The main point the play Julius Caesar makes, is that over the years, the parallels between ancient Roman history and contemporary political scandals haven’t changed much. Recently we have become all too familiar with disgraced and dishonored politicians, and this play is nicely crammed with issues that still resonate today. Such as:
- Mob Mentality
- Powers of Persuasion
- Drastic Action for the Greater Good
Let’s start with a brief Roman history lesson. Pompey, who is mentioned at the outset of the play, was a member of the first triumvirate. A triumvirate is an alliance between three popular politicians (hmmmm, does that sound like a good solution for using our abundance of Democratic Presidential candidates? But I digress) Anyway, Pompey, Caesar, and a third dude named Marcus Licinius Crassus shared power over Rome. As an added bit of intrigue, Pompey, the oldest of the three, was married to Julia, daughter of Julius Caesar….
I’d never heard of this Crassus guy, so I looked him up. Read this description and tell me if doesn’t remind you of someone…
His death was an ignominious failure, he and his son and most of his army slaughtered by the Parthians at the Battle of Carrhae. The nickname Crassus means roughly “stupid, greedy, and fat” in Latin, and in the aftermath of his death, he was vilified as a stupid, greedy man whose fatal flaw led to public and private disaster. Plutarch describes him as an avaricious man, stating that Crassus and his men died as a result of his single-minded pursuit of wealth in central Asia. His folly not only killed his army but destroyed the triumvirate and demolished any hope of future diplomatic relations between Rome and Parthia.
Hmmmm… but I digress again.
Anyway, the Triumvirate started to break down when the Crassus dude overstepped his bounds and was killed in his Parthinian power grab. Then, Julia died in childbirth along with Pompey’s child. Caesar and Pompey got into a big fight and when Pompey tried to run away, he was assassinated. Pompey’s grown sons planned to avenge their father’s death and overthrow Caesar, so Caesar killed them in the Battle of Munda in Spain. Thus begins the play.
The opening scene is a delightful repartee between soldiers and the common people, using double entendre and plays on words to convey the fact that everyone is worried about Caesar becoming the absolute ruler. Caesar passes and is warned by a soothsayer to “beware the Ides of March.” He waves off the warning as bunk.
Enter the “millenials” of the day, Brutus and Cassius. They are both worried about Caesar’s apparent rise to power and both tell each other that they would make a better king. They gather a group of 30 odd co-conspirators and plan to murder Caesar. Marc Antony (of Cleopatra fame) has just offered the crown to Caesar three times, and thrice he has waved it away. Casca, who is relating this story to Brutus and Cassius, tells them that Caesar had captured the hearts of the working class, and is really playing to the reality crowd. Each time he refused the crown, it was with less and less conviction, the last time, he actually fainted, which drove the crowd wild!
A month later – the 14th of March (the day before the ides) – there are some crazy meteorological events like thunder and lightning, and some weird animal tendencies, such as lions roaming the streets and men on fire. All of this is taken to be evil portends, but Caesar wont have any of it. Enter again Brutus, who has now made the difficult decision that even though he and Caesar are best buds, he needs to be killed, on the off-chance that he will become a tyrant once crowned.
Caesar’s wife Calpurnia has spent the night crying, trying to convince Caesar to stay home because she’s had a dream about him being killed. But Caesar is hell-bent on going to the senate that day and being crowned. He arrives, and sees Brutus’ gang of conspirators. He immediately starts telling them how great he is. The 33 conspirators rush Caesar and stab him. The last one to plunge in his knife is Brutus, to which Caesar utters his dying words and most famous line… Et tu Brute?
Once he is dead, they all dip their hands in Caesar’s blood and decide to walk through town telling everyone they have saved them from tyranny. But the people take it completely a different way. Marc Antony arrives on the scene, he mourns his friend Caesar, but agrees not to blame anyone yet if he can eulogize Caesar at his funeral. This is when Brutus delivers his “honorable” man speech, dripping with irony.
Here’s where it gets confusing to me. Brutus and Cassius run away, people start killing poets in the street for no reason. A new triumvirate is formed with Marc Antony, another guy named Lepidus, and Caesar’s adopted son Octavius. Brutus and Cassius start bickering, since Cassius is taking bribes. They agree anyway to meet the new triumvirate at Phillipi. There is a visit from some ghosts, and Antony and Cassius agree to kill themselves when and if anything goes wrong.
There is a battle. Fighty fighty fighty. Everything does go wrong. There is a misunderstanding about Titinius and handing off the crown. Cassius kills himself. Titiunius realizes the misunderstanding and then also kills himself. Brutus shows up, sees his dead buddies and asks the remaining friend Strato to hold his sword while he runs on it.
Octavius and Antony show up, find everyone dead, decide they were heroes for the most part, go off to a party and that is the end.
I had hoped to see more allegory, and metaphor and hidden meanings in this. There’s not enough interesting action to warrant reading again, which is probably how I’ll find those things. I can’t say I loved reading this, but I’ll admit it has staying power, so there is obviously more to it than I am able to see at this point.