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Garber on Julius Caesar

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More from Marjorie Garber’s book, this time on Julius Caesar.

1) Though the play is often assigned to high school students, Garber says that the play is “one of Shakespeare’s most subtle and sophisticated,Eexploring such issues as “the nature of kingship, the relationship of the public to the private self, the limits of reason, and the necessity of coming to terms with the irrational . . . as it presents itself in omens and portents, soothsayers and signs.ELike all of Shakespeare’s classical plays, it is not of merely historical interest, but was “a powerful lesson in modern . . . ethics and statecraft.EPlutarch encouraged such “applicationEof classical lessons, since he not only wrote “parallel livesE(inviting the reader to seek further parallels) but he explicitly wrote biography for the purpose of inculcating moral lessons. Specifically, Caesar Ea virtual king without an heir Eraised the issue of succession that was a lively topic in Elizabethan England, and his assassination and its aftermath evoked the recollection and looming threat of civil war from which the Tudors had only recently delivered England.

2) Garber raises the question of why the play is named for Julius rather than Brutus, since “Brutus’s inner struggle occupies the moral center of the drama.EThat inner struggle is described as an “insurrectionE(2.1.69), a nice way of signaling that the external violence and drama of the play impresses itself on Brutus’s soul and vice versa Ethe inner conflicts manifests itself outwardly. Further, Brutus is the great man who falls in the play, and this suggests that he, not Caesar, is the tragic protagonist, who falls because of a misconceived devotion to reason and an unrealistic conception of honor. Yet, the play is appropriately called Julius Caesar, not only because he is the ruler (cf. Cymbeline, where the title character is not central) but because he is the “topic, the conundrum, of this playEand because it is the “ghost of Caesar Ehis memory, his myth, and his aura Ethat presides even over the play’s final scenes.EShakespeare, as it were, imposes the medieval notion of a king’s “two bodiesEonto his Roman material, distinguishing between the private, mortal, epileptic, and trembling Caesar who sheds blood in buckets and the public Caesar-spirit that cannot die, the Caesar-spirit that is unleashed rather than bounded by the assassination. Part of Caesar’s tragedy is that he fails to recognize the dichotomy; his self-image is wholly of the public, divine Caesar. He is quite certain that he is the Northern Star, Colossus, unmovable Olympus, though his own words constantly remind the audience of the other (“this ear is deafE, not to mention the ironic subversion of his self-image that happens in the events of the play.

3) Garber reminds us that “the play is full of dreams, omens, portents, superstitions, and prophecies, all elements of the powerful irrational.ECaesar himself ignores the signs and portents, and others interpret them wrongly: “the pattern of omen and portent in this play is closely allied to a pattern of misconstruction of misreading, a misreading not only of signs in the sky, but also of the basic nature of human beings and their propensity for chaos and disorder.EShe suggests that “alas, thou hast misconstrued everythingE(5.3) might be “a fitting epigraph for this entire play.EMuch of the misinterpretation, however, is deliberate, as is Decius Brutus’s seductive oneirocriticism of Caesar’s dream. Throughout Shakespeare’s plays, “signs . . .are morally neutral,Epresenting themselves for interpretation or misinterpretation: As Cicero says, “men may construe things after their fashion, clean from the purpose of the things themselvesE(1.3.34-35).

4) Brutus, rational man that he is, misconstrues events and their consequences in a particularly rationalistic way. Instead of seeing that the assassination of Caesar is an act of disorder and a cause of further disorder, he proposes it as a ceremony. Ceremony is perhaps always a bid to rationalize and order the chaos of events, but in Brutus’s hands it becomes a veil that keeps him from recognizing what he’s really doing: “Ceremony is the shield behind which Brutus hides from himself the insupportable truth, that what he is doing is murdering his friend.ECeremony slips into drama (3.1.112-118), but the point is the same. Pretending that you’re onstage killing Caesar is a way of keeping at bay the realization that it’s real blood puddling on the floor.

5) Brutus and the conspirators realize soon enough that “they have killed the wrong Caesar,Ethe private man rather than the Caesar-spirit. And they realize also that removing the head has thrown the whole body of Rome into disorder, particularly since so much influence is wielded by the fickle populace.

6) Garber gives a good analysis of Antony’s famous speech to the people, and contrasts it nicely with Brutus’s literally prosaic and reasoned appeal. Once Antony has created mischief, he finds himself out of his league: “His predilection for chaos makes him more suited to misrule than to rule.EOctavius, a new politician, takes over the impetus of the counter-conspiracy. The Caesar-spirit has found a new home: “Octavius describes himself as ‘another Ceasar,Eavenging the memory of the first, although Octavius is less human, less flesh-and-blood, than Julius Caesar ever was.EOctavius’s closing lines about “the glories of this happy dayEring a false note, for “how many in the audience, then or now, feel ‘happyEat this spectacle of loss and suicide?EBrutus’s recent death colors the ending too strongly to feel that we have come to a restorative moment at the end of the play. Garber suggests that the play has two endings: “One ending foregrounds Brutus and his tragedy, while the other focuses upon Octavius Caesar and the march of empire. . . . The cycle of history and the drama of tragedy can never be wholly reconciled, and this play and its playwright are very much aware of that fact.E

7) Garber points to the role of “mirrorEimagery, particularly in 1.2, where Cassius is offering himself as a “mirrorEto Brutus. Instead of a simple reflection, however, Cassius offers a mirror as part of his seduction of Brutus to the conspiracy and only “pretends that he reflects a disinterested truth.EThe mirroring focuses on Brutus’s name, such that Brutus is invited to see himself “mirroredEin the earlier Marcus Brutus who helped expel the Tarquin emperors from Rome. More subtly, Cassius even suggests that Brutus see in Caesar a kind of mirror, a parallel that is played out many times in the structures and dialogues of the play, culminating when Brutus adds to his murder of his friend his own suicide.

8) Garber offers the interesting structural suggestion that the play focuses on one character per act: “act 1 centers on Cassius, act 2 on Brutus, act 3 on Caesar, act 4 on Antony, and act 5 on Octavius.EShe points also to the remarkable transformation of Octavius between acts 4 and 5. Described early on as a “peevish schoolboyEwithout much experience or weight, by act 5 he is clearly the power to be reckoned with.

9) Confusion concerning names is particularly symbolized by the murder of Cinna the Poet (3.3) because he shares a name with Cinna the conspirator. Garber suggests that Shakespeare is also hinting that “when times are bad for anyone . . . they are especially bad for poets,Eand reflecting on the censorship and prosecution of poets and writers in his own time. This also reinforces the point above about the 2 Caesars: Killing the wrong Caesar is paralleled by killing the wrong Cinna. And the detachment of names from objects, or the confusions about names and their referents, is part of the general hubbub that follows the conspiracy. In such a world, poetry and literature cannot have any value, since naming has become wholly arbitrary. As Garber notes, the play, despite its antique setting, “is directly concerned with the question of writing and speaking, and with the intrinsic treachery of the written word. Much of the plays action is transacted through the exchange of letters and the reading aloud of documents, and these written artifacts seems to take on lives of their own.EAntony’s direct, thoroughly vocal rhetoric, stands in contrast. Like the signs and portents, these communications are also liable to misconstruction (“it was Greek to meE. The only form of communication that escapes these dilemmas is the performative speech of Caesar himself (including his aptly named “willE. Once that fails (with his death), there is no clear communication and thus no order until another Caesar arises to command. Julius and Octavius do not persuade or reason; they command, and in so doing establish what there is of Roman order.

posted by Peter J. Leithart on Thursday, February 17, 2005 at 11:05 AM

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