Why This Play?:
Behold, the play that everyone studied in high school except for yours truly (my lone wolf teacher pressed Hamlet upon us instead). For the life of me, I had trouble seeing why this one is so prevalent among tenth grade English classes. Most kids have studied Romeo and Juliet the year before – how about switching in one of the comedies instead of Caesar? I mean, let’s grant the youth of America a respite from the suicide motif. Perhaps teachers spin this play as a cautionary tale against hanging with the wrong crowd? Not being wrongly influenced by dumbass friends? I searched the Internet for teaching guides on this play, and found my hypothesis to be pretty spot on. Julius Caesar, warning kids of the dangers of peer pressure for decades. Don’t let your friends talk you into killing a potential tyrant, kids – you may end up causing a civil war and killing yourself over it!
Regardless of my lack of exposure, it was time for me to jump into the well-known speeches and strange ideals of honor from Roman times. Follow along while I grasp at straws in attempt to empathize with these characters and understand their motives.
We go way back to the olden times, 44 BC in the great Roman empire. At the start of the play, Julius Caesar has returned to Rome from a battle in which he overthrew the sons of Pompey, the last of the old triumvirate that used to rule Rome with Caesar. This basically sets Caesar up to be head honcho of Rome. There’s a lot of celebrating going on in town, but some folks just aren’t having it (one being a soothsayer who tells him to beware the Ides of March – dun dun DUN!). The people apparently love Caesar, but some senators are wary of his rise to power. Cassius is one such, and he confesses to Brutus that he worries Caesar will become a tyrant. Brutus is feeling this, but is reluctant to take action to stop Caesar from being crowned.
Another fellow named Casca busts in and tells the story of how Caesar was offered the crown three times and refused it each time, then had an epileptic fit. [Casca is a smartass, and I love him.] Later, Cassius decides to encourage Brutus’s wariness of Caesar’s power by forging some letters and leaving them around his home to convince him that no one else wants Caesar to rule either. Late that night, Brutus starts getting more concerned about matters. When he’s visited by Cassius and some others, he’s convinced to agree to kill Caesar for the good of Rome, and despite the fact that Caesar is his buddy – they’ll do the deed tomorrow. His wife Portia chastises him for not being open with her about what’s been bugging him all day. Nice speeches for a character who's sole purpose is to show Brutus's human side.
Over at Caesar’s that same night, his wife Calpurnia has had a horrible (prophetic) nightmare. She urges him not to go to the Senate the next day; she’s worried for his safety. He agrees, but is promptly talked out of the decision by a visit from one of the conspirators, Decius, who basically calls Caesar a chicken for not going somewhere due to his wife’s fears. Despite multiple warnings from several parties, Caesar arrives at the Senate on the Ides of March. A guy named Metellus asks Caesar to pardon his banished brother, and when Caesar refuses, the conspirators take this as their cue to get stabby. When his old pal Brutus is the last to stab him, Caesar is shocked at the betrayal and promptly dies.
Brutus tells everyone to start smearing Caesar’s blood all over their hands before they go out to address the Roman public. Antony arrives once Brutus promises not to harm him (since he was Caesar’s bud as well). He assures Brutus that he won’t be angry despite his love of Caesar, and that he’ll fall in line with whatever reasoning they give for the murder. Brutus tells him they will address the public, then he will allow Antony to give a speech about Caesar. Alone, Antony vows revenge, and arranges for Caesar’s great-nephew, Octavius, to come to Rome to help rule. Brutus addresses the public, telling them that Romans have been saved from inevitable slavery under Caesar. Everything's cool so he leaves, but then Antony gives a stellar speech in which he reminds the people of Rome of their love of Caesar while avoiding direct blame on the conspirators for wrongful death. The people get all up in arms and are ready to riot over Caesar’s death. A few of them wrongfully kill the poet Cinna, mistaking him for a conspirator (Romans be crazy like that).
Now there’s a new triumvirate leading Rome – Antony, Octavius Caesar, and Lepidus. Meanwhile, Brutus and Cassius have amassed an army. They start arguing, Brutus accusing Cassius of corruption. Brutus apologizes, claiming he’s had a hard time of it since Portia committed suicide by swallowing a burning coal (!?!?!?!?). They learn that the triumvirate has put to death 100 senators, and that they are on the march to Philippi. Brutus orders that they go to meet the enemy army head on and overrules Cassius when he protests. Brutus tries to sleep, but is visited by Caesar’s ominous ghost. Seriously, nothing is going right for these guys. Ill omens abound in the play, and everyone ignores them.
The next day, the two armies march into battle. Cassius’s crew is being hammered by Antony, so he climbs atop a hill and sends follower Titinius into the fray to see what’s going on. A servant called Pindarus comes over to relay that the enemy has caught Titinius. This is the last straw for Cassius, and he orders Pindarus to aid him in suicide. Titinius comes back (turns out he was visiting their own army), sees Cassius’s corpse, and is distraught enough to kill himself as well. Brutus finds the bodies, and takes his cue to also get a servant to stab him to death. [At this point, I am NOT AT ALL following the Roman logic and ideals of honor that are prompting these suicides.] Antony hears of all the deaths, and he claims that all the conspirators murdered Caesar out of envy, except Brutus who was the only one who acted with intent for the good of Rome. The triumvirate ends the fighting, and calls for Brutus to be buried honorably.
Check This Out:
- I really enjoyed the 1953 film! It’s a total classic, starring John Gielguld as Cassius and Marlon Brando as Antony. Brando is completely electrifying when addressing the Roman public (the big Act III speeches); he totally nails Antony’s rhetoric with anger and politeness. And Gielguld was a renowned Shakespearean actor for a reason – if you want to hear an actor who maintains the meter when speaking the lines (many modern actors no longer do), listen to this guy. He’s downright musical. I also really dug Edmond O’Brien as the sarcastic conspirator, Casca.
- As always, Thug Notes nails the summary and themes in a single 5 minute video. I really adore Thug Notes.
- I did some digging about the concepts of honor and suicide in ancient Rome. It was the hardest concept for me to wrap my head around, so a wee bit of history helped. The Oxford Handbook of Social Relations in the Roman World specifically addresses the two themes intersecting (see page 390).
Thoughts and Themes:
Alright, reader. I had trouble with this play. I understood the events and language just fine…but the characters’ motivations left my head fuzzy. My husband is not so into books (he’s an engineer through and through), but he’s very supportive of this project and even convincingly feigns interest when I blab about the plays I’m covering. He had to listen to me all week, describing the events of the play and my inability to get the characters’ sense of honor and country. Real example of my frustration to him: Me -- “Antony’s all, ‘Welp, I hate his guts for killing my friend and leader, and I raised up an army to defeat him, but I totally understand and respect Brutus’s completely warped patriotism.’ WHAT THE HELL?!” Hubs -- "I studied this play in school, and I don't think I even got that much from the plot at the time." The play is hyper-masculine and everyone seems driven by ego disguised as “honor”. Even Brutus, the only one to be conflicted about his role in Caesar’s murder, is pretty self-absorbed (listening to NO ONE else’s opinions EVER) for all his concern for the greater Roman good. Hubs, although extremely manly and legitimately honorable, was unable to shed any light for me. Romans acting in self-interest (power) but claiming to do it for the good of the people? Guess I’ll never get the desire to enter politics.
So let’s dive into the theme to which I can relate – friendship. Good friends are not automatic yes-men. The best, most fulfilling friendships are the ones in which you can each push back with other ideas, question each other’s choices, and get one another to broaden your horizons. Brutus and Cassis have this dynamic, although to their detriment (no one needs to broaden their horizons to murderous territory, and Brutus overrules Cassius in all matters after the murder…so, maybe they’re not so great at this). I happen to have several good friends who do this for me, but in a much more positive light. One such lady made an excellent point to me recently about this blog. She pointed out that this project of reading Shakespeare is personal for me, so the writing should be personal as well – not just a B-grade English major’s dumbed-down version of Sparknotes. She rightly told me that Romeo and Juliet was the first work where I’d actually folded in my own life (via introducing the Bard to my kid), and that it made for much more interesting and real writing. From now on, this Thoughts and Themes section will focus a bit more on my own life as filtered through the work I’m attacking. For better or for worse, this approach will definitely be a bit more me.
On a semi-related side note…my oldest kid started kindergarten today. Off she flies into the world to make her own friends and her own mistakes. Julius Caesar is full of examples of false friends: conspirator Decius encouraging Caesar to ignore Calpurnia’s warnings and go to Senate, Antony shaking hands with all the murders he hopes to bring down, Brutus shooting down every one of Cassius’s suggestions/concerns. I read this play and was amazed at the continuous claims of “love,” “brother,” and “friend” among these characters who are so spurious towards one another. But we’ve all been there with someone, and this play consistently made me think of Neil Gaiman warning little girls against "false friends at fifteen". I’ve had the fun experience of friendship gone sour, even in my 30s, of hearing nasty things that a supposed chum has said about me (suggestion – drop said people from your life, to the best and fullest of your ability). I know my daughter will make similar “friendships” as she grows and changes. No amount of advice from her mama will change that. And I realize that Julius Caesar is not just a cautionary tale to high school students to not fall in with the wrong crowd (Brutus led astray by conspirators), it’s the lesson of not becoming that false friend yourself (and literally stabbing your homeboy in the back). So I’ll make lots of notes in the margins of my copy of the play, and pass it along to her in high school hoping that some of the moral is taught. Until then, I'll keep reading her Gaiman's gorgeous prayer for a Blueberry Girl.