Upon Re-reading Julius Caesar


I re-read Julius Caesar recently. There’s been much talk of it in the press, what with an African take on the play being presented as part of the 2012 celebrations here in London (where all of the plays will be presented over this year).

This play is ostensibly about freedom v servitude, with the idea of Rome linked in with the idea of democratic freedom v Caesar and the potential of servitude and tyranny. But really at its heart it’s an exploration about how we judge people. It’s not just about how character – who you are – influences behavior, but about how our judgment of people’s characters influences our own actions toward them. After all, the central point of the play is that Brutus judges that Caesar’s character is such that the latter is predisposed – by his character – to becoming a tyrant. (Egged on by Cassius), Brutus has the presumption to assume such supreme self-confidence in the rightness of his judgment that he joins the conspirators (Cassius, it is pointed out is simply envious of Caesar) and kills Caesar.

That’s it. A great leader, loved by his people, is murdered because the central character, who we’re continuously told is a noble man, and who himself tells us that it was all about his love for Rome (“not that I loves Caesar less, but that I loved Rome more”, decides that this leader will eventually turn dictator. This is Bush and Blair attacking Iraq in case Saddam might get a WMD. It’s punishment in advance of the crime to stop a crime being committed.

As with all his plays, Shakespeare lays out the themes and layers of the play in the opening scene. In it, two Roman tribunes, Flavius and Marullus (later executed) are berating a group of party minded citizens en route to rejoicing in Caesar’s triumphant return to Rome. Here is the political dynamic presented to us: the crowd (which is consistently presented as feckless, inconsistent and stupid) is solidly pro the all-conquering Caesar. These tribunes on the other hand present the anti-Caesar faction, fearful as is Brutus and the conspirators, that he “… would soar above the view of men/ And keep us all in service fearfulness.” Notice Shakespeare’s use of the future conditional, “would soar”: it is Flavius’ presumption of a future that he converts to an incontestable reality.

Later we see the same future conditional kind of argument from Brutus’ own lips. Referring to the fact (that Anthony makes much of in his crowd turning speech on Caesar’s funeral) that Caesar was offered the crown three times, and three times turned it down, Brutus doesn’t come to the conclusion that the facts show that Caesar doesn’t want the crown but that, despite it all, “He would be crown’d:/How this might change, there’s the question”

Shakespeare balances this human, potentially flawed reading of character with divine/mystic visions of the future. Immediately after the opening scene, a soothsayer appears to present his case to Caesar: “beware the ides of March”. Caesar is warned about the future on multiple occasions, including by his own priests whose divinations foretell his doom.

So here we have Brutus and the conspirators foretelling a future of tyranny and the deprivation of freedom based on an analysis of character and a foretelling of the future based on mysticism and signs. The difference is that mysticism cannot influence action: “The fault, dear Brutus, is not in our stars

But in ourselves..”

Caesar himself we see fleetingly and he doesn’t make our job any easier. He’s a nasty, self centered, arrogant shit. And it is this arrogance, his sense of invincibility that leads to his own doom. He dismisses the soothsayer – “…he is a dreamer; let us leave him” as he later dismisses his downbeat priests and his wife. He is his own enemy. This supremely egotistical person cannot envisage that anyone can harm him. Even when he astutely judges where danger lies (with Cassius): “Such men as he be never at heart’s ease

Whiles they behold a greater than themselves;

And therefore are they very dangerous”… he is still blinded by his invincibility.

The eponymous hero is only in a few of the scenes of the play; and in the same way that we, the theatre-goers look on at how the principal characters judge each other, we too are only offered snapshots of information. We too have to judge whether Brutus’ judgment on Caesar and the action that results is a noble – for this, read ‘moral’ – one.

We’re certainly told in no uncertain terms that the source of Brutus’ (perhaps mistaken) judgment is morally sound . Anthony sums it up well:

“…the noblest Roman of them all:

All the conspirators, save only he

Did that they did in envy of great Caesar;

He only, in a general-honest thought

And common good to all, made one of them.”

But the end result of such a judgment, presaged by nature itself when “there is civil strife in heaven.” when, “graves have yawn’d and yielded up their dead”, is disastrous.

Despite Anthony’s nice words, and the honesty of Brutus’ intentions, Shakespeare leaves us in no doubt about the on-going fallibility of the latter’s judgments, starting from the first when he is seduced by Cassius (who cannily reads his character to the extent that he can play him to his own end) who Brutus presumes is as noble as him.

He screws up by letting Anthony (a) live (“he can do no more than Caesar’s arm/When Caesar’s head is off…”) and (b) speak to the crowd when Anthony eviscerates Brutus’ arguments about Caesar’s ambitiousness.

He’s a disaster after the murder in the field of battle. His guilt leads him to fantasize about meeting the ghost of Caesar. Then he accuses one of Cassius’ colleagues, Lucius Pella for taking bribes and then compounds a scene of sheer nervous breakdown hysteria by accusing Cassius as well:

“…You yourself

Are much condem’d to have an itching palm”.

He then back tracks on it all and blames his hysteria on the death of his wife… for being “sick of many griefs”

All this after his most monstrous misjudgment that turns the battle against them,

“O

Cassius, Brutus gave the word too early

… we by Anthony are all enclosed.”

Anthony may have called Brutus the noblest Roman, but a more fitting epitaph is perhaps Cassius’ parting words,

“…O hateful Error

Melancholy’s child…”

Only Anthony, the consummate politician, consistently misjudged (as a mere “masker and reveler”) rises above all this character analysis as a source of action and sticks to action based on situation and politics. Like a master politician, he dissimulates with the conspirators to persuade them to give him a pass and then reads the thuggish crowd to turn them to his own end, with the result that pretty much all the conspirators (even Brutus’s wife, Portia) kill themselves, reflecting Brutus’ wry commentary (before he too runs on his sword):

“O Julius Caesar, thou are mighty yet. Thy spirit

Walks abroad, and turns our swords

In our own proper entrails.”

All this, theoretically in the name of freedom.

The first words after the murder are Cinna’s”

“Liberty! Freedom! Tyranny is dead”

Brutus, bathing his hands in the steaming blood of Caesar’s corpse calls to the conspirators to…

“…walk we forth…cry

Peace, freedom and liberty”

It all sounds like any politician’s spin campaign. For really this is an abstract sort of freedom; an academic discussion among Roman senators obsessed by their own power and the fear that Caesar might constrict it. True freedom is of the sort that occurs when Pindarus, Cassius’ slave is finally and truly liberated (by killing, at his behest, Cassius). He says:

…So am I free…

Far from this country Pindarus shall run

Where never Roman shall take note of him.”

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