Tag Archives: Brutus

“Julius Caesar” by William Shakespeare: The Meaning of the Will

As I finished reading this text, I could not help but wonder why it was titled The Tragedy of Julius Caesar and not The Tragedy of Marcus Brutus, since Caesar plays only a minor role in the play compared to Brutus, and Brutus is actually the tragic character. He participates in the killing of Caesar for noble and idealistic reasons, not out of self-motivation. He sincerely believes he is doing what is best for Rome and its citizens, by deposing one who he deems a tyrant. This ultimately leads to his downfall and death. But even in the end, he is praised and honored as a hero.

This was the noblest Roman of them all:
All the conspirators save only he
Did that they did in envy of great Caesar;
He only, in a general honest thought
And common good to all, made one of them.
His life was gentle, and the elements
So mix’d in him that Nature might stand up
And say to all the world ‘This was a man!’

(Act V: scene v)

OK, having shared my opinion regarding the title of this play, I want to focus on a specific passage that stood out for me while reading the play this time. It is somewhat long, but I included it here so you can see what I am talking about.

In the following excerpt, I noticed that the word “will” is repeated an unusually large number of times.

ANTONY
. . .
But here’s a parchment with the seal of Caesar;
I found it in his closet, ’tis his will:
Let but the commons hear this testament–
Which, pardon me, I do not mean to read–
And they would go and kiss dead Caesar’s wounds
And dip their napkins in his sacred blood,
Yea, beg a hair of him for memory,
    And, dying, mention it within their wills,
    Bequeathing it as a rich legacy
    Unto their issue.

Fourth Citizen
    We’ll hear the will: read it, Mark Antony.

All
    The will, the will! we will hear Caesar’s will.

ANTONY
    Have patience, gentle friends, I must not read it;
    It is not meet you know how Caesar loved you.
    You are not wood, you are not stones, but men;
    And, being men, bearing the will of Caesar,
    It will inflame you, it will make you mad:
    ‘Tis good you know not that you are his heirs;
    For, if you should, O, what would come of it!

Fourth Citizen
    Read the will; we’ll hear it, Antony;
    You shall read us the will, Caesar’s will.

ANTONY
    Will you be patient? will you stay awhile?
    I have o’ershot myself to tell you of it:
    I fear I wrong the honourable men
    Whose daggers have stabb’d Caesar; I do fear it.

Fourth Citizen
    They were traitors: honourable men!

All
    The will! the testament!

Second Citizen
    They were villains, murderers: the will! read the will.

ANTONY
    You will compel me, then, to read the will?
    Then make a ring about the corpse of Caesar,
    And let me show you him that made the will.
    Shall I descend? and will you give me leave?

(Act III: scene ii)

Shakespeare was a good enough wordsmith that he would not have overused a word unless he was trying to convey something. Obviously, he was emphasizing the importance of Caesar’s last will and testament, in which he bequeaths money to the citizens of Rome. But I feel there is more.

The importance of the will was one of the basic tenets in classical Stoicism, which was the dominant philosophy in Roman culture. A firm will was required to ensure that individuals did not succumb to emotions and lived a proper life, using logic and reason as the guiding principles in an individual’s actions.

The Stoics taught that emotions resulted in errors of judgment which were destructive, due to the active relationship between cosmic determinism and human freedom, and the belief that it is virtuous to maintain a will (called prohairesis) that is in accord with nature. Because of this, the Stoics presented their philosophy as a religion (lex divina), and they thought that the best indication of an individual’s philosophy was not what a person said but how a person behaved.

(Source: Wikipedia)

So the question one should consider is whether Shakespeare agreed with the Stoics, or felt that emotion was at least as important, if not more so. Certainly Brutus, who embodies Stoicism in this play, makes poor choices and ultimately pays the price in the end for being ruled solely by his will. But the mob that responds through pure emotion is also not presented in a favorable light. They passionately cry for Caesar’s will, for me a symbol that they are seeking a will (willpower) which they themselves are lacking. Ultimately, I think Shakespeare was promoting an idea of balance, that a fully realized human needs a balance of emotion and logic, that one without the other results in an imbalance that leads to poor decisions.

Finally, I see a third layer of meaning concerning the will in this section. I think Shakespeare was adding a little comedic self-promotion. His first name is William, and of course, Will is short for William. I can only imagine that he must have gotten a kick out of hearing his name being chanted: “Read the will; we’ll hear it, Antony; / You shall read us the will.” In other words, “Read us the words of William Shakespeare! We want to hear them! Read us his words!”

Advertisements

2 Comments

Filed under Literature

“Coriolanus” by William Shakespeare: How Politicians Manipulate Public Opinion

Coriolanus

Today is Election Day, so I figured it would be appropriate to write about something political. I had seen this play performed this past summer and really enjoyed it. I found its themes of political opposition and the manipulation of public opinion to be relevant to modern American politics.

Before I get into the politics of this play, I figured I’d touch on a couple things that I feel are important. Firstly, while this is a tragedy, only one person dies: Coriolanus. I sort of expect a stage full of carnage in a good Shakespearean tragedy, but that’s not the case here. As far as his tragic flaw, his main flaw is his pride, a somewhat hackneyed flaw in my opinion, but it fits. He is also a poor communicator, which is a problem for anyone playing the political game. Finally, I have to mention his relationship to his mother. Freud would have a field day with this. He addresses his mother with reverence while calling his wife “woman.” Pleasing his mom seems to be Coriolanus’ chief motivator throughout the entire play. One could certainly write an entire post on this mother/son relationship, but I will leave that to someone else.

OK, now on to the politics.

I constantly marvel at people’s ability to forget the past and change their views based upon the latest media hype. I confess that I thought this was a modern issue and the result of diminished attention span; but it seems that this was the case in Shakespeare’s day also. As the scheming tribunes Brutus and Sicinius consider Coriolanus’ recent popularity and the likelihood of his election as consul, Sicinius points out how easy it is to sway public opinion.

Sicinius:

Doubt not
The commoners, for whom we stand, but they
Upon their ancient malice will forget
With the least cause these his new honours, which
That he will give them make I as little question
As he is proud to do’t.

(Act II, scene i)

The two then discuss how to manipulate the public’s opinion of Coriolanus by implying that he does not care about them, that he is full of pride and a tyrant, and that he will ultimately take away their freedoms. This is exactly the type of partisan hyperbole used by each political party to rally voters.

Brutus:

So it must fall out
To him or our authorities. For an end,
We must suggest the people in what hatred
He still hath held them; that to’s power he would
Have made them mules, silenced their pleaders and
Dispropertied their freedoms, holding them,
In human action and capacity,
Of no more soul nor fitness for the world
Than camels in the war, who have their provand
Only for bearing burdens, and sore blows
For sinking under them.

Sicinius:

This, as you say, suggested
At some time when his soaring insolence
Shall touch the people–which time shall not want,
If he be put upon ‘t; and that’s as easy
As to set dogs on sheep–will be his fire
To kindle their dry stubble; and their blaze
Shall darken him for ever.

(Act II, scene i)

When Coriolanus must face the populace and the accusations of the tribunes, his mother offers him some advice.

Volumina:

I prithee now, sweet son, as thou hast said
My praises made thee first a soldier, so,
To have my praise for this, perform a part
Thou hast not done before.

(Act III, scene ii)

Shakespeare draws a comparison between acting and politics. In both, one is on a stage, performing a part for the public. In fact, there is even a term for this, “Political Theater,” which is defined as actions by politicians intended to make a point rather than accomplish something meaningful.

In modern American politics, pitting the rich against the poor is common political practice. On one side, the rich are told they should have disdain for the poor, who are depicted as lazy and seeking only to live off the wealth which they worked hard for. Conversely, the poor are told that the rich are nothing but a bunch of greedy money-grabbers seeking to exploit them. It appears that this type of divide was also exploited by politicians in Shakespeare’s time to manipulate the public.

Sicinius:

Bid them all home; he’s gone, and we’ll no further.
The nobility are vex’d, whom we see have sided
In his behalf.

Brutus:

Now we have shown our power,
Let us seem humbler after it is done
Than when it was a-doing.

Sicinius:

Bid them home:
Say their great enemy is gone, and they
Stand in their ancient strength.

(Act IV, scene ii)

As is often the case, political games and craft have a tendency to backfire.

Menenius:

‘Tis true:
If he were putting to my house the brand
That should consume it, I have not the face
To say ‘Beseech you, cease.’ You have made fair hands,
You and your crafts! you have crafted fair!

Cominius:

You have brought
A trembling upon Rome, such as was never
So incapable of help.

Both Tribunes:

Say not we brought it.

(Act IV, scene vi)

As I read this, I could not help but think about the mess in the Middle East. For years the US has been involved in that conflict, offering support to whichever faction seems to be more aligned to our political stance. The results of this policy has been disastrous, to say the least. Yet, our political leaders continue to make the same mistakes and play the same political games.

As members of a democracy, we have a responsibility to educate ourselves on the issues that affect our society and the world around us, and to make decisions based upon our views. It is important that we do not fall victim to the manipulation of political factions who seek only to wrest control of power from the other side. Regardless of which political side you lean towards, you should avoid buying in to the propaganda that is shoveled our way by political action groups on either side.

Thanks for taking the time to read my post, and if you are an American citizen, go out and vote today.

Leave a comment

Filed under Literature