Julius Caesar is a play about moral ambiguity in a political setting and the personal tragedy that results. It resembles both the History Plays, written somewhat earlier, and the great Tragedies, soon to come. Like the tragedies, it presents a protagonist who aspires to heroism and fails because of his own moral shortcomings. At the same time, Julius Caesar also reflects the political philosophy that had informed the playwright's picture of English civil war in the history plays. Because civil disorder and violence are tragic for the entire society, their avoidance is a higher moral obligation than the pursuit or control of power, even for apparently just or moral purposes. Therefore, for Shakespeare, the preservation of the political status quo is a primary good.
Brutus, the protagonist of Julius Caesar, is an ambivalent figure who may be seen as both good and evil—an honorable man dedicated to the good of his country, but also a destroyer of its peace. The play's central action—the murder of Caesar—may seem an act of disinterested idealism or one of inflated self-love. Twentieth-century views of the play reflect these possibilities: with the rise of fascism in the 1920s and 1930s, Brutus was aggrandized as a model of republican virtues and Caesar identified with Mussolini and Hitler. More recently, however, Caesar has been defended as a hero who is destroyed by a neurotically envious Brutus, who pursues glory without regard for the disaster he provokes.
These positions are not as mutually exclusive as they may seem; Julius Caesar is sometimes grouped with the Problem Plays as a work about the uncertain outcome of human endeavors. In this light, the heart of Julius Caesar is the tension between Brutus' idealistic rejection of a dominating leader and the reality that human society requires the discipline that Caesar imposes. From another angle, the conflict occurs between the protagonist's obsessive demand for a perfect world and the catastrophe that follows in the real, imperfect world. Thus Brutus' actions are both virtuous and disastrous. Precisely because this ambiguity is possible, Brutus is a tragic hero who attempts the humanly impossible and fails.
At first glance, it seems odd that the play's title character is killed less than halfway through the work, but Caesar, though his part is small, dominates the whole drama. First, his assumption of power in Rome stimulates the conspiracy; later, the inescapable memory of him inspires Antony and haunts Brutus.
The telling comparisons between Brutus and Caesar demonstrate the play's most essential ambivalence: the tyrant and his opponent are not easily distinguishable. In this fashion, the morality of the assassination is questioned, and the importance of Caesar's leadership—first resented and then absent—remains evident. Both Brutus and Caesar have great leadership qualities, and, being certain of his virtues, each is susceptible to flattery and manipulation by lesser men. In murdering Caesar, Brutus follows the Caesar-like course of attempting to change society in accordance with his views. Similarly, in the war that follows the assassination, Brutus behaves as imperiously as Caesar did, enacting precisely the failings of autocratic leadership—the isolation from his followers, the presumption of sound decision-making, the potential for tyranny—that he had acted to prevent in killing Caesar. Significantly, Caesar's Ghost identifies itself as Brutus' 'evil spirit' (4.3.281).
Nevertheless, Caesar is superior to Brutus in his analysis of Cassius and in his recognition that a single leader is needed to control Rome. Moreover, Brutus persistently makes bad judgments, and he suffers the consequences, going from error to error. He refuses to share leadership of the conspiracy with Cassius or Cicero. His arrogant overconfidence is plainly demonstrated when he dismisses-Antony as an inconsequential underling in 2.1.181-183. Later, he twice rejects the advice of the more experienced Cassius, resulting in the failure of his cause at Philippi. He is persistently blind to reality, following his own superficial rectitude to disaster. The patriotism he invokes is certainly a living ideal for Brutus, but it is also a cover for his vanity and his unacknowledged need to be like Caesar himself.
As Brutus deteriorates morally in the second half of the play, becoming ever more Caesar-like, so Caesar himself seems to grow in worth as Rome collapses in the leadership vacuum created by his death. This important point is made especially clear by the behaviorr of the Plebeians after the murder. Ironically, they hail Brutus as an autocrat—'Let him be Caesar' (3.2.52)—just after he has murdered Caesar to prevent him from becoming one. However, the fickle mob is immediately turned against Brutus by Antony's oration, and their brutality in killing the wrong Cinna in 3.3 heralds the disorder that later prevails on a larger scale in the civil war. Brutus has unleashed a whirlwind.
Brutus' attempts to dignify the assassination by invoking the gods through ritual are pointedly undercut. Brutus wishes to make a ceremony of the killing, saying, 'Let's be sacrificers, but not butchers' (2.1.166), but he immediately goes on to reveal an unconscious awareness of public opinion: '. . . so appearing to the common eyes, / We shall be cali'd purgers, not murderers' (2.1.179-180). Another attempt to ritualize the murder occurs when Brutus leads the assassins in washing their hands in Caesar's blood, an act that only accentuates the violence of the deed.
In the second half of the play, Antony, heretofore an unimportant figure, suddenly comes into his own. He dominates the conspirators, taking control of Rome by the end of 3.2. In 4.1, where he bargains the lives of his relatives with Octavius and Lepidus, and then disdains the latter as an impotent tool, we see Antony as both a cynical political operative and a strong leader, a complex figure whose ambivalent nature deepens the moral ambiguity of the play's world.
Later developments confirm that Brutus' decision to kill Caesar was wrong both politically and morally. Antony's dire prediction of the bloody course revenge will take, in 3.1.258-275, strongly invokes the conventions of the Revenge Play, a popular genre of Elizabethan and Jacobean Drama that Shakespeare had exploited earlier in Titus Andronicus and would again in Hamlet and Macbeth. In a revenge play an inexorable rule operates: a murder must be punished with another one, usually under the eye of the victim's ghost; the first murderer is doomed, regardless of politics or personality. Thus such factors as the possible benefit to Rome of Caesar's death are swept aside. Brutus' moralizing has been useless; Antony will inevitably triumph. The would-be savior of Rome has produced only a morally chaotic situation in which final victory goes, not to the high-minded assassin, nor to the hot blooded avenger, but to the cool opportunist Octavius. This icily commanding figure takes control from Antony in 5.1.20 and disposes of matters at the play's close. Roman history was much more familiar in Shakespeare's time than in ours, and the playwright knew that his audience would immediately recognize the irony that Brutus' attempt to prevent one tyranny merely paved the way for the greater autocracy of Octavius, known to history as the first Roman emperor, Augustus Caesar. (Shakespeare was to dramatize the final consolidation of Octavius' power in (Antony and Cleopatra.)
As he did in the history plays, Shakespeare altered the historical record considerably in writing Julius Caesar. Following Plutarch, the playwright accurately presented the broad outlines of Roman history but altered many details for dramatic purposes. Notably, he compressed the chronology of events from months to a few days or hours in order to achieve a more dramatic sequence of events. For instance, Caesar's triumphant return to Rome occurred in October of 45 B.C., while the feast of Lupercalia fell in the following February. Only some weeks after this event were the tribunes Flavus (the play's Flavius) and Marullus ousted after removing public decorations that honored Caesar. Shakespeare combined all these events into a single day, enacted in 1.1-2.
Similarly, the aftermath of the assassination covers only several hours in the play. In Plutarch the same events took months. Antony's speech followed Brutus' by several days, rather than immediately, and Brutus, whose night is reported after the speech, did not in fact leave Rome until mid-April. Similarly, Octavius' arrival coincides with the orations in the play, but he did not actually appear in Rome until six weeks afterwards. And though Antony welcomes Octavius in the play, the two actually quarreled to the point of warfare, and their alliance was not arranged for almost 20 months, though in the play it follows immediately.
The battle of Philippi is a dramatic example of Shakespeare's compression of events. In the play, the battle directly follows the meeting of Cassius and Brutus in 4.2-3, whereas it actually occurred more than 6 months later. In fact there were two battles at Philippi, as Plutarch reports: the first was a draw, in which Cassius killed himself; in the second, 20 days later, Brutus was defeated and also committed suicide. Shakespeare compresses the two conflicts into a single afternoon.
Other changes involve the historical figures themselves. In 1.2 Cassius refers to an estrangement between himself and Brutus, and Brutus replies that his private worries have made him distant to his friends. In fact, according to Plutarch, the hostility between the two stemmed from their rivalry for a political position. Shakespeare's version draws attention to Brutus' worries about Caesar's aspirations and also makes him seem thoughtful and conscientious, rather than politically ambitious.
Further, Shakespeare substantially elaborated Plutarch's accounts of the speeches of Brutus and Antony in 3.2 and of the riot of the Plebeians in 3.3. Plutarch merely alludes to the two orations, attaching no great importance to their styles, while Shakespeare creates antithetical deliveries—rational versus emotional—that reflect on the characters who speak them and on the very nature of politics. Similarly, while Plutarch mentions the actions of the mob, the playwright gives the crowd life and thus transforms their volatility and fickleness, even their grim sense of humor, into a significant political phenomenon.
Shakespeare had to emphasize politics in Julius Caesar, for otherwise Brutus' fate would be meaningless. Brutus himself never sees his mistake in murdering his best friend and the leader of his country. His fate is dramatically satisfactory only in light of the impact of his action on Roman society as a whole, that is, in its political consequences. His error stems from an unconscious desire for a political world in which evil is impossible. Thus his political blindness has a psychological element, reflecting Shakespeare's progress towards the psychological portraiture of the great tragedies.
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