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Julius Caesar: A Play of Paradoxes

By Kelli Frost
From Midsummer Magazine, 1992

 

It can be argued that Julius Caesar was a despot, a tyrant, and a manipulative dictator, but for all the criticism heaped upon this ruler, he remains a character central to history and theatre for centuries, remembered as “the noblest Roman of them all.” But Julius Caesar the play is about several men whose actions may be deemed both good and evil, honest and dishonest. That is the paradox of this play and its characters, because a good man (Brutus) can do great harm from the best possible motives.

Julius Caesar was unquestionably one of the most remarkable men who ever lived. An astute politician, Caesar surrounded himself with men who sought power and control for the good of Rome. Caesar’s military genius left him the lone survivor of the former ruling triumvirate. His military prowess allowed him to carve a path through the Roman empire, leaving all opposing rulers dead and Caesar a popular and powerful hero. A master of manipulation, Caesar maintained his demigod status among the Roman citizenry by bribing them with gifts of land and money.

Undoubtedly, Caesar had his faults. Those mentioned in Shakespeare’s play include Caesar’s deafness in one ear, his proclivity to epilepsy and fevers, many superstitions, an inability to swim, and implications that the childless, yet promiscuous, Caesar was sterile. (Some historians argue that Brutus was actually an illegitimate son of Caesar’s.) Nevertheless, for each of his faults, Caesar possessed an offsetting virtue. He put the public good above his personal interest, he dealt fairly with those who served him, he was generous in all he owned, and he loved people. Most of all, he loved and trusted Brutus, an “honorable man” who finds himself caught in the political crossfire.

POLITICAL DILEMMA AND PERSONAL TRAGEDY. Shakespeare uses both political dilemma and personal tragedy as motifs in Julius Caesar. He also employs not one but two protagonists in this play—Caesar and Brutus. When we first see Brutus, he is merely an observant senator assessing the new-found popularity of an ambitious Caesar. But Brutus falls prey to the suggestion by Cassius that Rome would be better off without Caesar at the helm. “Think of the world,” invokes Cassius. Their inflated observations suggest that Rome stands to fall at the hands of Caesar.

And it is at the hand of Cassius that both Caesar and Brutus fall prey to their own destiny, which is reserved for great men who are subject to flattery. Cassius tells Brutus “since you cannot see yourself / . . . I, your glass / will modestly discover to yourself / That of yourself which you yet know not of.” Brutus listens to talk of his own merits, his honor and greatness, and his potential as a ruler of Rome. Unfortunately, Brutus believes Cassius’s flattery. Although Brutus strives to be an honest and moral statesman, the statesman can seldom be honest and moral and still be right. In Brutus’s case, the statesman ends up both wrong and dead, however honorable.

Caesar becomes a victim of his own hubris, as he comes to believe the rumors that he is indestructible, worthy of honor, and loved by all. Indeed, he tells the Senate members that “Caesar doth not wrong.” Decius’s flattery propels Caesar’s personal tragedy into reality (“from you great Rome shall suck reviving blood”). Decius’s flattery becomes a lie, when he strikes at Caesar’s ambitious sense, telling him the Senate offers Caesar the crown. Caesar believes he is to be dictator for life. That one lie sets in motion the conspirators’ plot.

Caesar’s fall begins as he acts upon his tragic flaw. He laughs publicly at the soothsayer’s warning (“he is a dreamer”), waves away Artimedorus’s letter telling of the conspiracy (“what, is the fellow mad?”), and refuses to heed the concern of his wife’s unnerving dream (“how foolish do your fears seem now, Calpurnia”). History may have been written differently had Caesar heeded any one of these warnings regarding his visit to the Senate on March 15. But history is made by men’s actions, not their ideals.

QUESTIONS AND FLATTERY. Mark Antony speaks publicly of Caesar’s ideals, along with his own and those of all Rome. The center point in the play occurs in Mark Antony’s speech to the Romans, honoring Caesar in death, while pointing the accusing finger at “honorable” Brutus. He refers to Brutus’s role in the murder as “the most unkindest cut of all.” Antony questions the motives of the conspirators, while flattering the crowds into believing they are smart enough to see through Brutus’s lies and faulty rationalization. The fickle throng falls prey to Antony’s flattery. Furthermore, they believe Antony’s prophecy that “a curse shall light upon the limbs of men.” The assembled listeners run the conspirators out of Rome in an act of self-preservation.

It is true, of course, that Julius Caesar was merely a mortal, albeit a manipulative dictator. His contributions to Roman history and world literature are as immeasurable as his character traits. They myth of Julius Caesar will continue to influence Western thought as this exciting play continues to give insights into ancient Roman life, politics, and personalities.

Shakespeare’s Julius Caesar is based on Plutarch’s history. And even though Shakespeare either took liberties with Plutarch’s version or erred in his anachronistic Renaissance version, modern audiences and readers continue to question and study about “the noblest Roman of them all.”

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