I have to say, maybe the story’s so well known that it makes this play easier to understand than I thought it would be. Now I’m wondering why we never read the complete play when I was in school, though every 10th grader had to deal with it.
Guess the teachers thought the parts after Caesar’s funeral were too boring. The same teachers who made me read Uncle Tom’s Cabin and The Old Man and the Sea by then, by the way (ugh).
Well, I got a chance to rectify that, and I admit I was a bit surprised at what I read.
If you’ve lived in the West, then you know who Julius Caesar was, or at least you know he was stabbed to death by senators, including one of his favorite people, Brutus. It doesn’t take much of a leap to recognize any references to these people and events in other works.
Probably because of this very play.
The play starts after Caesar returns to Rome after many years away, having defeated Pompey–his arch-rival–and his sons and ended civil war. The people love him and the senators, Cassius most of all, are wary and distrust Caesar. He speaks to Brutus away from the celebrations, and asks about Brutus’ disposition, since he seems so out of sorts. Brutus is wondering about how much popularity Caesar can handle and if it will bring an end to the Republic because he may accept the mantle of king.
One of the senators who watched the festivities, Casca, tell them that Marc Antony actually offered him a crown three times, and it was refused, but Casca feels it was a ploy to appeal to the masses, that it looked difficult for Caesar to refuse the crown. Brutus thinks about this, and much of the rest of Act 1 and 2 revolve around if Brutus will become part of the conspiracy… and how Cassius works his will to do it.
Caesar is killed halfway through the play, and then there’s the famous funeral speeches of Brutus and Marc Antony. Brutus appeals to love of Rome and fear of Caesar’s ambition; Antony by how Caesar loved Rome, the Roman people, and left so much for them. He’s clever and incites the crowd in his favor.
The last two acts comprise of the opposing sides: Marc Antony and Octavian, Caesar’s nephew and the future Augustus, and Lepidus on one side avenging Caesar, with Brutus and Cassius bickering on the other. As history points out–and Shakespeare’s pretty faithful to it–Brutus and Cassius lose, and they take their own ways out.
Julius Caesar is an interesting play to me in that Shakespeare made sure to give Brutus some good qualities. In fact, Caesar has very little stage presence, though everything about the man permeates the characters’ decisions. I suppose this is normal for Shakespeare by now, but it lends a more mysterious quality to the man. Other than how people think of him, there’s little he tells the audience about himself.
However, when we do see him, we do see a hard-headed, arrogant man concerned with how other people will see him, even if it means hurting his wife’s feelings and ignoring ill omens. The mystery was okay, but Caesar still feels a bit too two-dimensional, like a character that’s being intentionally dense and you want to smack them upside the head and make them listen to reason.
I suppose that means what I thought; Brutus and Marc Antony are the main characters, and take that position in shifts. Filmically, I don’t think there are many depictions of these characters, except for the play based black and white film with James Mason a and Marlon Brando (damned good casting, at least in the first half, which is all I could see in school…dammit).
Julius Caesar is probably one of the easier plays to follow, not too confusing with word play and pretty direct. I certainly wouldn’t mind reading it again (even if I prefer more Rex Harrison’s portrayal of Caesar in 1960s Cleopatra–he’s the only reason I watch that movie because he makes the man clever and fun).
Okay, enough Hollywood here. Some quotes (aside from the obvious funeral orations) that I thought might ring a bell or were pretty good:
BRUTUS: What means this shouting? I do fear the people
Choose Caesar for their king.
CASSIUS: Ay, do you fear it?
Then I must think you would not have it so.
BRUTUS: I would not, Cassius; yet I love him well.
But wherefore do you hold me here so long?
What is it that you would impart to me?
If it be aught toward the general good,
Set honour in one eye and death i’th’ other,
And I will look on both indifferently;
For let the gods so speed me as I love
The name of honour more than I fear death.
–Act 1, Scene 2
CASSIUS: Decius, well urged. I think it not meet
Mark Antony, so well beloved of Caesar,
Should outlive Caesar. We shall find of him
A shrewd contriver. And you know his means,
If he improve them, may well stretch so far
As to annoy us all; which to prevent,
Let Antony and Caesar fall together.
BRUTUS: Our course will seem too bloody, Caius Cassius,
To cut the head off and then hack the limbs,
Like wrath in death and envy afterwards–
For Antony is but a limb of Caesar.
Let’s be sacrificers, but not butchers, Caius.
We all stand up against the spirit of Caesar,
And in the spirit of men there is no blood.
O, that we then could come by Caesar’s spirit,
And not dismember Caesar! But, alas,
Caesar must bleed for it. And, gentle friends,
Let’s kill him boldly, but not wrathfully.
Let’s carve him as a dish fit for the gods,
Not hew him as a carcass fit for hounds.
And let our hearts, as subtle masters do,
Stir up their servants to an act of rage,
And after seem to chide ’em. This shall make
Our purpose necessary, and not envious;
Which so appearing to the common eyes,
We shall be called purgers, not murderers.
And for Mark Antony, think not of him,
For he can do no more than Caesar’s arm
When Caesar’s head is off.
–Act 2, Scene 1
CAESAR: What can be avoided
Whose end is purposed by the mighty gods?
Yet Caesar shall go forth, for these predictions
Are to the world in general as to Caesar.
CALPURNIA: When beggars die there are no comets seen;
The heavens themselves blaze forth the death of princes.
CAESAR: 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.
–Act 2, Scene 2
BRUTUS: Words before blows: is it so, countrymen?
OCTAVIUS: Not that we love words better, as you do.
BRUTUS: Good words are better than bad strokes, Octavius.
ANTONY: In your bad strokes, Brutus, you give good words.
Witness the hole you made in Caesar’s heart,
Crying ‘Long live, hail Caesar’.
The posture of your blows are yet unknown;
But for your words, they rob the Hybla bees,
And leave them honeyless.
ANTONY: Not stingless too.
BRUTUS: O yes, and soundless too,
For you have stolen their buzzing, Antony,
And very wisely threat before you sting.
ANTONY: Villains, you did not so when your vile daggers
Hacked one another in the sides of Caesar.
You showed your teeth like apes, and fawned like hounds,
And bowed like bondmen, kissing Caesar’s feet,
Whilst damned Casca, like a cur, behind,
Struck Caesar on the neck. O you flatterers!
–Act 5, Scene 1
Happy reading and/or viewing.