Tuesday, August 18, 2009

Julius Caesar - Is Ambition Bad?

John,

Brutus, in explaining his decision to put Caesar to death, uses "ambition" as a dirty word: "As he was ambitious, I slew him" (3.2.28). Antony seizes on this and uses it in his famous oration (3.2.83ff), juxtaposing the claim of Caesar's ambition with Brutus' honor. I'm wondering, do we find negative connotation in the etymology of "ambition"? Or does it come from elsewhere, somewhere cultural?

And, in a play where we are asked to mistrust a primary conspirator, Cassius, because "he thinks too much," where do Elizabethan values seem to lie? In thoughts or deeds?

Randall

(Quotes from Folger edition)

8 comments:

Lyndsey Cullen said...

I agree that this concept of ambition being used as a negative trait of Caesar causes confusion to the reader. Today, ambition is considered to be a positive characteristic of people as it is defined in the dictionary as eagerly desirous of achieving or obtaining success, power, wealth, or a specific goal. This is used as a postitive notation whereas in The Tradgedy of Julius Caesar, it is the term ambitious that is a bad trait of Caesar,himself as Antony explains in his speech to the commoners. Also in the play, when Caesar is explaining why he fears Cassius, he brings up that Cassius, "he thinks to much". This creates the same kind of confusion as Caesar's ambitiousness because the reader now has to wonder if thinking is a bad trait also during these times. The Elizabethan language and values are sometimes confusing as they portray good trairs and concepts we believe in today, to be bad concepts during their time.

Lyndsey Cullen

Morgan said...

The definition of ambitious is an earnest desire for some type of achievement or distinction, as power, honor, fame, or wealth, and the willingness to strive for its attainment. I believe that ambition describes Caesar's desire for power very well. By Brutus saying that Caesar was too ambitious he was stating that he was power hungry and it had been stopped before it became too out of hand. Originally with a triumvirate form of government there was equal share of power between three people, however by just having one person with all the power it can be said that they are too powerful, or ambitious. Maybe in Elizabethan times being ambitious was something to dislike, or even fear. It also seems that thoughts can be more valued than deeds since Caesar was scared of Cassius because of his thinking too much.

Hailey said...

I agree with Lyndsey that Caesar's ambitious qualities being used as a reason to kill him can cause confusion with the reader. Like she said, today ambition is usually something positive. However, ambition is simply the desire for something, and what Caesar wanted was power. In Shakespeare's time, the people probably considered ambition good or bad, depending on what the person's goal is. Therefore, I agree that one's perception of ambition probably comes from the culture they live in. I would guess that Brutus' speech made more sense to the people seeing the play when it was first presented since they had a different view of ambition in their time. On the topic of Cassius, and how he should not be trusted because "he thinks too much," it shows that Elizabethans base their conceptions of people on thoughts rather than deeds. Cassius provides a prime example as well as Caesar, who was killed because of the thoughts that he was to become king. The Elizabethans seem like they did not find much trust in people since they feared them before they even acted badly on something.

NickLKP63 said...

I believe ambition was used with negative connotation. I think that it is important to remember that Brutus, a patrician, is making a speech to a band of plebian commoners. With this in mind, it would be unethical to think that, even with Brutus' great popularity; he could get away with an unjustified killing of Caesar. Outward ambition and politics do not mix especially in representative governments like Rome and modern day countries like the U.S. have. We often link corruption, and self ambition together in today's society. I believe that Brutus' intention was to make it appear that popular Caesar was really only in it for himself (which was eventually disproved by Antony's speech in which he presented Caesar's will to the masses). Another point to remember is that corruption and public accusations of it were very common in Rome before 44 B.C.E. To the Plebian's such an accusation (even of such a profound figure as Caesar) would not have surprised them and it may have even made it more credible. Caesar says "Yond Cassius has a lean and hungry look; He thinks too much: such men are dangerous" (1,ii,191-195)Is it possible that Shakespeare is actually saying Cassius himself is ambitious with this quote? I personally do not believe he is condemning anyone who merely thinks, but rather he is foreshadowing future events, and adding a little suspense early in the work. He also might be bringing the reader's attention to the complicated nature of the original plan to kill Caesar. As we know, this play is not 100% in line with the documented assassination of Caesar, and I believe Shakespeare's fictional additions add to the majesty that was Ancient Rome, and her empire.

John said...

In response to this question about ambition, I believe that ambition can be a very bad or a very strong trait. One reason why i think it is a bad thing is because Caeser wants as much power as he can obtain. Caeser wants to become a god and more powerful than anything else. This is an example of negative ambition because this is extremely corrupting. However, one can look at this another way and see ambition as a positive thing. The only way Caeser was able to rise to the top was because he was ambitious to do his duty for Rome. His ambition to go out and accomplish his duties for Rome led to the extreme well being of all of Rome. This is showed because of how much his people loved him. They celebrated him and rejoiced him in the play, and they got angry at the conspirators when they killed Caeser. If Caeser was not ambitious, he would not be as respected as he was because he would not have accomplish anything. This is how I feel about ambition. I believe that even though ambition can be viewed as a negative thing, it is mostly a strong characteristic about someone that shows how mentally strong and sound they are.

Ally said...

I'm Ally and I'm a highschool student. For my english class we had to read the Tragedy of Julius Caesar. I agree with both Lyndsy and Morgan's opinions but I have to say I recognize more of Morgan's ideas as my own. I agree with the fact that when Shakespeare wrote of Julius Caesar's ambition, he wasn't speaking of oh his positive desire of achieving something great or a goal he was striving to reach, he was referring to his appetite for power and him wanting to lead Rome and to have the thrown for his own. This was unlike the usually triumvirate that ruled Rome. So Brutus automatically believed he wanted to position of power only for himself not to help the country. Due to the difference in time of when this tragedy was written and now, there are more than just these differences that can confuse the audience. In this day and age, thinking and having knowledge is thought of as a good thing. It equals success but in Julius Caesar it was not seen this way. I agree with what Morgan said when she said that in Elizabethan times maybe ambition was feared. I believe that people didn't know what to think of ambition because they hadn't seen the positive effects of someone striving for success.

mattyg said...

Ambition is definitely used as a negative trait of Caesar. Ambition can be for the good and the bad. There's always two sides to an arguement. Cassius and Brutus believe Caesar's ambition was power. Caesar believed he was a god. Both Brutus and Cassius knew this to be a spurious claim because of past near fatal events that happened to Caesar. Men like Cassius and Brutus did not want Caesar to become a despot and run Rome by fear. It was the romans that founded the idea of a republic. Crowning Caesar king would throw away this idiology they created. In the Elizabethan age, ambition may have been frowned upon. People had god to believe in, and the the queen. To be successful, you usually had to be born into a wealthy family. There wasn't the availibility of making your life better. However, in today's world, ambition is considered a strong trait for a person. Ambition is a necessity to survive in job markets, politics, sports, school, etc.

matt glass said...

Hi my name is Matt Glass, and I also agree that ambition used as a negative trait of Julius Caesar can cause confusion for the reader. In modern times, ambition is a necessity for success. To strive for wealth, power, success, or any interests one might have, ambition is the epicenter to all these goals we look to achieve. However, in the story of Julius Caesar, this trait is portrayed as a flaw. Caesar's ambition is tyrannical in Brutus' and Cassius' eyes. They believed Caesar was too power-hungry. They did not like the fact that Caesar viewed himself as a god. Lastly, i believe thoughts can be valued more greatly than deeds. This is due to Caesar's questioning of Cassius' thinking rather than his doing. This goes to show that thoughts during the Elizabethan age were most likely more valued than deeds. In today's terms, we might contradict that statement greatly. We view someone's achievements rather than their thoughts.