Thoughts on “Julius Caesar”

After finding most of the plays I’d read so far a bit disappointing, here is one that I was looking forward to as one of the more famous dramas that I had never read.  I was hoping that it would turn out to be really good, both because I’d get a really good Shakespeare play but also because it would mean that, yes, the good plays are indeed good plays and so validating my complaints about the other ones.  No, it’s not me or how I’m reading it, but instead it’s that the good plays and the good plays and the less famous ones are less famous because they aren’t as high quality as the famous ones.  On the other hand, if I still disliked it then I’d be in the rather awkward position of at a minimum saying that, in general, I just don’t like Shakespeare, and since the objections I’m making are things that I think apply more objectively I’d end up saying that at least most of the works of the most acclaimed playwright in English history are mediocre at best, which many people will point out says more about me than about him.

As it turns out, I really liked “Julius Caesar”.

This is made all the more shocking because in structure this is one of the historicals, which are the plays that I’ve most disliked in general.  As per Shakespeare’s wont in historicals, it turns out that the play is not about Caesar at all, and he is dead halfway through after only having a couple of scenes.  In DS9, Garak complained that he knew that Brutus would betray Caesar in the first act, but Caesar didn’t figure it out until the knife was in his back, but as per the actual play everyone knew that Brutus was going to betray Caesar in the first act because Shakespeare has him recruited to Cassius’ cause in the first act, and Caesar dies soon afterwards and so we don’t really get a sense of what information he had access to to determine that he would be betrayed.  Moreover, a great deal is made of how much Brutus loves Caesar which would make the betrayal emotional enough to get the “Et tu, Brute” line even if he suspected him.  And Cassius and his plotters indeed use that love to both recruit Brutus and to explain why they really needed him on their side.

Ultimately, this is not the tragedy of Caesar, but is instead the tragedy of Brutus.  This might be what Shakespeare tried in the other historicals, but here it works because Shakespeare is very careful to ensure that Brutus is seen in the play and by everyone as being an honourable man who only betrayed Caesar because he thought that Caesar being made overwhelming tyrant of Rome was bad for Rome.  As he says, he would not love Caesar so much if he didn’t love Rome more.  And his honour is what ultimately led to his downfall, because it spurs him to spare Mark Anthony and also to get him to speak at Caesar’s funeral while Brutus left him alone, and Anthony takes the opportunity to call them all honourable men while attacking their claim that they had to kill Caesar because of his ambition.  This turns the people against the conspirators and leads to the battle where Brutus and Cassius ultimately die by their own hands.  As the last lines say, Brutus was the only honourable one out of the conspirators and the only one who did what he did for Rome rather than for his own ambitions, but at the end he dies along with the rest of them.

So, the play works fairly well as it places the focus on Brutus and makes it clear that his death, at least, is a tragedy.  Thus, as noted, this isn’t the tragedy of Caesar, but the tragedy of Brutus, despite how some many think that the play really is about Caesar and the tragedy is his death (as I believed until I read the play).  Understood in that light, I really liked it, which gives me hope for the other plays going forward.

Up next is “As You Like It”, which is a play I recall from it being quoted by “Wayne and Shuster”.  No, really.

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One Response to “Thoughts on “Julius Caesar””

  1. Thoughts on “Antony and Cleopatra” | The Verbose Stoic Says:

    […] another historical, and is a sequel to the best historical I’ve read up until this point in “Julius Caesar”.  This also is an oddity for a historical, where the main focus is on the title characters and we […]

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