Julius Caesar is a challenging play in several ways. I would begin by noting that the play contains no Talbots, Queen’s gardeners, Poinses, Bastards, French ambassadors—middle level characters to enrich the play’s viewpoints and give you various angles on its larger world. Shakespeare keeps to his historical sources pretty closely, so his play is more a telling of what everyone knew/knows with little embellishment.
Then to some other reflections. I find myself thinking about Julius Caesar then and now. We in the early 21st century have been increasingly surrounded by the dangers, stupidities and failures of so-called ”republican” (“democratic”? “liberal”?) governments for years and years. We have seen incident after incident of initially idealistic revolutions gone bad, have listened to years and years of “democracy’s” demagogues and their tricky doubletalk, which breeds fear and hate in the “mob” (and, by the dint of the mob’s overwhelming numbers, in us). We have seen the two last great political romanticisms, Communism and Fascism, rise, kill, and turn to ashes. We presently fear that our own government is bound for its grave. To us, a lot of the politics of Julius Caesar is old stuff.
Where were the democracies of Shakespeare’s time? There weren’t any. Even in the “Brave New World” of the western Hemisphere” (which The Tempest reminds us is but a flashily put on set of surfaces [Facebook, anyone?]), there was little beside exploitation and butchery with a smattering of mini-theocracies more authoritarian than most of England at the time. There was the possible exception of Champlain’s dream of settlers and Native Americans living in harmony, but Shakespeare and his audience knew little about that that dream. And anyway, Champlain would be in an English prison for three years and would die only a couple more after getting back to Canada—his dream with him.
The people Shakespeare was writing for did not know what we know about this subsequent history. They had not seen revolution after revolution decay into triumvirates of clever pitchmen (Antony/Rush Limbaugh), bankers (Lepidus/Lehman Brothers) and cagey politicos (Octavius/Dick Cheney).
They probably agreed with Shakespeare that Julius Caesar was the best bet to become a king like the ones they were accustomed to and admired (as, one might note, admiration for Elizabeth was waning), and that he would die with stoic nobility. They probably also realized that, once he became emperor, Augustus wouldn’t be all that bad either, and that imperial Rome would achieve more wonders (including 200 years of relative peace) than the world had seen before or since (England’s attempt at its own “Augustan Age” was, after all, only a century and a bit away).
So the question is: what new and what would a contemporary audience have found compelling about this play which, to a modern reader, is a little bit boring? Yes, the various orations are beautifully wrought, and the sight of historical giants upon the humble stage re-enacting their well-known stories is stirring, but what else?
To me, the most interesting aspect of Julius Caesar is the way in which Shakespeare continues his deepening study of individual characters—using some of the psychological tools of his time. I remember some teacher from days gone by explaining that Brutus was in the grips of the melancholic humour and that Cassius’ humour was choleric or fiery. This makes sense as far as it goes, I suppose. These seem to me to be the only characters that really interest Shakespeare; the others are mostly treated as historical figures who need to be fleshed out for dramatic purposes, but not gone into too deeply. (Is Caesar slightly over-the-hill sanguine?) Cassius seems pretty straightforward to me also.
This leaves Brutus as the most interesting study, and what I find interesting about him is that he is a break from Shakespeare’s earlier melancholic. Yes, he has a case of melancholia (the “scholar’s melancholy,” but he would not strike one as a flat character like Don John, Jacques, or even—to an extent—an “antic-disposition” Hamlet puts on. He is related to a humours character, but he is more than one. Caesar’s team might call him a malcontent in one of their historical revisions, but he is not. He is a whole character dealing with serious decisions. Hamlet—here we come.
Postscript: If this is incoherent, it is partly because it is coming to you from the Champlain Valley Physicians Hospital, where I am in a bed, having had a very close call with an eschemic (blood supply to intestine blocked) small intestine (lost more than a yard). At least I am not on the terrible “trip” (hallucinations of the worst sort) Adavan put me on the day after my surgery.” I hope to leave soon and get back to Kingston, and also to get into further correspondence with you all.
Book Note: Year of the King
1 day ago