Friday, August 21, 2009

Julius Caesar - Do the Tides of History Flow or Ebb?


I pose two queries, but you may only respond to one:

Between about 1596 and 1599, Shakespeare wrote four English history plays: King John and the last three in the Henriad, and then, in 1599, he wrote Julius Caesar, his last play before Hamlet. Absent a possible The Long, Boring Reign of King Henry III, he had mostly exhausted the history of English monarchs, at least until he discovered a couple of lines in Holinshed recalling Cymbeline. Luckily, North published a new edition of his translation of Plutarch's Lives in 1595, including lives of Caesar, Brutus, and Antony. Eureka! More history. Superficially, Julius Caesar looks like another chronicle play; there are 39+ named characters (the three Henry VI's average 40) and it records historical time, March 44 BC to November, 42 BC, Caesar's assassination to the second Battle of Philippi.

1) But The Tragedy of Julius Caesar veers away from dramatized history into a character study of moral ambiguity in a political setting, which precipitates personal tragedy. The play's title names the tragedy of Caesar, yet he is dead by the middle of the play. Which is the most tragic among ambitious Caesar, ethical Brutus, or aristocratic Cassius? [If you are desperate for time, you can parody this question by choosing Cinna the poet―The Tragedy of Bad Verse.]

[If it is useful, Northrop Frye, Fools of Time, describes three categories of tragedy: tragedy of order (e.g., Julius Caesar), tragedy of passion (e.g., Antony and Cleopatra), and tragedy of isolation (e.g., Othello), and in each, the tragic action is played out through an order figure (here Julius Caesar), a rebel figure (Brutus), and a nemesis or avenger figure (Mark Antony).]

2) Often Shakespeare traces an evolution from "things-known-for-sure" to a complex multifaceted response to "a world-out-of-joint." Hotspur's chivalric honor to Hal's imitation of the action of the sun; Richard II's romantic delusion to Bolingbrook's political pragmatism; Claudius's decisive order to Hamlet's world out of joint. In Julius Caesar, Brutus is an anachronism, locked in a golden dream of principle while history inexorably moves forward to the passions of Antony or the rational calculations of Octavius. Brutus, responding to his understanding of Caesar's threat to the Republic, asserts the only solution, "It must be his death; and for my part,/ I know no personal cause to spurn at him,/ But for the general." (II.i.10-12). Contrast Mark Antony's funeral oration (III.ii.73-252), a marvelously orchestrated persuasive speech, with the repeated coda "For Brutus is an honorable man." But Antony, solus, prefaces this with "O pardon me, thou bleeding piece of earth,/ That I am meek and gentle with these butchers!" (III.i.254-5), and after the oration, after the Plebeians swarm away shouting "Revenge! Seek! Burn! Fire! No socialist health care! Kill! Slay!," Antony, left alone, concludes "Now let it work, Mischief, thou art afoot,/ Take thou which course thou wilt!" (III.ii.260-61).

Do you find Antony morally pragmatic, passionate, or ruthless? Yet when we first meet young Octavius, he joins with Antony in a cool and detached meeting to generate a proscription list, death by committee discussion, and at Philippi Octavius is colder than Antony: "I do not cross you; but I will do so" (V.i.20). So who best represents the mirror to the society in which we are reading this play? Or, alas, who in this tragedy is the villain (nemesis)―the passionate Antony or the calculating Octavius?


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