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Home :: Archive :: 2003 :: February ::
Re: Julius Caesar's Protagonist
The Shakespeare Conference: SHK 14.0346  Monday, 24 February 2003

[1]     From:   C. David Frankel <
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        Date:   Friday, 21 Feb 2003 10:42:55 -0500
        Subj:   RE: SHK 14.0336 Re: Julius Caesar's Protagonist

[2]     From:   Larry Weiss <
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        Date:   Friday, 21 Feb 2003 12:01:09 -0500
        Subj:   Re: SHK 14.0336 Re: Julius Caesar's Protagonist

[3]     From:   David Bishop <
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        Date:   Sunday, 23 Feb 2003 18:12:45 -0800
        Subj:   Re: SHK 14.0336 Re: Julius Caesar's Protagonist

[4]     From:   Edward Brown <
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        Date:   Monday, 24 Feb 2003 00:41:01 EST
        Subj:   Re: SHK 14.0336 Re: Julius Caesar's Protagonist


[1]-----------------------------------------------------------------
From:           C. David Frankel <
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Date:           Friday, 21 Feb 2003 10:42:55 -0500
Subject: 14.0336 Re: Julius Caesar's Protagonist
Comment:        RE: SHK 14.0336 Re: Julius Caesar's Protagonist

Brutus is at war with himself before Cassius ever approaches him -- and
that war appears to be over the future of Caesar.  It is Brutus who
first reacts to the offstage crowd yells in I.2, fearing, he says, that
the people make him (JC) king.  It is Brutus who offers a sophistical
rationalization for the killing of Caesar rather than admitting the
already pretty obvious truth -- that Caesar is a tyrant.  It is Brutus
who cannot see what should be done (inviting Cicero to join the
anti-Caesar party, killing Antony, not letting him speak, etc.).  The
received wisdom that Brutus is the noblest Roman of them all is just
that -- received.  That doesn't make it correct -- or, perhaps better
said in the context of a play -- it doesn't make it the only
interpretation that can be supported by the "facts" of the text.  I
would argue, however, that the rhetoric of the play suggests strongly
that Brutus was no more (nor no less) noble than Cassius, and that
politicians use circumstances to further their own ends -- which is what
Antony does at the plays end.  To assume that the audience necessarily
takes these lines at the face value denies, in a way, the force of the
performance that leads up to the actor's utterance.

cdf

[2]-------------------------------------------------------------
From:           Larry Weiss <
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Date:           Friday, 21 Feb 2003 12:01:09 -0500
Subject: 14.0336 Re: Julius Caesar's Protagonist
Comment:        Re: SHK 14.0336 Re: Julius Caesar's Protagonist

>Note that Cassius has told Brutus: "Of your philosophy you
>make no use / If you give place to accidental evils" and Brutus then
>tells him "No man bears sorrow better -- Portia is dead."
>
>[Himadri Chatterjee:] Cassius' lines quoted above were spoken before he
>knew of
>Portia death, i.e. before he knew of the nature of the "accidental evil"
>to which Brutus is reacting.

True, but irrelevant.  It is clear that Brutus's tetchiness is a result
of Portia's ghastly death and not Cassius's alleged financial
peccadilloes.  After being told that Portia was dead, Cassius observes
"How scap'd I killing when I cross'd you so?"

>[Himadri Chatterjee again:] Note also that in the later scene with
>Messala and Titinius, Cassius praises Brutus' stoicism. If Brutus was,
>indeed, being dishonest to make a show of his stoicism, Cassius' lines
>are inexplicable.

Hardly inexplicable.  By this point, Cassius had twigged to Brutus's
purpose and was playing along.  Brutus had already stopped him from
blowing the gag -- After Messala and Titinius enter, Cassius muses
"Portia, art thou gone?" and, in the same line continued to Brutus, the
latter warns him off: "No more, I pray you."

Besides, Cassius's "compliment" is backhanded and ambiguous.  He says:
"I have as much of this in art as you, /  But yet my nature could not
bear it so"; which is as much as to say "I am as capable of deception as
you, but not so ruthless as to make such use of my wife's death."

If anyone harbors lingering doubts as to whether this is at least a
workable interpretation of the text, I urge you to see the BBC version
(with Pasco as Brutus) which exhibits it brilliantly.

>[Himadri Chatterjee:]  nothing he did was in self-interest
>
>Larry Weiss: Oh?  Who would have been elected first consul, dictator, or
>whatever, if the Second Triumvirate had been defeated?
>
>[Chatterjee again:] If this had been an important factor in Brutus'
>motivation, it
>is curious indeed that he had never mentioned it - not even in his
>soliloquy in II,i.

To anticipate what Charles Weinstein might say:  Perhaps Shakespeare had
enough faith in the ability of his audience to deduce the obvious that,
unlike Oliver Stone, he did not feel he had to spell it all out.
Throughout the play Brutus is shown as a man who is constitutionally
unable to follow anyone else's advice; he has to have his own way about
matters as trivial as taking an oath to those as momentous as allowing
Antony to speak in Caesar's funeral and the order of battle at Philippi,
usually with disastrous results.  It is not too much to expect an
audience to discern that this man is ambitious.

[3]-------------------------------------------------------------
From:           David Bishop <
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Date:           Sunday, 23 Feb 2003 18:12:45 -0800
Subject: 14.0336 Re: Julius Caesar's Protagonist
Comment:        Re: SHK 14.0336 Re: Julius Caesar's Protagonist

Himadri Chatterjee and David Evett have made what seem to me very good
arguments against Steve Sohmer. I especially would agree that Brutus is
admirable for his honest idealism, despite his flaws, and that Antony
points this out with sincere respect. But in this case I still feel that
the hints of Brutus's filial connection to Caesar sound quietly, though
not quite inaudibly, in the background.

I think Harold Bloom treats this point with wonderful delicacy. He
believes (this Bardolater!) that Shakespeare made a mistake. He shows a
special relationship between Caesar and Brutus but leaves the reason for
it mysterious--too mysterious. In this way, says Bloom, he "allows at
least an elite in the audience to assume that Brutus is Caesar's natural
son." To force that theme on the audience would, so to speak, confuse
the issue--which is, even unconfused by bastardy, an ambiguous approach
to the question of tyranny.  (We might remember that Shakespeare had
ties to both sides in the Essex rebellion.) Yet taking the hint gives
interesting overtones to, for example, words like "noblest", "envy" and
"Nature" in Antony's final speech (cf.  Edmund). Maybe we should say
that the author, and a few in the audience, may be aware of these
overtones, but, for the purposes of the play, most of the audience, and
the characters, are not. Is this a dramatic mistake on Shakespeare's
part, which leads us away from the main questions of the play into
peripheral arguments like this one? I'm not sure.

The question about the double news of Portia's death is also subtle but
I think less intractably ambiguous. The quarrel comes partly from
Brutus's grief-disturbed mind. He is not as stoical as he wants to
appear, not only to others but to himself. He partly takes out his rage
at Portia's death on Cassius, as Shakespeare indicates with Cassius's
"How scap'd I killing when I cross'd you so?" He complains of "many
griefs", then lies about his ignorance in order to demonstrate his
"Roman" fortitude to the troops.  Messala's thinking it "strange" that
he hasn't heard, along with the emphasis on being a Roman, and then,
especially, Brutus's inhuman brusqueness--"Why, farewell Portia", "Well,
to we to our work alive" etc.--show Shakespeare's intention quite
clearly. The lie also gives added point to Cassius's "I have as much of
this in art as you,/But yet my nature could not bear it so." The word
"art" has one meaning to Messala, another to Brutus and Cassius.

Brutus is trying to play the noble Roman, when, at least on the
battlefield, he doesn't quite have what it takes. In this dissociated
state, playing the "decisive" role, he makes a bad military decision.
His pose of Roman stoicism seems possibly counterposed to Caesar's more
successful art: "for always I am Caesar." It's not necessary, but for me
not quite avoidable, to hear a hint of a son who can't fill his father's
shoes--as his father's ghost returns to remind him.

Best wishes,
David Bishop

[4]-------------------------------------------------------------
From:           Edward Brown
 <
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Date:           Monday, 24 Feb 2003 00:41:01 EST
Subject: 14.0336 Re: Julius Caesar's Protagonist
Comment:        Re: SHK 14.0336 Re: Julius Caesar's Protagonist

Hear hear to David Evett on both points!

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