William Shakespeare's “Julius Caesar” Part 1
(Revisited for WASSCE & IGCSE (Drama) Students by Anis Haffar)
[This piece is a review and a toast to the success of students offering “William Shakespeare's Julius Caesar” in WASSCE & IGCSE. Good Luck! Start now, and prepare for an A. Note: The italicized items in this article are direct quotes from the play. Books, sources, and titles are highlighted.
The great writers created worlds of their own. Their landscapes were necessarily contained; and like maps, they were reduced to size so we could follow each author's purpose and artistry.
From a Eurocentric standpoint, the ancient Greeks placed Homer (8th century BC), author of Iliad and the Odyssey, in an exclusive position because his epic outlook summarized the length and breadth of the world they knew.
Similarly, in the Middle Ages, European experiences were captured in the vision of the Italian poet Dante Alighieri (1265 – 1321) in The Divine Comedy; and, in the humour of the English poet Geoffrey Chaucer (1345 – 1400) in The Canterbury Tales.
Through exposure to comparative history and cultures, human aspirations and literary horizons enlarged. Though Homer, Dante and Chaucer remained literary heavyweights, fresher nuances were needed to bridge the gaps between the ancient, medieval, and the present.
William Shakespeare (1564 – 1616) cut across cultures. Through his wide readings and creative genius, he offered comparative links with the present through the plays he designed for Elizabethan audiences. His Comedies, Romances, Histories, and Tragedies presented not mere Eurocentric notions but a galaxy of formidable clues that show human nature at work.
From the tragic play, Julius Caesar, Shakespeare must have “intimated his own immortality” (to allude to William Wordsworth's poetry). He showed prophetic instinct by allowing the Cassius character to “look into the future” [like the Mfantsipim motto in Akan, “Dwin hwe kan”] and say: “How many ages hence / Shall this our lofty scene be acted over / In states unborn and accents unknown.”
In all, about 37 plays and 154 sonnets form the Shakespeare canon or list of accepted works. Love, Hate, Ambition, Pomp, Conceit, Politics, Treachery, Murder - and the “honourable politricks” in between - were relayed in his works. Like a mirror, his drama reflected composites of universal experiences.
It is impossible to explore Shakespeare or any great talent and not be affected by their superior parts; I mean the sparks in symbolisms, themes, imagery, phraseology, dialogue, and other registers. Equally catching are the faith and diligence of the masters. Literary quality is not a job; it's an obsession.
[The legend of Julius Caesar (100 – 44BC) was cited briefly in my article (Daily Graphic August 28, 08) “Ego-driven wars and their consequences” in relation to World Wars l and ll, and the current chaos in Iraq and Georgia].
Julius Caesar was written and performed (1599 – 1600) for an Elizabethan audience. It was speculated that Shakespeare picked bits and pieces of the story from many sources including Plutarch's Lives. To A.L. Rowse, the Oxford historian, “Shakespeare did not cease to borrow the plumes of the intellectuals to dispose them to better purpose.”
It was likely that after having finished the long series of political studies in English history - the Henry series and Richard lll - Shakespeare searched for complementary new material. The great crisis of Roman history and institutions offered the opportunity to sustain the political interests of the times.
He must have, also, been attracted to Julius Caesar who, in his youth, also “wrote verses and speeches”. Plutarch marked that Caesar, “without dispute”, was better disposed “to improve his genius this way”, but his attention “diverted to those expeditions and designs” for power and empire.
The play is about an Emperor who conducted various campaigns, won territories, and crushed rebels. He stretched the Roman Empire widely and included North Africa and Britain. He brought slaves, loot and riches to Rome, and lavished them on the Roman nobility.
He won such great influences that a calendar month was named Julius (July) in his honour. His very person was declared sacred, and statues of him were sited in important places like temples. The following mantra drove his conquests: “Cowards die many times before their deaths, / The valiant never taste of death but once.”
There was hardly a more tragic scene in drama than in the Roman senate where Caesar was murdered by his colleagues. The drama climaxed where after the fatal stabs from the conspirators' blades, Caesar, in the throes of death and about to drop on the floor, spots a hazy view of Brutus, a protégé he had raised like a son. Brutus, with a dagger drawn, advances and plunges “the most unkindest cut of all” into the Emperor.
Caesar's last words, “Et tu Brute?” (And you too, Brutus?) echoed through time as the vintage symbol of betrayal and treachery. [From the name Brutus, representing the supposed noblest Roman of all - “Caesar's angel … wise, valiant and honest” - resonated the creepy words: brute, brutal, and brutish].
Caesar's butchered body, now in a dead heap on the senate floor, and his “conquests, glories, triumphs, spoils / Shrunk to this little measure” led literary pundits to reserve the mother of all ironies for this particular scene. With “ambition's debt paid” and the assassins themselves fighting and fleeing in fear, the great Roman Empire “As it were doomsday” began to crumble.
[The first chapter of Edward Gibbon's The Decline and Fall of the Roman Empire began from the reign of Augustus (27BC – AD40). Caesar died 44BC].
The assassination was the highpoint of the play; the beginning led up to it, and the rest flowed from it in a fatal give and take chain of vengeful politics. While the “lean and hungry” Cassius's beef with Caesar was one of pure envy of the Emperor's power, Brutus's gripe was the Emperor's possible denial that he was subject to ordinary mortal failings.
Brutus joined the conspirators out of a personal worry that Caesar had a delusion of royal grandeur and dynastic ambitions; that the possibility of Caesar lusting after a crown or a “coronation” would dent the fabric of the Republic.
Mark Antony, however, refuted such claims: “You all did see, that on Lupercal, / I thrice presented him a kingly Crown, / Which he did thrice refuse. Was this ambition? / Yet Brutus says he was ambitious:”
Brutus was, in short, a Roman republican considering with a pagan conscience a future he could not know. He had the misfortune of not knowing the Christian evolution in the Roman Empire.
A critic, Frank Kermode observed: “Caesar's tragedy is the Christian's comedy. All events led to the rule of Augustus under which occurred the birth of Christ, and ultimately the Christianization of the Empire under Constantine.”
In Part 2, we shall explore: a) the mob mentality of the Romans (played by the plebeians) as they scream, “They were traitors; honourable men”; b) The American actor, Marlon Brando's sterling performance as Mark Antony in a film version of Julius Caesar; c) The fate of Brutus and Cassius; and d) A key element in preparing for the exams.
The author is the founder of GATE Institute for Teacher Education. He provides consulting services in English Language Skills, and Learning Methodologies for Primary, Secondary, and Tertiary levels. Email: [email protected]
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