Arguable one of Rome’s most famous emperors, Julius Caesar is also one of Shakespeare’s most famous plays. It tells a classic tale of power and betrayal, focusing on Caesar’s last days and the other power players behind the scenes. The play itself is well known for its title character actually having very little to do: he appears in only five scenes, and is gone by the middle of Act 3. Rather, it is the characters of Brutus, Cassius and Mark Anthony who take a more central role, each reflecting on their positions involving Caesar’s death and what lies ahead for them now that he is gone.
Friends, Romans, countrymen, lend me your ears;
I come to bury Caesar, not to praise him;
The evil that men do lives after them,
The good is oft interred with their bones,
So let it be with Caesar …
This is the famous speech from Mark Anthony, who returns to us in another play, Anthony and Cleopatra. Here, he attempts to cast fair judgement upon public opinion both of Brutus and Caesar. Caught up in the fever of Caesar’s assassination, the crowd begins to think Caesar a tyrant, that Brutus was right in what he did. Whilst Anthony does not discredit Brutus’ motives of honour and righteousness, he also reminds the crowd of the good Caesar has done, how the people once loved and supported him. At the end of his speech Anthony confesses himself not a great orator, with no power of speech such as that possessed by Brutus. We can clearly see this is not the case.
Both readers and watchers of the play can take much away from Julius Caesar as a play: what Shakespeare is trying to tell us about human motivations and what this does when power or great responsibility is at stake. These themes of politics always ring true to me when I am confronted with the play. As much today as ever our politicians incite us to feel different emotions in order to sway us to their cause. Julius Caesar proves this is a long and old tradition. Anthony’s manipulation of the crowd is masterful and a powerful scene, one that gives me goosebumps.
Meanwhile Brutus, ever the notorious figure painted in public opinion as some Judas-like figure, gets somewhat of a reprieve in this play. His motives are for the sake of the Republic. Though he is well loved of Caesar and loves him well in return, those personal feelings are set aside in order for him to do what he believes is right. As can be expected, both him and Caesar’s depictions in the play have been hotly debated as to which is portrayed in a more heroic light. I myself see Brutus painted much more sympathetically than modern opinion grants. if anything, he’s a good man who gets muddied in his consuming desire to do the right thing. As Mark Anthony wonders what fresh hell this confusion over leadership will do to the Republic, we as an audience wonder how far into the big picture Brutus really saw.
The fault, dear Brutus, is not in our stars, but in ourselves.
Julius Caesar may not be my favourite tragedy, but I do see it as one of Shakespeare’s greatest, using this political backdrop of Ancient Rome to delve into what motivates us a humans. To what extent can we really take this into government, and what does this say about the nature of ruling?
(photo credit: drmacro.com)