Reading Shakespeare: Julius Caesar

Julius Caesar is a play with three– count ’em three– central protagonists.

There is Caesar himself, of course, who remains in the thick of things despite being brutally murdered halfway through the play… as Caesar himself puts it just before he is set upon by the conspirators:

But I am constant as the northern star,
Of whose true-fixed and resting quality
There is no fellow in the firmament.

There is Brutus, whose actions and thoughts all necessarily revolve around Caesar, but whose words bring Hamlet to mind:

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.

Brutus is the flawed hero of a play that bears another’s name. Brutus is the most complex character in the play– we see him deep in thought, talking to a wife he clearly loves, interacting with servants he cares about as human beings– but tragically fixed in his idealism. This one-sidedness is very different from that of Cassius– is there any more decisive smack-down in any play anywhere than the moment when Antony parleys with Brutus and Cassius and dismisses Cassius with the words “Old Cassius still”?– but is just as surely his own undoing. Brutus is intensely thoughtful, but he is his own fixed point from which he will not– cannot– diverge. So much so that Antony can, at the end of the play, eulogize him thus, without irony:

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 mixed in him that Nature might stand up
And say to all the world, “This was a man.”

And then there is Antony, the character I find most compelling of all. From the moment Antony comes to Caesar’s still-warm body he, in popular sports parlance, starts playing this new deadly game “outside of his head.” I’m not sure there’s a more powerful sequence in drama than that beginning with Antony’s vow by Caesar’s body to the famous, multi-layered, masterful “Friends, Romans, countrymen” speech in which he indicts, tries and convicts Brutus and the rest of the “honourable” men who killed Caesar.

The play is named after Caesar and features Brutus, but it belongs to Mark Antony.

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