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Sunday, May 15, 2011

Julius Caesar–Ambiguity but no Tragedy

I enjoyed reading Julius Caesar again.  As Harold Bloom points out, it is usually the first Shakespearean play that one reads, usually in high school; and in my case all I remember was Et tu, Brute?, had Brutus pegged as the bad guy for killing Caesar, and not much else.

On re-reading, I was not as fascinated with the play as any other of the “King” plays, a description many use for the Histories, but I extend to Hamlet, Macbeth, and less so to Lear. There were too many ambiguities – not the intriguing ones like Hamlet’s relationship with his mother, the easy acceptance of Iago’s plots by Othello, how Lady MacBeth went from super-villainess to nervous wreck.

Nor was Caesar like the History plays where there was little ambiguity, part of the Great Game of the toppling and erecting of kings in the very predictable but still compelling stories of family and court intrigues which continues today.

Was Caesar really on a path to tyranny? Was Brutus’s action precipitous, thoughtful, or motivated by his own perhaps misplaced sense of honor. What about Caesar?  He entered Rome after his triumph over Pompey to great adulation and tribute; but was this any indication of his ineluctable rise to tyranny?  His famous speech about being the North Star, was more honest than boasting, for he knew that he was the social and political center that the plebian Romans wanted.  Shakespeare was no fan of the rabble, to wit the rabble-rouser and low-life plebian, Cade in Henry VI; and knew that a stable monarch (to wit Henry VIII; or Henry VII wanting to avoid the War of the Roses) was critical.  Was Brutus’ killing of Caesar in the name of honor and Rome merely one more disguise of his ambition?

G.B. Shaw said:

It is impossible for even the most judiciously minded critic to look without a revulsion of indignant contempt at this travestying of a great man as a silly braggart, whilst the pitiful gang of mischief-makers who destroyed him are lauded as statesmen and patriots. There is not a single sentence uttered by Shakespeare’s Julius Caesar that is, I will not say worthy of him, but even worthy of an average Tammany Boss (quoted by Bloom in The Invention of the Human.

Shaw may be judging on the basis of actual history, not the historical character in Shakespeare’s play.  What I do agree with is that the conspirators killed Caesar for their own selfish political reasons, and were therefore reprehensible.  There is something about this mass killing – all other villains have done it on their own or sent assassins; but here, the conspirators set upon Caesar who is hard of hearing, a bit tremulous and afraid of shadows.

Bloom and others make a big deal about Caesar’s perspicacity – that he knew that there was “something” about Cassius (actually that he was too thin), and that he didn’t read plays or literature, and this gave some insight into a limited person to be suspect.  Hmmmm….I don’t really buy this.

So the killing of Caesar was, like the plays of the Kings, about power and accession to it; but Brutus is not a heroic character because he kills: a) for doubtful or at best ambiguous reasons; b) because he has his a huge crew to do the slaying; c) because he offers the vain, ignorant, and self-serving lines:

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 up as a carcass fit for hounds (II,i 171-174)

and d) because he and Cassius engage in a bitching match (IV,i , 1-234), petty squabbles about who did what to whom.

Brutus, like Hamlet and Macbeth to follow, is unsure of himself; but there is no sense of the tragic inner conflicts that will destroy him.  Van Doren thinks that:

If Brutus is less interesting than Hamlet, if his internal complications diminish rather than exhibit his dramatic force, the principal reason may be that Shakespeare has kept himself goo conscious of remote Roman grandeur in the scene.

Brutus is supposed to have redeemed himself and his honor by falling on his sword without any help, as opposed to Cassius who is reluctant and who really is too cowardly to do so; but then again, why does he take refuge in his garden when the tempest – clearly metaphorical, but frightening – is raging.  He is supposed to be an intellectual Stoic, Shakespeare’s first intellectual; but what about Richard II who was a metaphysical poet as well as ill-starred king?  And where was this supposed honor? Was it ever really shown in the play that Brutus really was about Rome and not himself?  And the fussy, prissy distinction made between his raising money for an army by less than honorable means, and then taking the money of Cassius who Brutus knew had no scruples.

What about Antony? Well, being a true believer in the art of the Silver Tongue, and the ability of great orators to move not only dumb rabble but peers as well, he is the true Machiavellian hero – manipulates the crowd to his end.  However, he quickly becomes unbelievably crass and gross when the takes the legacy of Caesar, destined to be his gift to the people of Rome, for his own ends.

Cassius is neither heroic nor tragic.  He is manipulative; but judged against the master manipulators in Shakespeare’s work, he is nothing; and not only does he need help committing hara kiri, he does it because of a mistake – the dummy misinterpreted events.

The women in the play, Calphurnia and Portia are insignificant – nothing like the powerful Lady Macbeth, the central Ophelia, the evil Goneril and Regan, the clawing she-bear mothers of  King John, or Henry VI. 

I know too little about the milieu of Elizabethan England to be able to understand why characters in Shakespeare’s plays are so gullible.  Why does Brutus take for truth and granted the forged letters of Cassius? Why did Gloucester believe that the crudely written and forged note by Edmund incriminating Edgar? Why on earth did Othello believe Iago with no proof whatsoever.

Similarly, although I know the belief in witches, omens, etc. during Elizabethan times, I have not quite figured how it fits within the plays.  If a Stoic, like Brutus, exists in Caesar, someone who rejects these supernatural events, why is Shakespeare putting so much emphasis on them in this and other plays?  The Soothsayer, Calpurnia’s visions, the Three Sisters, the ghost of Caesar appearing to Brutus; the ghosts of the killed to Richard III, the ghost of Hamlet’s father?  If this was  culturally-centered means of illustrating fate vs. free will, I am not so sure.

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