious, superstitious, overconfident, inconstant, vain, glorious and—above all—imprudent. He gives orders like an oriental potentate, credulously accepts old religious ceremonies, refuses to heed Calpurnia's and his own apprehensions of danger, bows to Decius' subtle flattery, boasts of his own unique and superlative constancy to the senate, and is easily murdered. His talking of himself in the third person as Caesar seems ridiculous. His claim to be fearless and more terrible than danger itself, together with his likening himself to the northern star, sounds like extravagant bombast. And here, at the height of his career, we watch him commit blunder after blunder, allowing a handful of conspirators to accomplish what whole armies, native as well as foreign, could not.
No greatness here, but there is another, less obtrusive side to the man with which many of these traits are completely at variance. He himself alludes to his great conquests, and the play opens with his return from a victory just won in open battle over the sons of Pompey. He already commands like a king rather than a republican official, and is obeyed as one. Not only do Mark Antony and the people love him, but also Brutus, the best of the conspirators. Even Cassius, his worst enemy, testifies to his colossal authority, and Caesar, in turn, understands the danger represented by Cassius perfectly. How, then, can a man so great, so successful, so astute be afflicted with so many serious defects and suddenly be led to his downfall? Had these defects been there all along, would they not have prevented his astonishing succession of military and political victories? Or was it the successes that engendered the defects—especially the vainglory? Did Shakespeare wish to depict still another example, perhaps the loftiest, of the hubris, the rash and insolent pride, that makes great men challenge the gods and come crashing down?
Only the latter alternative seems plausible, but the facts of the play will not allow it. Far from recently evincing a rash imprudence, Caesar has, after all, just returned from successfully ending the last open resistance to his hegemony within Rome. And his capacity for swift and ruthless self-protection shows itself to be very much alive in his reaction to the tribunes, instantly, covertly and somewhat ambiguously (though ominously) "putting them to silence." Besides, it can hardly be said that Caesar's fate in the play is one of manifest downfall and defeat, for the second and larger "half of the play demonstrates without question that his spirit, or its embodiment in Octavius Caesar and Antony, completely triumphs over the republican conspirators. Caesar, hubris or no, seems to prosper in death at least as much as in life. Finally, we must face the fact that Caesar could easily have avoided the rush of errors in his last days. He could have protected himself, and he could have assuaged rather than provoked the fears and suspicions of his ambitious intent. Or are we to believe that the great Caesar, the most astute politician of his time, had swiftly and unaccountably taken leave of his political senses on what was to prove the last full day of his life?
Let us examine Shakespeare's mystifying portrait further. In his first words Caesar commands Antony to touch Calpurnia in this "holy chase" and cure her sterility, as "our elders say," commanding further that "no ceremony" be left out. This apparently confirms the view, expressed afterward by Cassius, that Caesar "is grown superstitious of late," (II.i. 195). But this great violator of Roman political traditions, this greatest of Roman innovators could hardly have been impressed by the sanctity of the "elders" in gathering supreme power to himself. Nor, contrary to Cassius' claim, does he show anything resembling a regular course of superstition now. On the contrary, though perhaps unfortunately for him, he dismisses the warnings of both an unknown soothsayer and his own augures, and seems utterly unreceptive to the dire omens Calpurnia cites to keep him from attending the senate. Moreover, unlike the plainly superstitious Casca, Caesar reacts to the stormy eve of the Ides of March without mentioning the gods and their punishments, and even his last speech about the most constant things in the universe cites only the northern star and himself without the gods. This distinction receives an astonishing confirmation almost immediately afterward, where Caesar's sharp warning—"Hence! wilt thou lift up Olympus?"—actually refers to the prospect of his own rising from his chair in the Senate, and not to the gods as such. Such evidence inclines one to conclude that Caesar, far from being superstitious, might not have believed in the Roman deities at all.
On this supposition, Caesar's opening expression of pious traditionalism before the assembled multitude must be viewed as nothing more than politic dissembling. Caesar knows full well that the people cling to tradition and love those who openly respect it. For reasons as yet unknown to us, he may, in fact, have recently taken to such public displays of piety much more than before, thus accounting for Cassius' observation. But if Caesar understands this attachment of the people to tradition, how could he fail to anticipate their devotion to the most hallowed of all political traditions in Rome—that of opposition to the Tarquins and all kings? They might accept—they did accept—his own king-like supremacy, but not the name "king." Then why risk the suspicion and odium Antony's offering him a crown not once but several times was likely to engender?
The people cheer when Caesar puts away the crown—that is, when he rejects it. It was equally predictable, but far more dangerous, that Antony's offer should intensify the fear and anger of the remaining band of pro-republican senators. So great Caesar erred, it appears, not only in his estimate of the people but of the aristocrats as well. Yet the immediate aftermath of Lupercal nullifies this interpretation. Caesar has just been rebuffed over the crown, and is described (by Brutus) as leaving the scene angrily. His first words to Antony, spoken privately, therefore sound strange indeed, for they have no anger in them and seem oddly removed from the event that has just transpired. Observing Cassius in the crowd, Caesar tells Antony he is "dangerous"—a term he intensifies to "very dangerous" after Antony's demurral, and in conclusion to perhaps the finest thumbnail character sketch in literary history. We need nothing more than this assessment of Cassius, so true to what we have just learned from his conversation with Brutus about Caesar, to know how Caesar could attain the unrivalled supremacy Cassius acknowledges and envies. Caesar has an extraordinary comprehension of men and situations, and his present comments about Cassius show how little that unique capacity has declined. But our dilemma thereby becomes more obvious and more pressing, for how could a man of such acumen have just a moment ago committed such a blunder regarding the crown? There must be some connection between that event and his sudden comment on Cassius' danger to him. Obviously, Caesar is aware of the possibility of a conspiracy against him—a conspiracy probably further aroused by Antony's action. And how marvelous that Caesar's attention should focus unremittingly on the one man who has already begun to foment and organize such a conspiracy!
Cassius is very dangerous, Caesar insists, but "I rather tell thee what is to be feared than what I fear; for always I am Caesar." Cassius is to be feared, but Caesar does not fear him. Why so? Is Caesar unconcerned about living—is he incapable, perhaps, of dying? Or does Caesar at once act in such a way that he need not feel fear? As to the former alternative, Caesar is perfectly aware of his own mortality. Not only does he have certain physical afflictions (epilepsy, some deafness), but he later acknowledges in a famous speech that death will come to him as to other men:
Cowards die many times before their deaths;
The valiant never taste of death but once.
Of all the wonders that I yet have heard,
It seems to me most strange that men should fear,
Seeing that death, a necessary end,
Will come when it will come.
This passage seems to express a curious fatalism about death, but does it forbid efforts to stay healthy or keep from being killed—a restraint hardly true of Caesar's past life? Or does it mean that men should not fear what they cannot ultimately avoid—a view perfectly compatible with taking careful precautions to protect oneself to the greatest extent possible? The valient, by this interpretation, need not take unnecessary risks, or allow themselves to become the helpless victims of others.
What has Caesar done about the conspiracy he knows Cassius might be forming against him? Has he taken those simple precautions kings and tyrants have taken in all ages, even in less worrisome times? Does he have a bodyguard? Has he set spies on the trail of Cassius and other malcontents? Surely a conspiracy about which at least two perfect strangers (Artemidorus and Popilius Lena) come to learn, and organized by this very Cassius, slinking through the night with a troop of accomplices, would not have presented a major problem to those forces of Caesar that had, in a twinkling, "put to silence" the two tribunes merely for removing scarves from Caesar's statues. We do not know why Caesar fails to take such steps, but it is impossible to believe he did not think of them. For he had given much thought to his death, and had taken other steps with it in mind. He had, for example, made an elaborate will, and named Octavius Caesar his son and heir. Moreover, and most peculiarly, he had already summoned Octavius back to Rome, thus accounting for the coincidence by which Octavius arrives outside Rome the very day of his funeral. Here Shakespeare deviates significantly from the account in Plutarch (p. 1113) [Modern Library Giant], where Octavius hears of Caesar's death only after it occurs and while he is abroad, returning sometime later. By having Caesar himself summon Octavius, Shakespeare intimates that Caesar—his Caesar, not Plutarch's—had some purpose in wanting his heir on hand around the Ides of March. Could he have had some premonition or foreknowledge of his own imminent murder? Or is there some other bearing that this solicitation, invented but unexplained by Shakespeare, had for Caesar's future?
To find our way through difficulties deepening on all sides, we must retreat to a vantage point that will permit us to appreciate Caesar's situation as he saw it. First and foremost, we must realize that the one-man rule he has, for some time, been engaged in establishing is not a harsh rule, not a simple tyranny, but something like what Aristotle calls a royal tyranny. How far he has come along this path Shakespeare does not tell us in detail, just as he omits all direct mention of Caesar's earlier political career. We never learn, as we do from Plutarch (p. 881), that Caesar has been made "dictator for life"—an extension of the limited emergency nature of dictatorship rendering the republic essentially inoperative during his lifetime and at his pleasure. Instead, Shakespeare makes sure we fully realize that somehow, within a framework still republican (for example, with tribunes and a senate), Caesar has managed to gain supreme power. And he leaves it to our own intelligence to realize that this could not have happened accidentally, or legally. Caesar must have engaged in a series of illegal and immoral acts, must have sought such power, must have defeated many rivals and opponents in the course of achieving it (as he has just defeated the sons of Pompey), and must have given considerable thought not only to the strategy that would make his quest successful but even more to the ultimate object of that quest.
Clearly, Caesar has made the common people the basis of his power, and it is with them that the play begins and in a way starts anew after Antony's Caesaristic funeral oration for Caesar. The people enjoy Caesar's benefactions, exult and share in his triumphs, glory in his command, and dote on his subservience. Caesar's enemies, the main defenders of the republic, come from the senatorial class, and against them he has had to use force—most recently against Pompey's sons. He is also capable, in an instant, of silencing the two tribunes, themselves supporters of the republican order. But he has not been harsh. Some of his former enemies, pardoned, still sit in the senate, and even the "very dangerous" Cassius is left perfectly free. This is why Caesar's rule could appear (if one did not look too hard, and forgot much) not severe and tyrannical but mild and just, thus accounting for the virtuous Brutus' amazing admission, in soliloquy, that: "To speak the truth of Caesar, I have not known when his affections sway'd more than his reason."
Why Brutus should have lost sight of Caesar's earlier usurpations (of which his recent triumph over fellow Romans and his treatment of the tribunes are lingering examples), or of the monarchical power already in his possession without the title "king," we do not yet know. But we must assume that the republic did not willingly vest Caesar with quasi-monarchical authority, that it yielded only what it had to under the pressure of some kind of necessity, coming either from him directly or from circumstances. Just as the senate now seems willing to grant him a crown abroad, it may previously have bestowed increasing levels of authority—simply to avert his seizing more. Nevertheless, this great usurper clearly seems intent on not being seen as one, on seeming more king-like than tyrannical, and hence on securing for himself first, the love of the people, and then the attachment of as many senators as possible consistent with their presenting no direct threat to his king-like authority—that is, with their willingness to surrender the old republican prerogatives of the senate itself. But if this has been and remains (as in his will) Caesar's policy, what motivates it? Does Caesar love the common people, cry at the plight of the poor—as Antony claims in his oration? Is he a Roman patriot, devoted to the common good? Is he a gentlemanly lover of virtue? And what is his ultimate object?
It may not be entirely accidental that we never hear Caesar refer to virtue, Rome, the common good, justice or the people in his private discourse, and in some cases not even publicly. Of course, he speaks like a monarch rather than a tyrant, refusing to read Artemidorus' message because "What touches us ourself shall be last serv'd," and he inquires, as he opens the senate (his senate, he says), "What is now amiss that Caesar and his senate must redress?" But Caesar seems to have little genuine respect for the senate, as his imperious words to Decius beautifully indicate: "Have I in conquest stretch'd mine arm so far, To be afeard to tell greybeards the truth?"—the greybeards, of course, being the senators. Nor is there any clear sign of genuine love for the people, despite his slavishly prostrating himself before them at Lupercal and lavishly providing for them in his will, and despite Antony's eulogy citing the foreign monies he brought into the "general coffers" and the tears he wept "when the poor cried." Evidently Caesar did not put so much in the general coffers or care so much for the poor as to deny himself those enormous sums permitting his testamentary largesse to the people, and thus serving that very ambition Antony was at such pains to deny in him.
Much dissimulation masks the fact that Caesar's main—perhaps his sole—interest is himself, although his way of talking about himself in the third person and the qualities he lays claim to fairly shout it out. From Cassius we learn that Caesar dared him to swim the raging Tiber with him, and that he bade the Romans to "mark him and write his speeches in their books" He was, then, highly competitive, sought to do unusually difficult things, and wanted to be remembered long after his death. He clearly prides himself on his vast conquests, and even more, we may presume, on having succeeded in making himself master of Rome as well as of its farflung empire. Shakespeare even goes so far as to demonstrate before our eyes—though most unobtrusively—Caesar's perfectly remarkable capacity for ruling men, and for altering his demeanor from one audience to another. At Lupercal we see him first as lordly emperor, the next moment as self-abasing slave of the people. In one scene afterwards he is the gentlemanly equal of fellow aristocrats, welcoming them into his home that morning, and in the next not only the emperor or king again but the godlike man, like unto the northern star. Where else in literature are the manners befitting such different regimes manifested side by side in so short a space?
Caesar must enjoy this unrivalled and almost uncanny ability to suit style to occasion. But if he is already in fact Rome's king, what remains? If, as Cassius himself admits, he is now become a god, bearing the palm alone, and " . . . doth bestride the narrow world like a Colossus," can he have further ambition? The analysis given by Plutarch, at a place where the events contained in Shakespeare's play begin, is this:
Caesar was born to do great things, and had a passion after honour, and the many noble exploits he had done did not now serve as an inducement to him to sit still and reap the fruit of his past labours, but were incentives and encouragements to go on, and raised in him ideas of still greater actions, and a desire of new glory, as if the present were all spent. It was in fact a sort of emulous struggle with himself, as it had been with another, how he might outdo his past actions by his future.
Plutarch goes on to say that Caesar planned to add to his glory at this point through a new campaign against the Parthians, an assortment of geographical improvements, and a new calendar, but
. . . that which brought upon him the most apparent and mortal hatred was his desire of being king; which gave the common people the first occasion to quarrel with him, and proved the most specious pretense to those who had been his secret enemies all along.
In Shakespeare's play only the last of these ambitions shows itself, and most directly in the crown-offering scene recounted by Casca. Why Antony offers a crown or coronet to Caesar at the Feast of Lupercal we are not told. Neither before nor after that scene do he and Caesar discuss the matter, and it is highly improbable that Antony—the Antony of "When Caesar says, 'Do this,' it is performed"—would undertake so important an action without Caesar's explicit direction or consent. We are told by Casca that Caesar put the crown aside reluctantly, and by Brutus (confirmed by Casca) that Caesar came away from the scene looking angry or sad. He seems to have wanted the crown very badly—a conclusion that spurs Brutus to join the conspiracy, and is also drawn by the senate as a whole.
Does Shakespeare's (not Plutarch's) Caesar really wish to become king? That he wants people to think so seems obvious. But what would he gain thereby? With the crown would no doubt come the opportunity to dispense further with republican forms, and perhaps the right to convey his authority either to a natural heir or, lacking that, to one of his own choosing. But a man with Caesar's love of distinction would also see certain disadvantages. Kingship, as traditionally and ordinarily understood in Rome, could never completely free itself from association with the Tarquins and hence from the obloquy in which it was held over many centuries. Moreover, it could hardly bring renown to Caesar as a novel system of his own creation, since its revival would be that of a very old system devised by others. This revived monarchy, finally, would depend on his receiving the consent of the senate and the people, and would, therefore, always retain something of this dependence.
From the viewpoint of a man of the highest ambition—of one of the very few who, according to Abraham Lincoln, belonged to the "family of the lion and the tribe of the eagle"—these were important defects, but how could they be avoided? History provides the answer: Caesar must found a new regime to which he would give his name—the rule of the Caesars—instead. The only change Shakespeare makes is to attribute to Caesar's intention, and to a comprehensive plan, what historically seems to have come about without such a plan, even if by a kind of necessity. Unfortunately—though it will challenge him to a display of fortitude without parallel—Caesar cannot assure the success of this plan without submitting to, and indeed in some degree arranging, his own assassination, martyrdom and deification. Only on this improbable but not impossible assumption can we explain the paradoxes and inconsistencies into which we have otherwise fallen. Only in this way can we explain several subtle changes Shakespeare makes in Plutarch's account of the same events. And only in this way can we make sense of the play being named after Caesar, and of the necessary, rather than accidental, triumph of his spirit, embodied in the forces of Octavius and Antony, that constitutes the primary import and lesson of the second and larger part of the play.
Fortunately, this conclusion can be shown to rest on more than circumstantial evidence. The scene that most fully reveals the working of Caesar's mind (II.ii) shows him first alone and then in extended discussion—his only one in the play—with Calpurnia, Decius Brutus and finally a group of senators, most of them conspirators. Just as in the immediately preceding scene Brutus had been shown walking in his orchard amid stormy exhalations, so here Caesar is first shown awake, in his nightgown, inside his house, amid thunder and lightning. Brutus was up, so he said, because thinking of the plot against Caesar kept him from sleeping, but we do not know why Caesar is up. Did the storm awaken him? Was he roused by Calpurnia's crying out in her sleep with the words he reports ("Help! Ho! they murder Caesar!")? Did he go to sleep at all? We do not know.
Caesar is determined to go to the senate house that morning but meets with strong opposition from Calpurnia. In arguing against his going, Calpurnia says nothing about any dream of hers, and he, on his part, does not tell her what he heard her cry out in her sleep. She cites a report from "one within" of "most horrid sights seen by the watch"—things "beyond all use." Caesar is unmoved: not only is any "end" purposed by the "mighty gods" inevitable, says he, but these unusual sights—these "predictions"—are as much for the world in general as for Caesar. To this retort Calpurnia objects, in turn, because by means of comets " . . . the heavens blaze forth the death of princes," not of beggars—a point Caesar does not try to deny. He asserts, instead, that death will come when it will come (no mention of the mighty gods here), and the valiant do not fear it. But the braggadocio of his first response to Calpurnia (the things that threaten him have only looked on his back and vanish when they see his face) is not repeated: Caesar now seems willing to acknowledge that the death of this particular prince, meaning himself, may in fact come today but still should not be feared.
At this juncture Caesar's continued insistence on going to the senate house receives another setback, for the servant he sent to the augurers reports that they ". . . would not have you stir forth today": the omens support Calpurnia against him. But Caesar refuses to budge, giving the bad omen (a beast lacking a heart) a contrary interpretation: he would be such a beast—a coward—if he did not go forth. To support this view he returns to braggadocio in another form, claiming that Caesar is more dangerous than danger itself, and so he shall go forth. At this the frustrated Calpurnia can only lament that his " . . . wisdom is consumed in confidence," and her last resort is to replace her original command with a plea. On bended knee she begs Caesar not to go, and he at once relents. Apparently, what argument and the authority of the priests could not accomplish is accomplished by her lowly pleading—her "humor," as Caesar calls it. Much against his reiterated will, he consents to stay home: Marc Antony will tell the senate he is not well.
But Decius Brutus arrives first—the same Decius who had assured the conspirators he could again successfully flatter Caesar and assure his going to the Capitol. Cassius, you recall, had been fearful the lately superstitious Caesar might be deterred from going by "apparent prodigies, the unaccustom'd terror of this night, and the persuasion of the augurers." As it turns out, not one of these—and they are all present—succeeds with Caesar, thus proving Cassius wrong about his having grown superstitious. Nevertheless, Caesar does succumb to Calpurnia's plea and is thus, by a means Cassius did not foresee, to remain at home.
With Decius on the scene before Antony, Caesar could easily have accomplished his altered resolve. All he had to do was tell Decius (as he said he would tell Antony) that he was not feeling well and ask him to convey that message to the senate. But Caesar takes an entirely unexpected tack: tell the senate, he instructs Decius, that Caesar will not come down—not cannot, or dare not (which he explicitly denies), but will not. This, of course, constitutes a clear affront to both the senate and Decius, causing Calpurnia to intervene: "Say he is sick." She could put her thought in no other way than this because Caesar had just insisted, a moment before, that "Cannot is false"—in short, that he was not sick, contrary to what he was going to tell Antony. To the poor woman's open suggestion that Decius lie, Caesar now reacts with great indignation:
Shall Caesar send a lie?
Have I in conquest stretch'd mine arm so far,
To be afeared to tell greybeards the truth?
Decius, go tell them Caesar will not come.
Of course, Caesar does not admit—and Calpurnia is in no position to point out in Decius' presence—that it was Caesar himself who had first said he would have Antony tell the senate he was not well—itself a lie. And what he now tells Decius is of course a lie too—for it is not his will but Calpurnia's pleading that will keep him from the senate that day. Moreover, it is questionable whether Caesar would really have permitted Decius to bring such an assertion of arbitrary and tyrannical will to the senate. Minutes later he is the soul of gentlemanliness and friendliness to the senators who come as his escort to the Capitol. And even at the very height of his imperious pride in the senate house, where he treats not only the senators but all other men as grossly inferior in constancy, he asserts not his sheer will but his refusal to be sway'd by fawning and flattery rather than reasons: "Know, Caesar doth not wrong, nor without cause will he be satisfied."
Before dispatching Decius, Caesar could have found some way of blaming his absence on the auguries, or perhaps on Calpurnia's not feeling well. But by this false assertion of mere will he had practically compelled Decius to ask further: ". . . let me know some cause lest I be laugh'd at when I tell them so." In response Caesar seems to soften: though his willing it is enough to satisfy the senate, out of love for Decius, and for his private knowledge only, Caesar will confide his real reason for staying home. In this way Caesar makes Decius his partner in lying to the senate and keeping from it truth that somehow cannot be aired publicly. But the real truth is not what Caesar tells Decius: he does not repeat the gist of his conversation with Calpurnia, and how Calpurnia managed to persuade him to stay home. Instead he concocts an amazing and ingenious lie, greater than any before.
This night, he tells Decius, Calpurnia dreamt she saw his statue spouting blood from a hundred places, with many happy Romans coming to bathe their hands in it, and, taking this dream as an evil omen, she had begged Caesar on her knee to remain home. Now the most notable (and least noted) feature of this account is that Caesar has just invented it out of almost whole cloth. Calpurnia had indeed begged Caesar, but not because of this dream. Calpurnia herself had mentioned no such dream, though she had, as he remarks in soliloquy, cried out in her sleep about his being murdered. Her argument with Caesar had been based not on dreams but on publicly observed prodigies and the generally accepted significance of comets. She seems to have known better than to try to persuade Caesar with stories of personal dreams, whatever she remembered of her own that morning. She may even have observed how contemptuously he had dismissed the soothsayer the day before as nothing but a "dreamer."
The fictitious dream Caesar describes does not directly involve him, or his being murdered, but his statue, and it turns out to be an amazing prediction of how the conspirators later bathed their arms in his blood. But its tone is hardly optimistic, and its immediate import is to demonstrate, with perfect clarity, how conscious Caesar was, that morning and that night, of the possibility—perhaps even the likelihood—of a conspiracy against his life. In responding, Decius fundamentally had two alternatives, each of which would tell Caesar something about both Decius and the situation Caesar was to face that day. An innocent Decius would be inclined to acknowledge how Calpurnia might well be frightened by such a dream, baseless as it was with Caesar so widely loved. Perhaps the peculiar happenings of the night brought it on, but in any case he could certainly understand Caesar's desire to keep his wife from worrying, and would be happy to tell the senate of Caesar's intended absence that day.
This is the response Decius failed to make. Instead, he gives a highly optimistic, wildly improbable, and extremely flattering interpretation to the supposed dream. Just as Caesar had earlier given an improbable interpretation to an evil omen because he was determined to go to the senate-house, here Decius gives another because he too is set on Caesar's going. So when Decius interprets Caesar's statute as supplying "reviving blood" to "great Rome" which "great men" come to collect for relics, Caesar voices no objection. On the contrary, eager to reverse his promise to Calpurnia, made unwillingly under duress, he proclaims the dream "well-expounded." And Caesar must have been confirmed in his suspicions by Decius' adding two further points: one, the promise of a crown from the senate (he says nothing about it being worn only abroad), the other the prospect of senate mockery. In short, Decius seems exceedingly anxious to get Caesar to go, and Caesar, recognizing the import of this anxiety, is as eager to go—the one to kill, the other to be killed; the one sure he had again successfully flattered, the other knowing he had seduced the flatterer into revealing his secret; the one intent with a small band of colleagues on freeing the republic, the other facing his greatest deed, "unshak'd of motion," and bent on his own immortal glory.
Now many otherwise inexplicable details in the play, including changes from Plutarch made by Shakespeare, become comprehensible. Caesar, having just defeated the last of his open opposition on the battlefield, knows that the possibility—indeed, the likelihood—of secret, conspiratorial opposition remains. He even knows who is most likely to foment such a conspiracy. He has decided that the culmination of his ambition requires the founding of a new sort of monarchy, and that this goal is best attained (and perhaps only attained) through a martyrdom at the hands of traitorous aristocrats that will permit the political system he has already initiated to be regarded as the product of a superhuman being or god. He returns from the battle with Pompey's sons on a holiday, the feast of Lupercal—a detail not stipulated in Plutarch and apparently forgotten even by the tribunes, who censure the artisans at the very opening of the play for being out on a working day rather than a holiday. The people will therefore be available both for his triumphal return and for the crown-offering Caesar arranges with Antony, the main object of which is to stimulate and accelerate the conspiracy Caesar believes to be forming. Caesar, of course, must be made to look innocent and unsuspecting, hence no bodyguards and no spies—not even the discussion of guards reported by Plutarch and others (for example, Suetonius, sect. 86), with Caesar saying he will be protected by the love of the people instead of asserting the extreme fearlessness Shakespeare has him assert to Antony and Calpurnia. This is why the soothsayer is not asked his reasons for warning Caesar about the Ides of March, and why Caesar refuses even to try to read Artemidorus's urgent warning—whereas in Plutarch he tries very hard but unsuccessfully to read it (p. 892). For Caesar, we may presume, did not sleep the eve of the Ides, and the wild nature of the weather, with its preternatural manifestations, fitted perfectly with his plans and made him most anxious for the plot to come off that day. This is what accounts for his insistence on going to the senate house, and his finding a way out of his promise to Calpurnia even as he discovered from Decius that the Ides was indeed the day.
Caesar had done much to prepare for this occasion. His reference to himself in the third person, as if he were a being apart from himself personally, his bombastic language, more like that of a god than a man, even when speaking to Antony privately, his letters to Octavius, summoning him back from abroad directly so that he appears in time for Caesar's funeral, his will were all essential parts of this plan. And this plan is what forms the bridge between the first and second "halves" of the play, and makes not only necessary but intended the victory of Caesar's forces (his "spirit") over the conspirators, and ultimately even the victory of Octavius Caesar—the heir Caesar himself chose—over Antony presaged in this play and brought to pass in the next.
Caesar is most courteous to the group that assembled the morning of the Ides to escort him to the senate—all but one (Publius) being members of the conspiracy. Some among them, like Metellus Cimber and Caius Ligarius, obviously had little reason to love Caesar. Brutus is there, though Caesar remarks how unusual it is for him to stir so early and hardly treats him with the special affection one would expect for "Caesar's angel." But Cassius, as Caesar may have noted, did not appear, though it was he who had recommended to the conspirators that " . . . we will all of us be there to fetch him." Evidently Cassius spoke to make sure the others would all be on hand for the deed—a somewhat dangerous idea, considering Caesar's capacity to judge men—but decided against his own presence, knowing, as he did, that "Caesar doth bear me hard."
Observing this particular group of men, Caesar, while wondering about Brutus, must have had his suspicions confirmed, but he could not know precisely when or where they would strike. It is interesting, in observing his conduct at the senate that morning, how little it conforms to the expectations one might form on the assumption that he was burning to become king. In mentioning the senate's intention to give him a crown, Decius had carefully avoided the qualification earlier heard from Casca that it was only to be worn ". . . by sea and land, in every place, save here in Italy." But on that fatal day neither he nor any senator mentions it. Even more striking is the fact that Caesar hardly acts like a man who wants to avoid displeasing the senate in order to assure himself of the crown they are about to bestow. On the contrary, he reacts to Metellus Cimber's kneeling before him not gently—as one would surmise from the friendly cordiality with which he had greeted the visitors at his home just before (and especially Metellus)—but most indignantly, and with words completely disproportionate to Metellus' natural request in behalf of his brother. Since we cannot assume Caesar actually lost control of himself with so little provocation, we must conclude that his interest in the crown was hardly burning. He seems, indeed, to have expressed himself in language so highflown, monarchical and even godlike (in a speech completely invented by Shakespeare) as to goad the conspiracy into immediate action and leave a memory most in keeping with the idea of his divinity. And we must admit, in view of the deed then absorbing him, that the comparison to the northern star, "unshak'd of motion," is not as exaggerated as it first appears.
On seeing Brutus join the entreaties for Cimber's banished brother and close in with the rest, Caesar exclaims: "What, Brutus!", and then, at Cinna's approach: "Hence! wilt thoü lift up Olympus?" To Decius, his "Doth not Brutus bootless kneel?" means that no one would be more likely to move him than Brutus, and is followed, after the blows of Casca, Brutus and others, by the famous "Et tu Brute! Then fall, Caesar!" This "And you, Brutus" (see Suetonius, sect. 82) is as much as to say: "I can see how these other men might enter this vile conspiracy, but how could you whom I loved and trusted so much?" Thus, in his last breath, Caesar draws attention to the benefactions he had heaped on Brutus—that is, to his own king-like magnanimity, his own goodness—in contrast to the base deception of the conspirators and Brutus' basest betrayal of all. The memorial Caesar wanted to leave is now almost complete. Unlike Plutarch's Caesar, who struggles mightily against his attackers, like an animal at bay (p. 893), Shakespeare's Caesar will not struggle at all. And the finishing touch comes in his last words, entirely invented by Shakespeare. For Caesar acknowledges only that he will "fall", not die, thus prefiguring the rise of his all-victorious spirit in the second half of the play.
If Caesar has surrendered his life in order to attain lasting influence and glory after his death as the divine founder of the Roman Empire, Shakespeare leaves little doubt, by the end of the play, that his plan is well on its way to succeeding. At Caesar's funeral, Antony's entirely Caesaristic oration releases "Caesar's spirit, ranging for revenge," crying havoc " . . . with a monarch's voice," which not only expels Brutus and Cassius from Rome but presides over their defeat and suicide at Philippi. What is more, Shakespeare goes so far as to suggest the coming preeminence of the young man bearing Caesar's name, and hence the beginning of the rule of the Caesars. Even when Octavius first comes to sight he is, despite his youth and inexperience, immediately made one of the triumvirate, simply because Caesar chose him to be his heir. And at a certain point Antony himself begins calling the young man Caesar instead of Octavius (v.i.16, 24), thus tacitly acknowledging his own inferiority and presaging his own defeat. Finally, to consummate this impression it is Octavius Caesar rather than Antony who speaks the last lines of the play, commanding, without contradiction from Antony, that Brutus' bones shall lie in his tent. In all these respects Shakespeare seems to suggest some unstated and unexplained inevitability leading from Caesar's death to the solitary rule of Octavius as Augustus, the first of the long line of Caesars.
Could Caesar have foreseen his own posthumous triumph and planned for it? Or, if the conspirators had only avoided a series of blunders (most of them due to Brutus), could the republic have been saved for good? If Cicero had been enlisted, if Antony had been killed along with Caesar, or at least forbidden to speak at Caesar's funeral, or if Brutus and Cassius had only followed Cassius' cautious policy and won at Philippi instead of Antony and Octavius, could the mighty force of Caesarism have been repressed indefinitely?
Certainly the conspirators themselves had proceeded on the assumption that all the republic needed for its healthy restoration was Caesar's death. One is struck by the absence of any deeper reflection on Rome's decay and of any comprehensive plan for its reformation. This is particularly remarkable in Brutus' long soliloquy, where he admits to finding nothing wrong—nothing, in fact, short of admirable—in Caesar's past and present conduct, and nothing awry in the condition of the republic as it stands. Solely preoccupied with the future threat of kingly power, would anyone hearing him realize that Caesar was already a king in fact if not in name, and the republic already dead?
Over some time forces must have been at work in the republic to concentrate power in the hands of one man, and in such a way as to occur almost imperceptibly and leave the impression of inevitability. The play opens with Caesar's triumphant return from a war with Pompey's sons—a reminder that great generals (Pompey, Sulla, Marius) had long been contesting for sway in republican Rome. From this contention Caesar has emerged victorious, with powers almost unlimited—even daring to celebrate a triumph over fellow Romans rather than foreign peoples. And after Caesar's death, power again seems to move inevitably from the triumvirate to one man, with republican rule practically disappearing from sight.
Shakespeare makes it clear that the republic has lost its inner vitality in other ways as well. Over a long period of time the people have slowly changed from citizens to subjects: they glory in Caesar's rule, have utterly no desire to participate in politics or war, and no longer regard themselves as needing the protection of elected tribunes. So far has this decay in popular republican spirit proceeded, that immediately upon Caesar's death the people want nothing more than to make Brutus Caesar. Even the senate, after Pompey's defeat, seems completely subordinate to Caesar, who publicly calls it "his" senate. But behind everything is the vast empire, fostering enormous concentrations of wealth and power, particularly in the hands of conquering generals who were now stronger than the republic itself. Of Caesar's army we learn little in this play, but of his enormous wealth his own will speaks conspicuously. Even more openly do his three successors display not only rampant avarice but an eagerness to murder or sacrifice men of prominence, including close relatives, for their own ambitious ends. Once the proscriptions of the triumvirate are completed, and the forces of Brutus and Cassius defeated, we hear no more of efforts to keep the republic alive. Even Brutus and Cassius have nothing to say of the republic in their dying breath, and the only mention of republican sentiments in the succeeding play, Antony and Cleopatra (II.vi.I5ff.), comes from Sextus Pompey—a man quite willing to become the sole master of the world if only the triumvirs could be murdered by hands other than his own.
If the facts of both plays show that one-man rule was all but inevitable in Rome, and if Caesar stands out as by far the best of those seeking such rule (compare, for example, his mildness and civility with his successors' proscriptions), then the conspiracy against him is hard to justify. Harder still once one realizes the conspirators were themselves motivated by envy and ambition at least as much as by republican virtue, and that they played directly into Caesar's hands by giving him the one thing he could not give himself—the martyrdom necessary to founding a new imperial order.
This is not to suggest that good men, even in times strongly favoring despotism, should desert the republic rather than attempt to prolong its life. But once the situation has degenerated as far as it had here, and when the person actually holding monarchical power has Caesar's qualities, the case for assassination is not compelling. In fact, one can scarcely believe that the conspirators themselves, had they known beforehand of the long train of evils their action would engender—the senatorial proscriptions, the defeat of their own forces, the rule of the triumvirs, the struggle between Antony and Octavius, and Octavius' final reassertion of martyred Caesar's rule—would have persisted in their effort to kill Caesar. They assumed they would succeed, not fail, in restoring the republic, and justified their recourse to violence solely by this prospect.
Only two alternatives to conspiracy receive any attention in the play. One—Cato's suicide after a life of open opposition to Caesar in the senate and on the battlefield—occurred before the play begins and is referred to only through Brutus' mentioning the suicide itself. The other is that of Cicero, perhaps the highest ranking member of the senate. He is clearly in the opposition to Caesar, though Brutus and Cassius differ about his aptness for the conspiracy. There is some question, however, whether Cicero (Shakespeare's) would have joined if asked, as he was not. Tolerated in the senate by Caesar, and pursuing philosophical studies at the same time (signified in the play by the report of his speaking Greek), Cicero tries to preserve his humor and equanimity in a losing cause. Unable to frustrate Caesar's ambition, he at least suggests by his absence from the senate the day Caesar was to be given a crown that he will not directly cooperate in furthering that ambition, regardless of personal consequences. In short, this policy—frequently at variance with that of Plutarch's Cicero—presumes the doom of the republic. As it turns out, Caesar's death precipitates Cicero's, since the triumvirs, lacking Caesar's forbearance, have him murdered.
From the picture Shakespeare paints, the cause of republican government in Rome was actually doomed, and no one would be more likely to appreciate this fact than Caesar himself. Only one question remained*—whether a solid and enduring replacement for the republic could be devised—and constructing its elements became Caesar's greatest ambition. He must have concluded that a new form of monarchy, anchored in both popular passion and popular piety and attached to the name Caesar, would prove superior to every alternative, including, of course, all efforts at restoring the republic. Thus, Caesar could not know that his death would be followed by Antony's stirring oration and an immediate reversal for the conspirators. He could not know Brutus and Cassius would lose at Philippi: they might have won. But he could and did know that the period of republican revival after his death would be short-lived, and that a struggle between the republican and Caesaristic forces, ensuing almost immediately, would of necessity, at some point, lead to the victory of those proclaiming his name and his precedent. His secret collusion with the conspiracy against him was therefore more than a wild and risky venture: its outcome could be foreseen and depended on.
Why should Caesar willingly surrender his life at the very height of his political power, and for an end his very action would prevent him from enjoying? After defeating the sons of Pompey in the field, why not easily fend off Cassius' conspiracy and enjoy unchallenged monarchical rule for some years, with all its pomp and adulation? We must put ourselves in Caesar's mind, recalling Plutarch's view that he was constantly seeking new glory from greater and greater deeds. Caesar was not one for quietly enjoying past accomplishments. Moreover, there was already some sign of his physical power flagging. Brutus says Caesar has the "falling sickness," but there is no evidence in the play that he has always had it. A second infirmity, this one invented by Shakespeare, is a loss of hearing in one ear that must have occurred recently, since Caesar takes pains to instruct Antony to speak to his other side. Not that he is ill, or in generally failing health: of this there is no sign, and no expectation on the part of Calpurnia, Decius or anyone else. Still, Caesar may have sensed the onset of physical disabilities much more than the average man, and worried particularly about retaining his extraordinary mental powers as the years went on. He would want then to culminate his ambition as soon as he could, availing himself of opportunities that might otherwise never return, and hence using the conspiracy for his own purposes.
Despite the intrinsic superiority, upon reflection, of the case for Caesar, or at least against assassinating him, the net surface impression left by the play heavily favors the conspirators. In the last half of the play, after Caesar has left the scene, attention focuses mainly on Brutus and Cassius, who are shown becoming in some ways even more admirable and attractive than before, and whose suicides at the end constitute memorable refusals to bow to victorious tyrants. By contrast, Caesar lingers on only as a shadowy and enigmatic spirit, however victorious, and those supporting his cause seem clearly inferior not only to him but to the republicans whose destruction they seek and achieve.
Even in the earlier Acts, Shakespeare had been careful to keep Caesar's most obvious accomplishments out of direct sight, and to mix in enough seeming arrogance and quite ordinary defects to make him somewhat repellent or at best perplexing, but certainly not simply or mainly admirable. And from the outset the perspective with which the audience is made familiar, and sympathetic, is that of the conspirators—that of Cassius, Casca, Brutus and Portia rather than Caesar, Antony and Calpurnia. On the other hand, it must also be admitted that Shakespeare has taken pains to keep Caesar from appearing morally repulsive by withholding almost all references, indirect as well as direct, to the wickedness by which the real Caesar, as depicted by Plutarch and others, actually sought ever-increasing and sole power—that is, to the corruption he induced in the body politic and the various wounds he inflicted on it in an active effort to reduce the republic's capacity for self-government. Indeed, compared to Plutarch, Shakespeare has removed all the blackness and almost all the dark shadows, so that his Caesar hardly evokes, even in the virtuous Brutus, anything like the detestation Plutarch's Caesar evoked in Brutus' father-in-law,* Cato. Why did Shakespeare decide on arranging this peculiar effect, mixing a favoring of the republican conspirators against Caesar with a muting of Caesar's evil? Why did he choose to keep Caesar's immoralities, illegalities and injustices almost completely out of sight if he also played down his greatness and generally sides with his opponents? Why not present the republican case, the case against Caesar, full strength?
This would not be the only time Shakespeare has seen fit to alter Plutarch for his own ends. His Coriolanus, for example, gives voice much more fully than Plutarch's to aristocratic and antidemocratic views, and is more extreme in avoiding public honors, refusing to show his wounds, and resisting the pressure of those urging him to conciliate the aroused plebeians. In Antony and Cleopatra he invents Lepidus' participation in the peace-making with.Pompey, greatly expands the role of Eros (Antony's armorer), introduces a number of remarks adumbrating Christianity, and invents apparently unnatural deaths for two of the characters (Enobarbus and Iras). But nowhere does the difference between Plutarch and Shakespeare become as vast as in the presentation of Caesar himself, with Shakespeare omitting the whole ugly undercarriage of Caesar's career. This could not be from incapacity or repugnancy, for, as Richard III attests, Shakespeare is perfectly capable of describing the villainies of a usurper when he wishes to. Of course these two usurpers differed markedly. Greater by far, Caesar had a broader and deeper ambition, a keen sense of the dangers and defects of tyranny, and a natural astuteness and power of command unsullied by any perverse taste for evil. Richard was mean, cruel, vindictive, whereas Caesar's love of the greatest honor and his desire to be a godlike founder seemed to engender a certain high-mindedness in him. Such a man might derive some little enjoyment from outsmarting Decius and would doubtlessly exult in exercising the self-control his final plan required, but he would not take pleasure in having his own brother drowned in a butt of malmsey.
Caesar might not have been cruel, but he was hardly good either. Shakespeare leaves it to the reader to imagine the means by which Caesar came to power initially, and also the moral consequences of his plan. For while it may or may not be moral to permit one's own assassination, it is certainly immoral to plan a series of events necessitating prolonged civil war, and leading ultimately to a settled despotism of Caesars who not infrequently would turn out to be monsters. By concealing, or leaving to inference, this side of Caesar, Shakespeare makes him less repellent and tempts us into a greater openness to the mystery of his power and charm, acting as his hidden partisan rather than his critic.
On the other hand, it can justly be claimed that Shakespeare ignores the evils of the republic to an equal degree, omitting clear signs of the countless moral, political and social disorders with which it had long been afflicted. He makes it almost seem as if Caesar could have appeared on the scene at any point in the republic's long history—as if changes in the spirit, structure and operation of republican institutions have no bearing on the Caesaristic possibility. Certainly this is how the conspirators considered the matter, and why they thought that simply removing Caesar would restore the republic to full health. Thus Shakespeare, unlike Plutarch, tries to give the impression that the republic is not subject to internal illness and decay—or, from the other side, that its allowing or not allowing a man like Caesar to dominate it is mainly a function of its will, or the will of its leading members, rather than of political conditions generally. The republic, Shakespeare seems to suggest, must think this way if it is to prevent usurpers from making its supposed decay their greatest public excuse.
Much to our confusion, Shakespeare apparently favors the republic in some ways, Caesar in others. Let us step back and see if all features can be explained. Certainly the overall tone of the play is republican, from beginning to end, giving the impression that republics are superior to tyrannies, or even monarchies. But it is also true that republics can grow sick beyond republican remedy, and that despotic rule of some sort may then become inevitable—necessities that must, for the republic's own good, be kept hidden from it, and which lead Shakespeare to omit any direct description of republican decay. If Caesar is the best available despot at a time of inevitable despotism, this teaching must be conveyed covertly in order to avoid giving encouragement to Caesaristic movements, and to protect republics against rash and unnecessary assaults on their freedom.
Yet this minimal case for Caesar hardly exhausts or explains the way the play treats him. For what does Caesar signify? In the play as well as historically, Caesar can lay claim to being the greatest hero of pagan antiquity, in a Rome that can lay claim, as well, to being the greatest society of antiquity. The Roman Republic had always encouraged its leading men to enter into emulous competition with each other for the public good. But as the empire grew, the link between ambition and patriotism dissolved, for the first time leaving the natural love of one's own power, influence and glory free from the apparently artificial constraints of virtue and the public good. Here then was a great arena for ambition, and—as Shakespeare portrays it—for a man who could be modified (by the poet-philosopher's magic) to embody the highest of all political talents. This man might therefore warrant being called not only the greatest Roman, or the greatest hero or pagan antiquity, but the greatest political man as such—and, if ambition is the very hallmark of humanity—perhaps even the greatest man as such. He might even bear comparison with Christ himself (see the attention to wounds in III.ii and v.i), seeking his own martyrdom not for the love of others but of himself, and establishing a worldly kingdom whose glory and duration have never been exceeded in the West, and in the confines of whose universal peace would arise another martyr with another purpose and another kingdom.
Now we can begin to appreciate the complexities facing Shakespeare as he designed the play. Within an overall framework strongly republican, Shakespeare cautiously reveals a confusing and somewhat repellent Caesar, who only under the most careful scrutiny shows how he could come to rule the world and what he intends in his last days. To stimulate a sympathetic interest in this man, Shakespeare is willing to conceal his infractions of law and morality, and to allow his awesome ambition to grip the mind and entrance the soul. At its core, this is what Caesar's "spirit" means in the second half of the play, and Shakespeare himself (as well as the readers he has seduced) must either bow down to this great god or discover its subordination to something else.
There must be some relation between Shakespeare's understanding of Caesar as the perfection of political or honor-seeking man and the fact that the play pays an unusual and even unique attention to certain philosophies of classical antiquity. By his own admission, Cassius is a follower of Epicurus, and the bookish Brutus (without the name being used) a Stoic. Moreover, Cicero, the only character of some historical renown as a philosopher, is clearly linked to philosophy, first, by Casca's report that he spoke Greek at Lupecal, second, by the way he takes issue with Casca's superstitious interpretation of the storm in his one direct appearance of the play. Now it also happens historically that Cicero had made it his life-work to bring Greek philosophy and philosophizing to the Romans, devoting his most comprehensive moral work, De Finibus Bonorum et Malorum, to what he took to be the three main alternatives—Epicureanism, Stoicism, and the philosophy of Aristotle (not essentially different from Plato's) to which he himself was closest. Shakespeare does something similar in the play, showing by the words and deeds of Brutus and Cassius particularly not only what their philosophies expected but wherein they were defective. Before examining the details, let us explain why the serious interest in these philosophies should appear explicitly in this play alone.
In Coriolanus, at the beginning of the Roman republic, life was guided by dominant and unchallenged moral custom, and in accordance with this custom Cominius could say, "It is held that valour is the chiefest virtue and most dignifies the haver . . . " (II.ii.88). Here there were no philosophers or philosophies, and no essential differences in appraising life's goals. By Caesar's time, however, after the vast growth of the empire and the spread of Greek philosophy, significant differences within the ruling class had become manifest. Plutarch's life of Cato the Censor describes how the Roman conquest of Greece led to the introduction of Greek philosophy at Rome during the diplomatic visit of Carneades the Academic and Diogenes the Stoic (155 B.C.). Despite initial resistance led by Cato himself to protect the Roman way of life against this subversive and divisive influence, the Greek schools made headway in Rome, so that a century later Cicero could combine being one of the republic's leading statesman and its leading orator with being the foremost philosophical writer of his day.
These philosophies were taken seriously by the men who followed them. They were presented, and understood, as a substitute for piety and custom, relying solely on reason to determine the summun bonum or the good for man by nature. The Epicureans contended that pleasure was the only good and pain the only evil, the Stoics that virtue was the sole good, and the Aristotelians that virtue was the chief but not the only good, and vice the chief but not the only evil. To place these views in artful but unobtrusive juxtaposition, Shakespeare arranges for five different reactions to the storm occurring on the eve of the Ides of March. First comes the superstitious Casca, with his traditional view that the gods in their anger made the storm, and his credulous belief in prodigies. These interpretations and reports Cicero then rejects, insisting that " . . . men may construe things after their fashion clean from the purpose of the things themselves." But Cicero shows no interest in arguing with or instructing Casca further, and his parting remark that " . . . this disturbed sky is not to walk in" views the storm as a natural evil obviously to be avoided if possible. Not so to Cassius, the third, who berates Casca for his superstition and attributes the storm not to the gods but to the defects or qualities of the matter found on earth, which, he implies, is in the skies and everywhere. Cassius stalks about in the storm baring his bosom and daring the thunder and lightning to strike him. Here then is the materialist Epicurean whose philosophical capacity is not so great that he trusts reason alone and who must therefore prove that Zeus does not exist by his failure to destroy those, like Cassius, who combine insolence with impiety. Next comes Brutus with a perfect display of Stoic apathy, so completely the master of his fear that he can stand in his orchard reading a letter by the light of "exhalations whizzing in the air." The last to judge the night (apart from Calpurnia, who sounds much like the superstitious Casca) is Caesar himself. Inside his house, viewing the thunder and lightning outside, his comment is brief: "Nor heaven nor earth have been at peace tonight." This is neither superstition, nor Epicurean bravado, nor Stoic rigor. Surprisingly, Caesar sounds most like Cicero—not fearing any gods, or seeing anything but a severe if somewhat unusual storm, though not as plainly taking his guidance from nature.
By including Caesar in this comparison, Shakespeare seems to indicate the need to add the way of life he represents to the alternative philosophies considered by Cicero. This does not imply that Caesar was a philosopher, but only that the alternative of personal ambition, followed to its greatest heights, is of sufficient seriousness to be weighed with the others, and that it naturally shows itself most fully when they do. In the play the case for ambition or honor is presented almost immediately, "Well, honour is the subject of my story." In that speech, Cassius appeals to Brutus' love of honor much more than to his love of the honorable or the virtuous, and displays his own envy of Caesar's honor as well. As we learn from Cicero if not from the originals, however, neither Epicureanism nor Stoicism allow for this ambitious love of honor, the former rejecting the artificiality of honor and the anxieties associated with the political life as such, the latter making virtue completely independent of honors and all other rewards. But according to the play, they seem to underestimate a vital element of human nature, and the one most closely linked to politics. For Cassius' appeal to Brutus' love of honor—to his ambition—proves only too true. In joining the conspiracy devised by Cassius, Brutus at once takes over and makes himself its head, despite his persistent intellectual inferiority to Cassius. In short, both share the love of honor which is Caesar's dominant passion and therefore considerably strengthen the claim that he embodies the perfection of human nature.
Why these four alternatives and no others? Prior to their emergence, human life is dominated by custom directed at inculcating the duties required by society. Once custom breaks down and is replaced by recourse to reason and nature, the alternatives are set by the elements readily thought to inhere in human nature. Now for the first time the natural allure of pleasure can be fully attended to, and the selfish interests of the body made the prime starting-point. But by necessity this view leads to a depreciation both of politics, which depends on ambition and honor, and of morality, which now becomes instrumental to the enjoyment of selfish pleasures. To this view Stoicism is the polar opposite, insisting that duty and virtue are irreducible to hedonistic calculation and that they have their root in the nature of man, which requires the rule of reason over the passions and devotion to the right for its own sake.
While Stoicism seems to revive the sense of duty so long preserved by ancestral custom, its viewing the wise man as completely independent of all external influences also estranges him from political life, which loses some of its importance and even its necessity. The love of honor, as ordinarily understood, must not motivate the wise man, and he must be capable of perfect happiness regardless of his own and his city's fortunes. From this vantage point, Stoicism shares with Epicureanism a certain apolitical character—hence the need for a third philosophy that regards the citizen as essential to the man. This, Cicero claims, is the distinguishing characteristic of the Peripatetics, and of Plato and the older Academy as well. Unlike the Epicureans, they refuse to make pleasure-pain the primary principle, but unlike the Stoics they insist on man's natural place in the polis, and do not try to establish for the wise man so radical an independence from politics and from the ordinary goods and evils of human life. In allowing for such external goods as honor and wealth, they come closer to the real aspirations of political men while at the same time containing them within the limits set by the moral virtues. And having tied mankind to a political base, they can also allow for a contemplative life, involving the fullest use of reason, that admittedly was higher still—another hold on proud honor (Ethics IV, 3).
The Stoics and the Peripatetics both consider man essentially rational, social and moral. This view is challenged not only by the Epicureans but by the position Caesar represents, according to which ambition or the love of honor is the distinguishing feature of man, and the key to his happiness. This way of life implies that man is essentially political, rather than private or cosmopolitan, and engaged in an endless competition for superior distinction, power and glory. Morality here is an instrument of ambition rather than good in itself, and it may have to be violated if ambition so demands. Judged by his own standard, of course, Caesar seems easily to run away with the prize in the play. No one was as great a conqueror, no one could keep him from subduing the republic and all rivals internally, no one could keep his spirit from dominating the empire for centuries to come. Pompey, Cato, Pompey's sons, Cicero, Brutus, Cassius all fall victim to his irresistible power.
Before determining whether Shakespeare accepts Caesar's standard, let us discover his attitude toward the three philosophies formally described as such by Cicero. The ones he directly examines are the polar opposites—Cassius' Epicureanism and Brutus' Stoicism. Now it is clear, first of all, that Shakespeare took both Cassius and Brutus to be disciples of philosophers rather than philosophers themselves. Neither has a philosophical mind, and so it is that the Cassius who dares Zeus to strike him dead during the storm has already lost his atheism by Philippi and begun to believe in omens—that is, in the superstition shared by Casca and Calpurnia. In a similar manner, Brutus, who first blames Cato for taking his own life rather than allowing himself to become Caesar's captive, is immediately brought to reconsider by Cassius' picturing his being led in triumph through the streets of Rome. These facts suggest that both Brutus and Cassius might have been better guided by an ancestral custom they would not have to pretend issued from the evidence of human reason and nature.
In general, it can be shown that the standpoint from which Shakespeare views both Epicureanism and Stoicism is that of Plato and Aristotle, as presented by Cicero in De Finibus. The crucial defect of Epicureanism is that it cannot account for the natural attractiveness and strength of ambition, for the devotion to others found in love and friendship, and for the sense of the just and the noble. Cassius commits suicide after Titinius (whom with exaggeration he refers to as his best friend) is captured on a mission for him: "O, coward that I am, to live so long to see my best friend ta'en before my face!" He dies, in other words, reproving himself for a moral vice and for inadequacy as a friend—neither intelligible by any hedonistic interpretation.
If (Bloom tells us) Epicureanism makes men think too poorly of themselves by its failure to comprehend certain higher elements of life, Stoicism makes men think too well themselves. Brutus cannot recognize the ambition in himself, and what he says in criticism of Cicero—"he will never follow anything that other men begin"—at least in part applies to himself, judging by the way he immediately takes over the conspiracy begun by Cassius and dominates Cassius to the very end. Brutus is puffed up with his own virtue: he conceives of himself as the perfectly wise man depicted in Stoic literature. He therefore underestimates the power of the passions not only in other men but in himself, and also gives too little credit to them as such. This is why he presents a stiff and weak oration at Caesar's funeral, in contrast to the passionate and mercenary appeals employed by Antony. This is also why he fakes Stoic apathy at the news of Portia's death (which he had already heard and lamented), and why at first he thinks it absolutely wrong to commit suicide: the wise man, according to Stoic doctrine, is happy in all circumstances, including ignominious captivity (Bloom, pp. 103ff).
If Shakespeare criticizes the Epicureans and Stoics from the vantage point of the Peripatetics, much as Cicero had done in his own chief writing, our attention must shift to Cicero in the play. As we have seen, his one direct appearance, amid the storm, confirms the conclusion just drawn: in contrast to god-defying Cassius, the Epicurean, and apathetic Brutus, the Stoic, he displays the common sense of the Peripatetics. As for the indirect references to him, the first comes from Brutus, who reports how those leaving the games at Lupercal looked: Caesar angry, the rest chidden, Calpurnia pale, Cicero looking "with such ferret and such fiery eyes as we have seen him in the Capitol, being crossed in conference by some senators." But this hardly squares with the impression conveyed by Casca, who, in response to Cassius' asking whether Cicero said anything at the crown-offering scene, answers that he spoke Greek, and that those who understood him "smil'd at one another and shook their heads." This does not suggest an angry man: it suggests a joke made at Caesar's expense, perhaps something ironical, but implying that not much can be done to keep limits on Caesar's power. It also gives some sense of the state of affairs under Caesar—far from desperate, but where criticism has to be veiled. Far from desperate also is the tone of Cicero's chance meeting with Casca (shortly afterward in the text) that evening, where his inquiries about Caesar seem quiet and ordinary enough.
After recruiting Brutus for the conspiracy, Cassius claims that Cicero "will stand very strong with us" and should be sounded out. Three others agree, with Metellus drawing special attention to Cicero's age, judgment and gravity. Only Brutus disagrees, contending that Cicero would not join them—would not follow something begun by others—and he easily carries the day. This dislike for Cicero which seems to characterize Brutus' remark here as well as at Lupercal does not follow Plutarch's account in his lives of Cicero and Brutus, where Cicero becomes an adulator of Caesar toward the end, where he is spoken of as Brutus' main confidant, and where the reason given for not including him in the conspiracy was his generally-conceded timorousness (pp. 1065-65, 1192). Shakespeare seems to have altered Plutarch in such a way as to make Brutus look worse and Cicero better. The play leaves little doubt that Cicero opposed Caesar's increasing authority, but he seems to believe little can be done about it. At any rate, no remark proposing some course of action is attributed to him. All we do learn is that Cicero, having asked Casca about Caesar's plan for the next day, and learning he will go to the Capitol, does not go there himself. On the contrary, he is present neither among those who attend Caesar at his house nor among those who are with him at the Capitol that fatal day. We do not know why. Perhaps he had learned of the senate's intention to give Caesar a crown, perhaps of the conspiracy. In any case, he is not mentioned again until the shocking news of his death, along with that of many other senators proscribed by the triumvirate, reaches Brutus and Cassius in the field (IV.iii.171).
There can be little doubt that the conspiracy would have fared better with Cicero in it, and would have made fewer mistakes afterward. But apart from the confidence expressed by Cassius, there is no evidence Cicero would have joined if asked, and some evidence he would not have. He seems to regard Caesar as an inevitable evil whose play-acting before the people is a proper object of derision, but whose power, vast and unchallengeable, has been exercised with the kind of tolerance or highmindedness that allows a critic like Cicero to retain a prominent place in the senate. When Cicero is not busy politically, we may presume, he is occupied with philosophy and philosophical writing. He may well have been permitted to die a natural death under Caesar; he is almost immediately destroyed by Caesar's successors after the assassination.
While Shakespeare treats Cicero sparingly, he presses us toward the conclusion that the ultimate conflict of philosophies in the play in between Cicero and Caesar, or—in view of Cicero's own admission—between Plato and Aristotle, on the one hand, and Caesar, on the other. Who in fact would be better rivals to pit against each other than the greatest philosophers of antiquity and the greatest political man of antiquity, the former resting human happiness mainly on virtue, the latter on ambition? Does the play supply evidence allowing a decision to be made between the two? The question is not whether anyone could have beaten Caesar—whether even a younger Cicero endowed with Caesar's own talents could have beaten Caesar in those circumstances. Using victory as a criterion is already making the crucial concession to Caesar's view, but the true view may not be physically, militarily or politically the strongest. For Caesar also had with him the times—the forces that over a long period had enfeebled the republican spirit and institutions in Rome—and the evidence from the play is that no human power could have brought health out of this decay.
The essence of Caesar's position is that great deeds of conquest, usurpation, domination—-over extensive areas, all kinds of men, and vast periods of time—constitute the height of human achievement and the chief good. With other men weak, fearful, changeable, Caesar prides himself most on his constancy: his speech linking himself and the northern star seems more than a panegyric for the occasion. But his constancy shows itself in a fixed ultimate aim and a resolute will rather than in the means he employs or the appearances he presents—judged by which he would be one of the most changeable and least constant of men. This is because ambition makes him peculiarly dependent on those from whom he seems most independent. His influence is influence over them and hence determined by their nature. Nor can he escape the inevitable fate of all human things, which at some point must dissolve and leave no trace of individuals or their influence. The metaphysical tendency of ambition is to enthrown contention or war as the ruling principle of the universe, thus compelling even the visible universe, in which the northern star (and, among men, Caesar) holds its constant place, to be at best a temporary and perhaps illusory harmony rather than an assured cosmos. For allowing a permanent harmony in the universe would make peace rather than war the dominating principle, and would give added support and strength to those social harmonies of man and those internal harmonies of the soul that are guided by a peaceful rather than a contentious power.
Caesar's position underrates the internal nature of philosophy, understood as the search for the eternal causes of things (even while presuming its disbelief in the ancestral gods), and underrates too the glory attaching to philosophy's greatest names. Philosophy, which may first seem merely to consist in the contention of opposing sects, entails the rational search for truths that correspond to the subtle complications of reality, by necessity yielding to what it tries to know rather than subduing it. Certainly, by his manner of criticizing the Epicureans and the Stoics, Shakespeare goes a long way toward engendering confidence in philosophical reason, including its capacity to face the kind of challenge posed by Caesar. In his own life as a philosophical poet, moreover, he already indicates his conclusion that philosophy and its influence are superior to ambition and its influence. Nor need we believe that Shakespeare and his Cicero are less constant than Caesar. In a way they are more so, since the knowledge they pursue links the mind to the eternal, lifting it above the flux of things, uniting it with other minds, and proving (as Plato showed) that in the universe the last word belongs to peace and order rather than to war and disorder.
Caesar also permits his ambition to dehumanize him—a point illustrated not only by some of the contrasts between him and others in the play, but by the kind of interest in men generally shown by Shakespeare the poet-philosopher as compared to Caesar. In the play, much attention is given to personal and political relationships involving love, trust, loyalty and affection—for example, of Brutus to Portia and Lucius, Cassius to Brutus, both Brutus and Cassius to their own friends and to the republic. Despite the selfish elements and other complications inherent in many of these, they also contain elements that cannot be reduced to self-interest and on the preservation of which the fullness of human nature depends. But a man like Caesar lives alone—he has no friends, strictly speaking, and shares his deepest secrets with no one. In the play, neither Antony nor Calpurnia can be considered Caesar's friends, and Brutus, "Caesar's angel," according to Antony, would hardly have any intrinsic attraction for him. Caesar's isolation exceeds even that of the poet-philosopher himself—in some ways no less secretive—for he is not tied to other human beings by bonds of affection. He enjoys seeing through and outdoing them: he does not find their good good for him.
As he is lacking in these social affections, so is Caesar lacking in justice—that is, in fairness and concern for the common good. Thus, in the interest of his ambition, he can begin by subverting the republic and end by contemplating coolly the necessity of a prolonged period of civil war leading to the ultimate victory of Caesarism. Hence also the impossibility of applying to Caesar the words Antony—perhaps uncandidly—applies to Brutus at the end, proclaiming him the only conspirator motivated by justice:
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!"
For we must remember Antony's mood directly after the assassination and his talk with Brutus:
O, pardon me, thou bleeding piece of earth,
That I am meek and gentle with these butchers!
Thou art the ruins of the noblest man
That ever lived in the tide of times.
Woe to the hand that shed this costly blood!
This is Antony calling Caesar "the noblest man," not Shakespeare, who did not separate nobility from justice and human affection, and did not think political distinction and glory higher than philosophy. Caesar had great and perhaps unmatched abilities—a penetrating intelligence, a remarkable self-command and flexibility—but they served ambition only, with a consequent distortion of his nature. This is why Caesar is most closely associated in the play with Antony and Octavius rather than Cicero and Brutus, and why, ultimately, he could sacrifice all for a regime that would exalt the divine authority of the Caesars and permit, along with an occasional imitation of his own high-mindedness, not only calculated infractions of morality like his own but some of the most corrupt and barbarous rule the world has ever seen.
Marshall C. Bradley (essay date 1994)
SOURCE: "Caska: Stoic, Cynic, 'Christian'," in Literature & Theology, Vol. 8, No. 2, June, 1994, pp. 140-56.
[In the following essay, Bradley characterizes Caska (or Casca) as a hypocritical Cynic whose role in the play is nevertheless to expose the weaknesses of Brutus's Stoicism and Cassius's Epicureanism and to point toward the emergence of Christianity.]
Who is Caska?
The Tragedie of Julius Caesar of Shakespeare proceeds rather remarkably. Historical figures dominate the play. Representative men such as Caesar, Brutus, and Cassius tower over the majority of others. Even when such powerful figures do not dominate the stage, there is present one such as Cicero to represent classical Rome and high Stoicism in one of its most refined persons.
The presence of such monumental figures, of course, makes this play irresistible to historical curiosity; and compared with these figures any of the more obviously 'artificial' characters would seem far less worthy of interest. Such would appear to be the case regarding Caska, an obviously more contrived character, present almost only in name in Plutarch's The Lives of the Noble Grecians and Romans, that which appears to have been one of Shakespeare's primary resources for the historical, ethical and cosmological elements of the age depicted in The Tragedie of Julius Caesar.1
While Caska is not of obvious historical note, as drawn by the bard he is no merely accidental character. Indeed, on the whole, Caska has two vital functions in the play.
First, Caska nearly single-handedly moves the action of the play in its crucially important first quarter. As Julius Caesar's closest bondman, he provides the background of the problematic nature of Caesar by his 'report' of Caesar's epileptic fits and alleged repudiation of the crown. In so doing, Caska serves as a link between Caesar, that would-be "Genius", or "god", and the greater body of conspirators.
Secondly, and ultimately more important for the revelation of the greater moral of the drama behind the action, it is Caska alone who has, as a more fictive foil, the sufficient distance to call into question the other 'ideologies' of the age, Stoic and Epicurean, vital to the drama. To the extent to which The Tragedie of Julius Caesar is also a problem play, that is, in this case a problem play in systematically philosophical terms, it is Caska who reveals, albeit only negatively, the limitations of the dominant cosmological-political-ethical systems of the age, namely Stoicism and Epicureanism, the principles of which determine the motives and actions of the principals of the play. It is Caska alone, outside of these cosmologies qua Cynic, though also with his (poetically anachronistic) 'Christian' (especially Pauline) language, who can call the claims of these systems into question and reveal their limitations. Thus Caska's ultimate function: that of posing in word, and revealing as far as possible within the setting, the limitations of the cosmological-political-ethical systems of the age. Caska, the apparent Cynic, is the figure with one foot in the miasma of the moment and one, at least in word, in the world-historical movement set to supersede this moment, namely, Christianity.
Given Caska's historical insignificance, the subtle, acute and economical Shakespeare has Caska all but announce his more fictive bearing. Caska gives of himself a most apt description, which self-description comes in his 'report' of Caesar's apparently epileptic 'fall'; which 'fall' occurred while Caesar was being offered and 'refused' the crown. Caska, through the playwright, portrays this fall (suggesting something of a play within a play behind the scenes) in the very terms of the theatrical. Of Caesar's bizarre and sensational public appearance, Caska says:
If the tag-ragge people did not clap him, and hisse him, according as he pleas'd, and displeas'd them, as they vse to doe the Players in the Theatre, I am no true man.2
As the drama on the whole proceeds it becomes painfully evident that the utmost line from this passage may be taken in many ways. Caska is "no true man" in almost every sense of these words.
It is of note that the first word Caska speaks is "Peace". Caska even calls twice for peace, "Peace yet again" for Caesar. Yet, Caska eventually reveals himself to be opposed to any true peace for this problematic 'god', being in time the first conspirator to stab his lord. The deceiving Caska, further, is not without disdain, a fundamental characteristic of the Cynic as classically described.3 When he reports to Brutus Caesar's refusal of the crown, he recounts how thereupon "mine honest neighbors shouted". These words quickly sum up Caska's status as both a Cynic and a problematic proto-Christian. Caska, qua Cynic, in the lineage of Diogenes Laertius, would prefer "honesty" above all virtues.4 Yet, he is so problematically Cynical he even makes a reference to his own cardinal virtue by way of sarcasm. Further, the problematic proto-Christian certainly shows no manifest love of neighbor. Caska is not only offended by Caesar's apparently dishonest entertainment of donning a crown, he is even more offended by his "honest neighbors", deriding them for their superfícial embrace of Caesar, that is, for their embrace of one who might perpetuate their essential slavery by the grossest dishonesty.
Caska's problematic character shows itself every time he speaks; but it is especially evident in his utterly confounding report of Caesar's allegedly epileptic 'fall'. This report is thoroughly duplicitous. In depicting Caesar's refusal of the crown, Caska claims, "—yet 'twas not a Crowne neyther, 'twas one of these Coronets". What is one to believe from Caska?5 Was it a crown or a coronet? If it was a crown, then Caesar might have been assuming absolute power in that very moment. If it was a coronet, then Caesar might have been assuming only a provisional, conditional ascent to absolute power. The difference between a crown and a coronet is no insignificant difference.
Then Caska continues even more problematically:
and as I told you, hee put it by once: but for all that, to my thinking, he would faine haue had it. Then hee offered it to him againe: then hee put it by againe.6
Again Caska is completely duplicitous. What "it" is, crown (?) or coronet (?) is altogether unclear. Yet, Caska goes on to say further that Caesar would "faine" have had "it"; that is, by virtue of the pun (as Caska's 'report' is obviously oral), the question becomes: would Caesar have "faine", that is, "willingly", had "it", or would he 'feign', that is 'fakingly' have had "it"? Caska, in his utter duplicity, leaves a completely confused picture; and his next words are of no aid to clarity: "but to my thinking, he was very loath to lay his fingers off it".7 Caska compounds the confusion with yet another duplicity. Caesar was "loath", to lay his fingers off "it", (whatever "it" is). Thus the further question: was Caesar "loathe", that is, 'strongly disinclined', to lay his fingers off the "crown", because of his desire for it and absolute power? Or did Caesar "loathe" laying his fingers off the coronet, knowing that if he assumed the crown he would be assuming a position of utmost responsibility?
Caska's gross duplicities leave an utterly confusing impression. Even as he continues, to the point of reporting Caesar's apparently epileptic 'fall', he leaves the impression that Caesar himself was both 'false' and 'loathsome' in that moment; that Caesar was indeed play-acting throughout, even faking his "falling sickness". For when Caesar refused the crown (or coronet?) for the third time, the crowd roared:
and threw vppe their sweatie Night-cappes, and vttered such a deale of stinking breath, because Caesar refus'd the Crowne, that it had (almost) choaked Caesar: for hee swoonded, and fell downe at it.8
Hereupon Caska employs yet another duplicity:
And for mine owne part, I durst not laugh, for fears of opening my Lippes, and receyuing the bad Ayre.9
Caska paints a thoroughly disgusting, as well as thoroughly complicated, picture. The "bad Ayre" which Caska did not want to take in may refer to the 'bad air' wafting off the revolting masses; or, it may refer to the 'bad air', the poor acting, which Caesar put on in his refusal of the "crown" (or coronet?). The greater implication, of course, is that Caesar was 'faking' his falling sickness. So Caska says:
I can as well bee hang'd as tell the manner of it:
It was meere Foolerie, I did not marke it.
Here Caska approaches something of an 'apology' for his utterly confusing report. He argues that, in essence, he is forced into a position of having to describe something which was itself utterly confounding, un-'mark'-able, inherently problematic. He could be "hang'd" if he attempted to tell the manner of it, where "hang'd" itself must be heard in two senses. For in 'reporting' that perplexing scene Caska could not help but be "hang'd", that is, tangled up, in the duplicities inherent in it. Moreover, if indeed Caesar (with the aid of Mark Antony) was play-acting in this moment so as to win the crowd to his side, Caska would be 'hanged' for revealing the entire episode, that is, for telling the manner of it as a charade on Caesar's part by which to confuse, terrify, and yet also win the sympathy of, the masses.
Yet, there is every reason to think that this "honest" Cynic is himself as dishonest as the feigning Caesar. For, to make matters even more complicated, Caska's temporal references at this point are also perplexing. That is, he appears to 'correct' his story somewhat. First, he leaves the impression that Caesar fell down immediately after the crowd shouted at his third refusal of the crown. However, as Caska goes on with his report, he states that Caesar did not fall down immediately thereafter; rather, Caska says that between the crowd's shouting and Caesar's 'fall', Caesar first had Caska open his robe, the better to let the crowd see that Caesar himself was offering up the possibility of the cutting of their sovereign's throat. So says the duplicitous Caska:
Marry, before he fell downe, when he perceiu'd the common Heard was glad he refus'd the Crowne, he pluckt me ope his Doublet, and offer'd them his Throat to cut.11
The anachronistic use of the term "doublet" allows the bard to emphasize the thoroughgoing 'duplicity' in Caska's character, especially as this bears on his 'report' of Caesar's epileptic 'fall'. Here Caska's words might mean that Caesar 'plucked' him to 'ope' his doublet, where 'oping' a 'doublet' could also have two meanings: 1) 'opening his cloak,' ('oping his doublet') so as to threaten to cut the throat of Caesar; and/or 2) 'revealing his duplicity', ('oping his doublet') that is, revealing that Caesar's 'fall' and volunteering to be a sacrificial victim constitute but an 'air' perpetrated to dupe the crowd and win their sympathy. Caesar challenged Caska to reveal his duplicity in his apparent feigning of epilepsy. (In putting on an 'air' in the crown scene, especially by way of his "falling sickness", Caesar could be regarded as playing the classical actor. By his gyrating fall, he cast fear in the crowd on the one hand while even thereby casting pity into them as well.) More particularly, the play-acting, the "air" of Caesar, offering the crowd his throat and then at once 'falling' must have left the impression that precisely then and there the crowd did, in effect, cut his throat, leaving them to feel sorry for him as their own sacrificial victim, and therefore to deem themselves indebted to him. If this deceit, this theatrical duplicity, were the 'doublet' Caska had 'oped', that is, revealed, he would have been hanged indeed. Caska, here the Cynic as the political-theatre critic, so near this "bad air", was at a loss as to how to change this acting in its course by himself. It would be his "honest" Cynical pleasure later, however, to stab Caesar first, in compensation for Caesar's dishonesty in feigning his self-sacrifice.
Thus the problematic "honesty" of this Cynic. It is fitting that the most peculiar and problematic terms employed in this play are applied to Caska by Caska himself. When Cassius asks if Caska can be trusted, Caska answers with his usual duplicity by saying that he is "no fleering tell-tale".12 It would appear Shakespeare intends by "fleering" both of its basic meanings: Not only 'mocking' (from the Scandinavian flire) but also 'flim flamming', that is, deceiving.13 Caska mocks the character(s) of Caesar, Brutus, Cassius and Cicero, while he deceives throughout in this 'report' of Caesar's actions. When Caska says of himself that he is not a 'mocking' and 'flim-flamming' man, it is almost a sure bet that he is such.
Given Caska's duplicitous complexity, it is no surprise that he is a most officious 'yes-man'. This is especially so when the conspirators are deciding whether or not to include Cicero in the conspiracy. At first, Caska holds that Cicero should be included:
Let vs not leaue him out.14
Yet, just as quickly, after Brutus makes his speech sizing up Cicero's more passive interpretation of Stoicism, thereby suggesting that Cicero not be included, the 'yes-man' Caska changes his mind at once:
Indeed, he is not fit.15
Practically, Caska goes along with anything and anybody; and indeed is the first murderer in the corps of conspirators. Theoretically, Caska, the typical Cynic, holds little or nothing in complex principle.
Hence, once the undoing of Caesar is accomplished, the very problematic nature of Caska is further revealed when he says:
Go to the Pulpit Brutus.16
Caska, through the anachronistic-religious use of the term "pulpit", reveals himself as a type of malicious soul who would attempt to cloak his evil in the mere appearance of virtue. Caska would hide behind the virtue of Brutus as the latter speaks from the pulpit. Indeed, the critical and resentful Caska speaks of Brutus likewise elsewhere. He sees in Brutus merely an instrument of his own advantage, whose profound and principled nobility might mask Caska's own personal, premeditated murder of Caesar:
And that which would appeare Offence in vs, His Countenance, like richest Alchymie, Will change to vertue and to Worthinesse.17
Thus again the gross dishonesty of "honest" Caska, the Cynic.
Though Caska is not of obvious historical note, for Shakespeare's purposes he is of note as a representative of Cynicism, albeit problematic Cynicism. Hence, when Cassius heard Caska's 'report' of Caesar's epileptic fit, he cleverly attributed the "falling sickness" not to Caesar but to Brutus, to himself, and to "honest Caska". With these words Cassius put Caska on a level of importance with himself the problematic Epicurean, and with Brutus, the noblest Stoic; not merely qua conspirator, but as a representative of a philosophical world-view. Yet, of course, in comparison with the Stoic and the Epicurean, the Cynic, Caska, holds no definitive world-view, no systematic cosmology.18 He is, as with virtually all of those of the Cynic stripe, resentful of the might and wealth of the imperial few, displeased with the artificiality of Caesar's charades, disdainful of the vicious masses, and unimpressed with the systematic thought of the Stoic and Epicurean. Hence, when Shakespeare has Cassius call Caska "honest", he obviously has him do so very sarcastically. In so doing, he hits the mark as to Caska's nature as a problematic Cynic.
Thus the complexity of the scene in which Cassius attributes the "falling sickness" to Brutus the Stoic, to himself the Epicurean, and to the "honest Caska". In one sense, they would all have the "falling sickness" in the same way, to the extent to which they would all fail to see, as Cassius says later, that their fault is not in their stars, but in themselves, that they are political underlings. They would all fall alike to the extent to which they would passively let Caesar assume the role of god, and so all become slaves by comparison, a position in which Caska, as with many Cynics, already resided.19
Yet, on a more cosmological plane, Brutus, Cassius, and Caska might all be said to have the "falling sickness" as a principle of their respective world-views. For Brutus, the Stoic comprehension of the "falling sickness" on this fundamental level would lie with the Stoic notion of the inferiority of the more passive, literally more 'falling' elements, earth and water, as distinct from the more active elements, air and fire, which tend, more literally, to 'stand up' the persons they infuse.20 Hence, Cassius' brilliantly subtle call of the Stoic Brutus to his tragic action: were Brutus not to act, he would in essence violate the first principle of his Stoic natural philosophy from which his noble ethic is derived.
In turn, Cassius the Epicurean has his own cosmological-ethical comprehension of a "falling sickness". In the Epicurean cosmology, all things would be regarded as composed of combinations of atoms ever in motion, and, more specifically, ever theoretically in a downward plunge, a downward 'fall' into the infinite gulf of the "unfathomable inane".21 Thus the Epicurean poses a certain "falling sickness" as a principle of the universe itself. For all atoms are ever replacing other atoms via 'voids' ever-generated in an endless plunge toward the cosmic abyss; which universal 'falling' (with secondary and tertiary atoms creating inferior compounds) is the source of the corruption of all things.22
In light of the Stoic and Epicurean cosmologies, however, it is not altogether clear what the cosmological/ontological "falling sickness" attributable to Caska and his world-view would be. Caska the Cynic, having no systematic cosmology, would be more inclined to hold an exclusively moral position on the 'fall' of man; to hold to the conception of the radical evil of all men; a universal condition of 'falling' into perpetual rascality. Such must be the only notion of a "falling sickness" on a universal scale which Caska could hold. Thus Cassius' suggestion that Caska lacks a systematic cosmology fits the operative descriptions of both the classic Cynic and the early Christian.23 Indeed, when Cassius attributes the "falling sickness" to Caska, Caska replies, "I know not what you meane by that . . ."24 though Caska emphasizes, "but I am sure Caesar fell downe".25 Caska's reply is, as ever, problematic. He could be admitting either his general ignorance of, or indifference toward, the Stoic and Epicurean cosmologies; or admitting his intellectual indifference toward the more specific political implications of being attributed with the "falling sickness". Caska's interests, qua Cynic, would only be those of "honesty" and so-called "common sense", not sophisticated cosmology.
Caska is, indeed, murderously honest: If The Tragedie of Julius Caesar can be said to open as a discourse on 'bad souls' (given the play on words with "bad soles" from the opening moments of the play), it should come as no surprise that "honest Caska" is the one who inverts the attribution of the title "good soul" to Caesar. For Caska says he heard three or four wenches cry out to Caesar, "Alasse good Soule!"26 and therewith "forgaue him with all their hearts".27 Such a display in Caska's eyes is yet more evidence of the radical sickness of all of human nature, ever ready to succumb to dishonesty. For, as Caska says, "if Caesar had stab'd their Mothers, they would haue done no lesse".28 The moralizing Cynic in Caska can respond to such a moment only negatively. Arguably worse than the major figures who have systematic world-views, albeit world-views with clearly tragic limitations, Caska stands as the odd man out: he who can do little more than merely 'negate' such systems at every turn by Cynical moralizing; which negation is all but capsulized in Caska's haste to make an end of Caesar, the prime target of his Cynical resentment.
Caska: Critic of Stoicism
Caska, for all of his problematic nature, is yet the one person in The Tragedie of Julius Caesar who reveals the limitations of the Stoic and Epicurean systems, especially in light of these systems' excessive, and nigh exclusive, reliance upon material cause as the ground of their respective cosmologies. This critical voice is heard in Caska's encounter with the classic Stoic, Cicero. As the world shakes with thunder and lightning, Caska in essence asks after the ultimate effect such shaking has on Cicero; asks if Cicero is indeed a true Stoic by holding to the monistic principle that the individual is but a part of this quivering cosmos. Hence Caska asks both literally and figuratively of Cicero:
Are not you mou'd, when all the sway of Earth
Shakes, like a thing vnfirme?
To a degree, and by literal confirmation, the Cynic and the Stoic would follow the same first principle: follow Nature.30 Yet, given the strictness of Stoic pantheism and the monistic principle of identity of the Stoic physic on the whole, in principle Cicero should obviously answer 'yes' to this question, to the extent to which the individual, as but a particular limitation of the whole of Nature (as that Nature), yet would obviously be literally so 'moved' as Nature moves. Caska is obviously asking for a response which answers to that notion of being 'moved' as well emotionally and 'spiritually'; moved in a way which registers effects not manifestly explicable through material causation alone. Thus this question is posed with the listing of all kinds of wonders seen on the streets: The hand of a common slave appears to burn as if it were the joining of twenty torches, and yet the slave was not burned; an owl, "the bird of night" who sees all, is seen in the marketplace at noon; "men all in fire" walk up and down the streets. It is hereupon that Caska offers up the all-important casting of suspicion upon Stoicism and Epicureanism:
When these Prodigies Doe so conioyntly meet, let not men say, 'These are their Reasons, they are Naturali', For I beleeue, they are portentous things Vnto the Clymate, that they point vpon.31
Here Caska expresses lines crucial for the comprehension of not only his character, but also of a fundamental 'moral' of the play itself. The reliance of the Stoic system on 'naturali' cause alone, via pantheism, would be mocked by these several eratic wonders. If a perfect God is the immanent mind of the universe, immediately commanding order therein, how is it possible that the world should shake and tremble so and thereby generate the monstrous?
Cicero, for his part, responds with a rather typical academic-Stoic answer, saying that one need only be bothered by an effect to that extent to which one lets oneself be bothered by it. The Academic-Stoic need not assent to anything, no matter how strange, extraordinary, or powerful the phenomena appear:
Indeed, it is a strange disposed time: But men may construe things after their fashion, Clean e from the purpose of the things themselues.32
Here Cicero almost openly confesses the Stoic system's theoretical limitations. He virtually acknowledges that something is fundamentally unsound about the Stoic epistemology. That is, on the one hand, the Stoic manifestly recognizes something of the order of ultimate reality, the 'in itself, an existence "of the things themselves". Moreover, he can even posit an ultimate "purpose" in accord with "the things themselves". Yet, even having posited such reality, "the thing itself, the Stoic apparently need not heed any compulsion to trace out an immediate, or even significantly mediate, relation to that reality, that existence "in itself; nor need he assent to any such objective reality or truth. Rather, the Stoic 'system' makes allowance for 'inventing' truth. Men may "construe" things after their own fashion; man can "construct" the truth in effect, "cleane" from the way things appear; even though the order of appearances themselves would allegedly be manifestations of an immanent God.
In this sense, the nickname "honest" Caska fits his Cynical bearing very well. As Caska calls into question the Stoic reliance upon material causation alone, in its attempt to maintain its systematic consistency, he thereby calls into question the very epistemological foundation of Stoicism. In so doing, he reveals (especially Academic) Stoicism's fundamental internal contradiction.33 For it posits the truth on the one hand with regard to both Being and Becoming ("the thing itself and "purpose"), yet therewith it denies that it has an obligation to determine unconditionally the nature of that truth. A Cicero can 'resign' himself into the merely conditioned, the merely construed, the merely fashioned, indeed the untrue. In the eyes of Caska, the Cynic, this resignation would seem at the very least dishonest.
Caska: Critic of Epicureanism
Caska's encounter with the Academic-Stoic, Cicero, is followed at once by his encounter with the Epicurean, Cassius. As in the encounter with Cicero, the topic is that of the estimation of the wondrous portents of the moment. While Cicero adopts a posture of resigned indifference to the wild and moving effects which dominate the hour, Cassius takes an almost perverse delight in them. Indeed, reciting the term "honest", Cassius says to Caska of this horrific night that it is:
A very pleasing Night to honest men.34
That is, like the "honest" Cynic, Cassius the Epicurean could see how these unharmonious effects, in light of the 'Caesar question', might be used to call into question the Stoic notion of Cosmic order and its monistic, pantheistic principle.
Cassius' delight in this horrific night is a kind of perverse delight borne of his own Epicurean disregard for the Stoic system. If the Stoic system were so well-ordered, no such calamities could occur in nature. Hence, this horrific night, by its very manifestations, makes manifest how 'dishonest' the Stoic principle is. Cassius, of course, unlike Caska, has a definitive cosmology from which to criticize Stoicism. So, when Caska, the Cynic, asks:
Who euer knew the Heauens menace so?35
Cassius has a quick, Epicurean answer:
Those that haue knowne the Earth so full of faults.36
That is, the shakiness and disorder of the night, with its horrific manifestations, militates against the Stoic principle of cosmic order, while all the better arguing the case of Epicureanism. For the Epicurean conceives of nature as a basically chaotic domain with, in principle, ever downward-moving atoms replacing other atoms in bodies, bodies imbued in essence with vacua, 'voids', (those regions in which secondary or tertiary atoms would replace primary atoms, leading to the body's corruption); imbued, that is, by double-entendre, with "faults".37
Caska, qua Cynic, not being able to articulate a sophisticated cosmology, can at least appreciate how Cassius the Epicurean can see man as 'radically evil', being imbued with "faults", much as the entire order of nature is imbued with "faults", the 'voids' in which atoms are ever-replacing one another. Yet, Caska, the extreme moralist, using that which can be heard as proto-Christian language, is almost offended by Cassius' reaction to all of these horrid displays of nature. Indeed, whereas the Stoic Cicero was merely resigned, Cassius appears rather perversely bold in the face of this horrific display. For Cassius, the Epicurean, would hold that there was no divine purpose behind this display, as his gods were coolly atomic gods, removed and indifferent from all of these mundane matters.38 Thus Cassius boasts:
And when the crosse blew Lightning seem'd to open The Brest of Heauen, I did present my selfe Euen in the ayme, and very flash of it.39
In light of this bold Epicurean proclamation, the problematic Cynic/proto-Christian, Caska, is dismayed to see that Cassius could "tempt the heavens" so. Indeed Caska says, contrarily, employing Pauline terms posed intentionally anachronistically in this pre-Christian air:
It is the part of men, to feare and tremble, When the most mightie Gods, by tokens send Such dreadfull Heraulds, to astonish us.40
Hereupon Cassius in turn attacks Caska's problematic Cynicism. Caska, qua Cynic, is "dull". That is, he has no systematic world-view upon which to base his queries and worries. Moreover, Caska does not have those "sparks of life that should be in a Roman", though Caska called himself a Roman just moments before. This lack of a certain vim and vigorous ambition is the classic charge brought against Cynicism.41 Thus Cassius observes not only Caska's nature as Cynic, but also his very problematically Cynical character in particular, especially when he alludes to the superstitious side of Caska.
No doubt Cassius would argue that the superstitious side of Caska is borne of Caska's lack of a wholly material cosmology. Caska's intellectual "dullness" leads him to be perplexed by the question as to "Why all these things change from their ordinance". He is as superstitiously perplexed by all of these monstrous changes as much as he is morally infuriated by the potential "change in nature" which the deceitful Caesar would undergo in his nomination as a "god". Thus Cassius further notes Caska's unsystematic reckoning. Caska does not seek a "naturali" explanation of the many marvels of the hour. As a mere moralist, he is rather "cast. . . in wonder", to the disregard of "naturali" (material) cause. Here Cassius makes light of both Stoicism, (with its monistic view of man, state, and nature) and the fearful wonder into which Caska, the Cynic and proto-Christian, has been cast. With one rhetorical note, Cassius tells Caska, in sarcastic affirmation of Stoic monism, that it is not entirely unnatural that the universe should have this "monstrous quality" when they are now living in "some monstrous state"; that it is no wonder there should be a "monstrous state" when there is a mere man, Caesar, so monstrous, so "prodigious grown".
Caska's response to Cassius' sarcastic account of Stoic monism in this moment is extraordinary. Of this man "prodigious grown" not named by Cassius, Caska asks rather oddly:
'Tis Caesar that you meane: Is it not,
as though Cassius might mean someone else, some other person "prodigious grown". Here Caska, the proto-Christian in language otherwise, could be understood as expressing some unusual intuition in these (and other) words:
When these Prodigies Doe so conloyntly meet . . .43
words which, in the intuition of a proto-Christian, might be taken as references to the unnatural wonders of the moment, and/or to the manifestations of two extraordinary prodigies "meeting" in almost the same world-historical moment: Caesar, the "prodigious grown" man-would-be-god whose particular divinization would violate both the Stoic and Epicurean cosmologies/ideologies, preceding the prodigy on the horizon, the God-man, the Christ, "prodigious grown" in the sense of being 'begotten', not 'made'. The would-be apotheosis of the former would world-historically forecast the incarnation of the latter.
All told then Caska is not as entirely "dull" as Cassius claims. Although Caska never has a systematic response to any Stoic or Epicurean error, he does critically reveal by moral intuition, (apparently the exclusive manner of'argument' associated with the 'school' of Cynicism), that which is problematic in those systems. Such criticism can ,be seen in this very context in which Cassius laments Caesar's potential ascent to absolute power. If Caesar were to assume absolute power, Cassius would be placed in a novel bondage, the only freedom from which might lie in the Epicurean allowance of suicide. Hence the boast:
Cassius from Bondage will deliuer Cassius: Therein, yee Gods, you make the weake most strong; Therein, yee Gods, you tyrants doe defeat.44
Cassius makes this declaration of independence by suicide, an article of Epicureanism, as a bold pronouncement. Yet, in the ears of the Cynical bondman, Caska, this claim of freedom by suicide, justified by the principles of the Epicurean system, is only an empty freedom. For all of the elaborate "principles" of Epicureanism, its final statement on freedom turns out to be a final statement on nothing. This Epicurean freedom is really just a negative freedom available even to the unsophisticated slave, as the experienced and "honest" Caska knows. Hence, when Cassius continues this essentially negative boast:
If I know this, know all the World besides, That part of Tyrannie that I doe beare, I can shake off at pleasure45
Caska responds very simply, though critically, to the quick, saying:
So I can: So euery Bond-man in his owne hand beares The power to cancell his Captiuitie.46
On this point of 'negative' freedom, complex Epicureanism offers no clear advantage over the "dullness" of Cynicism.
Not only does Caska, qua Cynic, offer a critique of Epicureanism concerning suicide, he also offers a similar point regarding homicide (and thereby a partial 'defense' of his participation in Caesar's assassination). With his closing words, the "honest" Caska calls into question the nature and the purpose of the Stoic and Epicurean systems one last time. These systems, in great part, in fundamental part in the case of Epicureanism, attempt relief from the fear of death. Much of the significant Stoic and Epicurean ethical literature explicitly aims at the elimination of this fear. For the Stoic, the question of death was answered by arguing that the soul, albeit refinedly constituted as pneuma, spirit, is yet material, and so dies shortly after the decomposition of the body in which it dwells.47 For the Epicurean, the soul is similarly a refined body, being not unlike the air itself in atomic constitution. Thus, upon death, the soul disperses as quickly as air, such that there is no need to fear death itself; nor is there a need to fear any punishment in a life after, since death brings the termination of consciousness.48 In this light, it is as though the very "honest" Caska cannot help but be brutally honest concerning the death of Caesar. And, indeed, if the Stoic and Epicurean systems reduce to systems aimed at the elimination of the fear of death, then the "honest" Caska, with his wholly critical bent, best argues the case of even the most base of conspirators, turning the logic of these systems toward a most nihilistic conclusion:
Why he that cuts off twenty yeares of life, Cuts off so many years of fearing death.49
Again the Cynic reduces the Stoic and Epicurean to naught in word, and the would-be man-god, Caesar, to naught in deed.
Caska: The Problematic Proto-Christian
All told, Caska has the dramatic function of moving the action of the play, with the intellectual function of casting lasting criticism on the ultimate consistency and worth of the Stoic and Epicurean systems. Therewith, given his Pauline language, Caska also serves to point to a change in the age in which the theoretical and practical limitations of those systems would be world-historically revealed; a revelation occasioned by the Caesar event. Nowhere is this more obvious than in one very prominent speech, the anachronistic terms of which 'point' to that change in World-History, the impending advent of Christianity, from which perspective the previous cosmological-ethical-political systems may be critically regarded with more precision.
Caska, in whose mouth Shakespeare places one (of course anachronistic) Christian reference after another, says to Decius and Cinna, followers of Brutus and Cassius, thus of Stoicism and Epicureanism respectively:
You shall confesse, that you are both deceiu'd: Heere, as I point my Sword, the Sunne arises, Which is a great way growing on the South, Weighing the youthfull Season of the yeare. Some two moneths hence, vp higher toward the North He first presents his fire, and the high East Stands as the Capitoli, directly heere.50
Caska's particular suggestion that these two must "confesse" their ignorance confirms the notion that he is a problematic proto-Christian. Further, the puns and other Judeo-Christian imagery of this very artificial speech let Caska "point" to where the 'son' arises, toward a great "way". This "way" will "weigh" (judge) this youthful season of man (the epoch before the emergence of Christ). And this direction lies with the 'due', or "high" east, there where lies the truer "Capitol", Jerusalem. Here is the paradigmatic speech from that 'other half of the Cynic, Caska: he reproves the Stoic and Epicurean again because, for all of their elaborate systematizing, they are unable to comprehend the signs of the time.
Yet, by the same token, of course, Caska, the Cynic and problematic proto-Christian, can only intuit the greater significance of his own words. This Cynic, in his exclusively critical manner, is something of a prophet, though only a vacuous prophet. He has somewhat the form of the seer, yet, qua Cynic, has none of the elevated consciousness and magnanimity of a true prophet.47 How then sum up the character of Caska? In light of other persons, he is similar to the unjust servant described by Augustine in De Libero Arbitrio.51 He complains about his master's ill manner, yet he in turn harbours the same ill will himself. He would ill—willingly slay his master so as to attain his master's station and acquire his possessions, and is therefore, though proto-Christian in discourse, yet subjectable to Christian critique. Further, like the irrationally religious attacked by Hobbes in Leviathan, Caska appears to be overly superstitious.52 He elevates morality above all natural inquiry to an unhealthy degree. Further yet, like the oddly religious or overly peevish in Nietzsche's various criticisms, Caska, qua moralizing Cynic, may be said to represent one of the earliest forms of that "peasant rebellion of the spirit"; or that type who would want to interpret all of life as if it were exclusively a "moral phenomenon", to the exclusion of much that is great and ennobling.53 Thus the deserved infamy of this extreme moralist. The Cynic, at least in Caska's case, in his peevish zeal for "honesty", would even murder for it.
1 See Shakespeare's Plutarch, C. F. T. Brooke, ed. (Haskell House: New York, 1966).
2 See The Tragedie of Julius Caesar, in William Shakespeare: The Complete Works, Stanley Wells and Gary Taylor, eds. (Oxford Univ. Press, 1986), Scene 2, 334-337, p. 678. All citations from this play will come from this text and will be noted accordingly.
3 Hence the various portrayals of the Cynic as possessing an "uncompromising morality" and a certain "narrowness and fanatacism." For these and more detailed descriptions of the character of the Cynic see A History of Cynicism: From Diogenes to the 6th Century A.D., Donald R. Dudley (Ares: Chicago, 1980), pp. 97-99. One sentence from Dudley (p. 127) in the description of the work of Demetrius all but sums up the Cynical character: "The insistence on the practical aspect of philosophy, and the consequent depreciation of theory and of scientific speculation, contempt for the unconverted mass of humanity, complete suppression of desires, attacks on the luxury of the age—all are in the well-known vein of the gospel according to Diogenes."
4 For a more complete account of the 'origins' of Cynicism, traced back through Diogefies to Antisthenes and back even further to Socrates, see chapter I of A History of Cynicism. It would be my argument, after Dudley, that the proclaimed 'succession' of Cynicism: Socrates—Antishenes—Diogenes—Crates—Zeno is somewhat plausible, though very problematic. The problematic nature of such succession can be seen in a variety of ways, as Dudley notes, though one simple example of such may be the manner in which many later Cynics are characterized as having a certain vicious officiousness rather foreign to the character of Socrates. I would make the argument that Caska represents Cynicism in a degenerated form, much as the Skeptic would represent Plato's Academy in a degenerated form.
5 Scene 2, 312-313.
6 Scene 2, 313-316.
7 Scene 2, 316-317. Insofar as Julius Caesar dupes the people and toys with their emotions, perhaps one could call him an effectively 'actual' tyrant and not merely a "prospective tyrant" as Bonjour calls him. See The Structure of Julius Caesar, Adrien Bonjour (Liverpool Univ. Press: Liverpool, 1958), pp. 3-4.
8 Scene 2, 320-324.
9 Scene 2, 324-326.
10 Scene 2, 310-311.
11 Scene 2, 339-342. Blits notices this change in Caska's 'report' but does not proceed with a more detailed account of the many duplicities in Caska's words. See The End of the Ancient Republic, Jan H. Blits (Carolina Academic Press: Durham, 1982), pp. 66-70.
12 Scene 3, 514.
13 See The Oxford English Dictionary, Second Edition, Volume V, J. A. Simpson and E. S. C. Weiner, preps. (Clarendon Press: Oxford, 1989), p. 1039.
14 Scene 4, 704.
15 Scene 4, 715.
16 Scene 8, 1171.
17 Scene 3, 556-558.
18 See Dudley on Cynicism's lack of ability to develop as a 'School' such as Stoicism and Epicureanism (pp. 117-124). Thus the telling quote therein (p. 118): "The weakness of Cynicism lay in its inability to give an account of itself . . . now that its adherents could not command the 'persuasive charm' . . . of a Diogenes, it could make no appeal to the intelligence. Cynicism thus became a 'popular' philosophy; the philosophy of the proletariat as it has been called, and the description will serve provided one avoids the implications such a phrase would carry to-day."
19 Again Dudley (p. 147): "It is easy to understand how the 'free life' of the Cynic could attract those engaged in the generally oppressive and monotonous tasks of an artisan in the ancient world. To a slave the attraction would be still greater, and the rapid spread of Christianity, and such of the mystery religions as were open to them, amongst the slaves, shows how eager they were to embrace any creed which would lighten the monotony of their lot." Dudley goes on to treat of the hypocrisy of certain Cynics who insisted on moral rigor and yet who engaged in rather open and unrestrained sexual activity. Shakespeare, for his part, would obviously depict the hypocrisy of Caska around the topic of violence. Caska would ostensibly desire "peace", but would achieve it by violent revolution.
20 See chapters I and II of Physics of the Stoics, S. Sambursky (Routledge and Kegan Paul: London, 1987).
21 The translation given to "inane profundum" by Leonard. See On the Nature of Things, Lucretius, William Ellery Leonard, trans. (Dutton: New York, 1957), p. 48. For a more prosaic translation see De Rerum Natura, Lucretius, W. H. D. Rouse, trans. (Harvard University Press: Cambridge, 1947).
22 For detailed study of the Epicurean atomic cosmology see The Greek Atomists and Epicurus, C. Bailey (Oxford University Press: Oxford, 1928); Epicurus and His Gods, A. J. Festugiere, C. W. Chilton, trans. (Oxford Univ Press, 1955); and The Epicurean Tradition, Howard Jones (Routledge, Chapman, and Hall: London, 1989).
23 Cf. 19. Also note the labelling of Paul as . . ."babbler" or "seed-talker" in Novum Testamentum Graece: . . . (17:18), Nestle-Aland (Deutsche Bibelstiftung: Stuttgart, 1979), p. 373. Birch was one commentator who also argued that Shakespeare painted Caska as something of a proto-Christian, in particular a proto-Puritan. In fact, Birch goes so far as to say that Shakespeare is posing through the character of Caska a person legitimizing an almost blanket attack on religion: "Religion is error here . . . Religious sentiment is ascribed by Shakespeare to a defect in the constitution and temperament of mankind." See An Inquiry into the Philosophy and Religion of Shakespeare, W. J. Birch, C. Mitchell (London, 1848), p. 454. My argument would be that Shakespeare paints Caska as he does so as to propose a critique of Cynicism in particular and of Christianity in particular to the extent to which Christianity might not rise above the tendency to be Cynical or to be only a moral religion. That Shakespeare can be a harsh critic of problematic Christianity is obvious from Measure for Measure. That he is not an unconditional critic of Christianity can be seen in As You Like It. Moreover, that Cynicism is a concern for Shakespeare elsewhere can be seen further in Timon of Athens.
24 Scene 2, 333.
25 Scene 2, 333-334.
26 Scene 2, 348.
27 Scene 2, 348-349.
28 Scene 2, 350-351.
29 Scene 3, 401-402.
30 See Dudley (p. 97): "The 'End' . . . of Zeno's system is defined in the famous formula 'Life in accordance with the law of Nature' . . . here Zeno is borrowing and expanding the . . . of the Cynics, which is 'Life in Accordance with virtue' . . . . The Cynics regarded . . . but the . . . of Zeno is an altogether deeper conception and . . . meant obedience to Universal Law, much as did Heracleitus' precept . . . .
31 Scene 3, 426-430.
32 Scene 3, 431-433.
33 It might be argued that here Shakespeare is somewhat unfair to Cicero in particular, as Cicero may not have been so obviously resigning as were other Stoics such as Epictetus. Yet, Caska's counter of Cicero's epistemology would clearly highlight this Stoic self-contradiction in principle, a self-contradiction which Shakespeare may well have recognized by reading another work from Plutarch bearing that very title: On Stoic Self-Contradictions, excerpts from which have been most recently reproduced in Hellenistic Philosophy: Introductory Readings, Brad Inwood and L. P. Gerson, trans. (Hackett: Indianapolis, 1988).
34 Scene 3, 441.
35 Scene 3, 442.
36 Scene 3, 443.
37 Again see Leonard's translation of a section of Book II of De Rerum Natura concerning a universe of atoms and voids, which translation could easily have been Shakespeare's: This to maintain by many a fact besides—That in no wise the nature of the world For us was builded by a power divine—So great the faults it stands encumbered with.
38 See the opening lines of Book III of De Rerum Natura.
39 Scene 3, 448.
40 Scene 3, 451-453 (emphasis mine).
41 Lucretius, for one, spoke often of the "dull" wits of people. See Book IV of De Rerum Natura (line 44): Id licet hinc quamvis hebeti cognoscere corde. Cassius appears to apply this sense of "dullness" to anyone who does not have a systematic world-view. Brutus himself suggests that Caska has changed from being a potential thinker of note to one who is simply a Cynical moralizer with no systematic conception of things. Hence Brutus' words to Cassius concerning Caska (Scene 2, 370-371):
What a blunt fellow is this
grown to be.
He was quick Mettle
when he went to Schoole.
42 Scene 3, 476.
43 Scene 3, 426-430.
44 Scene 3, 487-489.
45 Scene 3, 495-498.
46 Scene 3, 497-500.
47 See Physics of the Stoics, Chapter II.
48 See "Letter to Menoeceus," Epicurus, in Greek and Roman Philosophy after Aristotle, Jason L. Saunders, ed. (The Free Press: New York, 1966). Scene 8, 1190. 49
50 Scene 4, 665-669. Not observing the cosmological import of this scene in light of Caska's greater function in the play, Rymer was wrong to see this scene as utterly superfluous. The scene may be exaggerated, but it is hardly worthless. See The Tragedies of the Last Age Consider'd and Examin'd (1692), Thomas Rymer (Garland: New York, 1974), pp. 147-182.
51 See On Free Choice of the Will (De Libero Arbitrio libri tres), Saint Augustine, Anna S. Benjamin and L. H. Hackstaff, trans. (Bobbs-Merrill: Indianapolis, 1964), Question IV.
52 See Leviathan, Thomas Hobbes (Oxford Univ. Press, 1947).
53 See any number of statements on the part of Nietzsche on this topic, representative of which would be 358 in Die Froehliche Wissenschaft, Friedrich Nietzsche, Wilhelm Goldmann (Muenchen, 1977), pp. 218-221; or this statement: "It has always been not faith but the freedom from faith, that half-stoical and smiling unconcern with the seriousness of faith, that enraged slaves in their masters—against their masters." See 47 in Beyond Good and Evil, Friedrich Nietzsche, Walter Kaufmann, trans. (Vintage: New York, 1966), p. 61.
Last Updated on May 6, 2015, by eNotes Editorial. Word Count: 28282
Lawrence Danson (essay date 1974)
SOURCE: "Julius Caesar," in Tragic Alphabet: Shakespeare's Drama of Language, Yale University Press, 1974, pp. 50-67.
[In the following excerpt, Danson asserts that the murders and suicides touched off by and including the assassination of Caesar are in fact "meaningless " nonrituals and that the play does not achieve its tragic, ritualized status until the death of Brutus.]
In Julius Caesar we find, more starkly and simply than in Hamlet, 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; had they the wit, they might exclaim with Hamlet, "Equivocation will undo us." It is ostensibly broad daylight in Rome, but the situation is dreamlike; 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." 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.
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; 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.3
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.ii.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 heritage—their conversation is punctuated by shouts from offstage, shouts at whose meaning they can only guess. (The situation brings to mind the one in Hamlet when the men on the battlements question each other about the strange new customs in Denmark.)
Casca, an eyewitness to the ritual in the marketplace, finally arrives to be their interpreter; but even he has understood imperfectly. Caesar (he says) has been offered the crown, but
I can as well be hang'd 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. . . .
Caesar refused the crown, but Casca suspects "he would fain have had it." "The rabblement hooted," and Caesar "swooned and fell down at" the stench. As for the rest, Cicero spoke, but again the language problem intervened: "He spoke Greek." There is other news: "Marullus and Flavius, for pulling scarfs off Caesar's images, are put to silence." And, "There was more foolery yet, if I could remember it" (I.ii.286).
The dramatic point of it all lies not so much in the conflict between republican and monarchical principles, as in the sheer confusion of the reported and overheard scene. It is all hooting and clapping and uttering of bad breath, swooning, foaming at the mouth, and speaking Greek. Casca's cynical tone is well suited to the occasion, for the farcical charade of the crown-ritual, with Caesar's refusal and Antony's urging, is itself a cynical manipulation. The crowd clapped and hissed "as they use to do the players in the theatre" (I.ii.260)—and rightly so.
These two opening scenes give us the world in which Brutus is to undertake his great gesture. When we next see Brutus, his decision is made: "It must be by his death" (II.i.10). Behind Brutus's decision is that linguistic and ceremonial confusion which is comic in the case of the commoners and sinister in the case of Caesar's crown-ritual. The innovations in Rome's ceremonial order give evidence to Brutus for the necessity of his gesture. But those same innovations, attesting to a failure in Rome's basic linguistic situation, also make it most probable that his gesture will fail. Brutus is not unlike Hamlet: he is a man called upon to make an expressive gesture in a world where the commensurate values necessary to expression are lacking. The killing of Caesar, despite the honorable intentions that are within Brutus and passing show, will thus be only one more ambiguous, misunderstood action in a world where no action can have an assured value. Brutus's grand expression might as well be Greek in this Roman world.
Brutus's position is not unlike Hamlet's, but he does not see what Hamlet sees. Indeed, he does not even see as much as his fellow conspirators do. To Cassius, the dreadful and unnatural storm over Rome reflects "the work we have in hand" (I.iii.129); to the thoughtful Cassius, the confusion in the heavens is an aspect of the confusion in Rome. But Brutus is, typically, unmoved by the storm, and calmly makes use of its strange light to view the situation: "The exhalations, whizzing in the air, / Give so much light that I may read by them" (II.i.44). And what he reads by this deceptive light is as ambiguous as the shouts of the crowd at the crown-ritual: the paper bears temptations slipped into his study by the conspirators, words that mislead and may betray. On the basis of this mysterious communication, revealed by a taper's dim light and the unnatural "exhalations" above, Brutus determines to "speak and strike." Every sign is misinterpreted by Brutus; and the world that seems to him to make a clear demand for words and gestures is in fact a world where words are equivocal and where gestures quickly wither into their opposites.
The situation, as I have so far described it, forces upon us the question critics of the play have most frequently debated: who is the play's hero? A simple enough question, it would seem: the title tells us that this is The Tragedy of Julius Caesar. But that answer only serves to show the actual complexity of the question, for if Caesar (who is, after all, dead by the middle of the play) is to this play what, say, Hamlet is to his, then Julius Caesar is, structurally at least, a most peculiar tragedy. The question of the hero—and a glance at the critical literature shows that the position is indeed questionable—bears upon fundamental matters of meaning and structure.4
Now it is a curious fact about Shakespeare's plays (and, to an extent, about all drama) that the questions the critics ask have a way of duplicating the questions the characters ask, as though the playwright had done his best to make all criticism redundant. As if the play were not enough, nor the characters sufficient unto their conflicts, the critical audience continues to fight the same fights and ask the same questions the characters in the play do. Of Julius Caesar, as I have said, the question we most often ask concerns the play's hero: Caesar or Brutus? I have not bothered to tally the choices; for our purposes it is more interesting to notice the mode of critical procedure and the way in which it tends to imitate the actions of the characters in the play. Both critics and characters tend to choose sides in their respective conflicts on the bases of political prejudice and evaluations of moral rectitude. Since the moral and political issues in Julius Caesar are themselves eternally moot, it is not surprising that the critical debate continues unresolved.
About Caesar, for instance: if we try to make our determination of herohood on the basis of Caesar's moral stature, we are doing precisely what the characters do; and we find, I think, that he becomes for us what he is for Shakespeare's Romans, less a man than the object of men's speculations. Caesar is the Colossus whose legs we may peep about but whom we can never know; characters and audience alike peep assiduously, each giving us a partial view which simply will not accord with any other. Within the play, Caesar is virtually constituted of the guesses made about him: Casca's rude mockery, Cassius's sneers, Brutus's composite portrait of the present Caesar (against whom he knows no wrong) and the dangerous serpent of the future, Antony's passionate defense, the mob's fickle love and hate: these are the guesses, and contradictory as they are, they give us the Caesar of the play—and of the play's critics.
Of Caesar's, or for that matter of Brutus's, moral status we can have little more certain knowledge than the characters themselves have. What we are in a privileged position to know is the structure of the play: the characters' prison, the play's encompassing form, is our revelation. What I propose to do, therefore, is to look at the implicit answer Brutus gives (through his actions) to the question, who is the play's tragic hero?, and compare that answer to the answer revealed by the play's unfolding structure.
Everything Brutus does (until the collapse of the conspiracy) is calculated to justify the title of the play, to make it indeed The Tragedy of Julius Caesar. As we watch Brutus directing the conspiracy, we watch a man plotting a typical Shakespearean tragedy; and it is crucial to the success of his plot that Caesar indeed be its hero-victim. The assassination, as Brutus conceives it, must have all the solemnity and finality of a tragic play. The wonder of the spectacle must, as in tragedy, join the audience (both within and without the play) into a community of assent to the deed. For his part, Brutus is content with a necessary secondary role, the mere agent of the hero's downfall—a kind of Laertes, or a more virtuous Aufidius to Caesar's Coriolanus.
But of course Brutus's plot (in both senses of the word) is a failure. The withholding of assent by the audience (again, both within and without the play) proves his failure more conclusively than do moral or political considerations. Brutus misunderstands the language of Rome; he misinterprets all the signs both cosmic and earthly; and the furthest reach of his failure is his failure to grasp, until the very end, the destined shape of his play. Brutus's plot is a failure, but by attending to the direction he tries to give it we can find, ironically, a clear anatomy of the typical tragic action.
Brutus makes his decision and in Act II, scene 1 he meets with the conspirators. Decius puts the question, "Shall no man else be touch'd but only Caesar?". Cassius, whose concerns are wholly practical, urges Antony's death. But Brutus demurs: the assassination as he conceives it has a symbolic dimension as important as its practical dimension; and although Brutus is not able to keep the two clearly separated (he opposes Antony's death partly out of concern for the deed's appearance "to the common eyes") he is clear about the need for a single sacrificial victim. His emphasis on sacrifice indicates the ritual shape Brutus hopes to give the assassination:
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. . . .
We shall be call'd purgers, but not murderers.
The "sacrifice" must not be confused with murder, with mere butchery. The name of the deed becomes all important, indicating the distance between a gratuitous, essentially meaningless gesture, and a sanctioned, efficacious, unambiguous ritual.
But Brutus's speech, with a fine irony, betrays his own fatal confusion. "In the spirit of men there is no blood," but in this spirit—this symbol, this embodiment of Caesarism—there is, "alas," as much blood as Lady Macbeth will find in Duncan. Whatever we may feel about Brutus's political intentions, we must acknowledge a failure which has, it seems to me, as much to do with logic and language as with politics: Brutus is simply unclear about the difference between symbols and men. And his confusion, which leads to the semantic confusion between "murder" and "sacrifice," and between meaningless gestures and sanctioned ritual, is the central case of something we see at every social level in Rome. The assassination Brutus plans as a means of purging Rome dwindles to just more of the old ambiguous words and empty gestures. The assassination loses its intended meaning as surely as the commoners' celebration did in scene 1.
The assassination is surrounded by Brutus with all the rhetoric and actions of a sacrificial rite. It becomes ritually and literally a bloodbath, as Brutus bids,
Stoop, Romans, stoop,
And let us bathe our hands in Caesar's blood
Up to the elbows, and besmear our swords.
Even the disastrous decision to allow Antony to address the mob arises from Brutus's concern that "Caesar shall / Have all true rites and lawful ceremonies" (III.i.241). In Brutus's plot, where Caesar is the hero-victim whose death brings tragedy's "calm of mind, all passion spent," no one, not even Antony, should be left out of the ceremonious finale. With the conspirators' ritualized bloodbath, indeed, the implied metaphor of the assassination-as-drama becomes explicit—if also horribly ironic:
Cas. Stoop then, and wash. How many ages hence
Shall this our lofty scene be acted over
In states unborn and accents yet unknown!
Bru. How many times shall Caesar bleed in sport. . . .
Trapped in their bloody pageant, these histrionic conspirators cannot see what, in the terms they themselves suggest, is the most important point of all: this lofty scene occurs, not at the end, but in the middle of a tragic play.
Brutus's plot is not Shakespeare's; and immediately after the conspirators have acted out what should be the denouement of their tragic play, the actual shape of the play (the one they cannot see as such) begins to make itself clear. Antony, pointedly recalling Brutus's distinction between "sacrificers" and "butchers," says to the slaughtered symbol of tyranny, "O, pardon me, thou bleeding piece of earth, / That I am meek and gentle with these butchers!" (HI.i.255), and announces the further course of the action:
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.
Brutus's revolutionary gesture, which was intended to bring to birth a stabler order, has been (in an esthetic as well as a political sense) premature. His ritual has failed, and now, as Caesar's spirit ranges for revenge (for there is blood in the spirits of men), it still remains for the proper ritual to be found. Now Brutus will at last assume his proper role: Brutus must be our tragic hero.
Of course he does his best to deny that role. His stoicism—the coolness, for instance, with which he dismisses Caesar's ghost: "Why, I will see thee at Philippi, then" (IV.iii.284)—is hardly what we expect of the grandly suffering tragic hero. Still, it is to Brutus that we owe one of the finest descriptions of the peculiar moment in time occupied by a Shakespearean tragedy:
Since Cassi us first did whet me against Caesar,
I have not slept.
Between the acting of a dreadful thing
And the first motion, all the interim is
Like a phantasma or a hideous dream.
The Genius and the mortal instruments
Are then in council; and the state of man,
Like to a little kingdom, suffers then
The nature of an insurrection.
The moment is suspended, irresolute, but charged with the energy to complete itself. The separation of "acting" from "first motion," of "Genius" from "mortal instruments," is an intolerable state—the measure of it is the insomnia—which demands resolution. In Macbeth we will see this moment protracted and anatomized; it is the tragic moment, and Brutus, for all his Roman calm, must pass through it to its necessary completion.
The acting of the "dreadful thing"—or, rather, what Brutus thinks is the dreadful thing, Caesar's death—does not bring the promised end; that is made immediately clear. Antony's funeral oration shows that Brutus's grand gesture has changed little. Antony easily converts Brutus's sacrifice into murder. In Rome (as in Elsinore) men's actions merely "seem," and Antony can shift the intended meaning of Brutus's action as easily as the tribunes had changed the intended meaning of the commoner's actions in Act I, scene 1. Antony can use virtually the same words as the conspirators—he can still call Brutus an "honourable man" and Caesar "ambitious"—and yet make condemnation of approval and approval of condemnation. Even after the revolutionary moment of Caesar's death, this Rome is all of a piece: a volatile mob, empty ceremonies, and a language as problematic as the reality it describes.
Even names are problematic here. It was with names that Cassius first went to work on Brutus:
'Brutus' and 'Caesar'. What should be in that 'Caesar'?
Why should that name be sounded more than yours?
Write them together: yours is as fair a name.
Sound them: it doth become the mouth as well.
Weigh them: it is as heavy. Conjure with 'em:
'Brutus' will start a spirit as soon as 'Caesar'.
Cassius's contemptuous nominalism reminds one of Edmund in King Lear, who also thinks that one name—that of "bastard," for instance—is as good as any other. Names, to Cassius and Edmund, are conventional signs having reference to no absolute value, and they may be manipulated at will.
In his funeral oration, Antony also plays freely with names; and with the repetition of those two names "Brutus" and "Caesar" he does indeed conjure a spirit. It is the spirit of riot, of random violence, and its first victim (with a grotesque appropriateness) is a poet and a name:
3 Pleb. Your name sir, truly.
Cin. Truly, my name is Cinna.
1 Pleb. Tear him to pieces; he's a conspirator!
Cin. I am Cinna the poet, I am Cinna the poet.
4 Pleb. Tear him for his bad verses, tear him for his bad verses!
Cin. I am not Cinna the conspirator.
4 Pleb. It is no matter, his name's Cinna; pluck but his name out of his heart, and turn him going.
3 Pleb. Tear him, tear him!
"Pluck but his name out of his heart, and turn him going": it is like Brutus's impossible, "And in the spirit of men there is no blood." Again, it is the confusion between symbol and reality, between the abstract name and the blood-filled man who bears it. Poets, whose genius it is to mediate symbol and reality and to find the appropriate name to match all things, generally have rough going in Julius Caesar. Brutus the liberator shows how he has insensibly aged into a figure indistinguishable from the tyrant when he dismisses a peace-making poet with a curt, "What should the wars do with these jigging fools?" (IV.iii. 135). And Caesar, too, had rebuffed a poetical soothsayer.
The gratuitous murder of Cinna the poet reflects ironically upon the murder of Caesar. The poet's rending at the hands of the mob is unreasonable, based solely on a confusion of identities (of names, words), and while it bears some resemblance to the sacrifice of a scapegoat figure, it is really no sacrifice at all but unsanctioned murder. Caesar's death, similarly, was undertaken as a sacrificial gesture, but quickly became identified with plain butchery. In the mirror of the Cinna episode the assassination is seen as only one case in a series of perverted rituals—a series that runs with increasing frequency now, until the proper victim and the proper form are at last found.
Immediately following the murder of Cinna we see the new triumvirate pricking the names of its victims. The death of Caesar has released the motive force behind the tragedy, and that force runs unchecked now until the final sacrifice at Philippi. From the very first scene of the play we have witnessed ritual gestures that wither into meaninglessness; with the conspiracy and Caesar's death, we become aware of sacrifice as the particular ritual toward which the world of the play is struggling: the series of mistaken rituals becomes a series of mistaken sacrifices, culminating at Philippi.5
The wrong sacrifice, the wrong victim: the play offers an astonishing gallery of them. It has been noticed that all of the major characters implicate themselves in this central action:
each character in the political quartet in turn makes a similar kind of theatrical gesture implying the sacrifice of his own life: to top his refusal of the crown, Caesar offers the Roman mob his throat to cut; Brutus shows the same people that he has a dagger ready for himself, in case Rome should need his death; with half-hidden irony, Antony begs his death of the conspirators; and in the quarrel scene, Cassius gives his "naked breast" for Brutus to strike.6
The idea of sacrifice is imagistically linked to the idea of hunters and the hunted. Caesar, says Antony, lies "like a deer strucken by many princes" (III.i.210). The ruthless Octavius feels, improbably enough, that he is "at the stake, / And bay'd about with many enemies" (IV.i.48). But it was the conspirators themselves who first suggested the analogy between sacrifice and hunting: their blood-bathing ceremony suggests (as Antony makes explicit) the actions of a hunter with his first kill. And finally, appropriately, the sacrifice-hunting imagery fastens on Brutus: "Our enemies have beat us to the pit" (V.v.23).
From a slightly different perspective, the final scenes at Philippi might be a comedy of errors. Military bungles and mistaken identities follow quickly on each other's heels; the number of suicides, especially, seems excessive. Of the suicide of Titinius, a relatively minor character, Granville-Barker asks, "why, with two suicides to provide for, Shakespeare burdened himself with this third?"7 The answer to his question, and the explanation for the apparent excesses generally, must be found, I believe, in the context of false sacrifice throughout the play. Caesar's death was one such false sacrifice; Cinna the poet's a horrible mistake; the political murders by the triumvirate continued the chain; and now Cassius sacrifices himself on the basis of a mistake, while Titinius follows out of loyalty to the dead Cassius. Brutus embarked on the conspiracy because he misinterpreted the confused signs in, and above, Rome; the intended meaning of his own gesture was in turn subverted by Antony and the mob. And now Cassius has misinterpreted the signs: friendly troops are mistaken for hostile, their shouts of joy are not understood; thus "Caesar, thou art reveng'd," as Cassius dies, in error, "Even with the sword that kill'd thee" (V.iii.45). And, because Cassius has "misconstrued every thing" (as Titinius puts it [V.iii.84]), Titinius now dies, bidding, "Brutus, come apace."
Titinius places a garland on the dead Cassius before he dies himself; and Brutus, entering when both are dead, pronounces a solemn epitaph:
Are yet two Romans living such as these?
The last of all the Romans, fare thee well!
It is impossible that ever Rome
Should breed thy fellow. Friends, I owe moe tears
To this dead man than you shall see me pay.
I shall find time, Cassius, I shall find time.
The words and the actions form an appropriate tragic device of wonder—but this is no more the end than it was when Brutus spoke an epitaph for Caesar. The death of Cassius is still not the proper sacrifice, and the play has still to reach its culminating ritual.
At Philippi, Brutus at last accepts his role. Against the wishes of Cassius, Brutus insists upon meeting the enemy even before (as the enemy puts it), "we do demand of them." The ghost of Caesar has appeared and Brutus has accepted its portent: "I know my hour is come" (V.V.20). Most significant in Brutus's final speeches is their tone of acceptance:
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.
So fare you well at once; for Brutus' tongue
Hath almost ended his life's history.
Night hangs upon mine eyes; my bones would rest,
That have but labour'd to attain this hour.
The expressed idea of the glorious defeat is an authentic sign of Shakespearean tragedy: in a later play, Cleopatra will address similar lines to the wretchedly victorious Octavius. Brutus recognizes here the necessary end of "his life's history": all, from the very start, has tended to this gesture. In it we may find, as in Hamlet's death, "the vision of life in its entirety, the sense of fulfillment that lifts [the hero] above his defeat."8 Brutus's death is the action which resolves the phantasmal "interim" and ends the "insurrection" in "the state of man."
And this gesture receives, as the assassination of Caesar did not, the requisite assent. Brutus "hath honour by his death," says Strato; and Lucilius, "So Brutus should be found." The opposing parties join together now in Octavius's service, and it is Antony himself who can pronounce the epitaph, "This was the noblest Roman of them all." His words and the gestures are universally accepted.
But what of Rome and its future? I said at the outset of this chapter that the esthetic satisfaction of the perfected tragic form is a "truth" to be accepted only provisionally—and it is the close involvement of Julius Caesar with widely known historical facts which forces upon us the recognition of that truth's limitations. Indeed, the play contains hints—the bloody, divisive course of the triumvirate has been made plain, for instance—which, even without prior historical knowledge, might make us temper our optimism over the play's conclusion. With Brutus's death the play has revealed its tragic entelechy; the destined shape has been found, and the discovery brings its esthetic satisfactions. That the price of our pleasure is the hero's death is not (as in King Lear it will so terribly be) a source of discomfort. But what we cannot dismiss is our knowledge that every end is also a beginning. History will have its way; "fate" will defeat men's "wills"; and the "glory" of this "losing day" will tarnish and become, in the movement of time, as ambiguous as the glorious loss on the ides of March.
Thus we must entertain two apparently opposite points of view. With Brutus's sacrificial gesture the ritual has been found which can satisfy the dramatic expectations created by the play. The final words are spoken, the language is understood; and thus the play has given us what Robert Frost demanded of all poetry, "a momentary stay against confusion." But if we stress in Frost's definition his modifying word momentary, we find ourselves cast back upon history; and once out of the timeless world of the play, "confusion" predominates. Shakespeare, I believe, recognized this. In Hamlet we saw some aspects of his meditation on the problem of time. In Troilus and Cressida we will see more, and see in particular some ramifications of that problem for the nature of his art.
3 Cf. the discussion of this scene, and of "mock-ceremony" generally in the play, in Brents Stirling, Unity in Shakespearean Tragedy (New York, 1956).
4 Herewith a brief sampler of alternatives. John Dover Wilson, in his New Cambridge edition of the play (Cambridge, 1949) finds that "the play's theme is the single one, Liberty versus Tyranny." Since Dover Wilson believes that "Caesarism is a secular threat to the human spirit," it obviously follows that Brutus is our hero (pp. xxi-xxii). But the editor of the Arden Julius Caesar, T. S. Dorsch (London, 1955), while admitting that "Caesar has some weaknesses," thinks that the assassination is an "almost incredible piece of criminal folly," for (he asks confidently), "Can it be doubted that Shakespeare wishes us to admire his Caesar?" (p. xxxviii-xxxix). Another approach is tried by R. A. Foakes: "The three main characters are all noble and yet weak; none has the stature of hero or villian" ("An Approach to Julius Caesar," Shakespeare Quarterly 5 [Summer 1954]: 270). And, for the sake of symmetry, a final example: "There are . . . two tragic heroes in Julius Caesar, Brutus and Caesar, although one is more fully treated than the other" (Irving Ribner, Patterns in Shakespearian Tragedy [London, 1960], p. 56).
5 John Holloway does not discuss Julius Caesar in his The Story of the Night (Lincoln, Neb., 1961), but his description of the sacrificial pattern of Shakespearean tragedy is pertinent. That pattern "has as its centre a very distinctive role pursued by the protagonist over the whole course of the play: a role which takes him from being the cynosure of his society to being estranged from it, and takes him, through a process of increasing alienation, to a point at which what happens to him suggests the expulsion of a scapegoat, or the sacrifice of a victim, or something of both" (p. 135). The audience can see that this pattern (which Brutus tries to impose on his "Tragedy of Julius Caesar") more aptly describes Brutus's career than Caesar's.
6 Adrien Bonjour, The Structure of "Julius Caesar" (Liverpool, 1958), p. 30, n. 33.
7Prefaces to Shakespeare (Princeton, N.J., 1947), 2:401.
8 Langer, Feeling and Form (New York, 1953), p. 356.
Marjorie B. Garber (essay date 1974)
SOURCE: "Dream and Interpretation: Julius Caesar," in Dream in Shakespeare: From Metaphor to Metamorphosis, Yale University Press, 1974, pp. 47-58.
[In the following excerpt, Garber observes that the source of the tragedy in Julius Caesar is the repeated and sometimes willful misinterpretation of omens and dreams.]
Dream and Interpretation: Julius Caesar
In the final act of Julius Caesar, Cassius, fearful of defeat at Philippi, dispatches Titinius to discover whether the surrounding troops are friends or enemies. He posts another soldier to observe, and when the soldier sees Titinius encircled by horsemen and reports that he is taken, Cassius runs on his sword and dies. Shortly afterward, Titinius reenters the scene bearing a "wreath of victory" from Brutus. When he sees the dead body, he at once understands Cassius's tragic mistake. "Alas, thou has misconstrued everything!" (V.iii.84), he cries out, and he too runs on Cassius's sword.
That one cry, "thou hast misconstrued everything!", might well serve as an epigraph for the whole of Julius Caesar. The play is full of omens and portents, augury and dream, and almost without exception these omens are misinterpreted. Calpumia's dream, the dream of Cinna the poet, the advice of the augurers, all suggest one course of action and produce its opposite. The compelling dream imagery of the play, which should, had it been rightly interpreted, have persuaded Caesar to avoid the Capitol and Cinna not to go forth, is deflected by the characters of men, making tragedy inevitable. For Julius Caesar is not only a political play, but also a play of character. Its imagery of dream and sign, an imagery so powerful that it enters the plot on the level of action, is a means of examining character and consciousness.
Much of the plot of Julius Caesar, like that of Richard III, is shaped by the device of the predictive dream or sign. The two plays also have another point of similarity, not unrelated to the device of dream: each divides men into two camps, those who attempt to control dream and destiny and those who are controlled by it. In Richard III only Gloucester thinks himself able to master dream and turn it to his own purposes; Edward, Clarence, and Hastings are its helpless victims. Julius Caesar, on the other hand, presents a number of characters who declare themselves indifferent to dream or contemptuous of its power: Cassius, who so firmly places the fault not in our stars but in ourselves; Decius Brutus, who deliberately misinterprets Calpumia's prophetic dream to serve his own ends; Octavius, in whom the whole dimension of emotion seems lacking; and Caesar himself. Caesar's conviction, however, is notably wavering as the play begins. As Cassius points out to the conspirators,
he is superstitious grown of late,
Quite from the main opinion he held once
Of fantasy, of dreams, and ceremonies.
Caesar struggles against this tendency, repeatedly invoking his public persona to quell his private fears: "Danger knows full well," he boasts, "That Caesar is more dangerous than he" (II.ii.44-45). Yet he protests too much.
In his susceptibility to dream and introspection he stands midway between the coldness of Decius Brutus and the blind self-preoccupation of Brutus. For Brutus is in a way the least self-aware of all these characters, because he thinks of himself as a supremely rational man. Again and again he confronts his situation and misinterprets it, secure in his own erroneous sense of self. His frequent solitary ruminations have a certain poignancy about them; they approach a truth and reject it through lack of self-knowledge. Thus he meditates,
Between the acting of a dreadful thing
And the first motion, all the interim is
Like a phantasma, or a hideous dream:
The genius and the mortal instruments
Are then in council; and the state of man,
Like to a little kingdom, suffers then
The nature of an insurrection.
Yet in the next moment he turns his back on this foreboding and welcomes the conspirators to his house. It is Brutus who sees the ghost of Caesar and is indifferent to him; Brutus who is afflicted with a revealing insomnia: "Since Cassius first did whet me against Caesar," he says, "I have not slept" (II.i.61-62). Like Gloucester, Macbeth, and Henry IV, all similarly blind to self, he bears his crime on his conscience and cannot sleep, though he is visited by an apparition which seems to come from the dream state. There is a poignant moment after the ghost's first appearance, when he tries in vain to convince his servants and soldiers that they have cried out in the night:
Brutus: Didst thou dream, Lucius, that thou so criedst out?
Lucius: My lord, I do not know that I did cry.
Brutus: Yes, that thou didst. Didst thou see anything?
Lucius: Nothing, my lord.
Brutus: Sleep again, Lucius. Sirrah Claudius!
(To Varrò). Fellow thou, awake!
Varro: My lord?
Claudius: My lord?
Brutus: Why did you so cry out, sirs, in your sleep?
Both: Did we, my lord?
Brutus: Ay. Saw you anything?
Varro: No, my lord, I saw nothing.
Claudius: Nor I, my lord.
Nowhere is the quintessential loneliness of the conscience-stricken man more forcefully portrayed. "Nothing, my lord." Brutus, too, has misconstrued everything, and his tragedy is that he suspects it. Trapped by his high-minded vanity and his inability to function in the world of action—trapped, that is, by his own character—he sees the Rome he tried to rescue in ruins as a result of his act.
Caesar's ghost appears to Brutus in the source for Julius Caesar, Plutarch's Lives of the Noble Grecians and Romans. Its presence is also related to the Senecan theatrical tradition we have discussed above. Psychologically, it can be seen as an extension of Brutus's guilt feelings; like Richard Ill's Bosworth dream or the appearance of Banquo's ghost, the apparition here presents itself to one man only and is not sensed by the others present. Such visionary dream figures are found in Shakespeare only in plays which are directly concerned with the psychological condition of the characters; the disappearance of the ghost as a type in the plays following Macbeth is a sign, not merely of dramaturgical sophistication, but also of a shift in emphasis. For Julius Caesar is, in a way, the last play of its kind. The uses of dream, vision, and omen will change sharply in the plays that follow.
The motif of the misinterpreted dream in this play becomes a main factor in the dramatic action, demonstrating, always, some crucial fact about the interpreter. In the second scene of the play the soothsayer's warning goes unheeded, though in the same scene Caesar betrays his superstitious cast of mind. The contrast is adeptly managed: Antony is reminded to touch Calpurnia in the course of his race on the Lupercal, to remove her "sterile curse" (I.ii.9). But when the soothsayer cautions Caesar to "beware the ides of March" (18), he rejects the intended warning out of hand;
He is a dreamer, let us leave him. Pass.
The inference is that dreams, like omens, are of no value; "dreamer" is a pejorative dismissal, akin to "madman." Calpurnia may have need of supernatural aid, but not the public Caesar. Already in this early scene we see him assuming a position closer to that of gods than men, a thoughtless hubris which is in itself dangerous. The omen, intrinsically a kind of dramatic device, is chiefly significant because it indicates his lack of self-knowledge.
The next scene, like much of the play, is in part at least a landscape of the mind. Casca, who is to be one of the conspirators, apprehensively reports to Cicero the strange events of the day. The heavens are "dropping fire" (I.iii.10), a slave's hand flames but does not burn, a lion walks in the Capitol, an owl sits in the marketplace at noon. These omens are all reported by Plutarch,10 but Shakespeare turns them to dramatic purpose, making them mirror the conspirators' mood. "When these prodigies / Do so conjointly meet," says Casca,
let not men say,
"These are their reasons, they are natural,"
For I believe they are portentous things
Unto the climate that they point upon.
To this superstitious view Cicero has a wise and moderate reply.
Indeed, it is a strange-disposèd time:
But men may construe things after their fashion,
Clean from the purpose of the things themselves.
This is Titinius's lament: "Thou hast misconstrued everything." Like all the quasi-oracular pronouncements in this play, it is two-edged. Men may construe things as they like for their own purposes; just so Cassius plays on Brutus's fears of monarchy to enlist his help. And men may also misconstrue through error; so Caesar misreads the signs which might have kept him from death. But if Cicero's answer is apposite, it is also bloodless and dispassionate. What he does not consider is the element of humanity, the energy of men's passions inflamed by supposed signs. He is outside the tragedy, a choric figure who does not reenter the drama.
More and more it becomes evident that signs and dreams are morally neutral elements, incapable of effect without interpretation. By structuring his play around them, Shakespeare invites us to scrutinize the men who read the signs—to witness the tragedy of misconstruction. The two senses of Cicero's maxim, the willful deceiver and the willingly deceived, are the controllers of dream and the controlled. Decius Brutus, perhaps the coldest in a play replete with cold men, states the position of the former unequivocally. No matter how superstitious Caesar has lately become, he, Decius Brutus, is confident of his ability to manipulate him.
I can o'ersway him; for he loves to hear
That unicorns may be betrayed with trees,
And bears with glasses, elephants with holes,
Lions with toils, and men with flatterers;
But when I tell him he hates flatterers;
He says he does, being then most flattered.
Let me work;
For I can give his humor the true bent,
And I will bring him to the Capitol.
Willful misconstruction is his purpose and his art. And, fulfilling his promise, it is Decius Brutus who artfully misinterprets Calpurnia's dream and coaxes Caesar to the scene of his death.
Calpurnia's dream is one of the play's cruxes. By this time in the course of the drama an internal convention has been established regarding dreams and omens: whatever their source, they are true, and it is dangerous to disregard them. Shakespeare's audience would certainly have been familiar with the story of Julius Caesar, and such a collection of portents and premonitions would have seemed to them, as it does to us, to be infallibly leading to the moment of murder. Calpurnia herself adds to the catalogue of unnatural events:
A lioness hath whelped in the streets,
And graves have yawned, and yielded up their dead;
Fierce fiery warriors fought upon the clouds
In ranks and squadrons and right form of war,
Which drizzled blood upon the Capitol;
The noise of battle hurtled in the air,
Horses did neigh and dying men did groan,
And ghosts did shriek and squeal about the streets.
This is in fact an apocalypse of sorts, the last judgment of Rome. Unlike the events narrated by Casca, those reported by Calpurnia are not specified in Plutarch; it is noteworthy how much more Shakespearean they are, and how economically chosen to foreshadow, metaphorically, the later events of the play. The lioness is Wrath, and from her loins will spring forth "ranks and squadrons and right form of war," while the ghost of Caesar appears solemnly in the streets. Shakespeare was to remember this moment soon again, upon the appearance of the most majestic of all his ghosts.
In the most high and palmy state of Rome,
A little ere the mightiest Julius fell,
The graves stood tenantless, and the sheeted dead
Did squeak and gibber in the Roman streets.
Calpurnia's bona fides as a prophetess is thus firmly established by the time we hear her dream, and so too is the blind obstinacy of Caesar. He willfully misinterprets a message from his augurers, who advise him to stay away from the Capitol, alarmed by the sacrifice of a beast in which they found no heart. "Caesar should be a beast without a heart," he declares, "If he should stay at home today for fear" (II.ii.42-43), thus completely reversing the message of the haruspices. In this mood he is interrupted by Decius Brutus, whose wiliness outlasts his own more heedless cunning. Caesar is one of those elder statesmen who visibly enjoys causing discomfort to his underlings; it is partially for this reason that he now abruptly changes his mind upon the entrance of Decius and declares "I will not come" (71). We have not yet heard the dream; Shakespeare leaves it for Caesar himself to recount, as he does now to Decius.
She dreamt tonight she saw my statue,
Which, like a fountain with an hundred spouts,
Did run pure blood, and many lusty Romans
Came smiling and did bathe their hands in it.
And these does she apply for warnings and portents
And evils imminent, and on her knee
Hath begged that I will stay at home today.
We may notice that here, as in our interpretation of Romeo's last dream, the dead man becomes a statue; this is a recurrent conceit in Shakespearean dreams, and in The Winter's Tale, as we will see, the dream action becomes plot as Hermione "dies," becomes a "statue," and is reborn. In Calpurnia's dream the latent dream thoughts are not far removed from the manifest content. She interprets the statue as the body of Caesar and also his funerary monument, and the gushing forth of blood she reads as death. As a prophetic dream this is both an accurate and a curiously lyrical one, graceful in its imagery. It forecasts directly the assassination before the Capitol.
Decius, however, is prepared for the event, and he begins immediately to discredit Calpurnia's prediction. He commences with what is by now a familiar note: "This dream is all amiss interpreted," and offers instead his own "interpretation":
It was a vision fair and fortunate:
Your statue spouting blood in many pipes,
In which so many smiling Romans bathed,
Signifies that from you great Rome shall suck
Reviving blood, and that great men shall press
For tinctures, stains, relics and cognizance.
This by Calpurnia's dream is signified.
It is the dissimulator now who cries, "thou hast misconstrued everything." He takes the manifest content of Calpurnia's dream and attributes to it a clever if wholly fabricated set of latent thoughts, which are the more impressive for their psychological insight. Caesar is flattered, as Decius had predicted, and resolves to go to the Capitol. His last doubts are abruptly erased when Decius suggests that he will be offered a crown and warns that refusal to go will seem like uxoriousness:
it were a mock
Apt to be rendered, for someone to say
"Break up the Senate till another time,
When Caesar's wife shall meet with better dreams."
This is a thrust well calculated to strike home. But there is a curious ambiguity about Calpurnia's dream, and the real irony of the situation is that Decius's spurious interpretation of it is as true in its way as Calpurnia's.
The content of her dream, it may be pointed out, does not itself appear in Plutarch. "She dreamed," he writes, "that Caesar was slain, and that she had him in her arms," and he also tells us that "Titus Livius writeth, that it was in this sort. The Senate having set upon the top of Caesar's house, for an ornament and setting forth of the same, a certain pinnacle, Calpurnia dreamed that she saw it broken down."11 But the dream as we have it, the spouting statue and the smiling Romans, is a Shakespearean interpolation. Like Romeo's last dream, which we have already examined, it is chiefly remarkable for the fact that it permits two opposite interpretations, the one literal and the other metaphorical. For Decius's flattery,
that from you great Rome shall suck
Reviving blood, and that great men shall press
For tinctures, stains, relics, and cognizance
is also a truth. Antony's funeral oration turns on precisely this point, elevating the slain Caesar to the status of a saint or a demigod, exhibiting the bloody wounds to win the hearts of the crowd. And at the play's end Antony shares hegemony—however uneasily—with the novus homo Octavius, literal descendant of Caesar's "blood."
The presence of Calpurnia's dream at this crucial point in the plot is thus trebly determined: (1) it has Plutarchan authority and is thus an original element in the story; (2) it acts as a functional device to further the action, showing the deliberate blindness of Caesar to a warning which would have saved his life and demonstrating the cold-blooded manipulation of the conspirators; (3) it symbolically foreshadows events to come, supporting the theme of "all amiss interpreted" which is central to the play's meaning. Interestingly, the accustomed tension between the men who aspire to control dream and those who are controlled by it is diminished in this episode; Decius, who means to assert control, is in a larger sense controlled, since he does not see that his interpretation is true.
For all its richness, however, the scene of Calpurnia's dream is rivaled in significance by a much more tangential scene, which seems at first glance oddly out of place in the plot. The scene of Cinna the poet is in many ways the most symbolically instructive of the whole play: it demonstrates in action the same theme of misinterpretation with which we have been so much concerned. Cinna the poet, a character unrelated to his namesake Cinna the conspirator, appears only in this scene, which may be seen as a kind of emblem for the entire meaning of Julius Caesar. We encounter him as he makes his way along a Roman street, and his opening lines describe his dream.
I dreamt tonight that I did feast with Caesar,
And things unluckily charge my fantasy.
I have no will to wander forth of doors,
Yet something leads me forth.
To "feast with Caesar" here means to share his fate—we may remember Brutus's "Let's carve him as a dish fit for the gods" (II.i.173). Cinna admits that he has had a premonition of danger, but that he has chosen to disregard it; "something"—misconstruction again—leads him forth. He is set on by a group of plebians, their emotions raised to fever pitch by Antony's oration, and they rapidly catechize him on his identity and purpose.
Third Plebian: Your name sir, truly.
Cinna: Truly, my name is Cinna.
First Plebian: Tear him to pieces! He's a conspirator.
Cinna: I am Cinna the poet! I am Cinna the poet!
Fourth Plebian: Tear him for his bad verses! Tear him for his bad verses!
Cinna: I am not Cinna the conspirator.
Fourth Plebian: It is no matter, his name's Cinna; pluck but his name out of his heart, and turn him going.
The scene is a perfect illustration of Cicero's verdict: "Men may construe things after their fashion, / Clean from the purpose of the things themselves." The taking of the name for the man—a thematically important element throughout this play, where Caesar is at once a private man and a public title—is symbolic of the overt confusion manifest in much of the action. Cinna's dream is a legitimate cause for anxiety, which he chooses to ignore at peril to himself. Plutarch supplied him with a practical motive: "When he heard that they carried Caesar's body to burial, being ashamed not to accompany his funerals: he went out of his house";12 in Shakespeare's version the cause is deliberately less exact, more psychological than circumstantial. The warning is given and ignored; the plebians do not care that they attack the wrong man. In one short scene of less than forty lines the whole myth of the play is concisely expressed.
Julius Caesar is a complex and ambiguous play, which does not concern itself principally with political theory, but rather with the strange blindness of the rational mind—in politics and elsewhere—to the great irrational powers which flow through life and control it. The significance attached to the theme of "thou hast miscontrued everything" clearly depends to a large extent upon the reading—or misreading—of the play's many dreams. Here, in the last of his plays to use dreams and omens primarily as devices of plot, Shakespeare again demonstrates the great symbolic power which resides in the dream, together with its remarkable capacity for elucidating aspects of the play which otherwise remain in shadow.
10 "The Life of Julius Caesar," trans. Thomas North (1579), in Shakespeare's Plutarch, ed. C.F. Tucker Brooke (New York: Haskell House, 1966) II, 95-96.
11 Ibid., p. 97.
12 "The Life of Marcus Brutus," in Brooke, Shakespeare's Plutarch, II, 139.
Naomi Conn Liebler (essay date 1981)
SOURCE: "Thou Bleeding Piece of Early': The Ritual Ground of Julius Caesar," in Shakespeare Studies: An Annual Gathering of Research, Criticism, and Reviews, Vol. XIV, 1981, pp. 175-96.
[In the essay below, Liebler argues that Shakespeare's reference to the Lupercalian rites in Li is more significant than most critics have assumed, and that in fact the importance of celebrating rites in the traditional manner and the perversion of those rites by the plebeians would probably have resonated with Elizabethan audiences.]
Shakespeare's Julius Caesar begins at the Feast of the Lupercal, the Roman celebration which took place on February 13-15 and which, in the play, quickly passes into history's most famous ides of March. Among those readers who attach any significance at all to this opening, Shakespeare's conflation of the festival and Caesar's assassination is understood primarily as a "dramatic economy," a structural device for the exposition of the main characters and the juxtaposition of the rather "sporty" aspects of the holiday to the more serious political business of conspiracy, murder, and civil war to follow.1 Usually the critical focus is upon Act I, scene ii, which reveals Caesar's superstitious nature (as he urges Calphurnia to stand in Antony's way when he runs in the "holy chase") and contrasts Antony with Brutus: the latter is "not gamesome" and lacks "some part / Of that quick spirit that is in Antony" (11. 28-29).2
Certainly exposition of character and atmosphere is a conventional and important purpose of opening scenes in any Shakespearean play, and "so let it be with Caesar." But while contrasting characters and atmospheres are being established here, something else is going on: the Lupercal is a specific kind of holiday having ritual and political importance, and thus it is especially appropriate as the opening of Julius Caesar.3 As Rome's most ancient festival of purgation and fertility, it provides more than a vague ceremonial background for the play. It sets a specific context for Brutus' "ritual" idea of the assassination and the failure of his design, and the ground against which the political and religious changes in Rome can be seen in relief.
For most of the play's characters, as much as for its later critics, the Lupercal seems to be no more than a minor distraction. Indeed, if Shakespeare had omitted all reference to the holiday, he could have begun the play with Cassius' approach to Brutus, and avoided the conflation of a month's time. That he did not do so must therefore call our attention to the holiday itself, first of all to learn what he knew about it, and then to explore how its inclusion might affect our reading of the play. I am going to suggest in this essay that Shakespeare knew more about the practice and significance of the Lupercalian rites than is given in the traditionally accepted sources for the play, North's translation of Plutarch's Lives of Caesar, Antony, and Brutus; that his knowledge came from a fourth and equally accessible source; that he referred to the Luper-calia in this play as a ritual violated rather than observed; and that since he himself was part of a society steeped in social, political, and religious rituals of its own, he might well have used the Lupercalia as a device to show the implicit dangers to the common weal of ignoring or contravening such rituals.
In a way, we have had to ignore the specific nature of the Lupercalian rites because, although ample information about them is available to us (in Ovid's Fasti, for instance), it has not been clear that this lore was available to Shakespeare.4 The three Plutarchan Lives in fact provide very little information about the festival, and we have had to assume that this was all Shakespeare could have known about it. The references to the Lupercal in the Lives of Caesar and Antony (there are none in that of Brutus) are playful: in the Life of Caesar we learn only that it was "the feast of sheap heards or heard men," that the race was run by "divers noble mens sonnes . . . striking in sport them they meete in their way with leather thonges . . . to make them geve place," and that some women believed that receiving these blows would cure barrenness and ease childbirth.5 Similarly, in the Life of Antony we read again of the "sport of the runners," who, "running naked up and downe the city . . . for pleasure do strike them they meete in their way" (VI, 13). Descriptions of the Lupercalia in Shakespeare's other known sources—Appian, Livy, Ovid's Metamorphoses—are negligible. The material he might have read in Cooper's popular Thesaurus Linguae Romanae & Britannicae (printed five times between 1565 and 1587), in Elyot's Dictionary, or in Charles Stephanus' Latin Thesaurus, is brief and adds little to what can be found in the Life of Caesar. There is a good deal of interesting but secondary lore in Stephen Batman's 1577 Golden Book of the Leaden Gods, but to seek there Shakespeare would have needed to know with which "Leaden God" to associate the Lupercalia.
In fact, Shakespeare did not have to look in any dictionary or read any Latin in order to learn all he needed to know about the festival (and nearly as much as the Fasti would have provided). His source had been before him from his first encounter with North's Plutarch, for there, in the Life of Romulus (the first Roman Life in the collection), is a substantive account of the festival, its history and implications, and some hint of its actual as well as its metaphoric relation to the last days of Julius Caesar. For example, the Romulus reveals that the Lupercalia were rites of purgation and fertility whose precise origins were lost to history; that they were associated with the figure of Romulus and therefore with the foundation of Roman civilization (I, 98-100); that Caesar himself was involved in their observation and preservation (97); and that much of what Plutarch was later to say about the rise and fall of Caesar he had already said about that of Romulus (102-10).6 The careers of the two bear some remarkable resemblances which would not have escaped Shakespeare's notice, since the civilization that so powerfully captured his imagination began with the one and effectively ended with the other.
A reading of the Romulus offers us more than just another item for source-study. It suggests, first of all, why the play begins at the Lupercalia: this opening sets in our minds the context of an ancient religious festival over-shadowed and swallowed up by the more modern pragmatic and secular concerns of politics, which are generally accepted as the primary interests of the play. The first scene creates a sense that something is rotting—if not rotten—in the "high and palmy state" of Rome. The occasion is indeed a holiday, but there is some confusion about just what is being celebrated. For the carpenter and cobbler, the cause is Caesar's victory "over Pompey's blood"; for the tribune Marullus, the celebration of that victory is a sacrilege: "Run to your houses, fall upon your knees, / Pray to the gods to intermit the plague / That needs must light on this ingratitude" (11. 53-55). It is Marullus who remembers that the day is the Feast of the Lupercal (1. 67), and tries to maintain its age-old sanctity. The conflict upon which the play begins centers in an attempt to transform the old religious order into a new secular, political one. Perhaps it is a sense of this conflict that prompts Brutus' design for the conspirators as "sacrificers, but not butchers," as "purgers, not murderers": he reverses the initial transformation and attempts to make a political act seem religious.7 The play's opening upon the Lupercal prepares a way for us to see Brutus' coloring of the assassination in ritualistic images as something other than merely naive or irredeemably evil. It is not a design he has simply made up, but rather one which the transitional atmosphere that hangs over Rome invites him to construct as credible. I shall return to these and similar ideas later; for now, a look at the Romulus at least raises questions of where Shakespeare quite literally (or literarily) began.
We cannot be as certain that Shakespeare read the Romulus as we are that he read the other three Lives, since he does not so overtly "borrow" dialogue and events from it as he does from the others. There is at least one incident in the play, however, that appears only in the Romulus. Among the "horrid sights seen by the watch" that forewarn of Caesar's death, Calphurnia describes a vision of "clouds / . . . Which drizzled blood upon the Capitol" (II.ii. 19-21). There is no such image in the Lives of Caesar, Antony, or Brutus, but there is one in the Romulus. Plutarch reports a retaliatory ambush by Romulus against the army of neighboring Fidena, after which "there rose suche a great plague in Rome, that men died sodainely, and were not sicke: the earth brought forth no fruite: bruite beasts delivered no increase of their kynde: there rayned also droppes of bloude in Rome, as they saye" (I, 102).
A few pages later, Plutarch describes the meteorological events that accompanied the death of Romulus: "sodainely the weather chaunged, and overcast so terribly, as it is not to be tolde nor credited. For first, the sunne was darckned as if it had bene very night: this darcknes was not in a calme or still, but there fell horrible thunders, boysterous windes, and flashing lightnings on every side, which made the people ronne away . . . but the Senatours kept still close together" (I, 107). Perhaps Shakespeare noted the striking similarity between these descriptions and that which ends the Life of Caesar:
Againe, of signes in the element, the great comet which seven nightes together was seene very bright after Caesars death, the eight night after was never seene more. Also the brightnes of the sunne was darckned, the which all that yeare through rose very pale, and shined not out,whereby it gave but small heate: therefore the ayer being very clowdy and darke, by the weaknes of the heate that could not come foorth, did cause the earth to bring foorth but raw and unrype frute, which rotted before it could rype.
These are doomsday images of the horror of sterility that threatens the welfare of any essentially agrarian state. They suggest the Waste Land against which purgation and fertility rituals such as the Lupercalia were invented. They suggest too the plague against which Marullus warned, and the sense of dis-ease evoked by the play not only through the repetition of strange portents but also through their human counterparts: Calphurnia's sterility, Brutus' unaccustomed estrangement ("Vexed I am / Of late with passions of some difference"—I.ii.39-40) and his plea of ill health to stave off Portia's questions, and Caesar's past and present physical infirmities.8 People walk the streets at night in this play, instead of sleeping peacefully, even though, as Cicero advises, "this disturbed sky / Is not to walk in" (I.iii.38-39). Insomnia holds them; the feeling of disease prevails. Casca plays dumb: he "puts on this tardy form" (I.ii.296) to match the requirements of the time; and the sick Ligarius arrives at Brutus' house cloaked in his shroud, anxious for Brutus' "piece of work that will make sick men whole" (II.i.327). After the assassination, "Men, wives, and children stare, cry out, and run, / As it were doomsday" (III.i.97-98).
Other points of connection argue for a reading of the Romulus as a fourth source. We might first consider the fact that Plutarch describes the Lupercal only in the Lives of Romulus and Caesar (and briefly notes it in connection with Caesar in the Lives of Antony and Augustus). It may be that these references to the festival linked the two Lives in Shakespeare's mind as he read through Plutarch, and that this link in turn prompted the confluence of images from each in the play. Several instances in particular suggest parallels in imagery, incident, and design. If these connections are not inescapable, they are nonetheless quite tempting ones in which Caesar is specifically linked with the Lupercal and with Romulus.
In the Romulus we find Caesar mentioned by name, in an episode which resembles the Fisher-king-Holy Grail type of legend surviving in the Arthurian romances and celebrated in mumming and sword dance in Shakespeare's day. The passage also suggests a kind of atmospheric parallel to the political climate of the play. To test his strength, Romulus threw a spear made from the wood of a "cornell tree" from the Aventine to the Palatine. The spear entered so deeply into the ground that no man could pull it out. The soil was quite rich, and the' shaft took root and grew branches, and became again "a fayre great Cornell tree." Succeeding generations enshrined the tree, enclosing it within a wall and worshipping it "as a very holy thing." Whenever it showed signs of drying out, alarm was spread throughout the community "as if it had bene to have quenched a fyre," and all who heard came running with vessels of water. "In the time of Caius Caesar, who caused the stayers about it to be repayred: they says the labourers raysing the place, and digging about this Cornell tree, dyd by negligence hurte the rootes of the same in suche sorte, as afterwardes it dryed up altogether" (I, 97).
Romulus' Cornell tree was not the only structure he planted that later "dried up" under Caius Julius Caesar. One of the last acts of Romulus' life was the establishment of the very system Brutus seeks to preserve in Caesar's Rome. When he inherited control of the city of Alba, in order to "winne the favour of the people there," Romulus "turned the Kingdome to a Comon weale, and every yere dyd chuse a new magistrate to minister justice to the Sabynes. This president taught the noble men of Rome to seeke and desire to have a free estate, where no subject should be at the commaundement of a king alone, and where every man should commaund and obey as should be his course" (I, 106). Under this system, the patricians had no real power, just honorific titles, and were called upon only pro forma in governmental matters. Herein apparently Romulus offended the Senators by acting without their consultation, and now Plutarch's narrative really begins to sound familiar:
Whereupon the Senatours were suspected afterwards that they killed him, when with in fewe dayes after it was sayed, he vanished away so straungely, that no man ever knewe what became of him. . . . Howbeit, Romulus vanished away sodainely, there was neither seene pece of his garments, nor yet was there found any parte of his body. Therefore some have thought that the whole Senatours fell upon him togethet in the temple of Vulcan, and how after they had cut him in peces, every one carried away a pece of him, folded close in the skyrte of his robe.
In the end, Romulus' death is accompanied by the same sort of meteorological disturbance that we read of at the end of the Life of Caesar,9 but further embellished with much frenzied running about and blind credulity on the part of the plebeians, a controlled if somewhat conspiratorial leadership on the part of the Senators, and their elevation of Romulus, to appease the plebs, to the status of a god. And this is where, with Shakespeare's play, we came in.
The catacylsm with which the Romulus ends is a prototype of the one that threatens to erupt throughout the first two acts of Julius Caesar, does so in the third, and washes over and down through the "domestic fury and fierce civil strife" that Antony promises the "bleeding piece of earth," Caesar's corpse, until the play's end. The "division 'tween our souls" that nearly destroys the friendship of Cassius and Brutus, the disjunction of remorse from power that Brutus fears in Caesar, the insurrection in the state of man that Brutus finds in himself—the play abounds in images of fission within and between individuals as well as in the polis. But the "ambivalent," "ambiguous," and "divided" readings critics find in this "problem play" inhere not only in the behavior of characters or in our responses to them.10 Ambiguity was in fact a characteristic of Rome under Caesar; the play reflects a fairly accurate sense of the conditions represented in Plutarch's narratives.
The Lupercalian allusions and the various reactions to them in the play illustrate the pervasive and deadly confusion that troubled Rome at this time, a confusion which enabled powerful men like Caesar and Antony to alter the very nature of the state—from republic to empire—and redirect the course of its history. Against that motion, Brutus' effort stands as an impossibly idealistic conservatism,11 an attempt to hold fast to a Rome that, even as the play begins, is already evaporating. His design for the assassination—that it look like a religious sacrifice—must be seen in the context of the play's Lupercalian opening, for that opening shows how far gone and past recovery the old Rome is.
In 44 B.C., there was a built-in ambivalence in the popular Roman mind about the real meaning and significance of its rituals and traditions. The old Roman sense of time-honored tradition was already lost, perverted to human rather than divine homage. It was at that year's Lupercal that Caesar changed the nature of the festival's observance by adding a new group of priestly celebrants bearing his name (the Luperci Iulii) to the traditional two (the Luperci Fabiani and Quintiliani), and appointed Antony as its leader. This act in turn created the occasion for Antony to offer him the laurel crown "on the Lupercal" (III.ii.95), thereby making the holiday a political one in Caesar's honor. As the Lupercal had once been Romulus' festival, so now it became Caesar's. The change in effect elevated Caesar to an equivalence with Romulus, who was deified posthumously (I, 108). Thus Caesar pretended to both a contraventional Roman "monarchy" and an equally contraventional living human "divinity"; Cassius' complaint that "this man / Is now become a god" (I.ii. 115-16) was entirely justified.
The ambivalence that clouds and subverts the ritual practices of this Rome-in-transition is at the core of several of the play's "ambiguities." Cicero's apothegm, that "men may construe things after their fashion, / Clean from the purpose of the things themselves" (I.iii.34-35), may indeed be emblematic for the play. It seems that these misconstructions spring from the particular misconstruction of ritual and tradition with which the play opens. Misconstruction and misreading are inevitable when the ceremonies that hold a society together and insure its future are suddenly changed or erased. Marullus' altercation with the laborers at the start of the play is only the first instance of this pervasive ambivalence. He represents a remnant of the Old Roman conservatism, and his argument with the workers is his effort to remind them of traditional ritual observance. In this he prefigures Brutus, and like Brutus he fails because the Roman populace has lost touch with the real sacramental import of the ritual. He does not recognize the holiday's transformation from religious to secular and therefore "misconstrues" it. The same conditions allow for the contradictory interpretations of Calphurnia's dream and for the mob's shifting approval first of Brutus', then of Antony's presentations of the murder. Portia fatally misreads reports of the battle, and Cassius mistakes shouts of victory from Brutus' camp for those of Antony's, leaving Titinius to mourn helplessly: "Alas, thou hast misconstrued everything!" (V.iii.84). From Cicero's warning to Titinius' cry, the play works out in a circle of misreadings. In this sense too, Brutus "only in a general honest thought / And common good to all made one" of those misconstructions (V.v.71-72).
Such confusions signal the split world of Rome, where the month between the Feast of the Lupercal and the Ides of March comprises the last days and nights of the Republic. The accustomed ground of social, political, and religious practice is cracking open, or so the omens indicate: Casca asks, "Who ever knew the heavens menace so?" and Cassius answers, "Those that have known the earth so full of faults" (Liii.44-45). Within the fissure can be seen the structure of the civilization that underlies the imminently toppling order. It is not only Caesar's death that the play encompasses, or the deaths of the principal conspirators, or that of the poor poet who had the wrong name, or even those of the hundreds of nameless Romans who burned with the city. Besides all these, we witness the end of a political (as well as a religious) order: Caesar's coronation would have signified the end of the Republic, and even his death could not preserve the old order. It is important to remember that all of the prodigies and portents, all of the insomnia, estrangement, and confusion, all the signs of disease are felt and stated before Caesar is killed, even before the full conspiracy is mounted. They are not responses to Caesar's death but rather to conditions set in the last months of his life. The disturbance that we mark in the opening scenes of the play is the gathering movement of catastrophe, of the "plague" Marullus warned of, that grows from the events of these last months. The prayer to "intermit the plague" to which Marullus exhorts the carpenter and cobbler should be a prayer for cleansing and purification. The need would have been met by traditional observance of the Lupercalia, but in 44 B.C. such traditions were vitiated and little respected beyond their empty ceremonial forms.
Without proper observance of the appropriate purgative ritual, some other ceremony, or the semblance of one, appears in its place.12 The imagery of blood sacrifice, so abundant in this play, is more evidence of the perversion of traditional rites. Virtually all of this is Shakespeare's invention: Although Plutarch describes Caesar's assassination vividly, his image is "as a wilde beaste taken of hunters" (V, 68), which of course gives Antony his image of Caesar as "a deer, stroken by many princes" (III.i.209).13 In fact, none of the images in the play that suggest blood sacrifice or ritual of any kind (aside from the references to the Lupercal race) derives from any of the three main Lives. Calphurnia's dream of Caesar's statue, "Which, like a fountain with an hundred spouts, / Did run pure blood; and many lusty Romans / Came smiling and did bathe their hands in it" (II.ii.77-79), and Decius' flattering interpretation that it "Signifies that from you great Rome shall suck / Reviving blood, and that great men shall press / For tinctures, stains, relics, and cognizance" (II.ii.87-89) are both Shakespeare's ideas; Plutarch simply reports the dream as an image of Caesar slain and the statue toppled (V, 65). Brutus' intention to "carve" Caesar as "a dish fit for the gods," to be "call'd purgers, not murderers" (II.i. 174-80), his design to "be sacrificers, but not butchers" (II.i.166), and again his exhortation proving the dream's prophecy: "Stoop, Romans, stoop, / And let us bathe our hands in Caesar's blood / Up to the elbows" (III.i.105-07)—all of these rhetorical images are Shakespeare's embroidery over the plain presentation in Plutarch.
Without any recognizable direct warrant from the three Lives for these gory images, critics have tended to assign to them Shakespeare's intention to shock us and to present "the noble Brutus suddenly turned into a savage."14 It would appear that Shakespeare did invent the bloody hand-washing as part of the process of Caesar's murder, as he seems to have invented the expanded imagery of Calphurnia's dream. But the cutting up of the sacrificial pharmakos, whose blood is then smeared upon the flesh of the priestly celebrants, is one of the central events in the rites of the Lupercalia. This is described at length in the Romulus:
Howbeit many things are done, whereof the originali cause were hard now to be conjectured. For goat es . . . are killed, then they bring two young boyes, noble mens sonnes, whose foreheads they touch with the knife bebloudied with the bloude of the goates that are sacrificed. By and by they drye their forheads with wolle dipped in milke. Then the yong boyes must laugh immediately after they have dried their forheads. That done they cut the goates skinnes, and make thongs of them, which they take in their hands, and ronne with them all about the cittie.
This passage not only provides a source (or at least an inspiration) for those otherwise inexplicable bloody images—now seen as consistent with and traditional to the fertility aspect of the Lupercalia—but also a context within the play for Brutus' insistence on the semblance of a ritual as the pattern for Caesar's assassination.
It is most interesting in this regard to remember that it is Antony, not Brutus, who is the official Lupercus, and somewhat surprising to realize that, while he opposes Brutus both subtly and actively until the end of the play, he actually seems to endorse the idea that Caesar's death is a sacrifice. It is Antony, not Brutus, who privately addresses Caesar's body as "thou bleeding piece of earth" (III.i.254), and publicly perverts the idea of sacrament for the Romans by making Caesar's body a sacred object:
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 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.
This new sacramental object will be established by rather questionable means: if the commoners knew (as Antony will soon see to it they shall know) how much money and land Caesar left them, then they would sanctify his body. Its "sanctity" is to be bought by giving "To every several man, seventy-five drachmas" (1. 241), and the body itself becomes a property to be passed on "as a rich legacy." The new order, whose shrine is Caesar's corpse, is a duplicitous, mercenary, opportunistic, Machiavellian one. As leader of the Julian Luperci, Antony represents the sacramental system invented by Caesar, and he is a far more potent priest than Brutus is. Moreover, he is quite willing to see Rome burn to satisfy his urge to vengeance: "Now let it work. Mischief, thou art afoot, / Take thou what course thou wilt" (III.ii.259-60), and content to trade the lives of relatives and friends with the other Triumvirs in the post-cataclysmic calm of Act Four.
Thus the question that troubles our reading of this play is not whether one can make a murder appear to be a ritual sacrifice. Clearly both pro- and anti-Caesar factions see the popular possibilities in such imagery. The question is rather to what power the "sacrifice" will be made, and in whose interests. Secular politics supplants the old religion, and just as Caesar's blood was offered in libation upon the old altar, so that of the Republic, its people and its ceremonies, will be poured upon the new one. In Antony's curse "upon the limbs of men,"
Blood and destruction shall be so in use
And dreadful objects so familiar
That mothers shall but smile when they behold
Their infants quartered with the hands of war,
All pity chok'd with custom of fell deeds. . . .
The ceremony of purgation and fertility is replaced by one of holocaust, which is no ceremony at all—for ceremonies are by definition orderly and constructively designed toward some idea of fruition. This image is the inverse of ceremony: bloody and destructive.
From its first reference to the variously understood holiday to the last lines of the play, Julius Caesar is grounded in this context of ceremonies and rituals: some observed, some ignored, and some twisted to suit particular "celebrants." Such ceremonies are the hallmarks by which we know the values and progresses of whatever civilization we study, and whatever else this play may appear to signify, at its most literal it is the story of "what Shakespeare and his audience regarded as one of the great dramatic events in the history of the world"; the play "alludes to many formal ceremonies, ranging from the 'order of the course' and the ceremonies of the Lupercal . . . to the 'respect and rites of burial' which are due Brutus at the end of the play. . . . But ceremony pervades the world of the play; if Brutus is a ritualist he is in harmony with his culture."16
The social rituals traced within the play occur within the larger context of the Lupercalia as a perennially observed religious ritual. And it is within this larger context that the conservative Brutus operates. His desire to make Caesar's murder seem ritualistic is not the same thing as an attempt to make it an actual ritual, nor does he say anywhere outside the confidential circle of conspirators that it is one. His orations to the people (III.ii.12-46) contain no references to ritual—although, as we have seen, Antony's do—but only political justifications to the commons' sense of republicanism. The image that Brutus seeks to create is not, therefore, impossible; it is not even unlikely. It is entirely consistent with what he believes (and Antony proves) to be an acceptable avenue to public approbation. What, then, went wrong?
Brutus' errors, including his reluctance to kill Antony and his permission for Antony to speak (and speak last) at Caesar's funeral, have been noted by nearly every critic since Plutarch himself pointed them out (VI, 200). As I have already suggested, several of the play's characters understand the world imperfectly. Brutus does not err, however, in seeing Caesar's arrogance as a threat to the Republic; Caesar's language and actions in the play just before the assassination show that Brutus' fears are well founded, and even Plutarch asserts, in the Life of Caesar, that "the chiefest cause that made him mortally hated, was the covetous desire he had to be called king: which first gave the people just cause, and next his secret enemies, honest colour to beare him ill will" (V, 60).17 Nor is Brutus wrong in trying to use a familiar ritualistic paradigm to encourage his friends in their sense of the justice of their conspiracy. Brutus' central error, the "efficient cause" in his failure to preserve the Republic, consists mainly in his simply human inability to predict the consequences of the very history of which he is himself an agent.
"History" is, of course, rarely clear to those for whom it is still the present; perhaps only soothsayers and manipulators like Antony have the skill to foresee the future.18 Brutus does understand the history of the age preceding his own. Cassius reminds him of the Rome that was:
When could they say (till now) that talk'd of Rome
That her wide walks encompass'd but one man?
Now is it Rome indeed, and room enough,
When there is in it but one only man!
O, you and I have heard our fathers say
There was a Brutus once that would have brook'd
Th'eternal devil to keep his state in Rome
As easily as a king.
And Brutus later reminds himself: "My ancestors did from the streets of Rome / The Tarquín drive when he was call'd a king" (II.i.53-54). He is persuaded best by arguments that refer to the past, to tradition, and especially to family traditions, as in the lines above and again in Portia's appeal to him to share his troubles with her: she is "stronger than [her] sex" (II.i.295-97) because she is Cato's daughter. It is Brutus' sense of history that enables him to identify the "tide in the affairs of men" that governs their successes in the world. The problem is that, as he continues,
On such a full sea are we now afloat,
And we must take the current when it serves
Or lose our ventures.
Unfortunately Brutus misses his current (meaning both the watery force and the sense of the immediate present that the word simultaneously connotes): his hamartia is, quite literally, a "missing of the mark."
As Norman Rabkin and others have noted, the "tide in the affairs of men" that this play describes is specifically one of human political history.19 That tide is inevitably repetitive, if not altogether cyclical, as is suggested at several points in the play. Caesar triumphed over Pompey and died under his image, at the foot of Pompey's statue; Brutus in turn dies with the image of Caesar in his mind's eye: "Caesar, now be still" (V.v.50). Antony's eulogy over Caesar as the "noblest man/That ever lived in the tide of times" (III.i.256-57) echoes in his final praise of Brutus as "the noblest Roman of them all" (V.v.68). When Cassius reminds Brutus that "there was a Brutus once," the present Brutus remembers that he too has a cycle to repeat. The movement, or the moving, of history is the process in evidence in Julius Caesar, and Cassius' cryptic prophecy that in "many ages hence / Shall this our lofty scene be acted over" (III.i.111-12) merely lends a particularly theatrical self-consciousness to what is otherwise a neat acknowledgment of the recurrent politics of human history.
Ultimately the tide in the affairs of men has its own impetus, often stronger than and indifferent to individual human will. Once initiated, events are answered with consequent events. "The evil that men do lives after them" not only in Antony's sense of reputation but also in the historical sense of repercussion: an act of tyranny calls for one of liberation; assassination in turn is answered by revenge, and so on.20 The tide whose current Brutus misses becomes a flood of anarchy, of the "mutiny" Antony calls into being (III.ii.209). The play offers other metaphors for this action: the "dogs of war" will be unleashed (III.i.273), and mischief, once afoot, will indeed take its own course (III.ii.259-60). Antony understands this perfectly; Brutus never tells us whether he does.
Brutus is not so much naive as he is old-fashioned, out of time as it progresses over and around him. He does not seem to realize that he cannot stop the flow of events. His action is as heroic as it is futile. In the play's final analysis, he is "the noblest Roman of them all"; more specifically, he is the noblest Roman of the Rome that was.21 The Empire that succeeded it was never to touch its glory. The picture Shakespeare gives us of the Triumvirate is a sickening image: Octavius, Antony, and Lepidus coldly trading names and lives of relatives and friends marked for annihilation. And whereas Brutus' committee of conspirators, in the parallel scene in II.i, honestly and honorably excludes men like Cicero who cannot be counted on to support their united effort, the Triumvirate itself is a sham perpetrated by Antony and followed by Octavius. They will use Lepidus to "ease ourselves of divers sland'rous loads" and then "turn him off / (Like to the empty ass) to shake his ears / And graze in commons" (IV.i.20-27). These three are the leaders of the Rome that is left smoldering after the commons, themselves ignited by Antony's careful rhetoric, fire the city and slaughter the unfortunate poet with the wrong name. The Rome that Brutus hopes for is perverted into a self-devouring creature (anticipating perhaps Albany's prediction in King Lear that "humanity must perforce prey on itself, / Like monsters of the deep"—IV.ii.49-50), and the intended purgative and regenerative ritual becomes the mere anarchy of bacchanalian frenzy. Ironically for Brutus, Caesar's blood could never have nourished a land far too desiccated by opportunistic corruption to profit by such remedy; it is simply absorbed into the earth.
We have access to past civilizations and cultures primarily through two kinds of records: those of historical or singular events and those of traditional or repeated ones, such as rituals. In reading Plutarch, Shakespeare certainly found both kinds of records. But Shakespeare's interest was surely not that of the historian, folklorist, or any other kind of scholar. Whatever prompted him to incorporate and apply those images and occasions he recalled from the Romulus, it had to have been for the sake of theatrical texture, not scholarship. He had to know that the patterns and concerns of his play matched those of his audience, who undoubtedly did not share our modern delight in footnotes and esoterica. Thanks to a number of recent critical studies, not to mention the evidence of the plays themselves, it is hardly necessary to restate the obvious fact that Shakespeare's audience was generally interested in Roman history and its major figures.22 In all of his Roman plays, Shakespeare was "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."23
A very strong concern for historical verisimilitude might urge a playwright toward so complete a mimesis that he includes in his play even ritual practices already dying out in the culture his play presents. But neither Julius Caesar nor any other work of his suggests that Shakespeare had any such compulsion to observe minutiae of that sort, nor, we may suppose, did the bulk of his audience. Yet these elements are consciously and effectively woven into this play, and clearly with an artist's skill for representation rather than a schoolmaster's penchant for didacticism. On what grounds may we suggest that Shakespeare would have been interested in the rituals of a decaying Roman religion, and further, how could he have counted on his audience's reception and comprehension of the issues they express?
However sophisticated and secualr it may have been, the life of a Londoner in Shakespeare's time was in many respects ordered by rituals both civic and ecclesiastic. His plays frequently reflect the importance of that combined ordering as law and religion, the two faces of human governance. For example, in The Merchant of Venice (quite distant from Julius Caesar in genre and style, but only about three years earlier in composition), the two strains intersect at several points, and most strikingly in a perverse image at the moment of Bassanio's casket-choosing:
In law, what plea so tained and corrupt
But being season'd with a gracious voice,
Obscures the show of evil? In religion,
What damned error but some sober brow
Will bless it and approve it with a text
Hiding the grossness with fair ornament?
These lines concentrate for us the full context in which the play's action occurs, the major bonds by which society regulates itself in an ordered and self-perpetuating system. The interrelation of these bonds is in a sense the nexus of Shakespeare's world, powerfully evident in the civic and ecclesiastic festivals of London as well as in the much older and lasting seasonal celebrations of his native Warwickshire. Such concerns were part of every Elizabethan's life: they were not only historically but perennially significant.24
Certain features of the festivals celebrated by both urban and rural Elizabethans offer tantalizing prospects for any of the following suppositions: that Julius Caesar's incorporation of Lupercalian elements would have struck familiar chords for its audience; that the play's concerns with right rule and order, and their passage, are essentially the same as those of many folk and civic festivals generally; that Shakespeare's familiarity with the rural practices of various festivals in Warwickshire sensitized him to the analogous rites he read about in Plutarch. In the terms of the "network of analogies and parallels" that Maurice Charney suggests, these English rites pretty well ensured his audience's comprehension of those elements in the play in more or less precisely the same context: as necessary guarantors, whether pagan or Christian, ecclesiastic or secular, rural or civic, of order, succession, and fruition in the realm.
In Warwickshire particularly, Lupercalia-like rites were followed. The most remarkably similar custom—"Beating the Bounds"—was practiced throughout England. For Warwickshire, it has been described in this way:
Walking the parish boundaries . . . was an essential part of parish administration before maps and literacy were commonplace. . . . At the boundary marks (a tree, a stone, a pond) the parson paused to give thanks for the fruits of the earth and to read the gospel. . . . The company, carrying peeled willow wands, then turned to the boys and, more or less severely according to the period, beat and bumped them or pushed them in a nearby stream, all excellent reminders of boundaries.25
Whatever their didactic value, the resemblance of these practices to the Lupercalian race around the city of Rome and the thong-lashing is worth noting. The timing of these customs in England seems to vary by village: at Stratford, for instance, they occurred in the spring, but elsewhere in Warwickshire, at Warwick, Ilmington, and Birmingham, the custom was specifically a Michaelmas tradition.26 And although Stratford did not "beat the bounds" at Michaelmas, the town was otherwise engaged in what is called the "most famous" of its Michaelmas traditions, the Stratford Hiring or "Mop" Fair, which served as a marketplace or labor-exchange for hiring farmhands and housemaids (hence, the "mop" or sign of the profession). The Stratford Mop was almost always accompanied by Morris dancing and a variation on the Hobby-horse dance called "Grinning"—a contest in which the "frightfullest grinner [through a horse-collar was] to be winner."27
The forms and functions of Morris, sword, and Hobby-horse dances, and their appearances and semblances in his work, are happily familiar to most students of Shakespeare, and need not be recounted here.28 And although significant attention has been given to the Roman Saturnalia as analogous to these seasonal folk practices in England, the equally close relation of the Lupercalia has not been recognized. Indeed, some elements of these festivals may be better understood by reference to the Lupercalia than to the Saturnalia. Besides the mildly violent boundary-running, there is for instance the whipping of the spectators by the Fool during the Morris, which is in effect the inverse of the Saturnalian scapegoat sacrifice and more closely resembles the flagellation of the Lupercal-race. The Hobby-horse too is related to the fertility aspects of the Lupercalia, whenever, as in Cornwall, it chases and traps the village girls under its hood. To be so caught was considered a sign of luck, and especially of fecundity. On occasion, the "Horse" would "smear its captives' faces with tar or soot as part of the initiation process."29 This last act recalls the equally unexplained blood-smearing initiation of the Lupercalia, which may in turn have been reflected in the grotesque blood-bath scenes, including Antony's handshake, in Julius Caesar.
Although they might seem both dramatically and historically distancing, set off in a world more than one and a half millennia away, the rites and signs of the Lupercal would almost certainly have seemed culturally familiar to Shakespeare's audience. They need not have known that these were specifically Roman rites; they need only have understood what the rites symbolized in their own terms, what urges, necessities, fears, or assurances they stood for. Such recognition is by no means the exclusive business of the educated classes; echoes of domestic practices may prompt constructive associations in the mind of any viewer. And while I would not in this case argue for the same intensity of correlation which R. Chris Hassel, Jr., urges for the courtly audience's recognition of English liturgical elements in other plays, his conjecture that they "would probably . . . have noticed and enjoyed parallels that we have missed completely"30 is one I think we can reasonably apply to the ritualistic elements in Julius Caesar. We cannot know whether Shakespeare worked the Lupercalian elements into his play to create an accurate representation of historical and political Rome, a resonant semblance of native English rites to assist the audience's identification, or yet another thematic thread to bind the play's complexity. But his use of them in this play is, as I have tried to show, definite and deliberate, and should be considered whenever we return—as the critical disagreements promise we shall do—to wonder what he really had in mind.
1 See for instance T. S. Dorsch's introduction to the New Arden Julius Caesar (London: Methuen, 1955), p. xvi, and John Dover Wilson's to the New Shakespeare edition (Cambridge: Cambridge Univ. Press, 1968), pp. xvii-xviii. Adrien Bonjour's interesting idea that the elapsed month between the Lupercal and the assassination makes credible Brutus' insomnia over the decision to kill Caesar is also a type of character exposition; see The Structure of "Julius Caesar" (Liverpool: Liverpool Univ. Press, 1958), pp. 16-17. Even Brents Stirling, in what remains (to my knowledge) the most comprehensive survey of ritual imagery in the play, stresses the "preparatory" function of I.ii, "with ceremonial observance as background." See "Or Else This Were a Savage Spectacle," PMLA, 66 (1951), 767-68. I wish to thank the Southeastern Institute of Medieval and Renaissance Studies at Duke University and the National Endowment for the Humanities Summer Seminar program for the opportunity to do the research leading to this essay, and Professors Dale Randall of Duke and Norman Rabkin of the University of California, Berkeley for their encouragement during those summers. I am especially grateful to Professor Richard Levin of SUNY, Stony Brook for reading over and commenting upon an earlier draft of this essay. A brief version of the essay was presented to the Conference on Patristic, Medieval, and Renaissance Studies at Villanova University in October, 1979.
2 Citations from Shakespeare's plays refer to The Complete Works, ed. Irving Ribner and G. L. Kittredge (Waltham, Mass.: Ginn, 1967).
3 This does not mean that wherever we find in Shakespeare's plays a reference to a religious festival, we should assume a ritual underpinning for the play. The reference to Christmas in Hamlet (I.i. 158-64), for example, does not invite the same attention as the Lupercal does in Julius Caesar: neither Marcellus nor anyone else ever mentions it again in the play. The only purpose one can definitely assign to the Hamlet reference is the suggestion of the winter season as setting and the contrast of the "so hallowed and so gracious . . . time" against the present uneasy watch at Elsinore. In Julius Caesar, however, the idea of ritual and its violence punctuates the play through the third act, and the Lupercal reference does more than merely set the time in February.
4 The Fasti was printed in England as early as the 1574 Latin octavo by T. Vautroullier, but was not available in English until 1640, when it was translated by John Gower as Ovids festivalls, or Romane Calendar. I do not'mean to reopen the moot question of Shakespeare's "small Latin": it seems reasonable to concur with Dover Wilson's speculation that Shakespeare had at some time looked at the Latin Fasti and recalled it when he wrote The Rape of Lucrece ("Shakespeare's 'Small Latin'—How Much?" Shakespeare Survey, 10 , 16), and with T. J. B. Spencer's (in the same volume) that even reading the "large and cumbrous folios" of Plutarch in English "was rather a serious thing for a busy man of the theater to do. It was probably the most serious experience that Shakespeare had of the bookish kind" ("Shakespeare and the Elizabethan Romans," 33). That is, Shakespeare could read Latin at need, but probably did not do so specifically, in our sense of research, in preparing his plays.
5 Plutarch's Lives of the Noble Grecians and Romans, English by Sir Thomas North, Anno 1579. 6 Vols. Ed. George Wyndham (London: 1896; rpt. New York: AMS, 1967), V, 62. All references to the Lives are to this edition, and henceforth will be noted parenthetically, by volume and page number.
6 Sidney Homan suggests that Shakespeare read more widely in Plutarch than has been supposed, and refers us to the Lives of Dion, Alexander, and Demetrius, paralleling those of Brutus, Caesar, and Antony, respectively. He also suggests that Shakespeare knew the Lives of Cicero, Alcìbiades, Pompey, the Elder and Younger Cato, and Theseus. See "Dion, Alexander, and Demetrius—Plutarch's Forgotten Parallel Lives as Mirrors for Julius Caesar," Shakespeare Studies, 8 (1975), 195-210. Although no one—including T. J. B. Spencer in Shakespeare's Plutarch (Baltimore: Penguin, 1964)—seems to have thought of the Romulus before, Homan's work at least supports the idea of an extensive reading in the Lives.
7 Lawrence Danson suggests something similar (but pointed differently) in his discussion of the first scene of the play: "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. . . . And when, in a later scene, we find Brutus deciding upon his proper gesture, the confusions of the first scene should recur to us." Tragic Alphabet: Shakespeare's Drama of Language (New Haven: Yale Univ. Press, 1974), p. 53.
8 Although Plutarch barely hints at Caesar's epilepsy (V, 17), Shakespeare certainly seems to have exploited this brief notice. Thus, it is intriguing to note that elsewhere Plutarch specifically associates the "falling sickness" with the goats (and sometimes dogs) that, as he reports in the Romulus (I, 98-100), were usually sacrificed at the Lupercalia. The goat, says Plutarch, "is supposed to be subject above all other creatures to the falling sickness, and, when suffering from that disease, to infect all that eat or touch it. The reason, they say, is the narrowness of its air-passages, which often are choked. This they deduce from the thinness of its voice. So, in the case of men that have the falling sickness, if they speak during the fit, the voice sounds like a bleat." Quaestiones Romanae, trans. H. J. Rose (Oxford: Clarendon Press, 1924), p. 166. Although Shakespeare probably knew (from the Romulus) that goats were sacrificed at the Lupercalia, it is not demonstrably certain that he knew of this association of goats with the "falling sickness" and then imaginatively linked Caesar's "sacrifice" with that of the Lupercalian goat. But it is tempting to think that he might have done so. The Roman Questions were available in English by 1603, in Philemon Holland's translation, but that date is too late to prove availability in time for Julius Caesar.
9 The similarity may not have been accidental, if, as R. M. Ogilvie claims, "after 44 B.C. [all] accounts of the death of Romulus are modeled on the murder of Caesar." See A Commentary on Livy, Books 1-5 (Oxford: Clarendon Press, 1965), p. 85.
10 Ernest Schanzer counts Julius Caesar among the "Problem Plays" and argues for "the complex and divided attitude to the Caesar story found in Shakespeare's play" that, "however much it may also be a reflection of what he had read and felt about the matter, it is used by him as a deliberate dramatic device"—Shakespeare's Problem Plays (New York: Schocken, 1963), p. 23. Norman Rabkin agrees that "the similarly ambiguous presentations of the great antagonists" is one of the keys "to the play's meaning," and finds in the "attractiveness" of Brutus' self-destructive idealism "the true complementarity of the play." See Shakespeare and the Common Understanding (New York: Free Press, 1967), pp. 114, 119-20. Complementary to Rabkin's idea or complementarity is Larry Champion's concept of the play's "double vision" which "forces spectators simultaneously to emotional commitment and to ethical judgment"—Shakespeare's Tragic Perspective (Athens: Univ. of Georgia Press, 1976), p. 113. From a quite different (and for me, quite unconvincing) point of view, the "ambivalence" generated by the play is seen in Freudian terms in Lynn de Gerenday's essay, "Play, Ritualization, and Ambivalence in Julius Caesar," Literature and Psychology, 24 (1974), 24-33. In this view, the ambivalence is not ours but Brutus', as he uses "rhetoric and ceremony (reinforced by an emphasis on play-acting) [to] bind and distance intense love and hostility from conscious expression" (p. 25) and then uses "ritualistic elements as defense against ambivalence" (p. 32).
11 Granville-Barker's famous identification of the "spiritual problem of the virtuous murderer" (Prefaces to Shakespeare, 1st ser. [London: Sedgwick and Jackson, 1927], p. 53) still makes a great deal of sense, but it reduces Brutus' character to that of a monolithic idealist, completely out of touch with reality, and surely not one with whom to mount a serious polìtical effort. The problem with such a view is that no one in the play seems to see Brutus as a starry-eyed dreamer; indeed, his reputation for good sense and proper action makes him trusted by everyone. Even Antony must call him "honorable" (although what that word comes to mean through rhetorical repetition is another matter). Surely Brutus is idealistic, but his vision is grounded in a very real and very traditional political structure, the Rome that is, was, and, as he hopes, ever shall be.
12 Indeed, much of the play, like many others by Shakespeare, seems poised in balance between semblance and substance, but that is properly the subject of another investigation. There is a fine discussion of this balance in John W. Velz's essay, "If I were Brutus Now . . . ': Role-Playing in Julius Caesar" Shakespeare Studies, 4 (1968), 149-59.
13 I might add that Plutarch is no great defender of Antony on the other side; while the conspirators are called "hunters," in the same passage Antony and Lepidus are called cowards: "But Antonius and Lepidus, which were two of Caesar's chiefest frends, secretly conveying them selves away, fled into other mens houses, and forsooke their owne."
14 Leo Kirschbaum, "Shakespeare's Stage Blood and Its Critical Significance," PMLA, 64 (1949), 523-24. In a more recent essay, Alexander Welsh similarly concludes that "the gesture is inappropriate to the peaceable Brutus," but defends the bloodbath as a ritual whose purpose is "to acknowledge the deed of the killing"—"Brutus is an Honorable Man," Yale Review, 64 (1975), 500.
15 Neither Plutarch, who is the only one to report it, nor any modern commentator can explain the origin or significance of this part of the rite. Sir J. G. Frazer, following W. Mannhardt's Mythologische Forschungen, ventures that "it was a ritual of death and resurrection, or rather of death and a new birth. By touching the lad on the forehead with the knife . . . they symbolically slew him as a goat, and . . . symbolically brought him back to life again as a kid that needed to be fed on its mother's milk. The lads testified their joy at the new birth by laughing; and afterwards we may suppose . . . that they girt themselves with the goatskin and ran around with the other Luperci." The "Fasti" of Ovid, 5 Vols. (London: Macmillan, 1929), II, 340-41. In a more recent study, Georges Dumézil calls this part of the rite merely "enigmatic/' and does not attempt to explain it—Archaic Roman Religion, 2 vols., trans. Philip Krapp, rev. ed. (Chicago: Univ. of Chicago Press, 1970), I, 56, 348.
16 Velz, 149, 156-57, n. 4.
17 The evidence argues against Anne Paolucci's claim that "Brutus is misled into mistaking the potential Caesar for the actual Caesar, and the play is nothing more than a slow Sophoclean self-revelation on the part of Brutus that not Caesar but he himself has sinned against the gods." See "The Tragic Hero in Julius Caesar," Shakespeare Quarterly, 11 (1960), 330-31.
18 The need for such foresight in leaders seems to be an urgent one in Shakespeare's view. King Henry and Warwick discuss this idea in 2 Henry IV, and Warwick's lines particularly seem to prefigure Brutus':
There is a history in all men's lives,
Figuring the nature of the times deceas'd;
The which observ'd, a man may prophesy,
With a near aim, of the main chance of things
As yet not come to life, who in their seeds
And weak beginnings lie intreasured.
Such things become the hatch and brood of time.
(III.i. 80-8 6)
19Shakespeare and the Common Understanding, pp. 105-19, et passim. Also see Irving Ribner, "Political Issues in Julius Caesar" Journal of English and Germanic Philology, 56 (1957), 10-22.
20 Rabkin has also noticed the double meaning of this phrase (pp. 115-16), but in his view the act that initiates the repercussions of revenge is Brutus' "crime against the established order." Actually it was Caesar who acted against the established order of the Republic, and what Brutus acts against is, as Rabkin says elsewhere in his discussion of the play, never fully established (pp. 147-48, n. 23).
21 In his excellent chapter on this play, Sigurd Burckhardt identifies Brutus' anachronistic behavior as "Old Style" compared with Caesar's "New": the style Brutus selects for the assassination is that of a classical tragedy to be performed before "an audience of noble, sturdy republicans, capable of the moral discrimination and public spirit which classical tragedy demands. . . . The clock striking as soon as [Brutus] has irrevocably committed himself to the Old Style signifies to us—though not to him—that time is now reckoned in a new, Caesarean style"—Shakespearean Meanings (Princeton: Princeton Univ. Press, 1968), p. 9. Later in the same chapter he adds: "A tragedy . . . is a kind of sacrifice brought to purge the world of some disorder and restore it to its natural harmony. . . . It is this comforting theory that the clock tolls into an irrecoverable past. For it rests on a no longer tenable faith in an underlying universal order . . . that may be temporarily disturbed but can, by the proper purgatives properly administered, be reestablished. . . . Once the time is out of joint, sacrificial tragedy is no longer possible." (p. 19).
22 Maurice Charney suggests that his audience "would undoubtedly have seen Shakespeare's Roman plays in terms of an elaborate network of analogies and parallels," and that "the political ideas in the Roman plays were of lively contemporary interest. On this basis we may see some common ground between Shakespeare's English and Roman history plays, for both offer a sort of case-book of illustrations for Elizabethan political theory"—Shakespeare's Roman Plays: The Function of Imagery in the Drama (Cambridge: Harvard Univ. Press, 1961), p. 217. As with almost every other critical issue in this play, even the idea of analogical reception is subject to debate. J. L. Simmons urges an extreme case for analogy, contending that "the comic history of England and the tragic history of Rome are opposite sides of the same coin"—Shakespeare's Pagan World: The Roman Tragedies (Charlottesville: Univ. Press of Virginia, 1973), p. 68, n. 6, et passim. Conversely, Paul A. Cantor argues throughout Shakespeare's Rome: Republic and Empire (Ithaca: Cornell Univ. Press, 1976) that these plays ought to be read for Shakespeare's understanding of Rome and Romans as discrete political and historical subjects. Ultimately Charney's via media seems to me most appealing, in that it allows us to consider the audience as well as the playwright, in all their infinite varieties of educated tastes and rustic ethnocentrism.
23 T. J. B. Spencer, "Shakespeare and the Elizabethan Romans," 28. For an extensive annotated bibliography of studies in Shakespeare's classical sources, see John W. Velz, Shakespeare and the Classical Tradition: A Critical Guide to Commentary, 1660-1960 (Minneapolis: Univ. of Minnesota Press, 1968). More specific studies include, notably, J. Leeds Barroll, "Shakespeare and Roman History," Modern Language Review, 53 (1958), 327-43; DeWitt Starnes and E. W. Talbert, Classical Myth and Legend in Renaissance Dictionaries (Chapel Hill: Univ. of North Carolina Press, 1955); and T. J. B. Spencer, Shakespeare's Plutarch (Baltimore: Penguin, 1964).
24 The primacy of this combination of concerns is most strikingly evident in Hooker's Laws, whose Preface and first four books had appeared by 1593. According to its recent editors, it was received "more as an articulate statement of what England had already accepted than as a polemic against powerful religious alternatives. Within twenty years of its writing, Hooker's work was already being read as a monument"—A. S. McGrade, Introduction 1, Of the Laws of Ecclesiastical Polity, ed. A. S. McGrade and Brian Vickers (New York: St. Martin's, 1975), p. 12.
25 Margaret Baker, Folklore and Customs of Rural England (Totowa, N. J.: Rowman and Littlefield, 1974), p. 158. See also Roy Palmer, The Folklore of Warwickshire (Totowa, N. J.: Rowman and Littlefield, 1976), pp. 164-67.
26 The Feast of St. Michael and All Angels—September 29, or October 10 for Old Michaelmas—may have coincided with the premiere performance of Julius Caesar. Although the date of the performance remains unknown, it is generally agreed that it occurred in the fall of 1599. Irving Ribner, among others, accepts as certain the evidence of the letter by Thomas Platter, a Swiss travelling in England between September 18 and October 20, which refers to a play about the death of Julius Caesar performed at a thatch-roofed theater near the Thames. (See his Introduction to the revised Kittredge edition, p. ix.) It is tempting to think of such a coincidence, since Michaelmas is the festival that most evenly blends civic and religious occasions. Ecclesiastically, it celebrates angelic protection over human affairs. In the secular realm, it was the traditional time for signing contracts, trying lawsuits, harvesting crops, and electing the Lord Mayor of London and the town Bailiffs in the shies. (See R. Chris Hassel, Jr., Renaissance Drama and the English Church Year [Lincoln: Univ. of Nebraska Press, 1979], pp. 156-66, and also Geoffrey Palmer and Noel Lloyd, A Year of Festivals: A Guide to British Calendar Customs [London: Frederick Warne, 1972], pp. 74-75, 153-57.) Thus it distinctively commemorates the dual order of divine and civil law, the passage of political power, and the rituals associated with the harvest which guarantee the next year's crops—all themes with which Julius Caesar is concerned.
27 Roy Palmer, p. 124.
28 The best-known accounts of these customs and their significance for Shakespeare's work are, of course, C. L. Barber's Shakespeare's Festive Comedy (Princeton: Princeton Univ. Press, 1959), Robert Weimann's Shakespeare and the Popular Tradition in the Theater, ed. Robert Schwartz (Baltimore: Johns Hopkins Univ. Press, 1978), and, in a broader view, Mikhail Bakhtin's Rabelais and His World, trans. Helene Iswolsky (Cambridge: MIT Press, 1968).
29 Palmer and Lloyd, p. 25.
30Renaissance Drama and the English Church Year, pp. 178-81.
Thomas McAIindon (essay date 1984)
SOURCE: "The Numbering of Men and Days: Symbolic Design in The Tragedy of Julius Caesar,", in Studies in Philology, Vol. LXXXI, No. 3, Summer, 1984, pp. 372-93.
[In the essay that follows, McAlindon examines the ominous significance of the numbers four and eight in Julius Caesar, and contends that the more alert members of Shakespeare's contemporary audience would have noticed this numerology and would have been aware of the "ironic implications " it has for the characters in the play.]
Thou hast no figures nor no fantasies
Which busy care draws in the brains of men;
Therefore thou sleep'st so sound.
A remarkable feature of Julius Caesar is the extent to which it focuses on the act of interpretation. Incidents of a conventionally ominous character occasion the most obvious instances of hermeneutic activity.1 But so tense and uncertain is the playworld of this tragedy that mundane phenomena habitually assume an ominous quality, so that actions, speeches, writings "obscurely penned" (I.ii.316), and even manners, gestures, physiognomy, dress, shouts, distant scenes, and unexpected movements are all subjected to interpretive inquiry.2 Thus the tribunes' show of puzzlement at the holiday attire and equivocal talk of the commoners is a major element in the expository plan of the opening scene: "What meanest thou by that?" (1.17). Indeed the word "mean," denoting both significance and intention, is arguably the play's key word.
We can account for this emphasis on interpretation by reference to Shakespeare's broad conception of the tragic world—a conception inherited from Kyd—as a place of violent change in which it seems as if "Chaos is come again": where bonds are shattered, the war of the opposites is renewed, and the mind is confronted with "a mere confusion" in which significant distinctions are obliterated.3 But we must further recognize that Shakespeare's method in Julius Caesar is meta-historical: that he is dramatizing the problems he himself is acutely conscious of in his attempts to make sense of historical events and personages. In terms of chronicle and history play, this procedure constituted an artistic revolution in 1599; but what makes Julius Caesar so richly innovative—what in fact prepares the way for Hamlet—is that Shakespeare involves the audience itself in hermeneutic problems and difficulties. Undoubtedly we perceive more of the truth than do the dramatis personae; unlike Cassius, for example, we all know in the end that the shouting horsemen who surrounded Titinius were jubilant friends and not triumphant enemies (V.iii. 10-71). But only the observant minority in an audience new to the play will penetrate the prejudice of Casca to perceive that the increasingly feeble manner in which Caesar "put by" the coronet could be ascribed not just to reluctance, but also (or solely) to the oncoming of an epileptic seizure (or fainting fit induced by the "stinking" populace: we do not know which caused the fall). Or to move closer to the heart of the tragedy, only a few will recognize that Brutus could have killed his friend not out of love for Rome but because he loved the idea of himself as a lover of Rome.
My primary concern, however, is not with larger issues of interpretation such as the intentions and motives of Caesar and Brutus; indeed given the present climate of critical opinion, it is with something much less respectable as well as less substantial. What I wish to argue is that number symbolism forms part of the semantic material designed by Shakespeare to engage his audience in a conscious search for meaning, and that it has a special significance there. The numbers differ from all other signs in the play in that they stand for a changeless and significant pattern which patient historical hindsight can discover behind the turbulent flux in which the living struggle to understand and control their destiny. Shakespeare's number symbolism is thus consistent with the Pythagorean-Platonic idea of number as a hidden system of cosmic signs, existing beyond mutability and error, through which the diligent observer can have access to universal principles.4 It is distinctive, however, in that it functions ironically, exposing the blindness of tragic characters to the hieroglyphics of fate and to certain simple, enduring truths on which fate so often depends.5
Although I would hope that my opening emphasis on the play's semiotic and hermeneutic self-consciousness has helped to show that this claim does have an inherent logic to it, I must concede that on purely theatrical grounds it might seem to lack plausibility. Even if Shakespeare had been disposed to use number symbolism in this particular play, would his audience, engrossed in the developing action, have been able to recognize it without the kind of overt guidance that all of us would have seen by now? This is a major objection, and one which demands to be answered in terms of the verbal and nonverbal strategies of the text. But I think that the question of plausibility can also be answered in general terms by a combined appeal to Elizabethan dramatic practice and to historiographie tradition.
Although subtly elaborated and unfolded, the number symbolism used in Julius Caesar is in essence very simple, being based entirely on the numbers four and eight. Four, of course, was the constitutive number in Pythagorean numerology, and its symbolic significance was common knowledge. The world was held to be a spatio-temporal cosmos of quadripartite design, four being the number of the elements, the humors, the seasons, the ages of man, and the cardinal points of the compass. Four was thus the number of opposites reconciled and of natural unity; in ethical terms it signified amity (also justice).6 Before the composition of Julius Caesar, the tetrad had been employed for emblematic purposes on the stage by Marlowe, Kyd, and Shakespeare himself. In Tamburlaine the Great, the invincible Scythian army is represented by a leader and three lieutenants who, in their first stage appearance together, solemnize a bond of unshakeable martial amity which is implicitly compared to the union of the four elements.7 In The Spanish Tragedy by contrast, quadruple character grouping gives metaphysical resonance to the sudden destruction of a promised unity, the murderous playlet celebrating the marriage of Spain and Portugal being performed by four "friends" whose interaction therein mirrors the unchecked strife of the elements.8 Shakespeare seems to be remembering Marlowe in Henry VI, Pt. I when Talbot (with a quibble that anticipates Caesar) warns the besieged inhabitants of Bordeaux that if they reject his offer of peace they will "tempt the fury of my three attendants, / Lean famine, quartering steel, and climbing fire" (IV.ii.10-11). But it is mainly Kyd who is remembered in A Midsummer Night's Dream, Romeo and Juliet, and Richard II; here, scenes of actual or promised violence in which the ideas of reconciliation, love, and peace have been earnestly but vainly invoked acquire paradigmatic intensity through the combined use of quadruple character grouping and elemental imagery.9
The second of the two numbers fundamental to the design of Caesar was primarily the number of justice in numerological tradition. But because of the seven days of the week, and the connection between ideas of justice and redemption, it also signified regeneration, resurrection, a new beginning. The octad, therefore, was closely associated with the rites of baptism (hence the octagonal shape of the old baptismal fonts) and of marriage.10 Shakespeare's familiarity with this tradition is made fully apparent at the close of As You Like It when Touchstone's talk about a quarrel that seven justices could not "take up" modulates into the dance of four pairs of lovers ("Here's eight that must take hands") and Hymen's pronouncement that "earthly things made even / Atone together" (V.iv.85-105, 122). As we shall see, this ending parallels the conclusion of Julius Caesar, written at approximately the same time.
Historiographic traditions relating to the death of Caesar and the rise of Octavius provide evidence to suggest that the educated among Shakespeare's audience would have been responsive to the use of a basic number symbolism in the dramatic treatment of such material. Plutarch, Appian, Florus, Carion, and Fulbecke all see the killing of Caesar as the logical culmination of over one hundred years of internal strife and moral decline among the Romans; but they also see it as the means by which Fortune and divine power restored unity to Rome and bestowed upon it and the world a "time of universal peace" (AC, IV.vi.4).11 These conceptions seem almost to invite symbolic expression in terms of four and eight; and in fact the ever-popular Florus, and after him Carion and Fulbecke, are much given to quadruple patterns which mirror their preoccupation with division and unity, mutability and stability. It is claimed that Roman history falls into four periods corresponding to the four ages of man, the third or mature period culminating in the reign of Augustus;12 that there have been four successive monarchical periods in world history, of which the last and greatest began with Julius Caesar;13 that before the civil wars broke out, Rome was an organic unity of four different peoples "compacted . . . as a bodie of diuerse elements";14 and that the rule of Augustus brought the nations of the four parts of the world—"all the West and the South . . . and Northward also . . . as likewise in the East" into "an entire and continual either peace or compaction."15
Since I am concerned with the interaction of meta-historical and numerological method in Julius Caesar, mention must also be made here of the historical philosophy of Jean Bodin. The two works for which Bodin was best known in England in the sixteenth century, his De la Republique (1577) and Methodus ad facilem historiarum cognitionem (1566), contend that in times of great instability, and among peoples with a native dislike of authority, the only bulwark against the forces of destructive change is strong rule by one man. That Julius Caesar could be said to endorse this view is a point of some importance; but the really significant fact is that in the Method for the Easy Comprehension of History Bodin's consciousness of the tide of mutability with which all nations must contend is balanced by a belief that mutability follows a cyclical pattern, and that to some extent the pattern is intelligible and therefore predictable in the light of Pythagorean numerology.16 It has to be admitted that Bodin's attempts at the numerological interpretation of history are of a complexity that no sane dramatist would dare emulate.
On the other hand, such was the impact of the Methodus—it "was probably read by most serious students of history between 1580 and 1625"17—that any dramatist who employed a basic number symbolism in dealing with a subject such as the fall of Julius Caesar would have had very little difficulty in alerting the judicious among his audience to its presence.
The play has many explicit references to number and to the acts of counting and dividing, as well as a series of covert numerological puns on such words as "quarter" ("slaughter," "encamp"), "part" ("depart," "say farewell") and "forth." Two incidents which function as ironic parallels provide what are perhaps the most illuminating of all the explicit references to number. One is when Brutus begins to "construe . . . the charactery" of his sad brows (I.ii.44, II.i.307-8), assuring an anxious Cassius that this unfriendly manner has been misinterpreted and that his feelings towards his old friends are unchanged: "let not therefore my good friends be griev'd / (Among which number, Cassius, be you one)" (I.ii.42-3). The other incident is when Cassius, confused by Antony's affirmative comments on both the conspirators and their victim, seeks to discover his actual intentions (i.e., true meaning): "what compact mean you to have with us? / Will you be prick'd in number of our friends, / Or shall we on, and not depend on you?" (III.i.215-17). These two incidents have a double value in Shakespeare's symbolic strategy. They conjoin the idea of number with that of meaning and interpretation; and they draw attention to the fact that the chief source of interpretive uncertainty and error is friendship—who is a friend and who is not? what is true love?
Which is to say that the key number in the play is four, the number of unity and friendship (amity). We are made imaginatively receptive to its presence and significance by widespread use of elemental imagery. The importance of such imagery to the conceptual and symbolic patterns of the play seems to be underlined by that resounding and explicit reference to the elements in Antony's panegyric on Brutus at the very end. Antony construes the dead Brutus as a man of inspiring natural integrity, one in whom the elements were so well mixed that he was able to impose unity on an assortment of envious individualists: "He only . . . made one of them" (V.v.71-2). The speech, however, is deeply ironic, being undercut (though not disqualified) by our memories of Brutus' extreme melancholy and consequent moral confusion, and, less obviously, by the fact that Brutus failed to "make one" of the conspirators for more than a few hours (a point I shall return to later). Moreover this final appeal to the idea of elemental harmony is quite at odds with the effect created by a number of very powerful speeches in which elemental imagery has been conspicuous. In the joint-speech of the tribunes to the citizens (I.i.34-62), in Cassius' tirade against Caesar (I.ii.89-130), in Casca's description of the storm (I.iii.3-10), and in Antony's oration to the citizens (III.ii.73ff), the impression conveyed by the imagery is one of turbulent conflict wherein bounds and bonds are broken and transformation is the norm: water invades earth, wind "incenses" water, and earth, water, and wind are finally subsumed in a river of blood-red fire.18
Pointing more directly, though less insistently, at the play's key number are a few explicit expressions (some literal, some punning) of the idea that unity and therefore life itself is quadripartite. Cassius, for example, remarks that "three parts" of Brutus have been won over to the conspiracy and that "the man entire / Upon the next encounter yields him ours" (I.iii. 154-6). Antony predicts that infants will be "quarter'd with the hands of war" in "all the parts of Italy" (III.i.264-8). And when Lucilius announces near the beginning of Act IV that Cassius and his army "mean . . . to be quarter'd" at Sardis, "the greater part" having arrived already (IV.ii.28-9), we are surely intended to suspect, an ominous pun. For not only do "part" and "mean" serve as cues; there is also the fact that only seventy lines earlier we have heard Antony and Octavius abandon their idea of "the three-fold world divided," decide to get rid of their triumviral partner, and confirm their joint intention of opposing Brutus and Cassius: "Therefore let our alliance be combin'd" (IV.i.14, 43).
Like the personal friendships and the marriages of the leading Romans, this alliance is evidence that the bonds which "incorporate and make us one" (II.i.273) are always binary conjunctions to begin with. Nevertheless the whole imaginative thrust of the play is to suggest that binary relationships are secured by quadruple groupings and that division and disintegration is a process of quartering. The death of the titular hero at the half-way point mirrors a shattering of unity which is cunningly written in tetradic outline into character grouping, staging, and even characterization. Like The Spanish Tragedy, this is not a play about "one man . . . but one man . . . but only one man." (I.ii.151-5). It might well have been called The Roman Tragedy, for it is a play about a national community and its leaders which shows with deep conviction that the integrity and destiny of the "single self (I.i.93) are deeply dependent on its relations with other selves. Accordingly it is denied a single hero in the conventional sense but given a collective hero riven by the spirit of strife: as the Arden editor (to name but one critic) has remarked, it is dominated by "four fully developed characters of absorbing interest . . . Caesar himself, Brutus, Cassius, and Antony" (Julius Caesar, p. xxvi). Thoroughly individual though they are, these men are representative figures. They are "the breed of noble bloods" (I.i. 149), the natural leadership of Rome; and the intimation is that Rome's fall is indistinguishable from their inability to "close / In terms of friendship" and "stand fast together" (III.i.87, 202-3).
The representative nature of the four leading Romans is underscored by the fact that they are broadly identifiable with the four humoral types which comprise humanity—Brutus is melancholic, Cassius choleric, Caesar phlegmatic, and Antony sanguine. (The relatively frequent use of such terms as "temper," "complexion," and "humor," overt reference to the humoral disposition of Cassius, and the tendency of the dramatis personae to set themselves up as shrewd psychologists, would all have combined in prompting an Elizabethan audience to make these simple identifications.) It is indicated, moreover, that the humors of the four leaders have become "ill-temper'd" (IV.iii.l 14, 115) and excessive and so have contributed to the "falling sickness" that afflicts all Rome: Cassius' choleric urge to "strike fire" in men like "gentle Brutus" and "dull Casca" begins a Roman fever; Brutus' black depression darkens his reason and makes him "suck up the humours" and "unpurged air" of the conspirators' night (II.i.262-6); Caesar's insistence on being always Caesar, always beyond change, motion, and emotion, merely feeds his falling sickness (since "security gives way to conspiracy"); and Antony's warm nature and consequent ability to "stir men's blood" (III.ii.225) turns the Tiber into a crimson torrent—violent phlebotomy for a sick body politic. The humoral conception of the four characters corresponds with their actions and interactions in another way too. The wholly contrarius nature of choler (hot and dry, corresponding to fire) and of phlegm (cold and moist, corresponding to water) is reflected in the profound mutual antipathy of Cassius and Caesar; and it is figured in Cassius' fiery account of how he pulled Caesar ("a man of such feeble temper") from a watery death, much as Aeneas pulled Anchises from the flames of Troy (I.ii.99-114). The total contrariety of melancholy (cold and dry, like earth) and blood (warm and moist, like air) is echoed in the oratorical styles of Brutus' and Antony's struggle for the hearts of the citizens. All this, however, is not to imply that the four leading characters are fully intelligible in terms of humoral psychology. My point is simply that each is given, especially at the outset, a general resemblance to one of the four psychological types and that this is done for more than psychological reasons.19
Quadruple grouping is not confined to these characters. The bonds which "incorporate and make us one" are exemplified in two structurally balanced and strongly contrasted marriages which are visibly affected by the divisiveness emanating from the "bond" of "secret Romans" (II.i.124-5). The well-known passage in which Thomas Platter records his visit in 1599 to a performance of what was almost certainly Shakespeare's "tragedy of the first Emperor Julius Caesar" is surely relevant here. After the performance, notes Platter, the actors "danced . . . most gracefully, two in men's clothing, two in women's clothing, wonderfully with one another."20 Although a concession to popular taste, this dance harmonized perfectly with the theme and method of the preceding tragedy, marriage and dance being traditional symbols for the concordant contrariety of the four elements and the natural order.21
But there are more conspicuous examples of quadruple grouping than the two marriages. We have been induced by modern productions (and critical commentary) to expect a crowd in the scene where Brutus and Antony contend for the hearts of the Roman people. According to the text, however, the people are represented by the First, the Second, the Third, and the Fourth Plebeian (presumably there were eight at the start of the scene, Brutus having instructed Cassius to "part the numbers" and go with his half into "the other street" [III.ii.3-4]). The text also makes clear that Cinna the poet meets his fate at the hands of four plebeians in the next scene: no doubt the same ones.
The failure of the triumvirate, too, entails a reassertion of quadruple grouping among the Roman leaders and their various followers. This begins with two stage images of republican concord, pointedly placed just after the quarrel between Brutus and Cassius and before the appearance of Caesar's ghost and the prebattle parley. Both of these little tableaux are located in Brutus' tent; and since this was probably represented on Shakespeare's stage by means of a scaffold, if not by one of those structures known as "mansions," their emblematic effect could have been quite pronounced.22 In one, Messala and Titinius join the two reconciled friends and are warmly invited by Brutus to sit with them round the candle-lit table ("Now sit we close about this taper" [IV.iii. 163]). In the other, Lucius plays his sleepy tune, and he, Varro, Claudius, and Brutus—servant and master, sentries and general—seek "good repose" in a spirit of affection and mutual respect in the one confined space. The significance of these two stage images, however, is that what harmony there is among the republicans is of its very nature transient if not illusory—the light fails ("How ill this taper burns"), and "the strings, my lord, are false" (IV.iii.274, 290).
This idea is recapitulated in the more complex and expressive staging of Act V, Scene i. The first part of the scene presents a stark image of division and incipient disintegration, with Brutus and Cassius at the head of one Roman army, and Antony and Octavius at the head of another, meeting symmetrically at the center of the stage to parley together like stinging bees (V.i.34-9). The conspicuous absence here of Lepidus the triumvir, the fact that Octavius is now addressed as Caesar for the first time (the ghost of his namesake has just left the stage), and the suggestion of a pun in Antony's oddly phrased invitation to Octavius to step forward and complete the group ("Make forth" [V.i.25]) all combine to create a powerful reminder of the old quadruple unity that failed. In the second half of the scene, the symbolic impact of tetradic grouping is greatly sharpened by means of antithetical contrast and ironically disclosed analogy. After Antony and Octavius take their leave with words of contempt and defiance (V.i.64-6), "Lucilius and Messala stand forth" immediately (Folio s.d.) to partner Brutus and Cassius. Hands are joined, the talk is mostly of love and friendship, and the scene ends with a ceremonious farewell. But this formal display of friendship serves to gloss over a serious flaw in the relationship between Brutus and Cassius (see V.i.74-6), and it simultaneously bodes eternal division: "this parting was well made" (V.i.119, 122).
Indeed the play ends with a comment on Brutus' dream of republican unity which is terrifyingly ironic, if strangely consoling. A brief but eloquently symbolic stage direction introduces us to the fact that Brutus' surviving followers have been befriended by the opposition and become parts of a new Rome: "Enter Antony, Octavius, Messala, Lucilius, and the army" (V.v.52; italics added). And then Caesar rounds off Antony's panegyric on the man in whom the elements were once well mixed, and who "made one" of the factious, by announcing that "Within my tent his bones to-night shall lie, / Most like a soldier, order'd honourably" (V.v.78-9). The waste is irreparable, yet out of strife comes unity.
Although the number of justice, regeneration, and new beginnings is used less insistently than that of unity and friendship, it figures extensively and is deployed in a wonderfully subtle manner. It comes to notice first after Brutus and his friends solemnly shake hands ("one by one" [II.i.112]) in a bond aimed at restoring justice and reviving a Rome which purportedly has lost "the sparks of life" (I.iii.57).23 The number of the conspirators at this point is seven; but when Brutus appoints a few moments later that Caesar will be "fetched" at the eighth hour (II.i.213), Metellus immediately remarks that Ligarius has unaccountably been omitted from the conspiracy, and in this nicely cued manner the "knot" of eight liberators (III.i.117) is nominally completed and tied. Shakespeare enhances the effectiveness of his cue by making Ligarius rather than anyone else the eighth man, since his name is so obviously formed from the verb ligare, meaning literally "to bind" or "to tie" and figuratively "to bind together" or "unite" (as in a compact). In Plutarch, it will be noted, the number of conspirators far exceeds eight, and Ligarius is by no means the last recruit.24
The character of the eighth man, briefly sketched though it is, combines neatly with the meanings of his name and numerical position to cast an ironical light on the whole conception of the conspiracy as a band of patriots devoted to unity, love, justice, and the revival of Rome. Ligarius' untimely knock on the door forces Brutus to bring his tender spiritual reunion with his wife to an unceremonious conclusion ("Leave me with haste" [II.i.309]). Ligarius, moreover, commits himself to the conspiracy without even asking what its purpose is; and he himself is feeble and sick. He does however refer to his physical condition in such a way as to flatter the regenerative conception of the assassination, saying to Brutus: "Thou, like an exorcist, has conjur'd up / My mortified spirit. Now bid me run" (II.i.323-4). But his regeneration is short-lived at best, and he proves in the end to have been a weak link in the chain. We observe him at Caesar's house when Caesar, on the audible stroke of eight o'clock, graciously acknowledges his sick presence (II.ii. l11-15), and we are reminded of him again when his name comes last on the list of eight read out by Artemidorus in the next scene ("There is but one mind in all these men, and it is bent against Caesar" [II.iii.4-5]). However when Antony takes the red hands of the conspirators one by one—"First, Marcus Brutus . . . next . . . now . . . now . . . yours . . . yours . . . last" (III.i. 184-9)—it suddenly becomes clear that Ligarius did not come to the Capitol to support his friends. Indeed in the hopeful eyes of the other seven conspirators Antony is now replacing him as the eighth man. "Will you be prick'd in number of our friends, / Or shall we on, and not depend on you?", asks Cassius; to which the reply is: "Therefore I took your hands. . . . Friends am I with you all, and love you all" (III.i.216-20).
The ironies of this situation are greatly compounded by the fact that within minutes Antony will join hands (III.i.297) with the servant of the conspirators' inevitable enemy: a man who "lies to-night within seven leagues of Rome" (III.i.286) and whose name, heard now for the first time in the play, rings like Nemesis. Himself the eighth man (octavus), Octavius is the authentic figure of justice and regeneration. Without doubt he is coldly ruthless; yet his acceptance of Antony's proposal that the triumvirate should become a duumvirate (IV.i. 13-28), and the opening and closing remarks of this, his first scene—
These many then shall die; their names are prick'd.
(IV.i.l; my emphasis)
Let us do so: for we are at the stake,
And bay'd about with many enemies;
And some that smile have in their hearts, I fear,
Millions of mischiefs.
—suggest that this ruthlessness is a prerequisite for reducing the many to the one: which is a Pythagorean-Platonic definition of reducing chaos to cosmos (the unlimited to the limited). At any rate, when the duumvirate itself is ended, and all Romans—in Cassius' bitter phrase—"stand under one man's awe" (II.i.52), Rome itself will be reborn.
It seems possible that Shakespeare's symbolic imagination was stimulated by the fact that Julius Caesar and Augustus gave their names to the seventh and eighth months of the year; for temporal number, denoting both chronology and frequency, contributes a good deal to the numerical symbolism of the play. In general, it helps to articulate the pervasive themes of unity, amity, justice, and regeneration. But it has the more specific function of defining time as the ordered movement of a cosmos which exacts retribution on man's tragic restlessness and impatience, his inability to follow the law of life as regulated motion within a confined space.
Ideas of circular motion and of containing circularity are quite frequent in the play and strongly affect its imaginative coloring: they are reflected in the structure, in reported and enacted action, and in references to the sun, the clock, and the calendar. Their essential function as ironic reminders of human limitation could hardly be missed. However an appreciation of their full significance requires some awareness that in Pythagorean-Platonic tradition the circle expresses the perfection of the cosmic tetrad, its unified multeity and stable motion in both the four elements (described by La Primaudaye as "a round daunce") and the four seasons of the circling year ("annus" was said to derive from "annulus," meaning "ring").25 Thus when the Fourth Plebeian cries out, "A ring! Stand round" (III.ii.166), and Antony immediately recalls that "summer's evening" when Caesar wore his stabbed cloak for "the first time" (III.ii.173-4); or when Titinius is "enclosed round about / With horsemen," and Cassius simultaneously concludes that he himself will end where he began, "Time" having "come round" (V.iii.24-9): then we know we are in an intellectual environment where space and time are held to be correspondent cosmoi, constructed on the same principles, governed by the same laws.
The first victim of Time's retributive action is Caesar himself. Triumphant in civil war, Caesar has cut short the natural life of fellow Romans; now, his "wisdom consum'd in confidence," he refuses to acknowledge that his own time of danger has arrived and even claims to be beyond motion and so beyond Time. The way in which Shakespeare alters Plutarch's chronology seems designed to suggest that Caesar's death, sudden and untimely though it is, is really an assertion of Time's order: since the feast of the Lupercal fell on the fifteenth day of February, and the Ides of March on the fifteenth day also, Caesar's fall at the base of Pompey's statue takes place exactly one month—four weeks to the day—after his entry "in triumph over Pompey's blood" (I.i.51).26 Of course the element of justice in Caesar's death does not mean that the conspirators themselves are justified. Unlike Flavius and Marullus, they are not concerned with what Caesar did to Pompey; they are obsessed rather with the crimes he might commit if given time. Thus although they refer to "the time's abuse" (II.i.l15), and speak vaguely about redressing wrongs and making Caesar "bleed for justice' sake" (IV.iii.19), the dramatic emphasis rests firmly on the fact that they deny Caesar the opportunity to prove their fears wrong or right: they "prevent" his future, abridge "His time of fearing death" (II.i.28, III.i.105). Reference to the number of times Caesar was offered the crown delicately gives shape to this idea of an unnatural truncation. On the feast of the Lupercal, and yet again on the day of his death, it is reported with emphasis that he was "thrice presented . . . a kingly crown, / Which he did thrice refuse" (III.ii.97-9, I.ii.235-40). The significance of the fact that the crown was offered three times (it was offered twice in Plutarch's Life of Caesar, and many times in his Life of Antony) relates to the rumor that it was to be offered again on the Ides of March, this time by the Senate. The rumor gives urgency to the conspirator's plot to kill Caesar; but they do not wait to see if it will materialize, or what Caesar will do if there is a fourth time.
The numerical pattern of the kingship offers is reinforced by a remarkable series of puns on the word "forth" in the dialogue between Caesar and his wife and servant on the morning of the Ides of March. Perhaps it is coincidental that there are eight puns and that the first of them occurs in the eighth line of the scene. But unless we are to indict Shakespeare of extreme insensitivity in the use of words, we must at least grant that a continuous if covert pun on this adverb (and verb) of motion is intended. The eight puns are all concentrated within the first fifty lines of the scene and are rhetorically signalled with great deliberation. Thus the scene opens with Caesar soliloquizing to the effect that Calphurnia "thrice" cried out in her sleep, "Help, ho! they murther Caesar!" (II.ii.2-3), and within seconds she herself enters to ask: "What mean you Caesar? Think you to walk forth?" (II.ii.8). Again, when he twice assures her that "Caesar shall forth" (II.ii.10, 28), and she warns him that "the heavens themselves blaze forth the death of princes" (II.ii.31), he responds numerically: "Cowards die many times before their deaths; / The valiant never taste of death but once" (II.ii.32-3). His response to the servant's message from the augurers—"They would not have you stir forth today. / Plucking the entrails of an offering forth, / They could not find a heart within the beast" (II.ii.38-40)—shows an even more conspicuous use of the same kind of cueing:
No, Caesar shall not ["stay at home"]. 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,
And Caesar shall go forth.
The fatal refrain is heard for the last time in the scene when Calphurnia goes on her knees to plead, "Do not go forth to-day" (II.ii.50), and he agrees to stay at home "for thy humour" (II.ii.56). It is at this point that the conspirators begin to arrive, with the glib-tongued Decius in the van; so that at eight o'clock (II.ii.114) Caesar is moved to change his mind once more and go forth with his "good friends" (II.ii.126). One of the arguments used by Decius to persuade him is that the senators have decided to offer him the crown today and that if he absents himself because of his wife's dreams they might be disinclined to offer it at "another time" (II.ii.98). Caesar of course shows no sign of being moved to impatient desire by this argument: it is the fear of being thought fearful which seems to sway him. But the argument serves to turn the conspirators' refusal to accept Caesar's decision not to go forth today into an ironic anticipation of their own impatient refusal to wait for his reaction to the fourth offer.
Shakespeare's conception of the central deed as a violation of Time's order is buttressed by the treatment accorded almost all the other actions of the conspirators. When Cassius first attempts to "move" him against Caesar, Brutus gravely remarks on the need to move only as time, patience, and opportunity dictate: he seems committed for the moment to the normative principle of regulated change (I.ii.160-73; cf. IV.iii.212-23). Almost immediately, however, he plunges with Cassius and the others into a realm of "phantasma or hideous dream" where a hectic, confused present is engulfed by spectres of the future and ghosts of the past. Appropriately, the conspirators' alienation from Time's peaceful cycle is signalled in the garden or orchard scene where the temptation of Brutus is successfully completed and the conspirators effectively seal their own as well as Caesar's fall. Time and place, it should be noted, are mutually supportive in the complex symbolic setting of this action. The garden suggests nature's recreative, temporal cycle as well as the archetypal Fall which brought change and death into the world. The night symbolizes the sinister nature of the secret bond and the blindness of the conspirators to its true nature. But as in Macbeth and Othello (and most other tragedies of the period), being active and abroad at night is seen here as a departure from Time's order—a confusion of temporal opposites—which is unnatural and ominous in itself.
The scene opens with Brutus expressing uncertainty as to the time and calling Lucius from "the honey-heavy dew of slumber" (II.i.230) on the assumption that day is near. As he recognizes by the time the boy arrives (he has soliloquized in the interim on the need to kill Caesar "in the shell"), this assumption is mistaken. But he is uncertain also about the date, so before the boy can return to bed he has to consult the calendar and report to his master that "March is wasted fifteen days" (Il.i. .59). Similar uncertainties afflict some of the muffled men whom Lucius admits before he finally retires. Decius and Cinna presume day is near because they see a light in what they take to be the east; but Casca disagrees, and in the manner of one who has access to the best chronologist of the day lectures them on the sun's position in relation to the seasons, the points of the compass, and the months (II.ii. 102-11). The easy naturalism with which these two pieces of dialogue on time and place are managed, together with the dramatist's tactful refusal to overdirect his audience, has helped to conceal the superbly significant irony they are designed to effect in the context. The irony is that these men are planning to murder a leader whose greatest and most enduring achievement during his one year as dictator was to reform the republican calendar—a calendar regularly interfered with for political reasons and hopelessly at variance with the solar revolutions. Plutarch himself, no lover of dictators or of Caesar, seems to have felt that the solar or Julian calendar was the clearest sign that Caesar was the "one only absolute governor" that the factious state of Rome then needed.27 In striking at this one man, then, the conspirators are striking at the one representative, imperfect and aging though he is, of Time's rule.
And Time replies in kind. The great movement of ironic reversal which constitutes the second half of the play is initiated and brought to its conclusion by a series of untimely acts which Time assimilates to the economy of its own law: the untimely is rendered timely and Fortune's wheel made one with the sun and the stars, the clock and the compass. Brutus begins the movement when he makes the characteristic mistake of speaking to the citizens before Antony ("I will myself into the pulpit first" [III.i.236]), and hastens it to its conclusion when he insists on "coming down" from the "upper regions" and giving "the word [of battle] too early" (V.i.2-6, V.iii.5). Cassius' mistake is to conclude that the successful Brutus has been captured, order Pindarus to "come down" from his observation post (V.iii.33), and anticipate the end by committing suicide. His death thus replicates the "preventive" murder of Caesar; but so too does that of Brutus, for in taking his own life Brutus abandons his belief that one should face the worst armed "with patience / To stay the providence of some high powers that govern us below" and never "for fear of what might fall . . . prevent / The time of life" (V.i.105-8).
There are quiet but unmistakeable indications that these untimely deaths are the fulfilment of Time's design. Cassius' deathday is also his birthday: "Time is come round, / And where I did begin, there shall I end. / My life is run his compass" (V.iii.23-5). It is three o'clock in the day when his body is discovered by a Brutus who readies himself to "try fortune in a second fight" (V.iii. 109-10), just as it was three o'clock in the night when Caesar's hour of misfortune was determined. And in contrast to their uncertainties about where and when the sun would rise, the republicans now watch his progress, know exactly when night will fall (V.iii.60-5, 109), and recognize that their "hour is come" (V.v.20). This final resolution of the untimely into the timely is also one of violence into peace. It is a peace which comes not only from exhaustion and defeat but also from the reconciliation of opposites, the completion of a cycle, and the sense of a spatio-temporal cosmos whose encompassing law binds all. It helps, if only a little, to compensate for the tragic inability of the two friends to perceive the full meaning of those words which were uttered by Brutus himself in the dark garden: "Peace! count the clock!" (II.i. 192).
In Julius Caesar, then, Shakespeare makes use of a numerology which is in essence very simple and close to traditional modes of thought and expression. There are no more than two number symbols of importance in the play, and they are tied to the dominant themes—unity, amity, justice, and regeneration (and their opposites)—in a manner which fully deploys their traditional meanings. My analysis has also indicated that Shakespeare uses all the resources of his art—nonverbal and verbal, visual and auditory—to awaken the imagination to the symbolic importance of number. This is a point which I would like to emphasize and amplify by way of conclusion.
Iteration of a steady but largely oblique and unemphatic kind is Shakespeare's guiding principle in the dramatic art of numerological suggestion. We do not see the four main characters alone on stage together like the four quarrelling friends of A Midsummer Night's Dream; but we do see that they are the men who matter, and we see Brutus, Cassius, Antony, and the new Caesar face to face in bitter contention. We see also the four representative plebeians, the three displays of four-fold unity in the republican camp, and the four reconciled enemies at the head of one Roman army; and if we had been present at the Globe in 1599 we would have watched the dance of two men and two women and been reminded at the end not merely of the two marriages that vanished in the middle but of all the other quadruple patterns and "partings" as well. On the first of the four occasions when we learn the time of day, we are in effect required by the dramatist to join with the conspirators in listening to and even counting the clock. And although the number is three, it resolves instantly into the higher number; Cassius says, "The clock hath stricken three," Trebonius remarks, "'Tis time to part," and Cassius continues, "But it is doubtful yet / Whether Caesar will come forth today or no" (II.i. 192-4). On the second occasion there is no such calculated blurring (or delicate nudging): says Brutus, "Caesar, 'tis strucken eight" (II.ii.114).
What is of prime importance here about these two notations on four and eight is that they quickly become reverberative. The remark about Caesar's doubtful coming forth is picked up at the beginning of the next scene in the eightfold pun. Moreover, it is echoed both visually and verbally in the brief and sharply patterned scene which follows the removal of Caesar's body from the stage. In the third and fourth lines of his four-line opening speech, the poet Cinna stumbles on the key pun: "I have no will to wander forth of doors, / Yet something leads me forth" (III.iii.3-4). He is immediately confronted by the four plebeians from whom come, in rapid succession, four questions (name? destination? abode? marital status?) and four demands (answer directly, briefly, wisely, truly). Cinna then parodies this double-four catechism with an imprudent air of amusement (III.iii.13-16), proceeds to answer each of the four questions in the manner demanded, and is finally rewarded for his humorous tribute to the tetrad by being torn to pieces (he is the first innocent to be "quarter'd"—after Caesar's murder—in any of "the parts of Italy"). The sentence, "Caesar, 'tis strucken eight," is also echoed both visually and verbally. In the succeeding scene, eight men are grouped about Caesar's body, he is compared to "a deer, strucken by many princes" (III.i.209), and the servant who helps remove his body announces that Octavius lies seven leagues from Rome, awaiting his moment. It is an uncannily reverberant dramatic context rather than explicit signposting that draws attention to the patterns of number.
For a variety of reasons, the tentativeness of Shakespeare's symbolic method is artistically right. In the first place, symbolic specificity would have destroyed the impressive blend of the naturalistic and the non-naturalistic that Shakespeare was beginning to achieve at this point in his career. The tentative method too accords with the accepted notion that nature's numerical designs do not always declare themselves openly but are a form of "mystical Mathematicks" that require patient observation and interpretation.28 Above all, however, Shakespeare's respect for the reticence of universal number serves to enhance the ironic implications of his tragedy and to strengthen the connection which it establishes between the experience of the audience and that of the dramatis personae and the historical dramatist. In seeking to construe the numbers which tantalize both eye and ear, the observant minority in Shakespeare's audience at the Globe would have been keenly aware that men can be everywhere surrounded by the signs of fate to no avail, that meaning is mockingly elusive, and that "hateful Error" (V.iii.67) is a universal enemy.
1Julius Caesar, e d. T. S. Dorsch, The Arden Shakespeare (London, 1955), I.iii.1-78; II.ii.1-105; IV.iii.274-302; V.i.78-90. Dorsch's edition of Caesar is used throughout this essay; in other Shakespearean references the text used is that of The Tudor Shakespeare, ed. Peter Alexander (London and Glasgow, 1951).
2 I.iii.31-50, 78-9, 130-2, 161, 180-285; II.i.2-3, 42-58, 72-5, 234-308; III.i.15-26; IV.ii.15-27; V.i.1-12; V.iii. 15-35, 80-4.
3The Spanish Tragedy, ed. Philip Edwards, The Revels Plays (London, 1959), IV.i.180.
4 Plato, Timaeus, 31-2, 37-9, 47; Augustine, De Libero Arbitrio Voluntatis, II.viii.80, II.xvi.l71; Boethius, De Consolatione Philosophiae, I.m.2, De Arithmetica, I.ii; Cornelius Agrippa, De Occulta Philosophia, bk. II; Pierce de La Primaudaye, The French Académie, tr. T. Bowes et al. (London, 1618), p. 727; Sir Thomas Browne, The Major Works, ed. C. A. Patrides (Harmondsworth, 1977), p. 387. See also Christopher Butler, Number Symbolism (London, 1970), pp. 25, 52-3; Russell A. Peck, "Number as Cosmic Language," in By Things Seen: Reference and Recognition in Medieval Thought, ed. David L. Jeffrey (Ottawa, 1979), pp. 47-80; S. K. Heninger, Jr., Touches of Sweet Harmony, Pythagorean Cosmology and Renaissance Poetics (San Marino, Calif., 1974), pp. 71-146, The Cosmographical Glass: Renaissance Diagrams of the Universe (San Marino, Calif., 1977), pp. 81-144, 164-71.
5 Perhaps I exaggerate its distinctiveness a little. In her first address to the imprisoned Boethius, Philosophy remarks that the depression caused by worldly misfortunes can deprive the well-trained mind of its "proper clernesse," so that one who could hitherto "teilen the diuerse causes of nature," having "compehended al this by nombres," is "driven without mesure" into "foreyne darknesses" (Chaucer's translation; italics added).
6 Plato, Timaeus, 32, ("out of such elements which are in number four, the body of the world was created, and it was harmonized by proportion, and therefore has the spirit of friendship," trans. Benjamin Jowett); Macrobius, Commentary on the Dream of Scipio, ed. and trans. William Harris Stahl, Records of Civilization, XLVIII (New York, 1952), pp. 98, 103-16; Pierre de La Primaudaye, The French Academie, p. 727. See also Butler, Number Symbolism, pp. 7-9; Heninger, Touches of Sweet Harmony, pp. 151-74, The Cosmographical Glass, pp. 102-20, 165-71.
7 Ed. C. F. Tucket Brooke, The Works of Christopher Marlowe (Oxford, 1910), I.ii.227-43.
8 The organizing symbol in Kyd's opening description of the war between the two neighbor countries is that of primal Chaos and the strife of the elements (I.ii.43-8). Throughout the play as a whole the depiction of psychological and social disorder relies heavily on elemental imagery (see III.vii. 1-18, III.x.29-33, 70-6, III.xi.1-29, III.xii.1-19, III.xiii.103-23, etc.).
9MND, III.ii.l22-344(cf. II.i.81-117); Rj, III.i.54-131; RII, I.i.
10 Macrobius, Commentary on the Dream of Scipio, ed. Stahl, p. 98; Vincent Foster Hopper, Medieval Number Symbolism (New York, 1938), pp. 77-8, 101, 112, 114; Russell A. Peck, "Number as Cosmic Language," p. 78; Alastair Fowler, Spenser and the Numbers of Time, (London, 1964), p. 53, Triumphal Forms: Structural Patterns in Elizabethan Poetry (Cambridge, 1970), pp. 151-4.
11Shakespeare's Plutarch, ed. T.J.B. Spencer (Harmondsworth, 1964), pp. 32, 49-50, 76-7; Plutarch, "The Fortune of the Romans," in Moralia, ed. Frank Cole, Loeb Classical Library (Cambridge, Mass., 1936), vol. IV, pp. 341-2, 363; Shakespeare's Appian, ed. Ernest Schanzer (Liverpool, 1956), pp. 5-9; Lucius Julius Florus, The Roman Histories, trans. E. M. B. [olton] (London, 1619), pp. 439, 448-9; John Carion, The thre bokes of Cronicles, trans. Walter Lynne (London, 1550), fols, lxxiv-lxxxvii; William Fulbecke, An Historical Collection of the Continual Factions, Tumults, and Massacres of the Romans and the Italians during the Space of one hundred and twentie yeares next before the peaceable Empire of Augustus Caesar (London, 1601), pp. 13, 18, 209. (Fulbecke's work was completed in 1584 and "of others some times read," "Preface.") The idea that Fortune and divine power collaborated in making Rome a source of stability in a world of change did not originate with Plutarch but can be found in earlier historians: see C. P. Jones. Plutarch and Rome (Oxford, 1971), pp. 67-71. The idea is also enshrined in Ovid's panegyric address to Augustus at the end of the Metamorphoses—a fact of enormous importance in any consideration of Renaissance attitudes to Octavius and the events which brought him to power.
12 Florus, Roman Histories, Preface, B2.
13 Carion, Cronicles, Preface, fol. lxxxv.
14 Fulbecke, Historicall Collection, pp. 6-7, Cf. Florus, p. 341.
15 Florus, p. 501.
16Method for the Easy Comprehension of History, trans. Beatrice Reynolds (New York, 1945), pp. 147-52, 222-36, 316-19.
17 L. F. Dean, "Bodin's Methodus in England before 1625," SP, XXXIX (1942), 166.
18 The imagery of fire and blood has been discussed by G. Wilson Knight, The Imperial Theme (London, 1931), pp. 48-51, and by Maurice Charney, Shakespeare's Roman Plays (Cambridge, Mass., 1961), pp. 48-64. Several critics have noted that the civil war in Brutus is echoed by the tempests that precede the assassination of Caesar: see, for example, Ernest Schanzer, Shakespeare's Problem Plays (London, 1963), pp. 49-50.
19 Shakespeare picked up the suggestion for his humoral pattern from Plutarch, who describes Cassius as choleric and Brutus as melancholic: see Shakespeare's Plutarch, ed. Spencer, pp. 109, 139, 150. Shakespeare's portrayal of the four leading characters directly or indirectly accommodates the following points, all made in standard descriptions of the humors and humoral types: (1) the melancholy man suffers from fear and sleeplessness, aggravates his distemperature by exposing himself to the unhealthy night air, shuns all company (even of those nearest to him), seeks out deserted places such as gardens and orchards, and walks moodily with his arms crossed; (2) the choleric man is lean, shrewd, envious, eloquently bitter in his speech, "by nature hot and burning, like to fire" (La Primaudaye), impatient, and vengeful; (3) the sanguine is amiable, magnanimous, cheerful, fond of music—although when corrupt, his humor is the most dangerous of all; (4) the phlegmatic is often fat and subject to palsies and feebleness of the limbs; he is sluggish and "not. . . easily mooued" (La Primaudaye), and since his humor has the nature of water, "he dreameth and hath sodain appearances of waters and rain, and of. . . swimming in cold water" (Batman). Phlegm is usually dominant in age. See Levinus Lemnius, The Touchstone of Complexions, tr. Thomas Newton (London, 1581), fols. 65, 99, 143; Batman uppon Bartholome His Booke De Proprietatibus (London, 1582), fols. 29-33; La Primaudaye, The French Academie, pp. 457, 524; Timothy Bright, A Treatise of Melancholy (London, 1586), pp. 33-8, 132, 214; Robert Burton, The Anatomy of Melancholy, ed. Holbrook Jackson (London, 1932; rept. 1961), I. 9, 237-62, 395-6. See also John W. Draper, The Humors and Shakespeare's Characters (Durham, N.C., 1945); Lawrence Babb, The Elizabethan Malady: a Study of Melancholia in English Literature from 1580 to 1642 (East Lansing, 1951).
20 The relevant section of Platter's account of his visit to England is reprinted (from Anglia XXII , 458) in the Arden edition of the play, p. 166.
21 Plato, Timaeus, 40; Alanus de Insulis, De Planctu Naturae, pr. 3, 4; La Primaudaye, The French Academie, p. 728.
22 T. S. Dorsch, ed. Julius Caesar, p. lxxx; Bernard Beckermann, Shakespeare at the Globe (New York, 1962), p. 95; Andrew Gurr, The Shakespearean Stage (Cambridge, Eng., 1970), pp. 98-100.
23 For the justice motive, see I.iii.89-120, II.i.47, 57, 115-25, IV.iii. 19-21. For regeneration, see further Lii.148-59, 253, II.i.320-5.
24 See Shakespeare's Plutarch, ed. Spencer, pp. 111-16. Appian names fifteen conspirators (of whom Ligarius is the sixth), and Suetonius speaks of "more than three-score." See Shakespeare's Appian, ed. Schanzer, p. 17; Geoffrey Bullough, Narrative and Dramatic Sources of Shakespeare, vol. V. (New York, 1964), p. 152.
25The French Academie, p. 728; Isidore of Seville, Etymologiae, V.xxxv. On the circle and tetrad, see Heninger, Touches of Sweet Harmony, pp. 114-15, 220.
26 For Plutarch's chronology of these events, see Shakespeare's Plutarch, pp. 76, 82, 87. Cf. Dorsch, ed. Julius Caesar, p. 7, note on I.i.67.
27Shakespeare's Plutarch, p. 165. Concerning the reformation of the republican calendar, Plutarch says (p. 80):
But the ordinance of the calendar and the reformation of the year, to take away all confusion of time, being exactly calculated by the mathematicians and brought to perfection, was a great commodity unto all men. For the Romans, using then the ancient computation of the year, had not only such uncertainty and alteration of the months and times that the sacrifices and yearly feasts came by little and little to seasons contrary for the purpose they were ordained; but also in the revolution of the sun (which is called annus Solaris) no other nation agreed with them in account; and, of the Romans themselves, only the priests understood it. And therefore, when they listed, they suddenly (no man being able to control them) did thrust in a month above their ordinary number. . . . But Caesar, committing this matter unto the philosophers and best expert mathematicians at that time, did set forth an excellent calendar, more exactly calculated than any that was before; the which the Romans do use until this present day, and do nothing err as others in the difference of time.
Appian (ed. Schanzer, p. 52) and Carion (Cronicles, fol. lxxxiv) also highlight the achievement of the calendar, Carion introducing it in such a way as to emphasize the criminal folly of the assassination.
28 "For it is extremely important to remember (especially when we look for evidence of numerological influence on works of art) that the Pythagorean doctrines were secret ones." Butler, Number Symbolism, p. 52.
Last Updated on May 6, 2015, by eNotes Editorial. Word Count: 1338
Anderson, Peter S. "Shakespeare's Caesar: The Language of Sacrifice." In Comparative Drama III, No. 1 (Spring 1969): 3-26.
Stresses the importance of the verbal imagery used by Caesar's assassins, his allies, and the people in emphasizing the health of Rome and its government.
Bathory, Dennis. "'With Himself at War': Shakespeare's Roman Hero and the Republican Tradition." In Shakespeare's Political Pageant: Essays in Literature and Politics, edited by Joseph Alulis and Vickie Sullivan, pp. 237-61. Lanham, MD: Rowman & Littlefield Publishers, Inc., 1996.
Argues that in Julius Caesar and Coriolanus, Shakespeare demonstrates Republican Rome's inability to discourage civil strife without relying on external wars.
Bligh, John. "Cicero's Choric Comment in Julius Caesar" In English Studies in Canada VIII, No. 4 (December 1982): 391-408.
Asserts that Cicero's brief remarks on Casca's interpretation of the storm in Act One provide insight into how to understand not only the motives of characters in Julius Caesar but also those of the characters in Shakespeare's other histories and tragedies.
Blits, Jan H. "Caesarism and the End of Republican Rome: Act I, scene i." In The Journal of Politics 43, No. 1, (February 1981): 40-55.
Examines the conflict in I.i between the plebeians and the tribunes. Argues that this breakdown between these traditional allies and the assassination of Caesar which follows signals the destruction of the Roman republic—a system that depended on a precarious balance between social groups.
Bono, Barbara J. "The Birth of Tragedy: Tragic Action in Julius Caesar" In English Literary Renaissance 24, No. 2 (Spring 1994): 449-70.
Looks at the tension between Renaissance England's view of itself as returning to classical ideals versus an alternative view of the period as "early modern." Asserts that this tension surfaces in Julius Caesar.
Bulman, James C. "Ironic Heroism: A Repudiation of the Past." In The Heroic Idiom of Shakespearean Tragedy, pp. 51-82. Newark: University of Delaware Press, 1985.
Argues that with characters such as Brutus in Julius Caesar, Shakespeare began to create heroes that were tragic because of their inability to live up to "conventional expectations."
Durham, Mildred O. "Drama of the Dying God in Julius Caesar" In University of Hartford Studies in Literature 11, No. 1 (1979): 49-57.
Examines the "rituals of communion, cannibalism, and initiation" which differentiate Caesar's glorification from Brutus's damnation in Julius Caesar.
Goldberg, Jonathan. "The Roman Actor: Julius Caesar, Sejanus, Coriolanus, Catiline, and The Roman Actor" In James I and the Politics of Literature: Jonson, Shakespeare, Donne, and their Contemporaries, pp. 164-209. Baltimore: The Johns Hopkins University Press, 1983.
Contends that the formal absolutism of the reign of James I is reflected in the Roman plays (among them, Shakespeare's Julius Caesar) that were popular during the period.
Halio, Jay L. "Hamartia, Brutus, and the Failure of Personal Confrontation." In The Personalist XLVIII, No. 1 (January 1967): 42-55.
Examines the way in which Brutus's hamartia or tragic error—that is, betraying Caesar—unfolds in the play.
Honigmann, E. A. J. "Sympathy for Brutus." In Shakespeare: Seven Tragedies, pp. 30-53. London: The MacMillan Press Ltd., 1976.
Asserts that in Julius Caesar, the first of his mature tragedies, Shakespeare attempted to elicit from his audience a complex (and not completely successful) response to Brutus and to Caesar.
Humphreys, Arthur. Introduction to Julius Caesar, by William Shakespeare, edited by Arthur Humphreys, pp. 1-49. Oxford: Clarendon Press, 1984.
Provides an overview of the play, including dates, as well as its relationship to other Shakespeare plays, themes, style, and performances.
Kahn, Coppélia. "Mettle and Melting Spirits in Julius Caesar." In Roman Shakespeare: Warriors, Wounds, and Women, pp. 77-109. London: Routledge, 1997.
Contrasts the play's political and public world or polis with its private, household world or oikos.
Kujawinska-Courtney, Krystyna. "Julius Caesar: Two Visions of the Past." In "Th ' Interpretation of the Time": The Dramaturgy of Shakespeare's Roman Plays, pp. 26-58. Victoria, B.C.: University of Victoria, 1993.
Examines the significance of Caesar's characterization—either as potential tyrant according to the assassins or as charismatic victor according to Antony—to the outcome of the play.
Levitsky, Ruth M. "'The Elements Were So Mix'd '" In PMLA 88, No. 2 (March 1973): 240-45.
Argues that while Brutus appears cold in his stoical self-sufficiency and "unswerving pursuit of virtue," he also has a "capacity for suffering" that allows us to sympathize with him.
Long, Michael. "The Civility of Marcus Brutus." In The Unnatural Scene: A Study in Shakespearean Tragedy, pp. 23-31. London: Methuen & Co. Ltd., 1976.
Suggests that in the stoic Brutus, Shakespeare presents a character who is tragic because he lacks "passion, impulse, [and] wit."
Mack, Maynard. "Julius Caesar." In Modern Shakespearean Criticism: Essays on Style, Dramaturgy, and the Major Plays, edited by Alvin B. Kernan, pp. 290-301. New York: Harcourt, Brace & World, Inc., 1970.
Asserts that one of the themes in the play is the persistence of the charismatic, tyrannical force of a Julius Caesar in human history.
Maquerlot, Jean-Pierre. "Julius Caesar and 'Dramatic Coquetry.'" In Shakespeare and the Mannerist Tradition: A Reading of Five Problem Plays, pp. 72-86. Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 1995.
Argues that Shakespeare constructs Julius Caesar so that his audience will respond to its ambiguities thoughtfully and intelligently rather than react emotionally and capriciously as do the Roman plebeians.
Nutall, A. D. "Shakespeare's Imitation of the World." In Mimesis: Shakespeare and the Representation of Reality, pp. 99-120. London: Methuen & Co. Ltd., 1983.
Discusses the extent to which Shakespeare's Roman plays serve as an authentic portrayal of ancient Roman life and times.
O'Dair, Sharon. "Social Role and the Making of Identity in Julius Caesar" In Studies in English Literature 1500-1900 33, No. 2 (Spring 1993): 289-307.
Argues that Brutus's sense of himself as an honorable man is shaped by and, in its turn, shapes the society in which he lives.
Parker, Barbara L. "The Whore of Babylon and Shakespeare's Julius Caesar" In Studies in English Literature 35, No. 2 (Spring 1995): 251-69.
Contends that the "subtextual" theme of Julius Caesar is "unnatural love" and that this subtheme is linked with the play's satire on papal Rome of the Elizabethan period.
Platt, Michael. "Julius Caesar." In Rome and Romans According to Shakespeare, pp. 173-245. Jacobean Drama Studies, edited by Dr. James Hogg, no. 51. Salzburg: Institut für Englische Sprache und Literatur, 1976.
Defines Shakespeare's creative genius as it is manifested in his assessment of Caesar and the "revolution" that occurred in Caesar's Rome.
Reinsdorf, Walter. "Brutus, Self and Society." In North Dakota Quarterly 50, No. 3 (Summer 1982): 83-92.
Looks at the character of Brutus as Shakespeare's own assessment of the early modern sense of self in relation to the changing world of the Renaissance.
Schanzer, Ernest. "Julius Caesar." In The Problem Plays of Shakespeare: A Study of Julius Caesar, Measure for Measure and Antony and Cleopatra, pp. 10-70. London: Routledge & Kegan Paul, 1963.
Provides an overview of what it is that makes Julius Caesar a "problem play," including the lack of a clear moral stance and the psychological complexity of the characters.
Simmons, J. L. "Julius Caesar: Our Roman Actors." In Shakespeare's Pagan World: The Roman Tragedies, pp. 65-108. Charlottesville: University Press of Virginia, 1973.
Compares the Christian-based history plays with a pagan-based Roman tragedy such as Julius Caesar and discusses Brutus as a fallen but sympathetic tragic hero.
Spevack, Marvin. Introduction to Julius Caesar by William Shakespeare, edited by Marvin Spevack, pp. 1-45. Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 1988.
Provides an overview of the play including date, sources, structure, theme, characters, Roman politics, and staging.
Thomas, Vivian. "Images and Self-images in Julius Caesar." In Shakespeare's Roman Worlds, pp. 40-92. London: Routledge, 1989.
Examines the way in which Shakespeare alters his source material; also looks at the violent images which pervade the play.
Vawter, Marvin L. "'Division 'tween Our Souls': Shakespeare's Stoic Brutus." In Shakespeare Studies VII (1974): 173-95.
Demonstrates how it is that the honorable Brutus "commits, not a sacrificial ritual of cultural salvation" as he intends, "but a savage felony of cultural assassination" when he participates in the murder of Caesar.
Velz, John W. "Orator and Imperator in Julius Caesar: Style and the Process of Roman History." In Shakespeare Studies XV (1982): 55-75.
Offers a close analysis of speech-making in the play, concentrating on the significance of Antony's orations and of Caesar's references to himself in the imperial mode.
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