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Caesar 6 Essay, Research Paper

THE AUTHOR AND HIS TIMES

-

Julius Caesar is a play about a political assassination. The

question it asks is: is it ever right to use force to remove a ruler

from power? You, as readers, can answer that question in terms of your

own experience in the last quarter of the 20th century. But if

you’re going to figure out what Shakespeare thought, you’ll have to

know something about the values and concerns of the Elizabethan

world in which he lived.

History plays were popular during Shakespeare’s lifetime (1564-1616)

because this was the Age of Discovery, and English men and women

were hungry to learn about worlds other than their own. But the

Elizabethans also saw history as a mirror in which to discover

themselves and find answers to the problems of their lives. A play

like Julius Caesar taught the Elizabethans about Roman politics; it

also offered an object lesson in how to live. What was Shakespeare

trying to teach his contemporaries?

To answer that question, let’s take a look at Elizabethan

attitudes toward (a) monarchy and (b) order.

(A) MONARCHY

Today we believe in democracy and are suspicious of anyone who seeks

unlimited power. We know what can happen when a Hitler or a Stalin

takes control of a government, and we know just how corrupting power

can be. But Shakespeare and his contemporaries had no such prejudice

against strong rulers. Their queen, Elizabeth I, ruled with an iron

hand for forty-five years (from 1558 to 1603), yet her subjects had

great affection for her. Under her rule the arts flourished and the

economy prospered. While the rest of Europe was embroiled in war,

mostly between Catholics and Protestants, England enjoyed a period

relatively free from civil strife. Elizabeth’s reign- and the reign of

other Tudor monarchs, beginning with Henry VII in 1485- brought an end

to the anarchy that had been England’s fate during the Wars of the

Roses (1455-84). To Shakespeare and his contemporaries the message was clear: only a strong, benevolent ruler could protect the peace and

save the country from plunging into chaos again. Shakespeare would

probably not have approved of the murder of Caesar.

-

(B) ORDER

-

In 1599, when Julius Caesar was first performed, Elizabeth was old

and failing. She had never married and had no children to succeed her.

Shakespeare and his contemporaries must have worried greatly that

someone (like Brutus? like Cassius?) would try to grab power and

plunge the country into civil war.

When the Elizabethans spoke of order, they didn’t just mean

political or social order. Though they lived during what we call today

the English Renaissance, they still held many medieval views about man

and his relation to the universe. They knew the world was round, and

that the earth was one of many planets spinning in space. And they

knew from explorers that there were continents besides their own.

But most believed, as people in the Middle Ages believed, that the

universe was ruled by a benevolent God, and that everything, from

the lowest flower to the angels on high, had a divine purpose to

fulfill. The king’s right to rule came from God himself, and

opposition to the king earned the wrath of God and threw the whole

system into disorder. Rulers had responsibilities, too, of course:

if they didn’t work for the good of the people, God would hold them to

account. No one in this essentially medieval world lived or functioned

in isolation. Everyone was linked together by a chain of rights and

obligations, and when someone broke that chain, the whole system broke

down and plunged the world into chaos. What destroys the divine

harmony in Julius Caesar- Cassius’ jealousy, Caesar’s ambition, or the

fickleness of the mob- is something you’ll have to decide for

yourself. But whatever the cause, the results offend the heavens and

throw the entire country into disarray.

Today a sense of hopelessness and despair hangs over us: a

mistake, a simple misunderstanding, and the bomb may drop and

destroy life on earth. Our fate, we feel, is out of our control. But

the Elizabethans were much more optimistic. Forget chance: if

something went wrong, then someone had broken God’s laws, the laws

of the universe. Many would suffer, but in the end the guilty would be

punished and order restored.

Julius Caesar begins with a human act that, like a virus, infects

the body of the Roman state. No one is untouched; some grow sick, some

die. But in time the poison works its way out of the system and the

state grows healthy again. In Shakespeare’s world, health, not

sickness, is the natural condition of man in God’s divine plan.

THE PLAY

- THE PLOT

-

The working people of Rome are overjoyed: Julius Caesar has beaten

Pompey’s sons in battle, and everyone’s getting a day off from work to

celebrate Caesar’s triumphant return. But two Roman officers,

Flavius and Marullus, chase the crowds away: how dare the citizens

support a tyrant who threatens to undermine hundreds of years of

Republican (representative) rule! Don’t they know that Caesar wants to

be king?

Caesar parades by in full glory, just in time to help celebrate

the races on the Feast of Lupercal. A soothsayer bids him “Beware

the ides of March” (March 15), but Caesar- anxious not to show fear in

public dismisses the man as a dreamer. The procession passes by,

leaving behind two Roman Senators: Cassius, a long-time political

enemy of Caesar, and Brutus, Caesar’s friend. Like other members of

the Senate, Brutus and Cassius are aristocrats who fear that Caesar

will take away their ancient privileges.

Cassius now goes to work on Brutus, flattering him, reminding him of

his noble ancestry, trying all the while to determine just how unhappy

Brutus is with Caesar and just how willing Brutus is to join the

conspiracy. Does Brutus know where Cassius is leading him? It’s hard

to tell. Brutus admits only that he’s dissatisfied, and agrees to

discuss the matter further.

Caesar, now back from the races, tells his friend Antony that he

doesn’t trust a man like Cassius, with his “lean and hungry look.”

He has good reason to be suspicious.

Casca tells Brutus and Cassius how the Roman people three times

offered Caesar the crown, and how three times he refused it. Perhaps

Caesar doesn’t want to be king- that’s what his friends would argue;

but to his enemies, Caesar was merely playing on the gullibility of

the people, pretending to be humble in order to win their support.

On a stormy night full of mysterious omens, Cassius converts Casca

to his cause and arranges for Cinna, a fellow-conspirator, to throw

a message through Brutus’ window. The note will, he hopes, win the

noble Senator to their side.

Alone in his garden, Brutus tries to justify the part he is about to

play in the murder of his friend, Caesar. He decides finally that

Caesar’s ambition poses a grave danger to the future of the Republic

and that Caesar should be destroyed, not for what he is, but for

what he’s likely to become. The conspirators arrive at Brutus’ house

and agree to murder Caesar the next day at the Capitol. They would

like to murder Antony, too, but Brutus, anxious to keep his hands

clean and to preserve his precious honor, insists that Antony be

spared.

After the conspirators leave, Brutus’ wife Portia enters. She

wants to know what’s happening. Brutus worries that the news may be

too frightening for her to bear, but nevertheless confides in her.

Caesar has had a restless night, too. His wife Calpurnia tries to

keep him home- she senses evil in the air- and at first he relents.

But the conspirators arrive and persuade him to go to the Senate as

planned. What would happen to his reputation if his public thought the

mighty Caesar was swayed by a superstitious wife!

Calpurnia’s fears turn out to be more than superstitions, for the

day is March 15, the ides of March. Caesar ignores two more warnings

and, after delivering a speech full of extravagant self-praise, he

is stabbed by the conspirators and dies.

Antony, learning of the murder of his dearest friend, begs the

conspirators to let him speak at the funeral. Believing that right

is on his side, Brutus agrees, over the objections of his more

realistic friends. Left alone, Antony vows to revenge the death of

Caesar, even if it means plunging his country into civil war. In the

meantime, Caesar’s adopted son and heir, Octavius, has arrived on

the outskirts of Rome, and Antony advises him to wait there till he

can gauge the mood of the country.

Brutus’ funeral oration is a measured, well-reasoned speech,

appealing to the better instincts of the people and to their

abstract sense of duty to the state. For a moment he wins them over.

But then Antony inflames the crowds with an appeal to their

emotions. Showing them Caesar’s bloody clothes turns them into an

angry mob, hungry for revenge. Blind with hate, they roam the

streets and tear apart the innocent poet Cinna.

Antony and Octavius now join forces with Lepidus to pursue and

destroy the conspirators, who have fled from Rome. Anyone who might

endanger their cause is coldly put to death. Brutus and Cassius

await this new triumverate at their camp near Sardis in Asia Minor.

Should Cassius let an officer take bribes? Brutus, standing on his

principles, says no, and vents his anger on his friend. At the root of

his anger, however, is his unspoken sorrow at the death of his beloved

wife Portia. Apparently unable to deal with such an unsettling

situation, she went mad and took her life by swallowing hot coals.

Sadness over her death brings Brutus and Cassius back together

again, closer perhaps than before.

At night Brutus is visited by the ghost of Caesar, who vows to

meet him again on the battlefield at Philippi in Greece. The next

day the two armies- the army of Brutus and Cassius, and the army of

Antony and Octavius- stand in readiness at Philippi while the four

generals battle each other with words. In the first encounter, Brutus’

troops defeat Octavius’, and Antony’s troops overcome Cassius’.

Cassius, retreating to a nearby hill, sends his trusted friend

Titinius to find out whether approaching troops are friends or foes.

Is Titinius captured? It appears so; and Cassius, believing he has

sent his good friend to his death and that the battle is lost, takes

his life.

If only Cassius hadn’t acted so rashly he might have saved his life,

for the reports turn out to be false and Titinius still lives. Brutus,

not the enemy, arrives, and mourns the death of his friend.

The tide now turns against Brutus. Sensing defeat, and unwilling

to endure the dishonor of capture, he runs on his sword and dies. Like

Caesar and Cassius, he thinks in his final moments not of power or

personal glory, but of friendship.

Antony delivers a eulogy over Brutus’ body, calling him “the noblest

Roman of them all.” Octavius agrees to take all of Brutus’ men into

his service, a gesture of reconciliation that bodes well for the

future.

THE CHARACTERS

-

JULIUS CAESAR

In order to discuss Shakespeare’s play intelligently you have to

make up your mind about (1) Caesar’s character, and (2) Caesar’s

threat to the Roman Republic. Either Caesar deserves to be

assassinated, or he doesn’t. On your answer hangs the meaning of the

play.

On one hand, Caesar is a tyrant whose ambition poses a real danger

to the Republic. In that case, the hero of the play is Brutus. On

the other hand, Caesar may be vain and arrogant, but he is the only

ruler strong enough to hold the Roman Republic together, and a

flawed ruler is better than none at all. In that case, Brutus

becomes an impractical idealist who is manipulated by a group of

scheming politicians.

Whatever your position, there’s no doubt that Shakespeare wants to

show us the private side of a public man, and to remind us that our

heroes are, like the rest of us, only human. In public, Caesar is

worshipped like a god; in private, he is superstitious, deaf, and

subject to fits of epilepsy (falling sickness). Caesar’s public

image is like a mask he wears to hide his weaknesses from others and

from himself. Yet at the moment of death his mask slips, and we see

another Caesar who values friendship above all.

Let’s look at Caesar in three different ways.

-

1. Caesar’s personal shortcomings are one reason to remove him

from power. Another is his ambition, which threatens to undermine

the power of the people and their elected representatives.

It’s true that Antony calls Caesar “the noblest man / That ever

lived in the tide of times” (Act III, Scene i, lines 256-257), but why



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