Shakespeare’s Julius Caesar Analysis: Ambiguity, Theatrum Mundi, StoicismPosted: August 8, 2011
It’s the bright day that brings forth the adder
Intro – Julius Caesar is different from other tragedies such as King Lear or Hamlet in that the tragic hero is not immediately clear, though it does have one. It is a more nuanced and ambiguous work, with each character being both good and bad. And while JC is a political commentary, reflecting the worries of civil war and succession in Shakespeare’s own times, it’s also peppered with philosophical reflections. The first time you read it, it may strike you as a “cold” tragedy, as Samuel Johnson said, due to this ambiguity and its less-quotable lines, but ultimately, I found it more enjoyable because of this initial impenetrability.
Setting – It’s the year 44 B.C. The Roman Republic had survived for over 400 years. This time period is associated with freedom, but also class divisions between the patricians and plebeians, hence why it’s interesting to see the people’s tribunes (traditionally a plebeian office) at the beginning of the story, and why the conspirators are not revolutionaries: they seek only to restore the old status quo.
While I believe it to be much earlier, the fall of the Republic is often dated with Caesar’s death. Whatever the actual date, the period known as the Roman Empire always begins with Octavian/Augustus, first emperor as well as nephew and adoptive son of Caesar. We know by the historians that Shakespeare relied on that he would have seen this as a negative change, and very likely looked to the world around him and feared the same would happen to England.
Julius Caesar – There’s a lot of history left out in this play, and there are many relevant things we don’t see, such as our title character declaring himself the son of Venus. Meanwhile, Shakespeare chooses to highlight some more obscure aspects of Caesar’s life such as his epilepsy and his wife’s barrenness. Why is this? Given his belief that nature reflects human affairs, he clearly sees these facts as indicative of Caesar being unfit to rule, even a warning against him. Even in the Romans’ own times these were considered heavenly curses.
On the other hand, one of the most vital things we do get to hear about is Antony offering Caesar a crown, which Caesar three times refuses. But regardless of Caesar’s dislike of outward signs of power, this is representative of his true position in Rome. In Shakespeare’s eyes, and the eyes of the conspirators, this is an unjust situation that must be reversed. He puts the following words in Cassius’s mouth: “Why, man he doth bestride the narrow world / Like a Colossus, and we petty men / Walk under his huge legs and peep about.” Interestingly Caesar dies in the middle of a speech in which he proclaims he’s as “constant as the northern star, / Of whose true fix’d and resting quality / There is no fellow in the firmament.”
However, Caesar’s relationship with Brutus adds further dimension to his character. In the background of the play is the fact that Caesar is Brutus’s father (in Shakespeare’s mind). Though Caesar refuses the crown, Brutus says of him,
“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.”
In other words, nothing Caesar has done so far has merited death, except his own son’s fear for the future. Brutus also says that his refusal is nothing but false humility, a strategic move to gain even more power. And here enters one of the reasons we can have some sympathy for Caesar. Caesar, the flawed character that he is, does not see Brutus’s betrayal coming, though he’s astute enough to recognize it in Cassius. We also see him manipulated and mocked by Decius when he brags: “But when I tell him he hates flatterers / He says he does, being then most flattered.”
Thus, on the one hand he’s overly prideful, vain, and his own worst enemy, and on the other he’s has only few people he can trust and is betrayed by those around him. Shakespeare does not make any single character a clear victim or a clear hero, nor all good or all bad, making it one of his more realistic tragedies; life is shades of gray.
Brutus – Nor is Brutus our tragic hero, though the strongest case can be made for him. First, he’s the most illustrious representative of republicanism and manliness, as defined by courage, honor, and justice. Second, his life is quickly filled with suffering. We see him participate in his father’s murder, his wife dies, as do many of his best friends, not to mention the 100 Senators killed by the Second Triumvirate. Finally, he commits suicide. To make matters worse, the conspiracy was in vain because it’s ultimately Caesar’s “legitimate son,” Octavian/Augustus who comes into power. It’s all the more poignant because he’s the descendent of the first Brutus, Junius Brutus, who was one of the main men who overthrew the Roman monarchy. The Republic started and ended with a Brutus.
But Brutus is also a flawed character. He begins with a deep conviction that he simply must do what’s right; there is no other choice, even if this means killing his father or his own death. But was this really Brutus’s decision, or was he (like his father) the victim of manipulation? We see Cassius bend him to his will by flattery:“And it is very much lamented, Brutus, / That you have no such mirrors as will turn / Your hidden worthiness into your eye.”
Casca says of him “Oh, he sits high in all the people’s hearts, / And that which would appear offence in us / His countenance, like richest alchemy, / Will change to virtue and to worthiness.” In other words, Brutus is simply useful to him because he will mask their cruel actions; his name and reputation will blind the people, and Brutus is none the wiser.
He shows the same poor judgment in dealing with Antony as Caesar had shown toward him, and he lets Antony give the funeral oration, culminating in Brutus fleeing Rome. Not only that, but all of the conspirators failed to plan for a post-assassination Rome. They never considered that the people would not rejoice for a return of the status quo.
Cassius – While Shakespeare had sympathy for the “republican cause,” Cassius is not one of our beloved characters. He not only deliberately ignores omens before the Battle of Philippi (a stupid and perilous action), but he’s also portrayed as envious and greedy. We have Antony to make this explicit in the final scene of the play in which he states that Brutus was the only noble Roman involved, the rest motivated by vile motives. Even Octavian declares that he deserves a proper burial, but says nothing of Cassius.
In the same scene in which Brutus is railing against Caesar, saying that he will be as an adder to Rome, he says: “That lowliness is young ambition’s ladder / Whereto the climber-upward turns his face: / But when he once attains the upmost round, / He then unto the ladder turns his back.” Could this not actually refer to the dynamic between him and Cassius? Brutus is Cassius’ ladder, and if he’s motivated by greed, then woe unto Brutus.
In another instance we see Cassius complain to Brutus that Caesar “is now become a god, and Cassius is / A wretched creature and must bend his body / If Caesar carelessly but nod on him.” The third strike against him is when honest Brutus accuses him of taking a bribe. It’s clear that Cassius is supposed to have ulterior motives. Even Caesar, blind to the machinations of Brutus and Decius, can easily see Cassius’s rapaciousness. Thus, we’re left to wonder if the entire time he’s telling Brutus that it’s him who should be in power, did he plan a power grab for himself?
But, like Caesar, our all-too-human Cassius is not without his own poignant moments. He kills himself based on false knowledge, believing that Titinius, his close friend, was captured. In turn, Titinius kills himself when he sees Cassius dead (what friendship!). Caesar himself is not without some admiration for him: “He reads too much / He is a great observer, and he looks / Quite through the deeds of men.”
Antony – Antony shares this same ambiguity of character (surprise!) After Caesar’s death he goes bravely to the conspirators and asks them to go ahead and kill him if that is their intent, painting a wretched picture. Nevertheless, despite his meek appearance, inwardly he’s a beacon of manliness and honor in refusing to bow in submission. Swearing to avenge his friend’s death, he cries out: “O pardon me, thou bleeding piece of earth, / That I am meek and gentle with these butchers!…A curse shall light upon the limbs of men; / Domestic fury and fierce civil strife / Shall cumber all the parts of Italy.”
Antony is clearly more politically astute than Brutus. Playing on his appearance of meekness, he contrives the opportunity to give Caesar a public funeral oration. In doing this he turned a crowd predisposed to making Brutus their new “king” into a crowd that wanted to burn his house down, though this is not so difficult in Shakespeare’s world of the irrational mob. In any case, I think this scene highlights him as both the loyal friend and cruel avenger that he is capable of being.
It’s also vital to realize that where Brutus was so concerned with not seeming like a butcher and is content with Caesar’s death, the Second Triumvirate kills 100 senators, along with other men, including their own family members. Clearly, Antony wants more than revenge against certain individuals. He and Octavian have ambitions of their own.
Tragic Hero – In the end, our viewpoints of the characters are ever balanced. Where Brutus kills his father, the “imperial faction” kills members of their own family. Where Casca mocks Brutus, Antony smears Lepidus. No one side is so much worse than the other. Further, though he views the masses in general as idiotic, Shakespeare seems to think that the distinction between the patricians and plebs was false, since they’re capable of behavior just as base. For example, Caesar is just as easily manipulated by his wife and then Decius. Brutus as is goaded on by Cassius to kill his father. In fact, the entire plan was fairly slipshod: the conspirators thought that the entire universe would conspire to help realize their goals, never thinking things through about what would happen after his assassination. Cassius even says that it’s not Caesar who has the “falling sickness” (epilepsy), it’s them: “No, Caesar hath it not. But you and I / And honest Casca, we have the falling sickness.”
And here it becomes crystal clear who the tragic hero is. It’s Rome herself. The Republic has died. It’s not only these main characters that will suffer; civil war wrecks havoc on all. And there has been no outside force; Romans have done it all to other Romans.
I’m inclined to believe that Shakespeare was happy with the monarchy in his time, but he hated and feared civil war, of which England already had a lengthy history. In this light, an aging and childless monarch was not very comforting. But though he had his worries about the future, I think that he’s advocating his world view far more than any particular course of action. What is this world view?
Theatrum Mundi – The world is a stage as he wrote in As You Like It: “ And all the men and women are merely players.” The stage never changes; the script never changes; only the actors change, and even these are more archetypes than individuals. On the small scale, this is seen in Antony’s actions toward the end mirroring those of Brutus; he steps into his role. Even prior to this, the people who once loved Pompey eventually came to cry for his blood with the rise of Caesar. More recently in European history, the people once freedom fighters, having attained their rights, then proceed to model themselves after the upper class, and so goes history. It’s an endless tragedy. An endless comedy. An endless game of King of the Hill.
Thus, is the play really about human fallacy? The characters manipulate each other, lie, friendships cannot be counted on, lovers feel betrayed and left in the dark. It’s the conjunction of human affairs that make up the tragedy, and the boundaries of the stage are the boundaries of the habitable universe.
There is a tide in the affairs of men
Which taken at the flood leads on the 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.
Stoicism – The final moral note is that of stoicism. I’ve talked before about how Shakespeare viewed human kindness as the redeeming feature of life. We do not see that in Julius Caesar. Instead, duty, honor, and a stoic indifference to your personal fate are seen as the redeeming features of life.
Most notably as an example of this last sentiment, a number of the characters commit suicide. From Casca’s mouth: “So can I / So every bondman in his own hand bears / The power to cancel his captivity.” Thus, there are fates worse than death, such as the humiliation (or brutal death) they would have had to endure if captured by the ‘imperial faction.’ The Stoics would have heartily agreed.
Furthermore, while the scene in which Brutus declares that the conspirators should not even need an oath to bind them to their duty is often twisted and contrived into some psychoanalytical explanation, it should be taken more at face value. He says: “What need we any spur but our own case / To prick us to redress? What other bond / Than secret Romans that have spoke the word / And will not palter?” This is eminently stoic; he needs no other reason than the justice of their cause, and felt that it would have been less noble if he had to rely on a thing as paltry as an oath to carry out his actions. He says that those who do need an oath to stay on their path are like the “Old feeble carrions and such suffering souls / That welcome wrongs; unto bad causes swear.”
After all, as Caesar had said earlier in the play,
“Cowards die many times before their deaths;
The valiant never taste of death but once.
Of all the wonders that I have yet heard,
It seems to me most strange that men should fear;
Seeing that death, a necessary end,
Will come when it come.”
Veni, Vidi, Vici