Monday, March 19, 2007

"Why should Caesar be a tyrant then?"

Early in Julius Caesar Shakespeare has each of the "honorable" conspirators against Caesar explain his own good reasons for accepting assassination as a solution to the political problems they face. They decide; they act; they don't get the results they hoped for. It's far from clear that they were anywhere near as idealistic about motive nor as realistic about Caesar as they told each other. Anthony's "honorable men" speech makes sure we know that.

The play presses forward to the conspirators' ruin, and the disorderly end of an orderly state. Elizabethan politics may have been behind Shakespeare's views, but as the situation emerges, I think the reader must be in awe of the universals of the motives, methods, and results. My own feeling is awe.

Cassius sees omens, but determines that "Cassius from bondage will deliver Cassius." He continues to explain his commitment by blaming the gullible Romans who are begging Caesar to abandon the republic and accept a crown:

And why should Caesar be a tyrant then?
Poor Man! I know he would not be a wolf
But that he sees the Romans are but sheep:
He were no lion, were not Romans hinds.
Those that with haste will make a might fire
Begin it with weak straws: what trash is Rome,
What rubbish and what offal, when it serves
For the base matter to illuminate
So vile a thing as Caesar! (I, iii, 102-111)

Brutus, in contrast, fears Caesar himself, not for what he was in the past, but for what power will possibly do to him.

He would be crown'd:
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.
The abuse of greatness is when it disjoins
Remorse from power... (II, i, 12-19)

And so they plot, they act, and they then do what they were afraid Caesar would do -- but without his greatness of imagination and love of the people (if we listen to Anthony).

Speaking to the crowd gathered to bury Caesar, just before he consents to have Anthony speak, Brutus makes the famous claim that his deed was "not that I loved Caesar less, but that I loved Rome more." He asks: "Had you rather Caesar were living, and die all slaves, than that Caesar were dead, to live all free men. ... as he was ambitious, I slew him." (III, ii, 25-30)

Brutus may or may not be too jealous of Caesar's ability to sway the crowd; the other conspirators are clearly jealous of the characteristics that make him so popular. They may be both jealous and also right. The political questions of how to have a stable government, a legitimate government that answers to the people, leaders and rescuers with either noble or self-serving motives, and that deals with crowd mentality is very fascinating. Anthony and his allies are equally fascinating.

Aside -- isn't it ironic that the internal logic of this play makes us remember the Ides of March as if it were some kind of cursed day instead of an ordinary Roman timekeeping marker? A few days ago, they mentioned this date on the radio -- as if the 15th of all other months was not the "ides."

No comments: