Julius Caesar

Julius Caesar gives us a way to theorize the issues of tyranny and power in Elizabethan England. Perhaps more so than any native king or historical figure, Caesar’s narrative was used as a way to think through early modern political systems. The views on Caesar were polarizing: was Caesar a tyrant who was justly killed, or a martyr? Was Brutus an assassin or was he justified in seeking to rid Rome of a ruler too powerful for the health of the Roman state?

            We can’t help but acknowledge that this is Caesar’s play, even if he only speaks 130 of its lines. All of the other characters move in response to the consul, even after his death. He both symbolically and later literally haunts the narrative both before and after his assassination. And yet his Rome is not the Rome of Titus: this is one of active political intrigue, of movement. We witness not at the beginning some senators discussing the state of affairs, but plebeians on holiday. The first lines of the play pinpoints their idleness: “Hence! home, you idle creatures, get you home!” (1.1.1). They are celebrating the defeat of Pompey, and the plebeians are active and important members of the Roman Republic, even if they are not learned and seem impressionable. They are utilizing the opportunity for celebration, however, and their role as political tools is one we should not dismiss. There are also many more varied participants in this tragedy, from the tribunes, to the wives, to servants, and to soothsayers. For such a short play, it’s a crowded production, something that later Victorian and early twentieth-century productions made much of by including upwards of 100 or more actors on the stage to represent the scale of a boisterous Rome.

            The city, though, is one of great political actors and anonymous plebeians. The fact that the tribunes Flavius and Murellus don’t know the plebeians shows their political distance from the crowd. The crowd in Julius Caesar, like most of the play, is ambiguously represented. They are idle, “mechanical” (1.1.3), and easily swayed by rhetoric. Antony essentially bribes them with Caesar’s will, and they are happy to swap political favor for whoever benefits them the most. Of course, they are also radically violent, as in the scenes following Antony’s funeral oration. The tribunes are shocked at the Roman people’s short-lived memories, or their fickleness. As Murellus accuses them, they follow Caesar for his victory over a fellow-Roman:

            You blocks, you stones, you worse than senseless things!

            O you hard hearts, you cruel men of Rome,

            Knew you not Pompey? Many a time and oft

            Have you climbed up to walls and battlements,

            To towers and windows, yea, to chimney-tops,

            Your infants in your arms, and there have sat

            The livelong day, with patient expectation,

            To see great Pompey pass the streets of Rome:

            [….]

And do you now cull out a holiday?

And do you now strew flowers in his way,

That comes in triumph over Pompey’s blood?

Be gone!

Run to your houses, fall upon your knees,

Pray to the gods to intermit the plague

That needs must light on this ingratitude. (1.1.36-43; 50-56). 

Immediately, we get the sense that this is a Rome replete with uncertainties, with changes like the tides that follow the direction of the current political star. And there is the mention of violence here, a foreshadowing of Caesar’s assassination, which will occur at the foot of Pompey’s statue. Given that the play is so focused on omens and divine favor or disfavor, we should also read the prayers for avoiding the plague here carefully: perhaps not only Caesar but the common folk have brought divine retribution to the city. The speech does affect the crowd, and it is clear in this opening scene that the Roman people are easily moved by rhetoric, which we will see much more forcibly in Act 3 Scene 2. Language in this play matters because it can so quickly change the course of political history.

            If the city is a living thing, a collective body in this play, it is nonetheless focused so much on one person, Caesar. Again and again, characters wonder how to understand Caesar and what he represents. What is Caesar’s potential? What does he really want? For our approach this week, I’m hoping we can frame our discussion about the act of interpretation itself as it is presented in the play. As Cicero tells the feverous Cassius during the storm, “men may construe things after their fashion” (1.3.34). And everyone in this play is attempting to construe or interpret events, environments, and others’ bodies. They are seeking to understand not only Caesar, but Caesar’s potential tyranny. As Brutus ponders, “He would be crowned: / How that might change his nature, there’s the question” (2.1.12-13).  They are attempting to read through the symbolism of Caesar. They are utilizing the past and past heritage (Brutus in particular) to understand the future of the Roman Republic, a futile endeavor as Shakespeare’s audiences would have known. And, of course, they are attempting to make others understand/act the way they do, as we can see in how Cassius and Antony actively manipulate Brutus or the Roman crowd through rhetoric. But Cicero’s quote also points to the contingency, the slippages in interpretation. To understand something “after their fashion” means to read it according to one’s inclinations. Cassius reads the storm as propitious for the conspirators’ goals, but it is in his interest to do so. Calphurnia’s dream is interpreted as both ominous and as propitious by different parties. The play asks, What does a dream bode? And who has the ability/right to interpret it?

Language

            From this frame, we might notice how focused the play is on oratory and persuasion. Caesar himself, as editor David Daniell notes, does not attempt to sway others. Instead, he is demanding, imperious: “for always I am Caesar.” He continually speaks in the third-person, and our introduction to the consul highlights how much he demands to be heard. The duplicitous Caska continually calls for others to hear Caesar speak: “Peace, ho! Caesar speaks” (1.2.1). And yet others are so unsure of themselves. Brutus claims “If I have veiled my look, / I turn the trouble of my countenance / Merely upon myself” (1.2.37-39). He is troubled, it seems, over Caesar’s rise in power, but Cassius must draw such cogitations from Brutus, who is decidedly not an open book. Part of the problem with interpretation in the play is that Brutus wants everything to be clear-cut, to be reasonable. He asks Cassius to NOT interpret him a certain way: “Nor construe any further my neglect / Than that poor Brutus, with himself at war, / Forget the shows of love to other men” (1.2.45-47). Nonetheless, Brutus does not fully know himself, as is beautifully captured in Cassius’ question to him: “Tell me, good Brutus, can you see your face?” (1.2.51). Of course Brutus cannot with a mirror, but we should recall the first dictate of Plato’s philosophy, “Know thyself.” Brutus is at war with himself, and Cassius capitalizes on his uncertainty. Brutus apprehends such motives early, demanding: “Into what dangers would you lead me, Cassius, / That you would have me seek into myself / For that which is not in me?” (1.2.63-65). Few are who they seem in this bloody Roman world, and those very few who remain true to themselves are punished for their ideals or identities (as Cinna the poet is). I’m hoping we will be able to probe some of these issues of interpreting identity and the cosmos in the play.

Caesar

Although Caesar rarely questions himself, Shakespeare’s representation of the consul is ambiguous. Here, the playwright is intervening in a centuries-long debate about whether Caesar’s death was unjust or merited. Part of the way into that discussion for Shakespeare is through highlighting not only the strength of Caesar, but his weaknesses as well. I want to spend some time on Caesar simply because this first half of the play sets up the terms for his martyrdom, his ascendancy over Rome after his death, in many ways. Shakespeare’s primary source for the play, and for details about Caesar’s life, comes from Plutarch’s Parallel Lives, translated into English by Thomas North and appearing in 1579. Plutarch was widely read in the Renaissance, and North’s translation went through several editions in his lifetime. From Plutarch, Shakespeare would have gathered not only the basic contours of Caesar’s life—his Gaelic Wars, crossing the Rubicon—but also other moments that, while not staged, reveal Caesar’s character. One of my favorite anecdotes is that when captured by pirates, they demanded 20 talents for Caesar’s ransom. Insulted by the low sum, Caesar insisted they require 50 talents. Nonetheless, the story also shows Caesar’s bloody nature: he later captures and crucifies most of the pirates. This very snippet indicates how difficult it is to read Caesar historically and how Shakespeare capitalizes on that difficulty. We learn later in the play that the tribunes Murellus and Flavius “for pulling scarves off Caesar’s images, are put to silence” (1.2.284-285): they have been killed for defying Caesar. At once a champion of the Roman populace and a hero in wars, Caesar is also dangerous.  

            The play opens following Caesar’s defeat of Pompey at Pharsalus in 48 BC. This is why the plebeians are celebrating. But usually celebrations and particularly triumphs of this sort were only for when Rome defeated or conquered foreign enemies. Pompey was a Roman hero, and the civil war that broke out between him and Caesar was violent and exposed deep faultlines in Roman politics. The Senate sided with Pompey, and that included Marcus Brutus. Gossip suggested that Brutus was actually Caesar’s son since it was well known that Caesar had a long-standing affair with Brutus’s mother Servilia. But there is also the hint in the play that Caesar is now sterile, for Calphurnia has not had a child. Thus Caesar is vulnerable because he has no official male heir. He asks Antony to touch Calphurnia with a goatskin strip during his running around the Palatine in the Feast of Lupercal. Of course, we could read this as that she is barren (as Caesar does), but it is equally possible that his ailing body can no longer produce children. Indeed, Caesar’s body is of particular interest to the figures in the play, who attempt to ascribe weaknesses to this great man’s supposed wholeness. Cassius’ long story of the swimming contest between him and Caesar makes this point forcibly, and despite his earlier insult of “immortal Caesar,” his persuasion rests entirely on the shared humanity between him and Caesar:

            But for my single self

            I had as lief not be as live to be

            In awe of such a thing as I myself.

            I was born free as Caesar, so were you;

            We both have fed as well, and we can both

            Endure the winter’s cold as well as he.

            For once, upon a raw and gusty day,

            The troubled Tiber chafing with her shores,

            Caesar said to me, “Dar’st thou, Cassius, now

            Leap in with me into this angry flood

            And swim to yonder point?’ Upon the word,

            Accountred as I was, I plunged in

            And bade him follow; so indeed he did.

            The torrent roared, and we did buffet it

            With lusty sinews, throwing it aside,

            And stemming it with hearts of controversy.

            But ere we could arrive the point proposed

            Caesar cried, ‘Help me, Cassius, or I sink!’

            I, as Aeneas, our great ancestor,

            Did from the flames of Troy upon his shoulder

            The old Anchises bear, so from the waves of Tiber

            Did I the tired Caesar: and this man

            Is now become a god, and Cassius is

            A wretched creature, and must bend his body

            If Caesar carelessly but nod on him.

            He had a fever when he was in Spain,

            And when the fit was on him I did mark

            How he did shake. ’Tis true, this god did shake:

            His coward lips did from their colour fly,

            And that same eye, whose bend doth awe the world,

            Did lose his lustre: I did hear him groan:

            Ay, and that tongue of his that bade the Romans

            Mark him, and write his speeches in their books,

            ‘Alas,’ it cried, ‘give me some drink, Titinius’,

            As a sick girl. Ye gods, it doth amaze me

            A man of such a feeble temper should

            So get the start of the majestic world

            And bear the palm alone. (1.2.94-131).

I want to go through this long passage slowly, because it reveals so much puncturing of the myth of Caesar, and yet it is from a suspect source. Cassius is a vivid story-teller, a mark of a Shakespearean villain who is able to wield language pictorially, to body forth an image for others to see, to borrow Hamlet’s phrase, “in the mind’s eye.”

            We might also consider other moments of focusing so intently on Caesar’s body. When he returns from the failed-crowning, Brutus notes “The angry spot doth glow on Caesar’s brow” (1.2.182). He is reputed to have the “falling sickness” (1.2.253) or epilepsy. Later in the play we hear of his fainting amid the Roman crowd, and the physical ailment provokes both pity and scorn from others.

And yet Caesar’s program has been one of self-promotion, of deification. Cassius refers ironically to “immortal Caesar” (1.2.60) in his attempts to bring Brutus around to the conspiracy. Rome is already littered with statues of Caesar, and the plebeians adorn the statues as they would honor a dignitary or god. As the tribune Flavius worries,

            These growing feathers plucked from Caesar’s wing

            Will make him fly an ordinary pitch,

            Who else would soar above the view of men,

            And keep us all in servile fearfulness. (1.1.73-76).

Indeed, another ambiguity is in Caesar’s ambition. We witness this early in the play with the tribunes’ heated dismissal of the Roman crowd. It is also clear from an off-stage moment (and it is interest that this scene occurs off-stage since it does seem to offer a fabulously dramatic event). We learn that Antony offered a crown to Caesar, which the fickle crowd disapproved of. Caesar, out of desire for the crown, becomes displeased with this contrary response. Nonetheless, the account is mediated through the words of the cynical Caska, so we should read this moment cautiously. In Caska’s words,

I saw Mark Antony offer him a crown—yet ’twas not a crown neither, ’twas one of these coronets—and, as I told you, he put it by once; but for all that, to my thinking, he would fain have had it. Then he offered it to him again; then he put it by again; but to my thinking, he was very loth to lay his fingers off it. And then he offered it the third time; he put it the third time by; and still as he refused it the rabblement hooted, and clapped their chopped hands, and threw up their sweaty nightcaps, and uttered such a deal of stinking breath because Caesar refused the crown that it had almost choked Caesar; for he swooned and fell down at it. And for mine own part, I durst not laugh, for fear of opening my lips and receiving the bad air. (1.2.235-249).

Notice the interjection of Caska’s own opinions here: he observed the scene closely, as we see in the repetition of “to my thinking.”

Cassius

Cassius is a shrewd observer, though he too is guilty of “constru[ing] things” after his own fashion. As he claims to Brutus: “I do observe you now of late” (1.2.32). The most famous line about Cassius in the play refers to his thinness and his reputation for envy. As Caesar passes by, he says to 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 (1.2.191-194).

Cassius over-interprets, over-thinks according to Caesar. We’ve already seen how Cassius brilliantly deploys vivid rhetoric to attempt to convince Brutus to some, as yet unspecified, course of action. In an odd moment because Caesar and others normally talk about Caesar, the consul continues to discuss Cassius’ “hungry look.” As Caesar continues to tell Antony:

            Would he were fatter! But I fear him not:

            Yet if my name were liable to fear

            I do not know the man I should avoid

            So soon as that spare Cassius. He reads much,

            He is a great observer, and he looks

            Quite through the deeds of men. He loves no plays

            As thou dost, Antony; he hears no music.

            Seldom he smiles, and smiles in such a sort

            As if he mocked himself and scorned his spirit

            That could be moved to smile at anything.

            Such men as he be never at heart’s ease

            Whiles they behold a greater than themselves,

            And therefore are they very dangerous.

            I rather tell thee what is to be feared

            Than what I fear: for always I am Caesar.

            Come on my right hand, for this ear is deaf,

            And tell me truly what thou think’st of him. (1.2.197-213).

Caesar prefers easy-going men like Antony, those who enjoy the theater that Caesar often provides to bribe the plebeians. Cassius, it seems, is at fault for looking too closely into motives and habits. Recall that a dislike of music, too, is something suggestive of an outside, as we saw in The Merchant of Venice: “The man that hath no music in himself / […] / Is fit for treasons, stratagems, and spoils” (5.1.83; 85).

Portia

Portia shares in this desire to interpret, and she demands access to Brutus’ inner world. Brutus repeatedly attempts to hide his inner life from others, but Portia demands that she partake of her husband’s cogitations, which she proves through both her lineage and the remarkable wound she has given herself. She kneels to her husband, demanding that he unfold what he intends:

            Upon my knees

            I charm you, by my once commended beauty,

            By all your vows of love, and that great vow

            Which did incorporate and make us one,

            That you unfold to me, your self, your half,

            Why you are heavy—and what men tonight

            Have had resort to you (2.1.269-275).   

Portia calls upon the shared relationship that should make man and wife one. She insists upon this relationship, for if Brutus is not open with her then she is “Brutus’ harlot, not his wife” (2.1.286). To prove her loyalty, Portia displays her thigh:

            Tell me your counsels. I will not disclose ’em.

            I have made strong proof of my constancy,

            Giving myself a voluntary wound,

            Here in the thigh. Can I bear that with patience

            And not my husband’s secrets? (2.1.297-301).

It’s a highly dramatic gesture, one that also prefigures the wounds that Caesar shall shortly receive.

Omens/Portents

Sharing the sense of a responsive environment that we saw in A Midsummer Night’s Dream, Julius Caesar is full of omens, portents, and strange messages from the environment. What is startling, however, is the fact that these omens appear within the city of Rome itself. We are not out in a magical woodland, but amid the Roman crowd, in the thick of things so to speak. To bring such supernaturalism home renders the need to interpret the external world that much more important to the characters in the play. Let’s look at this first exchange of omens to see how Caesar’s fault here is that he refuses to interpret. He initially relegates the Soothsayer to the category of “dreamer,” and thus dismisses the first of many warnings:

Caesar:            Who is it in the press that calls on me?

                        I hear a tongue shriller than all the music

                        Cry ‘Caesar!’ Speak. Caesar is turned to hear.

Soothsayer:      Beware the Ides of March.

Caesar:            What man is that?

Brutus:            A soothsayer bids you beware the Ides of March.

Caesar:            Set him before me. Let me see his face.

Cassius:           Fellow, come from the throng. Look upon Caesar.

Caesar:            What sayst thou to me now? Speak once again.

Soothsayer:      Beware the Ides of March.

Caesar:            He is a dreamer. Let us leave him. Pass. (1.2.15-24).

Though perhaps there is still some need on Caesar’s part to interpret here: he demands to see the Soothsayer’s face, perhaps to read his physiognomy for signs of truth-telling or duplicity. It is interesting too that Caesar’s two (future) main enemies here both interact with the Soothsayer, so that we know Brutus and Cassius become highly aware of this particular day. Perhaps they orchestrate the assassination on the Ides of March precisely because they are prompted by the Soothsayer’s warning.

            The play then establishes an excess of omens for us to read. Directly on the heels of Cassius’ soliloquy in which he is determined to unseat Caesar and uses the language of earthquakes and disorder—“For we will shake him, or worse days endure” (1.2.321)—we are confronted with the loud noises of the thunderstorm. This would have been quite potent in the early modern theater, with metal thunder-sheets to sonically convey the sense of a natural world experiencing “worse days.” The storm is violent and the tail-end of a host of other wonderous events that Caska describes so vividly. But his description points again to Caesar himself, and his language is full of reference to the consul. I want us to look at this scene carefully, because it points us back to the beginning of our discussion, in which Caska, and later Cassius, so clearly mold nature to fit their own purposes.

Cicero:            Good even, Caska. Brought you Caesar home?

                        Why are you breathless, and why stare you so?

Caska:              Are you not moved, when all the sway of earth

                        Shakes like a thing unfirm? O Cicero,

                        I have seen tempests when the scolding winds

                        Have rived the knotty oaks, and I have seen

                        Th’ambitious ocean swell, and rage, and foam,

                        To be exalted with the threatening clouds:

                        But never till tonight, never thill now,

                        Did I go through a tempest dropping fire.

                        Either there is a civil strife in heaven,

                        Or else the world, too saucy with the gods,

                        Incenses them to send destruction.

Cicero:            Why, saw you anything more wonderful?

Caska:              A common slave—you know him well by sight—

                        Held up his left hand, which did flame and burn

                        Like twenty torches joined: and yet his hand,

                        Not sensible of fire, remained unscorched.

                        Besides—I ha’not since put up my sword—

                        Against the Capitol I met a lion

                        Who glazed upon me and went surly by

                        Without annoying me. And there were drawn

                        Upon a heap a hundred ghastly women

                        Transformed with their fear, who swore they saw

                        Men, all in fire, walk up and down the streets.

                        And yesterday the bird of night did sit

                        Even at noonday upon the market-place

                        Hooting and shrieking. When these prodigies

                        Do so conjointly meet, let not men say,

                        ‘These are their reasons, they are natural’:

                        For I believe they are portentous things

                        Unto the climate that they point upon.

Cicero:            Indeed it is a strange-disposed time.

                        But men may construe things after their fashion

                        Clean from the purpose of the things themselves.

                        Comes Caesar to the Capitol tomorrow?

Caska:              He doth, for he did bid Antonio

                        Send word to you he would be there tomorrow.

Cicero:            Good night then, Caska: this disturbed sky

                        Is not to walk in.

Caska:              Farewell, Cicero.                     [Exit Cicero.]

 

[Enter Cassius.]

Cassius:           Who’s there?

Caska:              A Roman.

Cassius:           Caska, by your voice.

Cassius goes on to make the comparison explicit, as though he needs to convince Caska as well of the need for this dangerous enterprise. But we’ve already seen that Caska is shrewd and reads the storm emblematically. In conspiratorial mode, Cassius enjoys maintaining the air of secrecy surrounding the project while nonetheless quite clearly indicating what he means. For our purposes, however, what is most compelling in the following exchange is how Cassius marshals the effects of the storm to prove his uprightness and the heavens’ supposed support of his plan. Ironically, the unruly heavens are also likened to Caesar, and thus the storm is at once both a symbol of Caesar’s “monstrous” effects on Rome and a push for the conspirators to address/right this wrong through the consul’s assassination. We see Caesar debate the omens with Calphurnia in the next scene, in which we hear even more of the portents and also Calphurnia’s dream. Before we look at the dream, I want us to examine this exchange closely:

Caesar:            What can be avoided

                        Whose end is purposed by the mighty gods?

                        Yet Caesar shall go forth, for these predictions

                        Are to the world in general as to Caesar.

Calphurnia:     When beggars die there are no comets seen;

                        The heavens themselves blaze forth the death of princes.

Caesar:            Cowards die many times before their deaths;

                        The valiant never taste of death but once.

                        Of all the wonders that I yet have heard,

                        It seems to me most strange that men should fear,

                        Seeing that death, a necessary end,

                        Will come when it will come. (2.2.26-37).

For all of his bravura, Caesar attempts to interpret these omens after his own fashion, to make them in this one case “general” rather than specific. Calphurnia, however, insists upon Caesar’s singularity, which comes across quite forcibly in her dream. Caesar relates the dream to Decius, who has come to fetch him to the Senate:

            She dreamt tonight she saw my statue,

            Which, like a fountain with an hundred spouts,

            Did run pure blood; and many lusty Romans

            Came smiling and did bathe their hands in it.

            And these she does apply for warnings and portents

            And evils imminent, and on her knee

            Hath begged that I will stay at home today.

Decius, however, interprets the dream after HIS own fashion:

            This dream is all amiss interpreted.

            It was a vision, fair and fortunate.

            Your statue spouting blood in many pipes

            In which so many smiling Romans bathed

            Signifies that from you great Rome shall suck

            Reviving blood, and that great men shall press

            For tinctures, stains, relics and cognizance.

            This by Calphurnia’s dream is signified. (2.2.76-90).

Notable in Decius’ interpretation is the swapping of gender, in which Caesar will be the breast-feeding mother to the Romans, albeit nonetheless pouring forth blood instead of milk. And there is no hint in Decius’ interpretation that Caesar would be a living body in this image—others will press forward to snatch a relic (thought to have magical and spiritual powers) from this statue/body. This is exactly what Antony will play upon to the Roman crowd, suggesting that they will desire a handkerchief dipped in Caesar’s blood for their own reliquaries. The suggestions of Caesar as savior, or as alchemical tincture, are much more ominous, but Caesar has been flattered.

Elizabethan audiences would have been familiar with the many prodigies that occurred the night before Caesar’s assassination. Shakespeare returns to these events in Hamlet, in which Horatio, having encountered the Ghost of Hamlet, uses history to attempt to interpret his current moment:

In the most high and palmy state of Rome,
A little ere the mightiest Julius fell,
The graves stood tenantless and the sheeted dead
Did squeak and gibber in the Roman streets:
As stars with trains of fire and dews of blood,
Disasters in the sun; and the moist star
Upon whose influence Neptune's empire stands
Was sick almost to doomsday with eclipse:
And even the like precurse of fierce events,
As harbingers preceding still the fates
And prologue to the omen coming on,
Have heaven and earth together demonstrated
Unto our climatures and countrymen.--

This is an environment, then, that requires interpretation and is used interpretatively in the future for other political and social events of significance. And if Caesar figures himself as a god, he should certainly read these omens as reflecting upon no other body but himself. Of course, his ambition for a crown gets the better of these doubts, and overcome his wariness. We learn nonetheless that Caesar himself is normally given to heeding the signs and tokens of the heavens:

            But it is doubtful yet

            Whether Caesar will come forth this day or no,

            For he is superstitious grown of late,

            Quite from the main opinion he held once

            Of fantasy, of dreams and ceremonies.

            It may be these apparent prodigies,

            The unaccustomed terror of this night

            And the persuasion of his augurers,

            May hold him from the Capitol today. (2.1.192-200).

These obvious signs should, that is, make Caesar particularly cautious, for he finds more need to interpret the environment and others for what they might foretell of the future. Perhaps Cassius is insulting Caesar here, but he too has interpreted the storm and the prodigies.

We might also consider the assertations that the stars and the environment do not hold sway over the course of individual bodies and political dynasties. One of the most famous lines in this play is precisely about withstanding or rejecting the influence of the heavens: “The fault, dear Brutus, is not in our stars / But in ourselves, that we are underlings” (1.2.139-140).

The Assassination

Now we arrive at Caesar’s death. The scene is frenetic and really the climax to the play. Normally Shakespearean tragedy ends with the death of the titular character, but here Caesar’s death is right in the middle of the action.

            We are going to stage this in class. I have handouts with the beginning of Act 3, Scene 1 for everyone, and folks will adopt different parts. Part of the goal of this performance is to highlight the tension moments before Caesar’s death and yet how quickly it occurs.

[SEE HANDOUT]

Of course, the conspirators make several mistakes. For one, they do not include Cicero in their ploy, a known enemy to Caesar and a very much revered senator in Rome. Cicero’s name would have been deeply familiar to early modern audiences, particularly those who had studies Ciceronian rhetoric in grammar school. Notably, this is Brutus’ mistake, and he will be responsible for the second one as well, namely, leaving Mark Antony alive and allowing him to speak second at Caesar’s funeral. Cassius reads Antony correctly as “A shrewd contriver” (2.1.157), but Brutus’ emphasis on reason and on doing things justly requires that no one save Caesar die. This discussion shows the fractures already visible among the conspirators, for the differences between Brutus and Cassius become apparent in this early scene. “Let’s be sacrificers but not butchers, Caius” (2.1.165) Brutus urges, inadvertently furthering the image of Caesar as Christ-like sacrificial victim. Indeed, Brutus actually wishes to kill the deity of Caesar rather than the man himself:

            We all stand up against the spirit of Caesar,

            And in the spirit of men there is no blood.

            O that we then could come by Caesar’s spirit

            And not dismember Caesar! But, alas,

            Caesar must bleed for it. And, gentle friends,

            Let’s kill him boldly, but not wrathfully:

            Let’s carve him as a dish fit for the gods,

            Not hew him as a carcass fit for hounds. (2.1.166-173).

In desiring to snuff the symbols or spirits of Caesar, Brutus wishes to quell the image of the man as “immortal” or as a god. He wishes Caesar to be a fitting sacrifice to the gods, but the very act of sacrifice makes Caesar one instead.

[HANDOUT]

Act 3, Scene One

Flourish. Enter Caesar, Brutus, Cassius, Caska, Decius, Metellus, Trebonius, Cinna, Antony, Lepidus, Artemidorus, Publius, Popilius Lena, and the Soothsayer.

 

Caesar:            The Ides of March are come.

Soothsayer:      Ay, Caesar, but not gone.

Artemidorus:   Hail, Caesar. Read this schedule.

Decius:            Trebonius doth desire you to o’er-read

                        At your best leisure this his humble suit.

Artemidorus:   O Caesar, read mine first, for mine’s a suit

                        That touches Caesar nearer. Read it, great Caesar.

Caesar:            What touches us ourself shall be last served.

Artemidorus:   Delay no, Caesar, read it instantly!

Caesar:            What, is the fellow mad?

Publius:           Sirrah, give place.

Cassius:           What, urge you your petitions in the street?   

                        Come to the Capitol.

                        [Caesar and his followers move upstage.]

Popilius:          I wish your enterprise today may thrive.

Cassius:           What enterprise, Popilius?

Popilius:          Fare you well.

Brutus:            What said Popilius Lena?

Cassius:           He wished today our enterprise might thrive.

                        I fear our purpose is discovered.

Brutus:            Look how he makes to Caesar. Mark him.

Cassius:           Caska, be sudden, for we fear prevention.

                        Brutus, what shall be done? If this be known,

                        Cassius or Caesar never shall turn back,

                        For I will slay myself.

Brutus:            Cassius, be constant.

                        Popilius Lena speaks not of our purposes,

                        For look, he smiles, and Caesar doth not change.

Cassius:           Trebonius knows his time: for look you, Brutus,

                        He draws Mark Antony out of the way.

                                                [Exeunt Antony and Trebonius.]

Decius:            Where is Metellus Cimber? Let him go

                        And presently prefer his suit to Caesar.

Brutus:            He is addressed. Press near and second him.

Cinna:             Caska, you are the first that rears your hand.

Caesar:            Are we all ready? What is now amiss

                        That Caesar and his Senate must redress?

Metellus:          Most high, most mighty and most puissant Caesar,

                        Metellus Cimber throws before thy seat

                        An humble heart—

Caesar:            I must prevent thee, Cimber:

                        These couchings and these lowly courtesies

                        Might fire the blood of ordinary men,

                        And turn pre-ordinance and first decree

                        Into the lane of children. Be not fond

                        To think that Caesar bears such rebel blood

                        That will be thawed from the true quality

                        With that which melteth fools—I mean sweet words,

                        Low-crooked curtsies and base spaniel fawning.

                        Thy brother by decree is banished.

                        If thou dost bend and pray and fawn for him

                        I spurn thee like a cur out of my way.

                        Know, Caesar doth not wrong, nor without cause

                        Will he be satisfied.

Metellus:          Is there no voice more worthy than my own

                        To sound more sweetly in great Caesar’s ear

                        For the repealing of my banished brother?

Brutus:            I kiss thy hand, but not in flattery, Caesar,

                        Desiring thee that Publius Cimber may

                        Have an immediate freedom of repeal.

Caesar:            What, Brutus?

Cassius:           Pardon, Caesar: Caesar, pardon.

                        As low as to thy foot doth Cassius fall

                        To beg enfranchisement for Publius Cimber.

Caesar:            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

                        These is no fellow in the firmament.

                        The skies are painted with unnumbered sparks:

                        They are all fire, and every one doth shine;

                        But there’s but one in all doth hold his place.

                        So in the world: ’tis furnished well with men,

                        And men are flesh and blood, and apprehensive.

                        Yet in the number I do know but one

                        That unassailable holds on his rank

                        Unshaked of motion. And that I am he

                        Let me a little show it even in this,

                        That I was constant Cimber should be banished

                        And constant do remain to keep him so.

Cinna:             O Caesar—

Caesar:            Hence! Wilt thou lift up Olympus?

Deius:              Great Caesar—

Caesar:            Doth not Brutus bootless kneel?

Caska:              Speak hands for me!                They stab Caesar.

Caesar:            Et tu, Brute?—Then fall, Caesar.           Dies. (3.1.1-77)

 

Shakespeare’s source, Plutarch, presents a much more gruesome scene. It’s worthwhile to compare this scene to Plutarch’s version:

 

So the affair began, and those who were not privy to the plot were filled with consternation and horror at what was going on; they dared not fly, nor go to Caesar's help, nay, nor even utter a word. 10 But those who had prepared themselves for the murder bared each of them his dagger, and Caesar, hemmed in on all sides, whichever way he turned confronting blows of weapons aimed at his face and eyes, driven hither and thither like a wild beast, was entangled in the hands of all; 11 for all had to take part in the sacrifice and taste of the slaughter. Therefore Brutus also gave him one blow in the groin. 12 And it is said by some writers that although Caesar defended himself against the rest and darted this way and that and cried aloud, when he saw that Brutus had drawn his dagger, he pulled his toga down over his head and sank, either by chance or because pushed there by his murderers, against the pedestal on which the statue of Pompey stood. 13 And the pedestal was drenched with his blood, so that one might have thought that Pompey himself was presiding over this vengeance upon his enemy, who now lay prostrate at his feet, quivering from a multitude of wounds. 14 For it is said that he received twenty-three; and many of the conspirators were wounded by one another, as they struggled to plant all those blows in one body. (http://penelope.uchicago.edu/Thayer/E/Roman/Texts/Plutarch/Lives/Caesar*.html#ref1).

 

What do you notice about the differences between the two versions?

© 2020 by Dr. Katherine Walker

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