The Shakespeare Conference: SHK 13.2121  Wednesday, 23 October 2002

From:           Clifford Stetner <This email address is being protected from spambots. You need JavaScript enabled to view it.>
Date:           Tuesday, 22 Oct 2002 18:25:25 -0400
Subject: 13.2110 Re: More about "Julius Caesar"
Comment:        Re: SHK 13.2110 Re: More about "Julius Caesar"

>The effect on the audience is one dimension; the consistency of the
>argument (that well might - and should - manipulate the audience) is
>another - unless we are to conceive of the audience itself as a
>character in the play and a factor in the argument of it (But is that
>what Mr. Stetner intends us to understand?).

In response to L.S.:

Many would argue (though not I) with the proposition that a play is "is"
an argument however sophisticated and that characters are merely ideas
employed in it. But at the least, the conflict that makes any drama
necessarily implies an argument. If JC is an argument, I would
paraphrase it as one that historical actions are utterly empty of moral
value until it is assigned to them by writers whose representations
achieve canonicity.

JC was written after the long project of creating a historical narrative
for his contemporaries in the tetralogies. Throughout the history plays
are numerous episodes in which the moral ambiguity of historical actions
are struggled with often by presenting the official doctrinaire account
of the event, while introducing problematizing details that prevent the
audience from resting secure with it. In JC the absolutely arbitrary
moral aspect of history becomes the central argument (something that
could perhaps only be acceptable by removing the scene to long ago and
far away).

In JC Brutus and Antony are writers offering competing versions of the
event with diametrically opposed moral verdicts. Shakespeare chose this
historical context because his culture had not accepted a single view
either applauding the assassination as a heroic attempt to liberate Rome
from tyranny or an ignominious sacrilegious regicide. He also chose it
because this question goes to the heart of contemporary conflicts over
divine right. And finally because this particular ambiguous event turned
the entire course of European history.

Presenting a Caesar who was unambiguously noble and beneficial to the
order of the state (favoring Antony's version) would amount to an
endorsement of the doctrine of the divine justification of monarchical
absolutism. Showing him unambiguously base (favoring Brutus's) would
support the principle of sic semper tyrannus: the right of a people to
overthrow tyrants. Shakespeare was clearly capable of doing either with
his characters. That he declined to do so for Caesar might be construed
as an artistic failure if not for the devices with which the play
actively subverts either verdict. Caesar's petulance in the Senate is
one such. Antony's aside after his apparently spontaneous outburst of
sincere grief: "Now let it work. Mischief, thou art afoot,/Take thou
what course thou wilt!" is another.

Shakespeare's verdict is that Antony's version only emerges victorious
because of wise Brutus's magnanimous but foolish decision to let him go
second and to leave him alone with the audience to make his case. This
is the motivation for presenting the preceding argument between Brutus
and Cassius and supports the contention that Shakespeare meant to
prevent his audience from succumbing with the Roman mob to Antony's
(really his own) eloquence.

Ultimately, the play answers the question whether the deed was noble or
base that historical deeds are neither noble nor base beyond what
rhetoric succeeds in convincing us.

I'm not sure I understand the distinction you're making here, but the
audience is certainly a character in any play. But Shakespeare makes a
point of dragging the audience onto the stage. What else is the
Mousetrap about or the numerous other plays within Shakespeare's plays?
What else is Christopher Sly about?

Clifford Stetner

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