The Shakespeare Conference: SHK 13.2110  Monday, 21 October 2002

From:           L. Swilley <This email address is being protected from spambots. You need JavaScript enabled to view it.>
Date:           Friday, 18 Oct 2002 15:53:22 -0500
Subject:        More about "Julius Caesar"

C. Stettner wrote,

 " 'Greatness' is not a quantifiable quality. We should assume that
Caesar commanded   the elusive quality of charisma to an overwhelming

[The play itself establishes this point emphatically; we don't need the
support of history on that point.]

"Greatness in warriors, furthermore (as in Achilles), is often
accompanied by superhuman passions that violate polite social behavior."

[Excellent point.  But, of all the characteristics of a great (or
charismatic) person available to the playwright, why does he have the
character display this one in a place and at time and with a group from
whom he seeks an important favor?  Something has set him off and now
makes him uncharacteristically lose temporarily and disastrously that
wonderful "charisma" that so effectively charmed the earlier groups and

"That there must be something more to Caesar's unhappy rhetoric in the
Senate before his assassination, I disagree with both of you. By
manipulating audience sympathy towards the conspirators, Shakespeare
reproduces the effect of the two funeral orations on the Roman mob. It's
almost as if he is saying: 'if you don't believe that the murderous rage
of the people can be so easily swayed by mere displays of rhetoric, see
how easily your sympathies can be shifted where I choose.' "

[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. Stettner intends us to understand?).  ]

And Claude Caspar wrote,

"But, didn't WS assume that the audience brought with them what they
"knew" more or less- for example, as everyone knows who has read
"Shakespeare's Plutarch," or just Plutarch, much is assumed to be known
at large by even the illiterate from common knowledge.  This is "used"
by any artist- the audience is not an empty vessel that only "knows"
what the play provides, but the shorthand that fills in the caesuras &
lacunas... Why impose on the play what it doesn't itself ask- total
ignorance of the world at large?  I am always suspicious of the motives
behind such approaches;  is it an excuse not to do the ass-breaking
research that is required?"

[As much of history/biography should be understood - as part of the
vocabulary of the play - as underlines the points made *in the play*
about the character. If ALL that is known about the historical figure
represented by this character, where does it end, and how is it to be
controlled?  (I say nothing about the different kinds and degrees of
knowledge of history in an audience, making for a very confusing
vocabulary indeed.).  A play is an *imaginative* work, in this case a
very sophisticated argument; the characters as presented are *ideas*
defined by what they say and do and by what is said and done about
them.  After experiencing the play, we may certainly compare and
contrast the characters with the historical figures whose names they
carry, but to open the floodgates of history on the *character*,
extending the vocabulary of the play by the endless and indiscriminate
addition of our knowledge of the historical figure is to seriously muddy
the points being made by the writer who has made a *selection* from
history - and imaginatively filled in the blanks of it - to make an
artistic point.  Ass-breaking research and careful thought are always
necessary, no matter what the subject or how it is addressed, but those
who, for example,  research Plutarch or other biographers of Caesar to
find out what the *character* of Caesar is in Shakespeare's play need to
be careful that they do not radically change what Shakespeare was saying
because of what his sources provided. ]

       [L. Swilley]

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