Political Realities in Julius Caesar
Julius Caesar is in essence a political play. The politics in question are Roman, but the political characterisation is universal. The great leader of the republic seems to be looking towards a return to monarchy; a conspiracy seeks to prevent him. The conspiracy succeeds, but is in its turn vanquished. We therefore see Rome under two governments.
Shakespeare demonstrates immediately that the state of Rome, though prosperous, is not stable, as the tribunes Marullus and Flavius make plain their opposition to Caesar as they round on the citizens who are celebrating his triumph. Their reasons for opposing the general sway remind us of the volatile nature of politics: they remain loyal to Pompey, whom Caesar has defeated and whom the citizens seem to have forgotten until reminded by the two tribunes. This is harsh political reality, and even harsher is the reward Marullus and Flavius receive for their now misplaced loyalty. In the following scene, Casca tells Cassius in an undertone that Marullus and Flavius ‘are put to silence’ for their activities. This is swift justice. Though outwardly unperturbed, the system which supports Caesar is ruthless when faced with opposition.
However, Caesar himself seems to be frail and given to whimsy. The figure Shakespeare presents seems to be at variance with the leader of the successful military campaign against Pompey. Although he instructs Calpurnia to ‘stand in Antonius’ way’ as he runs the race to cure her barrenness, the childlessness of the couple questions Caesar’s potency too. There is the small detail of his deafness, but Casca tells of his swooning before the crowd and Brutus corroborates that ‘he hath the falling sickness’. Although probably magnified by jealousy, Cassius’ stories of the swimming of the Tiber and Caesar’s fever in Spain testify that the leader is vulnerable. Shakespeare presents a leader who seems to be past his peak and therefore it is natural for him to try to maintain his superior position by becoming king; the time is also ripe for disaffected abler men to seek his overthrow. The conspiracy, therefore, is formed.
The time is ripe politically for change and we should consider how the major conspirators come to realise this. As suggested above, Cassius’ reasons are personal. Why should a man weaker than himself hold such power and authority? Brutus’ reasons are ideological. What would be best for Rome? It is notable that in all their deliberations, neither character gives any thought to how Rome will be governed once Caesar is assassinated, a political error we may recognise from the Gulf War, for example. Like Bush and Blair, the conspirators merely assume that Rome will be a better place and will flourish when the despot is removed. At this stage none of the conspirators admits, privately or publicly, that he is aspiring to a position of power. The idea of personal gain is perhaps closest to Cassius’ arguments, running as they do along the lines of ‘why him and not me?’ But Cassius’ thoughts do not go much further than the death of the man he holds in so much detestation. Perhaps we should take it as implicit that he means to step into Caesar’s shoes himself, but Shakespeare never includes the idea in his speeches, even in soliloquy, but suggests Cassius would even favour Brutus in charge rather than himself – Brutus who ‘sits high in all the people’s hearts’, including Cassius’. Brutus’ conscientious nobility would seem to exclude thoughts of high position from his mind, but at other times he would perhaps consider himself to be the ablest and best candidate, as he is, he says, ‘armed so strong in honesty’.
Brutus and Cassius
Shakespeare makes the difference between the two main conspirators very clear. Loosely, they are the selfish and the selfless, but in apparent contradiction they can at the same time be the humble and the arrogant. Shakespeare presents them as a mass of contradictions. Cassius is the motivating force behind the conspiracy, but once it is under way he hands over the reigns to Brutus, who was slow and reluctant to join in the first place. Cassius is embittered against Caesar for personal reasons, but puts himself second in the conspiracy. Brutus is concerned for the sate of Rome and not personal friendships, yet is most conscious of his own position of superiority within the group, readily accepting authority.
It is true that Brutus is the one at first glance best suited to leading the conspirators. They are a diverse group of men, but all have a common admiration for this carefully thinking and ‘honourable’ man. Casca puts the case most plainly:
O, he sits high in all the people’s hearts;
And that which would appear offence in us
His countenance, like richest alchemy,
Will change to virtue and to worthiness.
Brutus is not only clever, but he is popular. His talents are widely recognised, but it takes outside forces to push him forward. Cassius tells him that ‘many of the best respect in Rome’ look to Brutus to lead the people from ‘underneath this age’s yoke.’ He accepts the burden and the arguments that Caesar must be killed ‘for the general’ good. It should be noted, however, that Brutus’ arguments in his orchard soliloquy are based on assumptions, not on fact. They centre on what Caesar ‘may’ do if he is crowned, Although careful and conscientious, these arguments are flawed. Caesar is to be assassinated, not because of what he has done, but because of what he might do at some time in the future. Sadam Hussein’s weapons of mass destruction come to mind again. Such arguments are sophistry; perhaps Brutus us hiding from himself that he is looking forward to a position of authority in Rome. More likely, perhaps, is that Brutus is in fact blind to the weakness of his arguments. The ideas are more important to him than the realities and this is borne out by his actions in the remainder of this scene.
After admitting the necessity of Caesar’s assassination, Brutus shies away from its reality. He holds the death at arm’s length, warding off the reality with euphemisms:
Let us be sacrificers, but not butchers, Caius.
Let’s carve him as a dish fit for the gods.
His wish is evidently naïve, but is couched in the language of nobility and honour. Honour is his main concern:
The name of honour more than I fear death.
It is concern for the honourable course of action which dictates to Brutus that Antony should be spared. His idea, his theory, sounds plausible, as he compares Antony to ‘a limb of Caesar’ which will be useless when the body is lifeless. The image is an attractive one and the argument makes sense, but takes little account of human reality, as is proved by the events of the play. The imagery which Brutus is using to make his views more real is in fact widely divergent from reality. Cassius, more prosaic but less naïve, is not altogether persuaded, but bows to Brutus’ authority.
The result of the lack of co-ordination between the two main conspirators is a lack of thorough planning. Shakespeare shows us that at least two people know about the conspiracy despite the cloaking of the members’ faces ‘even from darkness’: Artemidorus and Popilius. It is only chance which prevents its discovery. The lack of forward planning is revealed in the general chaos immediately following Caesar’s death:
BRUTUS People, and senators, be not affrighted;
Fly not, stand still: ambition’s debt is paid.
CASCA Go to the pulpit, Brutus.
DECIUS And Cassius too.
BRUTUS Where’s Publius?
CINNA Here, quite confounded with this mutiny.
METELLUS Stand fast together, lest some friend of Caesar’s
Should chance —
BRUTUS Talk not of standing.
Shakespeare uses the rapid exchange of short speeches, commands and questions, to show the confusion in the Senate House; the aftermath, the take-over of power, has not been well planned, if planned at all. Again the idealist has ignored the realities; the problems have not immediately disappeared with the extinction of Caesar.
Brutus’ second mistake also concerns Antony. Against fierce protestations from Cassius, Brutus allows Antony to speak to the crowd. Again Brutus is governed by thoughts that the conspirators’ actions must appear honourable, arguing that ‘It shall advantage is more than do us wrong.’ Again the idea at first seems a good one, but in fact ignores reality, as Cassius points out before events prove him right:
Know you how much the people may be moved
By that which he will utter?
The contradictions in the characters of the two major conspirators are forming a pattern. Cassius, the selfish and vindictive schemer, lacks authority but understands human character and motivation. Brutus, the noble with passionate concern for honour and Rome, wields a natural authority but is too full of theories and ideals to be able to grasp realities. The conspiracy fails because Cassius hands over complete control to Brutus. Although he repeatedly questions Brutus’ decisions, he always ultimately succumbs to his authority. The strong idealist overrules the weak pragmatist.
In looking closely at Brutus, we have leapt over the emergence of the fourth major politician, Antony. Before Caesar’s assassination, he is only seen as a kind of ‘yes man’ attached to Caesar. Brutus clearly considers him little more than this, though Cassius is more circumspect. The first thing we hear of Antony after Caesar’s death is a message, a message of servile nature requesting a guarantee of safe passage. The message is designed to be answered favourably:
Thus, Brutus, did my master bid me kneel;
Thus did Mark Antony bid me fall down;
And, being prostrate, thus he made me say:
Brutus is noble, wise, valiant and honest.
The ‘yes man’ characterisation seems to be borne out, but on Antony’s arrival, Shakespeare shows that this is a façade of great cunning. Having had a guarantee that he will not be harmed, he offers his life. He shows friendship to each of the conspirators, shaking each by his ‘bloody hand’, persuading them that his loyalty now lies with them. Antony himself offers two possible interpretations of his actions: ‘either a coward or a flatterer’. Mixing sorrow and friendship, he persuades the conspirators of his sincerity, and that done, he slips in his request to speak at the funeral. As we have seen, this is granted by Brutus. It is on the departure of Brutus, Cassius and the rest that the audience sees behind the façade:
O, pardon me, thou bleeding piece of earth,
That I am meek and gentle with these butchers!
‘Butchers!’ – the very image that Brutus has been so anxious to avoid. Antony’s sudden emergence as a master of deceit and his prophecy of ‘fierce civil strife’ perhaps suggests that he has been waiting for his chance. His plan of action is certainly well advanced.
The Funeral Speeches
The two political speeches to the plebeians are at the centre of the play; in them Shakespeare reveals the skill and political understanding of Antony and Brutus. Brutus has the advantage of speaking first and he speaks with skilful rhetoric, building his climaxes and posing his unanswerable questions:
Who is here so base that would be a bondman? If any, speak; for him have I offended.
He wins the crowd to him, but though in prose, his speech is above the heads of the citizens. It is, as Shakespeare has led us to expect from Brutus, a speech of ideas: he killed Caesar ‘not that I loved Caesar less, but that I loved Rome more.’ He wins the crowd by default; the people know that they do not want to be ‘bondmen’, but the reasons for Caesar’s death elude them, so much so that their immediate response to Brutus’ speech is a cry of ‘Let him be Caesar.’
Theories, evidently, are not suited to the masses. Antony knows this; he constructs his speech to fit his audience; he emerges as the consummate politician. Interestingly, Shakespeare uses verse for his speech, not the prose of the people. In Shakespearian terms, he speaks in the form of the nobility, and so the citizens grant him the respect due to the nobility. It is in the content of his speech that Antony reaches the citizens, after he has gained their ear by using the appropriate form for his rank. He appeals not to intellectual ideas, but to physical realities; he reminds them that Caesar in fact refused the crown. He reminds them of the captives and money by which Caesar enriched Rome. He appeals to the emotions of friendship and mourning. He produces tears at the right moment to create a pause to let his words sink in. It is a remarkable piece of acting, and throughout he reminds the audience that the conspirators are ‘honourable men’, but each time he uses it, the epithet ‘honourable’ seems further and further away from the truth. Then comes the stroke of the master politician; he appeals to the citizens’ self-interest. Even this is done in calculated stages, first whetting their appetites with hints:
…being men, hearing the will of Caesar,
It will inflame you, it will make you mad:
’Tis good you know not that you are his heirs;
For if you should, O, what would come of it!
He interrupts to show and catalogue Caesar’s wounds, now that they know he is their benefactor, and only now, absolutely sure of his ground, is he openly hostile about the conspirators. He checks the citizens’ first rush of violence only because he want to incense them further. He now revels in his moulding of the crowd:
Good friends, sweet friends, let me not stir you up
To such a sudden flood of mutiny:
They that have done this deed are honourable.
What private griefs they have, alas I know not,
That made them do it…
I come not, friends, to steal your hearts:
I am not orator, as Brutus is;
But, as you know me all, a plain, blunt man.
The untruth of this is so obvious that it forms a private joke for Antony; Shakespeare shows that he is not only calculating, but that he enjoys being so. His success is so great that he has to restrain the citizens again and remind them about the will, about which they have forgotten in their fury. The reading of the will is the coup de grace, and Antony lets slip the first of his ‘dogs of war’.
Now let it work. Mischief, thou art afoot,
Take thou what course thou wilt.
Antony’s speech is a self-conscious and accomplished speech of incitement. He cynically uses the people to force the conspirators from Rome, leaving confusions and a vacuum into which he can step with Octavius, who arrives at precisely the right moment, again perhaps suggesting pre-planning by Antony.
The Triumvirate in Action
The first scene of Act IV is the only time Shakespeare presents government in action. The triumvirate of Antony, Octavius and Lepidus has a very firm grasp of political reality. The three are dispassionately compiling a list of possible opponents for liquidation. Included on the list are Lepidus’ brother and Antony’s nephew; these purges are ruthless. Antony is indeed the model Machiavellian politician. As soon as Lepidus’ back is turned, Antony shows his preference for power shared between two rather than three; Lepidus is ‘a slight, unmeritable man’, and not fit to share the ‘three-fold world’. Antony looks forward to dismissing him ‘like to the empty ass’ when he is no longer required ‘to ease ourselves of diverse sland’rous loads.’ Octavius defends Lepidus half-heartedly, recognising the advantageousness of Antony’s suggestion. We may already be able to detect hints of the power struggle to come between these two, and they certainly cross each other at Philippi, so that the unity at the end of the play is only an apparent unity; there is no stability in politics. Of course Shakespeare’s later play, Antony and Cleopatra, confirms this.
This is imperialist Rome; political differences are settled by the sword rather than by the ballot box. However, success and failure are governed by the same factors. Though Octavius and Antony are not in perfect harmony, they present a unified front. The conspirators’ party is riven, the leaders are at loggerheads. Again they attempt to keep their affairs secret, but without success – at least the camp poet, disseminator of stories and information, knows of the infighting and knows how dangerous it is. They quarrel over familiar things: money, corruption, lack of communication, and the argument descends to a childish level:
CASSIUS When Caesar lived, he durst not thus have moved me.
BRUTUS Peace, peace! You durst not so have tempted him.
CASSIUS I durst not?
CASSIUS What, durst not tempt him?
BRUTUS For your life, you durst not.
The exchange is ridiculous; it has no connection with their arguments. Though Brutus and Cassius patch up the quarrel, they do so without settling it. The cracks remain and these two are in no position to lead a party, an army, or a state. On the eve of the battle they are already admitting defeat, planning the ‘honourable’ course of action in that event. They pave the way for Antony’s victory.
An Emerging Realpolitik
The events in the play mark a change in Roman politics and Shakespeare is reflecting political reality. This reality is that idealism and successful politics cannot be companions. Of Caesar we see comparatively little, but from Brutus’ admiration of him we might suspect that he is of similar temperament, a man concerned with honour and prestige so much that he is convinced Rome will fare best under his complete command. If anyone could be another Caesar, it would be Brutus. Brutus’ concern for nobility and honour bind him. He cannot see, even with Cassius standing in front of him, that his philosophy no longer fits Rome. As we have seen, his ideals do not take account of human nature, which now finds honour out of date. Cassius knows this, but lacks the conviction to communicate it. He himself is awed by Brutus’ honour.
Antony is a new politician, by turns an observer, a deceiver, and orator, an actor, a governor, a military leader. He is a quick and clever opportunist. He clearly lacks Brutus’ sense of honour – he deceives the conspirators and reneges on his agreement with them; he manipulates the masses; he ruthlessly annihilates his enemies and turns away his friends when no longer useful. Although strictly outside the scope of the play, perhaps it is not too much to suggest that Shakespeare’s characterisation makes it plausible to hypothesise that he had been waiting for his chance since the beginning, recognising that Caesar’s days were numbered. Perhaps, like Artemidorus and Popilius, he even knew of the conspiracy. If we use the clues that Shakespeare gives us, this idea does not seem so outlandish. Antony is a man without honour, but after his funeral speech, the word ‘honourable’ has considerably debased meaning. It is this speech, in the centre of the play, where Shakespeare marks the transition between the old politics and the new. After Antony’s speech, honour in politics is obsolete. It does not work. What is needed is knowledge and pragmatism; in other words, Machiavelli’s ‘virtu’. This may involve ruthlessness, deceit and manipulation, but the moral code which termed such actions dishonourable no longer applies. Such is the reality of the new politics. When Antony says of Brutus ‘This was the noblest Roman of them all’, he is paying tribute to an extinct and superseded race.
In looking at politicians, we should also consider those whom they aspire to rule. Shakespeare is not flattering to the general people; they have no political understanding and no loyalty, they are easily swayed and manipulated by cleverer men. They are, in Casca’s words, a ‘rabblement’ and ‘rag-tag people’. The citizens’ state is not altered by any of the violent political upheavals. Even the few tokens from Caesar’s will, Antony holds back for his political funds. So though we have changes in government, the changes have no effect upon the governed. These new politicians are in it for themselves. Antony gains power by ruthless means for selfish ends. This is the new political reality, a political reality that Shakespeare was anxious to illustrate to his Elizabethan audience in 1599, as parliament was showing new independence from the monarchy. It is perhaps a political reality with which we are all too familiar today.
Read more: Julius Caesar – What Shakesepare did with Plutarch: an examination of Shakespeare’s selections from his historical source.