Lessons From Julius Caesar

It’s always amusing to hear famous lines or sayings in their original context.  I always liked that Gerry Rafferty song “Right Down the Line,” declaring appreciation for someone who’d always been there for him.  He should have read Julius Caesar, because it turns out that his line “you’ve been as constant as the Northern Star” is code for “you’re about to be stabbed by a huge group of conspirators.”

Caesar may have been Northern-Star-consistent in his determination not to welcome exiles back into Rome, but as far as being a reliable beacon of guidance for people to look up to, he has a decidedly shorter life span than any star.  I read Julius Caesar in high school, but I had forgotten most of it, so I figured I’d read it again.  I was pretty sure Caesar didn’t make it, but I didn’t remember much else, so I was surprised to find what I had thought would be the stabby climax of the play in Act III, not V.  I was also surprised to see that this play was more like Hamlet, with a main character tormented by inner conflict, than, say, Othello, which involves a lot of individual entities in conflict with one another (not that Othello lacks inner conflict, of course).  I just kind of assumed we’d see a lot more of Brutus and Caesar dealing with one another, and a lot more of Caesar in general.  But, really, the play focuses on Brutus’ struggles and justifications, his relationship with Cassius, and, later, his contrast with the character of Mark Antony.

That last thing–the difference between Mark Antony and Brutus–is quite interesting.  Brutus is complicated, but his intentions are simple.  Those intentions are always out in the open (“Brutus-ally” honest?  RIMSHOT!), and they involve only wanting the best for Rome.  The character seems “good,” right?  Yet, as a reader, I felt like killing Caesar was the wrong thing for him to do, so Brutus becomes a kind of villain to me.  I suppose that’s probably because Shakespeare established Cassius, rather than Caesar, as the character who I’m not supposed to like, so anyone who associates with him to conspire against Caesar becomes part of the “bad guy” crew of the play.  The tragedy is not about the downfall of Caesar, like I thought it might be, but about Brutus’ good intentions leading to bad choices.  (Which in turn lead to death, naturally–consider the author.)

I have no idea what Mark Antony’s intentions are–maybe loyalty.  It’s hard to tell.  Unlike Brutus, Mark Antony is shrewd.  He sees that serious trouble awaits him if he does not play nice with the conspirators, but his true alliance lies with the dictatorship–he is on Caesar’s side.  Then he wins the fickle, not-too-bright public to his side in a rhetorical masterpiece (3.2.72-on, beginning with lines you’ll recognize: “Friends, Romans, countrymen…”).  Mark Antony manipulates; Brutus is manipulated.  Mark Antony is in favor replacing the republic with a monarchy; Brutus murders Caesar for perceived tyranny and wants the people to have a voice.  Yet, I very much like Mark Antony.  He seems to be the hero of the play (at least, the un-tragic one). What does that mean?

Another thing that bothers me is this: Brutus, against the wishes of Cassius, does not want Mark Antony to die along with Caesar.  Then, also against the wishes of Cassius, Brutus kindly allows Mark Antony to give a public eulogy for his beloved leader.  Brutus trusts in the people of Rome.  He is a kind of populist and fears a dictatorship will silence the people’s voice.  He also fatefully believes that people can simultaneously mourn Caesar and realize that his death is for the best.  Mark Antony, of course, sees the common people as a tool.  He supported Caesar’s dictatorship and intends (I think) to reestablish that dictatorship as soon as possible. He is right about the commoners, of course–in Act III, the sheep-like masses are easily swayed.  This play really seems to send the message that

1. Rebellion against autocratic rulers = bad.

2. You should kill anyone you suspect may not be loyal.  You’ll regret it if you’re kind.

3. Common people are dumb and need an all-powerful leader to control them and tell them what to think.

4. TRUST.  NO. ONE.

Bummer.

Another important thing to note about this play–there’s a whole slew of ends-justifying-means questions posed.  The obvious example is of course the one Brutus deals with: is killing a friend, fellow Roman, and leader for the sake of the common good is the right thing to do?   A less obvious one is this: if you have to pretend to support enemies and appear to change your principles in order for justice to be done (Mark Antony), is that okay? Or is it better to be a person who always loudly and honestly adheres to what he thinks is right, even in the face of danger (Brutus)?  In essence, when Mark Antony shakes the bloody hands of those who killed Caesar, he defiles himself and his principles.  I could see how he might shrink in the eyes of a reader.  He can be two-faced, and he’s certainly a schemer. Yet, I just saw him as a man who knew how to further the cause of justice as he sees it.

I will take on Antony and Cleopatra next to see how my hero fares.  (I’ve read enough Shakespeare to predict he fares poorly.)  Stay tuned.

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