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No Spectre, No Sceptre: The Agon of Materialist Thought in Shakespeare's Julius Caesar

(Shakespearean Criticism)

Stephen M. Buhler, University of Nebraska-Lincoln

Postremo cur sancta deum delubra suasque
discutit infesto praeclaras fulmine sedes,
et bene facta deum frangit simulacra suisque
demit imaginibus violento volnere honorem?

(Lucretius, De rerum natura 6.417-20: Lastly, why does he shatter holy shrines of the gods, and even his own illustrious habitations, with the fatal thunderbolt, why smash finely-wrought images of the gods and rob his own statues of their grandeur with a violent wound?)1

In Julius Caesar, Shakespeare depicts a cosmological as well as a political struggle. The correspondential order of things is manipulated on all sides of an increasingly bloody conflict, and the downfall of one faction occurs when its members stop manipulating that order and begin, partly and then thoroughly, to credit it. For that reason alone the play lends itself well to criticism of what might be called "naive Tillyardism."2 A workable argument along such lines would be similar to the one offered in the above passage. Lucretius asks why, if Jove desires to command reverence and to reinforce pious practices, he would so often destroy the sites associated with that piety with his own thunderbolts; a cultural materialist might ask why, if Shakespeare indeed wanted to affirm the validity of the cultural edifices reinforcing the dominant ideology, he would so often leave major components of these constructs in ruins.3

Without becoming the dominant discourse of our time, critical approaches such as those advanced by Jonathan Dollimore in Radical Tragedy have themselves now come under nearly as strong an attack as Tillyard's once had. In a recent study of the skeptical in Shakespeare, Graham Bradshaw distinguishes between "dogmatic" and—in something of a pre-emptive strike aimed at Dollimore's work—"radical" modes of skepticism. He equates the former with "the terminal, materialistic nihilism of a Thersites, Iago, or Edmund"; this list could also include Cassius, whose skepticism is grounded in Epicurean philosophy. "Radical" skepticism is described as self-reflexive: it "turns on itself—weighing the human need to affirm values against the inherently problematic nature of all acts of valuing."4 The radical nature of this skepticism further problematizes belief as well, for in the examples of Edmund and of Cassius we see skeptics repenting. Bradshaw, though, does not account for the disturbing hollowness that marks these returns to more conventional values and beliefs. The unsettling effect does not stem from any lack of sincerity or even dramatic credibility, but rather from the impotence and ineffectuality that accompany the characters' penitence. Edmund's remorse comes too late to save Cordelia or ultimately Lear himself. In his return to what Lucretius terms the antiquae religiones (5.86), the old superstitions, Cassius has emulated his Stoic friend too well. He has not "tried to be better" than his professed philosophy would permit, as some critics have alleged, but has rather abandoned its principles, acting upon erroneous judgments of events as a result. In his own suicide Brutus repays Cassius' tribute in kind.

The correspondential order receives less than simple affirmation in Julius Caesar and the play consequently participates in what has been described as anti-essentialist strains at work in Renaissance culture. I cannot agree with the accusation that critics such as Dollimore are guilty of anachronism when they attach the term materialism to such strains of thought. John D. Cox has suggested that in the intervening centuries "philosophical materialism" has been identified with critiques of political culture: to apply the term with all its modern associations to the Renaissance is anachronistic and misleading.5 But while the term itself may not have had wide currency in the period, the ideas the term represents and their "modern" associations are not as inappropriate as Cox contends. Materialist philosophies were openly considered in the Renaissance and...

(The entire section is 7,917 words.)