Saturday, May 14, 2011

Julius Caesar by William Shakespeare

Perhaps strangely, the book that Julius Caesar brings most to my mind is Howards End. Like that novel, here is a work about the struggle between the pragmatic life and the life of “personal relations.” Brutus claims to have a deep friendship with Caesar, and yet he lets his pragmatism overrule him:

It must be by his death, and for my part
I know no personal cause to spurn at him
But for the general. He would be crowned.
How that might change his nature, there’s the question.
It is the bright day that brings forth the adder,
And that craves wary walking. Crown him that,
And then I grant we put a sting in him
That at his will he may do danger with.
Th’ abuse of greatness is when it disjoins
Remorse from power. And, to speak truth of Caesar,
I have not known when his affections swayed
More than his reason, but ‘tis a common proof
That lowliness is young ambition’s ladder,
Whereto the climber upward turns his face.
But when he once attains the upmost round,
He then unto the ladder turns his back,
Looks in the clouds, scorning the base degrees
By which he did ascend. So Caesar may.
Then, lest he may, prevent…

As others have pointed out, this is a fairly specious line of reasoning. Shakespeare’s Caesar, though immensely prideful, shows no inclination toward being a dictator, and Brutus’ conclusion—that possible tyranny, however unlikely, should be met with force—is horribly strained. “So Caesar may” is a long way from “Then, lest he may, prevent.” But Brutus is a man wedded to his own principles, and allows them to divorce him from the reality of his friendship with Caesar. His nobility and stoicism can be unnerving, as when he confesses to Cassius—then his closest friend—that he is tormented inwardly at his wife’s suicide, though to a late messenger he responds only by saying, “Why, farewell, Portia. We must die, Messala.”

Cassius is the third point of this (somewhat homoerotic?) triangle, and he is Brutus’ opposite in that he lets the personal override his good judgment. His love for Brutus overwhelms him so much that a quarrel brings him to the brink of suicide:

Oh, I could weep
My spirit from mine eyes. [offering his dagger] There is my dagger,
And here my naked breast, within, a heart
Dearer than Pluto’s mine, richer than gold.
If thou that be’st a Roman, take it forth.
I, that denied thee gold, will give my heart.
Strike, as thou didst at Caesar, for I know
When thou didst hate him worst, thou loved’st him better
Than ever thou loved’st Cassius.

Later, Cassius will kill himself for real, but only when he thinks that Brutus is dead. There is an echo here of truth: Brutus does not love Cassius nearly as much as Cassius loves Brutus, and Brutus is a man who suppresses what love he does hold. Cassius’ parallel is Mark Antony, whose love for Caesar also toiled in the shadow of Brutus and Caesar’s friendship, and who uses Caesar’s death to, in effect, claim the filial inheritance that was Brutus’.

And yet, unlike Howards End, which favored one side of things so forcefully, there are no easy answers in Julius Caesar. (Are there ever, in Shakespeare?) Cassius’ values are deeply human and personal, but they ruin him as completely as Brutus’ flawed devotion to a higher standard. In his forward to the Barnes and Noble edition, editor Andrew Hadfield argues that Julius Caesar takes place in a denatured system, in which friendship—long considered a social good that bound the ligatures of the Roman Republic—becomes a destructive force. I myself wonder if it does not show us that all good things may become vile.

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