Saturday, March 15, 2014

The Ides of March

Frances Barber's particularly brutish Caesar
in the Donmar/St. Ann's '13 production
Today’s the Ides of March, famous as the anniversary of Julius Caesar’s assassination in 44 BC. Shakespeare dramatized the event, of course, but it may be the only story in his collection that’s greater than his telling of it. His major contribution is to spread the myth that Caesar’s last words were “Et tu, Brute?”, but he lifted that from Suetonius, who claimed the famous last words were “Kai su, teknon?”, Greek for “You too, child?”

Caesar is Shakespeare’s most powerful character, from a political and social point-of-view. So it’s ironic that, from various standpoints, he’s not one of the writer’s strongest. Instead of the complex yet characterized verse of the other Romans, he speaks in what Shakespeare, through Rosalind, called a “thrasonical brag” (after Thraso, a braggart soldier in a play by Terence).

In fact, Shakespeare seems to play subversively with the ultimate monarch. He’s not the protagonist of the play named for him. And while he’s alive, in the first half of the play, his humanity (and thus his mortality) is underscored:

    He had a fever when he was in Spain,
    And when the fit was on him, I did mark
    How he did shake. 'Tis true, this god did shake:
    His coward lips did from their color fly,
    And that same eye, whose bend doth awe the world,
    Did lose his luster: I did hear him groan:
    Ay, and that tongue of his that bade the Romans
    Mark Him, and write his speeches in their books,
    'Alas,' it cried, 'give me some drink, Titinius',
    As a sick girl. Ye gods, it doth amaze me
    A man of such a feeble temper should
    So get the start of the majestic world
    And bear the palm alone.

That’s Cassius in Act 1, so read it with a touch of skepticism, but at times the anecdote gets borne out. While he’s alive, Caesar’s greatness isn’t inherent, it’s in his wife’s prophetic nightmare and the soothsayer’s warning to “Beware the Ides of March.” His arc towards apotheosis is only activated by the assassination. As Brutus considers the event beforehand, he says:

    Let us be sacrificers but not butchers, Caius
    Let’s carve him as a dish fit for the gods

Then Brutus goes further, staging the assassination as a sacrificial ritual.

                                    Stoop, Romans, stoop,
    And let us bathe our hands in Caesar’s blood
    Up to the elbows, and besmear our swords:
    Then walk we forth, even to the marketplace,
    And, waving our red weapons o’er our heads,
    Let’s all cry, ‘Peace, freedom, and liberty!’

After his death Caesar is more than a man (a little like Obi Wan Kenobi). His spirit haunts the playnot just literally, as a Shakespearean specter appearing to Brutus, but in the verse and behind the events. As Cassius says in his Roman suicide,

    Caesar, thou art revenged
    Even with the sword that killed thee.

And when the army of Brutus is unexpectedly defeated by Octavius,

    Oh Julius Cesar, thou art mighty yet!
    Thy spirit walks abroad, and turns our swords
    In our own proper entrails.

My favorite aspect of Julius Caesar is this tension between the man and the myth. Shakespeare’s approach is pretty Christian (Platonic?), suggesting that Caesar's true soul is only seen once the body is discarded, and he becomes history. In fact, we still live in Julius Caesar’s world: we have a month named for him, after all, and we remember the date in the soothsayer’s warning.

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