“Julius Caesar” by William Shakespeare

Death of Caesar

This Roman play by Shakespeare is based on Plutarch’s “Lives of the noble Grecians and Romans” (Caesar and Marcus Brutus). One might call it an adapted stage play, since the majority of the plot and dialogues in the play have been incorporated directly from Plutarch. But I noticed a significant difference when comparing the two renditions: Shakespeare failed to capture the complexity, magnificence, and more importantly, the political philosophy and moral mentality of the noble Romans.

Caesar, the title character, is killed midway through the play, and we know next to nothing about him. The words that Shakespeare put into his mouth (apart from those recorded by Plutarch) can be said by any self-conceited individual, and do not capture the uniqueness of the Dictator of Rome, his personal charisma, magnanimity, industry, calculation and ambition, as attested by Plutarch and Cicero.

Brutus, a man of moral integrity and Stoic virtue, and respected by all, was accused as a traitor by Mark Antony, in the famous speech “I come to bury Caesar, not to praise him” and the climax of the entire play. This same Antony, according to Cicero and Plutarch, was “the Helen of Troy”, unrestrained in lust and passion but deficient in moral character, and brought destruction upon the Roman Republic, but he came away a manipulative demagogue, nay, a popular hero, in Shakespeare’s play.

It is worth noting that Brutus was condemned as a traitor by Dante as well, and assigned to the lowest circle of the Inferno, gorged by Satan for eternity. However, Dante was not quite consistent in his judgment, since he brought Caesar and Cicero together in Limbo as virtuous pagans, perhaps not realizing that there was bitter enmity of ideals between the two, and the latter rejoiced at the slaughter of the former.

From the perspective of the Roman Republic, the assassination of Caesar was not an act of betrayal or murder, but a continuation of the Civil War between the declining Republic and the emerging Empire, a struggle between freedom and tyranny. Brutus fought with the Republic forces led by Pompey against Caesar, and after Pompey’s defeat and death, he was pardoned by Caesar. On the one hand, he was indebted to Caesar for sparing his life, on the other hand, he was robbed by Caesar of his freedom as a citizen of the Republic, i.e., he was enslaved by Caesar along with the rest of the Romans. Therefore, the assassination was not a preemptive strike against Caesar’s ambition, as Shakespeare depicted it, but a struggle/rebellion against a de facto tyrant. To give a modern parallel, who would not have rejoiced if Hitler had been assassinated?

The nuances of moral and political thought in ancient Rome are lost in Shakespeare’s play. As if to compensate for the lack of depth in thought, he expands a great deal on the relationship between Brutus and Cassius, who was mentioned by Plutarch only in passing. Their relationship occupies the center stage throughout, akin to that between Bassanio and Antonio in The Merchant of Venice –it’s not mere coincidence that Brutus’ wife and Bassanio’s fiance share the same name. Shakespeare almost seems to insinuate that Cassius instigated the assassination of Caesar, not because of his hatred of the tyrant and desire for freedom, but because of his jealousy of Brutus’ love for Caesar, the same reason Harmodius and Aristogeiton assassinated the tyrant Hipparchus in ancient Greece, according to some accounts.

P.S.

I met Brutus three years ago, and still vividly remember the encounter. I was crossing the street, when a lady behind me called out, “Brutus!” I looked around, and saw a black retriever run past me, with a red shopping bag dangling from his jaw. I stared at him in amusement, wondering what had become of the Roman hero/assassin. In hindsight, Antony would have been a more fitting name for the lady’s personal shopping assistant.

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