I am surprised that it has taken me this long to actually get around to re-reading this play so as to write a commentary on it considering that it happens to be one of my favourite Shakespearian plays. The copy that I own belonged to my uncle and the notes that have been scribbled into the book indicate that he read it when he was in high school. A part of me is jealous that he actually got to study this play whereas I was stuck with Hamlet. However, as I think about it I am glad that I never ended up studying this play because if I had I probably would not have enjoyed it as much.
If there is one thing that I do not like about this play it is the 1970 movie starring Charlton Heston as Mark Antony and Jason Robbards as Marcus Brutus. The reason that it leaves a black mark on a rather brilliant play is because of Jason Robbards' American accent. In fact, the accent is so bad that it completely destroys the movie. Another thing that I have noticed about the Shakespearian adaptations around time the movie was produced is that they tend to use the historical setting as opposed to the more recent adaptations which tend to bring the play into the modern world. Ever since the release of this version of Richard III:
I have been hoping that they would do something similar with Julius Caesar. They did it with Coriolanus, and there does seem to be a Julius Caesar that was produced in 2002, but I have yet to see one where they have tanks, artillery, and Apache Gunships sweeping over the battlefield in the last act.
It also seems that there have been a number of high profile actors playing the role of Mark Antony:
Anyhow, enough of my venting my desire to see a modern rendition of Julius Caesar, complete with Apache Gunships, and let us consider the play itself.
Julius Caesar is considered by modern scholars to be a problem play. Initially I haven't really seen anything all that problematic about it. While it is an historical play, it is also a play that demonstrates Shakespeare's maturity as a playwright. However, looking at the historical context of the play one needs to consider the fact that there are two contexts that we need to consider: that of the period in which the play was written and performed; and that of the period in which the events were set. The play itself is clearly a play that could be considered political in nature, even though it is a tragedy, however, as is clear, it has been based upon historical events. The sources of the play are numerous and include Plutarch's Life of Julius Caeser, Life of Mark Antony, and Life of Marcus Brutus, as well as Lucan's Pharsalia.
I will first look at the historical setting of the play (Ancient Rome) itself before looking at the context of the period in which the play was performed (Elizabethan England).
I hope we all know about the story of Julius Caesar, a Roman general who rose to become the foremost power within the Roman Empire and at his height was struck down by his peers in the Roman Senate, and whose best friend was among the conspirators. However we need to ask why it was that they did that because to our modern eyes it would seem absurd. This was not a case of assassination like what happened to John F Kennedy, where he was assassinated by a lone gunman (if that is what you believe), but rather it would be like Barrack Obama walking into Congress and all of the Republican representatives drawing guns and proceeding to shoot him. This is something that simply does not happen, so the question is why did the senators kill him when they surely would have expected retribution.
This thing was, and its comes out of the play, is that they first of all did not expect retribution. The Senators were the government and in one sense what they were doing was taking down a political opponent. This happens all the time in our modern democracies. In fact we see this occurring quite often, such as what happened to the Australian Labor Party in the last federal election, with certain newspapers clearly stating their political position on the front page:
These days politicians tend not to resort to murdering their opponents in cold blood: rather they prefer to destroy their reputation.
The second reason the Roman Senators did this was because there was a belief that Julius Caesar had become a tyrant (and whether he was a tyrant is a separate argument in an of itself, which I will touch upon later) and it was seen to be the duty of the people in a democracy to resist a tyrant. Once again we see this happening today, though the definition of a tyrant can be quite vague. However, nobody would argue that this particular person was not a tyrant:
Though whether this particular person could be considered a tyrant is another story:
I suspect that these people don't really consider him to be a tyrant:
but they certainly don't like him (and I must say I never saw as many protests as this when Julia was Prime Minister – just a couple of people waving placards screaming 'Juliar' and 'Ditch the Witch' – and look who is at the front):
Well, I seem to have written a bit with regards to the Roman period so I feel that maybe I should jump over to Elizabethan England to have a look at what was going on then. Well, England had had a relatively stable government for over a century (ignoring the disruption between the reigns of Henry VIII and Elizabeth I), particularly in the last fifty after the ascension of Elizabeth I. However this period was coming to an end because it was quite obvious that Elizabeth was getting old and no successor had been named. There was also the case that Elizabeth was not the most popular of monarchs among a certain portion of the population but the threat of the throne being usurped was now somewhat past. Shakespeare had already written a number of plays covering a period of significant instability within England which culminated with the War of the Roses, and out of the ashes had arisen the Tudor dynasty which had not only brought England into the modern age, but had created a stable government. Yet there was always the threat that this government could collapse and return to the period of anarchy that Shakespeare would regularly return to that theme.
Now, unlike Rome, England was not a democracy, nor was it a republic, so the idea of resisting a tyrant did not have the same effect that it would have had in Ancient Rome, or even today. As you are probably aware the monarch was in effect a tyrant. Yet, it is likely that the view of a tyrant differed in those days as it does now. England was a relatively liberal society. They had undergone a reformation and Elizabeth allowed parliament a certain amount of freedom. While England was not necessarily in a position that it was in today, there was some form of religious and economic freedom. As such the threat of a tyrant in this period was not so much installing oneself as a dictator, but rather undermining religious freedom and moving to sideline the fledgling parliament.
It is clear that Julius Caesar is an incredibly violent play. In fact the act of assassinating Caesar is an incredibly violent act in and off itself. During this part of the play Shakespeare clearly focuses on the blood – in fact there appears to be quite an excess of blood flowing out of this scene. However, the violence does not end with the assassination, but rather it continues with Mark Antony crying out 'cry havok and let slip the dogs of war'.
Caesar was marked as a tyrant by the conspirators, and as a tyrant it was up to them to resist him, however things did not turn out as expected. This was Shakespeare's warning, namely that by assassinating the tyrant was not going to free the people, but rather it was going to have the opposite effect. Notice how after Caesar is killed two things occur:
1) Octavian enters the play and becomes more and more dominant and by the end has taken the mantle of Caesar. In fact Octavian has the last line in the play.
2) While Caesar may be dead, he in effect does not die. Instead returns as a ghost and interacts with the characters in this form.
Thus, what has happened is that the conspirators have not ended the tyranny, but rather have perpetuated it. Caesar is offered the crown three times (reflecting the offer to take up the mantle of the monarch) and three times Caesar rejects it. True, Caesar had just defeated his political enemy (though what differs from the actual events is that Caesar did not kill Pompey – Pompey was assassinated by somebody else who was then punished by Caesar because while he and Pompey were enemies, Caesar did not wish to see his enemy dead) and it appeared that he was now master of Rome – in fact he was offered that position: but he refused.
However, by assassinating Caesar what the conspirators have done is not only have they sped up the process of moving Rome from a Republic to a dictatorship, but they have also released Caesar from his physical form. The nature of the ghost is not so much that Caesar has become undead, but instead represents the idea that by dying Caesar has ceased to be human and has now become a legend. His assassination actually worked in his favour because by dying he has become greater. Further, the assassination also paved the way for Octavian to take the mantle of Caesar, as is seen when Mark Antony begins to refer to him as such (ignoring the fact that Caesar is his surname, not his title).
There are a few things that should be discussed about the main character because even though he dies halfway through the play, he is still the character around which the entire play is focused. It was interesting to read that there was a change in the idea of Caesar between the Medieval Period and the Renaissance. Medieval thought portrayed Caesar as a hero, somebody to aspire to and to look up to, whereas Renaissance thinkers began to see him as a tyrant. Some have suggested that this was the case with Shakespeare, but that is not my position. My main argument is that Caesar rejects the crown, and there was never any clear indication that he would not have stepped down after a period of time (as Sulla did).
However, another aspect we need to consider is that Caesar was a populist, as can be seen throughout the play. While the conspirators are able to convince the people that the assassination was a necessity for a short time, Mark Antony was able to sway them back to his side. It is not just that he was a good speaker, but rather that he was able to touch upon a part of the ordinary people that swayed them to back his position. Even in Shakespeare's time we see support for Caesar among the common people that was not seen among the intellectual classes.
Further exploration of the historical facts also indicates that his assassins were supporters of the patricians (though we must remember that Caesar himself was a patrician, though his family did have humble beginnings). To put it in a modern context, the conspirators were akin to members of the Republican Party, while Caesar and his supporters were Democrats. While there was no left/right designation back in those days (that designation came about from the French Revolution), the struggle between those who support the common people and those who believe that the well being of the common people will arise from the support of the wealthy was still being played out.
I want to finish off with a few words about Marcus Brutus, though it appears that I have written quite a lot anyway. The reason that I wish to make mention of Brutus is because I believe the play is actually his tragedy. The title of the play is 'The Tragedy of Julius Caesar' but I do not believe that Caesar is the tragic hero in the play - it is Brutus. One thing about Brutus is that his ancestor is famous for removing the last King of Rome, Tarquin, and founding the Republic, and thus he comes under pressure to follow in his ancestor's footsteps in this perceived crisis. The problem is that Brutus is Caesar's friend, which makes the struggle that he faces even greater. Thus comes the idea of whether it is right to commit a wrong if a greater good may result. However, as I have argued, it is possible that Caesar was not a tyrant, therefore the act of participating in the assassination did not bring about a greater good (which in the end it didn't).
The other aspect of Brutus' character is his legacy. In Dante's Divine Comedy we discover that Brutus lurks in the bottom layer of hell, along with Judas Iscariot, not just for the crime of murder, but for the crime of betraying a close friend. The name of Brutus (and there is a lot with regards to names in this play, and their importance) has also been forever tarnished. In fact, for me, whenever I hear the name Brutus, I immediately think of this guy: