Cowards Die Many Times Before Their Deaths

Julius Caesar, Act II: Scenes 1-4

I find it fitting that I’m reading two books on ethics for a project I’m currently writing; both are having a profound effect on the way I view not only Shakespeare and Julius Caesar, but my life in general.

These books are:


This may seem out of context for some who might protest that Shakespeare does not moralize in his plays.  While I would agree regarding Shakespeare the playwright, who is far more the naturalist holding a mirror to nature than a man casting aspersions on any one side, his plays cannot be shorn from morality in a wider sense and still preserve a lasting meaning.

This is not Post-Modernism 101 and I refuse to read the play thus.

Whether we like it or not, the actions swirling about the attempted assassination of Julius Caesar very much play into an ethical dilemma which has raged off and on throughout the ages.  For as long as there are leaders and followers among men and women, there are those who would cast off that yoke while seeking out some sort of justifiable reason for doing so.

In Act II, Brutus feebly attempts to do this as well, making a hash of it as far as I’m concerned, though I realize that for many he is a hero to history, or presumably so within the play.

Personally, I think he’s being punked by the other conspirators, who are ensnaring him to carry out a deed that will benefit them and for which they wish to avoid the dire consequences that will surely follow.  Let Brutus take the heat.  Preserve the status quo.  All that needs to be done is to psyche him up to follow through.

Brutus isn’t sleeping well.  As usual, the genius of Shakespeare renders the man with a greater sweep than the character has of himself.  Somewhere inside him, Brutus knows that what he is doing is absurd.  There are no legitimate grounds for taking another human life under the majority of conditions, but in this case, there is even less.  Brutus can’t point to a single thing that Caesar has ever done wrong — yet.  He can only appeal to the fear among certain cohorts of what he might do later when he’s given absolute power by the Senate.

Preemptive collateral damage — now who would engage in a policy like that?

We could drag out the old ploughhorse about what if you could wipe out Hitler before he had the chance to rise to power.  You could bring up Stalin or myriad other tyrants who helped create the bloodiest century in the history of human kind.  You could twist the argument however many ways you like, but you can’t find a correlation between what they did — or might have done — and the record that Julius Caesar did before he was taken out.

What you get instead are a bunch of weasels who can’t stand greatness rising to commensurate power.  Better to eradicate the elite because outliers always screw up the bell curve.

Who’s to say what Caesar might have done had he wielded absolute power in Rome for longer than a heartbeat.  History does not offer many examples of not only benevolent dictators, but transformational dictators as Julius might have been.

When government gets screwed up, a country runs out of pleasant options in no short order.  We need look no further than America today for a ready example.

How will open and free elections ever be possible when corporate powers can spend as freely as they wish, guaranteed by the Supreme Court?

How will legislation ever be passed to benefit the commonwealth of Americans when lobbyists have seized the ears and seats of Congressmen and women with wheelbarrows full of dollars to fuel the election cycle?

If Obama can’t unglue the sticky corruption and insider profiteering that have rendered our hopes and dreams for a better future among the younger generations all but futile, who the hell will?

Do we have to take the whole system down for it to function again?  Does a man or woman like Caesar have to rise and seize unprecedented individual powers for progress to actually occur?

I hope not.  For the lasting goodness and beauty and truth and wonder of our country, I hope that’s not true.

The rest of Act II is filled with forebodings.  Portent hues that only soothsayers and women give credence to, though they are both correct in predicting an immediate future in which Julius Caesar is not safe.

Do unjust means ever lead to just ends?  Can a case be made when assassinating a world leader has lead to a more peaceful and prosperous country as a result?

I’m sure there are some.  Probably lots more than I’ve ever read or heard or will ever know about.  But that’s why I hate politics.  It attempts to cleave ethics from expediency — to say that Machiavellian rules apply within that sphere which do not apply to others.

The Dalai Lama would say that no such separation exists.

Reading plays like Julius Caesar is hard because you, me and these four walls know that men are more likely to behave like Brutus and the conspirators (that sounds like a rock band) than the Dalai Lama or Aristotle or Plato.

But it’s why we need to read and discuss plays like this all the more.  Why ethics cannot be cleaved from literary discussion.  Why our simple educational categories are too simplistic.  History devoid of literature?  Literature devoid of history?  Philosophy as an extra credit?


Julius Caesar sets fire to phony categories, illuminating the motto that Immanuel Kant inscribed for the Enlightenment: sapere aude — dare to know.

And to write and to act and to dream and to speak and to share in bold, honest, straightforward discussion before it’s too late.


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