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Caesar's Reviving Blood

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Some of the following notes were taken from a longer introduction to Julius Caesar posted on this site some months ago.

For several generations, Julius Caesar has been a staple of high school English literature, coming from a period when education was rooted in Greek and Roman classics and English literature was a newfangled course of study. Unfortunately, this has given many the impression that it is a play for kids. Though the play is comparatively simple both in style and plotting (which makes it suitable for younger students), the issues it raises are by no means adolescent concerns.

Coriolanus is set in the early Republican period of Roman history, and examines the political struggles that surrounded the introduction of the democratic tribunate into Roman government. For Coriolanus, being Roman means valor in war, devotion to the service of the city, and personal austerity and control. Julius Caesar is set at the end of the Republican period, and the Republican conspirators are aware that they are part of a dying breed of Romans: Rome has “lost the breed of noble bloodsEand it has come about that in Rome there is “room enoughEfor “one only manE(1.2.150-157; cf. 5.3.63-64; 5.3.96-101). Cassius and Brutus are defenders of the public spirit of Republican Rome against the tyranny and weakness that Caesar brings in. As Brutus puts it, he participates out of love for Rome.

In historical fact, we can surmise that the conspirators against Caesar were as much concerned for the privileges of their patrician class as for the high ideals of Roman Republicanism. During Julius Caesar’s time, the patricians were divided between the optimates and the populares; the former fought to preserve the status quo, trying to ensure that Rome’s aristocracy maintained their traditional social, economic, and political advantages. The populares advocated reforms that would have benefited the poor, such as a more equal distribution of Rome’s wealth and lands. Caesar was in the latter group, and he based his political power on his ability to gain support from the people over the heads of his own patrician class. He was able to take the city of Rome unopposed in 49 BC, so great was his popularity among the people (see 1.1), and over the following years he put a cap on the number of slaves, waived a year’s rent for poor tenants, taxed luxury items, and instituted other reforms that benefited the plebs. The conspirators were attempting to reverse Caesar’s reforms, and regain control of Rome’s resources and power.

Some features of this are evident in the play. As the play shows, the conspirators underestimated Caesar’s popularity among the people, and after the assassination were quickly faced with an angry mob (3.3), whose passions were cleverly fueled by Marc Antony (3.2). As Shakespeare presents the story, however, the conflict is not about money and land and power; it is about conflicting ideals of what it means to be Roman.

I want to highlight two related features of the structure of the play, and this will lead into a discussion of the political import of the story. First, the play bears the title Julius Caesar, but the title character dies in Act 3. This is unusual for a Shakespearean tragedy, where most tragic heroes (Hamlet, Macbeth, Lear, Othello, Coriolanus, Antony) have the courtesy to hang around until Act 5. There are plenty of deaths in Act 5 of Julius Caesar, but the play is not called the “tragedy of BrutusEor the “tragedy of Cassius.E Why does Shakespeare arrange his play this way?

We can begin to answer this question by examining a second structural issue. It is always important when studying Shakespeare to attend to the arrangement of scenes. Though the specific breaks between scenes were probably added by the publisher and not written by Shakespeare himself, the sequence of events is from Shakespeare and it is not random. Sometimes, scenes are juxtaposed in an ironic fashion (e.g., the Prologue to Troilus and Cressida promises heroism that the play doesn’t deliver). Sometimes, the sequence emphasizes contrasting moods or characters (e.g., the sequence from the drunken party scene in Antony and Cleopatra 2.7 to the funereal procession of 3.1).

In Julius Caesar, Act 2, scenes 1-2 have the following significant structure:
1. Gathering at Brutus’s house
2. Brutus and Portia
21. Caesar and Calpurnia
11. Gathering at Caesar’s house.

As I’ve written elsewhere (Brightest Heaven of Invention), “The parallels between the two central scenes are obvious: in both, men speak to wives who are worried for them. In both scenes, men are trying to make calculations about what course to follow in the upcoming day. Shakespeare deliberately puts these scenes side-by-side to develop the parallels between Caesar and Brutus that were already subtly presented in Act 1. Brutus, as we have seen, represents the old Republican tradition, the Roman emphasis on honor and service to the common good, and the philosophy of Stoicism, according to which one should live by reason and not by passion. Caesar represents empire, self-promotion, and rule by divine kings. In many ways, they are polar opposites. But Shakespeare’s parallel suggests that perhaps they are more alike than anyone realizes.E

This micro-structure gives us a clue to understanding the macro-structure of the play. Early on Brutus is compared to Caesar, and as the play proceeds, Brutus becomes Caesar re-Caesared. Once the conspirators have killed Caesar, Brutus takes control of the conspiracy, bossing Cassius around. Eventually, of course, Octavius will arise from the ruins of the Second Triumvirate to take a position that Julius never dreamed of. Killing Caesar’s body doesn’t kill his spirit (belying BrutusEprediction in 2.1.162ff), a point symbolized by the appearance of the ghost of Caesar in 4.2. Ghosts appear in Shakespeare not because the playwright was superstitious (though, who knows?); ghosts symbolize the continuing presence of the past (e.g., Hamlet’s father’s unfinished business with Claudius; Banquo haunts Macbeth both literally and metaphorically). Caesar may die in Act 3, but his spirit remains dominant over the remainder of the play.

The structure thus points to a key political theme of the play, and might have served as a warning to Shakespeare’s contemporaries about the risks of regicide. The play also highlights other features of Shakespeare’s political views, and his views on Roman politics. Julius Caesar thus offers important insights into the relation of public and private life, of great historical events and the movements of individual conscience and decision. The assassination of Caesar was a major event in the political history of Rome and of Western civilization, an event of enormous political consequence. Shakespeare, however, also depicts the little twists and turns of private relations and internal argument that contribute to such great events. In Act 2, Brutus debates with himself about whether he should get involved with the conspiracy, and it is not clear that the affirmative has the better argument. He enters the conspiracy on the bare possibility that Caesar might, perhaps, mayhap prove a tyrant (2.1.10ff). Great political events emerge from and in important ways depend upon these private wrestlings, wrestlings that are not always marked by certainty and clear reasoning.

The relation of public and private is also evident in the play’s repeated use of the word “love.E Few Shakespearean plays refer to “loveEmore often than Julius Caesar, yet in the play “loveEnever refers to a man’s affection for a woman but invariably for one man’s affection for another. Cassius wonders whether or not Brutus still loves him, Brutus loves Caesar and Caesar Brutus, and Antony publicly professes his passionate loyalty and love for the fallen Caesar. These men, moreover, commonly display of their affection for one another. Tears flow freely, handshakes seal bargains, and the men verbally express their love in public and are proud of their passions. The whole play, for all its concern with the masculine world of politics and war, is soft and sentimental, lit in sepia hues. This combination of masculinity and sentimentality will appear again in the Antony of Antony and Cleopatra, and it appears to be part of Shakespeare’s understanding of the post-Republican Roman character. Note, for instance, the contrast with Coriolanus, whose eyes rarely “sweat with compassion.E (Shakespeare would not be surprised to learn that the guard at the concentration camp spent his off hours weeping over Wagner’s Tristan.)

The prominence of the language of “loveEhighlights another important factor in Shakespeare’s political vision: For him, and at least for some of his characters, politics is always personal. It is about personal loves and loyalties, as well as hates and betrayals. Cassius understand this well, and is a discerning politician as a result. Brutus, by contrast, is in the grip of abstractions, guided by ideas and ideals of honor and of “Rome,Eand Brutus is always making political blunders. As G. Wilson Knight pointed out, Brutus, Cassius and Antony can be gauged and compared by their attitudes toward Caesar as man and as hero:

Antony Brutus Cassius

Caesar the man loves loves hates
Caesar the hero loves fears Caesar is not a hero

The charactersEvarious actions in regard to the living Caesar and in reaction to his death are guided by their personal bonds of love and loyalty to Caesar. One of the conflicts of the play is the tension between personal and public loves, between love for the person of Caesar and love for the city of Rome (or, better, the abstract conception of “RomeE. With Antony and Cleopatra, this play depicts a shift form the public devotion characteristic of Republican Rome to the personal devotions of Imperial Rome.

Another political insight concerns the importance of rhetoric. Individual characters shape events by influencing the mob, and they influence the mob through rhetoric, by a kind of verbal seduction. This theme is especially prominent in the great funeral orations in Act 3, in which Brutus and Antony exhibit very different styles of rhetoric with very different results. Brutus is wholly insensitive to the desires of the Roman mob. He provides a reasoned speech in favor of the assassination, and it goes over so well that some people want to make him Caesar. Or, maybe not so well, since the whole point of his speech was that any Caesar is dangerous to Rome. The contradiction between Brutus’s argument and the crowd’s reaction shows how completely he fails to communicate. Antony, on the other hand, wins over the crowd not with arguments but with drama, symbols, relics, stirring gestures. He brings the body of Caesar into the Forum, and at the climactic moment unveils it. He weeps publicly. The twin formula for political success in Rome is: Control the mob and you control Rome; and, Control the symbols and you control the mob.

A final feature of the Rome of Julius Caesar is its highly ceremonialized character. The play begins in the midst of a popular celebration of Caesar’s return to Rome during the festival of the Lupercal (1.1). Caesar appears in 1.2 with great pomp, and instructs Antony to “leave no ceremony outEof the celebration. In fact, Caesar never goes anywhere in the play except as part of a procession, in which we imagine he moves with stately pride. Antony offers the crown to Caesar (off-stage) in what sounds like a rehearsed demonstration of Caesar’s humility (1.2). After killing Caesar, the assassins dip their hands in his blood, shake hands all around with Antony, and then decide to go into the market dripping gore in order to announce “Peace, freedom and libertyE(3.1).

The conspirators characterize the assassination not as a political act, but a religious one, a religious ritual. “Let’s be sacrificers, but not butchers,EBrutus says, “Let’s carve him as a dish fit for the gods, not hew him as a carcass fit for houndsE(2.1.162ff). DeciusEinterpretation of Calpurnia’s dream has the same emphasis: Romans will “suck reviving bloodEfrom Caesar (2.4.83ff), and the conspiratorsEdecision to bathe themselves in Caesar’s blood no doubt is part of the same conception. Through the sacrifice of Caesar, they hope to renew Roman virtue and Republican government: One man must die for the people.

In thinking through this theme, the work of Rene Girard is very useful. Girard has devoted his life to studying ideas and practices of sacrifice and scapegoating, which he sees as basic to culture. On his theory, desire is “mimetic,Ethat is, we desire things because we imitate the desires of others. Because desire is mimetic, our desires always put us in conflict, especially with those whose desires we imitate. This can cause all social order to dissolve into a war of all against all, when all the normal boundaries of social structure are breached, a situation that Girard calls a “sacrificial crisis.E At that point, order is restored when the community directs its hostilities and envy toward a single scapegoat. Killing the scapegoat together renews everyone in fellowship, and restores social order. Because the scapegoat’s death has saved the city, the scapegoat is often treated as a god.

This is what the conspirators attempt: Caesar is the scapegoat, whose death is supposed to revive Rome. But Shakespeare’s play actually exposes the folly of this mechanism. Caesar’s death does not restore order, but makes Rome more fractured than ever. The conspirators are, it turns out, simply butchers, and Caesar’s blood does not revive Rome. Instead, Antony puts a tongue in Caesar’s wounds to make them cry out for vengeance.

posted by Peter J. Leithart on Thursday, July 29, 2004 at 01:35 PM

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