"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.
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.