Shakespeare’s Julius Caesar: Or is it the Tragedy of Brutus?
I liked Julius Caesar. It’s a tight play that effortlessly caught and held my attention. The plot is urgent and driving; moving quickly in a straight line—never lagging, never tempting us with a side story or comedic relief—to multiple tragic ends: Caesar’s, and more importantly Brutus’.
Julius Caesar was the first Shakespeare play I read (although I don’t remember being particularly fond of it as a 15 or 16 year old). Like many others before and since, I stumbled through it in a high school English class. And years later, about all I could remember were a few quotes: “Beware the Ides of March”; “Et tu, Brute?”; “Friend, Romans, Countrymen, lend me your ear.” Each one was easily recalled because of common references to them in modern culture.
My last memory was a little more surprising: The play introduced me to anachronisms. I still remember the teacher (who I can no longer visualize) explaining the mechanical clock referenced in Julius Caesar didn’t exist in ancient Rome.
The play’s name is a Shakespearean sleight of hand. We expect to see Julius Caesar revealed before our eyes, but the Bard enticed us to look the wrong way.
The play has little to do with Caesar. He is almost a passive character floating through scenes and circumstances created by others: He is in a procession where the soothsayer warns him of the Ides. We only hear that he has rejected the kingship offered him. He hears of his wife’s dream and warning, and she convinces him to stay at home, not go to the Senate. He is then flattered into ignoring the dream and going, as scheduled, to the Senate. He receives and rejects a plea of leniency as the backdrop to his assassination. He appears—silent to us—after his death as Great Caesar’s ghost. And, he receives the blows of the conspirators, especially the one from Brutus, responding to the man who is the true center of the play: “Et tu, Brute! Then fall, Caesar.”
Should it have been named “Brutus”? (Of course not. It was Shakespeare’s play, and he could name it whatever he wanted.) But the play is about Brutus:
- His love of Julius Caesar
- The machinations and flattery used to win him over to the opinion that Caesar threatened or would eventually threaten Roman liberties
- His role in the final conspiracy
- The consequences of his role.
Brutus is a sympathetic character. He is truly “an honorable man”—the words Marc Antony sarcastically uses to rouse the Romans against the conspirators in a fabulous speech—the highlight of the play for me and a speech that rivals Henry V’s Saint Crispin-day speech for effectiveness and beauty. And while Antony uses sarcasm to rile Rome, in quieter moments, we witness that he seems truly to hold Brutus as an honorable man. When Antony finds Brutus dead, he offers his last and most honest judgment:This was the noblest Roman of them all: All the conspirators, save only he, Did that they did in envy of great Caesar; He only, in a general honest thought, And common good to all, made one of them. His life was gentle; and the elements So mix’d in him that Nature might stand up And say to all the world, This was the man!
Brutus ends like the hollow men of TS Elliot’s poem The Hollow men, which borrows heavily from Shakespeare’s play, “Not with a bang, but a whimper.”
Shakespeare’s source for the story was Plutarch.
Quotes I liked:
Brutus: The eye sees not itself but by reflection, by some other things.
Cassius: Men at some time are masters of their fates: The fault, dear Brutus, is not in our stars, but in ourselves, that we are underlings. Brutus and Caesar: What should be in that Caesar? Why should that name be sounded more than yours? Write them together, yours is as fair a name; sound them, it doth become the mouth as well; weigh them, it is as heavy; conjure with ‘em, Brutus will start a spirit as soon as Caesar.
Caesar: He thinks too much: such men are dangerous.
Casca: It was Greek to me.
Cassius: Well, Brutus, thou art noble; yet, I see, thy honourable metal may be wrought from that it is dispos’d: therefore it is meet that noble minds keep ever with their likes; for who so firm that cannot be seduc’d?”
Cinna: O Cassius, if you could but win the noble Brutus to our party
Brutus: 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.
Brutus: Between the acting of a dreadful thing and the first motion, all the interim is like a phantasma, or a hideous dream
Brutus: O conspiracy, shamest thou to show thy dangerous brow by night, when evils are most free? O, then by day where wilt thou find a cavern dark enough to mask thy monstrous visage? Seek none, conspiracy; hide it in smiles and affability
Brutus: O, name him not: let us not break with him; for he will never follow anything that other men begin.
Decius Brutus: When I tell him he hates flatterers, he says he does,—being then most flatter’d.
Portia: Within the bond of marriage, tell me, Brutus, is it excepted I should know no secrets that appertain to you? Am I yourself but, as it were, in sort or limitation,—to keep with you at meals, comfort your bed, and talk to you sometimes? Dwell I but in the suburbs of your good pleasure? If it be no more, Portia is Brutus’ harlot, not his wife.
Caesar: Cowards die many times before their deaths; the valiant never taste of death but once.
Calphurnia: Your wisdom is consum’d in confidence.
Caesar: I am constant as the northern star, of whose true-fix’d and resting quality there is no fellow in the firmament. The skies are painted with unnumber’d sparks,—they are all fire and every one doth shine; but there’s but one in all doth hold his place
Caesar: Et ut, Brute?—Then fall Caesar!
Brutus: Not that I loved Caesar less, but that I loved Rome more.
Antony: Friends, Romans, countrymen, lend me your ears; I come to bury Caesar, not to praise him. The evil that men do lives after them; the good is oft interred with their bones; so let it be with Caesar.
Antony: O judgment! thou art fled to brutish beasts, and men have lost their reason.
Antony: For Brutus, as you know, was Caesar’s angel: Judge, O you gods, how dearly Caesar loved him! This was the most unkindest cut of all; for when the noble Caesar saw him stab, ingratitude, more strong than traitors’ arms, quite vanquish’d him: then burst his mighty heart
Antony: I have neither wit, nor words, nor worth, action, nor utterance, nor the power of speech, to stir men’s blood: I only speak right on
Antony: Mischief, thou art afoot.
Antony: Some that smile have in their hearts, I fear, millions of mischiefs.
Brutus: There are no tricks in plain and simple faith; but hollow men, like horses hot at hand, make gallant show and promise of their mettle; but when they should endure the bloody spur, they fall their crests, and, like deceitful jades, sink in the trial.
Cassius: Do not presume too much upon my love
Brutus: There is no terror, Cassius, in your threats; for I am arm’d so strong in honesty that they pass by me as the idle wind
Cassius: You do not love me. Brutus: I do not like your faults. Cassius: A friendly eye could never see such faults. Brutus: A flatterer’s would not, though they do appear as huge as high Olympus.
Cassius: Cassius is a weary of the world
Brutus: O that a man might know the end of this day’s business ere it come! But it sufficeth that the day will end, and then the end is known
Next Up: Antony and Cleopatra