This week on ‘Arresting Images’: Julius Caesar!
This is one of Shakespeare’s plays that is regularly taught in high schools, so hopefully those of you who are not big Shakespeare enthusiasts will still be familiar with this one. I recently completed an internship with a Shakespeare education organization, and it was for an assignment with them that I first read it. I’m not going to lie, Reader: I find some plays quite tough on the first read. Love’s Labour’s Lost, for instance, is supposed to be a rhetorical masterpiece, but I haven’t been able to sink my teeth into it. This play was different — relatable. When I asked my internship co-ordinator why Julius Caesar was taught so regularly in high schools, he told me it’s because it can be taught as a lesson in Roman history Sure, that’s convenient, but I think it does the deeper issues an injustice. The reason why I am so enthralled is because it is so relevant to political issues not just then, but throughout history, right through to the high school politics and celebrity drama of today.
Julius Caesar is a play about a conspiracy against Caesar, led by a group of his minions who think that the conqueror is too ambitious. When one character, Casca, tells his companions Cassius and Brutus about Caesar’s celebrated return from battle, they concentrate less on the fact that Caesar was offered kingship but physically rejected the crown three times, and focused more on the way ‘he was very loath to lay his / fingers off it.’ In their minds, he pretended to reject the crown but desperately wanted it in his heart. And that, for them, was too ambitious. In the standard style of warriors, you can imagine that they didn’t pull Caesar aside for a chat about political strategy. Instead, Cassius, Brutus, and their gang of conspirators planned this great leader’s murder as a way to save his soul from his supposed ambition. Still with me?
Bringing us up to this week’s Arresting Image, we witness the conspirators’ summit, where they discuss who they’re going to kill and why. While Cassius maintains that they should kill Caesar’s ‘Number Two’, Mark Antony, Brutus reminds Cassius that their purpose is noble and spiritual rather than strategic. But here’s where the linguistic acrobatics come in: the Romans practiced what is called rhetoric, defined as the study of the most effective use of language. This play is the most impressive exercise of rhetoric, as it follows different characters convincing those around them to change their moral outlooks, essentially redefining right and wrong. And this is what Brutus says:
Let us be sacrificers, but not butchers, Caius.
We all stand up against the spirit of Caesar;
And in the spirit of men there is no blood:
O, that we then could come by Caesar’s spirit,
And not dismember Caesar! But, alas,
Caesar must bleed for it! And, gentle friends,
Let’s kill him boldly, but not wrathfully;
Let’s carve him as a dish fit for the gods,
Not hew him as a carcass fit for hounds:
And let our hearts, as subtle masters do,
Stir up their servants to an act of rage,
And after seem to chide ’em. This shall make
Our purpose necessary and not envious:
Which so appearing to the common eyes,
We shall be call’d purgers, not murderers.
And for Mark Antony, think not of him;
For he can do no more than Caesar’s arm
When Caesar’s head is off.
Ahhhh. A speech like that is the reason why I prefer to read Shakespeare rather than watch it performed. After reading those words, I can’t just move forward; I need to be able to take pause, think, and enjoy the way the Romans always propose a better alternative: not bodily dismemberment, but dismembering the ambition within Caesar’s spirit; not butchery, but mercy; not six of one, but half a dozen of the other! The political speechwriters of today can learn a lot from these Roman wordsmiths!
I’m sorry, reader, if my choices of Arresting Images prove too morbid, but perhaps that’s what aligns me so well with Shakespeare. Living in London in the 1600s meant that he regularly witnessed plague-ridden corpses being piled up on the streets, watched public executions, walked across the Thames to see the decapitated heads of political traitors (the likes of Brutus and Cassius or, in their minds, Caesar) mounted on pikes at the Tower. Shakespeare even caught the odd bear-baiting at the Globe Theatre itself. Re-reading the words ‘Let’s carve him as a dish fit for the gods, / Not hew him as a carcass fit for hounds,’ we can tell that these bear-baiting matches were a likely inspiration to Shakespeare, acting as an animal parallel to Caesar’s backstabbing at the Forum.
So think of it this way, Reader: Shakespeare was writing about one of the greatest conquerors in history. Sure, this play might have been performed for the royals; sure these words sound a bit difficult at first, but they’re so worthy of comprehension! And who were the people who sunk their teeth into the lofty rhetoric? The people who understood it firsthand: the commoners, ‘groundlings’, who paid for cheap standing tickets at the Globe and returned to the scene of the crime for a good ol’ bear-baiting, one of the earliest forms of commercial theatre!