Julius Caesar by William Shakespeare (1599)

Shakespeare’s play, Julius Caesar, was first produced, in all probability, in 1599. The plot is based entirely on three of Plutarch’s biographies of eminent Romans, which Shakespeare found in Sir Thomas North’s translations into English of The Lives of the Most Noble Greeks and Romans, first published in 1579. The three lives he drew from are those of:

As you can see, whereas the assassination only takes up the last tenth of Caesar’s life, and the period from the assassination to the Battle of Philippi only takes up ten of Antony’s 87 chapters, the assassination and aftermath constitute almost all of Plutarch’s life of Brutus which may, at a very basic level, explain why Brutus emerges as the hero’ of Shakespeare’s play.

Brief synopsis

The figure the play is named after, Julius Caesar, actually dies half way through the play. The first half of the play depicts the conspiracy leading up to his assassination, the second half depicts the main consequences.

The play opens with Rome preparing for Caesar’s triumphal entrance accompanied by his best friend and deputy, Mark Antony. Brutus is a noble upstanding ally and friend of Caesar, but he fears that Caesar will become king and so overthrow the republic which he loves. Cassius is depicted as a wily and slippery friend-cum-tempter who convinces Brutus to join a conspiracy to murder Caesar. As Cassius says to himself (and the audience) after Brutus has left him.

CASSIUS: Well, Brutus, thou art noble; yet, I see,
Thy honourable metal may be wrought
From that it is disposed…

The night before the planned assassination is wild and stormy, with various characters observing or hearing of ominous portents and signs. The conspirators turn up at Brutus’s house and they finalise their plans. When they’ve left Brutus’s wife reveals her extreme anxiety that something terrible is about to happen. Brutus hasn’t told her about the planned assassination and does his best to calm her nerves.

On the day of the assassination, Caesar’s wife Calpurnia describes an ominous dream she had of his dead body spurting blood and begs him to stay at home, but one of the conspirators, Decius Brutus, smoothly reinterprets her dream in a positive light and persuades Caesar to go to the senate as planned.

In the Senate building the conspirators crowd round Caesar before stabbing him to death. A very nervous Antony enters and reveals himself as two-faced: to the conspirators he gingerly says he respects their motives though is understandably upset, and they are satisfied with that. But when they’ve left him alone he reveals he is outraged and distraught at the behaviour of these ‘butchers’ and vows revenge.

Cut to the Roman forum where Brutus makes a speech defending the assassins’ actions before handing over, as the assassins had agreed, to Antony, who had promised to make a moderate and sensible eulogy to the dead man and appeal for calm. Instead he uses the opportunity to inflame the mob into hysterical rage and sends them rampaging through the streets to find and kill the assassins.

Act 4 cuts to 18 months later and finds a slightly tipsy Antony at table with a new character, Octavian who, we learn, was named in Caesar’s will as his main heir and has used the time since to amass a private army and become a player in Rome’s power politics. Now Octavian is cutting a deal with Antony and a third character, Lepidus. They treat Lepidus with contempt, dismissing him from the table with the result that the actor playing Lepidus has just 4 lines. With him gone the other two settle down to signing a compact. They seal it by agreeing a list of political opponents who will be ‘proscribed’ or murdered. The first line of the scene indicates the new atmosphere of brutality.

ANTONY: These many, then, shall die; their names are pricked.

I don’t think any character says it explicitly, but one of Caesar’s distinguishing features, politically and strategically, was going out of his way to ‘forgive’ his opponents. Well, look what that led to: the biggest opponent he forgave and took into his entourage, Brutus, murdered him. So, lesson learned, Octavian and Antony will show no mercy or forgiveness. Opponents will be ruthlessly exterminated.

The second part of Act 4 skips nearly a year ahead, to October 43 and finds the two assassins, Brutus and Cassius, camped with their armies near the town of Philippi in Greece, opposed by the armies of Antony and Octavius, on the night before the fateful battle between the two forces.

Brutus and Cassius have a prolonged and acrimonious quarrel before patching things up. Left alone in his tent with only a serving boy who soon nods off, Brutus sees a ghost who warns ominously about the upcoming battle.

Act 5 is entirely devoted to a succession of quickfire scenes depicting the Battle of Philippi. The two key moments are when Cassius, misled by false reports that his army has lost, persuades a slave to kill him. And then, only moments later, after Brutus’s army really is defeated, Brutus, also, begs a comrade to help him commit suicide.

Moments later, Octavian and Antony enter, stand over the dead bodies and Antony praises Brutus as ‘the noblest Roman of them all’.

Shaping and forming

As usual Shakespeare takes his source material and a) shapes it into a five-act play with a beginning, middle and end and b) presents all the 15 or so speaking parts in such a way as to give them each character and individuality, no matter how brief their appearance.

This is especially true of the leading four roles, Caesar, Cassius, Antony, and above all Brutus. Though the play bears someone else’s name, Brutus is the lead protagonist. As T.S. Dorsch puts it in his introduction to the 1955 Arden edition of the play, ‘Caesar is the titular hero, Brutus is the dramatic hero’ (Introduction page xxvii). (And yet see below for the way this initial impression – Brutus as the ‘hero’ – must then be tempered and adjusted by recognition of the centrality of Caesar’s spirit.)

Moral dilemmas

Caesar was written a little earlier than Hamlet (composed sometime between 1599 and 1601) and they share something in common: Brutus, a fundamentally decent man, must nerve himself to commit an unprovoked murder in the name of the greater good; Hamlet, a fundamentally good man, must nerve himself to commit the coldblooded murder of his uncle, who he suspects of murdering his (Hamlet’s) father.

They even at one point share the same key word, ‘question’, placed with emphasis at the end of a key sentence; for Hamlet it is the question of whether to soldier on or commit suicide and thus escape a sea of troubles:

HAMLET: To be or not to be, that is the question.

For Brutus it is the more characteristically practical question of whether Caesar, once crowned king, will become a dictator:

BRUTUS: He would be crown’d:
How that might change his nature, there’s the question.

Both, then, must balance two conflicting moral imperatives, in Brutus’s case the ban on killing weighed against the greater good of the state, in Hamlet’s the ban on killing weighed against the call of justified revenge. No surprise, then, that both characters give vent to their dilemma in a series of to-the-audience soliloquies, indicators of psychological depth vouchsafed to none of the other characters. Hamlet and Brutus alone are inside the secret chamber of the drama, confronting this central moral dilemma, while all the other characters are in a sense on the outside of the psychological drama, mere players, contributors.

Speed

Julius Caesar is a play in a hurry – there is a lot to cram in. This sense of haste or the shoehorning of material comes over in numerous places and makes it, for me, an unsatisfactory play.

Acts 1, 2 and 3 hang together well enough, telling a continuous narrative of the growth and development of the conspiracy to assassinate Caesar, with atmospheric meetings of the conspirators and the midnight fears of Brutus’s wife, Portia, thrown in to jack up the sense of anxiety and danger.

(Though even here there is much compression: the opening scene which depicts Caesar’s triumphing after defeating Pompey’s son conflates it with the feast of the Lupercalia where Antony thrice offered Caesar the crown and he rejected it, in reality two events which were months apart, October 45 and February 44 respectively.)

Shakespeare moves his narrative at high speed up to the assassination itself (on 15 March 44 BC), accurately based on his sources (Caesar falling at the feet of the statue of Pompey), before moving quickly on to the immediate aftermath, namely the big central scene where first Brutus then Mark Antony speak to the rowdy crowd in the Roman Forum (again skipping over the real events which played out over several days of intense confusion in Rome and telescoping them all into the same few hours).

But then there is a huge leap or break in continuity, for Act 4 skips forward 18 months to show Antony meeting with Octavian to form a pact, the so-called Second Triumvirate (along with the non-descript Lepidus who is assigned a mere 4 lines). To be precise, the play goes straight into a scene with the three men seated round a table deciding which of their political enemies they will ‘proscribe’ i.e. mark for elimination, liquidation, murder.

The point being that this meeting took place in northern Italy in October 43, 18 months after Caesar’s assassination and an enormous amount had happened in that time: After negotiating an uneasy peace with Antony, the assassins decided to flee Rome, heading out East where the senate, in the coming months, ratified their control of the provinces of Asia, where they proceeded to raise armies loyal to them.

Meanwhile, Octavius had arrived in Rome: he raised legions on the strength of his name, he encouraged Cicero to denounce Antony in a series of speeches in and outside the senate leading up to Antony being declared an enemy of the state; he led his army into several pitched battles with Antony’s forces; then both men realised they had more in common than divided them, not least opposition to the assassins or ‘liberators’ as they called themselves, led by Brutus and Cassius. All this goes unexplained when the narrative instead leaps to the scene depicted at the start of Act IV, where Octavius and Antony are shown cobbling together an alliance along with the third leader of a significant army in Italy, Lepidus.

And then, in the very next scene, the play makes another great leap, 11 months further down the line, to the immediate build-up to the Battle of Philippi, when the armies of the assassins and the Caesarians finally come face to face, which was fought in October 42 BC.

Now, making great leaps through events was standard procedure for Shakespeare, witness the history plays which play tremendously fast and loose with chronology. The aim was to skip all the boring details and alight on the key psychological moments. His plays are not factual but psychological histories, picking and choosing the moments he needs to create what are, in effect, character studies of people from history in extreme circumstances.

Thus the complex historical realities of Cassius and Brutus are reshaped to provide a series of scenes which dwell mostly on the psychological dynamic between them, turning history into psychodrama and, the slow complex course of events into a tremendously compressed narrative which moves with the speed of a hurtling train.

Brevity

It turns out there’s a website that analyses Shakespeare stats, and this confirms with statistics the impression you get either watching or reading the play that it is compressed and fast: this tells us that, at 2,451 total lines Julius Caesar is shorter than the average Shakespeare play (average play: 2,768, average tragedy: 2,936). That specific acts are the shortest of their kind: Act Four: 409 lines, much shorter than average (average play: 560, average tragedy: 547); Act Five at 353 lines, the shortest of all tragedies; much shorter than average (average play: 484, average tragedy: 478). And it has 17 scenes which is also less than average (average play: 21; average tragedy: 24). So a lot of action is compressed into fewer lines and scenes than his average play. While, by contrast, the sense of hectic activity is also the result of it having an above average number of characters, 49 characters compared to the average play: 36; average tragedy: 39.

More characters depicting more events, including a highly compressed time-scheme, in a much shorter than average space = hence the sense of hurtling pace.

The snapshot battle scenes

The snapshot approach is vividly epitomised in the final scenes of the play. These are all set during the confused battle of Philippi and play very fast and loose with the historical facts, not least the fact that there was not one but two quite distinct battles of Philippi, fought on 3 and 23 October, whereas Shakespeare makes it all happen on one day – in theatrical time, all in about ten hectic minutes.

None of this matters, it gets in the way of what Shakespeare wants to do which is to provide a neatly rounded end to his drama. All tragedies end in death and so does this one – not the death of the eponymous dictator which, as we’ve seen, comes half way through the action, but the deaths of the two leading conspirators and best buddies, Cassius and Brutus, Cassius falsely believing the battle is lost and so honourably killing himself (well, begging his colleagues and servants to hold his sword while he plunges onto it); then, just a few minutes later, Brutus correctly being informed that the battle is lost and doing exactly the same. Both are given pathetic (in the original sense of the word, meaning designed-to-evoke-tears-of-emotion) speeches, and then proceed to their stabby ends.

I can see what Shakespeare’s aiming to do, to shape messy history into another smoothly delivered morality lesson with the same overall shape as all his other historical morality lessons, leading up to the well-known and heart-rending deaths scenes for both the assassins. But, in my opinion, they don’t really come off and this leaves an enduring impression that the play is unsatisfactory, half-cocked or somehow unfinished.

Part of the problem is the bittiness of the battle scenes. Designed to convey the chaos and peril of battle, they consist of a series of very short scenes, sometimes only half a dozen lines, with one set of soldiers running on, shouting a few lines at each other, then running off only to be immediately replaced with a new set of soldiers running on from the other side of the stage and depicting key moments from other locations on the battlefield. Shakespeare does it in Henry IV and Henry V and probably all the other history plays.

On Shakespeare’s static stage, with huge allowance made for the conventions of the time, this works. But it has proved very difficult for directors in more realistic times, in the Victorian era, let along the post-war period of super-realistic drama, to depict what Shakespeare asks the actors to do without it seeming artificial and contrived and, sometimes, a bit absurd.

The double suicide risks absurdity

This sense of absurdity is, unfortunately, reinforced by the doubling up of the suicide scenes. If it had been just Brutus who realised the battle was lost, delivered a stirring speech about the nobility of his aim to rid Rome of tyranny, then fell on his sword with dignity, it would be one thing; but the effect of Brutus’s speech and death are – for me at any rate – seriously undermined by the fact that Cassius has done the exact same thing 3 minutes earlier.

Not only that, but Cassius’s death is not the result of noble resolve and high-mindedness, it is caused by a really stupid mistake. He sends a messenger back to their base to check whether it has been overrun by the enemy (Antony and Octavius’s army) and, if not, to signal back to them that all is fine. He then sends a colleague up a nearby hill to watch the messenger’s progress. The man up the hill proceeds to completely misinterpret events, because he shouts back down to Cassius that their messenger has been captured. They both hear a big roar from soldiers which the lookout interprets as the enemy cheering at having captured Cassius’s spy. And so Cassius concludes that all is lost and begs colleagues to help him commit suicide.

Except that only minutes after he has collapsed to the floor and bled to death, another messenger comes running in to announce that everything is OK, that the messenger got through to the camp, and it has been successfully held against the enemy, and the cheer they heard was not from the victorious enemy but from his own men cheering to hear he is still alive. Except that now he isn’t. He is dead on the ground and the too-late messenger is given a sad and tear-jerking speech over his dead body before himself stabbing himself and falling on Cassius’s body.

At which point another group of Cassius’s soldiers enter, hoping to find their gallant leader and instead discovering two bloody corpses.

This is… this is hard to take seriously. It is what Plutarch reports as actually happening but in historical accounts is given much more context and explanation and so emerges as a noble and tragic act. It is hard to take seriously a man who kills himself out of high-minded motives which are really just all a stupid mistake.

And then more or less the same thing happens to Brutus – although without the stupid mistake. He at least, at a later stage of the day, has drawn the correct conclusion that the battle is lost . But, in my opinion, the power of his suicide is seriously drained of dignity and meaning by the silly suicide of Cassius only moments before. To persuade us of all that happening in just 2 or 3 minutes of stage time is a big ask and, in the BBC production I’ve just watched, fails.

The standard end-speech

Then the play ends with the stock-in-trade, bog standard arrival of the victors who behold the bodies of their noble antagonists and order that their bodies be given full and proper funerals. Compare and contrast Fortinbras arriving at the end of Hamlet to encounter a stage littered with dead bodies.

In Hamlet this has a pathetic effect in the original sense of the word, depicting a man who has no idea of the complex psychodrama which has played out in the court of Denmark, but instinctively recognises nobility. It has a complex flavour because it is, at the same time, a conventional king’s conventional, conservative response to a situation which is wildly unconventional and strange. We have been witnesses of the extremely complicated psychodrama of which the conventional Fortinbras only sees the outward or external results, and responds in a standard, conventional way.

Whereas Antony and Octavius entering at the end of Julius Caesar, expressing a few stock sentiments about what noble men Cassius and Brutus were and ordering they be given proper state funerals…doesn’t have the same effect. It feels thin and inadequate to me. Shakespeare tries. He saves up some of the best poetry in the play for Antony’s brief eulogy:

ANTONY: This was the noblest Roman of them all:
All the conspirators save only he
Did that they did in envy of great Caesar;
He only, in a general honest thought
And common good to all, made one of them.
His life was gentle, and the elements
So mix’d in him that Nature might stand up
And say to all the world ‘This was a man!’

Excellent words, an eloquent summary of the life and motives of the Great and Noble Brutus who is the real subject of this play and yet…they don’t quite compensate for the structural weaknesses of much that came before.

It was a popular play in Shakespeare’s time because audiences couldn’t get enough of kings and princes getting their brutal come-uppance, and so they loved the pathetic suicide speeches of Cassius and Brutus. To my modern sensibility these scenes felt rushed and contrived and so ended the play on a false note.

Famous bits

As so often with Shakespeare the most impactful thing is not necessarily the overall narrative, compressed and hurried as it is – it comes in the numerous moments of deep psychological penetration which litter the drama.

Antony’s Forum speech

The most famous of these is the long scene 2 in Act 3, where Brutus (foolishly, fatally) invites Mark Antony to make a funeral oration to the Roman crowd over the body of the assassinated Caesar. It opens with famously quotable phrases:

Friends, Romans, countrymen, lend me your ears;
I come to bury Caesar, not to praise him.
The evil that men do lives after them;
The good is oft interred with their bones;
So let it be with Caesar.

It is a highly enjoyable scene because it is a sustained performance of psychological manipulation. Again and again Antony swears to the crowd that he is not there to inflame them with anger against the assassins, who he repeatedly calls ‘honourable men’, at every mention the phrase sounding increasingly ironic and, eventually, contemptuous – while all the time in fact doing his level best to do just that, to inflame them into a wild mob rage against the assassins so that, by the end, the crowd are ready to rush off and burn down the houses of all the assassins. It is a tour de force of sophisticated rhetoric and mob manipulation, all masquerading as modesty and plain speaking:

I am no orator, as Brutus is;
But, as you know me all, a plain blunt man,
That love my friend…
For I have neither wit, nor words, nor worth,
Action, nor utterance, nor the power of speech,
To stir men’s blood: I only speak right on…

As T.S. Dorsch rather grandly puts it: ‘If ever Shakespeare wanted to show genius at work, surely it was in Antony’s oration’ (Arden introduction p.lii) and many, many commentators have analysed the speech at length, highlighting its rhetorical techniques. One reason for its effectiveness is its sheer length, it goes on and on, as Antony pauses for breath, retires for emotion, quells the crowd and draws one more rabbit out of his hat (the reading of Caesar’s will).

But another reason, I think, is its sheer exuberance: it is a bravura performance by a man at the top of his game, of a canny chancer and opportunist responding magnificently to the fact that his patron and protector has been cruelly murdered and his entire world turned upside down. The 1970 movie of the play sinks under the weight of an astonishingly bad performance of Brutus by Jason Robards, but is illuminating in lots of other ways, not least in the way it shows Antony, played with a swaggering sneer by Charlton Heston, having whipped the mob into a frenzy and sent them off to burn the conspirators’ houses down, collapsing exhausted against a nearby cart of wine barrels, hacking one open, drinking deep of the booze, and declaring:

ANTONY: Now let it work. Mischief, thou art afoot,
Take thou what course thou wilt!

His invocation of chaos allies him with Iago and other instigators of anarchy. He doesn’t care what happens, because he’s supremely, sublimely confident that come what may, he will ride the storm and easily get the better of poor saps like Brutus and Cassius. As he does…for a while….

Caesar’s dignity

We only get a flavour of Caesar’s character in three scenes: in the opening one where he is processing regally through the crowd, conferring with colleagues; in the long scene where his wife tries to dissuade him from going to the senate that morning, the ides of March, but Caesar allows himself to be persuaded to attend by the flattery and insinuation of one of the conspirators, Decimus Brutus; and then, maybe, in the dignity of his bearing while the assassins close in with their importunate demands for the return from exile of Metellus Cimber’s brother, before they reveal their daggers and their true intentions.

In the complex opening scene, where many themes and characters are first revealed, Caesar utters the famous lines hinting at his suspicions of Cassius and Brutus:

CAESAR: Let me have men about me that are fat;
Sleek-headed men and such as sleep o’nights:
Yond Cassius has a lean and hungry look;
He thinks too much: such men are dangerous.
ANTONY: Fear him not, Caesar; he’s not dangerous;
He is a noble Roman, and well given.
CAESAR: Would he were fatter!

Ominousness

The play overflows with bad omens. It is interesting to consider that Shakespeare and his audience in the 1590s appear to have been every bit as irrationally superstitious as Plutarch and his readers in about 100 AD. In between there had been one and a half millennia of dark and middle ages, and then the Renaissance, all of which continued to take seriously signs and omens and superstitions and auguries and harbingers and portents and premonitions.

CASCA: Against the Capitol I met a lion,
Who glared upon me, and went surly by,
Without annoying me: and there were drawn
Upon a heap a hundred ghastly women,
Transformed with their fear; who swore they saw
Men all in fire walk up and down the streets.
And yesterday the bird of night did sit
Even at noon-day upon the market-place,
Hooting and shrieking. When these prodigies
Do so conjointly meet, let not men say
‘These are their reasons; they are natural;’
For, I believe, they are portentous things

Hence the extensive scenes set during the dark and stormy night before the assassination in which all the characters describe nature in turmoil and retail rumours of the dead rising from their graves, great fires across the sky, and so on. The play is drenched with these irrational superstitions, with strange sightings on the dark and stormy night before the assassination, so much so that even the man himself has, or so Cassius alleges, caught the infection:

CASSIUS: But it is doubtful yet,
Whether Caesar will come forth to-day, or no;
For he is superstitious grown of late,
Quite from the main opinion he held once
Of fantasy, of dreams and ceremonies:
It may be, these apparent prodigies,
The unaccustom’d terror of this night,
And the persuasion of his augurers,
May hold him from the Capitol to-day.

On the morning of the fateful day Calpurnia repeats and reinforces the theme, claiming that all manner of strange sights have been seen across Rome:

CALPURNIA: There is one within,
Besides the things that we have heard and seen,
Recounts most horrid sights seen by the watch.
A lioness hath whelped in the streets;
And graves have yawn’d, and yielded up their dead;
Fierce fiery warriors fought upon the clouds,
In ranks and squadrons and right form of war,
Which drizzled blood upon the Capitol;
The noise of battle hurtled in the air,
Horses did neigh, and dying men did groan,
And ghosts did shriek and squeal about the streets.

But in fact, as the Calpurnia scene shows, this is another of Cassius’s slurs on Caesar, dictated by his own festering resentment, for in that scene Caesar is very deliberately placed in antithesis to Calpurnia’s fears and alarms, instead displaying a rational and fearless contempt for superstition and hearsay.

The night before murder

One of the most beautiful scenes in literature has to be the young king in Henry V on the night before the battle of Agincourt, disguising himself and going among his soldiers to discover their mood. Night time prompts a special sensitivity in Shakespeare. Compare with the beautiful and sensitive dialogue between Jessica and Lorenzo in Act 5 scene 1 of The Merchant of Venice.

Here, the night before the planned assassination provides the setting for a number of characters to reveal their worries and fears. It is, of course, a violent stormy night, full of thunder and lightning and so part of the atmosphere of portents and premonitions which anticipate the assassination, and then return at the end of the play to anticipate the deaths of the two leading protagonists.

The night before is always a powerful, revealing moment in a Shakespeare tragedy. Think of the night when Macbeth and his wife are terrified to admit even to themselves their feverish plans to murder the lawful king.

Here, after some scenes involving Cicero, Casca and so on, the drama really zeroes in on the troubled minds of Brutus and his wife. The extent to which we are taken into his private life indicates his centrality as a protagonist. As always, Shakespeare reveals a sensitivity to women characters which seems centuries ahead of his time. Both here and in the scene the next morning when Calpurnia begs her husband not to attend the senate, these wives are depicted with great psychological acuity. The audience is entirely persuaded to sympathise with them and see their points of view.

The night before battle

I should have referred to Henry V in this section, because it is more appropriate. The long Act 4 scene 2 set in Brutus’s tent where he and his best buddy Cassius have a prolonged falling out, ends with Cassius leaving Brutus in the company of his young servant, Lucius, who Brutus asks to fetch a lamp and then settles down to read while Lucius gently plays a harp. As so often in Shakespeare there is a sweetness and delicacy to the scene and Brutus’s concern for the tired boy which reaches out beyond the ostensible subject matter, and his own time and place, and seems to kiss something deep and essential in human nature, a depthless kindness and generosity.

It is all the more effective, then, having conjured this gentle atmosphere, when it is broken by the sudden apparition of Caesar’s ghost to Brutus. As I mentioned at the start, this play was written while Shakespeare was working on the much longer, much more complex Hamlet which also, of course, features an ambiguous ghost. Brutus’s ghost never tells his name, all it says, when Brutus asks its identity, is that he is ‘Thy evil spirit, Brutus’. But any uncertainty is cleared up right at the end when Brutus tells his comrade, Volumnius:

The ghost of Caesar hath appear’d to me
Two several times by night; at Sardis once,
And, this last night, here in Philippi fields:

Explaining that this is why he knows his hour has come.

Revenge

Chances are it is because this allows the play to fit neatly into the format of the revenge tragedy. The argument goes that, rather than disappearing at his death, the titular figure goes underground but remains a presence, disturbing the minds of men, and especially the guilty men who murdered him, as all good ghosts in revenge tragedies are supposed to.

The long argument between Brutus and Cassius which makes up Act 4 scene 2 changes from being a rather pointless bicker to showing the subtle, lingering effects of their crime driving two former friends apart – at one point Brutus bitterly reproaches Cassius for what he’s done, what they’ve done, not unlike the mutual reproaches of the guilt-ridden Macbeth and his wife.

And then in the ghost scene the subterranean presence of the dead man becomes explicit – the haunting of their minds goes from metaphorical to literal.

On this reading, the final scenes do not depict an absurdist comedy of misunderstandings but depict the fitting closure of the revenge theme, as both Cassius and Brutus in their different ways can only find peace through terminating their troubled consciousnesses. And as they point out in order to make the theme of revenge and closure totally obvious to even the dimmest theatre-goer, both do so using the same swords they used to murder Caesar.

CASSIUS: Caesar, thou art revenged,
Even with the sword that kill’d thee.

And Brutus, looking down on his friend’s body, makes the revenge theme explicit:

BRUTUS: O Julius Caesar, thou art mighty yet!
Thy spirit walks abroad and turns our swords
In our own proper entrails. (5.3, 94 to 96)

Then, after all is lost, Brutus rams home the thought as with his final words:

BRUTUS: Caesar, now be still:
I kill’d not thee with half so good a will.
(Runs onto sword. Dies)

On this reading Octavius and Antony don’t arrive on the scene to wind up external historical events but to bring to a fitting end the psychodrama of two men undermined and fated by their own guilt.

On this reading Brutus is not the protagonist he appears to be – that figure is the spirit of Caesar who determines everybody else’s actions, and works underground to bring about his just revenge. The play could be called The Tragedy of Marcus Brutus but it is also The Revenge of Julius Caesar.

Antony’s irony

T.S. Dorsch repeats the good point (first made by various scholars before him) that the true turning point comes not with the murder of Caesar as such (although that is, obviously, the main central event) but with the arrival a few minutes later of a servant from Antony. This servant asks their permission for his master to approach them safely, but with the special combination of enduring love for the dead dictator with flattery of the assassins which is to become Antony’s leading tone or strategy. Dorsch compares it to the introduction of a new theme into the final part of a symphony.

The assassins’ naive hope is that by eliminating the dictator they will restore the One Good Thing which was the old Res publica. But all they have done is return Rome to its pre-civil war state of being a snakepit of conflicting ambitions and men who lie and scheme, and Antony’s character as a champion schemer is wonderfully written and reaches its apogee in the complex ironies of his great speech in the forum. And all this is already present in the servant’s message:

SERVANT: Brutus is noble, wise, valiant, and honest;
Caesar was mighty, bold, royal, and loving.
Say, I love Brutus, and I honor him;
Say, I feared Caesar, honored him, and loved him.
If Brutus will vouchsafe that Antony
May safely come to him and be resolved
How Caesar hath deserved to lie in death,
Mark Antony shall not love Caesar dead
So well as Brutus living, but will follow
The fortunes and affairs of noble Brutus
Thorough the hazards of this untrod state
With all true faith.

‘With all true faith’ ha ha ha. As in his speech in person to the assassins, and then to the crowd in the forum, Antony means the precise opposite of what he says, and his discourse is therefore the most vigorous and dynamic and enjoyable of all the characters.

Compare and contrast with the straightforward noble honesty of Brutus’s speeches, which are moving in performance and yet, somehow, eminently forgettable. In these instances ‘character’ doesn’t seem a strong enough word for what Shakespeare is doing: he manages to conjure up entirely different psychological worlds through the medium of spoken language.

Seen from this perspective Cassius is a kind of mini-me to Antony’s master. The opening scenes are all about Cassius flattering and bringing out Brutus’s straightforward noble fears about Caesar’s ambition to become king so that, when Brutus leaves, Cassius rejoices in his ability to manipulate the greater but simpler man. But next to Antony he is an amateur. Antony is a master of discursive distortion and deviousness. In the psychodrama of the play he triumphs not because his army has won a battle, out there, in the boring real world. He triumphs because his discursive ability is streets ahead of either the straightforward Brutus or the wily Cassius, wily and tricksy certainly, but not wily enough. Antony outwilies everyone and it is deeply enjoyable to watch him do so, a master at work.

Brutus as Hamlet

Brutus soliloquises like Hamlet and often in language very similar to Hamlet’s:

BRUTUS: It must be by his death: and for my part,
I know no personal cause to spurn at him,
But for the general. He would be crown’d:
How that might change his nature, there’s the question…

That is the question. A little later he delivers the beautiful lines:

Between the acting of a dreadful thing
And the first motion, all the interim is
Like a phantasma, or a hideous dream:
The Genius and the mortal instruments
Are then in council; and the state of man,
Like to a little kingdom, suffers then
The nature of an insurrection.

But Dorsch warns against taking Brutus at face value, at his own valuation, as a noble hero. Once Cassius has swayed him to join the conspirator, all the others accept him as their leader and yet…the sober truth is that on every major decision he’s called upon to make, Brutus makes exactly the wrong call:

  • they conspirators want to bind themselves by an oath but Brutus overrides them and delivers a pompous little speech about Roman Honour
  • then Cassius suggests they invited Cicero to join them but Brutus decisively rejects that
  • Cassius worries whether they ought to kill Antony at the same time as Caesar but, again, Brutus overrides this, insisting that Antony is just a ‘limb’ of Caesar’s

In the aftermath of the murder it quickly becomes clear that Brutus has no better idea what to do to restore the republic than to run out into the streets shouting ‘Freedom! Liberty!’ He has no plan to present to the senate, no strategy to establish control of the all-important army.

And within minutes of the assassination he makes the catastrophically bad decision to let Antony speak at Caesar’s funeral. In the history of Bad Decisions, this is in the top ten.

Things get worse during the long argument scene in Act 4. This has several functions: it is here partly to point the time-honoured moral of how conspirators fall out among themselves. But it also shows Brutus to very poor advantage, showing him bullying and imposing on his snivelling partner. There’s a slight comparison to be had, maybe, with Milton’s Satan who starts Paradise Lost as a vast, awesome and terrifying figure and slowly and relentlessly shrinks and shrivels down until, by the end of the poem, he is the size of a misshapen frog. There isn’t a direct comparison, but something broadly similar can be said of Brutus who starts the play with noble soliloquies and high ideals but consistently mismanages every aspect of one of the most cack-handed conspiracies in history.

His final two contributions are to override Cassius’s suggestion that they delay and battle, insisting they fight on the battlefield of Philippi (which turns out to be a disaster). And then to mismanage the battle itself so that his own side is utterly defeated.

Stripped of all the high-sounding rhetoric, it’s not really an impressive record, is it? Shakespeare, as it were, restores the high dignified tone surrounding Brutus in the opening scenes with Antony’s fine words about ‘the noblest Roman of them all’ – but the litany of really fatal errors and mismanagement I’ve just listed tends to outweigh those fine words.

Dorsch sums up by saying Brutus is a man who honestly struggles with a problem which is beyond his abilities to solve. Murdering one man was easy. Resurrecting the Roman Republic which had collapsed for all kinds of reasons turned out to be wildly beyond the ability of a dozen or so men with daggers and not the slightest idea what to do next.

Suicide

Cassius’s eventual suicide is anticipated and prepared many times earlier in the play. Shakespeare makes him a man extremely willing to consider suicide at the slightest contradiction. Already in act one, when he is only just starting to sketch out the reasons to resist Caesar’s tyranny, he gets very vexed describing their subjugated state to Casca and then whips out his dagger and says he’s ready to off himself at any moment, that suicide is the last refuge of the oppressed:

CASSIUS: I know where I will wear this dagger then;
Cassius from bondage will deliver Cassius:
Therein, ye gods, you make the weak most strong;
Therein, ye gods, you tyrants do defeat:
Nor stony tower, nor walls of beaten brass,
Nor airless dungeon, nor strong links of iron,
Can be retentive to the strength of spirit;
But life, being weary of these worldly bars,
Never lacks power to dismiss itself. (1.3)

At the height of his argument with Brutus he bares his breast and asks Brutus to stab him:

CASSIUS: There is my dagger,
And here my naked breast; within, a heart
Dearer than Plutus’ mine, richer than gold:
If that thou be’st a Roman, take it forth;
I, that denied thee gold, will give my heart:
Strike, as thou didst at Caesar. (4.3)

By contrast, Brutus betrays no such melodramatic thoughts, indeed Shakespeare has him explicitly speak against suicide in the comrades’ dialogue before the start of the fateful battle:

BRUTUS: Even by the rule of that philosophy
By which I did blame Cato for the death
Which he did give himself, I know not how,
But I do find it cowardly and vile,
For fear of what might fall, so to prevent
The time of life: arming myself with patience
To stay the providence of some high powers
That govern us below.

So there is concealed in the text a debate, of sorts, about suicide (just as suicide is a major theme of Hamlet who considers killing himself in order to escape his unbearable moral dilemma).

Critics have pointed out that this little speech against suicide is contradicted by Brutus’s own behaviour a few minutes later, but, as so often in Shakespeare, the logics of individual positions (along with accurate chronology and a host of other details) are sacrificed to the compelling immediacy of the drama. In this case the Brutus’s philosophical position is overruled by the dynamic of the play, embodied in the power of Caesar’s ghost as an instrument of fate/fortune/destiny:

The ghost of Caesar hath appear’d to me
Two several times by night; at Sardis once,
And, this last night, here in Philippi fields:
I know my hour is come.

You can’t fight a messenger from the other side, and so:

It is more worthy to leap in ourselves,
Than tarry till they push us.

Against the wyrd of ghosts, philosophy has no power.

Reading Shakespeare

Reading Shakespeare is like this. You watch a production of the play and take in the gross events of the plot, noticing pretty obvious things like the murder, the ghost and the suicides. And then you read and reread the play and start to notice the way these aren’t just isolated events, but have been carefully prepared for earlier in the text or have lingering consequences afterwards.

And so you begin to realise that the suicides didn’t come out of nowhere but were anticipated, the idea was discussed, at a number of key moments earlier, or that, in the case of revenge, the word and the theme recur steadily, carefully placed in dialogue and speeches after the assassination. And you begin to appreciate the number of themes and verbal echoes which thread throughout the text which, as a result, comes more fully to life, seems deeper and more complex and more full of carefully planted echoes and anticipations than you dreamed when you just watched it on the stage.

And behold! You have walked through the looking glass into a new world made entirely of text, where ‘history’ or the ‘real world’ are no longer the prime concern, are only useful if they can be quarried for material to bolster and elaborate the dream world of the text, and you are just the most recent of the scores of millions of people who have watched this drama, read this text, and entered this dream.

Wisdom sayings

Apart from his skill at shaping stories into compelling narratives, and his supernatural ability at delving deep into the psychology of such a variety of people of all ranks, ages and genders, Shakespeare is famous for his unparalleled ability to expressing things memorably, for taking age-old saws and insights and giving them beautiful and memorable phrasing.

All his plays abound in sudden moments when his language clarifies and expresses a human thought for all time. Here’s Brutus at the end of his fierce meeting with Cassius, concluding the allies’ discussion of where and when to give battle the next day, explaining that opportunities must be seized:

BRUTUS: There is a tide in the affairs of men,
Which, taken at the flood, leads on to fortune;
Omitted, all the voyage of their life
Is bound in shallows and in miseries.
On such a full sea are we now afloat;
And we must take the current when it serves,
Or lose our ventures.

Noble and heroic, isn’t it? In this respect alone, reading Shakespeare and soaking our minds in the wonderfully evocative expression of all kinds of human feelings, emotions, desires and opinions, hugely ennobles his readers. Although, rather spoiling the effect, the whole speech is uttered as part of Brutus’s insistence that they go to meet their opponents at Philippi, despite Cassius’s objections. In other words, it is the very beautiful expression of a disastrous miscalculation.


Related link

Elizabethan and Jacobean reviews

Christopher Marlowe

Shakespeare

Theatre

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