BOOK REVIEW: Julius Caesar by William Shakespeare

Julius CaesarJulius Caesar by William Shakespeare
My rating: 5 of 5 stars

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As with Shakespeare’s “Cymbeline,” the titular character isn’t the play’s main character – but is the most “bankable” name. The lead is Brutus, the one member of the cabal of executioners that kill Julius Caesar who does so because he truly believes that Caesar has too much power and that the Roman leader’s ambition will result in yet more power flowing to him at the expense of Romans.

In the first half of the play, the conspirators are assembled and the conspiracy planned — with Cassius leading the charge. Unlike Brutus, Cassius mostly wants Caesar dead because of jealousy over the dictator’s power and popularity. However, even in the opening acts much of the story revolves around Brutus, because Cassius knows Brutus must be on-board because he’s both popular and respected. Brutus’s participation both lends moral authority to the act and will help get others to take part. Early in the play, Caesar returns to Rome and is warned by a soothsayer to “Beware the ides of March” (March 15th.) Near the play’s mid-point, the ides arrive, and the soothsayer is proven correct. The play’s second half involves a battle between pro-Caesar forces and the forces of the conspirators. Caesar’s right-hand man, Marcus Antony, and Caesar’s heir, Octavius, purse the conspirators [notably Brutus and Cassius and their men] who’d been forced to leave the city by an angry citizenry after Mark Antony gave a clever speech at Caesar’s funeral. In tragic style, the ensuing battle doesn’t work out well for Brutus, Cassius, or those who are with them.

In broad strokes, Shakespeare follows the flow of events of recorded history. However, in the details he takes dramatic / poetic license. For one thing, he adds a supernatural element with Brutus seeing the ghost of Julius Caesar toward the play’s end. [I suppose this could also be interpreted as stress-induced mental illness / hallucination on the part of Brutus as he not only realizes things are going poorly for him and his family (he was resigned to his own demise when he signed on,) but, moreover, he may recognize that things might get worse for Rome under Caesar’s successors, rather than better. In the debate about whether to eliminate Antony (and about allowing Antony to speak at the funeral,) Brutus comes down firmly on a side favoring Antony. That said, Brutus is presented as a rock – a stoic to the core.] It should be pointed out that the other apparent supernatural element of the story, the soothsayer’s warning, is recorded in some accounts and wasn’t made up by Shakespeare (which is not so say it wasn’t made up by someone.) However, the bard did make up Caesar’s final words, “Et tu, Brute?” [“You, too, Brutus?”]

Lest one think this is irrelevant Elizabethan Era tragedy with little to say about the world today, the crowd dynamics portrayed in the play’s middle act may feel sadly familiar. All it takes for the crowd to go from “Brutus is honorable, forget Caesar” to “Let’s go burn down Brutus’s house!” is a change of speaker from Brutus to Antony. And Antony is only gently riling them up. Mostly, he’s exploiting the fact that the crowd has intensity and passion, but no intelligence. So, they are ready to go out killing and burning without much spurring them on, but they need a leader to point them in a direction (and they don’t seem to care much what the target is.) This mindless, madness of crowds can be seen when Cinna the Poet is captured by the crowd, and they beat him. Even when it’s recognized that it isn’t the same Cinna that participated in the conspiracy, the crowd continues attacking him on the basis that he’s named Cinna.

Where Titus Andronicus aims for the gut and Romeo & Juliet aims for the heart, “Julius Caesar” is more cerebral – a thinking man’s play. What is the virtuous course of action? That’s the question that plays out from beginning to end as events change. This is one of those works everyone should read.

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4 thoughts on “BOOK REVIEW: Julius Caesar by William Shakespeare

  1. The Ghost appears in Brutus’s tent according to Plutarch, though it’s unclear that it’s Caesar’s ghost. Could just be Brutus’s “evil genius.” Caesar’s recorded final words were, “Και συ, τεκνον;” — “You too, child?” — of which “Et tu, Brute?” seems a reasonable, though not exact, translation into Latin. In general, Shakespeare invents very little in the way of incident in this play. It’s beauty lies in the glory of the language. Note that the envious Cassius is in practical terms a lot smarter than Brutus. He’s right about everything — whether to kill Antony, where and when to meet the armies of Antony and Octavian. But Brutus insists on his way and the conspirators end up losers. Sad — since Shakespeare, unlike Dante, takes the conspiratorial side….

    Liked by 1 person

    • Thanks for the insights. I didn’t know the ghost was part of the history.

      I had heard about the last words. However, also that there were multiple accounts and there was no consensus on the matter.

      Like

      • You got me there. Suetonius is not in my view (or in Voltaire’s) a trustworthy source. Also, I apologize for a typo in my original comment — extraneous comma in what should be “its.”

        Ghosts and other supernatural manifestations appear casually in ancient historical accounts. The modern reader doesn’t know whether the author is serious — but the author always is.

        Liked by 1 person

  2. Pingback: BOOK REVIEW: Antony & Cleopatra by William Shakespeare | the !n(tro)verted yogi

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