Tag Archives: stoicism

“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.

. . .
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.

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

    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.

    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!

    The will! the testament!

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

    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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