Untired Spirits and Formal Constancy: Julius Caesar - Essay

William Shakespeare


(Shakespearean Criticism)

"Untired Spirits and Formal Constancy": Julius Caesar

Geoffrey Miles, Victoria University of Wellington

Returning to Shakespeare, the end (in both senses) of this study, it may be appropriate to return to the lines which I quoted at the beginning of the first chapter:

Let not our looks put on our purposes;
But bear it as our Roman actors do,
With untired spirits and formal constancy.

(2. 1.224-6)

On the surface Brutus is simply urging his fellow conspirators to conceal their true intentions; but the words he uses are heavily loaded. 'Formal constancy' means (as John Dover Wilson noted) 'consistent decorum': playing one's part without slipping out of character.1 'Untired spirits' suggests a more Stoic kind of constancy: souls which do not tire but steadfastly withstand adversity. The Ciceronian and Senecan forms of constancy are thus linked. At the same time, both are enclosed within a theatrical metaphor: they are the qualities of 'our Roman actors'. The specifying of Roman actors, which may allude to the passage on actors in De officiis (1. 114), also seems to imply a logical connection between being Roman and constant and being an actor. At the same time, the perverse attribution of 'constancy' to actors, whose job is to play a number of roles, suggests a potential incongruity between the two halves of the line—between the inner spiritual strength of an 'untired spirit', and the public hypocrisy of assuming a merely 'formal' constancy. This incongruity is underlined by a submerged pun: 'untried'—in the context of 'put on', 'actors', and 'formal'—suggests the wearing of theatrical 'tires' or costumes.2 Untired spirits, then, are souls which appear naked and undisguised, not assuming a 'formal' appearance. The tensions between the two halves of the line mirror the central tension of the play, not simply between Ciceronian and Senecan constancy, but between the elements in both of inner truth and of external role-playing.3

These tensions are central to Shakespeare's first exploration of Roman constancy. Stoic constancy of the Senecan brand has long been recognized as important in Julius Caesar.4 The relevance of Ciceronian decorum has not been noted, in spite of extensive discussion of the play's images of acting and the theatre.5 Nor—though Julius Caesar has long been seen as a 'problem play', deeply concerned with issues of knowledge, judgement and error, rhetoric and persuasion—has the ironic relevance of the Stoic and Neostoic concept of 'opinion' been perceived.6 I hope in this chapter to show how Shakespeare constructs Roman constancy as a blend of Senecan constantia sapientis and Ciceronian decorum, and how both rest upon and are vitiated by the domination of Rome by opinion. The public temper of Rome is hostile to self-knowledge, in both the individual and the universal sense; in this society decorum becomes a determined playing of inauthentic roles, while aspirations to the heroic stature of the Senecan sapiens founder in the gap between claim and reality.

Before I develop this reading, however, a fundamental objection must be faced. Some recent critics have denied the relevance of Stoicism of Julius Caesar, on the grounds that, as Plutarch makes clear on the first page of his Life, the historical Brutus was not a Stoic:

Now touching the GRAECIAN Philosophers, there was no sect nor Philosopher of them, but he heard and liked it: but above all the rest, he loved Platoes sect best, and did not much geve him selfe to the new or meane Academie as they call it, but altogether to the old Academie (p. 1054, 2. 1-2)

—that is, the school of Antiochus of Ascalon, which eclectically fused Platonic, Stoic, and sceptical ideas. The debate about Brutus' philosophical position has focused in particular on his reference, in his confused explanation of his attitude to suicide, to 'that philosophy / by which I did blame cato for the death / Which he did give himself' (5. 1. 100-2). J. C. Maxwell pointed out in 1970 that, though commentators generally explained the 'philosophy' as Stoicism, the Stoics (Cato's school) in fact notoriously approved of suicide, whereas Plato condemned it.7 Subsequent critics have argued inconclusively over the passage and its implications.8 The most forceful challenge to Stoic readings of the play is that of Gilles Monsarrat, who argues that 'it is unreasonable to father on Shakespeare a philosophic misconception from which his main sources must have preserved him': Shakespeare's Brutus 'is never a Stoic and not always stoical'. More broadly, complaining that ' "Stoicism" is almost like a disease in many critical discussions of Julius Caesar', Monsarrat suggests that critics like Anson and Brower 'mistake "Romanity" for "Stoicism" '.9

For my purposes—concerned as I am with 'constancy' rather than with Stoic philosophy in general—this controversy seems something of a blind alley. I am not concerned (as for instance Vawter is) to argue that Shakespeare had a scholarly knowledge of Hellenistic philosophy, or a precise understanding of the subtle distinctions between the thought of the Stoics and of the Old Academy—which was, in fact, primarily Stoic in its ethical doctrines.10 In 5.1 he may indeed have himself been confused about the nature of Brutus' 'philosophy' (the source passage in North is, as already noted, deeply ambiguous)—though if so he turns the confusion to dramatic account. But in any case, I do not think Shakespeare's primary concern in this passage is to distinguish between Cato's Stoicism and Brutus' Platonism; he is much more concerned with the problematic relationship between constancy and suicide. Being 'constant'—a Platonic as well as a Stoic virtue—can be held to require either a Senecan suicide, or (in Plato's famous image) a steadfast sticking to one's post.11 Either a Stoic or a Platonist could reasonably take up either position, and Brutus' wavering between the two serves not so much to pin a philosophical label on him as to illuminate the ambiguity of constancy as a principle.

More generally, however, it seems undeniable that to represent the 'Romanity' of Brutus, and to a lesser extent of other characters, Shakespeare draws upon the Stoic traditions descending from Seneca and Cicero, and attributes to them attitudes and actions which his audience would clearly have identified as 'stoical'. The objections of Maxwell and Monsarrat to loose assertions about 'Stoicism' are valid; but to deny, on that ground, the illumination which Stoic traditions can throw on the play seems excessively purist.

'A thing unfirm': the world of Julius Caesar

(Shakespearean Criticism)

'A thing unfirm': the world of Julius Caesar

Shakespeare is of course not in any sense original in associating Rome with constancy. The equation of Roman and Stoic virtue had been a commonplace ever since Cicero. Many of the traditional Roman virtues, as defined by the Romans and by later tradition, can be seen as radiating from the central virtue of constancy: fortitude, justice, temperance, fides, gravitas, all involve steadiness and steadfastness, a refusal to be shifted from one's duty. Rome itself, the Eternal City, is an archetype of stability and permanence, with its straight roads and marble columns and arches, enduring even in ruins—though those ruins also imply the limits of worldly constancy. Rome's solidity, rationality and order are embodied in the 'Roman' simplicity and clarity of Julius Caesar's structure and language.

These Roman qualities are set, however, against a background of mutability, uncertainty, and mystery. It is most potently embodied in the storm, in which Rome is invaded by supernatural disorder: wild beasts roam the streets, the dead walk, and normality is transformed to 'monstrous quality' (1. 3. 68). 'Are you not moved,' Casca demands of Cicero, 'when all the sway of earth / Shakes like a thing unfirm?' (3-4). The subliminal pun suggests that Rome's 'sway', its civilized political order, rests on shaky foundations.12

The storm is all the more terrifying because, though it seems meaningful, its meaning is obscure. Characters suggest incompatible explanations: it is a sign of civil war in heaven or divine anger with mankind (Casca, 1. 3. 11-13), of the unnaturalness of...

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'True fixed and resting quality': Senecan constancy

(Shakespearean Criticism)

'True fixed and resting quality': Senecan constancy

To be unmoved is the virtue of the Stoic sapiens, and this Senecan ideal is most splendidly evoked by Caesar just before his murder:

I could be well moved if I were as you.
If I could pray to move, prayers would move me.
But I am constant as the northern star,
of whose true fixed and resting quality
there is no fellow in the firmament.

(3. 1. 58-62)16

In declaring that he will not be 'moved', Caesar is making at least three claims: that he will not change his mind, is unmoved by emotion, and cannot be shaken by external pressures. The most obvious sense is the assertion of immovable will. Caesar refuses to change his decision about Cimber's banishment, and so 'turn preordinance and first decree' into childish capriciousness (38-9). Brutus later takes a very similar stand in refusing (with 'wonderfull constancy', as North commented) to pardon Lucius Pella (4. 2. 55 ff.). In either case, since the play withholds the facts about Cimber and Pella, we may commend their firmness of principle or condemn their obstinacy. It is clear that both Brutus and Caesar find a positive virtue in not changing their minds, refusing to be 'moved' in the sense (often used in the play) of 'urged' or 'persuaded'. Brutus is typical in expressing to Cassius his reluctance to '[b]e any further moved' (1.2. 167-8). The plebs, by contrast, are 'moved' (3. 2. 264) only too easily, and literally, by Antony's rhetoric.17

'Move' also, in these instances, implies the arousal of emotion. Caesar is denying that he 'bears such rebel blood' (40) as to be moved by emotive appeals. Brutus acknowledges that Caesar shares his own Stoic ideal of rationality: 'I have not known when his affections swayed / More than his reason' (2. 1. 20-1). It does not occur to him that to deny all 'affections' (emotions or friendships) may be as tyrannical as to be governed by them.18 Having himself acted on these principles in sacrificing his personal affection for Caesar to the public good, he is contemptuous of Cassius' appeals to love or anger:

Go show your slaves how choleric you are,
And make your bondmen tremble. Must I budge? . . .

By the gods,
You shall digest the venom of your spleen,
Though it do split you.

(4. 2. 99-100, 102-4)

The man who refuses to be moved by his own passions will not 'budge' in the face of Cassius'.19 He insists that emotions must be suppressed, even if the effect of that suppression is as painful and self-destructive as Portia's burning coals.

Brutus' Stoic view of emotion is most clearly seen in his advice to the conspirators on the frame of mind in which they must kill Caesar:

And, gentle friends,
Let's kill him boldly, but not wrathfully . . .
And let our hearts, as subtle masters do,
Stir up their servants to an act of rage,
And after seem to chide 'em.

(2. 1. 171-2, 175-7)

Brutus sums up the Senecan view that the wise man will do what is right 'boldly' but dispassionately. But the simplicity of this doctrine runs into confusion as Brutus, uneasily aware that you cannot kill a man in a spirit of calm reasonableness, ascribes the necessary emotion to the body rather than the heart or soul. The disjunction seems not only implausible but repellently hypocritical: Brutus' simile puts him in the position of one who orders a crime and then disclaims responsibility for it.20

The play thus, in a very traditional way, calls into question Stoic apatheia. As Antony tells the plebeians, 'You are not wood, you are not stones, but men' (3. 2. 143); Stoic-stockish impassivity is neither humanly attainable nor desirable. In fact, as I have suggested, Shakespeare's Romans are not passionless. The plebs are governed by emotion; so is Antony, though he is also capable of manipulating both his own feelings and theirs to political ends; and the mob violence which results powerfully demonstrates the dangers of unrestrained passions. Restrained passions, however, can be equally dangerous. Those patricians who, unlike Antony, hold to the Roman code of rationality are in fact more...

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Roman opinion

(Shakespearean Criticism)

Shakespeare's treatment of Stoic constancy is essentially traditional. What is more original in the play is his sense of the relationship between constancy and Rome: the paradox that such a heroically individualistic, heaven-aspiring ideal should arise out of a society whose values are public-spirited and earthbound, and the deeper irony that, in fact, an ideal which rests on pretence is thoroughly appropriate to a society governed by appearances and 'opinion'.

In Julius Caesar virtue is defined as Romanness. The characters are obsessively conscious of their national identity: the words 'Rome' and 'Roman' occur seventy-three times, not merely as labels but often with a moral...

(The entire section is 1507 words.)

'A Roman's part': Ciceronian decorum

(Shakespearean Criticism)

'A Roman's part': Ciceronian decorum

The peculiar quality of Roman constancy in Julius Caesar, I have suggested, derives from the mingling of its Senecan and Ciceronian definitions. While Senecan Stoic constancy involves an element of pretence, it is Cicero who explicitly recommended his readers to model their behaviour on 'Roman actors'. Shakespeare's Romans, however, take from Cicero's image not its ostensible point—the need to choose appropriate roles—but rather its implications of externality and performance.

For Cicero, every human being has three personae or roles which must be played consistently—the role of a human being, the role of oneself as an...

(The entire section is 1226 words.)

'Like Brutus, like himself

(Shakespearean Criticism)

'Like Brutus, like himself

The Roman idea of constancy in Julius Caesar, with its blend of Senecan steadfastness, Ciceronian consistency, role-playing, and concern for public opinion, is perhaps most sharply summed up in the traditional phrase: to be 'like oneself. The phrase is only used in the last act, and it is in these final scenes that the meaning of constancy is most clearly defined, as Brutus faces its final test, death.

The problems involved in being constant are sharply highlighted in Brutus' double response to the death of Portia. At the end of the quarrel in 4. 2, Brutus, who has been rigidly self-contained in the face of Cassius' passion, bursts into...

(The entire section is 3357 words.)