He said, “This is what the king who will reign over you will claim as his rights: He will take your sons and make them serve with his chariots and horses, and they will run in front of his chariots. Some he will assign to be commanders of thousands and commanders of fifties, and others to plow his ground and reap his harvest, and still others to make weapons of war and equipment for his chariots. He will take your daughters to be perfumers and cooks and bakers. He will take the best of your fields and vineyards and olive groves and give them to his attendants. He will take a tenth of your grain and of your vintage and give it to his officials and attendants. Your male and female servants and the best of your cattle[c] and donkeys he will take for his own use. He will take a tenth of your flocks, and you yourselves will become his slaves. When that day comes, you will cry out for relief from the king you have chosen, but the Lord will not answer you in that day.” – I Samuel 8:11-18
The Ides of March, described as the middle day of the month in the Roman calendar, represented a day for settling debts. On this day, Marcus Brutus says that great Caesar paid “ambition’s debt” in the most infamous assassination in world history. Like in so many of his other plays, Shakespeare exercises his genius in studying these characters and events from all sides and virtually eliminates our chance to concretely label anyone as wholly good or wholly bad, infallible hero or wasted villain. With passionate dialogue and lines resounding down through the ages, Shakespeare portrays the great and regrettably incurable dilemma of civilization – the corrupting faculty of power and the slippery slope of good intentions.
Shakespeare designs Julius Caesar as an immortal among men, the colossally powerful Roman conqueror whose history has manifested into mythical proportions and credits him with immortal ancestry. His companion, Mark Antony, speaks with the tongue of a serpent and Marcus Brutus, Rome’s favorite son, known for his honor and noble heart, bears responsibility for his murder despite the many hands stained with his blood. Shakespeare intends that a fourth entity not go unnoticed. Perhaps the citizens of Rome, the mob, wield the most influence to these events and conduct the course of history like a fiery muse.
Yet as these entities intertwine with one another, Shakespeare carefully gives each one their full dimension while simultaneously developing a schism of sorts within each individual. The opposition between Brutus and Antony illustrate the dichotomy within Caesar himself – man or powerfully ambitious god? Antony seeks vengeance for a wronged man while Brutus seeks balance to Roman political power. In their speeches at Caesar’s funeral, we hear Brutus condemn a position, an ambitious dictator, while declaring love for the man. And Antony glorifies a human man unjustly murdered. Also, to hear Caesar speak in the third person throughout his short role in the play, one must either think him crazy or divided, as if he stands outside himself speaking for the man who will act on his behalf. He imparts wise anecdotes and speaks often selflessly but, like the mob, falters between convictions easily at advise from different people. Like an honorable man, he declines the people’s offered crown but grimaces like an ambitious godhead denying his right for the sake of his reputation with others in government. His position imprisons the human man who speaks his mind but ultimately must do what Rome expects of him.
Antony, with his brilliantly manipulative tongue and detestable tactics, regarding Lepidus for example, admirably seeks to avenge Caesar’s death. Do we respect his moral conviction or abhor his slimy character? If his words with the conspirators after Caesar’s murder, pre-sanctioned in truce by his servant with his safety fully dependent on the honorable word of Brutus, embracing them as friends, and his words at the funeral, repeating Brutus’ nature as an “honorable man” while slandering him for accusing Caesar for ambition, do not reveal to the audience a two-faced coward, I maintain that Shakespeare did all he could to illustrate the character. Consider Antony’s absence during the murder and for most of the play before its occurrence. One might argue that Antony, though not accomplice to the act, desired its occurrence for his own benefit. He did nothing before it happened, spoke carressingly to save himself after it happened and manipulated the mob with words rather than act nobly at Caesar’s funeral. But Antony then valiantly unleashes his armies in defense of the fallen Caesar and with all the pomp of political admiration.
Cassius, though like a tempter, would not falter under an interrogation regarding his love of Rome and his belief in the Republic free from a dictator. Though he disrespected Brutus by pestering him, and bears the sin of murder, one might respect his wide breadth of love and service to his country and ideology.
Marcus Brutus – oh, Brutus – the true victim of tragic mischief, lived as the noblest of Romans, protecting a reputation of humble civil service even unto the funeral when he implores the mob to use the murder weapon to kill him should his death serve his country. One could argue that Cassius’ desperation in recruiting Brutus to the conspiracy stemmed from Brutus’ notoriety in Roman society. Brutus bore the task with a sickened heart after accepting Cassius’ reasons for its execution in his mind. He embodies two adverse contagions: the moral heart and the ideological mind. Alas, I sympathize with a murderer! an honorable man who, in his weakness, succumbed to the dramatized logic of ideology! Shall men condemn Brutus the assassin or honor Brutus the heart of Rome?
While Cassius woos Brutus to the conspiracy, Brutus notes; “…for the eye sees not itself / But by reflection, by some other things” (Act I Scene II). Shakespeare planted these lines, from the mouth of nobility and integrity, to set the tone for the rest of the play. Each angle – Caesar, Brutus, Antony, and the mob – see reflections of themselves and by these reflections know themselves. During the overnight storm preceding the assassination the next morning, Calphernia, Caesar’s wife, hails it as a omen of doom on Caesar’s life. Yet is the storm the doom of Caesar or the people of Rome under his dictatorship? Brutus’ wife attempts to console him and notes his ailing health during the storm. And to the conspirators, coming and going between homes before the senate session, the storm could signify their intent or perhaps its unforeseen consequences. In many cases, the storm, as an example, represents the reflection which the eye sees of itself – to Brutus, his conflicted conscience and declining health, to Caesar, his demise, to Cassius and the conspirators, their murderous intent. Yet the reflection shows destruction, fear, violence and calamity for each of the players. Caesar’s blood stains all.
As war ensues between the two camps of Brutus and Antony, and prototypical Shakespearean misunderstandings spark the demise of certain characters, the audience surely thinks of justice. As one cannot forgive someone on behalf of someone else, Antony cannot revenge himself on Brutus and Cassius on behalf of Caesar – nor does he care. Antony has every intention of claiming power behind Octavius, Caesar’s son, and securing his own power in Roman government in the next regime. While Brutus and Cassius fall on their own swords, honorably holding to their ideals, but suffering a sort of true and justified vengeance for killing Caesar. In this end, they suffer death for committing murder but retain their honor on the battlefield, reconciling the internal struggle within their hearts.
But the people! Oh, the fical swaying mob quick to abandon the reasoning of Brutus for the manipulative power of Antony! The audience gazes on these citizens and observes a reflection of itself. Shakespeare, you clever nuisance! One must question their stance in these events. What sort of curses or defenses would you shout to Brutus or Antony? Would you fling the crown over Caesar’s brow? Would you raise your dagger to promote the republic? Would you scurry about in search of secure power in the aftermath?
Though some urged Shakespeare to stage his histories as propaganda, specifically playing on sentiments for and against particular figures, Julius Caesar lasts as a work lacking such motivation and pursues an examination of the good and bad within each character while beckoning the audience to question their own ideas and politics. Shakespeare presents men struggling to perfect a civilization which many look back to as the most powerful pinnacle of society in the history of the western world. But these are but men – full of honorable intentions, susceptible to corruption and confused by lofty ideals.