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

The Book of Imaginary Beings by Jorge Luis Borges (1967)

This is an alphabetical list of fantastical and imaginary beasts from myth and legend, compiled by Borges with the assistance of his friend, Margarita Guerrero, and, to be honest, it’s a bit boring.

The Penguin paperback edition of The Book of Imaginary Beings has three prefaces which, among other things, point out that the collection grew, from 82 pieces in 1957, to 116 in 1967, to 120 in the 1969 edition. It’s an example of the pleasurable way all Borges’s collections – of poems, essays or stories – accumulate additional content over successive editions and, in doing so, hint at the scope for infinite expansion, and the dizzying sense of infinite vistas which lie behind so many of his fictions.

Imaginary beings

Strictly speaking there’s an endless number of imaginary beings since every person in every novel or play ever written is an imaginary being – but, of course, the authors have in mind not imaginary people but imaginary animals, fabulous beasts concocted by human fantasy. They have aimed to create:

a handbook of the strange creatures conceived through time and space by the human imagination

The book was created in collaboration with Borges’s friend Margarita Guerrero, and between them they tell us they had great fun ransacking ‘the maze-like vaults of the Biblioteca Nacional’ in Buenos Aires, scouring through books ancient and modern, fictional and factual, for the profiles of mythical beings from folklore and legend.

One of the conclusions they make in the preface was that it is quite difficult to make up new monsters. Many have tried, but most new-fangled creatures fall by the wayside. For example, Flaubert had a go at making new monsters in the later parts of The Temptation of Saint Anthony, but none of them really stir the imagination. There appear to be some archetypal patterns which just seem to gel with the human imagination, which chime with our deepest fears or desires and so have lasted through the centuries in folklore and myth, and are found across different cultures.

We are as ignorant of the meaning of the dragon as we are of the meaning of the universe, but there is something in the dragon’s image that appeals to the human imagination, and so we find the dragon in quite distinct places and times. It is, so to speak, a necessary monster, not an ephemeral or accidental one, such as the three-headed chimera or the catoblepas.

There are entries for 120 imaginary beasts, arranged in alphabetical order across 142 pages, making an average of 1.2 pages per entry, much shorter even than his short stories, about the same length as the ‘parables’ included in Labyrinths. Where possible, the authors include references to the source documents or texts where they discovered good descriptions of the beast in question.

But book actually references quite a few more than the 120 nominal beasts since many of the entries are portmanteau headings of, for example, the imaginary fauna of Chile (6 beasts); the Fauna of China entry (taken from the T’ai P’ing Kuang Chi) describes 12 imaginary beasts and 3 types of mutant human (people whose hands dangle to the ground or have human bodies but bat wings); the Fauna of America entry describes nine weird and wonderful animals. In other words, the book actually contains names and descriptions of many times 120 beasts, at a rough guess at least three times as many.

Thoughts

This should all be rather wonderful, shouldn’t it? But although it’s often distracting and amusing, The Book of Imaginary Beings almost entirely lacks the sense of wonder and marvel which characterises the extraordinary contents of Labyrinths.

Ultimately, the long list becomes rather wearing and highlights the barrenness of even the most florid creations if they are not brought to life by either a chunky narrative (I mean a narrative long enough for you to become engaged with) or by Borges’s magic touch, his deployment of strange and bizarre ideas to animate them.

Borges’s best stories start with wonderful, mind-dazzling insights and create carapaces of references or narrative around them. These encyclopedia-style articles about fabulous creatures, on the other hand, occasionally gesture towards the strange and illuminating but, by and large, remain not much more than a succession of raw facts.

For example, we learn that the word ‘basilisk’ comes from the Greek meaning ‘little king’, that the fabulous beast it refers to is mentioned in the authors Pliny and Chaucer and Aldrovani, in each of which it has a different appearance; we are given a long excerpt about the basilisk from Lucan’s Pharsalia.

Well, this is all very well and factual, but where are the ideas and eerie insights which make Borges’s ficciones so mind-blowing? Nowhere. The entries read like raw ingredients which are waiting to be cooked by Borges into a dazzling essay… which never materialises. More than that, it’s full of sentences which are uncharacteristically flaccid and banal.

Suggested or stimulated by reflections in mirrors and in water and by twins, the idea of the Double is common to many countries.

Really? In some of his stories this idea comes to dazzling life; in this collection of articles, it lies dead on the page.

A bestiary manqué

You could argue that the whole idea is an updating of the popular medieval genre of the ‘bestiary’. Wikipedia gives a pithy summary of the genre:

A bestiary is a compendium of beasts. Originating in the ancient world, bestiaries were made popular in the Middle Ages in illustrated volumes that described various animals and even rocks. The natural history and illustration of each beast was usually accompanied by a moral lesson.

I think the key is in that final phrase: bestiaries may well have fired the imaginations of their readers, amused and distracted them, but they had a purpose. Indeed, to the medieval mind the whole natural world was full of meaning and so every single creature in it existed to point a moral, to teach humans something (about God, about the Christian life, and so on). Bolstering every anecdote about this or that fabulous animal was a lesson we could all take away and benefit from.

Whereas, being 20th century agnostics and, moreover, of a modernist turn of mind which prefers clipped brevity to Victorian verbosity, the authors write entries which are deliberately brief and understated, and shorn of any moral or reflection, or analysis.

Whereas Borges’s fictions tend to build up to a bombshell insight which can haunt you for days, these entries just end and then you’re onto another item on the list, then another, then another, and after a while the absence of analysis or insight begins to feel like an almost physical lack.

Pictures

Given its static nature as a rather passive list written in often lifeless prose, what this book would really, really have have benefited from would have been being published in a large, coffee table format with an illustration for each monster.

I googled a lot of the entries in the book and immediately began having more fun on the internet, looking at the weird and wonderful illustrations of the beasts – comparing the way the basilisk or chimera or behemoth have depicted through the ages (and in our age which has seen an explosion of fantastical illustrations) than I had in reading Borges and Guerrero’s rather drab texts.

The two-headed Bird Dragon Ouroboros from the Aberdeen bestiary Illuminated manuscript

The two-headed bird-dragon Ouroboros from the Aberdeen bestiary illuminated manuscript

Favourites

On the up-side, here are some things I enjoyed:

I was delighted that The Book of Imaginary Beings contains not one but two entries for made-up creatures in C.S. Lewis’s science fiction novel, Perelandra.

To be reminded of the strange fact that Sleipnir, the horse belonging to Odin, king of the Norse gods, had eight legs.

A Chinese legend has it that the people who lived in mirrors were a different shape and size and kind from the people in this world. Once there were no borders and people could come and go between the real world and the mirror world. Then the mirror people launched an attack on our world but were defeated by the forces of the Yellow Emperor who compelled them to take human form and slavishly ape all the behaviour of people in this world, as if they were simply our reflections. But one day they will rise up and reclaim their freedom (Fauna of Mirrors).

The Hidebehind is always hiding behind something. No matter how many times or whichever way a man turns, it is always behind him, and that’s why nobody has been able to describe it, even though it is credited with having killed and devoured many a lumberjack. The Goofus Bird builds its nest upside down and flies backward, not caring where it’s going, only where it’s been.

At one point Borges lingers on the dogma of the Kabbalists and, for a moment, the real deep Borges appears, the one fascinated by the paradoxes of infinity:

In a book inspired by infinite wisdom, nothing can be left to chance, not even the number of words it contains or the order of the letters; this is what the Kabbalists thought, and they devoted themselves to the task of counting, combining, and permutating the letters of the Scriptures, fired by a desire to penetrate the secrets of God.

A Platonic year is the time required by the sun, the moon, and the five planets to return to their initial position; Tacitus in his Dialogus de Oratoribus calculates this as 12,994 common years.

In the middle of the twelfth century, a forged letter supposedly sent by Prester John, the king of kings, to the Emperor of Byzantium, made its way all over Europe. This epistle, which is a catalogue of wonders, speaks of gigantic ants that dig gold, and of a River of Stones, and of a Sea of Sand with living fish, and of a towering mirror that reflects whatever happens in the kingdom, and of a sceptre carved of a single emerald, and of pebbles that make a man invisible or that light up the night.

Threes

The Greek gods ruled three realms, heaven ruled by Zeus, the sea ruled by Poseidon, and hell ruled by Hades.

In ancient Greek religion the Moirai, called by the Romans the Parcae, known in English as the Fates, were the incarnations of destiny: Clotho (the ‘spinner’), Lachesis (the ‘allotter’) and Atropos (the ‘unturnable’, a metaphor for death).

Cerberus, the huge dog guarding hell, had three heads.

In Norse mythology, the Norns are female beings who rule the destiny of gods and men. In Snorri Sturluson’s interpretation of the Völuspá, there are three main norns, Urðr (Wyrd), Verðandi and Skuld. They are invoked in the three weird sisters who appear in Shakespeare’s Macbeth.

There are many valkyries – choosers of the dead –but tradition names three main ones as Hildr, Þrúðr and Hlökk.

Hinduism has Trimurti (Sanskrit for ‘three forms’) referring to the triad of the three gods Brahma, Vishnu, and Shiva.

The Christian God is a Trinity of God the Father, God the Son and God the Holy Spirit.

Jesus is resurrected on the third day after his crucifixion (counting Good Friday, Saturday and Sunday as days), an event prefigured by the three days the prophet Jonah spent in the belly of the whale.

In The Divine Comedy Dante journeys through the three parts of the afterworld, hell, purgatory and paradise.

According to Moslem tradition, Allah created three different species of intelligent beings: Angels, who are made of light; Jinn (‘Jinnee’ or ‘Genie’ in the singular), who are made of fire; and Men, who are made of earth.

Jinnee or genies grant three wishes.

Humans divide time (if it exists, that is) into the past, the present and the future.

The three billygoats gruff. The three bears. The three little pigs.

Fours

The four horsemen of the apocalypse.

The four gospels of the four evangelists, each one symbolised by an animal: to Matthew a man’s face, Mark the lion; Luke the calf; and John, the eagle.

In Babylon, the prophet Ezekiel saw in a vision four beasts or angels, ‘And every one had four faces, and every one had four wings’ and ‘As for the likeness of their faces, they four had the face of a man, and the face of a lion, on the right side: and they four had the face of an ox on the left side; they four also had the face of an eagle.’

John the Divine in the fourth chapter of Revelations: ‘And before the throne there was a sea of glass like unto crystal: and in the midst of the throne, and round about the throne, were four beasts full of eyes before and behind. And the first beast was like a lion, and the second beast like a calf, and the third beast had a face as a man, and the fourth beast was like a flying eagle. And the four beasts had each of them six wings about him; and they were full of eyes within…’

In the most important of Kabbalistic works, the Zohar or Book of Splendour, we read that these four beasts are called Haniel, Kafziel, Azriel, and Aniel and that they face east, north, south, and west.

Dante stated that every passage of the Bible has a fourfold meaning: the literal, the allegorical, the moral, and the spiritual.

The four corners of the earth. The four points of the compass.

The Greeks divided visible matter into the four elements of fire, earth, air, and water, and attributed the four humours which match them, black bile, yellow bile, phlegm, and blood, themselves the basis of the four temperaments of mankind, choleric, melancholic, phlegmatic and sanguine, respectively.

The four magic animals of Chinese cosmogony.

The four animals of good omen, being the unicorn, the dragon, the phoenix, and the tortoise.

A Borges reading list

This is an incomplete list of the texts most frequently referred to in The Book of Imaginary Beings. Laid out like this you can see how, beyond the respectable tradition of the classics, this is a kind of greatest hits selection of the esoteric and mystical traditions of world literature.

Reflecting on the list of texts, I realised they have one thing in common which is that they are all pre-scientific and non-scientific. Personally, I believe in modern cosmology’s account of the creation of the universe in a big bang, in the weird discoveries of particle physics which account for matter, gravity, light and so on; and, when it comes to life forms, I believe in a purely mechanistic origin for replicating life, and in Darwin’s theory of natural selection as improved by the discovery of the helical structure of DNA in 1953 and the 70 subsequent years of genetic science, to explain why there are, and inevitably have to be, such an enormous variety of life forms on earth.

For me, taken together, all the strands of modern science explain pretty much everything about the world around us and about human nature: why we are why we are, why we think and behave as we do.

None of that is recorded in any of these books. Instead everything in the books listed here amounts to various types of frivolous entertainment and speculation. It could be described as highly decorative rubbish. Homer and the Aeneid may well be the bedrocks of Western literature and Dante one of the central figures of European civilisation but, having lived and worked in the world for over 40 years, I’m well aware that the vast majority of people neither know nor care, and care even less about the more remote and obscure books on this list. They are for the pleasure of antiquaries and lovers of the obscure; people, dear reader, like thee and me.

Ancient world

  • The Epic of Gilgamesh
  • The Iliad and the Odyssey by Homer
  • Hesiod’s Theogony and Book of Days (700 BC)
  • The Old Testament
  • The Tibetan Book of the Dead
  • The Mahābhārata (3rd century BC?)
  • The Argonautica by Apollonius Rhodius (3rd century BC)
  • The Aeneid by Virgil (29 to 19 BC)
  • Metamorphoses or the Books of Transformations by Ovid (8 AD)
  • De Bello Civili or the Pharsalia by Lucan (30 AD?)
  • On the Nature of the Gods by Cicero
  • The Natural History by Pliny the Elder (77 AD)
  • History of the Jewish Wars by Flavius Josephus
  • The New Testament (1st century AD)

Middle Ages

  • Beowulf
  • The Exeter Book (tenth century)
  • The Song of Roland (11th-century)
  • The Poetic Edda (13th century)
  • The Prose Edda (13th century)
  • The Zohar, primary text of the Kabbalists
  • The 1001 Arabian Nights
  • The Golden Legend compiled by Jacobus de Voragine (thirteenth century)
  • The Travels of Marco Polo (1300)
  • The Divine Comedy by Dante Alighieri (1320)
  • Travels of Sir John Mandeville (1360s)
  • Autobiography by Benvenuto Cellini (1563)
  • Orlando Furioso by Ludovico Ariosto (1532)

Early modern

  • The Ingenious Gentleman Don Quixote of La Mancha by Miguel de Cervantes (1605 and 1615)
  • The Anatomy of Melancholy by Robert Burton (1621)
  • Hydriotaphia, Urn Burial, or, a Discourse of the Sepulchral Urns lately found in Norfolk by Sir Thomas Browne (1658)
  • Peter Wilkins by Robert Paltock (1751)
  • The World as Will and Representation (1844) by Arthur Schopenhauer
  • The Temptation of Saint Anthony by Gustave Flaubert (1874)
  • The Golem by Gustav Meyrink (1915)

Would be a challenge, fun and interesting to read all these books, in this order. A nutritious slice through Western civilisation.


Related links

Borges reviews

Rockaby by Samuel Beckett (1981)

Rockaby is a short play which Samuel Beckett wrote at the request of Daniel Labeille from the State University of New York, for a festival and symposium arranged to celebrate Beckett’s 75th birthday.

In the printed text, one and a half pages of detailed description of the stage setup, the actor’s costume and position and so on are followed by eight pages of actual text, the words to be spoken. This is unusual for Beckett, in that it’s written in short unrhymed lines so the text looks more like a poem rather than prose. Less unusual is the fact that all but ten or so words are not spoken by the actor we seen onstage but are pre-recorded. So the majority of the play consists of listening to a tape recording of the actor’s voice, similar to the setup in That Time which features a single actor onstage who never in fact says anything, but listens to three different tape recordings of his own voice interweaving seamlessly.

As part of the Beckett on Film project, Rockaby was filmed in a production featuring Penelope Wilton as the Woman, directed by Richard Eyre. This version runs for 14 minutes, but I can’t find it anywhere online.

For the duration of this short performance, an old woman (‘prematurely old’) with unnaturally large eyes (heavily made up) sits rocking in a rocking chair, while we hear her pre-recorded voice reciting the short lines of the text. Her rocking and the recorded voice both start when the woman in the chair says ‘More’. After a few minutes the rocking and voice come to a stop, there’s a characteristically Beckettian pause and then the woman says ‘More’, and the voice and rocking start again.This pause and then rather harrowed request for ‘more’ occurs four times, punctuating the action, giving it a shape and rhythm.

It’s as if the Woman has to call the voice into action in order to restart her rocking, to give her motion, activity and, by implication, life.

The play premiered on April 8, 1981 at the State University of New York, starring Beckett’s favourite woman actor, Billie Whitelaw, directed by his longtime American associate, Alan Schneider. A documentary film, Rockaby, was directed by D. A. Pennebaker and Chris Hegedus, and recorded the rehearsal process and the first performance. This is the performance segment of that film. It is not great quality but it does feature the brilliant Billie Whitelaw and she was coached for the performance by Beckett himself, so it’s probably as close to being definitive as possible.

The impression is that only the Voice allows her to continue. The Voice keeps her rocking. The Voice keeps her going, ‘keeping going’ being the concern of most of Beckett’s characters ever since The Unnamable was published in 1953.

Repetition

And repetition, arguably Beckett’s central literary strategy. Key phrases and words are repeated numerous times to create an incantatory, spooky, ghostly power, like the witches at the start of Macbeth reciting in unison. It’s quite spectacularly brilliant and disturbing, isn’t it?

went down in the end
went down down
the steep stair
let down the blind and down
right down
into the old rocker
mother rocker
where mother rocked
all the years
all in black
best black
sat and rocked
rocked
till her end came

The text invokes confused identities, seems to indicate that the person going down the steep stair into the basement where the old rocker is, in doing so exchanges identities with the dead mother:

time she went right down
was her own other
own other living soul

So that the physical movement ‘down the steep stair’ appears to also be a psychological transition in which the woman upstairs metamorphoses into the mother in her rocking chair. The overlap of personalities or avatars or spirits comes into focus or crystallises at the three moments where the Woman onstage breaks her silence and speaks the short phrase ‘time she stopped’ in synchrony with the recorded Voice (a trick, incidentally, Beckett had used in …but the clouds… at the couple of moments when the phantom woman suddenly mouths the male speaker’s words in synchrony with him).

In the literary world, this theme of merging identities can be unravelled at some length because literature and literary criticism, particularly of a psychoanalytical persuasion, are obsessed with identity, the self and the ever-threatening ‘other’, the repressed or controlled elements of our psyche which are always threatening to break free.

But on a less highfalutin’ level, the theme of possession is a staple subject of horror novels and movies which routinely feature the innocent heroine venturing down to the spooky basement or the spooky attic to find themselves becoming possessed by a dead spirit – this is the very familiar and assimilable subject of countless horror movies.

Indeed, the image of the old woman dressed in black and gone quite mad and then dead, the image of a dead old woman in a chair, reminds me of Norman Bates’s mother dead in her basement chair in one of the most iconic horror movies of all time, Hitchcock’s, Psycho.

image

so in the end
close of a long day
went down
let down the blind and down
right down
into the old rocker
and rocked
rocked
saying to herself
no

Beckett and his mother

It adds quite a big new layer to your interpretation of the performance when you learn that in his 20s, Beckett underwent extensive psychotherapy at the Tavistock Clinic in London (over 1,500 sessions spread over two years with the pioneering psycho-analyst Wilfred Bion) in order to bring his panic attacks, night sweats and heart arrhythmia under control. In his massive biography of Beckett, James Knowlson explains that the core of Beckett’s psychological problems, and the cause of his psychosomatic symptoms, was established as his unusually intense love-hate relationship with his mother:

The key to understanding Beckett, said Dr Geoffrey Thompson – who, with Wilfred Bion himself, was the one most likely to know – was to be found in his relationship with his mother. And reductive analysis must have focused on the intensity of his mother’s attachment to him and his powerful love-hate bond with her.
(Damned to Fame: The Life of Samuel Beckett by James Knowlson, page 178)

Mother and son problems, OK. And yet in this and the very similar play, Footfalls, written a few years earlier (1976) it is not a man who struggles with the memory of his mother, but a woman who struggles with the memory of hers. It is a woman in these plays, a woman’s voice, a woman’s psyche, which is dominated and (maybe) taken over by the very old or dead mother, the dead mother whose personality lives on in the daughter, which appears to fight for ownership of the daughter’s mind.

so in the end
close of a long day
went down in the end
went down down
the steep stair
let down the blind and down
right down
into the old rocker
mother rocker
where mother rocked
all the years
all in black
best black
sat and rocked
rocked
till her end came

So you can, if you wish, bring aspect of Beckett’s personal life to the play; or you can dwell on the countless writings about identity and ‘the other’ produced by critical theorists throughout the 20th century (Freud, Lacan, Derrida) and investigate the impossibility of the self, and the multiple conflicts which not only rive the mind, but fissiparate language itself, a tiny glimpse of which is given in the ‘confusion’ or closeness of the words mother and other in the recitative format of the play.

But there is also the simple aspect of the theatrical performance to consider. Just to sit and listen and watch, to let yourself be drawn slowly further and deeper in to an uncanny zone by the actor’s deliberately flat, repetitive, incantatory voice (Beckett was forever instructing all his actor’s to drain all colour and expression from his words, to speak like robots), is to have an almost out-of-body experience.

Watch it with all the lights in the room turned off, close your eyes and drift with the words, and accompany the text on that slow descent into the basement and to sit in the rocking chair of the dead mother. It is a genuinely creepy experience. You rarely find critics categorising Beckett as a writer of ghost stories, of horror stories, but I think they should.


Related link

Samuel Beckett’s works

An asterisk indicates that a work was included in the Beckett on Film project, which set out to make films of all 19 of Beckett’s stage plays using leading actors and directors. The set of 19 films was released in 2002 and most of them can be watched on YouTube.

The Second World War 1939 to 1945

*Waiting For Godot 1953 Play

Awarded the Nobel Prize for Literature 1969

Come and Go by Samuel Beckett (1965)

Come and Go is an example of the form Beckett came to call ‘dramaticules’ for the simple reason that they are very short. Come and Go consists of a set of very precise stage movements and just over 120 words of dialogue, and is about seven minutes long in performance. As with most of Beckett’s later works, the detailed stage directions are as long as the text of the ‘play’ itself.

Stage directions

Lights go up on a stage empty apart from a bench on which are sitting three women. The lighting is:

Soft, from above only and concentrated on playing area. Rest of stage as dark as possible.

Over the course of the seven minutes we will learn from the sparse dialogue that the women’s names are Ru, Vi and Flo. They are wearing full-length coats, buttoned high, a dull violet for Ru, dull red for Vi, dull yellow for Flo. They should be wearing:

Drab nondescript hats with enough brim to shade faces. Apart from colour differentiation three figures as
alike as possible. Light shoes with rubber soles. Hands made up to be as visible as possible. No rings apparent.

The seat? It must be:

Narrow benchlike seat, without back, just long enough to accommodate three figures almost touching. As little visible as possible. It should not be clear what they are sitting on.

When the women come and go:

They should disappear a few steps from lit area. If dark not sufficient to allow this, recourse should be had to screens or drapes as little visible as possible. Exits and entrances slow, without sound of feet.

Their voices should be:

As low as compatible with audibility. Colourless except for three ‘ohs’ and two lines following.

The women’s movements

The three women, Flo, Vi, Ru, are sitting on a bench. The central one, Vi, gets up and walks backstage, leaving Flo and Ru. The one on our left, Flo, shuffles over to the one on the right, Ru, and whispers in her ear and Ru gasps, ‘Oh’.

The one who had left, Vi, re-enters and takes up the vacant place on the left. The one in the middle, Flo, gets up and walks backstage. The one on the right, Ru, shuffles over to sit next to the one on the left, Vi, and whispers something in her ear. Vi gasps ‘Oh’. Flo reappears from backstage and takes the vacant place on the right.

The one now in the middle, Ru, gets up and walks backstage. The one on the left, Vi, shuffles across to be sitting next to the one on the right, Flo and whispers in her ear. Flo gasps, ‘Oh’.

Ru appears from backstage and takes up the vacant place on the left of the bench. All this is entirely in line with one of Beckett’s central attributes which is a fanatically precise attention to physical postures and movements. It’s quite possible that the prose works from this period (the mid-1960s) have their genesis in the various, precisely described, physical postures of the various protagonists. Certainly his plays had, for some time, not only become shorter, but more interested in the precise posture and movements of the protagonists than in what they say. So precise were his instructions that he drew a schematic of the women’s changing positions:

The changing positions of Flo, Vi and Ru on the bench in ‘Come and Go’

In the final minute of the play the three women join hands in a gesture designed, one suspects, purely for its agreeable geometric complexity. Beckett gives a detailed prose description of the movement:

[After a moment they join bands as follows: Vi’s right band with Ru ‘s right band. Vi’s left band with Flo ‘s left
hand, Flo’s right band with Ru’s left band, Vi’s arms being above Ru’s left arm and Flo’s right arm. The three
pairs of clasped bands rest on the three laps.]

And in case that’s not enough, Beckett also gives another schematic diagram:

Schematic of the arrangement of the three women’s hands at the end of ‘Come and Go’

The careful notation and the pattern of movements and gestures is reminiscent of many musical forms, most of which require the statement of a particular theme or cadence which is then repeated with variations.

The Beckett on Film version

What does all this look like in practice? Well, here is a very faithful production which fulfils Beckett’s instructions to the letter. It was part of the Beckett On Film project, and was directed by John Crow, featuring Anna Massey as Vi, Siân Phillips as Ru and Paola Dionisotti as Flo.

Performance art

Personally, I find this obsessive emphasis on the precise delineation and definition of every single element of the performance makes the piece more like a kind of living sculpture or piece of performance art than a ‘play’.

There are three individuals and they are given actual names (unlike M, W1 and W2 in Play, for example) and they do actually say things which make a sort of sense – but personally I can’t help thinking of the apparent content of the playlet i.e. what the characters say, as very, very secondary to the visualisation of the staging and the dogmatic precision with which Beckett polices it. In the same way that semi-abstract art may take its origin from some aspect of ‘the real world’ but the real interest is in how these elements are abstracted out into an overall design.

Content

It’s almost scary how much commentary critics and scholars have been able to spool out of this short playlet. The Wikipedia article about Come and Go is dismayingly long. Four elements stand out, for me:

1. Old ladies

The play depicts three old ladies nattering. I grew up in a village full of old people, in fact my parents ran the village shop and I started working in it when I was 12 or 13. Not only that, but across the road was a nunnery which had been converted into an old people’s home, staffed by very old nuns looking after even older ladies. My point is that my boyhood was dominated by different groups of old ladies meeting up in the shop or just outside and nattering on for hours. Old Miss Luck, Miss Grace, Miss Denis and Mrs Hobson are just four that spring to mind. So I take the play at face value as three old ladies sitting on a bench having a natter.

A possibly overlooked element of this ‘realistic’ interpretation is how boring and empty a lot of old people’s lives are. With no jobs to fill their days, with no children to bring up, lots of retired and elderly people find their lives very empty. Chatting with friends your own age, specially about children and grandchildren, or about the thousand aches and pains that flesh is heir to, fills the time. Specially for old women, who will more than likely outlive their husbands, often by decades.

2. Bad news

The notion that as soon as one of three old ladies departs the other two instantly fall to gossiping about her is as old as the human race. Modern young feminist scholars may dismiss it as sexist stereotyping but I’ve seen it happen, myself, so many hundreds of times that I consider it simple realism. What makes it even more realistic, to my mind, is that the two remainers instantly share some ‘shocking’ news about the woman who’s just left the stage. This news is whispered, but whispered quite loudly, in a showy, attention-pulling kind of way, to make the whisperer feel important. And it’s fairly obvious from the auditor’s response, that the two women are sharing the ‘secret’ that the one who is offstage at that moment, has some fatal illness but doesn’t know it.

This feature of the playlet manages to combine three elements: a pretty realistic aspect of old ladies gossiping, with the Beckett theme of doom-laden lives, impending death etc, with a third element, which is a multiple dramatic irony. Level one of dramatic irony is the way each pair of old ladies knows that the other one is dying of an incurable disease; level two is that we, the audience, know that they are all dying of an incurable disease.

Beckett is saying that we all like to reassure ourselves that we are alright and it is the others who are in a parlous plight. But you know what – in reality we are all in the same parlous plight, all of us are dying by degrees and doomed to the same fate.

3. Threes

VI: When did we three last meet?

The fact that it is three women lends itself to all kinds of symbolic interpretations, for example the three Graces, the three Fates of Greek mythology, the three Norns of Norse mythology, or the Trinity of Christian theology. Small essays can be written imposing these or any other triad you can think of onto the three women, but they don’t interest me much.

Three of anything is just a convenient number. 2,000 years ago Cicero pointed out that if you wanted to impress your listeners, your speeches should include sentences containing three clauses: blood, sweat and tears; earth, wind and fire; the good, the bad and the ugly; hands, face, space; if at first you don’t succeed, try, try and try again; the German proverb Alle guten Dinge sind drei; you wait ages for one bus, then three come along at once.

And of course that opening sentence has reminded every English student who ever read or heard it of the opening line of Macbeth with its three witches:

When shall we three meet again? In thunder, lightning, or in rain?

In any context, three entities feels just the right number (to our ape minds, for whatever reason): two isn’t quite enough, four is too many, three is a perfect size.

4. Padding

I can’t find quite the right word to describe the fourth element, what you could call ‘filler material’ or ‘padding’, in the sense of ‘content produced to fill up gaps or holes’. What I’m getting at is that having assembled his three old ladies and conceived the ironic core of the action – the way each pair of them shares the secret of the other one’s fatal illness – all good so far, Beckett now has to, er pad the rest of the time out with something. But with what?

I think this is an easily identifiable aspect of most of Beckett’s work, whether prose or plays: there’s a basic structure often based on the position of a body or bodies; there’s a kind of geometric ideas about how bodies position themselves or move; a set of key words and phrases emerge which can be repeated to an intense degree… but there needs to be something else, some kind of distinct content which makes each piece unique.

Often it’s a name, thrown in almost at random to create the illusion of ‘content’, that the piece is referring to something the rest of us can relate to, to ‘characters’ who may then be given some attributes to pad them out. For me the standout example is the figure of ‘Woburn’ in Cascando. In that work Beckett had conceived of a kind of impresario who controls the contributions of the two abstract entities Voice and Music. Now Music is easy enough to create, and Beckett worked with composers who created it for him. But Voice, what can Voice say? It needed to be a story which is continually started but never finished and never told in quite the right way. The easiest solution was to think of a person undertaking an activity and so the finished piece has Voice repeatedly telling the ‘story’ of this figure Woburn, who he repeatedly describes getting out of bed, getting dressed, going downstairs, out the house, across the beach and trying to launch a dinghy into the sea.

My point is that what he does and his name, Woburn, are utterly irrelevant to the basic structure of the piece, but once they had been decided, then they become both strangely hypnotic in performance, and susceptible to any number of clever scholarly interpretations. But Woburn’s primary purpose is to pad out the structural skeleton, to provide the filler which gives it content.

Same here. Beckett adds a name and a factual reference, just one:

FLO: Just sit together as we used to, in the playground at Miss Wade’s.
RU: On the log.

Who is Miss Wade? What does the log symbolise? Ten thousand scholars have shed much ink investing this handful of words with multiple significances, and who knows, maybe they’re all right. Maybe it starts by meaning what it says at face value, namely the three old ladies are remembering when they were little girls back at Miss Wade’s nursery or school and used to sit on a log and hold hands. And scholars have indeed discovered that Beckett’s female cousins attended a school in Dublin run by three spinster sisters and commonly known Miss Wade’s. ‘Aha! Gotcha!’ This might be called the sentimental interpretation. Aah.

But looked at structurally, this is quite obviously a familiar Beckett strategy: he has created the skeleton, the frame of a work, and it is the skeleton – the bench, the three women, their carefully choreographed movements – which really interest him. Now he has to put some flesh on it to keep the punters happy. He needs a few touches of colour in an otherwise almost entirely white, abstract design.

Same sort of thing happens a few minutes later:

VI: May we not speak of the old days? [Silence. ] Of what came after? [Silence. ]

Beckett is dangling his familiar theme, the sense of loss and decay, hinting at some disaster or unmentionable incident, for the gossips in the audience and academy to speculate about. But it is almost over-familiar; we have heard Beckett characters make these kind of pseudo-profound statements so many times, they come as no surprise. But the characters have to say something.

And again, at the very end, the last words, after the three ladies have joined hands:

FLO: I can feel the rings. [Silence. ]

Well, you don’t have to be a genius to see how these words emphasise the circular shape of the play which ends where it began and consists of a series of repeated patterns within itself, and brings out the intertwining nature of the three women’s lives, or fates.

The bombastic among us might reference Wagner’s massive Ring series of operas. The sentimental might notice that none of the three are actually wearing rings (a detail emphasised by Beckett) and so Flo is referring to invisible and imagined rings, maybe the rings the three spinsters longed for all their lives and never attained. The literary (such as the editors of The Beckett Companion) may think of Henry Vaughan’s poem, Eternity:

I saw Eternity the other night,
Like a great ring of pure and endless light

Or those of us with small children might be prompted to think of the Circle of Life from that great philosophical work, The Lion King. I.e. it’s almost like these brief, pregnant phrases are consciously designed to trigger responses in the word and idea centres of the brain…

But, for me, the point is not the words, or the meanings the words conjure up – it is the silences. In fact, surely the most important thing about the verbal content of Come and Go – once you have processed the irony of the whispered secrets – is the long, looong silences which punctuate it. It is a play made up of silences. Just over 120 words, but how many silences? (I counted: the word ‘silence’ appears 12 times; 1 silence per ten words).

A complex ballet of movements. Three whispered revelations. The bare minimum of ‘affect’ or content. Long silences. It is amazing how dense and complex such a brief piece of drama can be.


Related link

Samuel Beckett’s works

An asterisk indicates that a work was included in the Beckett on Film project, which set out to make films of all 19 of Beckett’s stage plays using leading actors and directors. The set of 19 films was released in 2002 and most of them can be watched on YouTube.

The Second World War 1939 to 1945

*Waiting For Godot 1953 Play

Awarded the Nobel Prize for Literature 1969

The I without a self by W.H. Auden

In January 1939 the English poet W.H. Auden sailed to America where he intended to make a new life for himself. He wanted to escape the fame and notoriety he had garnered in England, and the association his work had with left-wing politics, as well as the more basic consideration that there was more work for a freelance poet, dramatist, essayist and commentator in America than in Britain.

He set about the process of shedding his politically committed 1930s persona, and embarked on an earnest attempt to understand himself and the times he lived in. This was eventually to lead him back to the Anglican beliefs of his childhood, but recast in the forms of 1940s and 50s existentialist theologians.

His poetry stopped being about gangs of schoolboys behaving like soldiers or vivid descriptions of England’s derelict depression-era industry or calls for action in civil war Spain, a fabulously thrilling mix of vivid detail and urgent mood, which makes the reader feel part of some insider gang:

Consider this and in our time
As the hawk sees it or the helmeted airman:
The clouds rift suddenly – look there
At cigarette-end smouldering on a border
At the first garden party of the year.
Pass on, admire the view of the massif
Through plate-glass windows of the Sport hotel;
Join there the insufficient units
Dangerous, easy, in furs, in uniform
And constellated at reserved tables
Supplied with feelings by an efficient band
Relayed elsewhere to farmers and their dogs
Sitting in kitchens in the stormy fens.

and became more consciously detached and urbane. In the worst of it, his characters carry out long monologues full of knowing references to Character Types and Schools of Thought. In the best of it he invokes or addresses the Greats of European Culture such as Horace or Goethe or Homer and writes poems of tremendous authority such as The Shield of Achilles. As the terrible war dragged on, Auden came to see it as the poet’s role to define and preserve the values of civilisation.

Meanwhile, to earn a living, he needed to deliver lectures and write reviews. He was always a highly cerebral person, from early youth given to sorting and ordering friends, poems and experiences into categories. Thus his essays and lectures have a kind of brisk, no-nonsense clarity about them, much given to invoking types and archetypes and categories, and to then explaining how they apply to this or that writer.

Thus, when he came to write about Kafka, Auden takes as his premise the notion that Kafka was the century’s greatest writer of parables and then goes on to work through the consequences of that idea. It is characteristic of Auden that his explanation requires reference to Dickens, Shakespeare, Alice in Wonderland, and an explanation of the archetype of The Quest and the Princess and the Hero, as well as references to Gnostics and manicheism. It is characteristic that Auden uses quite a lot of Christian theological language, while making no reference to Kafka’s well-known Jewish context.

The essay is already available online in its entirety and since it is so lucid I can’t see any point in garbling it through my own interpretation but quote it in full.

The I without a self by W.H. Auden

Kafka is a great, maybe the greatest, master of the pure parable, a literary genre about which a critic can say very little worth saying. The reader of a novel, or the spectator at a drama, though novel and drama may also have a parabolic significance, is confronted by a feigned history, by characters, situations, actions which, though they may be analogous to his own, are not identical. Watching a performance of Macbeth, for example, I see particular historical persons involved in a tragedy of their own making: I may compare Macbeth with myself and wonder what I should have done and felt had I been in his situation, but I remain a spectator, firmly fixed in my own time and place. But I cannot read a pure parable in this way.

Though the hero of a parable may be given a proper name (often, though, he may just be called ‘a certain man’ or ‘K’) and a definite historical and geographical setting, these particulars are irrelevant to the meaning of parable. To find out what, if anything, a parable means, I have to surrender my objectivity and identify myself with what I read. The ‘meaning’ of a parable, in fact, is different for every reader. In consequence there is nothing a critic can do to ‘explain’ it to others. Thanks to his superior knowledge of artistic and social history, of language, of human nature even, a good critic can make others see things in a novel or a play which, but for him, they would never have seen for themselves. But if he tries to interpret a parable, he will only reveal himself. What he writes will be a description of what the parable has done to him; of what it may do to others he does not and cannot have any idea.

Sometimes in real life one meets a character and thinks, ‘This man comes straight out of Shakespeare or Dickens’, but nobody ever met a Kafka character. On the other hand, one can have experiences which one recognizes as Kafkaesque, while one would never call an experience of one’s own Dickensian or Shakespearian. During the war, I had spent a long and tiring day in the Pentagon. My errand done, I hurried down long corridors eager to get home, and came to a turnstile with a guard standing beside it. ‘Where are you going?’ said the guard. ‘I’m trying to get out,’ I replied. ‘You are out,’ he said. For the moment I felt I was K.

In the case of the ordinary novelist or playwright, a knowledge of his personal life and character contributes almost nothing to one’s understanding of his work, but in the case of a writer of parables like Kafka, biographical information is, I believe, a great help, at least in a negative way, by preventing one from making false readings. (The ‘true’ readings are always many.)

In the new edition of Max Brod’s biography, he describes a novel by a Czech writer, Bozena Nemcova (1820-1862), called The Grandmother. The setting is a village in the Riesengebirge which is dominated by a castle. The villagers speak Czech, the inhabitants of the castle German. The Duchess who owns the castle is kind and good but she is often absent on her travels and between her and the peasants are interposed a horde of insolent household servants and selfish, dishonest officials, so that the Duchess has no idea of what is really going on in the village. At last the heroine of the story succeeds in getting past the various barriers to gain a personal audience with the Duchess, to whom she tells the truth, and all ends happily.

What is illuminating about this information is that the castle officials in Nemcovi are openly presented as being evil, which suggests that those critics who have thought of the inhabitants of Kafka’s castle as agents of Divine Grace were mistaken, and that Erich Heller’s reading is substantially correct.

The castle of Kafka’s novel is, as it were, the heavily fortified garrison of a company of Gnostic demons, successfully holding an advanced position against the manoeuvres of an impatient soul. I do not know of any conceivable idea of divinity which could justify those interpreters who see in the castle the residence of ‘divine law and divine grace’. Its officers are totally indifferent to good if they are not positively wicked. Neither in their decrees nor in their activities is there discernible any trace of love, mercy, charity or majesty. In their icy detachment they inspire no awe, but fear and revulsion.

Dr. Brod also publishes for the first time a rumor which, if true, might have occurred in a Kafka story rather than in his life, namely, that, without his knowledge, Kafka was the father of a son who died in 1921 at the age of seven. The story cannot be verified since the mother was arrested by the Germans in 1944 and never heard of again.

Remarkable as The Trial and The Castle are, Kafka’s finest work, I think, is to be found in the volume The Great Wall of China, all of it written during the last six years of his life. The wall it portrays is still the world of his earlier books and one cannot call it euphoric, but the tone is lighter. The sense of appalling anguish and despair which make stories like The Penal Colony almost unbearable, has gone. Existence may be as difficult and frustrating as ever, but the characters are more humorously resigned to it.

Of a typical story one might say that it takes the formula of the heroic Quest and turns it upside down. In the traditional Quest, the goal – a Princess, the Fountain of Life, etc. – is known to the hero before he starts. This goal is far distant and he usually does not know in advance the way thither nor the dangers which beset it, but there are other beings who know both and give him accurate directions and warnings.

Moreover the goal is publicly recognizable as desirable. Everybody would like to achieve it, but it can only be reached by the Predestined Hero. When three brothers attempt the Quest in turn, the first two are found wanting and fail because of their arrogance and self-conceit, while the youngest succeeds, thanks to his humility and kindness of heart. But the youngest, like his two elders, is always perfectly confident that he
will succeed.

In a typical Kafka story, on the other hand, the goal is peculiar to the hero himself: he has no competitors. Some beings whom he encounters try to help him, more are obstructive, most are indifferent, and none has the faintest notion of the way. As one of the aphorisms puts it: ‘There is a goal but no way; what we call the way is mere wavering’. Far from being confident of success, the Kafka hero is convinced from the start that he is doomed to fail, as he is also doomed, being who he is, to make prodigious and unending efforts to reach it. Indeed, the mere desire to reach the goal is itself a proof, not that he is one of the Elect, but that he is under a special curse.

Perhaps there is only one cardinal sin: impatience. Because of impatience we were driven out of Paradise, because of impatience we cannot return.

Theoretically, there exists a perfect possibility of happiness: to believe in the indestructible element in oneself and not strive after it.

In all previous versions of the Quest, the hero knows what he ought to do and his one problem is ‘Can I do it?’ Odysseus knows he must not listen to the song of the sirens, a knight in quest of the Sangreal knows he must remain chaste, a detective knows he must distinguish between truth and falsehood. But for K the problem is ‘What ought I to do?’ He is neither tempted, confronted with a choice between good and evil, nor carefree, content with the sheer exhilaration of motion. He is certain that it matters enormously what he does now, without knowing at all what that ought to be. If he guesses wrong, he must not only suffer the same consequences as if he had chosen wrong, but also feel the same responsibility. If the instructions and advice he receives seem to him absurd or contradictory, he cannot interpret this as evidence of malice or guilt in others; it may well be proof of his own.

The traditional Quest Hero has arete, either manifest, like Odysseus, or concealed, like the fairy tale hero; in the first case, successful achievement of the Quest adds to his glory, in the second it reveals that the apparent nobody is a glorious hero: to become a hero, in the traditional sense, means acquiring the right, thanks to one’s exceptional gifts and deeds, to say I. But K is an I from the start, and in this fact alone, that he exists, irrespective of any gifts or deeds, lies his guilt.

If the K of The Trial were innocent, he would cease to be K and become nameless like the fawn in the wood in Through the Looking-Glass. In The Castle, K, the letter, wants to become a word, land-surveyor, that is to say, to acquire a self like everybody else but this is precisely what he is not allowed to acquire.

The world of the traditional Quest may be dangerous, but it is open : the hero can set off in any direction he fancies. But the Kafka world is closed; though it is almost devoid of sensory properties, it is an intensely physical world. The objects and faces in it may be vague, but the reader feels himself hemmed in by their suffocating presence: in no other imaginary world, I think, is everything so heavy. To take a single step exhausts the strength. The hero feels himself to be a prisoner and tries to escape but perhaps imprisonment is the proper state for which he was created, and freedom would destroy him.

The more horse you yoke, the quicker everything will go – not the rending or the block from its foundation, which is impossible, but the snapping of the traces and with that the gay and empty journey.

The narrator hero of The Burrow for example, is a beast of unspecified genus, but, presumably, some sort of badger-like animal, except that he is carnivorous. He lives by himself without a mate and never encounters any other member of his own species. He also lives in a perpetual state of fear lest he be pursued and attacked by other animals – ‘My enemies are countless,’ he says – but we never learn what they may be like and we never actually encounter one. His preoccupation is with the burrow which has been his lifework. Perhaps, when he first began excavating this, the idea of a burrow-fortress was more playful than serious, but the bigger and better the burrow becomes, the more he is tormented by the question: ‘Is it possible to construct the absolutely impregnable burrow?’ This is a torment because he can never be certain that there is not some further precaution of which he has not thought. Also the burrow he has spent his life constructing has become a precious thing which he must defend as much as he would defend himself.

One of my favourite plans was to isolate the Castle Keep from its surroundings, that is to say to restrict the thickness of the walls to about my own height, and leave a free space of about the same width all around the Castle Keep … I had always pictured this free space, and not without reason as the loveliest imaginable haunt. What a joy to he pressed against the rounded outer wall, pull oneself up, let oneself slide down again, miss one’s footing and find oneself on firm earth, and play all these games literally upon the Castle Keep and not inside it; to avoid the Castle Keep, to rest one’s eyes from it whenever one wanted, to postpone the joy of seeing it until later and yet not have to do without it, but literally hold it safe between one’s claws . . .

He begins to wonder if, in order to defend it, it would not be better to hide in the bushes outside near its hidden entrance and keep watch. He considers the possibility of enlisting the help of a confederate to share the task of watching, but decides against it.

. . . would he not demand some counter-service from me; would he not at least want to see the burrow? That in itself, to let anyone freely into my burrow, would be exquisitely painful to me. I built it for myself, not for visitors, and I think I would refuse to admit him … I simply could not admit him, for either I must let him go in first by himself, which is simply unimaginable, or we must both descend at the same time, in which case the advantage I am supposed to derive from him, that of being kept watch over, would be lost. And what trust can I really put in him? … It is comparatively easy to trust any one if you are supervising him or at least supervise him; perhaps it is possible to trust some one at a distance; but completely to trust someone outside the burrow when you are inside the burrow, that is, in a different world, that, it seems to me, is impossible.

One morning he is awakened by a faint whistling noise which he cannot identify or locate. It might be merely the wind, but it might be some enemy. From now on, he is in the grip of a hysterical anxiety. Does this strange beast, if it is a beast, know of his existence and, if so, what does it know. The story breaks off without a solution.

Edwin Muir has suggested that the story would have ended with the appearance of the invisible enemy to whom the hero would succumb. I am doubtful about this. The whole point of the parable seems to be that the reader is never to know if the narrator’s subjective fears have any objective justification.

The more we admire Kafka’s writings, the more seriously we must reflect upon his final instructions that they should be destroyed. At first one is tempted to see in this request a fantastic spiritual pride, as if he had said to himself: ‘To be worthy of me, anything I write must be absolutely perfect. But no piece of writing, however excellent, can be perfect. Therefore, let what I have written be destroyed as unworthy of me.’

But everything which Dr. Brod and other friends tell us about Kafka as a person makes nonsense of this explanation. It seems clear that Kafka did not think of himself as an artist in the traditional sense, that is to say, as a being dedicated to a particular function, whose personal existence is accidental to his artistic productions. If there ever was a man of whom it could be said that he ‘hungered and thirsted after righteousness’, it was Kafka.

Perhaps he came to regard what he had written as a personal device he had employed in his search for God. ‘Writing,’ he once wrote, ‘is a form of prayer,’ and no person whose prayers are genuine, desires them to be overheard by a third party. In another passage, he describes his aim in writing thus:

Somewhat as if one were to hammer together a table with painful and methodical technical efficiency, and simultaneously do nothing at all, and not in such a way that people could say: ‘Hammering a table together is nothing to him,’ but rather ‘Hammering a table together is really hammering a table together to him, but at the same time it is nothing,’ whereby certainly the hammering would have become still bolder, still surer, still more real, and if you will, still more senseless.

But whatever the reasons, Kafka’s reluctance to have his work published should at least make a reader wary of the way in which he himself reads it. Kafka may be one of those writers who are doomed to be read by the wrong public. Those on whom their effect would be most beneficial are repelled and on those whom they most fascinate their effect may be dangerous, even harmful.

I am inclined to believe that one should only read Kafka when one is in a eupeptic state of physical and mental health and, in consequence, tempted to dismiss any scrupulous heart-searching as a morbid fuss. When one is in low spirits, one should probably keep away from him, for, unless introspection is accompanied, as it always was in Kafka, by an equal passion for the good life, it all too easily degenerates into a spineless narcissistic fascination with one’s own sin and weakness.

No one who thinks seriously about evil and suffering can avoid entertaining as a possibility the gnostic-manichean notion of the physical world as intrinsically evil, and some of Kafka’s sayings come perilously close to accepting it.

There is only a spiritual world; what we call the physical world is the evil in the spiritual one.

The physical world is not an illusion, but only its evil which, however, admittedly constitutes our picture of the physical world.

Kafka’s own life and his writings as a whole are proof that he was not a gnostic at heart, for the true gnostic can alwaysbe recognized by certain characteristics. He regards himself as a member of a spiritual elite and despises all earthly affections and social obligations. Quite often, he also allows himself an anarchic immorality in his sexual life, on the grounds that, since the body is irredeemable, a moral judgment cannot be applied to its actions.

Neither Kafka, as Dr. Brod knew him, nor any of his heroes show a trace of spiritual snobbery nor do they think of the higher life they search for as existing in some otherworld sphere: the distinction they draw between this world and the world does not imply that there are two different worlds, only that our habitual conceptions of reality are not the true conception.

Perhaps, when he wished his writings to be destroyed, Kafka foresaw the nature of too many of his admirers.


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