Table of contents
1. The turning-point (of a dagger)
2. The Roman public
3. Casca - a member of the conspiracy
4. Cassius - mastermind of the conspiracy
5. Brutus - figurehead of the conspiracy
6. Marc Antony vs Brutus - the speeches in 3.2
7. The failure of the conspiracy
1. The turning - point (of a dagger)
The assassination of Julius Caesar was probably one of those few moments that literally changed the course of history. Many historians agree that Caesar might have been just another military dictator such as the generals Sulla and Marius, who are, in comparison with Caesar, unknown; a successful general, but incompetent at reforming the Roman res publica1.
The assassination of the title character is also the central moment in Shakespeare’s drama “Julius Caesar“. His death causes the change of scene (away from Rome) and the change from a relatively stable res publica to civil war. The play presents the major protagonists of these events: Casca, Cassius, Brutus, Caesar, Marc Antony and, to a lesser degree, the Roman public.
The Roman people are a background before which the main characters act and by whom they (i.e. the people) are manipulated more or less successfully. The reasons the assassins and their antagonists have, pretend to have or do not have for what they do become apparent in what they tell the man-in-the-street. Occasionally, when we hear them talk to a close friend or to themselves, we find matters are not as simple as the public is made to believe. Brutus has doubts about the attack, Cassius‘ aim is not the welfare of the res publica, Marc Antony fakes friendship with the conspirators.
We see that there are certain political as well as moral ambiguities in the assassination of Julius Caesar as Shakespeare presents it. In this paper, we will first look at the Roman people as the background, then examine the character and motives of Casca, Cassius and finally Brutus.
2. The Roman public
In every picture the background remains slightly out of focus. The background of a (group) portrait is of minor importance; how we perceive it is dominated and affected by the people portrayed. This holds true for the presentation of the Roman men-in-the-street whom we encounter only three times in the whole play. It is interesting that their opinions in each scene seem to differ from those they utter in the other scenes. This deserves a closer look.
In the opening scene the plebeians have made a “holiday to see Caesar and to rejoice in his triumph.“2. None of the major characters in the play are there to skilfully manipulate the people which makes this the one decision we see the people of Rome make of their own accord. This were a strong statement for Caesar, but the fact that the tribuni plebis Flavius and Murellus can so easily influence the people - not even the sharp-tongued cobbler answers - weakens it. Murellus' comment fits the picture: The people of Rome took to the streets for a triumph of Pompey, Caesar's chief political enemy, whose sons' downfall is about to be celebrated in the opening scene. The Romans are either politically uninterested or fickle; either they do not care why and who they cheer for or they celebrate Caesar as their greatest leader now, having given Pompey this title just before. To determine which of these evaluations is more likely we will examine two other scenes in which the people occur.
We do not actually see the Roman people in the crucial part of the next scene (1.2). Still, they are on the characters' minds all the time in the first half of the scene, and Casca reports as an eye-witness in the latter half. The people cheer as Caesar refuses the coronet3 three times. It appears that the people do take an interest in their government; they do not want a king, be it their current favourite Caesar or not. Casca's report of the event is carefully worded; while he carefully avoids any criticism towards Caesar4, probably mindful of eavesdroppers who had the tribunes Murellus and Flavius “put to silence“5, the expressions he chooses when talking about the people suggest that he despises them. “The rabblement“ with their “sweaty nightcaps“ and their “stinking breath“, “the rag-rag people“, “the common herd“6 are not after his liking. They are worse than Stimmvieh, who vote for whoever promises them the most, because they would have forgiven Caesar anything, even “if [he] had stabbed their mothers“7.
The fickleness of the Romans is most strikingly displayed in their reactions to Brutus's and Marc Antony's speeches after the assassination. III.2 opens with the people demanding an explanation; they want to hear convincing arguments why Caesar had to die: “let us be satisfied“8. Brutus speaks; his speech will be examined in depth later. The people cheer him, they want him to be the new leader of the res publica, they even demand his coronation. It is evident that Brutus rules Rome at this moment; he has the total support of the people. The people are so worked up that the atmosphere is threatening for the next speaker when he begins. “'Twere best [Marc Antony] speak no harm of Brutus here.“9 Marc Antony has given only half his speech when the people's emotions have turned 180 degrees. Brutus is not the wished-for king, he and his fellow assassins become “traitors [...,] villains, murderers“10. When Marc Antony finishes, open violence against the assassins begins.
All this shows two important things: The Roman people are fickle. It is as easy to work them up for something as to incite them against the same thing. This includes a certain amount of passivity, a tendency in the public to let everything wash over them. The politicians use this to influence the public by their statements; spindoctoring is not a new phenomenon. He who can secure more than short-term support from the people has the power.
The 2001 Stratford production of “Julius Caesar” by the Royal Shakespeare Company stresses the passivity of the public and their openness to being manipulated by several changes in the first act. The play opens with the soothsayer examining the entrails of a sacrificed animal. Immediately after he displays his terror about what he discovers, Caesar and his pomp enter for 1.2. The original opening scene is left out. We never see the unmanipulated public wait for Caesar's the first euphemistic use for expressing murder. triumph. It is notable that the soothsayer remains on stage for the complete first act. He sits or stands in different places, but he is always on stage. This reminds the audience that all scenes in the first act are set in a Roman street or public place. The public can potentially see Cassius 'recruiting' Brutus and Casca and hear him talk of “some certain of the noblest-minded Romans“11 he approached. It does not take a real soothsayer, but only a concerned and attentive member of the public like Artemidorus to know what is going on. The use of the theater audience as a proxy for the Roman public is a means that was employed very advantageously in the Stratford production12.
3. Casca - A member of the conspiracy
Cassius is the mastermind of the conspiracy, Brutus its figurehead. The other members of the conspiracy remain in the dark. We hear their names, we see them in the orchard and in the senate, but only Casca receives at least some characterization13. He is a cautious man. His taciturnity and “his sour fashion“14 are a result of this. Casca knows about the fate of the tribunes and concludes that it is better to avoid dangerous topics such as the political implications of who has or has not the 'falling sickness'.
His contempt for the common people seems to come from their fickleness rather than any arrogance on his part. He repeatedly complains about the public who “clap [Caesar] and hiss him according as he pleased and displeased them“ and “would have done no less“15 than forgive Caesar the murder of their parents. His attitude towards Caesar seems unclear. The relevant clue is well-hidden in the cryptic remark “An I had been a man of any occupation, if I would not have taken him at a word, I would I might go to hell among the rogues.“16 Arden3 explains these lines as “Casca says he [,not being 'mechanical', ] is above such crude response“17, which I think fits. If we turn this around we come to a different sense: 'You can be sure I would have killed him if I were an ordinary man'. Therefore,there can be no doubt that Casca wants to see Caesar dead. We never hear of a motive for it, though.
Like the others, Casca is drawn into the conspiracy by Cassius who takes advantage of Casca's terror at the nightly omens. His arguments are simple, yet effective. He accuses Casca of un-Roman stupid passivity (“You are dull, Casca, and those sparks of life / that should be in a Roman you do want“18 ), and, hidden in an accusation of all Romans, as effeminate and contemptible. There is only one way Casca can react to this, and he does: He has to prove himself a true Roman worthy of his ancestors. Cassius sets him an example how he can do this, namely by killing either Caesar or himself. In his speech, Cassius labels Caesar a tyrant who has become one because the Romans are “weak straws“, Rome is “trash, rubbish, offal“.19 His pretended alarm at having said too much tricks Casca into joining the conspiracy. In plotting the assassination, Casca does not have much say. The fact that Casca is the first to strike at Caesar underlines his word that he “will set [his] foot as far / as who goes farthest“20.
Casca represents the ordinary members of the conspiracy. He has been persuaded by Cassius to join the conspiracy. He wants to get rid of Caesar, but would not have done anything if Cassius had not approached him. He does not like the public and contemns it as fickle which is ironic in Casca because he himself is not free of this quality21. The most interesting thing about Casca is the absence of a clear motive for killing Caesar: We have to conclude that there is none but a general grudge.
4. Cassius - mastermind of the conspiracy
There are two people - Brutus and Cassius - who play a leading role in the conspiracy. Cassius is the planner. He brings the conspirators together. His talking to them convinces or tricks them into joining this hazardous enterprise. It is therefore necessary to give his character and motives a closer look. Cassius's first speech gives us a clue to his subversive character.
1 I use the expression “res publica“ because its English equivalent, the “common-wealth“, has other connotations; I also tried to avoid the word “state“.
3 It does not really matter whether Caesar is offered a crown or a coronet. Incidentally, the item worn by the Roman kings was more like a coronet than a crown.
4 As in 1.2.256, where he pretends not to understand why Cassius, Brutus and he himself are supposed to have the “falling sickness“.
5 1.2.284f. It is no entirely clear whether this “putting to silence“ merely involved Murellus and Flavius' removal from office, as Plutarch reports, or their death. The OED quotes this line as
6 All quotes from Cascas speeches in 1.2, between lines 243 and 262.
8 3.2.1, echoing Brutus's words to Marc Antony: “[...W]ere you, Antony, the son of Caesar, / you should be satisfied.“ (3.1.225-6).
10 3.2.154 and 156.
12 This, again, will be looked into in more detail when Brutus's and Marc Antony's speeches are discussed.
13 Caius Ligarius does not really count because age and infirmity alone do not make up a character.
15 1.2.258f and 1.2.271.
17 Arden3 ad locum.
20 1.3.118-119. The first person to do something goes farthest because he cannot follow an example as all those can who come after him.
21 His inconstancy shows in the ease with which Cassius brings him into the ranks of the conspiracy and his swing of opinion when the conspirators debate whether to involve Cicero, marked in his exclamations “Let us not leave him out“ (2.1.142) and “Indeed he is not fit“ only ten lines later.
- Quote paper
- Martin Klinkhardt (Author), 2001, "Remember March, the Ides of March remember" - Moral and political ambiguities of the assassination of Julius Caesar, Munich, GRIN Verlag, https://www.grin.com/document/25505