Julius Caesar: Best of the Bard?

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Julius CaesarFor my money, Julius Caesar is simply Billy Shakespeare’s best ever play. I mean, what’s not to like in it? It has some stonking great speeches in it – including one of his top five ever (Marc Antony’s “Friends, Romans, countrymen….”) as well as a passel of memorable lines you can quote at parties (Who among my readers hasn’t passed off a quick “Cry havoc, and let slip the dogs of war…” just for effect?).

Plus it has a conspiracy, a murder, a riot, a battle, and a couple of suicides to gussy up the action. Treachery, betrayal, loyalty, raw ambition, backstabbing, front-stabbing, ghosts… really: what’s not to like?

It’s short and brisk, so it can be read in an evening and the plot followed easily enough, even by a non-academic. It’s bereft of the knotty love-action that makes you scratch your head and wonder which twin is onstage and why. WS eschewed his usual love for complicated metaphors, and hidden meanings when writing it, so almost anyone can understand it.

And on top of that, it’s all about politics and Billy the Bard was in his best game when writing about politics. Like I said, what’s not to like?

And then there’s the whole mess of subtext about manliness and masculinity, about friendship and loyalty, about power, about the conflict between reason and passion, about the nature of the state and the greater good, and whether it’s okay to kill someone for a Big Reason like saving the republic.

Like every other Shakespearean play, it’s about the complexity of being human and interacting with other conflicted humans. The issues, the insights, the internal tug-of-war over ethics and morals, the passions and lusts – they were the same in his day as they are in ours, and he makes them accessible by weaving them into great stories. That’s why the Bard is still so relevant today.

Right from the get-go it’s chock-a-block with quotable stuff. It opens with a witty bit of metaphysical banter between the tribune Marullus and a cobbler and you soon find Marullus losing his temper and shouting at the unhearing crowd, “You blocks, you stones, you worse than senseless things!” Right after the recent US elections that put more idiot Republicans into the House, didn’t you want to shout that at the American electorate? I sure did.

Marullus lambastes the rabble about their fickle nature; for praising Pompey one day, then subsequently praising Caesar – the man who in turn defeated Pompey. Surely you can see there’s a modern analog here that fits so many political situations.

From there you get the cast of unforgettable and wonderfully flawed characters: Caesar, Calpurnia, Marc Anthony, Brutus, Portia and Cassius; each one a remarkable construction that has something in him or her to which we can all relate. Shakespeare never paints a character in a single dimension: each has facets of character which we sometimes can hate, sometimes empathize with, sometimes love, but never dismiss or ignore.

But Brutus… ah, Brutus. He is perhaps one of Billy’s all-time best characters. Tragic, really, in the fullest sense of the word. Torn apart by the immense gravity of his morality, his republicanism, his honour and his own vanity, which pulls against against that of his loyalty to the state, his friendship for Caesar, and his distaste for murder. He’s the full-on Brit “stiff upper lip” guy, a Roman Colonel Nicholson, doing his duty and making a right bollocks of it.

The audience knows all too well what Brutus doesn’t: the state he kills his closest friend to protect is already vanished. His act discredits him; taints his life thereafter and leads to his demise, but still can’t restore the republic. Those who would replace Caesar would be much more imperious, autocratic and factious than Caesar (who refuses the crown from Marc Anthony not once, but thrice, in the early part of the play).

Yet, unaware of his failure and inevitable end, Brutus stands over the body of Caesar and tells his co-conspirators:

Stoop, Romans, stoop,
And let us bathe our hands in Caesar’s blood
Up to the elbows, and besmear our swords:
Then walk we forth, even to the market-place,
And, waving our red weapons o’er our heads,
Let’s all cry ‘Peace, freedom and liberty!’

Brutus’s act of betrayal was simply wasted because it aided tyranny, not forestalled it. With remarkable foresight, Cassius would respond to Brutus by commenting (and not aware of the irony of his comment):

How many ages hence
Shall this our lofty scene be acted over
In states unborn and accents yet unknown!

He and Brutus then congratulate themselves, with expectations they shall be revered and loved in the future as liberators and heroes. The opposite, of course, is what happened. And Marc Anthony would reflect that it was not just Caesar whose memory would be tarnished, but those of the conspirators; their act would be seen not as salvation but perfidy:

The evil that men do lives after them;
The good is oft interred with their bones;

Who among us, sometime in his or her life, hasn’t been betrayed and deeply hurt by a friend, someone you loved and trusted, someone you believed in and admired, but who turned out to be working against you, behind your back, helping the “other guys” defeat you in some way? I have and I can tell you it hurts more to lose a friend than an election. The Bard nailed it for me with his characterization of Brutus and his internal conflicts. A few times I’ve wanted to shout, “Et tu, Brute?” at former friends myself…

Like I said, Shakespeare remains relevant because of his portrayals of the human character in all its richness; good and bad, flawed and aspiring, petty and magnanimous. We see ourselves in his mirror.

Alex Bledsoe writes about his early experience with the play in a way I can appreciate:

In high school, everyone has to read Julius Caesar. It’s a perfect introduction to Shakespeare: narratively it’s a simple play, it has a speech second only to “To be or not to be…” in the public consciousness, and it features gang murder and ghosts. I remember reading it aloud in English class, and marveling at how the archaic-looking speech came to life when spoken. Then I got beat up for being a dweeb.

Alas, poor Yorick, I, former dweeb myself, can relate.

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