Archive for the Julius Caesar Category

Caesar, Thou Art Revenged

Posted in Julius Caesar on 2010/04/20 by Mattermind

Julius Caesar, Act V: Scenes 1-5

The finale was not so much a question of what but how.  How would Brutus meet his end?  And would Cassius die along with him?  How might revenge be exacted?  Would Caesar’s ghost play a part?

As we left the story in Act IV, Cassius and Brutus were riding out to meet Antony and Octavius on the field of battle.  Caesar’s ghost had appeared before Brutus — surely not a good sign for him.

In the first scene of Act V, Antony seems surprised that his opponents are willing to face him out in the open.  He and Octavius have an odd quarrel about how to proceed in light of this news; a small detail, perhaps, but telling.

Once Caesar’s central authority is gone, neither side has the benefit of undivided leadership.  Octavius may be much younger than Antony, but he does not back down from stating his opinion or asserting what little authority he has.  This might be seen as foreshadowing the treacherous road ahead for Rome.

Brutus and Cassius meet up with Antony and Octavius at the 50-yard line for the opening coin toss.  It’s clear that whatever issues Antony and Octavius have pale in comparison to the dissension brewing between the conspirators.  When Antony calls them flatterers, Cassius mocks Brutus by saying they wouldn’t be thought of this way had he ruled instead.  It seems all but a foregone conclusion that the wheels are about to come off the cart.

Cassius then reveals to an aid that today is his birthday, and that he’s not enthusiastic about his side’s decision to put all their eggs into one basket.  He confirms his defeatism in a discussion with Brutus in which he says, “If we do lose this battle, then is this the very last time we shall speak together.”  Not exactly leading with confidence.

I ought to be prepared, then, when Cassius commits suicide — not by his own hand, mind, but by asking Pindarus to do the deed for him by stabbing him with a sword that was used to slay Caesar.  This indirect and ignoble death is fitting, as is the norm in most of Shakespeare.  Especially so, in light of how Cassius bases his decision on misinformation from Pindarus, a false report of Titinius’ capture.

It turns out that, in fact, while Cassius’s men had been surrounded and lost the first engagement with Antony, Brutus likewise triumphed over Octavius and the battle brought back to even.  Or it might have been, had Cassius not lost his nerve.

With Cassius gone, it isn’t long before Brutus fails in an attempt to rally the troops, likewise ending his own life by committing suicide by sword.  It’s all rather gruesome and much less than heroic, but just as you might expect based on the morality of the preceding actions.  For while the conspirators considered themselves heroes, they died as cowards… leaving Rome in shambles while doing so.

I find the final discourse between Antony and Octavius disturbing, however.  It could be because I’ve misread (and not deliberately) the whole play leading up to this.  But when Antony says, “This was the noblest Roman of them all,” I find myself utterly confused.  Brutus might have thought himself thus.  But where is the evidence that Antony held him in such high regard after the murder?

Antony follows: “All the conspirators save only he did that they did in envy of great Caesar.  He only in a general honest thought and common good to all made one of them.  His life was gentle, and the elements so mixed up in him that nature might stand up and say to all the world ‘This was a man.'”

To which Octavius replies: “According to his virtue let us use him, with all respect and rites of burial.”

This being Shakespeare, I don’t know how literally to take these lines; do I have a perspective that Antony and Octavius lack?  Am I supposed to understand that they don’t see Brutus for what he was — or have I got it wrong, and Brutus really was just a dupe who got pulled into treachery that was way over his head?

I know that greater minds have answered these questions, and that answers are out there in secondary sources.  But I’d rather dive into the sequel based on my own limited understanding and see where it goes.  I suspect that Antony will turn out to be far less the leader that Antony was… and that the clues for this have been planted in the way he wanted to alter the will, how he could not command submission from Octavius, and how both of them failed to comprehend the extent of the frustrations among certain factions leading up to Caesar’s assassination.

I don’t think they really “got” Brutus.  And that this is a point that Shakespeare wants to underscore.  Based in no small part on this insinuation (and making it that much worse for me if I interpret it incorrectly), I suspect that things are about to get a lot worse for Rome before they get better — if indeed, it’s not already all downhill from here.

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Enter the Ghost of Caesar

Posted in Julius Caesar on 2010/04/19 by Mattermind

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.

Friends, Romans, Countrymen… Lend Me Your Ears

Posted in Julius Caesar on 2010/04/15 by Mattermind

I recently watched the visual splendor that is The Imaginarium of Dr. Parnassus.  Visual, yes, but a storytelling trainwreck for a garden variety of reasons, the most notable of which in my mind is that Terry Gilliam refuses to establish a set of rules and abide by them.  If a chess player may move any piece like the queen whenever he chooses to, the game of chess becomes impossible.

The brilliance of Antony’s speech is that he has bound himself to a set of strict rules he adheres to while still accomplishing his aims.  He promises Brutus that he will only speak well of Caesar and say nothing against the conspirators.  And yet, Antony somehow manages to turn the crowd to exact revenge while keeping within the constraints of his promise.

Only a mind as brilliant as Shakespeare could pull that off. Don’t believe me?  Here, watch and be amazed for yourself:

Mischief, Thou Art Afoot

Posted in Julius Caesar on 2010/04/15 by Mattermind

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.

Cowards Die Many Times Before Their Deaths

Posted in Julius Caesar with tags , , , , , , on 2010/03/23 by Mattermind

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:

and:

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?

Please.

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.

March Madness

Posted in Julius Caesar with tags , , , , , on 2010/03/17 by Mattermind

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!

People Get Ready —

Posted in Julius Caesar on 2010/03/16 by Mattermind

…Julius Caesar is next!