Mischief, Thou Art Afoot

Julius Caesar, Act III: Scenes 1-3

One of these days, I want to get around to analyzing Shakespeare’s consistent use of five acts rather than the usual three as advocated by no less than Aristotle.

Beginning-Middle-End… that’s how we’re taught to think, those of us who dwell in story on stage or screen.  The idea applies to all stories, though, or any discreet action in space and time.  As Aristotle so succinctly puts it:

  • The beginning is a point that does not necessarily follow from anything else, which naturally has consequences following from it.
  • The end is a point that naturally follows from preceding events but does not have any necessary consequences following it.
  • The middle is a point that is naturally connected both to events before and after it.

And yet Shakespeare chose to divide his plays into five acts instead of three.  I want to know why, other than maybe convention, this became his regular practice and how it affects the Aristotelian parsing.

I hope that doesn’t seem too arcane for anybody stumbling upon this blog.  For most readers of Shakespeare, it might appear overly dry or technical or beside the point to study the architecture undergirding the story; but for those interested as much in the how as the what and the why, perhaps it will prove worthwhile.

This is an odd way of introducing one of the most surprising and powerful acts in all of Shakespeare.  But then — I’ve been out of practice for various reasons that nobody wants to hear.  It will take me awhile to get up to speed again.  Maybe my subconscious mind held off on an amazing launch point the way Hemingway put down his work when it got hottest; that way, he said, he would always be sure he could start back up again.

The third act of Julius Caesar is wicked and shocking, both because of one particular speech by Mark Antony and his reason for doing so.  For it is within this act that Caesar is murdered by the conspirators!  Unlike many of his other plays, Shakespeare does not withhold what would normally be the climax till the end (as in Hamlet, for example).  Instead it happens now, at the midpoint, telling me that what he really wants to drive home is the aftermath (obviously) — but also how shallow and subject to manipulation the masses seem to be.

I thought for sure this assassination would be strung out, that the Ides of March would last until just before the final curtain.  But like the movie Psycho, in which Hitchcock pulls the rug out from the audience conditioned to expect the genre norm, Julius Caesar takes our breath away by Shakespeare’s masterful control of his medium.  I felt my heart catch in my throat as the conspirators prostrate themselves at Caesar’s feet only to storm him and flay him in the Senate.  Shakespeare takes pains to point out that Brutus was the last to strike — the man upon whom history has bestowed the bulk of the blame.

What strikes me particularly hard are Antony’s actions immediately following.  There’s a lull here, a pause, an ellipse filled with tension: will anarchy break loose?  Revenge?  Will the conspirators be treated as liberators or villains?  Will civil war be launched?  Or will the treachery continue?  Or might peace and prosperity be the unlikely result after all?

But it is here, in Act III that Mark Antony becomes an utterly riveting character in Shakespeare’s pantheon.  His actions are deceptive and clever as he has to dance a thin wire to ensure his own survival and see that justice is served.  Therefore he placates Brutus even as he riles the plebeians, so fickle that they shift like a field of wheat in the wind.  One minute, Brutus is their hero and liberator…and the next, it’s off with the conspirators’ heads!

Cassius knows better than to allow Antony the chance to speak at Caesar’s funeral.  But Brutus is too cocksure of himself after being pumped up by all the earlier flattery.  He deigns to a tolerance and good-heartedness that he thinks he’s earned by doing the people a favor they should all be thankful for.  But clearly he hasn’t thought any of this through.  None of the conspirators has, actually.  Without getting too political, the easy metaphor strikes me that many of the conspirators thought they would be greeted as “liberators.”

And that’s what is so funny/striking/profound/notable about this read so far.  When I was in college wrapping up some unfinished undergraduate work at UCLA, I mistakenly took a class that included Shakespeare, only to discover that he is apparently reviled by many contemporary, revisionist scholars.  I listened in shock as the greatest playwright who ever lived got branded as a misogynist and many other horrific things I’d rather not repeat here.

There is an odd combination of elitism and democracy in Shakespeare.  One minute, he’s making Comedy Central crotch jokes and the next, he’s flaying the talk-radio herd for being so absurdly malleable.  It makes me wonder if that’s all just part of the universe that is Shakespeare, or is that part of the authorial mystery we’ll never really know for sure?

Yes, I told you already, I’m well aware what a hash I’ve made of this entry.  But you have to make a start (again) somehow.

Break eggs, I say, and write on.  I’m baaaaaa-aaaaaack.


2 Responses to “Mischief, Thou Art Afoot”

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