Thursday, February 18, 2016

Julius Caesar - Shakespeare

How far would you go to stop a despot from taking power?  And how could you know that your desire to stop that despot wasn't simply a power play of your own?  Those are the questions that occurred to me from 'Julius Caesar'.
The story starts with Caesar enjoying a 'triumph' in the streets of Rome.  ('Triumph' was a Roman tradition where a conquering general would parade through Rome with the spoils of war, including high ranking captives, slaves and treasure.)  While this is taking place, two Roman Senators meet and talk.  Cassius is arguing with Brutus, telling him that Caesar does not deserve the honors which are being bestowed upon him.  He is afraid that Caesar will become a king and Rome will be a republic no more.  Brutus listens and is obviously touched by Cassius's arguments.
In fact, they start a conspiracy and bring other, like-minded Senators, in with them.  The only way of preventing Caesar from taking a crown, is to kill him.  They will do so, publicly, on the very floor of the Senate.  Then they will explain to the people of Rome that they have done so to keep them free.  Caesar ignores the whispers that come to him, including the famous 'beware the ides of March!' and goes to the Senate.  He is killed and right before dying, utters the famous line, 'Et tu, Brute?'.
Marc Antony enters the Senate and sees what has happened.  They tell him that they did what must be done.  He asks to speak to the people and agrees when they forbid him to praise Caesar.  He follows their words, but sways the people against them anyway.  War follows, and all of the principal conspirators are killed.

I read some time ago that 'Julius Caesar' is the Shakespeare play most taught in school.  The politics are straight forward, the language isn't that difficult and there is no sex.  I don't know if it is the most taught, but the reasons given for it are valid.
Caesar himself probably has the least time onstage for any of Shakespeare's tragic 'heroes'.  He only appears a handful of times.  The biggest star of the show is Brutus, though the roles of Cassius and Marc Antony are both rather tasty.
In fact, Antony's funeral speech is the high point of the entire play.  He masterfully tells the crowd that Brutus, et al, are honorable men and what they say must be true.  He tells the crowd that he doesn't understand how it could be true, but that's what these 'honorable' men have told him.  It's a triumph of rhetoric.

I read this in high school and have seen it on the stage a couple of times.  The entire story of Caesar's last days is incredible.  He was very powerful and it was reasonable to believe that he would accept even more power.  I can't say that I blame the conspirators, even though they utterly failed at what they were trying to stop.  I'd love to read an alt-history that suggests a better course they could have taken.
Having said that, this isn't my favorite of Shakespeare's for precisely the reasons mentioned above.  The story really is straight forward.  The only love story is between Brutus and his wife, Calphurnia.  Their love is real, but it is a comfortable, married love.  This is a good thing, but it doesn't make for better story telling.  The BBC version is very good though.  It's the full text and subtitled.  Well worth a couple of hours of your time:


  1. This play is one of my many favourites of Shakespeare's. I really felt that Brutus was not motivated (or not entirely) by power, but rather a need to save the republic, which certainly brings conflicting emotions. And yes, wasn't Anthony's funeral speech stupendous?! I agree that the play was straightforward in action, but perhaps not emotion. My daughter and I discussed/argued about this play for days afterwards when we studied it. Something about it is so alive. Thanks for the great review, and the reminder that I have to read it again!

    1. Ooooh, I look forward to my kids being old enough to discuss this with them!