There is something to be said for close, careful reading.
I must have read Shakespeare’s Julius Caesar with the rest of my tenth grade class, but I honestly didn’t remember any of it. I decided to read it this month as a part of the Martel-Harper Challenge, for which Yann Martel chooses “book[s] that ha[ve] been known to expand stillness.”
Reading Julius Caesar just once didn’t do anything to help “expand stillness.” I was confused: it started in the middle of a dramatic scene. I didn’t know who the characters were and why they were making the choices they made. Why did Caesar consider Brutus a friend? Why was Brutus called “honorable” when he was committing murder? What is “honor”? Did any of this really happen?
But as I spent a few days rereading portions of Julius Caesar, listening to the audiobook, watching the movie, and reading various commentaries about the play, I was enlightened. I think it did encourage “stillness” because I wasn’t just reading to turn pages; I was reading to learn and experience. I seriously loved the experience of truly reading Shakespeare, even by myself.
Note that this post contains “spoilers.”
Helps to Reading Shakespeare
Two things really helped me get into this play. First, I read some commentary; my copy, a Signet Classics edition published in the 1950s, had some essays at the end of it and I found some others. My edition also had some interesting “original source” material to help me understand where Shakespeare got his ideas: Plutarch’s “Life of Julius Caesar.” I was therefore able to get a general grasp of the history of the scenario. The commentary also showed me that literature is interpreted in different ways depending on the era: the essayists referred to Julius Caesar as “Big Brother” and “Kruschev.” Thus, Shakespeare’s play is seen through the eyes of the cold war!
When the play starts, the commoners are rejoicing at Caesar’s triumphant return. Some of the tribunes, however, are not happy. From reading the notes and commentary, I got the impression that this was because Caesar was, to some extent, a sort of dictator in the republic of Rome; those politically aware saw Caesar as a downfall to freedom. Upon rereading, I found that these concepts are detailed in the conversations among the actors. Understanding the basic historical context (what the audience in 1600s England would have known) certainly helped my overall understanding.
Secondly, after reading through the commentaries, I listened to the audiobook in full. Both really helped me get a sense of the language. I love it! I could hear the rhythm of each line, and I loved hearing the lines “acted.” I also watched the 1953 movie (Marlon Brando as Marc Antony); I didn’t like the movie as much because they changed the order of some of the scene and I didn’t think the characters always presented their lines as I would have thought. I guess that’s just personal interpretation, though.
The Themes of Julius Caesar
I am not a Shakespearean scholar; I am just a reader. But upon my study of Julius Caesar in this past week, I loved the overall theme of honor and “heroes.” I’m sure there are many ways of reading this play; these are just some thoughts on one theme.
I found that most of the characters were despicable. They were politicians with a certain level of power and they took advantage of the masses.
Who, then, is the hero of the tragedy of Julius Caesar?
Julius Caesar, the title character, was certainly not a hero. From his first appearance, he appeared power hungry.
“Yond Cassius has a lean and hungry look;” he said to Antony. “He thinks too much: such men are dangerous.” (I.ii.194-195). Caesar did not want smart, independent thinkers in his government. He was powerful, and he knew it. In Act I, scene 2, those men that had bitterly taken down the decorations of Caesar in Act I, scene 1, have been banished (lines 285-286). Caesar is intent on limiting the freedoms of those who disagree with him. I can see, from the evidences in the play, how Caesar was a totalitarian leader.
Beyond that, Caesar was a conceited leader. He was constantly speaking of himself in the third person: “Caesar shall go forth.” (II.ii.28). When a soothsayer and then yet another man warn Caesar of his impending destruction, Caesar ignores is, even when the message says, “If thou beest not immortal, look about you” (II.ii.6-7). But Caesar also says directly that he is perfect: “Know, Caesar doth no wrong…/ But I am constant as the Northern Star” (III.i.47, 60). Caesar considers himself somewhat immortal and perfect.
These flaws may have been his downfall, for Caesar made many enemies. Caesar says, “The valiant never taste of death but once” (II.ii.33), and yet he was stabbed dozens of times. He tastes death many times as he watches his friends fatally betray him. Caesar was no hero.
In act III, scene 1, shortly after Caesar has been murdered, Caesar’s former right-hand man Marc Antony sends a servant to beg audience of Brutus and the other conspirators. When he arrives, he shakes the hand of each conspirator to show his friendship. Had Antony truly been a friend to Caesar?
After the conspirators leave the scene, we hear Antony’s thoughts and realize his actions before had been an act. “Thou art the ruins of the noblest man / that ever lived …” (III.i. 256-257), he says over Caesar’s body. He truly did love Caesar and served him. But just as Cassius was acting out of his personal injuries, Antony’s subsequent words show that he is acting in order to gain revenge on the conspirators. Shortly after his touching words about Caesar’s greatness, he speaks of war and bloodshed, including “infants quarter’d” (II.i.268). He wants revenge, but doesn’t care about the cost.
He gives an impassioned speech to the Romans in the forum in a speech that many remember: “Friends, Romans, countrymen, lend me your ears!” (III.ii.75). In this speech, he claims that he and Caesar both loved the Roman people, and Caesar has even bequeathed a legacy to all Romans. He is convincing in his dedication to the Romans.
And yet, a subsequent scene, a private one, shows the true character of Marc Antony: “These many shall die; their names are pricked “(IV.i.1), he says, condemning senators to death. A few lines later, he asked the other leaders of the Triumvirate to “Fetch the will hither, and we shall determine/ How to cut off some charge in legacies.” (IV. i.8-9). Thus we see that Antony is not a noble, honorable man: he is a political cheater, who, once in power, will do what he can to assassinate the leaders of the republic and protect the financial interests of the dictatorship. Marc Antony is no hero.
Of all the conspirators, Cassius is the most evil and the most clearly a politician out for revenge. From the beginning, Cassius speaks of Caesar with derision (“immortal Caesar” [I.ii.60] he says with sarcasm). He is annoyed that Caesar is considered “a god” and when he speaks of seeing Caesar ill (“this god did shake” [I.ii.121]), it is said in bitterness. In act I, scene 2, Cassius says in an aside that he wants to seduce Brutus in to thinking the same things so something can be done (lines 308-312). It’s all a personal rivalry, and Cassius feels he has enough power to take his revenge. He says: “Cassius from bondage will deliver Cassius” (I.iii.90). He continues:
And why should Caesar be a tyrant then?…
… What trash is Rome,
what rubbish and what offal, when it serves
For the base matter to illuminate
So vile a thing as Caesar. (I.iii.103, 108-111)
In some respects, when one thinks of Julius Caesar as a totalitarian leader, Cassius’s concepts of revenging himself on this wicked leader might make sense. Yet, Cassius fails to ever speak of “honor” or the people of Rome. He is acting for himself. Even in the midst of battle, his friend Brutus refers to him as a “hot friend” (IV.ii.19), and it is clear that Cassius is greedy for gold, not for fighting a war (IV.iii.10). Caesar is dead, and so Cassius’s dedication to Brutus’s cause has wavered.
When Cassius prepares for suicide, he knows he is a loser, and, as he said in act I, he will free himself from bondage. As he dies, he says is “Caesar, thou art revenged,/ Even with the sword that kill’d thee.” (V.iii.46-47). Even as he dies, his words are about revenge. Cassius is no hero.
Marcus Brutus is a conspirator to Caesar’s death, and yet from the beginning, he admits conflicting emotions (I.ii.39-40, 46). His conflict is between the fact that he loves Caesar, and yet does not want him to be a king (I.ii.83-84). He worries, “The abuse of greatness is when it disjoins / Remorse from power” (II.i.18-19), and he does not know which direction Caesar’s leadership will go: good or bad.
When Cassius spurns Brutus to consider murdering Caesar, Brutus ultimately agrees, but with this thought: “for my part,/ I know no personal cause to spurn at him/ But for the general” (II.i.10-12). Unlike Cassius and the other conspirators, therefore, Brutus wants to act for the welfare of the people, not for his own grudges. He makes a promise to Rome (II.i.56), and later tells the public the reasons that he killed Caesar: “not that I loved Caesar less, but that I loved Rome more” (III.ii.21). He logically warns the public that under Caesar they would have been bondsmen to a dictator.
He also thinks highly of the other conspirators. When he urges the other conspirators to refrain from hurting Antony or any others of the leadership, he says that “Our course will seem too bloody/ …/ We will all stand up against the spirit of Caesar” (II.i.163, 168). For Brutus, then, killing Caesar is about killing tyranny, and not about killing an individual: Brutus suggests that killing Caesar is as a sacrifice for a right cause (much as the priests would have done) and not murder as hunters would do (II.i.173-174). He later asks Cassius: “what villain touched his body, that did stab, / And not for justice” (IV.iii.20-21). Brutus is thus tragically blind to the personal vendetta so many of the conspirators had against Caesar; for the others, murdering Caesar was for revenge, not necessarily “justice” or the people of Rome.
In the end, it is clear that Brutus thought he was being honorable in saving Rome from tyranny. Cassius at one point tells Brutus, “The fault, dear Brutus, is not in our stars/ but in ourselves that we are underlings” (I.ii.140-141). And early in the play, Brutus claims “I love/ the name of honor more than I fear death” (I.ii.89). Brutus takes these two concepts upon himself in the end when it becomes clear to him that the conspirator’s murder was not honorable, and they are losing the war. At such a moment, despite his own original reasoning, he brings his own death, still speaking of worthiness and honor. He says:
Our enemies have beat us to the pit.
It is more worthy to leap in ourselves
Than tarry till they push us. (V.v.23-25)
As he dies, he claims he does so with all his will: “Caesar, now be still; / I killed not thee with half so good a will.” (V.v.50-51).
In the beginning, he’d convinced himself that honor came with Caesar’s murder. In the end, then, he is sure he lacks honor. And yet, he kills himself with a sure determination that he is still being honorable.
Was Brutus, then, a hero? He thought he was honorable at every stage, and he sought to serve only Rome. But he was ultimately tragic because murdering a popular, loved leader was not honorable.
To me, Brutus’s intentions made him honorable. Out of all the characters, his was the most likable because he wasn’t acting simply for himself. I wanted Brutus to be able to succeed.
I think part of his downfall was choosing to join with others who lacked honor in every sense of the word. While he acted for Rome, they did not. Therefore, the cause was hopeless from the beginning. In a sense, his tragedy was having the wrong friends. Honorable Brutus’s fall was then the true tragedy.
I think Brutus was a tragic hero, or, as Antony says, “This was a man” (V.v.75). For don’t we all, as humans, face tragedy in our lives, despite our best intentions?
What do you think makes someone a hero? What does “honorable’ mean to you?
What are your thoughts about Julius Caesar? Did you find anyone “honorable”?
Read for the Martel-Harper Challenge and for the BiblioShakespeare Challenge.
Rebecca — This is a really terrific, thoughtful essay on revisiting a classic. Thank you for taking the time and effort to write this.
Like you, I read the play in 10th grade. Unlike you, I haven’t given it much of a thought since then. 🙂 I’ll add that the HBO series Rome does an incredible job with the story and definitely makes Brutus a compelling “tragic hero.”
I am really taken with your project of immersing yourself in a Shakespeare play. You might inspire the same experiment at my house.
I’m new to your blog, but after scanning about 10 pages of it, I have to say – I really love your take on books! I love reading other people’s take on the ones I have read myself and of course, I always love adding yet another book the TBR pile.
I personally could never warm up to ‘Julius Caesar’ – but I like your take on it. And I can only agree with the help you gave – reading the commentaries that most of the Shakespeare editions have these days helps a lot! Especially for Literature students like me – it’s a quick and easy way to look things up.
Anyway, carry on with the reviews, I’ll be finding it in my RSS reader!
Rose City Reader, thank you very much! I too haven’t given much thought to Julius Caesar. Embarassingly enough, although I was an English major, I’ve only read a half dozen of Shakespeare’s plays, so I’ve determined to read them all. Might as well do it properly! (hence the essay).
Susi, thanks for you kind words and welcome to my site! I wasn’t sure I could warm up to the play. But then I started feeling bad for Brutus. I’m not sure I’m suppose to like him, but he certainly was trying to do right.
Wow, this review takes me back to my college days. I haven’t read Julius Caesar in years. While this play was not one of my favorites of Shakespeare, I do like the multiple layers of the play. I agree with you that Brutus is the tragic “hero” in this play, because he puts his countries needs before his own. However, his actions haunt him through the rest of the play. So, like all Shakespeare tragedies, there isn’t a clear winner or loser.
I agree with your definition of honor: putting someone else’s needs before your own and Brutus definitely fit the bill.
Tracie, well, I was kind of feeling like I should take myself back to the days of real criticism: I don’t know if this is that, but it sure was fun.
Yes, no clear winner or loser. Being “heroic” just brought about his fall. I’m not sure this was my favorite either. I’m looking forward to reading the others!
Rebecca, I love your thoughtful and insightful review of Julius Caesar, thank you for spending so much time with it on our behalf! I am a huge Shakespeare fan, although Julius Caesar has never been one of my particular favorites. Your in depth analysis of who the true hero of the story was really made me pause and re-think what I know of the play. I’m inspired to read it again!
Right now the “Rediscovering the Classics” class I teach is reading Hamlet, and it has been very interesting to hear everyone’s views on the play. I’ve been watching the Kenneth Branagh, uncut, movie version as I read, and it really brings it home again that Shakespeare is meant to be seen, as well as read. As always, it was a pleasure to read your review!
Jenni, I’d like to be a “huge Shakespeare fan” but I need to read more first! I didn’t love the story, but immersing myself in it really did help me enjoy the experience more. I look forward to immersing myself in Hamlet too ….. ah, so many works to read before I die.
Wow. Amazing post! I’ve always found Shakespeare more than a little confusing but I bet your method would help it make a lot more sense.
Ladytink, to be honest: so do I. Shakespeare is meant to be read slowly, I’ve decided. Harry Potter is not preparation for Julius Caesar. One must read Julius Caesar in a completely different way: slowly and carefully. I love both ways of reading, in the end!
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OH!!!!! I HAVE TO PLAY THE ROLE OF MARC ANTONY IN MY CLASS……….PRAY FOR ME!!!!!!!!!!!!!
Great information 🙂