Saturday, October 3, 2009

Julius Caesar - Then and Now

Ernst writes:

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.

Ernst

15 comments:

Tucker said...

Hi i am a high school student and we have to read Julius Caesar for my English class. In response to the question what would an audience of Julius Caesar today find compelling is how similar Rome tried to set up its government to that of the United States. They were the first to come up with this idea of a Republic. That is what our government is like today. Also i believe people will be shocked at how easily a leader can fall like Caesar did and maybe scare people about what could happen to the United States.

amanda said...

Hi I too am a high school student and I also agree with Tucker on the fact about how scared people would be if a great leader like Caesar was taken out of power. However, an audience of today's time would react differently from an audience of the time of Caesar, because as of now, there have been many assassinations of presidents. Like this blog, I also agree that it Shakespeare's in-depth characterizations about the characters are quite precise. For example, Brutus, who displays stoicism in the play. This is significant to the story because he is a complex character, and not so easy to characterize, adding more thoughts to the play.

Anonymous said...
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Connor said...

Sorry i didnt know how to add a name but i figured it out.

I am also a high school student forced to read Julius Caesar. I can also say that Rome was the first city to come up with idea of a rebublic. I can also see from what tucker said that many citizens would be scared if someone as powerful as Caesar would to have been killed by his own friends and peers. I can also disagree that in our time period, that people would act differently. I know that the "mob" of people wouldn't try to kill everyone of the conspirators and go wild. Just look at the assanation of J.F.K. Many people did try to take the responsibility of killing the assasin into their own hands, but they didn't look for people that might have been the conspirator, they had an organized hunt for him. On the other hand, I can see how all the americans would react to that. They would be confused, and weak because they offically have no great leader that they can trust.

lisaaxo9658 said...

Hi im Lisa and I am also a highschool student. I agree very much with Tucker and Amanda but I think that the reason people love Shakespeare still today is that although times have obviously changed, it is still somewhat relateable. Like Amanda said, the audience of today have seen presidents and leaders be assisinated. However, after their assassination, they're was another man already in office to help clean up the mess that had been left. Therefore, America today i believe would still fall without a leader because there needs to be someone in office to help direct what is going on. And that is what makes Julius Caesar so relateable, the fact that even in Ancient Rome, the citizens and their city would fall without leadership. And after Caesar's death, Antony steps up to lead Rome.

Randall said...

Tucker and Connor: Thanks very much for the comments. One thing: you both imply that reading "Julius Caesar" isn't much fun ("have to"/"forced to read..."). We formed the William Shakespeare Experience group because we thought it would be both entertaining and enlightening to read all of Shakespeare's plays. Our discussion is how we celebrate the exciting characters and language and ideas we find. Contribute whatever thoughts you have, but don't feel you have to if it seems like a chore.

Connor, that's a really interesting comparison you make to the JFK assassination. Lisa's right about America's having a clear understanding of the transfer of power should the leader (i.e. the president) be incapacitated. I am reminded of the assassination attempt in 1981 on President Ronald Reagan. Secretary of State Alexander Haig claimed he was in charge because Reagan was in the hospital and Vice President Bush was not immediately available. Haig was ridiculed because people thought he meant he was in line to be president, but what he meant (or said he meant) was that he was in charge of the executive branch. But it is the assurance that comes from a clear succession that defies the mob. Isn't it ironic that Brutus, who is trying to avoid the type of government where only one man is in charge with no clear successor (an emperor), struggles to control the mob who had become devoted to Caesar or motivated by Antony?

Katelyn said...

Hey, i'm a high school student reading Julius Caesar for English. I think Julius Caesar is still interesting and compelling today becasue it's full of meaning and history. You have to work hard to understand and grasp the full meaning of the play and the characters. It's interesting to find connections between now and when Julius Caesar takes place, like what Tucker said about the republic they set up in Rome. it's interesting to read about the first rebublic and to learn about how they worked out all the kinks to make the government what it is today. I also agree with what Amanda said about the crowd's different reactions to a leader's death. We've seen assasinations and leaders taken out of power, so I don't think we would fall into mayhem like the crowd's back then would. They had never experienced it before so they wouldn't know what would come out of the death and what would happen to the government. Now, we have someone ready to take over the power if something happens. I also think that Brutus' character makes the story more interesting. His characted is troubled and faced with many decisions and hardships. He is a very iteresting and complex character to read about.

Hailey said...

I'd have to disagree with Tucker about Rome's republican government. I think that although Rome's government is also a Republic, it isn't really a good comparison to the United States government today. I believe this is because of the power that Caesar had before his death. He was not elected by his people or representatives to hold this power, but it was simply gained by the strength he had over other people using his army and such. In America, a president must earn his position by persuading the people that he is the best choice as their leader. Caesar had to do no such thing. ALso, in America there would not be a problem with one person gaining too much power since there are so many other representatives, senators, and elected officials to keep them in line.

xoliv9 said...

I am also a high school student learning about William Shakespeare and Julius Caesar. I have to agree with Hailey's opinion about the Roman style of government before Julius Caesar was killed. I think that Julius Caesar was given so much power at once and that did not resemble a Republic. Eventually the idea of a Republic became more profound but it seemed to have taken many different changes as the years went on. I think that when such a powerful leader falls, the public does not know how to handle such a loss. This is a large issue in the USA today. In America, a political candidate does not always win an election by his military power like Julius Caesar did. He must earn his political values by winning the public over.

Meg said...

I am also a student reading Julius Caesar in my English class. I agree with Tucker because with such a strong leader being killed what hope does the public have now? They all loved Caesar and thought he was invincible. Caesar's death showed his weaknesses. Leaders can't have weaknesses, so I think the people of Rome lost hope and became worried losing their "strongest" leader. I do think this also applies to our givernment today because many people are afraid having our president and knowing he could be killed... I think many people fear this and know without a leader, things will go even more downhill.

NickLKP63 said...

Hi, I am a high school student, and I both agree and disagree with some of Tucker's thoughts, and agree mostly with Hailey. The fact is although that Rome was a republic; they were not the first to develop such a system of government. The Greeks, who are renowned for their studies in political sciences, were actually amongst the first to have the system common amongst an alike people. For early examples of Greek Republics see Athens and Sparta. Even these republics differed greatly from the one The United States has today. At this point of history there were a few translations that everyone accepted; and one was land equals power. At this time, land also equaled the right to vote. This is much different from today where citizenship grants you voting rights. Secondly, the Republic of Rome was split into two social classes, the very poor, and the rich. There was very very very (Greatly stressed) little movement from the lower class to the upper class. It is not until the late Middle Ages (500-1500 C.E.) that we see the emergence of the Middle Class. Ironically, Brutus was one of the few that moved from the poor to the rich. Caesar had adopted him after a campaign in Greece, I believe, and awarded him high offices in the Roman Republic. The difference obviously being that in the United States there is (at least proclaimed there is) equal chance for everyone, and there is in fact a middle class which many argue is the key to our lives functioning. I do agree with Tucker slightly, and I believe Plato sums it up when he says “An imbalance between rich and poor is the oldest and most fatal ailment of all republics.” So there is some similarity between the governments. I direct a question to all, and it is in response to Hailey's comment "in America there would not be a problem with one person gaining too much power since there are so many other representatives, senators, and elected officials to keep them in line." In this Democracy the United States has, is the overgrowth of power in an individual truly not a concern? Is democracy not merely an organized Anarchy? In anarchy cannot any individual rise to power? Take for example the country of Venezuela. Hugo Chavez has increased the amount of terms a president can serve (with a passing vote from the country’s legislature), and is exercising powers uncharacteristic of a republican leader. Is this not possible in our country? Can a president not vouch for more time in office, and possibly more power? I believe that he/she could, and in certain circumstances an individual in today’s society could gain overwhelming power merely because of timing. Staying in Greek roots, Plato (428 B.C.E.-348 B.C.E.) famously said Democracy passes into despotism.” Do you agree?

Loags 77 said...

I too would have to disagree with t-bugs and side with Hailey. Even though my answer will not be as good and well written as nick's, I'll still share my opinion anyway.The democratic government that we have today is run by "We the People." Rome during the reign of Julius Caesar seemed to be a tyrannical government because the entire empire was controlled by one man and no one else could make any decisions besides him. This type of government is the complete opposite of ours. Like Hailey mentioned, Caesar would never be able to gain that much power due to our democratic government and our vetoes and checks and balance our government has established to keep anyone from becoming too powerful. However, I believe if our leader (Barrack Obama) was killed, that our country would not go into mayhem like Rome did but rather mourn his death and move on.

Ally said...

Hi I'm Ally and I'm a highschool student reading Julius Caesar in English class. After reading everyone's opinions, I'd have to agree with Hailey, Logan Tucker, etc. I think that although the great leaders of Rome and the leaders of the U.S. today are obviously very important to the goverment and the country, after the loss of one of them, the country would still be able to pull through the hard times. America has been through so many hardships like Civil Wars and World Wars and devastations like hurricanes, that I feel like the country would be able to withstand a death of a leader. Of course, the person's life would be cherished and remembered but I believe that our country is strong enough to elect or put someone else into office that will be able to lead our country just fine. I also agree with Randall when he says that its ironic that Brutuss actions are all in support of avoiding a government with one specific leader, yet he cannot control the mob in favor of Caesar and Antony. Basically, he was persuaded to kill someone he loved for the thought that he was doing good for his country when in reality his country was already behind Caesar and did not appreciate his act.

Scott B. said...

I'm another high school student, also reading Julius Caesar. I feel that reading works of Shakespeare should compel any modern reader, simply because it is classic literature and people can learn from his plays. Readers learn life lessons through the mistakes of the characters in the play, and I am specifically speaking of Caesar. His tragic flaw is his inability to recognize danger, and although he was warned explicitly by the soothsayer, he ignored the warning, and was killed soon after. So I can say I've learned that if I'm ever told to "beware the ides of March," you can be sure that I'm going to watch my back on that particular day.

Anonymous said...

Hello, this is the elderly, retired English prof, Ernst Schoen-René (ESR).

I have been reading your various comments, but I seem incapable of gathering them all into a bundle to answer. So I have chosen a couple to answer, and will see where it gets me.

1. I think you are wrong to call our country a democracy. It was set up as one, but it has become a plutocracy--a government of the rich, by the rich, and for the rich. There are exceptions, but that is the closest thing to what we are now--controlled as we are by financial interests, corporations and their powerful hirees and tools, wealthy politicians, large banks and insurance groups, military contractors, media groups, etc. President Obama is trying to lessen the power of these moneyed interests, but it remains an almost impossible, uphill battle. Julius Caesar is not about plutocracy. Rather, it somewhat compares the benefits and disadvantages of a strong central, slightly limited government (which is what England had when Shakespeare was writing) and a "republican" government such as what Rome had for roughly 200 years before Caesar seized power ("alia iacta est"). Actually, the patricians in the Senate did most of the "ruling," with fantastically good/fortunate foreign policies and dedicated military leaders.

2. True, these concerns relate it to American notions of republican government, but I don't think mentioning this relationship is really very enlightening. "Julius Caesar is relevant because it discusses the pros and cons of republican government. " Well, duh.. Of course it does, but how does this help us see into the play's brilliant art and/or special insights?

3. I would like to propose two questions that might make the answerer see deeper into how the play works:

A. What do you understand better about any character or event on the world stage over the last five years because of having read Julius Caesar?

B. Find a written piece (the more extreme the better) arguing for or against single-payer health insurance, read it, and show how it uses three "rhetorical" tricks that Cassius, Brutus, and/or Antony use to persuade others to accept THEIR views of what should be done about the "Caesar situation."

I apologize; I have not been writing very clearly because I have been (still am) ill, but I hope this points the way to some fresh, individualized (always better than "general") observations.

ESR