The Noblest Roman of Them All? On Shakespeare’s Julius Caesar

 

What is most tragic in tragedies is that everything falls apart. Tragedies are always concerned with fate of a community, and a community cannot fall until its building blocks, individuals, have already begun to tumble themselves. Tragedies often seem inevitable from the their very beginning, and the reason for this is that we arrive at a tragedy when personal integrity has already been fatally compromised. Those who seek to avert the tragic logic from following its course are already blind to their own complicity. The tragic hero seeks to attack the validity of the syllogism, rather than attempting to change the first premises. And in this way, all of the characters in Julius Caesar topple while trying to set the state right. Rather than trying to change what a human being can change, himself, they take on the role of God is trying to change what is outside their power and duty.

It is suitable to consider the title character first, not because he is indeed the tragic hero, but because he is the most obvious example of a man acting as god. He is a cipher of the rest of the characters. He tacitly accepts the mantle of god from the beginning; Mark Antony says, “When Caesar says “do this,” it is performed,” and we know even without watching the performance that Caesar nods his head in agreement. There is a moment of tragic hesitation before his fateful departure to meet the Senate on the morning of March 15, for he is brought to acknowledge that unlike a god, he is subject to death. Nevertheless, by the time he reaches the Senate House, he has recovered the self-confidence that is as much his betrayer as any Brutus. Unlike “ordinary men,” his purposes cannot be changed, for he is a god; “Caesar doth not wrong.” An imperturbable “Olympus,” he is “constant,” “unassailable,” “unshaked of motion;” he is even more than a god, as even prayers cannot move him.

Most of the characters in the play likewise delude themselves into believing that they “do no wrong.” The conspirators rationalize their deceit in several ways. In order to defend the values of the ancient republic, it is necessary to betray its virtues. One acts bravely by ambushing an unsuspecting friend. “Honesty to honesty is engaged” by lying. Love is defended by betrayal. Some commentators on this play have noted the indirection in the very syntax of the conspirators, as when Cassius reveals his plan to produce several letters in different hands urging Brutus to join the conspiracy. Brutus tells his fellow conspirators to “let not our looks put on our purposes.” Having killed Caesar, they immediately begin pretending that they did him a favor: “Why, he that cuts off twenty years of life/ Cuts off so many years of fearing death.” Brutus ironically condemns his own actions in Act 4, shouting that “there are no tricks in plain and simple faith.”

Sin at its root is pride, and pride is always, to a greater or lesser degree, making oneself God. Caesar’s self-deification is subtly mirrored in all the characters. Cassius, the man who convinces Brutus to kill his friend, speaks the rhetoric of defending the republic and restoring freedom to Rome. However, he knows that he is warping the “honorable mettle” of his friend. Furthermore, as his rhetoric indicates, his hatred of Caesar springs more from envy than patriotism. Caesar of all people notices this: “Such men as he be never at heart’s ease/ Whiles they behold a greater than themselves.” Cassius, if he does not desire to be God himself, at least wants no one to be above him.

Is Caesar a tyrant, at least according to Shakespeare? Certainly. He desires a crown, to betray the Republic, to bring back the hated name of “king” to Rome. He believes himself to be a god, when he is but a man, who whines when he is sick and who is deaf in one ear. Should he opposed in a moral, upright way? Shakespeare does not answer that question, because it is not asked. Instead, he investigates the self-deception of men who oppose evil by means of evil, by murder and the betrayal of friendship. It is surely not an “execution” ordained by legitimate authorities as Shakespeare describes it. Not only is the killing itself sordid, excused by the flimsiest rationalizations, and impelled by impure motives, but it does not even succeed in attaining its end. Shakespeare is implicitly condemning philosophies that justify means by their ends. Over Caesar’s dead body, Brutus predicts “so often shall the knot of us be called/ the men that gave their country liberty.” But Shakespeare’s audience knows, Caesar’s death only marks the beginning of the Caesars and the end of the Republic.

Behind the tragedy of the death of Caesar is the downfall of Brutus. It may seem that Brutus’s fault is the most difficult to see or understand. We see envy in Cassius, base opportunism in Antony and Octavius, but Brutus seems to be a pure character. One might be tempted to say that his downfall is his own good nature and his loyalty to Roman virtues. However, Brutus is in fact the most vicious character in the play. His is solely the sin of pride. He is the one who takes God’s power into his own hands, deciding that he has the authority to kill not just any man, but his friend. It is his playing of the role of god in order to prevent Caesar taking this role himself that is the fundamental tragedy of the play.

There are many important considerations that follow from this. One is to consider the way in which we approach the current confusing situation in the state and in the Church. It is true that we must oppose evil, but it must be only by means of good. We may be called on to resist presidents or even Popes in certain actions, but this opposition does not mean that anything that opposes what is evil is good. Violating the fourth commandment by disrespecting the Pope is no way to respect the Church one thinks he may be harming. Lying and manipulation, in the end, are no real defense against the deceitful machinations of modern politicians. Finally, another consideration is most pertinent as we undertake the practices of Lent; the problems of the wider world are a symptom of sin, which is fundamentally in individuals. While fighting the good fight against threats to our state and to our Church, in the end we must focus more on eradicating the tyrant in our bosom than on the tyrants of the greater world.

This article is reprinted with permission from our friends at Crisis Magazine.
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