March Madness

Julius Caesar, Act I: Scenes 1-3

I’m a little bummed I missed the ides of March by only two days.  How appropriate a starting place for the play that would have been!  I thought I was soooo clever reading 12th Night on the… wait for it… 12th night.  Then I whiff on the ides when reading Julius Caesar.  That’s like reading Ulysses a day after Bloomsday.

For those of you not familiar with the play (and I wasn’t until today, so don’t feel bad), the ides of March falls on the 15th.  I could tell you why this seeming bit of calendar trivia matters to history, but I’ll spare you the spoiler and say that Julius Caesar is warned by a soothsayer to beware of that day.

I’m in a bit of a quandary here on Julius, and not for the first time since starting this blog.  I suppose it will come up whenever I’m reading one of the legendary historical plays, especially one as pivotal as this.

I’ve already mentioned the St. John’s approach I’m taking to the readings: admit no secondary sources, just stick to the text in front of you, damn it!  (St. John’s avoids the expletive because decorum counts, but it is most definitely implied).  While that tact works admirably with a play like Coriolanus, in which Shakespeare takes great liberties with events handed down to him that we don’t much remember, it doesn’t turn out so well with a work like Julius Caesar for which a crib sheet is all but mandatory.

I suppose you can watch a movie about JFK without knowing much about the Kennedys or America in the 1960s and judge it on its own merits.  But even then, the filmmakers will likely include a gratuitous backstory or obvious exposition for the benefit of the educationally challenged who might not be aware of the underlying historical events.  Shakespeare, however, brooks no casual drop-in (or drop-out) viewers who wander in from a screening of Hot Tub Time Machine.

My favorite high school English teacher, Mr. DuPratt (capital P) would love the late-inning payoff of my catching Shakespeare’s en medias res opener only after repeated lectures on the merits of his own writing hero, Ambrose Bierce.  Somewhere he’s exalting that yes, I did indeed get the message and still remember some 25 years later.  But the point here, as far as Julius Caesar goes, is that Shakespeare grabs you by the lapels from the first line and tosses you immediately into the fray.  There is no crib sheet here.  No longwinded recap of the preceding business that got us up to this point.  He must have assumed that anybody going to a play called Julius Caesar would have had the necessary education to understand what’s going on.  That can’t be said today — not by a long shot.

And so… do I abandon the St. John’s method and consult Sir Isaac?  Do I google and wiki and Encarta to fill in my own chasms of ignorance?  Or do I just wing it and make my usual hash of greatness?

In this case, I opt for a little recon.  There’s simply waaaaaaay too much going on in the play to keep up with.  Wait — check that.  I actually could follow along quite well with only the Shakespeare.  I just couldn’t remember certain pesky details like, why are they so mad at Mr. Caesar again?

After all, the play doesn’t start like a thousand so-so movies that opt for the wicked crime-in-progress teaser at the start.  We don’t see Julius up to anything dastardly whatsoever except for a bit of stilted grandiosity.  The whole opening act revolves around how unhappy a certain faction is to the Caesar success story.  Scene 1 has the tribunes (again, the tribunes) putting a damper on the crowds who have taken a holiday to celebrate the great Caesar’s triumphs.

Without historical background, we have no idea what the big deal is about the celebration.  It’s neither here nor there except, I believe, to note the following: Caesar is one of the greatest military leaders in history. While not quite Plato’s philosopher-king, he comes about as close as any other man has ever been.  Some might argue the details, but suffice it to say that Caesar’s rise coincides with a period of horrible corruption and abuses in the Senate.  The underlying antagonism rises because Caesar has seized absolute authority (or is on the verge of doing so in the play) to institute a program of sweeping reforms.

The question arising in such situations is inevitably the same: will the avowed reformer disavow his vows once he attains the necessary power? Or will he overcome temptation to continue acting in the long-term benefit of all?

Sadly, the preponderance of evidence supports the idea that absolute power corrupts absolutely.  For every Mikhail Gorbachev who institutes Glasnost in the former Soviet Union, there are hundreds of petty tyrants and dictators who suspend freedoms and smash liberties in order to maintain a stranglehold on their powers.  If one were to argue solely on the historical record, Romans had every good reason to fear the power grab that Julius Caesar instituted.

But the factions rising against him aren’t just any ol’ renegade band of freedom fighters rallying to the cry of liberation.  This isn’t the Founding Fathers taking umbrage against King George, but a small band of political insiders who fear the reform policies, not the power.  The power is just the excuse they’re using to keep business as usual in place.

Brutus is often celebrated as a hero, but he’s not portrayed as one here.  In early scenes, he’s repeatedly being worked on by Cassius, a man whom Caesar himself does not trust.

JULIUS CAESAR: Yon Cassius has a lean and hungry look.  He thinks too much.  Such men are dangerous.

ANTONY: Fear him not, Caesar, he’s not dangerous.  He’s a noble Roman, and well given.

But that’s just Caesar’s problem.  He’s a big hit with the commoners.  It’s the Senators and quibbling elite within his inner circle that he has the most to fear.

It’s the reason Cassius is working so hard to gain Brutus for the rebellion.  Caesar trusts him.  And Brutus can get to him because of that trust.

Far from being a hero, Brutus is just the weasel that Caesar won’t suspect.  And to think: not a shred of evidence exists that Julius Caesar will use any of the power he’s attained for anything but the best interests of Rome.  Nobody, even Cassius, can argue such when making their pitch to overthrow him.

They can only “suspect” that Caesar will not live up to his intentions.  But the reality is, they want to keep the corrupt political trough in place as long as possible.  It’s the very reforms Caesar is proposing that they have to fear the most.

No parallels to American politics here!


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