Thursday, November 25, 2010

Julius Caesar by William Shakespeare

Julius Caesar by William Shakespeare, 1599

What always astonishes me after reading a Shakespeare play is how incredibly relevant they still are. A lot of the literature from Shakespeare's day and even farther back is a kind of historical curiosity, a document to be examined for facts, not something to be read for enjoyment.

Shakespeare isn't like that. Remove some of the flowery language and old-fashioned stage directions, and you have a story as fresh and vibrant as any being currently written, and strikingly complex characters.

The story is well-known. In the time of the Roman Empire, Julius Caesar slowly gained power. Many thought he would declare himself emperor, and a small group of concerned political figures decide to assassinate him.

Julius Caesar, like many of Shakespeare's historical tragedies, is a masterpiece of political morality and torn loyalties. It's an impressively timeless story.

Caesar is the play's central figure, but not the protagonist. Honorable, conflicted statesman Brutus is the hero of the play, but even he is no flawless piece of cardboard. He is perennially doubtful--of Caesar, of the conspirators, of himself. By the end of the play, he is honored as the only one of Caesar's assassins who truly committed a selfless act, but Shakespeare leaves even this ambiguous.

There really are no "good guys" or "bad guys" in Julius Caesar. Even though Mark Antony is the de facto antagonist, he's not really worse than anyone else in the play. His famous speech to the Roman people is pure political genius and one of the play's high points.

Like Hamlet, the play's first half deals with doubt, indecision and difficult choices. The second half, after Caesar's death, is a more standard tragedy, as the various conspirators deal with the aftermath of their fateful decision. Most of the main characters are dead by the end of the play, several by their own hand.

One of the play's more intriguing characters is the shifty, brilliant Cassius, a man whose ruthlessness and ambiguity links him to such characters as Iago and Richard III. Shakespeare never quite tells us his motivation. He spearheads the plan to kill Caesar and seems to espouse Brutus's philosophy, yet it's never quite clear whether he is acting for noble reasons or selfish ones. That's part of the genius of Shakespeare: we are not just enjoying the story, we're actively trying to figure out the character's true psychology and motivations.

Atypically for Shakespeare, there are only a few characters in Julius Caesar that seem to warrant much analysis. Though the cast is large, only Brutus, Cassius, Antony, Casca and Caesar have long passages to themselves. The rest of the characters merely support the framework of the story; there are no scene-stealing minor characters like the Nurse from Romeo and Juliet or Margaret from Richard III.

Julius Caesar is heavy on speeches, especially during the first two-thirds (the last part of the play leans more towards give-and-take dialogue). There is Antony's famous speech to the masses and Brutus's oration which directly precedes it, as well as several speeches among the conspirators, as they try to convince each other, and themselves, of the worthiness of their cause and the way in which they should go about it. Here is Brutus addressing the conspiracy at his home (Cassius has just suggested killing both Caesar and Antony):

Brutus: Our course will seem too bloody, Caius Cassius,

To cut the head off and then hack the limbs,

Like wrath in death and envy afterwards;

For Antony is but a limb of Caesar:

Let us be sacrificers, but not butchers, Caius.

We all stand up against the spirit of Caesar,

And in the spirit of men there is no blood:

O, that we then could come by Caesar's spirit,

And not dismember Caesar. But, alas,

Caesar must bleed for it! And, gentle friends,

Let's kill him boldly, but not wrathfully,

Let's carve him as a dish fit for the gods,

Not hew him as a carcass fit for hounds:

And let our hearts, as subtle masters do,

Stir up their servants to an act of rage

And after seems to chide 'em. This shall make

Our purpose necessary and not envious:

Which so appearing to the common eyes,

We shall be called purgers, not murderers.

And for Mark Antony, think not of him;

For he can do no more than Caesar's arm

When Caesar's head is off.
(pages 29-30, Wordsworth Classic edition)

One of the many delicious things about this speech is the heavy irony, which is only apparent after the end of the play. Though Brutus claims that Antony will be powerless without Caesar, Antony steadily grows in power throughout the play, eventually routing the conspirators and personally causing the suicide of Brutus. Although Brutus is noble and wise, Shakespeare still allows him to make a staggering mistake that will eventually cost him everything.

That's not to say that Brutus was necessarily wrong in stopping his fellows from killing Antony. Their plan was to assassinate Caesar, and Caesar alone. No others were to be harmed. Had the conspirators murdered Antony as well, their position would have been far less morally defensible. Though all the conspirators claim high and noble reasons for killing Caesar, Brutus is the only one who was unwilling to kill another man in addition. Was the whole enterprise truly for good or for evil?

It's food-for-thought moments like these that make Julius Caesar such a great work and Shakespeare such an utterly superior storyteller. The play is a staggering masterpiece of politics, psychology and philosophy. It's also a rich, intelligent story that still has power and relevance today, perhaps even more so.

NEXT UP: I take a break from heavy classics and fat historical novels with mystery author Rex Stout and Three Men Out.

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