The Bardathon: 16 – Julius Caesar

There seems to be nothing in Shakespeare’s earlier work that leads to this. Its themes and style seem completely new: it is a tense political thriller, featuring political assassination, mob violence, and civil war. The balancing act is superb. The public issues and private concerns are held in perfect equilibrium, and even more impressively, there is no single central character: at the heart of this play are four very complex figures locked in various levels of conflict with each other. Shakespeare does not direct our sympathies for or against any of them: instead, he is happy to present their complementing virtues and vices, so we can form our own judgement without any authorial prompting. But while the action presented invites some sort of moral judgement on our part, the motivations of each of these characters are so complex, that passing any definite moral judgement is to oversimplify, and, hence, to diminish the play’s richness.

Although the play is named Julius Caesar, Caesar himself appears in only three scenes, and is killed even before the play reaches its half way mark. But Caesar is nonetheless a central figure: indeed, so powerful is his personality, that had he been on stage longer, he would have disturbed the equilibrium of the work. At the start of the play, republicans such as Brutus fear that Caesar is going to make himself dictator, but they can find no way to stop him short of assassinating him: standing up to such a huge dominating personality is out of the question.

The depiction of so huge a personality in so few scenes is astonishing. It is done at least partly by focussing on others’ reactions to Caesar. Thus, although Caesar is rarely on stage, the thoughts of all the other characters are almost continually fixed on him, both before and after his death. That he has greatness is beyond doubt; but also beyond doubt is his awareness of his own greatness, and of his own superiority to others: this awareness seems to prevent him from having a normal relationship with any other human being. Mark Antony is his closest fried, and yet the relationship between them is that of master and man, and not that of two men on an equal footing. Even with his own wife, Caesar is a sort of god, making pronouncements to her rather than actually conversing with her.

And politically, it is easy to see why he should cause such concern to republicans. Although Caesar declines the crown near the start of the play, the fact that it is offered him is sufficiently good reason for republicans to be apprehensive: there seems little doubt that Caesar becoming dictator is merely a matter of time. Indeed, in the single senate scene in the play, Caesar, before he is murdered, is addressed as if he were an emperor, and is himself is more than happy to play that part.

Brutus is a patrician, and comes from a traditional republican family. It is often said that Brutus’ reasoning when deciding to take part in the conspiracy to assassinate Caesar is confused, but, on the contrary, it seems to me very clear-sighted. For Brutus, the question is not what Caesar will be like once he is crowned: Brutus is perfectly clear that that one cannot be certain about it. But what Brutus is more certain about is that Caesar intends to crown himself, and in this judgement, Brutus is surely right: Caesar does intend to crown himself, and, given Brutus’ staunchly republican background, he cannot allow that. The inner conflict in Brutus comes not from the difficulty in determining how benevolent or tyrannical Caesar may be once he is crowned, but from his conviction that Caesar intends to be crowned, and his growing realisation that the only way to prevent this is to kill him. This inner conflict, which is depicted in the most agonising of terms, is laid out with perfect clarity: Brutus is quite clear that he has no personal reason to desire Caesar’s death; however, to fulfil what he feels is his duty to Rome, a personal trust has to be betrayed.

But of course, Brutus’ judgement is flawed in other respects. He seems incapable of seeing that Cassius’ motives or wanting Caesar dead are almost entirely personal: because personal envy is not something Brutus himself feels, he seems unable to imagine this in anyone else. Indeed, he seems to ascribe his own sense of honour to everyone else. He agrees, incredibly, to Antony giving an oration at Caesar’s funeral, partly because he underestimates Antony’s ability, but also because, I think, it didn’t so much as occur to him that Antony could be so underhand as to turn against him after having declared his friendship. Neither does it seem to occur to Brutus that anyone might disagree with his reasons for killing Caesar: that Caesar becoming emperor would be a Bad Thing is so obvious in Brutus’ own mind, that he can’t even imagine how anyone could possibly disagree.

Of course, it could be argued that Brutus was at fault for underestimating Antony’s abilities. But everyone underestimates Antony. Cassius had been apprehensive about Antony because of the love Antony had for Caesar, but when Antony is dismissed merely as an ineffectual playboy, Cassius certainly did not argue against that. Brutus’ reasons for sparing Antony are purely idealistic: his friend, Caesar, has to be sacrificed for the good of Rome, but Brutus is not prepared to involve himself in a bloody pogrom. This is the sort of idealism Machiavelli argued against in The Prince: Brutus’ ideals do him credit, but if you are going to enter into the world of statecraft and politics, you need a very different set of morals, because the most important thing is to stay in power: if one loses power, one loses everything. Certainly, when Antony & Octavius later seize power, they have no compunction at all in instituting a very bloody pogrom, purging anyone and everyone who may or may not oppose them. Even Cicero isn’t spared, or Antony’s own relatives. Such bloody-mindedness is in stark contrast with Brutus’ humanity, but one feels Machiavelli may have approved of Antony’s course of action. If Brutus had felt (as indeed he did) that it was worth letting blood in order to preserve the Republic, then there was little point only going part of the way and then failing.

But while Brutus’ honesty and integrity are never in any doubt, there’s something nonetheless unlikable about his repeated insistence on these qualities: this insistence bespeaks an immense self-admiration. Brutus naturally assumes he will be leader – whether it’s of the conspiracy (even though he clearly lacks the ruthlessness that a leader of such an enterprise should have), or whether it’s of the military operations in the second half of the play, where it appears that he lacks the requisite military expertise. Throughout, Brutus seems blissfully unaware of any shortcoming on his part that may make him unsuitable for leadership: he naturally assumes, with a sort of Captain Mainwaring-like pomposity, that he, Brutus, is unquestionably the leader, no matter what the enterprise. In this, he reveals a surprising similarity to Caesar – with the obvious difference that Caesar obviously was a very capable leader. In its own way, Brutus’ sense of self-importance is no less than Caesar’s.

Equally skilful is the characterisation of Cassius. When we first see him, he is eaten up with envy and hatred: he tempts Brutus to join the conspiracy, but his motives are almost undisguisedly personal. And yet he does not emerge as an Iago-like villain: quite the contrary. While his temptation of Brutus may superficially resemble Iago’s temptation of Othello, Cassius actually has a very high regard for the man whom he tempts.

There is a tremendous complexity to Cassius’ character. On the one hand, he resents the fact that Caesar has become more powerful than himself; but at the same time, he is happy for Brutus to take leadership of the conspiracy. Indeed, Cassius desperately needs Brutus to join the conspiracy, and to take control of it, as, despite his resentment of Caesar’s power, he feels unworthy to assume any sort of power himself. And this sense of his own unworthiness but fuels his resentment. However, once Caesar dies, we see more attractive aspects of Cassius’ character: it is almost as if the removal of Caesar’s presence allows his better parts to flourish. Not least of his admirable qualities is his genuine regard for Brutus: his expression of sympathy on hearing of the tragic death of Brutus’ wife is genuinely touching, and deeply felt.

And of course, there is Mark Antony. In many ways, he is quite the opposite of Brutus: he is pragmatic and ruthless – a realist where Brutus is an idealist. But how mush easier it would have been or him to have sided with the conspirators after Caesar’s murder! Instead, he displays the most admirable loyalty to his dead friend, as well as the most extraordinary courage: meeting with the conspirators immediately after Caesar’s assassination required tremendous nerve, as it was by no means certain that he’d walk out alive. And on top of that, he keeps his head: unlike Brutus, Antony judges everything to perfection.

The third act of this play is a miracle, even by Shakespeare’s standards. He tightens the tension to almost breaking point in the scenes leading up to the murder; and the tension remains at this level afterwards. Antony’s meeting with the conspirators over Caesar’s dead body is one of the most electrifying scenes in any play, and his soliloquy once he is left alone with the bodyamong the most terrifying passages in all of Shakespeare. Then, of course, follows the scene with the speeches. Brutus, bless him, tries to appeal to his listeners’ sense of reason: his oratory is formal and well-crafted, but it isn’t a patch on what Antony delivers. Here, we have the entire art of the spin-doctor distilled into a single scene of drama: there is no technique of PR or of spin-doctoring that Antony does not employ. Yes, it is grossly manipulative, and this manipulation is underpinned by a profound disdain for the public that he manipulates. And to see him use all his skills to whip up the public into a blood-letting frenzy is one of the most sinister scenes in all drama. Before the act ends, we are presented with a most sickening scene as an innocent man is lynched onstage.

As Act Three ends, we may be left wondering how Shakespeare can avoid anti-climax. But somehow, the tension is maintained. It would have been very easy for Shakespeare now simply to have focussed on the plot: most dramatists would have settled for that. But Shakespeare continues to probe, to re-examine his themes and his characters, and discover new aspects. And, although Caesar is dead, his spirit seems to inform all that continues to happen.

***

Even if Shakespeare had written nothing greater than this, we’d still be rating him as our greatest writer. The consensus is that he went on to write even greater masterpieces. That may well be true, but at this level, comparisons are odorous. After experiencing this play, it’s hard to stop thinking about just how wonderful it is in every respect.

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2 responses to this post.

  1. Posted by alan on January 13, 2011 at 11:48 pm

    The last scene ends with Octavius claiming the body of Brutus to do it honour, surely a mirror of Brutus’s treatment of another ‘bleeding piece of earth’. I would suggest 5 main characters if one includes Octavius, in some ways he seems like Fortinbras. Shakespeare very sparingly indicates what will happen next.
    The problem with this play is that it does need 4 or 5 strong actors and in the production I saw this was only the case with the actors who played Mark Anthony and Cassius.

    Reply

    • Octavius certainly establishes himself in the last two acts, and Shakespeare leaves us in no doubt that he is, in his own way, a formidable character. However, I find it hard to see him as a principal figure in the drama, as he plays no part at all in the arc of dramatic action that takes up the first three acts. But yes, although his part is short, he needs a good actor.

      The play does, as you say, need four or even five actors of the highest quality. I remember from my childhood a BBC production from the 60 (it may well have been the first Shakespeare play I ever saw). I’ve searched out the cast details on the net, and see it featured Frank Finlay as Brutus, Edward Woodward as Cassius, Robert Stephens as Antony, and Maurice Denham as Caesar. That really is a formidable cast, but I doubt the BBC still has the tapes. The BBC Shakespeare series also boasted a fine cast (Richard Pasco as Brutus, David Collings as Cassius, Keith Michell as Antony and Charles Gray as Caesar) but they made the mistake of presenting soliloquies as voice-overs, with the actor making facial expressions into the camera: not even te finest actors could pull that one off, I’m afraid, and the results are risible. There’s also a Hollywood film from the 50s which, rather surprisingly, kept much of Shakespeare’s text intact: John Gielgud and James Mason were superb as, respectively, Cassius and Brutus, but Marlon Brando – in my opinion, at least – overplayed his hand as Antony. (“He let out a few good shouts, didn’t he?” was Gielgud’s rather catty comment on his performance.) Well worth catching, all the same.

      Reply

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