Things to consider while reading Julius Caesar
This is one of Shakespeare’s earlier tragedies, often studied in school, often considered inferior to the "great" tragedies Macbeth, Hamlet, King Lear, Othello, and perhaps Antony and Cleopatra. As such it is treated oddly. In fact it’s a fairly tight play — perhaps lacking great sophistication and depth of characterization, but still tightly framed in the manner of, say, Aeschylean tragedy. It’s worth reading and attending to closely.
Julius Caesar and the previous plays we’ve read
- In A Midsummer Night’s Dream and As You Like It, characters are forced out of their daily situation and into an alternate reality, in order to more perfectly realize who they are themselves. Does a similar process happen here? Do the characters, in fact, discover who they are? Or are they led down a path of delusion?
- Consider the issue of professed power and the actual power:
- Titania points out to Oberon how extensive the consequences of their rioting are — but in reality do we see anything?
- Rosalind, who has no real magical powers, conjures up the ending of As You LIke It.
- Richard II professes the holy inviolability of the king’s person, but doesn’t actually benefit from it.
- Here, Antony, the professed non-orator, outmaneuvers Brutus in the funeral contest of speeches.
- We have asked frequently about moral accountability. Is the issue clear-cut here? Is there a "good guy"? Is there a "bad guy"?
- Richard II chronicles a successful overthrow of political power; this chronicles an unsuccessful one. How do the two differ? How are the characters of Brutus and Bolingbroke similar? What are their grievances? Are they reasonable? Who governs them?
- If you’ve read Macbeth or Hamlet, you will recall that both of those involved assassinations of ruling kings. How does the difference in perspective change your view of the story?
Though based on historical incident (a reasonably good account, in Plutarch’s Lives) this play is not normally considered a history. What makes a tragedy a tragedy? What are tragedy’s distinguishing features?
In particular consider:
- As I mentioned last week, typically a drama, whether comic or tragic, attempts to derive its resolution from its initial ingredients. Does that happen here?
- How can tragedy of the Shakespearean sort be used as a vehicle for the discussion of various issues? Is it more or less effective than tragedy? How does Shakespeare do that here or in other comedies you have read?
Themes that emerge in the play (only a few of the many)
- Honorable vs. dishonorable death.
- The varieties of political character:
- the over-confident Caesar, unworried about much of anything.
- the opportunistic and calculating (but very persuasive) Antony.
- the idealistic Brutus.
- manipulative politicians like Cassius.
Symmetries in the play
The greatest balances in this play are between the sets of characters:
- Brutus vs. Caesar
- Brutus vs. Cassius
- Octavius vs. Antony
- Brutus vs. Antony
How do these pairings advance the plot? What do they add to the argument or discussion of the play? How do they impart forward movement to the play?
Inconsistencies or problems in the play
Perhaps less a problem for Elizabethan audiences, who expected ruling political figures to get all the credit for what was done under them, than for us: who is this play about, really? Is this really the tragedy of Julius Caesar? If not, whose tragedy is it?
What is the function of the insistent unfolding prophecy in the play? What is its point?
How does Shakespeare use dramatic irony to underscore his points? Does it get out of control?
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