The Tragedy of Julius Caesar

If I wait much longer to write about JC (duly noted initial coincidence) it will be the ides of January, and I need to pick up the pace. The play’s opening presciently foreshadows the impending troubles. Two tribunes, who shortly meet an untimely death, chase “commoners” from the streets. One, a cobbler, is a self-titled “mender of bad soles.”(I,i,14) The double entendre is apropos; we meet many souls in need of mending in the coming pages. The tribunes mock the commoners’ fickleness and baseless revelry over Caesar’s triumphant return: “Wherefore rejoice? What conquest brings he home?/What tributaries follow him to Rome,/To grace in captive bonds his chariot-wheels?/You blocks, you stones, you worse than senseless/things!” (I,i,32-5)

They cheered thus for Pompey, Murellus laments; how soon they forget. He and Flavius go to remove the celebratory detritus that the opiated masses have strewn on Caesar’s statues, only to die for their “disloyalty” soon thereafter.

The question of loyalty and allegiance weigh heavy in this play where the title character dies less than halfway through. Who deserves allegiance and why? Do those in power earn loyalty or exact it with coercion, fear, and threats? Is Roman rule a meritocracy or a popularity contest? (And could I ask any more questions?) I would argue the latter, because Brutus, who most deserves respect, gets the least, while JC who least deserves it ends up winning the game, albeit posthumously.

In Act I, scene ii, Cassius suggests to Brutus that there’s trouble brewing and that Caesar may be getting too big for his britches – and that they may need to take some action. Brutus balks, as such a drastic, treasonous thought had not occurred to him. Like the characters stuck in Sartre’s No Exit, he notes that he can only see himself clearly through others’ eyes: “the eye sees not itself/But by reflection,” (I,ii,52-3). Cassius volunteers to serve as his mirror, “And since you know you cannot see yourself/So well as by reflection, I, your glass,/Will modestly discover to yourself/That of yourself which you yet know of not.” (I,ii,67-70) “Honor” (I,ii,92) is Brutus’ theme and motivation.

Later, as he paces sleepless in his orchard at what the anachronistic clock tells us is 3am, he mulls and ponders, hems and haws, and weighs the pros and cons of taking out his friend in the Senate. Sadly, slowly, he concludes, Spock-like, that the good of the many outweighs the good of the few. Or the one, in this case. And agrees with the conspirators, that “the king must die.” But, perhaps naively and ultimately fatally, he stops short of a all-out massacre (although it was still pretty bloody in the Senate on the ides) when he refuses to kill Mark Antony as well. He tells the conspirators “Our course will seem too bloody, Caius Cassius/To cut the head off and then hack the limbs –/Like wrath in death and envy afterwards;/For Antony is but a limb of Caesar./Let’s be sacrificers, but not butchers, Caius.” (II,i,163-6) And again shows his high-mindedness in aspiring to be remembered as “purgers, not murderers.” (II,i,180)

Even as things begin to crumble around him and Cassius starts to act more like Caesar than Brutus, he ignores the signs and chooses to believe that Cassius still supports the cause. There’s dissension in the ranks but Brutus ignores it and takes the high road paved with the best of intentions.

Haunted, literally, by great Caesar’s ghost (IV,iii) and impending defeat, he runs on his own sword. “I shall have glory by this losing day/More than Octavius and Mark Antony/By this vile conquest shall attain into.” (V,v,36-8)

JC, on the other hand, is an egotistical narcissist, single-minded in his pursuit of power. Several times he asks for but ignores advice and counsel. Famously, “Soothsayer: Beware the ides of March. Caesar: He is a dreamer, let us leave him.” (I,ii,23-4)

His wife, Calpurnia, dreams, amidst ominous and obvious thunder and lightening, of his death and begs him to call in sick. Although the augurers, who he himself has summoned, warn him to stay home, he will not concede: “Cowards die many times before their deaths,/The valiant never taste of death but once.” (II,ii,32-3) and again “Danger knows full well/That Caesar is no more dangerous than he.” (II,ii,44-5) Such bravado.

Even after he agrees to stay home to placate the missus, Decius deftly appeals to his ego and coerces him to change his mind:

“the Senate have concluded/To give this day a crown to mighty Caesar./If you shall send them word you will not come,/Their minds may change. Besides, it were a mock/Apt to be render’d, for some one to say,/”Break up the Senate till another time,/When Caesar’s wife shall meet better dreams.”” (II,ii,93-99) And again, the clock that didn’t exist in ancient Rome, strikes eight. Time to make the donuts.

Caesar’s “Et tu, Brute?” (III,i,77) echoes the other JC’s “will you betray me with a kiss?” (Coincidence or no that Brutus rhymes with Judas?…duly noted by my son). Mark Antony craftily serves as this JC’s best apostle in his ingeniously crafted “Friends, Romans, countrymen, lend me your ears!” (III,ii,74) speech at Caesar’s funeral.

It’s here that the crowd shows how easily it is to sway them with masterful PR spin. The conspirators a) foolishly let MA live because of Brutus’ high-minded persuasion, and b) leave him alone to orate at the funeral. While he ostensibly comes “to bury Caesar, not to praise him,” (III,ii,74) he in fact, buries Brutus by a dozen times calling him an honorable man. And resurrects Caesar by telling the malleable mob that he left them his arbors and orchards as he lets them think they’ve persuaded him into reading the “private” will (“No, don’t make me sing… you can’t make me sing”). Loyalty and allegiances, then, hinge more on a grove of trees than on honor. Brutus should have (pun intended) stuck around.

Even in what turns out to be a hollow victory (follow MA’s misadventures in the afore-reviewed Antony and Cleopatra) MA showers the now dead and hence much less threatening Brutus with the accolades of “noblest” and “honest” (V,v,68 and 70). The tragedy of The Tragedy of Julius Caesar is that the good guy finishes last.

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