Julius Caesar

It’s still Sunday if I haven’t gone to sleep yet, right friends? That’s what we’re assuming here.

Ah, Julius Caesar. I partially read this play in 10th grade. I say “partially” because that year I’m not certain we finished anything; my English teacher was constantly absent for health or family issues and when he returned we just got started on the next thing. The only thing I know I finished in that class was an essay discussing the historical importance of two lines from Billy Joel’s “We Didn’t Start the Fire”. (Everyone in class had a different couplet; I had, “Begin, Reagan, Palestine, Terror on the airline. Ayatollah’s in Iran, Russians in Afghanistan.”)

So, I’m happy to finally get to find out what happens in the end of this play. I certainly didn’t appreciate it the first time around (I don’t think I was capable of fully appreciating Shakespeare in high school, as evidenced by my experiences with The Taming of the Shrew and Romeo and Juliet). Ah, the joys of having life experiences; perhaps it should be required for one to be jaded and cynical before reading Shakespeare. I know it’s helping me a lot with this project

OK friends, enough of this dilly-dallying. Onto the play!

Summary

The play opens with commoners in the streets celebrating Caesar’s triumph over Pompey’s sons and his return to Rome. Flavius and Murellus, two tribunes, come upon them and force the crown to disperse. Flavius and Murellus don’t support Caesar and remind the crowd that at one point the commoners supported and celebrated Pompey; they tell the crowd they’re being disloyal to now support Caesar. The two men agree to split up and remove any decorations in Caesar’s honor and to disperse any more celebrating groups.

Caesar returns with a parade of people during the feast of Lupercal. A soothsayer tells Caesar to “Beware the ides of March” (March 15th) but Caesar brushes off his warning. Cassius then holds Brutus back as the rest of the gathering leaves the stage; Cassius tries to win Brutus over to his own thinking, namely that it would be bad should Caesar rule Rome and thus he must die. Before Brutus makes a decision one way or another, though, Caesar and his entourage return. Caesar remarks to Mark Antony that he doesn’t trust Cassius and, after everyone else has left, Casca informs Cassius and Brutus that Mark Antony offered Caesar the crown not once but three times. Caesar refused the crown each time but fainted after the last. We also learn that Flavius and Murellus were demoted for removing decorations in Caesar’s honor. Cassius resolves to send multiple messages that night to Brutus, pretending to be various citizens, all distressed at the prospect of Caesar’s rule. That night the weather turns severe and serves as a bad omen. Casca is worried by the weather but Cassius revels in it. Cassius discovers that Casca agrees with him about Caesar and asks him to join his faction. Another of this faction, Cinna, approaches and Cassius directs him to place the forged letters in various places at Brutus’ house.

Brutus can’t sleep and, after being visited by Cassius and his faction, decides to join their purpose to prevent Caesar from doing anything against the best interest of the people of Rome. They decide to kill Caesar the following day. In the morning Caesar’s wife is beside herself after a night of horrible dreams foretelling Caesar’s murder. Caesar brushes her off at first and continues to disregard other signs that foretell his doom. However, Decius Brutus (one of the faction) enters and convinces Caesar that his wife’s dreams instead portend Caesar’s greatness. He also tells Caesar that the senate plans to crown Caesar that very day. Caesar is convinced and, after the rest of the faction arrives, happily goes off with the group. Meanwhile, Artemidorus knows the plot and plans to give a letter explaining it to Caesar. He waits in the street to hand it to him. On another street is Portia, Brutus’ wife, who’s beside herself with worry over her husband’s recent moods. She happens upon the soothsayer, who is still trying to get Caesar to listen to him.

Trebonius (one of the conspirators) distracts Mark Antony and leads him out of the senate. The faction uses Metellus Cimber’s banished brother as an excuse to bring a petition to the senate floor and for all the members to get close to Caesar. Caesar denies the petition and the faction proceeds to stab him to death. Brutus is the last to stab Caesar, and Caesar utters his famous last words: “Et tu, Brute? Then fall Caesar.”

The senate, as well as Rome, is in a panic after Caesar’s murder. The faction makes it known that they killed Caesar for the good of all. Mark Antony arrives to make peace with the faction and to find out their reasons for the murder, which they don’t tell him right away. Instead, Brutus agrees to let Mark Antony speak at Caesar’s funeral. Cassius isn’t happy about this but Brutus somewhat mollifies him by saying that he (Brutus) will speak first and that Mark Antony will have to make it known that he’s speaking with the permission of the faction. When the rest leave Mark Antony is left to prepare Caesar’s body for his funeral. As he apologizes to Caesar for needing to act friendly with his murderers a messenger comes: Octavius Caesar, Caesar’s adopted son and heir, is near Rome after Caesar requested his presence. Mark Antony asks the messenger to tell Octavius of what has happened and to come to the city quickly.

And so it happens. Brutus gives his speech and cites Caesar’s ambition for the reason behind the murder. He states that he loved Caesar but that he loves Rome more, and Romans wouldn’t be free while Caesar lived. The crowd is moved in his favor and commends Brutus, who departs just before Mark Antony speaks. What follows is the most amazing speech in the history of speeches. Mark Antony moves the crowd against Brutus and his fellow conspirators and convinces everyone of Caesar’s goodness and the tragedy of his death while somehow never saying anything outright negative about Brutus, Cassius, or the rest. (The word “honorable” has never sounded so insulting.) Seriously, if you read nothing else in this play make sure you read Act III Scene II. The crowd is moved against the conspirators and set out to enact revenge. Brutus and Cassius have already fled the city but a man named Cinna the Poet is killed by an angry mob just for sharing the name of a conspirator.

Afterward Mark Antony, Octavius, and a man named Lepidus discuss who on a list should die; the three men intend to rule Rome as a triumvirate. When Lepidus leaves Mark Antony tells Octavius that he trust Lepidus, but Octavius does. Mark Antony is also trying to figure out how to use the funds left in Caesar’s will can be tapped to raise their army (rather than the money going to the people of Rome, as Mark Antony told the crowd at Caesar’s funeral; he is a politician, after all).

Meanwhile, Brutus and Cassius are having a difference of opinion. Cassius is angry that Brutus has condemned one of their followers for taking bribes even though Cassius wrote letters in support of the man. Brutus gets angry and states that they killed Caesar for justice, not for allowing men who take bribes to get off the hook. In addition, Brutus thinks that Cassius himself has taken bribes. Brutus is also miffed that Cassius refused his request for money; since Brutus can’t raise money in his own honest way he needs to rely on Cassius’ underhanded means. The two men eventually make up and Brutus informs Cassius that his wife, Portia, killed herself by swallowing fire (apparently putting hot coals in her mouth and choking to death, because the lady had style). Then, while Brutus is alone and three of his men fast asleep in his tent, the ghost of Caesar visits Brutus and tells him that he’ll see him in Philippi (where Brutus intends to meet Mark Antony’s forces in battle).

At Philippi Mark Antony and Octavius’ forces prepare to meet with Brutus and Cassius’. Mark Antony tells Octavius to lead his troops down the left side of the battle but Octavius refuses and states that he’ll take the right. Mark Antony insists that he’s the more-knowledgeable soldier but Octavius stands firm; after this Mark Antony refers to Octavius as “Caesar”, so he obviously proved himself worthy of the title. The two sides parlay and insult each other before parting for battle; Brutus and Cassius don’t seem very optimistic that they’ll get out of the battle alive.

Later, things don’t look very good for Cassius. Brutus was overeager in exploiting Octavius’ weaknesses and it seems he’s losing his battle. Additionally, Pindarus (a slave who owes his life to Cassius) says that Cassius’ tent is burning. Cassius sends his best friend Titinius to find out if the advancing troops are friend or foe. Pindarus then mistakenly sees Titinius captured by the other side. Cassius tells Pindarus that he will grant his freedom if he’ll kill him. Pindarus does and then flees. Just then, Titinius reenters, quite obviously not taken by the other side. He sees Cassius’ body and kills himself in mourning. Brutus then happens upon the grotesque scene. (FYI, suicide was seen as honorable in Roman times, at least in some circumstances.)

Lucillius pretends to be Brutus and is captured. Mark Antony, however, recognizes him and goes in search of Brutus. Brutus, meanwhile, is with his few remaining men. Brutus states that the ghost of Caesar has visited him multiple times since the first night (very like Richard III). He asks three of his men to hold his sword while he runs on it but the first two refuse; the third does not, and so Brutus kills himself. Mark Antony and Octavius finally find Brutus’ body. Mark Antony states that Brutus alone killed Caesar out of altruism; the rest did it out of envy. Octavius orders that Brutus’ body will rest in his own tent that night and he’ll be afforded a proper funeral.

Of Interest

Much of the play concentrates on a person’s public versus their private life. Caesar tells Mark Antony that he doesn’t trust Cassius because he doesn’t seem to have a private life. Brutus doesn’t confide in his wife Portia, who herself characterizes his personal life (by denying her knowledge of what’s going on in his public life Brutus is showing that his public life is taking over his private life). Brutus can only decide to murder Caesar when he’s disassociated himself with the private (humanizing) aspects of his life. Public lives here are characterized by logic and pragmatism rather than the emotion and empathy of private lives (one of the reasons women so easily represent private life in this play).

Caesar himself will not listen to his wife Calpurnia’s pleas to stay at home and instead forges ahead to have no show of fear in his public life (again, Caesar’s wife represents his private life). Caesar’s dislike of Cassius based on the latter not seeming to have a private life highlights Caesar’s own diminishing private life, and this foretells Caesar’s death; had he been more in touch with his private life, had he had more of a balance between the public/private aspects of his life, Caesar might have been able to read and take heed of the omens he so easily disregarded. Caesar even tells Artemidorus before entering the senate building just before his death that his personal concerns are his last priority; Caesar’s public self is immortal and lives on after his death but he seems to think that this will somehow protect his mortal private self.

Nota Bene

Titus Andronicus, Julius Caesar, Coriolanus (and to a certain extent, Antony and Cleopatra); all these plays were set in Rome. Reason: Rome was kind of a big deal.

Elizabethans knew a lot about Roman times. Throughout the Middle Ages and the Renaissance Roman culture was a hot topic; the major events were discussed and debated. The assassination of Julius Caesar was a popular topic because of how controversial it was; should Caesar have been killed, was he a martyr or a tyrant? We can see differing opinions on this topic in various art forms: Dante put Brutus and Cassius in the inner circle of Hell with Judas while Michelangelo created a bust of Brutus that celebrated him. These events were well-known, a fact you can see in the actions of the characters of the play; Julius Caesar, Cassius, Brutus, and Mark Antony all seem aware of their historical importance.

So, who’s the main character? Was it Caesar, even though he died early in Act III? Is it Mark Antony, who begins and ends the play subordinate to a Caesar? Answer: it’s Brutus, he’s the tragic hero. It’s Brutus and his internal conflict over the good of Rome vs. love for his friend that gives the play its purpose. Brutus’ tragic flaw is that he believes everyone else will act in the same logical, honorable way he does; he doesn’t account for people not agreeing with him or for Mark Antony to pit the citizens of Rome against him. He doesn’t take other people’s nature into account.

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