Julius Caesar
by William Shakespeare

Review by Edward Tanguay
November 15, 1996

Ugh, what a heavy play.  There is nothing in this play that is light, except perhaps for the slight humor of Casca brought in at the beginning.  The rest of the play is weighted with testosterone in all areas:  power, violence, revenge, war, suicide on a sword, and soldier heroism.  The two women in the play stand on the sidelines like cheerleaders, bewailing the fates of their masculine counterparts.  This play is one-sided for Shakespeare:  where is the witty exchange between the comic couple in love?  Where is a Pan character hopping around the forest?  Even when compared to another historical play such as Richard III, this play seems stationary, short, and simple. Richard the III is a character that throughout the play showed us a constant uncontrollable, extreme character in everything he did.  Who is this brilliant in the play Julius Caesar?  Julius Caesar himself is a degenerating old man who is starting to believe in superstitions.  He falls apart and dies far too early for us to be able to analyze his character.  Brutus doesn't really learn or grow throughout the play, making bad decisions all the way through, letting Antony speak and giving up his position on the hill in the war, for example.  Perhaps Antony is the most interesting character, but he is confined to his one good lend-me-your-ears speech. The mob is so easily persuaded that they are not interesting to examine, either.  I pity all the high schoolers who are forced to read this play--if I were a high school teacher teaching Shakespeare, I would chuck this play out the window and get everbody a copy of Midsummer Night's Dream.  Now that's a fun play.  But now onto the Julius Caesar's Midwinter's Gloomy Doom:

Is Julius Caesar the real hero or even the main subject of this play, as the title suggests?  In a sense, even though he dies early (Act III, Scene 1), his existence hovers for the rest of the play in the effects that his assassination bring about. In addition to his ghost form which appears to Brutus, Caesar also enjoys an uncanny existence to the end of the play as his name is mentioned in both dying dialogues of Brutus and Cassius.  It seems as though Caesar is present throughout the whole play, it is just that in the first scene of act three his KIND of existence changes.  I had to think of Sartre's comment on a person after he dies as being hounded by others, redefining the dead person at their will.  After you are dead, other people are free to make you what they want, reinterpreting your life to fit their own understandings of the world.  Caesar's body lay stabbed to death on the ground, but Antony brought it to life in another form through his rhetoric.  I don't think that Caesar was seen as such a superb fellow when he was living (that's why he was murdered in fact) but after he died, Antony was able to create a new Caesar, a mythical Caesar which the mob could believe in and fill with positive attributes.  Something similiar happened in our own history with John F. Kennedy.

This play is filled with doom and foreboding prophecy.  It's a tremendous dramatic tool that always works. To watch someone struggle against their fate is always enlightening and insightful (and satisfying?) to analyze.  The Ides of March are of course the first prophecy.  When that prophecy has been fulfilled, Antony prophecizes revenge, in fact even the wounds of Caesar themselves, which Shakespeare brings eerily to life, beg for this revenge:

like dumb mouths, do ope their ruby lips
To beg the voice and utterance of my tongue

If Caesar is not the hero of this play, then Brutus is, as we are given so much information about the inner thoughts of Brutus, insights into his motives, and we watch him as he falls tragically.  But to me, he's too much of a "brute" to really analyze and get any mileage out of .  He remains a bad-guesser and a bad-planner all the way through the play, and he never really gets his conscience together concerning his act of murder on Caesar.  The quote by Antony at the end that Brutus is "the noblest Roman of all" is ironic to me. Was it because he meant well, didn't succeed, and admitted it in the end?    

So who could be the hero of this play if it is not the two-act Caesar or the simple-minded Brutus?  Perhaps this is a play about political insurrection itself.  In its detail, it approaches Machiavelli's _The Prince_ in political instruction for insurrection planning, assassinations, and political power wrangling. It certainly has enough information to make political insurrection the main theme of this play and to make secondary the characters of Brutus and Caesar.

This is also a book about politic rhetoric.  It was interesting to be reading this book while the political elections where going on in the States.  I couldn't help but to draw parallels between Brutus and Dole, and Antony and Clinton.  Brutus tries to convince the mob with reasons and he just "doesn't have it" and furthermore doesn't understand what Antony can do with his rhetoric.  Antony, on the other hand, "has it".  He can move a crowd with his words, he can be on everyone's side at once (he praises the conspirators and Caesar all in one speech); he knows how to move the opinions of the mob not with reasons but with emotion.  Watching Clinton give his acceptance speech, talking about how he grew up in poverty and eventually made it to Oxford, became the governor of Arkansas, and President, and how Americans need to give every child the same chance to do this, I realized that this argument, for instance, is simply emotionally tapping into the what Americans want to hear:  that the American Dream of rags to riches is alive and working and that they can be a part of it.  Clinton knows people.  I had to think of Antony's social habits of going to parties, playing sports with people, and being a social animal and how this gave him a knowledge of people which he used to persuade them.  I was once at a talk in Arkansas in 1991 given by a journalist who was giving a speech on Clinton's chances for the presidency.  He asked the people in the audience to raise their hand if they had ever shaken Bill Clinton's hand.  Over HALF of the people in the room raised their hand.  Clinton knows people, he listens to people, and when he speaks, he uses his Southern story-telling pleasantries to move emotion.  I wonder if he had ever read Julius Caesar.  This play has a lesson in rhetoric:  reasons don't move opinions, emotions do:

My heart is in the coffin there with Caesar,
And I must pause till it come back to me.

Like always, I did enjoy Shakespeare's picturesque language:

For he can do no more than Caesar's arm,
When Caesar's head is cut off.

That unicorns may be betry'd with trees,
And bears with glasses, elephants with holes,
Lions with toils, and men with flatterers.

Brave son, deriv'd from honourable loins (!)

And graves have yawn'd, and yielded up their dead . . .

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

For ever, and for ever, farewell Brutus:
If we do meet again, we'll smile indeed;
If not, 'tis true, this parting was well made.

Mount thou my horse and hide thy spurs in him

I also found the Stoic view of death expressed by various characters in the play enlightening:

Cowards die many times before their deaths,
The valiant never taste of death but once:
Of all the wonders that I yet have heard,
It seems to me most strange that men should fear,
Seeing that death, a necessary end
Will come, when it will come.

Why he that cuts off twenty years of life,
Cuts off so many years of fearing death.

This play is important to read simply because of the references to it, but make sure you don't let anybody read it who has not read Shakespeare before, or they will never read Shakespeare again. This play should be used in political science classes, history classes, or rhetoric classes, but a literature class will need an excellent teacher fired up about Shakespeare and this play to bring across the deep, dark analyses that Shakespeare packed into this play.

Edward Tanguay

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