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Home :: Archive :: 2002 :: October ::
Questions about "Julius Caesar"
The Shakespeare Conference: SHK 13.2099  Thursday, 17 October 2002

From:           L. Swilley <
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Date:           Wednesday, 16 Oct 2002 22:29:52 -0500
Subject:        Questions about "Julius Caesar"

My friend Tom and I return again and again to - as we see them -
problems in "Julius Caesar". In one of our differences of opinion on the
matter, Tom says that one should bring his knowledge of the historical
figures to the play, whereas I hold that the characters, however
historically named, must be defined principally by what is established
about them in the play and dressed with history only to the degree that
it underlines what is already there in the *characters'* remarks and
actions and in the remarks and actions offered by other characters about
them (the latter, of course, modified by our understanding of reasons
for the other characters' approval or disapproval of any character under

In my way of viewing "Julius Caesar," we observe that Caesar is indeed
*called* "great," and evidently has great power already; he would be
king and now depends on the Senate to give him that absolute power.
Further, if the crowd is fickle and dangerously unsettled during
Caesar's last days, they are marvelously much worse after his death, and
a civil war breaks out in the power struggle that follows it, suggesting
that this character, as bad as he may be, has been somehow the means of
holding the country together. But Shakespeare does not show us a
character who is great in any way that suggests he should have greater
power; quite the contrary, Caesar is a crowd-pleasing, self-puffed fool,
vulnerable to flattery, greedy for power for himself rather than for the
good he might be able to perform with it.  (Is it not exactly this
characterization that makes us understand though not approve Brutus'
determination to remove him?).  Having seen what we have of this Caesar
of the play, we ask ourselves, "where is this 'great' man whom Antony
and Brutus celebrate? He is not the character we are shown here."  But,
long ago, I saw a production of the play in which Gielgud played Caesar
and showed us briefly a man possibly worthy of such praise as Antony and
Brutus give him: while delivering   "Yon Cassius hath a lean and hungry
look, etc.", and surrounded by an attentive crowd, Caesar sat leaning
back vulnerably on  a fountain ledge and delivered those lines directly
to Cassius, who stood meekly before him like a child being corrected by
an adult. Marvellously, under these public circumstances, Caesar's "but
I tell you rather what to fear than what I fear, for always I am Caesar"
established the power of the man - a point lost in the usual private
aside-delivery of those lines to an attentive Antony, as Louis Calhern's
Caesar to Marlon Brando's Antony. (Unfortunately, the Gielgud moment was
but that - merely a moment; it was not followed up with any like
interpretation in the rest of the production.)

Friend Tom maintains that although such is the picture of Caesar that
Shakespeare gives us, he also gives us a Caesar who, if considered in
his historical image is one of the greatest men who ever lived, and who,
even as only a character within the play,  is wisely aware of his
enemies ("Yon Cassius has a lean and hungry look"), who properly puts
matters of state before matters concerning himself (pushing aside
Apollodorus' warning note on those grounds), and who will not be swayed
by mere begging  to alter a political judgement he has made and
considers sound (the issue of Cimber).  These notes, Tom says, are what
everyone should see, but that are ignored, because of Caesar's "unhappy
rhetoric," particularly as employed in the Senate scene. And seeing
them, we should concede that Caesar would make a effective king - or at
least not oppose that on the shallow grounds of his questionable
motives, or his arrogance as displayed in his "unhappy rhetoric."

It is evident that Shakespeare means to bring his audience to this very
point of crisis, then leave us without answers, except in the "answer"
that havoc follows the murder of Caesar - but we cannot know what might
have followed Caesar's kingship.

However those issues may be disposed, there remains for both of us the
problem of Caesar's arrogant outburst in the Senate immediately before
his murder. His "unhappy rhetoric," especially delivered as it usually
is, is of such a vitriolic nature and so full of self and so rich with
contempt for the surrounding senators, the very audience finds itself
strongly moved to join the conspirators in their stabbing him. Tom and
I  reason that there must something wrong in the usual interpretation in
the productions of this critical scene: here is a Caesar who has come to
the Senate, hoping that the senators will name him absolute king, yet
his conduct here before them is nothing like the crowd-pleasing
character we have seen before in the play; quite the contrary, for not
only does he deny their plea for the repeal of their friend's
banishment, but he delivers his refusal in the most insulting of all
possible terms ("cur...base fawning spaniels...") then arrogantly
announces his superiority to them ("if I were like you...but I am as
constant as the Northern Star...etc.").  I can only suppose that the
senators' remarks are to be made in such a way as to cause Caesar to
forget why he has come to the Senate, and to lose all control of his
persuasive, political self, showing suddenly and uncontrollably what he
would  be if he were indeed to be made absolute king - but I cannot
imagine how a director or his actors could make this clear.  On the
other hand, without *some* creative explanation in production of this
crucial scene, something as inventive here as that enlightening Gielgud
presentation of the earlier scene, this scene remains a puzzle, for we
have never seen a Caesar quite like this in the play up to this point,
nor do his hopes, dependent as they are on the good will of the
senators, make such a reaction at all likely.

Your comments are solicited - especially if you have seen a production
in which these usually missing values have been present.

            L. Swilley

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