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julius caesar

18 december 2015

I've never seen Julius Caesar on stage, but I have seen film versions and I pretty much grew up with the play, first in Classics Illustrated comic-book form and later Shakespeare's own text. It's not just a familiar play (and to many beside me, I'm sure, since it's been a standard school text for much of my life). It's a central part of how the Western world imagines what may be the crucial event in its secular history: the murder of its original and to many, its rightful Emperor.

Dante imagined Satan frozen at the center of Hell, gnawing Judas Iscariot in one of his mouths and Brutus and Cassius, Caesar's killers, in the other two. Shakespeare took on the challenge of reimagining Brutus and Cassius sympathetically. Not as heroes – nobody in Julius Caesar is a hero, which is another of its many virtues – but as men with understandable motivations and forgivable flaws to go along with their nobler qualities.

Cassius, I suppose, is a right bastard: a hypocrite and a peculator. But his political arguments are shared by the much more upright Brutus. And Cassius is loyal to Brutus. Even after Brutus sees through him, upbraiding him for his misconduct in the wake of the assassination, Cassius seems genuinely hurt that he's inspired mistrust in his co-conspirator, and does his utmost to make up with Brutus (in Act 4, Scene 3, one of the most amazingly bromancy scenes Shakespeare ever wrote). In the end, Cassius commits a very noble-Roman suicide (Act 5, Scene 3) when his other pal Titinius is apparently seized by Mark Antony's men:

O, coward that I am, to live so long,
To see my best friend ta'en before my face!
Reports of Titinius' capture turn out to have been exaggerated, but when Titinius rejoins the ranks, Cassius is dead, and there's nothing for it but Titinius must commit suicide in turn. Frankly, given these Romans' eagerness to commit suicide, I'm surprised any of them outlived their teens.

Caesar himself succumbs to homicide, but it's tempting to see his death as suicide-by-conspirator. His wife warns him against the assassins, and so do various soothsayers and snitches. Every portent known to the Romans – shooting stars, exhalations of fire, daytime owls, lions in the streets, Lady Gaga in a meat dress – announces that the Ides of March is going to be a really bad day. Caesar just mutters stuff about the valiant never tasting of death but once, continually implying that he's eager to try the tasting menu.

Brutus is the most interesting character, a kind of true-believing villain who is honestly convinced by his own rhetoric. He is both inspiring and naïve – inspiring because he's naïve. Meanwhile, as always in Shakespeare, the common people hold the real political power; and they are inane, fickle, low-information types who always believe the last person they hear. The whole falling action of the play comes from Brutus' innocent decision to speak to the Roman mob before Mark Antony does.

This time through, I was struck most by two tiny interchanges between Brutus and a slave that offer a window into mundane details of Elizabethan life (and how Shakespeare imagined everyday Roman life via his own). The first comes in Act 2, Scene 1, when the other conspirators get busy sending Brutus phony messages of encouragement to assassination. The slave boy Lucius finds one of them:

The taper burneth in your closet, sir.
Searching the window for a flint, I found
This paper, thus seal'd up; and I am sure
It did not lie there when I went to bed.
The shorter version: boy finds letter. But note all the little details that would have seemed as second nature to Elizabethans as flicking lightswitches does to us. The slave is there to make sure the candle is lit in Brutus' "closet," the private room for changing and washing (not a clothes closet). To light the candle, you need to strike a spark, so you need a flint, but it's dark, so you fumble for it – in "the window," but not between the sash and the screen, neither of which would have existed – rather, on the shelf or bench below the recessed, shuttered window (which would have been easy enough for the conspirators to open so they could insert the letter).

It's not greatly dramatic or thematic, but I find it a wonderful bit of life. Even closer to home is Brutus searching for a book in Act 4, Scene 3.

Look, Lucius, here's the book I sought for so;
I put it in the pocket of my gown.
He hasn't mentioned the book previously. And with good reason: he's fixing to die the next day on the fields of Philippi, and in the meantime he's had his big row and make-up session with Cassius. (He also just found out that his wife is dead; it never rains but it pours.) But at the most stressful juncture of his life, Brutus just has to be reading:
Let me see, let me see; is not the leaf turn'd down
Where I left reading? Here it is, I think.
I can relate to that.

Shakespeare, William. Julius Caesar. 1623. Edited by T.S. Dorsch. London: Methuen, 1955.