My Julius Caesar challenge is to consider why three significant figures in this dramatization of Roman history rejected, ignored, or turned away from sound advice or astute observation, each with fatal—or tragic—consequence. Caesar, Cassius, and Calphurnia intuit danger, but Antony, Brutus, and then Caesar reject heeding such warning.
Randall asked if intuition matters when after Caesar observes “Yond Cassius has a lean and hungry look,/ thinks too much. Such men are dangerous,” Antony tells him to “Fear him not.” Then, after Cassius has argued that Mark Antony should not outlive Caesar, Brutus replies, “for Mark Antony, think not of him,/ For he can do no more than Caesar’s arm/ When Caesar’s head is off.” And after Calphurnia has dreamed Caesar is murdered on the steps of Pompey’s monument, she pleads with her husband and lord not to stir out of the house, yet Caesar changes his mind and leaves to visit the Senate when Decius plays on his vanity and predicts he will there be crowned. Yet, of course, to ignore all three warnings or predictions turns out to be disastrous, and the question is why the warnings are ignored.
Take Caesar first. Of the three, he is the most self-absorbed. Brutus is correct—Caesar is ambitious, and he is also vain. It is interesting that Shakespeare (or Plutarch) emphasizes his fallibility: he is deaf (“Come on my right hand [Antony], for this ear is deaf” I.ii.213), he is possibly impotent (he instructs Antony, about to run in the Lupercal fertility festival race, “To touch Calphurnia: for our elders say,/ The barren, touched in this holy chase,/ Shake off their sterile curse” (I.ii.6-8), though I’ve been told it takes two to procreate) , and he has epilepsy (“He fell down in the market-place, and foam’d at the mouth, and was speechless…’Tis very like he hath the falling sickness,” I.ii.252-54).
Cassius interprets such signs of mortality, and adds a long description of Caesar failing to swim the frozen Tiber and of when the two were in Spain: Caesar shook violently with a fever (ah, cursed Swine Flu). “[Yet]this man has now become a god” (I.ii.115-16). Admittedly both Casca, reporting the falling sickness, and Cassius, stirring up the conspirators, are bent on underscoring Caesar’s mortality, but these physical frailties are arrayed as background to the susceptibility of character which allow Decius to play on his pride, ambition and vanity, so that he goes forth to the Senate on the Ides of March to meet his death. Still, Caesar is also a fatalist: “What can be avoided/ Whose end is purpos’d by the mighty gods?” (II.ii.26-7) and more nobly “Cowards die many times before their deaths,/ The valiant never taste of death but once” (II.i.32-33), an heroic sentiment worthy of the most noble Feeble in 2 Henry IV: “A man can die but once, we owe God a death.”
So the physically fragile Caesar rejects his wife’s nightmare prophesy (as well as that of the Soothsayer), goes forth to the Senate, likens himself wonderfully to the constant, true-fix’d Northern Star, and dies on the steps of the Senate at the hands of a coven of conspirators. Dead by Act III, scene 1 of The Tragedy of Julius Caesar, yet is it, my challenger asks, a function of tragedy that Caesar fails to heed the words of wisdom? Caesar proceeds to his doom because he is significantly human, and it seems that Shakespeare has underscored his personal frailty. Despite the title, The Tragedy of… and both Aristotle and A.C. Bradley, Caesar’s death is the fall of a political figure whose “flaws” are both fragility and complacency rather than heroic ruthlessness. The gods are not looking down on Caesar.
The play that preceded Caesar, Henry V, is also a study of political behavior. King Henry is exclusively a public figure, everything we see is calculated to inspire or manipulate his public performance. The “tragedy” is left for the epilogue which reports that all the victories and patriotic pride achieved by King Hal would be pissed away by his son, Henry the Sixt. Caesar, in ignoring the vision of Calphurnia (don’t let the rabble claim you are hen-pecked), goes forth to an event that changed the course of history, from Republic to Empire, for reasons that seem more to do with Time than tragedy. So the great North Star falls from the sky after all.
Brutus? To be continued.
Book Note: Year of the King
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