Scholarship is like technology, always evolving. The Arden Shakespeare edition of Julius Caesar I picked up from the library can’t be the Arden edition of Julius Caesar I read in my schooldays. This edition, first published in 1998, is edited by David Daniell, who begins his introduction to the play by asserting, “Julius Caesar is Shakespeare’s first great tragedy.”
Traditionally, only a group of four – Macbeth, Hamlet, King Lear and Othello – are honoured as Shakespeare’s great tragedies.
Julius Caesar differs from them in more than one respect. Julius Caesar, though the title character, dies midway through the play, assassinated by Brutus, Cassius and their co-conspirators in Act 3, Scene 1.
Brutus, is the tragic hero of the play, says Daniell. “He is the first tragic hero with any significant interior life to appear in English drama,” he says. But he adds: “Brutus as tragic hero is limited in poetic expression.”
Yes, Julius Caesar the play is not as poetic as Macbeth. The language is different.
But this does not make it less enjoyable as theatre. I love the opening scene where the tribunes Flavius and Marullus, with no love lost for Caesar, upbraid the cobbler and other commoners for holiday-making to celebrate Caesar’s return to Rome in triumph. The cobbler’s cheeky replies to the haughty tribunes, and the latter’s angry words against Caesar and the people, present a sharp contrast in style of speech and attitudes.
Martin Wiggins in his introduction to the Penguin Classics edition of Julius Caesar writes: “More than any other Shakespeare play, Julius Caesar dramatizes the process of audience management through public oratory: politicians win and lose power according to their ability to influence the Roman people with their rhetoric.”
Mark Antony’s funeral oration probably contains the most quoted lines from the play:
Friends, Romans, countrymen, lend me your ears;
I come to bury Caesar, not to praise him.
The evil that men do lives after them;
The good is oft interred with their bones;
So let it be with Caesar.
(Act 3, Scene 2)
One has to quote the full speech to show how cleverly and effectively Antony turns the people against Brutus and his co-conspirators though only a little earlier the same people had been cheering for Brutus. The play shows how fickle-minded people can be and how they can be manipulated with words.
The Globe Guide to Shakespeare by Andrew Dickson (with contributions by Joe Staines) says: “Though in many ways a drama of ideas, Julius Caesar is probably Shakespeare’s tautest study of political intrigue. It is also one of his leanest plays: nearly half the size of Hamlet, with the action compressed into just sixteen high-voltage scenes… The measured, cool style of the play – in which even private conversations take on the tone of public oration – can seem monochrome at first glance. But the closer one looks, the stranger and more intriguing Julius Caesar gets, not least in its thrilling self-consciousness about performance and rhetoric…”
Rhetoric is used by the leading characters in the play not only to manipulate the common people but also to win over one another. Cassius, for example, has to persuade Brutus to join the conspiracy to kill Caesar. “The fault, dear Brutus, is not in our stars,/ But in ourselves, that we are underlings,” Cassius says, trying to stir up Brutus, in Act 1, Scene 2.
Brutus can be eloquent, too. One of my favourite quotes is the lines spoken by Brutus to Cassius in Act 4, Scene 3:
There is a tide in the affairs of men,
Which, taken at the flood, leads on to fortune;
Omitted, all the voyage of their life
Is bound in shallows and in miseries.
On such a full sea are we now afloat,
And we must take the current when it serves
Or lose our ventures.
The lines are a curious mix of fatalism and opportunism, stressing that timing is everything, that one can succeed only when the time is right.
Brutus is wrong when with these words he persuades Cassius to confront Antony and Octavius in battle on the plains of Philippi – a battle Cassius didn’t want to fight, wanting to retreat in front of the enemies and tire them out. Antony and Octavius win the battle. Cassius and Brutus commit suicide.
But Brutus’ error of judgment in going into battle in Philippi does not mean he is wrong in stressing the importance of timing. There is indeed a tide in the affairs of men. Julius Caesar opens with Caesar at the apogee of his power and ends with the triumph of Antony and Octavius.
Caesar has his share of memorable lines. He is correct in his reading of Cassius when he tells Antony:
“Let me have men about me that are fat,
Sleek-headed men and such as sleep a-nights.
Yond Cassius has a lean and hungry look.
He thinks too much. Such men are dangerous.”
(Act 1, Scene 2)
Widely quoted, too, are his words to Calphurnia when she tells him not to go out, fearing – correctly, as it turns out – he would come to harm. Dismissing her apprehensions, he says:
Cowards die many times before their deaths.
The valiant never taste of death but once.
(Act 2, Scene 2)
When, later in the same scene, when a servant comes with the news that the augurers have advised Caesar not to leave the house, Caesar retorts:
Danger knows full well
That Caesar is more dangerous than he.
We are two lions littered in one day,
And I the elder and more terrible.
And Caesar shall go forth.
Caesar goes to his death, unshakeable to the end, dismissing the conspirators’ pleas to pardon a man, declaring:
I could be well moved if I were as you.
If I could pray to move, prayers would move me.
But I am constant as the northern star,
Of whose true-fixed and resting quality
There is no fellow in the firmament.
(Act 3, Scene 1)
Compared with Caesar’s high-flown speeches, Brutus is more temperate. He uses logic and argument to make his points, for example, when he explains to the people why he killed Caesar:
As Caesar loved me, I weep for him. As he was fortunate, I rejoice at it. As he was valiant, I honour him. But, as he was ambitious, I slew him.
(Act 3, Scene 2)
His listeners seem to believe he has done the right thing, for when he asks if he has offended anybody, they reply: “None, Brutus, none.”
But then Antony appears with Caesar’s body and begins his speech, “Friends, Romans, countrymen, lend me your ears”, and completely wins over the people, who want to burn down the house of Brutus. It is superb theatre.
Death of Portia
There is still the ghost scene to come, where the ghost of Caesar appears before Brutus and tells him they will meet again at Philippi. It is one of the high points in the play because Brutus not only meets the ghost of Caesar but grieves for his wife earlier in the scene.
The scene begins with a quarrel between Cassius and Brutus who finally confesses, “O Cassius, I am sick of many griefs.” (Act 4, Scene 3). When Cassius replies, “Of your philosophy you make no use” (by grieving), Brutus responds: “No man bears sorrow better. Portia is dead.” When Cassius asks how she died, he replies, missing him and grief-stricken at the strength of his enemies Mark Antony and Octavius, she “swallowed fire”. And then he says: “Speak no more of her: give me a bowl of wine.” The stoicism with which he bears his wife is remarkable.
So, there is considerable drama after the assassination of Caesar and the forum scene where Mark Antony’s funeral oration turns the people against the conspirators, but those are the climactic scenes; some of the excitement – I won’t say “momentum” – goes out of the play after that.
The play ends with a tribute to Brutus. Antony says:
This was the noblest Roman of them all.
All the conspirators save only he
Did that they did in envy of great Caesar.
He only in a general honest thought
And common good to all, made one of them.
His life was gentle, and the elements
So mixed in him that Nature might stand up
And say to all the world, “This was a man.”
(Act 5, Scene 5)
The last words anticipate Hamlet’s famous lines: “What a piece of work is a man! How noble in reason, how infinite in faculty! In form and moving how express and admirable! In action how like an angel, in apprehension how like a god!” (Hamlet, Act 2, Scene 2)
But when you compare Antony’s tribute to Brutus with Hamlet’s reflections on man, you notice how much more eloquent Hamlet is.
Brutus is noble, “the elements” are “mixed in him”, as Antony says, but he does not have the passionate intensity of Hamlet, Macbeth, King Lear – or even Caesar himself.
Even if Brutus, not Caesar, is the tragic hero, still the play is at its most animated as long as Caesar is alive and immediately after his death.