Shake well: The Tragedy of Julius Caesar

Maybe I am misreading this whole “greatness” thing.

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.

***

Taking selfies with Shakespeare?

So, I quit my job and decided to read the complete works of William Shakespeare this year.

Alright, it’s more complicated than that. My wife and I are hoping to move to Europe sometime in the spring. We’ve been in Orange County for a few years now and itching to go. We want rain, we want clouds.

We want change. And her work – consumer insights, I think I can sum it up – may well afford us this incredible opportunity. It’s been a dream of ours to live abroad.  (A dream of hers, originally, but she’s given me the bug.)

I had been overseeing the academics for a company that helps adults with autism. Kind of like a college counselor meets intervention specialist. And managing our tutors. (My background’s in education.) It was meaningful work. According to a recent CDC survey, one in 45 persons is considered to be on the spectrum. Important work – especially in light of this selfish project, if I’m looking in the mirror.

I am a 31-year-old, unemployed, angsty, indecisive, aspiring writer who wants to make sense of his – of this – mortal coil. So why not read all of Shakespeare’s works in one year?

But I was also getting burnt out, to be honest. I may not think of myself as a millennial when it comes to things like technology or dating, but, when you get hungry for a new challenge after 2-3 years on a job (you can disregard that, future employers)…

Meanwhile, I’ve  been blogging about word origins. You should follow my weekly work at the Mashed Radish. It’s etymology meets current events. For instance, we had that big Powerball jackpot. On the Mashed Radish, I look into why we call it a jackpot. Over time, my following grew, my writing outlets expanded. Now I also write for Oxford Dictionaries’ blog every now and again, which is a great honor. Because Oxford Dictionaries. I also contribute to Strong Language, it’s a sweary blog about swearing, alongside some people I really admire. Idols really. I’ve even been picked up in Slate’s language blog, Lexicon Valley.

Now I want to be a writer. (“A writer.” Gosh, that sounds so pretentious, so privileged. More on privilege, soon.) God bless her, my wife is supporting me in doing it. Crazy.

But I needed a bigger goal (read also: my wife works in corporate sales) than just my regular blogging, which is bringing home no bacon, even if it is about why we say bringing home the bacon.

Shakespeare died 400 years ago this year. April 23, 1616, to be precise. He still looms so large over our linguistic and dramatic – our cultural – consciousness. If the world’s a stage, he has a hell of a lot of plays on it. And it has to signify something, in spite of whatever you say, Macbeth. Shakespeare is, like, The Canon.

Meanwhile, I am a 31-year-old, unemployed, angsty, indecisive, aspiring writer who wants to make sense of his – of this – mortal coil. So why not read all of Shakespeare’s works in one year and see what I can learn from it? And why not write about it along the way?

I want to be honest about not understanding passages. I want to laugh at penis jokes. I want to marvel at language that can sound out deeper meanings. I want to connect the goings-on of my life, of 2016, of this millennium with this enduring work. Not in an academic “This is what Shakespeare means” kind of way.

But in a human way, reading-wise and writing-wise. I want it to be personal, relevant, real. Perhaps you could say I’m looking for small-s shakespeare in big-s Shakespeare. Or taking a selfie with Shakespeare, so to speak.

shakespeare_droeshout_1623
It’s like he’s staring into my soul – or supremely bored by what I’m saying. I learned that this engraving featured in the First Folio is called the “Droeshout portrait,” after the artist.

Now, I did major in English for my undergrad, I should confess. I took a pretty hard Shakespeare course for that degree and even presented at an academic conference on Shakespeare as a result of it. And I research and write about historical English and language on the regular. So, I’m not coming from nowhere on this. But I’m not an authority. I’m not an expert. Nor will I claim to be at the end of it.

But I do think there is something to be learned in the process and I’m sure I’ll be changed at the end of it. I’m not sure what it is yet or how I’ll change, but with, depending on who you talk to, 38 plays plus other poems (e.g., the Sonnets), I’ll be figuring something out.

I settled on the goal as of January 10 (I told you I was indecisive), so, based on the math, I’ll be reading a play every 8 days to pace myself. That’s my main guideline for now. That and to enjoy the texts and try to write well. I’d like to see plays and watch film versions where I can, too.

I’m going to keep two journals. In one, I am tracking interesting words for the Mashed Radish and swearing/oaths, possibly for Strong Language. In the other, I am keeping general notes.

I don’t have a preordained reading list for the plays. I’m not proceeding chronologically, nor as their listed in the First Folio. I mean, the First Folio lists The Tempest first, which was Shakespeare’s last play written alone, if I’m not mistaken. And not all editions even classify plays the same way (romance vs. comedy, and whose to say how the bard himself would have done so.) So, at least to start, I’m tackling them as fancied, as inspired.

As for the texts, I’m working out of The Norton ShakespeareBased on the Oxford Edition (1997; ed. Stephen Greenblatt). I kept them from college. If they were good enough for my Shakespeare professor (she was excellent), they’re good enough for me. (And yeah, I couldn’t part with a lot of my college lit anthologies. It’s an identity-insecurity thing, I’m certain). The texts are heavy and take up a lot of space, a great thing to lug around when you are aiming to downsize to move abroad. But they’re thorough, comprehensive, with lots of additional background that surely will help me along the way.

Speaking of “along the way,” join me. I think it’ll be fun. I hope that, as Shakespeare, er, might say, my cake won’t be dough. Follow along on Twitter @bardconfidensh and get posts by email using the buttons on the sidebar.

First up? The Taming of the Shrew.