Thursday, December 02, 2010

Caesar and Brutus

"Why is the play called Julius Caesar if he dies half way through? Isn't it really about Brutus?"


That's a common enough question for a high school English exam. Future students who are going to go googling for an answer to that one will hopefully stumbled across David ("Master of Verona") Blixt's post on the subject in which he combines his not inconsiderable Shakespeare experience with his recent research in Roman history to answer this and many more questions. It's certainly true now that most people have trouble separating what really happened to Caesar, and who he was as a person, from what Shakespeare had to say about him.


In fact, David's post is an announcement of the play he's just written, which takes place between Caesar and Brutus the night before the Ides of March. "The great flaw, to me," writes Blixt, "has always been the lack of interaction betwen Caesar and Brutus. For men with such a tangled personal and political history, the play is remarkably slient regarding their past."


Sounds like a great idea to me, and I wish him much success with the project!





3 comments:

Doceo said...

I think Shakespeare was willing to leave out so much of the relationship between Caesar and Brutus on stage because he had other goals. It may have increased the dramatic tension in one sense if we were to see Brutus and Caesar interact as friends--but it would have changed the play. Shakespeare needed us, the audience, to view Caesar from a distance in order for us to put ourselves more firmly in the shoes of the conspirators and the "counter strike." We walk with Cassius as we listen to the way his jealousy poisons his ability to see anything other than his own goals. We walk with Brutus in his garden as he ponders whether or not to crush his friend like a snake in an egg. We stand in the crowd and cheer Antony's funeral oration, but are chilled when his noble words were nothing more than a manipulative ploy to use the people as a weapon.

Caesar remains a mysterious figure throughout the play, a personality who is hard to read or define. We are told of his ambition, we hear of his caprice, his political theatrics with the crown, his physical weaknesses, his vanity--and when we see him we see glimpses of his personality: the cool, unshakeable general who can hear a fortune teller say "beware" yet ignores it; the melodramatic pro-wrestler who absurdly declares he is more dangerous than danger; the husband who is willing to humor his wife until it makes him look weak; and when we finally see him in power as a political leader on the day of his death, there is nothing about his words or actions that live up to the dictatorial portrait others have painted.


We are forced to make our own judgment call as we stand by each character's side and view Caesar through the eyes of each. I ask myself and my students, am I that gullible? Would I make the same call? How is it possible to be both right and wrong to remove Caesar from power for the good of the Republic? Would I betray a friend for the good of my country? What does that say about me as a person who values honesty, loyalty, and virtue? Aren't those the qualities that led to Brutus's destruction?

We see how easily an honest, trusting man can be manipulated through his own virtues. We see how the politicians we think we know craft their image and use spin--which feels, to me, to be Shakespeare's goals in writing the play.

As for the reason why the play is entitled Julius Caesar when he dies so early into the action, I have two ideas that I share with students.

1. If you're a title character in one of Shakespeare's plays, you're a goner.

But seriously,

2. Brutus, Cassius, and the conspirators justify their decision to assassinate Caesar on the grounds that the Republic would be better off without him than with him. He is a cancerous tumor that should be "carved as a dish fit for the gods"--delicately removed from the wholesome, healthy body politic--and then Rome will be restored to political purity. What they get, instead, is war, confusion, violence, power struggles, and fear. Caesar's presence even after death is still able to bring the Republic to its knees.

Julius Caesar is never truly absent from the stage in any scene.

Alexi said...

Wow, Doceo. That is an in-depth response. I presume you are a teacher, as your username implies? Ah there, you mention students. Yay for understanding Latin.

Here's my two brass obols: the first three acts of the play each focus on a different character: Cassius, Brutus, and Antony. Caesar appears just once in each act, each time metaphorically connected to the man the act focuses on: In act one, we see him analyzing Cassius, the same way Cassius analyzes everyone around him; in Act Two, we see him in a domestic scene that explicitly parallels Brutus'; in Act Three, we see his death and Mark Antony's vow to avenge it, by re-dramatizing that death through his rhetoric to the people. It is almost as if Caesar were a mirror that reflected each of the men around him. He is less a character than an impersonal force, open to interpretation by the other characters and by readers. Interestingly, his Ghost identifies itself as "Thy evil spirit, Brutus," suggesting a spiritual link between Caesar and his assassin. Does Caesar represent something within the other characters? The drive of ambition, the fallibility of power? I might not go that far, but it's an interesting thought to consider.

catkins said...

Might not the play be aptly titled "The Assassination of Julius Caesar"? The title, as is, is then just an abbreviated form.
Great discussion, though, from Doceo and Alexi.
--Carl