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“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!”

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“Richard III” by William Shakespeare: Deformity and Evil

To really understand this play, you must have a basic understanding of the concept of the great chain of being.

For Medieval and Renaissance thinkers, humans occupied a unique position on the chain of being, straddling the world of spiritual beings and the world of physical creation. Humans were thought to possess divine powers such as reason, love, and imagination. Like angels, humans were spiritual beings, but unlike angels, human souls were “knotted” to a physical body. As such, they were subject to passions and physical sensations—pain, hunger, thirst, sexual desire—just like other animals lower on the chain of being. They also possessed the powers of reproduction unlike the minerals and rocks lowest on the chain of being. Humans had a particularly difficult position, balancing the divine and the animalistic parts of their nature. For instance, an angel is only capable of intellectual sin such as pride (as evidenced by Lucifer’s fall from heaven in Christian belief). Humans, however, were capable of both intellectual sin and physical sins such as lust and gluttony if they let their animal appetites overrule their divine reason.

(Source: Wikipedia)

To emphasize the importance of this concept, Shakespeare uses the word “knot” extensively throughout the text, symbolizing things from marriage to physical form. And just as Shakespeare and other Renaissance thinkers believed in the correspondence between the worldly and the divine realms, they also believed that the physical and the spiritual aspects of an individual were also knotted together.

Richard is a despicable character who seems to lack any redeeming qualities. He revels in his depravity and it is impossible to feel any sense of empathy for this person who is presented as the English equivalent of a Caligula. But what I find the most interesting is that Shakespeare establishes a clear connection between Richard’s physical deformities and his evil nature. In fact, during Richard’s opening soliloquy, the connection is immediately established.

But I, that am not shaped for sportive tricks,
Nor made to court an amorous looking-glass;
I, that am rudely stamp’d, and want love’s majesty
To strut before a wanton ambling nymph;
I, that am curtail’d of this fair proportion,
Cheated of feature by dissembling nature,
Deformed, unfinish’d, sent before my time
Into this breathing world, scarce half made up,
And that so lamely and unfashionable
That dogs bark at me as I halt by them;
Why, I, in this weak piping time of peace,
Have no delight to pass away the time,
Unless to spy my shadow in the sun
And descant on mine own deformity:
And therefore, since I cannot prove a lover,
To entertain these fair well-spoken days,
I am determined to prove a villain
And hate the idle pleasures of these days.
Plots have I laid, inductions dangerous,
By drunken prophecies, libels and dreams,
To set my brother Clarence and the king
In deadly hate the one against the other:
And if King Edward be as true and just
As I am subtle, false and treacherous,
This day should Clarence closely be mew’d up,
About a prophecy, which says that ‘G’
Of Edward’s heirs the murderer shall be.
Dive, thoughts, down to my soul: here
Clarence comes.

(Act I: scene i)

We can contrast this with a description of Edward, whose physical beauty reflects the nobler qualities of a human being.

Hath she forgot already that brave prince,
Edward, her lord, whom I, some three months since,
Stabb’d in my angry mood at Tewksbury?
A sweeter and a lovelier gentleman,
Framed in the prodigality of nature,
Young, valiant, wise, and, no doubt, right royal,
The spacious world cannot again afford
And will she yet debase her eyes on me,
That cropp’d the golden prime of this sweet prince,
And made her widow to a woeful bed?

(Act I: scene ii)

And again, Shakespeare reiterates that an individual’s face, or physical expression, is a direct reflection of what that person is like inside, and the thoughts and feelings that the person has within.

I think there’s never a man in Christendom
That can less hide his love or hate than he;
For by his face straight shall you know his heart.

(Act III: scene iv)

In our modern society, we want to tell ourselves that we do not judge others by their appearances, when in actuality, we still do. Studies have shown that individuals are considered more trustworthy if they have a nicer appearance. And there is the whole issue of judging blacks and people who look Arabic strictly upon how they look. We are not going to change this part of our collective being overnight, but we need to acknowledge this tendency and work toward changing it.

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“Lincoln in the Bardo” by George Saunders

My friend and bandmate, Terry, loaned this book to me. She said that I would really enjoy it. She was right.

The book is a work of historical fiction, with some mysticism woven in. It is about the death of Abraham Lincoln’s son, Willie, who gets stuck in the space between death and rebirth. Having recently read the Tibetan Book of the Dead, which goes into a lot of detail about the bardo state, I was able to relate to this book on a deeper level.

The book is a quick read. It is essentially constructed of short snippets of text, some from historical sources and others fictionalized to reflect the consciousness of the characters. Stylistically, it works very well, and the inclusion of the historical references definitely added a level of verisimilitude to the work.

One of the things that I got out of this book was the affirming of the fact that every single person, every life, has an impact on the world. We may feel that our existence is insignificant; but that is not so. Throughout our lives, we have an influence on every other living being with whom we come in contact.

What I mean to say is, we had been considerable. Had been loved. Not lonely, not lost, not freakish, but wise, each in his or her own way. Our departures caused pain. Those who had loved us sat upon their beds, heads in hand; lowered their faces to tabletops, making animal noises. We had been loved, I say, and remembering us, even many years later, people would smile, briefly gladdened at the memory.

(p. 71)

One scene in the story I found particularly interesting and creative features a military officer stuck in the bardo and attempting to communicate with his wife in the form of a letter. His words express the emotions associated with being trapped in a dismal space, desperately longing to move on.

O my dear I have a foreboding. And feel I must not linger. In this place of great sadness. He who preserves and Loves us scarecly present. Since we must endeavor always to walk beside Him, I feel I must not linger. But am Confin’d, in Mind & Body, and unable, as if manacled, to leave at this time, dear Wife.

I must seek & seek: What is it that keeps me in this abismal Sad place?

(pp. 137 – 8)

The last passage I want to share is an excerpt from Abraham Lincoln’s consciousness, where he is contemplating the transitive nature of life, how we emerge from non-being into being, and maintain a state of constant change through our short sojourn in this life.

I was in error when I saw him as fixed and stable and thought I would have him forever. He was never fixed, nor stable, but always just a passing, temporary energy-burst. I had reason to know this. Had he not looked this way at birth, that way at four, another way at seven, been made entirely anew at nine? He had never stayed the same, even instant to instant.

He came out of nothingness, took form, was loved, was always bound to return to nothingness.

(p. 244)

As I think about this passage, I think about all the changes I have gone through in my life—some major and others so subtle they were barely noticeable. And I think of the changes I have seen in the people around me, and in the world as a whole. It is the single constant, and the one thing for which we can be certain. We will experience change throughout our entire lives. And when we reach the end, it will be yet another change and transition as we cross the threshold into the bardo.

Thanks for stopping by, and have a blessed day.

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“The Revolt Against the Law” by Umberto Eco

I have been slowly working through Turning Back the Clock, a collection of essays by Eco. As I read this essay, there was a passage that really struck me.

… and, even before his guilt was decided, the masses in front of the TV were gloating over his humiliation and disgrace, as if watching a variety show in which the amateurs make fools of themselves. It was bad—bad for those who emerged innocent and bad for the guilty too, because the price they paid was higher than that called for by the law.

(Turning Back the Clock: p. 182)

As I read this, it dawned on me just how much, as a society, we do this here in the US. I confess that I have been guilty of this myself. When I hear that someone on the opposite side of the political spectrum has been “accused” of some wrong doing, I have been quick to use that to justify my pre-established conceptions about that person. People on the left do it with Trump, and people on the right do it with Hillary. We have gotten to a point in our collective culture where what we accept as the truth is that which supports the beliefs that we already have. It’s a dangerous place for us to be in as a society.

One of the reasons I read is because it allows me to reflect upon myself, and I am humble enough to recognize when there are areas where I can improve as a person. This is one of those areas. Now that I am aware of this tendency, I am going to try not to engage in it. I’m sure I’ll fall short, especially as Mueller forges on with his investigations, but it’s about progress and not perfection.

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“American Gods” by Neil Gaiman: Issue 07

This graphic series continues to impress me. A lot happens in this installment, and I could certainly write extensively about it, but will focus on the two aspects which stood out most prominently for me.

While Shadow is driving, he picks up a young woman named Sam who is hitchhiking. As they are driving, they get into an interesting discussion regarding Herodotus.

Shadow: It’s like he’s writing these histories, and they’re pretty good histories. Loads of weird little details. And then there are the stories with gods in them. Some guy is running back to report on the outcome of a battle and he’s running and running, and he sees Pan in a glade… and Pan says… “Tell them to build me a temple here.” So he says… “Okay.” … and runs the rest of the way back. And he reports the battle news, and then he says… “Oh, and by the way, Pan wants you to build him temple.” It’s really matter-of-fact, you know?

Sam: I read some book about brains, how five thousand years ago, the lobes of the brain fused, and before that people thought when the right lobe of the brain said anything, it was the voice of God. It’s just brains.

Shadow: I like my theory better.

Sam: What’s your theory?

Shadow: That back then people used to run into the gods from time to time.

I had read Herodotus back in college and remembering liking his histories. Probably something I should read again at some point. But what struck me the most about this section is how, in the past, people did have more interaction with their gods than they do today. I think it is because we have become more distracted by the trappings of our manufactured societies. We have replaced our old gods with new gods, gods of science, technology, commerce, and so forth. Which segues nicely into the next section I want to share.

In this scene, Shadow is watching television in a motel room, and a goddess manifests as Lucille Ball on the TV. She intimates to him that she is one of the new gods, who are the future.

Look at it like this, Shadow: we are the coming thing. We’re shopping malls, we’re online shopping. Your friends are crappy roadside attractions. We are now and tomorrow. Your friends are yesterday.

As I pondered this, I recalled sadly when my wife and I recently went to Cherokee. We went into some of the “Native American” gift shops, and they were all filled with manufactured garbage from China that was supposed to capture the power of what was once a mighty spiritual system. It was depressing. I could not find a single item that was actually made by a Native American craftsperson. I ended up buying only some locally roasted coffee.

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“A.D. After Death: Book Three” by Scott Snyder and Jeff Lemire

This final installment has been sitting on my desk waiting to be read for a while now, and I finally got around to it. It is fairly long and I knew it would take me at least an hour to read it, so I was waiting until I had enough time to savor it.

As with the first two issues, this one is very text intensive. The story is extremely complex, dealing with memory, guilt, and cycles of rebirth in a post-apocalyptic landscape. And while I am feeling that the post-apocalyptic genre is getting a little hackneyed, this story is really fresh and interesting.

Jonah, the protagonist, has been undergoing treatments that prolong life indefinitely. The problem is, his memory gets more distorted after each cycle (the term used for the treatment). At one point, he conjures a memory of when he first went for the treatment. He is explaining to a woman Inez about why he decided to take the treatment.

I look down at my hands, as if there’ll be an answer there. “I suppose because I’m just… tired of being afraid all the time. Tired of feeling like my life is an egg I’m balancing on a spoon day after day. Because I just live in fear, and this…” and here I look up at her, “this just isn’t who I want to be.”

This paragraph made me think about people today. It seems that many people live their lives in fear, which is fueled by 24-hour news and social media. Not long ago, I had to turn off all my news sources. It had become toxic and made me feel bad most of the time. And like Jonah, I do not want to live in fear.

One of the most powerful moments in this book was when Jonah remembers his mother’s death. He recalls the horror reflected in his dying mother’s eyes, and undergoes an epiphany where he fully grasps why she was so horror-struck at her moment of death, as her psyche was flooded with memories.

And the terror in her eyes… the horror at knowing the truth.

But that’s where I was most wrong. I saw that now. All this time I thought the horror was at remembering–at seeing herself as she was, rather than how she’d hoped to be at the end.

But I knew now that wasn’t the case at all; she hadn’t been horrified at remembering.

She’d been horrified that she forgot in the first place.

That she’d lost her place in her own story.

I knew this to be true, because I felt that way now, felt it with every cell in my body.

Having watched someone close to me suffer the mental deterioration associated with Alzheimer’s disease, this concept haunts me. The thought that it is possible to forget everything that is important to you, all the experiences that make us who we are, is infinitely terrifying to me.

Towards the end of the tale, Jonah is contemplating death, and he realizes that to fully understand the experience of death is beyond the ability of the human mind to comprehend.

I thought of children, how impossible math is to a baby, or physics to a toddler, and I got the feeling that whatever death was, it was beyond my perception entirely.

Death is the ultimate mystery. In spite of all the mystical texts written about dying, regardless of all the near-death experiences, the truth is, we really do not know what happens. It will forever remain a mystery for us during our lifetimes.

One last word about this book: The ending is very ambiguous, but in a good way. The author carefully leaves the ending open for interpretation, and I love that. Too often writers feel the need to wrap up a story all nice and neat; but life is not really like that, and this story reflects the unknowns in life that we must interpret through our own experiences. I won’t say any more, because I am not one who likes spoilers.

Thanks for stopping by, and keep reading cool stuff.

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“March: Book Three” by John Lewis and Andrew Aydin

This third volume concludes the trilogy, and it does so in a powerful and moving way. The story climaxes with the escalating tension in the civil rights struggle, which includes the march across the Edmund Pettus Bridge in Selma, Alabama on Bloody Sunday, March 7, 1965, where John Lewis was nearly beaten to death by Alabama State Troopers.

There is so much relevant and important commentary in this text, that I struggled with what to cover in my post (hence a lapse between when I finished reading and when I wrote this post). Rather than try to cover all the socio-political issues addressed in the book, I figured I would focus on a couple of sections that really stood out for me personally.

The first thing that really resonated with me personally was a section about the press and their focus on the white volunteers who were involved in the civil rights movement at the time.

There had been several complaints about the white volunteers trying to take over. It also left a number of people sore that the press had focused much of their attention on the white workers, often identified by name, shown working alongside nameless blacks.

(p. 53)

I had experienced something like this personally when I lived in South Florida and I went to protest the repatriation of Haitian refugees at the INS offices. I was interviewed by the news and featured prominently on television because they wanted to know why a white American was out there protesting with a large group of black Haitians. For me, it was a basic human rights issue, and I have to say I felt pained that the media chose to focus on me and not on the Haitians who were literally fleeing for their lives from the Duvalier regime.

The next thing that really struck me deeply was a conversation between Lewis and Malcolm X. Malcolm stressed that the real issue of the civil rights problem is economic, that it is the disparity between the rich and the poor, a rift that continues through this day and is the cause of much of the suffering around the world.

Malcolm talked about the need to shift our focus from race to class, both among one another and between ourselves and the white community. He believed that was the root of our problems, not just in America, but all over the world. Malcolm was saying, in effect, that it is a struggle for the poor–for those who have been left out and left behind–and that it transcends race.

(p. 136)

I also learned from the book that Malcolm was assassinated on John Lewis’ birthday, which was February 21, 1965 (Lewis was born on February 21, 1940).

Toward the end of the book is a touching section that depicts Lyndon Johnson’s speech announcing the federal government’s enforcement of voting rights. The speech is included in its entirety and is worth reading closely, but I just want to focus on one key phrase.

The vote is the most powerful instrument ever devised by man for breaking down injustice and destroying the terrible walls which imprison men because they are different from other men.

(p. 242)

In the recent election here in the U.S., and in past elections, I have been sadly astounded at voter apathy and the sense that many people have that their vote does not mean anything, or that it is better to cast a protest vote to send a message to the “establishment” instead of voting for the better of the two primary candidates. While I certainly empathize with the sentiment of these people, considering the vote as something frivolous or useless will ultimately lead to the loss of its power as a vehicle for social change. We must never forget that gains are slow coming, but that progress can be torn down very quickly.

Anyway, I highly recommend this graphic trilogy to all readers, young and old. The books are inspiring, infuriating, and important.

Here are links to my posts on the first two books:

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