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Home :: Archive :: 2003 :: February ::
Re: Julius Caesar's Protagonist
The Shakespeare Conference: SHK 14.0408  Friday, 28 February 2003

[1]     From:   Claude Caspar <
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        Date:   Thursday, 27 Feb 2003 10:36:48 -0500
        Subj:   Re: SHK 14.0394 Re: Julius Caesar's Protagonist

[2]     From:   John W. Kennedy <
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        Date:   Thursday, 27 Feb 2003 10:44:44 -0500
        Subj:   Re: SHK 14.0394 Re: Julius Caesar's Protagonist

[3]     From:   D Bloom <
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        Date:   Thursday, 27 Feb 2003 11:50:42 -0600
        Subj:   Re: SHK 14.0394 Re: Julius Caesar's Protagonist

[4]     From:   James Conlan <
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        Date:   Thursday, 27 Feb 2003 21:56:28 +0000
        Subj:   Re: SHK 14.0394 Re: Julius Caesar's Protagonist

[5]     From:   Anna Kamaralli <
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        Date:   Fri, 28 Feb 2003 14:12:56 +1100
        Subj:   Re: SHK 14.0394 Re: Julius Caesar's Protagonist


[1]-----------------------------------------------------------------
From:           Claude Caspar <
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Date:           Thursday, 27 Feb 2003 10:36:48 -0500
Subject: 14.0394 Re: Julius Caesar's Protagonist
Comment:        Re: SHK 14.0394 Re: Julius Caesar's Protagonist

"On the other point, though, I find myself sticking to my guns. To
recap, Mr Weiss points out that Brutus, without being asked to do so,
assumes leadership both of the conspiracy and of the military campaign
afterwards; and that this implies an ambition so powerful, that there
was no need for Shakespeare to spell out explicitly that ambition was
one of his motives in assassinating Caesar."

On this point, one must try to realize how differently it was then for
someone like Brutus, on whose shoulders the tradition of his Roman
ancestors obligated him in a way we rarely feel. Shakespeare somehow
fully understood not only Rome, but a great man like Brutus in this
context- not only that, but the difference for Elizabethans, and for the
future.  He saw the trajectory of these traditions & their implications-
isn't Hamlet like Brutus in this?  He is called upon to realize his
destiny, but no longer with Brutus' single-mindedness.

As MacMullen puts it in a compellingly fleshed out treatment of the
tradition's impact, he could not simply not act- it was normal then to
be charged with "abdicating a birthright."  Certainly, ambition factors
in- to be another tyrannicides, in the holy name of [Greek] libertas, as
his actual, not mythical, ancestor, L. Junius Brutus.  See his lengthy
description of funerals, where every important ancestor was
reincarnated, with full political implications:

". an actor who looked & talked like him, or perhaps some relative who
resembled him, put on his death mask of wax, exactly painted, & walked
ahead of his bier accompanied by dozens or (for a great man of a great
family) by hundreds of his ancestors represented in turn by their masks,
and by the robes & rites of the highest office they had attained."  on &
on- something the panoply of heraldic England identified with (cf
Macbeth).

This is ambition thrust upon. Kafka is a modern corrective- such
ancestral responsibility now seen as a curse.  Or, as in Genet, in
"Deathwatch,", on death row, when the murders compare notes, one can say
he did it to be like them to gain their admiration, make his bones to be
one of the boys, but another, the greatest of criminals, the man who
will be executed in the morning, declares he didn't do it because he
wanted to, but because he had to. The Greek notion of Oedipal Necessity
vestigial.

Now, think of the role of Ceasar's ghost, or even daddy Hamlet.
Tradition bearing down on those who feel it.

[2]-------------------------------------------------------------
From:           John W. Kennedy <
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Date:           Thursday, 27 Feb 2003 10:44:44 -0500
Subject: 14.0394 Re: Julius Caesar's Protagonist
Comment:        Re: SHK 14.0394 Re: Julius Caesar's Protagonist

Don Bloom <
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 > writes,

>2. I may be wrong (it happens), but my recollections of such reading as
>I have done in Roman history indicate that Rome at this moment was
>governed rather like one of those "banana republics" where a handful of
>ancient, intermarried families control everything, and the rabble are
>left to starve -- or support a military dictator who promises them a
>slice of the pie. (I think Peron may be the best parallel.)

That was pretty much always the situation.  The long-ago Plebeian revolt
had somewhat democratized things, but, well before Caesar's time, the
distinction between Patrician and Plebeian had become a technicality of
birth, and the real division was between the rich and rural, on the one
hand, and the urban poor (who were gerrymandered into electoral
impotence) on the other.  In hindsight, the situation had become
hopeless around the time Caesar was born, when a number of military
disasters had forced Marius to the desperate measure of recruiting the
army from among the poor of the city, who had to be paid; thitherto,
military service had been the exclusive duty and privilege of those who
could afford to pay their own way.

>3. I don't see how Julius Caesar can be held responsible for Nero and
>Caligula.

Well, he is part of the chain of events that led to them, but, on the
other hand, it is entirely possible that, had he lived, he might have
been not only able, but willing (as Augustus was not) to put the
Republic back on track.

[3]-------------------------------------------------------------
From:           D Bloom <
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Date:           Thursday, 27 Feb 2003 11:50:42 -0600
Subject: 14.0394 Re: Julius Caesar's Protagonist
Comment:        Re: SHK 14.0394 Re: Julius Caesar's Protagonist

Since we are back on the subject of the play, rather than its
contemporary politico-moral-religious commentaries, I will offer a
little back-chat:

C. David Frankel writes,

>Although I agree in the main with Clifford Sterner, Brutus makes a
>mistake in not seeing Antony for what he is:  a butcher.  He should have
>agreed to kill him as Cassius urged, or at least to take him prisoner.
>But, having decided against putting Antony to silence, he should at
>least have had the political savvy to listen to Antony's oration.  Of
>course, he had no choice, since Shakespeare wanted him elsewhere.

I think CDF has isolated a key point (perhaps THE key point) in the
"Tragedy of Brutus," although I disagree with his recommendation. If
Brutus were to start acting like Antony -- seizing dictatorial (or
quasi-dictatorial) power and murdering his enemies -- then he becomes
morally indistinguishable from Antony, that is, no less of a butcher.
But he has been sold on his betrayal of his benefactor by the high-flown
appeal to patriotism and political ideals offered by Cassius. He can't
have it both ways. If he plays the Antony-game for safety's sake, he
becomes Antony, and just another cynical and power-hungry butcher. If he
tries to maintain his ideals (including those that justify his murder of
Caesar) he runs the risk of losing out to inimical opportunists.
(Recommended reading: "Blind Ambition," the memoirs of John Dean,
Richard Nixon's original Watergate attorney.)

 R. Schmeeckle very aptly reminds us that

>Dante deposits Brutus in the lowest circle of Hell, along with Judas
>Iscariot and Cassius, all betrayers of benefactors.  Judas is portrayed
>as a little worse, being chewed headfirst in one of Satan's three
>mouths, whereas Brutus is being chewed feet first, his head dangling in
>the rotten air.  I doubt that Shakespeare knew Dante, but he would
>surely have been close to a medieval outlook.  Perhaps someone can
>comment on the regard for Brutus in the English literary tradition prior
>to Shakespeare.

Just so. I got perplexed by this discordance some years ago and finally
concluded that there were two opposed traditions, and Shakespeare had
adopted (for *JC*) the later. The first, that Dante was working from,
held that Caesar as one of the Nine Worthies, one of the three greatest
conquerors of antiquity ("the foremost man of all the world," as Brutus
calls him). Dante then, of course, used him as the symbol of the Sacred
Empire, betrayed by a friend much like Christ with whom he shares
initials.

A second tradition arose, I gather from Renaissance humanism (or rather
from its reading of Plutarch and others), of an ideal of liberty. This
might mean individual freedoms, but more often it meant the integrity of
a nation-state composed of people with common customs and language. A
true patriot was one who sought to defend his nation not only from
outside invaders but from internal enemies who were undermining the
"liberties" and traditional customs for personal gain.

I, too, would like to hear from some who have more precise knowledge of
this question, or at least some reliable references who articles that
can clarify it.

Cheers,
don

[4]-------------------------------------------------------------
From:           James Conlan <
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Date:           Thursday, 27 Feb 2003 21:56:28 +0000
Subject: 14.0394 Re: Julius Caesar's Protagonist
Comment:        Re: SHK 14.0394 Re: Julius Caesar's Protagonist

Brian Willis writes,

"Brutus is revered and respected, but lacks the political savvy to
commit the assassination and get away with it. He makes several
mistakes, underestimating Antony's charisma and overestimating Rome's
commonsense. His speech is straightforward, in prose, and sincere. But
sincerity can be boring to a fickle public. Antony gives them spice,
accentuates the wounds, dangles the will as an attention getter, and
succeeds in getting the mob to hang on his every word. If he were a
politician today, he would be called the Great Communicator, a perfect
media creature. Brutus is not. All he has is his pure, sincere love for
the republic and the freedom of its citizens. It is not enough. He is
the equivalent of an Al Gore, a Gephardt, or the vast majority of
politicians of any party who are generally sincere but lack the public
fire to capture our imaginations and emotions."

I recognize that Whiggish interpretations of Shakespeare (especially
Julius Caesar, Hamlet and Richard II) have traditionally been popular,
but I find myself deeply troubled by such approaches to the play.
Simplistic and amoral, such readings of _Julius Caesar_ unnecessarily
appropriate Shakespeare's tragedy to normalize political violence and
thereby encourage us to ignore the very real opportunities that Brutus
has to safeguard the Republic through more peaceful means.

Certainly, Shakespeare's Julius Caesar may want to become king, but he
does not wish to seize the crown.  He wants to accept the crown only if
it is offered to him by the Senate.  His mistake is that he is not more
skeptical when Decius Brutus tells him the senate is going to offer him
the Crown that day, for there is no evidence in the play that anyone in
government wants him to be king: the tribunes stripped the statuary and
cancelled the public holiday; the people cheered each time Caesar pushed
away the Crown; most of the senators in the play are involved in the
conspiracy to kill him, and those who are not who know about it are
willing to let the assassination happen.

It is in assuming that murdering Caesar is the only way to preserve the
Republican form of government that Brutus commits his most telling and,
-- as Dante suggested -- most damning error.  For if anyone has moral
authority over Julius Caesar, it is Brutus, whatever his parentage.  How
poignant are Caesar's dying words, "Et tu, Brute?  Then fall Caesar!"
which constitute less an indictment of Brutus's betrayal than evidence
that Caesar so respects the moral authority of Brutus that he consents
even to his own murder if Brutus thinks it right.

With such moral authority at his command and evidence of Caesar's past
behavior in pushing away the crown (a scene Brutus misinterprets because
he does not see it, as he is too busy conspiring), Shakespeare's Brutus
has no rightful reason to imagine that assassinating Caesar is a
necessity to preserve the Roman republic.  Caesar's dying lines actually
indicate that had Brutus revealed the conspiracy against Caesar's life,
he could have persuaded Caesar not to be ambitious for the kingship.  In
saving Caesar's life, Brutus thereby could have guaranteed both the
preservation of the Republic and his own moral influence on Roman
leadership, two assets lost to Rome forever in the aftermath of Caesar's
assassination.

Best,
J.P. Conlan

[5]-------------------------------------------------------------
From:           Anna Kamaralli <
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Date:           Fri, 28 Feb 2003 14:12:56 +1100
Subject: 14.0394 Re: Julius Caesar's Protagonist
Comment:        Re: SHK 14.0394 Re: Julius Caesar's Protagonist

>In my salad days, I was particularly fond of Antony...
>He manipulated me at
>15 as he does the mob... Antony gives them spice,
>accentuates the wounds, dangles the will as an attention getter, and
>succeeds in getting the mob to hang on his every word. If he were a
>politician today, he would be called the Great Communicator, a perfect
>media creature.

In Dale Carniegie's guide to public speaking, he uses Antony's oration
as an example of the perfect public speech, taking the reader through,
line by line, to see how the speaker can manipulate the audience. Most
enlightening.

>If anything, I think Caesar in a way is the dirge for the end of a time
>when there were republics and people put their society before
>themselves, a time before image was everything.

You old Romantic, you.

>Brutus makes a mistake in not seeing
>Antony for what he is:  a butcher.  He
>should have agreed to kill him as Cassius
>urged, or at least to take him prisoner.

There is a parallel here with Hector's sparing of Achilles in _Troilus
and Cressida_, only to be killed by him a few scenes later.

>I doubt that Shakespeare knew Dante, but he would
>surely have been close to a medieval outlook.

I think he probably was familiar with Dante, because Claudio's fear, in
_Measure for Measure_, of what will happen to him if he dies, mirrors
Dante's  description of the fate of fornicators - the crime for which he
was awaiting execution.

Forgive the randomness of these thoughts,
Anna.

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