Enter the Ghost of Caesar

Julius Caesar, Act IV: Scenes 1-2

I didn’t see this coming.

And to be honest, I’m not buying the plot twist.  It feels too glommed-on, too out of left field, too Deus ex machina — too unlike Shakespeare to throw in an appearance by Caesar’s departed spirit at the end of Act IV to make me take it seriously…yet.

What it does is make a great made-for-TV cliffhanger, a prelude to a string of Bounty paper towel and purple pill commercials that you’ll be wanting to Tivo through if you have the power.  But I’ll have to backtrack a bit if this is to make any sense.

Act IV is on the short side, comprising only two scenes in the steady march for payback after the conspirators murdered Caesar on the Senate floor in Act III.  I think Shakespeare intuitively recognized that he had a problem on his hands once his leading character left the stage… for Brutus and his colleagues are not compelling enough to hold our interest once their nefarious deed is done.

The issue of Antony as successor — or rather the shaky triumvirate of Antony, Octavius and Lepidus, who clearly plays the third wheel in the trio –will be taken up in the sequel.  While Antony certainly proved himself more than riveting in the way he turned the rabble back on the conspirators in the previous act, the jury’s still out once the dust has settled.

In fact, therein lies the story problem for Shakespeare, and perhaps the ultimate reason why he resorted to the ghost fallback maneuver to spice things up a bit.

Not that the story really needs it, honestly.  For the two scenes in this act are broken up (roughly) as follows:

SCENE ONE: Knowing he has Brutus and Cassius on the run, Antony attempts to consolidate the counter-rebellion by formally joining forces with the younger Octavius.  Together they will surely kick some ass [not to be confused with Kick-Ass], exact what revenge still needs exacting, and restore what order can be glued back again.

I am struck, however — I must have read the lines about twenty times, disbelieving the words that come out of Antony’s mouth — when Antony tells Lepidus to go to Caesar’s house to fetch the will so they can amend it for their personal gain.  Am I reading this right?  Is that really what he’s saying? Does this mean that Antony opposes the generosity Caesar showed the plebes in his dying wishes?  Or is it personal greed he’s showing here — what am I missing????

I was sorely tempted to turn to outside sources to make sense of this but refrained.  I’d like to think that this is just the sort of character spicing that makes Shakespeare Shakespeare.  Antony is not some cowboy riding in on his white horse.

SCENE TWO: This turns out to be one of the more intriguing scenes of the entire play.  In it, Brutus and Cassius are at odds with one another, their rebellion fraying into chaos and confusion.  It’s just the sort of situation you would expect after a strong, consolidating leader like Caesar has been rubbed out.

Throughout their dialogue, Brutus and Cassius dance a fine line between pissing contest and appeasement for the good of whatever it is they were trying to usher in with the assassination.  But as I believe I mentioned earlier, the impression they give me is that they didn’t think this thing through properly — not quite.

Here we find Brutus feebly attempting to rule in Caesar’s glaringabsence with a naive moral authority he can’t vindicate based on his own waffling actions.  So when he tries to nail Cassius for corruption — taking bribes, in fact — Cassius seems to have every right in calling him on the bluff.

Just what the hell does Brutus think he’s doing?  If Brutus’s actions seem strange, the stress he is working under goes a long way toward explaining his behavior.  He confesses as much to Cassius, relaying the news that his wife Portia is dead.  It all seems deeply metaphysical to me… karma being the bitch that it is.

Cassius carries himself like a man with an albatross around his own neck.  Of all the conspirators, he has seemed from the beginning to be the most clearheaded (if not outright nefarious) character to me.  And now he’s got Brutus riding his ass on some weird moral high high ground when their attentions really need to be directed at Antony and Octavius if they are to have any chance at staying alive.  Which they don’t.  At least not much.  And then, on top of all this, the ghost of Caesar comes strolling in…

I don’t know what ultimate purpose the ghost’s appearance serves, what it adds that we don’t have going already.  Time has become muddled.  Why the frenzied mob didn’t take Brutus and Cassius out in the act prior is a mystery.

But then I suppose that wouldn’t be the tale that Shakespeare wanted to tell.  While it was fine to lynch a few of the buddy characters, he wanted something else for the core bad guys.  I guess I won’t really know how (or if)  this will pay off till the climax.

As noted above, he trouble with these sorts of stories is that a lot of the air goes out when your compelling protagonist leaves the stage early.  Even Shakespeare has to dig deep to keep the audience from making a 7th-inning getaway to beat the rush on the 405.

Maybe — just maybe —  that’s the real reason why he found it necessary to bring Caesar back… even (especially?) in the form of a ghost.

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