Shake well: The Tragedy of Julius Caesar

Maybe I am misreading this whole “greatness” thing.

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Greatness, I think to myself as I crouch down in the dressing aisle of the grocery store.

It’s just after 9:00am in the middle of the work week. I’ve dropped my wife off at her office and am picking up some odds and ends for the house since I’m already out.

It takes me a minute to find the dressing I’m looking for. There are so many brands. Each brand has so many flavors. Each flavor comes in so many options. Original. Low fat. Fat free.

I do this often at the grocery store. I marvel at all the Greek yogurt we can buy. I find myself in awe of the many kinds of tortilla chips for sale. Today, I stand before this bottled shrine to salad, one of our many temples erected to honor one of our great capitalist gods, Choice. We have so much choice. I, for one, sacrifice my ability to make a decision at its altar.

I find Newman’s Own Caesar. There’s Caesar. There’s also Creamy Caesar. Et tu, Paule?

I stare at the labels, which feature the bust of the brand’s namesake, actor Paul Newman. He’s wearing a laurel wreath. Like Caesar wore – and not just as a symbol of triumph. I recently read in Mary Beard’s SPQR that the wreath also covered up a bald spot. Greatness, I think.

Creamy Caesear – Version 2It’s $3.49 with my Ralph’s card. That seems a bit high, I start debating with myself. But all proceeds go to charity. Julius Caesar did a lot for the Roman poor,  I recall. Still, I’m not bringing in any money since I’ve quit my job to write and we’ve already got plenty of olive oil and balsamic vinaigrette at home.

I realize I’ve starting debating myself out loud. I look around. Except for an elderly couple slowly pushing a cart at the end of the aisle, the store is practically empty at 9:00am, of course. No one hears me.

And this is what scares me.

***

Since reading The Tragedy of Julius Caesar, my third play for Shakespeare Confidential, I’ve been thinking a lot about greatness.

It’s hard not to think about greatness after this play. It’s centered on a great man, for one. Aiding administration and agriculture, Julius Caesar left behind the Julian calendar and the month of July, both named for him. He also reformed the Roman government, including centralization and social programs. His military conquests vastly expanded the reach of the Roman Republic, which his ascendancy – and subsequent assassination – transformed into the Roman Empire. He was a pretty good writer, too.

A technocratic commander who helps the poor? Democrats, Republicans, and Independents would all hail: Caesar 2016! His campaign slogan would surely be Venimus, vidimus, vicimus. I don’t think libertarians and the Tea Party would support his constitutional interpretations, though; evangelists would balk at his paganism. And then there’s that whole dictator thing.

OK, but how do we really remember his greatness? Mention Julius Caesar to most people and they’ll say, “Et tu, Brute?” “You too, Brutus?”

He didn’t even say those words.

***

Alright, a synopsis (or, if that’s, er, Greek to you, a summary):

It’s 44 B.C. Julius Caesar has just defeated the sons of an old enemy, Pompey. He returns to Rome, triumphant, but is famously warned to beware the ides of March (March 15). Mark Antony offers to crown Caesar as king; Cesar refuses, 3 times, in fact, followed by an epileptic seizure. Meanwhile, Cassius compels a conflicted Brutus (once allies of Caesar) and other senators to conspire against his “ambitions,” which threaten to turn the Roman Republic into Caesar’s empire.

On the level of imagery and language, I am particularly struck by the way Shakespeare develops this idea of interpretation throughout the play. Its characters are constantly reading faces and deciphering omens – and often incorrectly.

On a stormy night when lions roam the street and men walk on fire, Caesar’s wife has a portentous dream, but Caesar ultimately disregards it and heads to the Capitol. There, he’s assassinated – stabbed 33 times, in fact. (It all happens pretty quickly in the play; Caesar’s killed in 3.1.) Brutus allows Mark Antony to speak at Caesar’s funeral, and his oratory rouses the populace, especially when he notes that Caesar willed money to the people.

A civil war breaks about between the second triumvirate – Antony, this dude Lepidus, and Octavius, Caesar’s great-nephew and adoptive son – and Brutus and Cassius. Caesar’s ghost appears to Brutus and warns him he will see him again at the the Battle of Philippi, where Brutus and Cassius take on Antony and Octavius.

Before battle, Brutus and Cassius fight about money (and virtue), and Brutus reveals his wife has committed suicide. Cue the tragic bloodbath. During battle, Cassius thinks his friend, Titinius gets captured, although Titinius is actually only celebrating a victory their side achieved. Cassius has his servant kill him, Titinius then kills himself after discovering so, and Brutus, seeing Cassius, falls on the sword his servant holds out for him. Antony marks his death by honoring Brutus’s noble virtue.

The play, which some believe to be the first staged on the Globe in 1599, is relatively short and the action fast. And Shakespeare certainly takes liberties with history for dramatic purposes.

***

Julius Caesar is also a great play by another great man: Shakespeare. Even if you desperately avoid the Bard, you can’t run from some of this play’s lines. I mean, it’s incredible.

Et tu, Brute“? As far as we can tell, Caesar never actually said these words. Not even the great Shakespeare said them.

“Beware the ides of March” (Soothsayer, 1.2.19). Shakespeare did it.

“He doth bestride the narrow world / Like a Colossus, and we petty men / Walk under his huge legs, and peep about / To find ourselves dishonourable graves” (Cassius, 1.2.136-39). Shakespeare did it.

“The fault, dear Brutus, is not in our stars, / But in ourselves, that we are underlings” (Cassius, 1.2.141-42). Shakespeare. Same monologue as quoted above.

“…it was Greek to me.” (Casca, 1.2.278) Yep, Shakespeare.

The above lines, now idioms in the English language, come from 1.2 alone.

“I am as constant as the Northern Star…” (Caesar, 3.1.60)

“Cry ‘havoc!’ and let slip the dogs of war…” (Antony, 3.1.276)

“Friends, Romans, countrymen, lend me your ears.” (Antony, 3.2.70)

“The evil that men do lives after them; / The good is oft interred with their bones.” (Antony, 3.2.72-73).

“But Brutus says he was ambitious, / And Brutus is an honourable man.” (Antony, 3.2.83-84).

By the way, Antony orates these last three quotes in a single speech.

And oh yeah, as Caesar famously utters upon his assassination: “Et tu, Brute?” (3.1.76) As far as we can tell, Caesar never actually said these words. We believe he either said nothing at all or said to Brutus in Greek: “Kai su, teknon?” “You too, my child?” The precise meaning is up for interpretation.

Also as far as we can tell, Shakespeare didn’t say them up either, although we can probably thank him for keeping these already popular words popular today.

Not even the great Shakespeare said them. Et tu, Gulielme?

***

Julius Caesar engages great themes. As developed by his words throughout the play, he pits “ambition” (3.2.26) against “virtue” (1.2.92), “conspiracy” (2.1.81) against “constancy,” “fear” (1.3.60) against “mettle” (1.2.303), “faults” (1.2.141) against “fates” (1.2.140), “tyranny” (3.1.77) against “liberty” (3.1.77).

What does it mean to be honorable and noble? How we are to interpret what it means to be “true Romans” (2.1.222)?

On the level of imagery and language, I am particularly struck by the way Shakespeare develops this idea of interpretation throughout the play. Its characters are constantly reading faces and deciphering omens – and often incorrectly. As Caesar asks after his wife, Calpurnia, shares her dream of a bloody, deathly Capitol: “What say the augerers?” (2.2.37)

Caesar has to read the soothsayer’s prophesy. He ignores it. Bad move.

Cassius reads Brutus’ internal conflict on his face. He exploits it.

Caesar reads a “lean and hungry look” on Cassius’ face. Should have acted.

Brutus, Casca, and Cassius have to interpret Caesar’s refusal of the crown and subsequent fainting. Showy and weak?

Brutus reads Cassius’ planted letter urging him to join the conspiracy against Caesar. Did you ask who really authored it, Brutus?

Artemidorus fails to get Caesar to read a letter exposing the assassination. Caesar, we’ve tried to help you so many times.

Brutus has to read the warning of Caesar’s ghost. Should have thought twice going into battle, Marcus.

Cassius reads auguries before the battle. He saw eagles, that’s good, then some lesser birds. Not so good.  He also has to determine from afar whether or not Titinius is captured. If you just waited a little longer, man.

And this is just the text of the play. How is Shakespeare interpreting Julius Caesar? How is he reading history? How do we interpret Shakespeare? How do we read history?

***

How do I read greatness?

The temple of dressings loom larger. I feel light-headed. My thoughts spin.

No one hears me talk to myself because most people are working. Here I am, talking to myself about Julius Caesar and salad dressing on my way back home to write at 9:00am in the morning. There are billions of people in the world, over a billion live in extreme poverty. Half of the people in the world don’t make in a day what this single bottle of dressing costs. Most working folk would be happy to get their shopping done when the store’s so empty. Who am I? Who am I? This is a true luxury, this is true privilege. But shouldn’t I then be taking better advantage of it? I’m an educator by trade; I’ve helped people, I’ve made differences. Yet look at what Caesar accomplished. True, I don’t aspire to power. Or being assassinated.

We don’t have control over our greatness. We don’t have control over how we’re remembered.

Look at what Shakespeare accomplished. I’m poring over his words – a whole industry of people pore over his words – 400 years after his death? And me? I just blog. I’ve never even made enough on my own writing to buy this bottle of Creamy Caesar. In one play surely he leaves us more genius lines than I can ever hope to in a lifetime. What does it mean to be something? Is this my motivation – to make it, to be great? Is to make it to be remembered? There are at least 200 different dressings I could buy right this minute. We only get about 80 years, who knows how many of them good, before we kick the bucket. What do we do with that time, with, if we’re lucky, all the choice we have in our lives? Yet Shakespeare didn’t even make an effort to compile or publish his plays. “What should be in that ‘Caesar’?”

Greatness.

Caesar and Shakespeare are remembered for words they didn’t even say. Et tu, Brute? We don’t have control over our greatness. We don’t have control over how we’re remembered. By sheer association, Caesar’s name lives on in a dressing he had nothing to do with. That’s credited to a Caesar Cardini in Tijuana, Mexico in 1924. Not that we remember that. I imagine even Paul Newman is probably known by many as the dressing guy, not as the award-winning actor and philanthropist.

It’s all up for interpretation.

“This was the noblest Roman of them all,” Antony remembers Brutus.

All the conspirators save only he
Did that they did envy in great Caesar.
He only in a general honest thought
And common good to all made on of them.
His life was gentle, and the elements
So mixed in him that nature might stand up
And say to all the world ‘This was a man’. (5.5.67-74)

I read the bottle of Creamy Caesar. Shake well! A good dressing, like the character of a man, has to be balanced, well-mixed.

Maybe I am misreading this whole greatness thing.

I put the dressing back on the shelf. I think I got more than $3.46 out of it.

I stand up. The blood returns to my head.

***

Author: John Kelly

I write about word origins buzzing in news and culture at mashedradish.com (@mashedradish). Last year, I read the complete works of Shakespeare and blogged about it at shakespeareconfidential.com (@bardconfidensh). You can also find my writing on Atlas Obscura, Mental Floss, Oxford Dictionaries, Nameberry, and Strong Language.

5 thoughts on “Shake well: The Tragedy of Julius Caesar

  1. Thank you for making your thoughts transparent. Each play blooms anew as your 21st century eyes demand reason and passion from roots deep in another age.

    Living literature, flicking stones into far-future waters via your private investigations. This fortunate reader is enjoying every ripple.

    Truly.
    Thank you.

    Like

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