Friday, September 18, 2009

Julius Caesar - R.I.P.

Gil writes:

Caesarians,

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.
Gil

3 comments:

samantha.3000 said...

Hi! I am a high school student reading Julius Caesar in my language class.

I believe that Caesar does not believe in the prediction made by the soothsayer or in Calpernia's dream because then he would admit that he is not a "god". For example, if he decided not to go to the capitol with Decius, he would be admitting that he didn't know what the conspirators were planning and he is not an all-knowing god. It would be admitting a weakness and Caesar has too much pride for that. The same goes for Calpernia's dream. If he believed Calpernia and stayed home, he would show a weakness by listening to a women and admitting that he is not the all- knowing god that he wants to be.

Caesar has many physical weaknesses. First of all, he has epilepsy, which causes him to faint. He also has one deaf ear. I think that the reason that he denounces the soothsayer's warning and Calpernia's dream is because he has these physical weaknesses. If he didn't have these physical weaknesses to hold him back, I have a feeling that he would be much more lenient with believing these superstitions.

During Act II, we see a lot about Calpernia and Caesar's relationship. By not listening to Calpernia, it shows us that Caesar does not really respect Calpernia's thoughts and feelings. He definitely does not think of Calpernia as his equal. This makes their relationship weak. If he had just listened to Calpernia, he might have lived.

Ryan said...

In the beginning of the play, during the festival of Lupercal, Caesar asks Antony to whip Calphurnia with the goatskin in order to ensure her fertility. This shows that Caesar is superstitious, however, later in the play, the soothsayer twice warns Caesar to beware the ides of March, which each time, Caesar ignores. This shows Caesar's vanity. Despite being superstitious he doesn't heed the soothsayer's warning because he believes that he is loved by all and that nothing bad can happen to him. His vanity is also the reason that he goes to the capitol despite the warning of Calphurnia. When he is told by Decius the "real" meaning of Calphurnia's dream, and that the other high ranking men of Rome will mock him for being controlled by his wife, he decides to go to the capitol where he is then killed.

samantha.3000 said...

Hi! I am a high school student reading Julius Caesar in my language class. I agree with your views about Shakespeare's emphasis on Caesar's weaknesses. First, he has epilepsy which is a fainting sickness. He also has a deaf ear. Shakespeare also talks about a time when Caesar caught a fever and shook violently and when Cassius had to help Caesar swim through a river. I also agree with you about why Shakespeare emphasizes these weaknesses. I believe that Shakespeare emphasizes this because he wants to show that even though Caesar is this almighty god-like figure to the people, he is mortal and has weaknesses too.

Having these weaknesses I believe has taken a toll on Caesar. You say that Caesar does not heed the warnings said by both Calpernia and the Soothsayer. I believe that he does not listen to these warnings because he already has these weaknesses that make him seem less of a god. If he listened to these warnings then he would be admitting that he was not a god at all but just a human being who doesn't know his future.

Thanks!!