"Whenever I go into a restaurant, I order both a chicken and an egg to see which comes first"

Thursday, May 19, 2011

Julius Caesar–Neither History nor Tragedy

Of all the Shakespeare plays I have read so far (all the Histories, Lear, Macbeth, Hamlet, Julius Caesar, Othello), I like Caesar least because it neither embodies the Machiavellian spirit of the Histories - the Grand Machine described by Jan Kott to describe the events to topple and create kings through intrigue, plotting, murder, duplicity, and pure ambition – nor the passion of the Tragedies, both of which are dramatic creations of human nature and human society, the reasons why I have taken up the study of Shakespeare again after almost 50 years, and why I began with the Histories. 

Over these years I have lost my interest in current events because history does repeat itself; because the same motivations that instigated Shakespeare’s kings and pretenders with the same, predictable outcomes exist today.  Human nature and human society have not changed or evolved in my opinion, so for me it makes more sense to try to understand this nature and society by reading someone who understood both so well.  I could turn to history for insight, and I do (I am reading Elizabethan history to understand the context within which Shakespeare wrote); but I feel that whatever I learn could just as easily have been learned through tragedy.

Shakespeare understood that history repeats itself – not necessarily in political, social, or economic replays, but that unchanging human nature is the determinant of history; and the better we understand that, the better we will understand our place in the world.

The Histories are wonderful.  Although critics consider them less developed and mature as the Tragedies and the Comedies (Shakespeare did write them first); I think they should be taken for what they are – the dramatic story of history and its perpetual repetition.  Yes, in these plays there was an early isolation of those tragic elements which would be more fully expressed in the Tragedies, but taken together they are the best source for understanding not why people act the way they do, but simply that they always act the way they do.

The complexity in the Histories arises because of the complexity of English history rather than the complex personalities of Hamlet, Lear, Macbeth or Othello.  Reading the Histories was reading stories the outcome of which you always knew, and for me that certainty, and that inevitable march towards a predictable end, was very satisfying. 

The Tragedies that I have read, as above, are altogether different; and I have written on this site frequently about the question “Why”; or about ambiguity.  What really was behind Hamlet’s dithering?  In a world in which belief in ghosts and omens was commonplace (not just in the plays but in the Elizabethan world), why did Hamlet still want more proof?  More interestingly, what exactly was the relationship between Hamlet and his mother, and how much of that perhaps Oedipal passion was responsible for his killing of the king?  Or Othello? Why did he turn to such jealous rage?  Why did he believe Iago and not his wife? How could a respected general, received even as a Moor into Venetian society, become so unhinged?  Why did Lady Macbeth turn full circle from an ambitious and vicious woman to one equally unhinged by guilt? etc.

Which brings us to Julius Caesar, a play that falls somewhere between the Histories and the Tragedies but is neither.  There is neither the Machiavellian plotting by one lead character, but a consensus of reluctant killers; nor is there one truly tragic character.  The scene where Brutus and Cassius bicker and bitch at each other before the war with Antony deprives either of them of heroic status – they are neither men of great ambition or of tragic flaw; they are simply arguing old men. 

Brutus who has the claim to the laurels of hero at the beginning of the play, never really claims it (in dramatic terms of tragedy) because he wants to kill Caesar because of the glory of Rome, not because of his own ambition.  Men in power or close to it don’t behave that way, as Shakespeare demonstrated in his Histories. Second, he is too easily swayed without the singularity of purpose that makes Richard III a great character.  Cassius manipulates him.  Antony manipulates him.  He, despite his ideals, is not true to them when it counts.  He does not want to dirty his hands by financing his war in unethical ways, but is quite happy to take the money raised by the less than ethical Cassius.  And then, this:

Grant that, and then is death a benefit.

So we are Caesar’s closest friends, that have abridged

His time of fearing death (III.i)

Give me a break.

Ironically, some of the most famous lines of the play are out of Caesar’s mouth:

Cowards die many times before their deaths;

The valiant never taste 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

Brutus obviously had no clue as to the true mettle of Caesar.

And even worse, when he speaks of how to dispatch Caesar (my italics):

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.

Brutus’ supposedly honorable death – called honorable because he falls on his own sword while the un-honorable Cassius needs someone to run him through – is silly, compared to the bloody ends of Richard, Macbeth, or Othello.

Cassius is calculating – he was very successful at manipulating Brutus and understanding the ambition of Antony – but never was an Iago. Antony appears to be the hero near the end of the play, but he, too, shows his pettiness when he arrogantly and patronizingly dismisses Lepidus in a biting, critical passage.  There is certainly no honor here.

Caesar, then, has to be the hero of the play, even though he has only 150 lines and is killed off midway in the play.  He is not the ambitious and potentially tyrannical ruler that Brutus and his mates make him out to be.  Reading the Histories, he might actually become a Henry V. 

The main problem I have with the play is its talk.  Talk, the silver tongue, is the true main character of the play.  Brutus’ elegy of Caesar; Antony’s brilliant elegy; Cassius’ persuasiveness (I.ii).  Brutus talks of honor but ends up really not that honorable.  He gives a great justification for killing Caesar, but it is poetic and speculative:

He would be crowned.

How that might change his nature, there’s the question.

It is the bright day that brings forth the adder,

And that craves wary walking.  Crown him that,

And then I grant we put a sting in him

That at his will he may do danger with…

And later in the same speech:

But when he once attains the upmost round

He then unto the ladder turns his back,

Looks in the clouds, scorning the base degrees

By which he did ascent

Antony wants to rid Rome of both Cassius and Brutus, but we have no inclination of how he will lead, only what he says.  Portia is a great talker, and influences Brutus (II.i.) albeit with some mutilation (“Giving myself a voluntary wound, Here in the thigh.  Can I bear that with patience, And not my husband’s secrets?” Calphurnia is a great talker and almost influences Caesar.

In conclusion, then, Julius Caesar has no real heroes, no real tragic characters.  There is no Grand Machine working.  There is only talk, very flawed – but not tragically flawed – characters that are weak in action, and no real resolution.

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