Sunday, October 3, 2010

Discussion: Julius Caesar

The play: The Tragedy of Julius Caesar

The plot tweet: Brutus and conspirators slay "ambitious" Caesar; clever Antony incites people to civil war. Brutus and Cassius lose the battle, kill selves.

My favorite line:

Cowards die many times before their deaths;
The valiant never taste of death but once.
Of all the wonders that I yet have heard,
It seems to me most strange that men should fear,
Seeing that death, a necessary end,
Will come when it will come. (Caesar)


As a lifelong Indiana resident, I have a special place in my heart for native son Kurt Vonnegut, the author of Slaughterhouse Five and dozens of other novels, short stories and essays. While reading Julius Caesar this week, I've been thinking about a passage from Slaughterhouse:
I think about my education sometimes. I went to the University of Chicago for a while after the Second World War. I was a student in the Department of Anthropology. At that time, they were teaching that there was absolutely no difference between anybody. They may be teaching that still.

Another thing they taught was that nobody was ridiculous or bad or disgusting. Shortly before my father died, he said to me, "You know -- you never wrote a story with a villain in it."

I told him that was one of the things I learned in college after the war.
Shakespeare created many villains in his plays, from the relatively harmless Don John in Much Ado About Nothing to the terrifyingly effective Iago in Othello. But who is the villain of Julius Caesar?

Perhaps it is Cassius, who manipulates Brutus to join the assassination conspiracy. Perhaps it is Brutus himself, who murders a dear friend (or perhaps his father, according to historical tradition) and then botches everything by consistently misjudging those around him. Even Caesar is not blameless; he does in some cases behave like the tyrannical ruler he is accused of becoming.

Or, perhaps the play has no villain at all. In this strange melding of history and tragedy, Brutus is almost a tragic hero, whose tragic flaw is his continual misjudgment of others. Caesar could also be cast in that role, his tragic flaw being his refusal to acknowledge his own humanity and vulnerability. (Have you ever wondered why the leader of the Roman empire doesn't have a protection detail?) Here, we don't have "good guys" and "bad guys." We just have people, living life, doing what they believe should be done. It goes badly. That happens sometimes.

Julius Caesar is often studied in high schools because (1) it contains absolutely no sex, not even a bawdy innuendo, and (2) it is structurally superior -- a lovely little plot mountain, with the climax of Caesar's murder right smack in the middle of the play. Marjorie Garber, in Shakespeare After All, points out that each act focuses on a particular character: act 1 centers on Cassius, act 2 on Brutus, act 3 on Caesar, act 4 on Antony and act 5 on Octavius -- who will develop from a "peevish schoolboy" at the play's beginning to an authoritative new Caesar at play's end.

If Shakespeare took such care in structuring the play and creating such conflicted characters, why do critics so often deride the play as "cold and unaffecting"? (Bloom calls it "inhibited.") Perhaps it is because Shakespeare's language is more restrained here than elsewhere, and perhaps it is the play's relative lack of comic relief.

For Bloom, however, the answer lies in Shakespeare's refusal to foreground the Brutus-Caesar relationship. Brutus was, by historical tradition, an illegitimate son of Caesar, something both Shakespeare and his audience would have known quite well. It is a relationship rife with dramatic possibilities, and yet Shakespeare never even hints at it. Rather than offering his usual kaleidoscope of dramatic interpretations, Shakespeare deliberately holds back here, limiting our view. We'll never know why he did that, but perhaps that restraint spilled over into the rest of the play.

It is, still, a wonderful pleasure to read -- well-constructed, with interesting action and engaging characters. The play contains some of the most beautiful lines and memorable speeches in the Shakespeare canon. But I wish it had a bit more vitality, a bit more soul.

No comments:

Post a Comment