“The evil that men do…”
Stop. Before you roll your eyes at the thought of Shakespeare and recall your year 10 English class, just hear me out. In English literature there is none greater than Shakespeare There is a reason he remains as relevant, influential and oft-quoted now as he did five hundred years ago. Julius Caesar is quite possibly his most accessible play.
First, some historical context. It is the story of the assassination of the Roman general Julius Caesar by a group of Roman senators on the 15th of March, 32 B.C. It’s an infamous date in world history. Until then Rome had been a Republic for about five hundred years, having deposed their hated kings. After several high-profile military victories by Caesar, and having won out in a brutal civil war, some Roman senators feared that Caesar was becoming too powerful and would soon seek the dreaded title of ‘king’ (more on this later). Something had to be done to prevent this. The focus of the play is the events leading up to and after Caesar’s murder, as each character moralises their position.
Let me open with an example of Shakespeare’s language. In the scene below, Caesar’s ally Mark Antony is speaking at Caesar’s public funeral and responding to (one of) Caesar’s killers, Brutus, who has justified his actions to the crowd:
Antony: Friends, Romans, countrymen, lend me your ears.
I come to bury Caesar, not to praise him.
The evil that men do lives after them,
The good is oft interred with their bones;
So let it be with Caesar. The noble Brutus
Hath told you Caesar was ambitious.
If it were so, it was a grievous fault,
And grievously hath Caesar answered it.
Here, under leave of Brutus and the rest
(For Brutus is an honourable man,
So are they all, all honourable men),
Come I to speak in Caesar’s funeral…
(Act 3, Scene 2)
This is THE big speech from the play. I quote the scene at length (and highlight in bold the more memorable lines) so that you may see in the clips of the scene below how Shakespeare’s words can be brought to life – and given great power - in different ways. For let us not forget, they are to be performed aloud, to a large audience. Try to read along with the lines as you listen to the video.
Here is Marlon Brando’s aggressive take:
And here is a more subtle though no less persuasive take from Damian Lewis:
This scene has been interpreted in many ways. The focus is on Antony’s sarcastic repetition of Brutus as being ‘an honourable man’. More on this later. The point is to establish in your head a voice for the written words.
Brutus: Not that I loved Caesar less, but that I loved Rome more.
Had you rather Caesar were living, and die all slaves,
than that Caesar were dead, to live all free men?
Though the play has several themes it is essentially asking the question: is it better to be ruled by a ‘bad’ man (Caesar), who is yet strong enough to hold all of the competing factions together; or is it better to be ruled by a ‘good’ man (Brutus), a man of high virtue yet who is not strong enough to maintain some sort of order: There are obvious parallels with modern times, from Stalin in Russia to Saddam Hussein in Iraq and perhaps even to contemporary U.S. politics.
The ‘Problem Play’
Julius Caesar has been called Shakespeare’s ‘problem play’: who is the protagonist (main character) of the play? It’s called ‘Julius Caesar’, but Caesar dies halfway through. Or is it more about Brutus and his struggles with his own morality? The answer has changed over the centuries depending on the political climate, which goes some way to explaining its enduring appeal.
There are many ways to engage with a text: plot, character, language, setting, dialogue. Often an initial appreciation of one of these elements leads to an appreciation of the others. Such was my experience in reading Julius Caesar. My doorway into the text was the language. Here is the very first scene, where the nobleman Flavius comes across a group of workers in the street:
Flavius: Hence! Home, you idle creatures, get you home!
Is this a holiday? What, know you not,
Being mechanical, you ought not walk
Upon a labouring day without the sign
Of your profession? Speak, what trade art thou?
‘Mechanical’ means ‘of the working classes’, a craftsman. Brilliant. We still use the term ‘mechanic’ today. That was enough to draw me in. Once you understand the meaning of a particular term (and most editions have extensive footnotes) it unlocks the context, and you wonder why we use some terms today and not those of Shakespeare. Reading Shakespeare then becomes a search for such clever word-play. Here is another:
Caesar: Who is it in the press that calls on me?
‘Press’ means ‘crowd’. And why not? – that’s what crowds do.
The play is full of terms and phrases which are still well known today:
“It was Greek to me.”
“Cry “Havoc”, and let slip the dogs of war.”
“Ambition should be mad of sterner stuff.”
“The fault, dear Brutus, is not in our stars, but in ourselves”
Along with such inventive language there is also a distinct lack of “thous” and “comeths” and other such ‘Shakespearian language, which can put many people off. And though there are plain English versions available, it kind of defeats the purpose of finding delight in the inventiveness of Shakespeare’s language.
The Lead Up
Here is the senator Cassius suggesting that Caesar will take advantage of Rome’s weakness.
Cassius: Those that with haste will make a mighty fire
Begin it with weak straws. What trash is Rome,
What rubbish and what offal, when it serves
For the base matter to illuminate
So vile a thing as Caesar!
The fire metaphor is nice, suggesting that once started it will be difficult to control. And here is Brutus’ interpretation.
Brutus: And therefore think him as a serpent’s egg
Which hatched, would as his kind grow mischievous,
And kill him in the shell.
Caesar is a snake: best to kill him in the egg, before he hatches, and grows into a bigger snake. Shakespeare uses the power of metaphor to plant a powerful idea in our mind, to build empathy with the characters.
The actual event that finally convinces the conspirators that they must act is a public forum where Antony offers Caesar a crown, and which Caesar refuses. It’s not clear whether Antony’s offer was merely symbolic, nor whether Caesar’s refusal was genuine and his refusal based upon an astute reading of the crowd. Either way, Caesar’s fate is sealed.
“Beware the ides of March.”
Caesar is warned by a soothsayer of his impending doom, yet Caesar is philosophical:
Caesar: 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.
As we will see later in the play, this fatalistic view will eventually serve the interests of his enemies.
“The most unkindest cut of all.”
Now we come to the killing of Caesar. During the attack Caesar utters the (ironically) immortal phrase “Et tu, Brutus?”
“And you, Brutus”? Not only is this the most famous line from the play, it’s one of Shakespeare’s most famous lines. Caesar is surprised that Brutus has joined in the stabbing frenzy (resulting ultimately in Caesar’s ‘three and thirty wounds’), as Brutus was supposedly the most moral man in Rome (see Act 3 Scene 2, above).
Here are the conspirators justifying their actions after the event by suggesting that they have saved Caesar form the fear of death - by killing him!
Casca: Why, he that cuts off twenty years of life
Cuts off so many years of fearing death
Brutus: Grant that, and then is death a benefit.
So are we Caesar’s friends, that have abridged
His time of fearing death. Stoop, Romans, stoop
And let us bathe our hands in Caesar’s blood
Up to the elbows, and besmear our swords.
Then walk we forth, even to the market place,
And waving our red weapons o’er our heads,
Let’s all cry “Peace, freedom and liberty!”
[They’re actually proud of it – they have saved democracy by killing the tyrant - which is why they suggest waving their bloodied swords in front of the crowd]
Cassius: Stoop then, and wash. How many ages hence
Shall this our lofty scene be acted over
In states unborn and accents yet unknown!
Those last lines are a nice little wink from Shakespeare, to his contemporary audience and to us today.
As we can see, Shakespeare does not shy away from graphic imagery; 16th Century England was as familiar with the killing power of a blade as the Romans were. Here is Antony discovering Caesar’s body. I link it to a video of the scene, notable initially for that great line about Caesar’s stab wounds resembling red-lipped mouths, before Antony (Marlon Brando) explodes in fury. It’s stirring stuff and I actually jumped the first time I watched it:
Antony: O pardon me, thou bleeding piece of earth,
That I am meek and gentle with these butchers!
Thou art the ruins of the noblest man
That ever lived in the tide of times.
Woe to the hand that shed this costly blood!
Over thy wounds now do I prophecy
(Which like dumb mouths do ope their ruby lips
To beg the voice and utterance of my tongue) …
I won’t go any further than that, even though it’s only halfway through the play. If you’ve got this far and watched the clips without being inspired then nothing I can say will change that. Besides, if you’ve read Mary Beard’s wonderful SPQR (see my earlier review) you will know how it all turned out. Instead, I will leave you with this:
Antony: This was the noblest Roman of them all…
His life was gentle [noble], and the elements
So mixed [well-balanced] in him that Nature might stand up
And say to all the world, “This was a man!”