Thursday, February 6, 2014

Julius Caesar

Julius Caesar
I belong to a group that reads and thoroughly dissects Shakespeare plays.  Right now we are on Julius Caesar.  The discussion can be interesting.

Caesar is a controversial figure and has long been so.  On the one hand, he was a dictator who crushed the Roman Republic and heaped himself with honors that reflected a grossly inflated ego.  On the other hand, he was a brilliant general and administrator, a champion of the common people, and a generous victor who sought reconciliation rather than slaughtering his enemies (as was the custom by then).

The controversy continues to this day, and is reflected in our group.  Some members are appalled at the honors he heaped upon himself, up to even renaming the month of his birth from Quintillus (fifth month; the year began with March) to July (as in Julius).  Others see him as admirable in many ways.  One even said -- with great unease because what he was proposing was grossly immoral -- that Caesar's real mistake was in not slaughtering his enemies the way everyone else did because it gave them the opportunity to slaughter him instead.  But of course, if Caesar were to slaughter his enemies, then what would there be to distinguish him from anyone else, or make him admirable?

In any event, the title of the play is misleading.  Caesar is a fairly minor character and is killed at the beginning of the third act (out of five).  The play really should be called Marcus Brutus because Brutus is the real hero of the play, but that would not be as impressive a title.  Brutus is an even more controversial figure than Caesar.  He took part in Caesar's assassination although he was Caesar's best friend and even rumored to be his illegitimate son.  So was this a noble act, placing the freedom of Rome ahead of all personal feelings and ties, or was it a vile act of treachery?  The play takes the former view, although many of Shakespeare's other plays refer to Caesar as a hero and Brutus as a vile traitor.  And our champion of Caesar made further arguments against Brutus.  While Caesar's enemy Cato fought him to the last and committed suicide rather than accept his forgiveness, Brutus begged Caesar's mercy for fighting against him and received it, only to plot his murder.  From the standpoint of personal relationships alone, Brutus is contemptible!  The question is whether that was outweighed by the greater good of Rome and that, in turn, ultimately depends on what one thinks of Caesar.

But it convinces me that, although Shakespeare's tragedy should be entitled Marcus Brutus, one could certainly write a tragedy about Julius Caesar.  Tragedy has many forms and many analyses, and I do not know of any single definition.  But certainly one form of tragedy is one in which the hero is placed in an confronted with an impossible dilemma, in which any decision he makes will be wrong.  The hero, being a tragic hero, does not shrink from what circumstances demand of him -- he makes the choice that his character demands of him and fearlessly faces the consequences that Fate does not spare, even though he had not choice but to choose wrong.  There are other forms of tragedy, I realize.  This is just the easiest to do.  A tragedy of Caesar, then, is that he is placed in an impossible dilemma -- destroy his enemies, just the same as everyone else has done, and cease to be any different from anyone else, or else spare them and end up being destroyed by them.  Caesar will make his choice -- be Caesar and what makes him unique, no matter what the cost -- and be destroyed as a result.

I have tried my hand at writing plays once or twice before.  Maybe I will write that one some day.

No comments:

Post a Comment