Play of the Month: Julius Caesar

Movie Pitch- Do you want a revolution? Be careful what you wish for. In ancient Rome, everyone wants to take down Caesar, the most powerful man in the ancient world. His own friends betray and murder him, but the real question is, when you strike the head off of Rome, how can its body survive?

My two cents-

  1. As opposed to Shakespeare’s earlier Roman play of Titus Andronicus,  the Rome of Julius Caesar appears in a highly ambiguous, highly modern way. Shakespeare shows contradiction and ambiguity in all sides of his Rome: ambiguity in government, ambiguity in leaders, ambiguity of morals, and especially ambiguity of revolution. Each person is trying to decide what is best for Rome, (except for Cassius, who only looks for what is best for himself). Caesar, Marc Antony, and Octavian believe that a strong hand must control Rome, and each one believes he is the man to do it. These men become the foundations for empire in Rome. Brutus and the other conspirators believe in using the Senate to represent the will of the people, the same way Rome has been ruled ever since Brutus’ ancestor Marcus Brutus. Ironically, the people are a faceless mob who will latch onto whomever seems to represent their values.
  2. Around 1599, Shakespeare’s work focused less on elaborate plots, and instead drew its focus to the emotional struggles of the characters. The plots of Julius Caesar, Hamlet, Macbeth, and Much Ado about Nothing are fairly simple in comparison to the early comedies and history plays. Another reason why Shakespeare focuses on character is that every English schoolboy knew Caesar’s story by heart, which is why Shakespeare chose to focus on the turmoil of Brutus, as he struggles to decide whether or not to kill Caesar, as well as Marc Antony, as he takes it upon himself to avenge Caesar’s death.
  3. THIS PLAY HAS TOO MANY DUDES Some scholars have pointed out that the male characters are so obsessed with personal honor, civic pride, and lust for power and revenge that they overlook the warning signs all about them that something terrible is going to happen. By contrast the female characters, Portia and Calpurnia are very perceptive, and know that Brutus and Caesar are in terrible danger, but their husbands never listen to them. I sometimes wonder if anyone listened to the women or the soothsayer (who could easily be played by a woman), would the play turn out differently?
  4. What is treason? In countries with democratic governments, the story of Caesar is tragic not just because Caesar died, but because his death gave rise to the greatest empire the world has ever known, (precisely the outcome Brutus was hoping to avoid), In monarchies like Shakespeare’s Elizabethan England, or in modern dictatorships like North Korea, Brutus and Cassius could be seen as foul traitors to their country for assassinating their leader. Indeed, Marc Antony constantly speaks about how good a ruler Caesar was, making his murder seem like a foul betrayal motivated by envy. The concept of who is more guilty, Brutus or Caesar largely depends on your own view of government, and what its function is in society.

Contemporary Parallels

  1. House Of Cards Kevin Spacy’s web of conspiracy to bring down the most powerful man in the most powerful city on Earth, mirrors Cassius’ plan to manipulate Brutus into becoming an assassin.
  2. The Godfather All the five families conspire to take down the most powerful crime boss in New York.

Famous Lines

  • “Beware the Ides Of March” Act I, Scene ii.
  • “The fault, dear Brutus, is not in our stars…” Act I, Scene ii.
  • “He doth bestride the narrow world like a Colossus.” Act I, Scene ii.
  • “It was all Greek to Me!” Act I, Scene ii.
  • “Cowards die many times before their deaths. The valiant taste of death but once.” Act II, Scene ii.
  • “I am constant as the Northern Star.” Act III, Scene i.
  • “Cry ‘Havok’, and let slip the dogs of war!” Act III, Scene i.
  • “Not that I loved Caesar less, but that I loved Rome more.” Act III, Scene ii.
  • “Friends, Romans, Countrymen, lend me your ears!” Act III, Scene ii.
  • “This was the most unkindest cut of all.” Act III, Scene ii.
  • “There is a tide in the affairs of men. Act III, Scene ii.
  • “This was the noblest Roman of them all.” Act V, Scene iii.

For more quotes and analysis of the characters, click here: http://www.shakespeare-navigators.com/JC_Navigator/index.html

General Data

Title: Julius Caesar

Playwright: William Shakespeare

Year Written: approx. 1599

Source: Plutarch’s Lives of the Noble Greeks and Romans, 75 AD

Genre: Elizabethan Tragedy: Prose/ Verse

Play Data

Structure: Five Acts, 18 scenes, 2,636 lines (uncut)

Setting: Rome, 44BC

Characters: 32 characters 30 male characters, 2 female characters, plus Servants, Soldiers, Senators Guards, Citizens, and a Soothsayer.

Character Notes :

Julius Caesar  A spectacular military leader, who has just returned from a great triumph with total power over the senate and the people. Caesar (who by now was 55 and suffering from seizures), was practically a god amongst men, and he knew it. When the senators beseech him to reconsider one of his decisions, he calls  himself as unmovable as  Mount Olympus. Though Caesar secretly has the betterment of Rome at heart, it’s easy to see that he is far too full of himself. Words that come to mind: arrogant, demogauge, confident, magnanimus, powerful.

Marcus Brutus One of the most troubled and ambiguous characters in Shakespeare, Brutus literally broods constantly about whether he is doing the right thing. The audience wonders itself whether he wants to kill Caesar for the good of Rome, or to keep senators like him in power. Caesar actually saved the historical Brutus from execution when he fought against Caesar in the Roman civil war of 49 BC. Shakespeare’s Brutus constantly acts (at least outwardly) according to what is morally right, rather than what is practical, which is why he spares Antony’s life right before he makes the famous speech that turns all Rome against Brutus and Cassius. In the end, Brutus leaves two legacies, as a noble, honorable Roman, and as an assassin and traitor. It’s up to the audience to decide which he really is. Words That Come To MindTortured, stoic, conflicted, aristocrat, traitor, orator, Roman, idealist, noble, honorable.

Caius Cassius Unlike Brutus, we have no doubt as to who Cassius is- he is a jealous, wretched, ambitious man who hates Caesar, and wants Brutus to help take him down, appealing to his sense of duty, his vanity, Caesar’s unworthiness to rule, and by frightening Brutus with the most dreaded word of all: “KING.” Cassius is Brutus’ polar opposite- where Brutus is quiet and stoic, Cassius is fiery and outspoken. Where Brutus is idealistic, Cassius is more pragmatic. Where Brutus is honorable, Cassius is a thief, a murderer, and unquestionably a traitor. Yet, the two men come to an understanding and a friendship that lasts the rest of their lives. Words That Come To Mind: Slight, manipulative, fiery, transparent, traitor.

Marc Antony Caesar’s friend who, in his famous funeral speech in Act III, incites the people of Rome to hunt down Brutus and Cassius. In my view, Antony is like a star football player; he’s charming, successful, beloved by all, but not very smart, very clever, or very good as a person. When the conspirators assassinate Caesar, Antony works to revenge Caesar’s death, but he also steals some of Caesar’s wealth for himself, use the assassination to advance himself, and destroys the last senators who would oppose his triumvirate. Antony is basically an opportunist, a man who happens to be in the right place at the right time… for now. Words that come to mind: cunning, golden-boy, soldier, jock.

Important Historical Note:

Titian- "Tarquin and Lucretia," 1571.
Titian- “Tarquin and Lucretia,” 1571.
Brutus is descended from an ancient nobleman who drove the last king out of Rome in 509 BC, declaring that Rome would never have a king again. This last king, Tarquin, was also known for the rape of an innocent girl, (pictured left), which Shakespeare immortalized in his poem “The Rape of Lucrece.” To Brutus, the concept of letting Caesar abuse his power by becoming king, (thereby betraying the senate and the people of Rome), would be just as disgusting as his ancestor letting Tarquin rape the virgin Lucrece. Cassius knows this, which is why he manipulates Brutus’ family loyalty by reminding him that Brutus’ ancestor would rather the Devil ruled in Rome than a king.

Play Summary Rome- 44BC. Julius Caesar has become dictator-for-life and everyone suspects he wants to become the first Roman king in 500 years. One day, a Soothsayer (fortune teller) warns Caesar to “beware the ides of March,” which the great man chooses to ignore. That same day, two senators named Brutus and Cassius, organize a conspiracy to assassinate Caesar on the steps of the Senate, which takes place on March 15th, just as the Soothsayer foretold. At Caesar’s funeral, his friend Marc Antony along with his nephew/ heir Octavius lead a bloody revolt among the mob to slaughter all the conspirators, which turns into all-out war on the field of Philippi. Brutus and Cassius commit suicide and Octavius takes the reigns of power, setting the foundation for the great Roman Empire.

Concerns for Directors The Rome of Caesar’s day helped forge the principles of American democracy, which is why this play is particularly relevant to American audiences. A director need not set the play exclusively in Ancient Rome; after all, Washington DC was originally called Rome, and even today it features a Capital, a Senate, and many cutthroat people vying for power. The second half of the play however, bears a strong resemblance to the chaotic battlefield of many modern insurgent countries, which allows the director to pick the setting from places like Syria, Israel, Ukraine, and Iraq.

Concerns for Teachers

  • Students in grade and high school don’t often understand the politics presented in the play. It’s very important that when teaching the play, you emphasize the stakes of Caesar becoming a king, and the terrible consequences of his murder.
  • Since there are so few female characters in this play, it might be hard to keep your female students interested. It might be wise to emphasize the point I made earlier, that Rome is full of masculine virtues and defects, and that the women in Julius Caesar are largely marginalized and ignored. Perhaps you should ask your female students what they would do if they were Portia or Calpurnia, or better yet, what women might do if they held the power back in Ancient Rome?
  1. Full play: http://shakespeare.mit.edu/romeo_juliet/romeo_juliet.3.5.html
  2. Lesson plans for teachers
    1. Royal Shakespeare Company
    2. Folger Shakespeare Theater
    3. Web English Teacher.com

Artwork (wave mouse over each image to find out the artist/ year).

HC Selous Illustration, "Brutus and Cassius" 1830

La Mort de César (ca. 1859–1867) by Jean-Léon Gérôme,

George Ed Robertson Antony

For more artwork, visit the article below:  http://dreamdiscoveritalia.com/2015/03/15/beware-the-ides-of-march/

Video

  • Crash Course: Julius Caesar- John Greene tells the basic life story of Caesar
  • Schmoop bio of Julius Caesar
  • Thug Notes summary of Julius Caesar (PG 13 Language alert)
Advertisements

2 thoughts on “Play of the Month: Julius Caesar

Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in:

WordPress.com Logo

You are commenting using your WordPress.com account. Log Out / Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out / Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out / Change )

Google+ photo

You are commenting using your Google+ account. Log Out / Change )

Connecting to %s