Archive for Plato

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:


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.


The Monstrous Bulk of This Ingratitude

Posted in Timon of Athens with tags , , , on 2010/02/05 by mattermind

Timon of Athens, Act V: Scenes 1-4

Flattery comes full circle.

I’m trying to decipher what Shakespeare means by having the Poet and Painter appear again to resume their obsequiousness and obtain their share of Timon’s newfound gold.

TIMON: Good honest men! Thou draw’st a counterfeit

Best in all Athens. Thou’rt indeed the best;

Thou counterfeit’st most lively.

PAINTER: So so, my lord.

TIMON: E’en so, sir, as I say. [To Poet] And for thy fiction,

Why, thy verse swells with stuff so fine and smooth

That thou art even natural in thine art.

It recalls the play within a play within Hamlet, when Hamlet counsels the actors to “hold a mirror up to nature” and not overdramatize their acting.

Socrates famously mistrusts art — plays included — for this reason. It mimes life. It blusters, it treasons, it scolds, it seduces — but all in the name of entertainment. Only philosophy delves below the surface of things (instead of slide down them, as Bono sings).

The whole trouble that Timon has uncovered is that people don’t say what they mean or mean what they say. Their words ring hollow. All he hears now are lies.

He exposes falsity this time by providing the artists what they’re really after: gold.

Then, in a cunning twist, the Senators of Athens come out to woo Timon back into the city. They’ve had a change of heart, they claim. The people feel remorse for what they’ve done and wish to make amends.

SECOND SENATOR: Ay, even such heaps and sums of love and wealth

As shall to thee blot out what wrongs were theirs

And write in thee the figures of their love,

Ever to read them thine.

Sounds great. But Timon answers sarcastically:

TIMON: You witch me in it;

Surprise me to the very brink of tears.

Lend me a fool’s heart and a woman’s eyes,

And I’ll besweep these comforts, worthy Senators.

He’s not buying what they’re selling for a second. And in the next scene, we find out he was right to do so.

The Senators were only sucking up to halt Alcibiades’s approach at the city gates. He’s come for revenge, and they falsely assume that restoring Timon will assuage his anger. A chess move, really. A bluff. But it proves yet again that some men will say or do anything to achieve their personal interests. Right, Mr. Edwards?

Meanwhile, Timon has been working on an epitaph to stand as a lasting curse upon Athens. We never know if he’s dead for sure, but a sentry sent out by Alcibiades to find Timon, finds his tomb instead.

Now I’m wondering how exactly Timon buried himself, and who carved out the gravestone. For the sentry takes a rubbing of the Latin text to show Alcibiades, who even now has reached the ramparts of Athens.

Here the fulsomeness of groveling and toadiness reach their fitting apex as the Senators stand upon the city walls and attempt to flatter their way out of sure death. They try and convince Alcibiades to listen to reason (now, of course, after they themselves did not) and only hold those accountable with whom he has a quarrel.

No need to fight. No need to fuss. Just promise you’ll satisfy your grievance only and we’ll open up the gates.

And Alcibiades agrees. Whether he means it or not, we cannot know. But at this crucial moment when the gates are opened to his waiting horde, Alcibiades receives word that Timon is dead.

This is significant, because along with their bartering and wringing of hands, the Athenian Senators lied that they had brought Timon back from the margins.


SECOND SENATOR: So did we woo

Transformed Timon to our city’s love

By humbled message and by promised means.

It’s a gambit that fails. The gates have already swung open to Alcibiades when he discovers that Timon is actually dead.

All bets are now off as Alcibiades stalks into Athens, declaiming:

ALCIBIADES: Bring me into your city,

And I will use the olive with my sword,

Make war breed peace, make peace stint war, make each

Prescribe to other, as each other’s leech.

Let our drums strike.

It’s a pity the play ends here, because now the great action sequence begins.

The final couplet harbingers doom in the very ickiness of the concluding rhyme: each/leech. Blech. But that’s not how the whole thing closes — oh, no.

Here might have come a stop. But no — unrhymed, standing alone, stuck out like a sore thumb, a thumb about to be jabbed far up somebody’s ass:


Spoken in the same terse, foreboding manner as the damning words of the First Senator to him awhile ago as he pleabargained for the release of a friend and got banished for it.

As the Monty Python gang would say… “Run away!”

Attention All Planets of the Solar Federation

Posted in Polls with tags , , , , , on 2010/01/27 by mattermind

We have assumed control… we have assumed control… we have assumed control.

Okay, that makes two references now to Rush (lyrics by Peart, music by Lee & Lifeson). Probably two more than anybody would guess might appear in a Shakespeare blog.

Or not.

I’m a big fan of Neil Peart for his travel writing and motorcylcle adventuring — damn him. Just as I am for Ewan McGregor and the blasts o’ fun he had on The Long Way Round and its sequel, The Long Way Down. When and if I finish this Year of Shakespeare, I’d like to start a literary travel blog of my own.

This post has nothing to do with that. Not exactly. Instead, it has more to do with my staging a house coup and halting the election in favor of Julius Caesar.

There are a couple reasons for this:

1) He was winning the election handily anyway. As of the 27th, 50% of the voting (such as it is) had been cast in his favor already

2) I have good intel that certain militant factions of the electorate would have swung the results his direction

3) I’m not in the mood for Romeo & Juliet at the moment. I’d rather save that for spring

4) Most importantly…

I’ve worked out a syllabus for the entire year that I’m more than a little excited about. I’ll be posting the schedule for February and early March shortly. I think it breaks the plays down into units that are both accessible and interesting to read individually and as clusters within the larger whole.

That said, I’m still open to modifications as we go along. I’m probably kidding myself, but if anybody has a suggestion for a change of plays within a sequence, or just wants to cover something off the top of a hat… lemme know. It’s all negotiable. Kinda.

Because every girl prefers a benevolent dictator philosopher king to an anarchist (not to mention, a closet Rush fetishist). Right, girls?