Trending characteristics of my reading habits display a rather attached individual. Upon meeting new people we learn about their own habits — their likes and dislikes, their occupations, their dreams and nightmares, and (of utmost importance) what they read. This being an outcome that is both good and bad, enlightening and disheartening, we become, in a sense, attached. Those interesting humans we spent so much time with in the last five years may or may not be with us in the next ten, and we cannot but look back in the seeds of time and notice trending acquaintances. Certain individuals were with us for a time, and we were certainly attached — perhaps even at a spiritual level. But those relationships eventually melted away and became vague memories of uncouth characters in our lives. They ended not because of a quarrel or even a disagreement but because what they meant to us at the time caused us to be more than who we were, led to us going somewhere and doing something with our lives. All this to cobble together an analogy to my reading habits. Authors come and go and those that stick I find myself reading in great spurts. Shakespeare has stuck.
This semester I have read The Tragedy of Macbeth perhaps a dozen times over, though not in one sitting. Each day’s preparation leads to my reading through the next scenes three to four times, searching for those difficult words and phrases (that even I scratch my head at) and discovering that the first time I read this I was miles away from where I currently reside with the play. Thus, it is important to remember that when teaching a text we help those in the audience to have their first reading and not our fifteenth. This is quite difficult because we so desire all of those delightful pupils to see everything at once when we know full well it took us many a reading to get there. Like expecting someone to know your best friend as well as you upon a first handshake. In all of this, I decided to begin observing another teacher who is currently teaching The Tragedy of Julius Ceasar. I felt a little lost at first, for if I remember correctly, the last time I read Julius Ceasar was in ninth grade, some eight or nine years ago. Therefore, it seemed important to pick up the play and give it a fresh reading, and I found it to be delightful.
The Tragedy of Julius Ceasar is a bit deceiving of a title, for Julius Ceasar is more of a backdrop to what is really the focus of the play. Perhaps a better title would be “The Tragedy of Marcus Brutus,” for Brutus is perhaps the main character in the play. I could not help but compare Julius Caesar to Macbeth, and it is quite a bit different in my opinion. In Macbeth you have a dark central figure who becomes power hungry, paranoid, and eventually destroys himself in that ambition. He is flightless and fickle at first, willing to be wielded, and tyrannical and taxing in the end. Nothing of lighthearted relief touches the play minus the dialogue of the porter explaining what drink provokes. In contrast, Julius Ceasar begins with a joke as two tribunes misunderstand a cobbler and to some degree that mirth is carried throughout the scenes of the play.
Marullus: You, sir, what trade are you?
Cobbler: Truly, sir, in respect of a fine workman, I am but, as you would say, a cobbler.
Marullus: But what trade art thou? answer me directly.
Cobbler: A trade, sir, that, I hope, I may use with a safe conscience; which is, indeed, sir, a mender of bad soles.
Flavius: What trade, thou knave? thou naughty knave, what trade?
Cobbler: Nay, I beseech you, sir, be not out with me: yet, if you be out, sir, I can mend you.
Marullus: What meanest thou by that? mend me, thou saucy fellow!
Cobbler: Why, sir, cobble you.
Flavius: Thou art a cobbler, art thou?
Cobbler: Truly, sir, all that I live by is with the awl: I meddle with no tradesman’s matters, nor women’s matters, but with awl. I am, indeed, sir, a surgeon to old shoes; when they are in great danger, I recover them. As proper men as ever trod upon neat’s leather have gone upon my handiwork.
Flavius: But wherefore art not in thy shop today? Why dost thou lead these men about the streets?
Cobbler: Truly, sir, to wear out their shoes, to get myself into more work. But, indeed, sir, we make holiday, to see Caesar and to rejoice in his triumph.
The play opens up with this humorous dialogue — a misunderstanding of words between the two tribunes and a cobbler (to cobble also meaning “to bungle”), characters who play no role in the play whatsoever. Julius Caesar does indeed play off this idea (as Shakespeare often does) that misunderstanding causes trouble in the end. We see this at the end of the play when Cassius has himself killed for wrongly interpreting how the war is proceeding. This leads to Titinius’ suicide and eventually Brutus’. But everyone knows there is nothing comical about suicide. A comical misunderstanding at the beginning of the play contrasts a tragic one at the end.
I cannot fathom that Shakespeare is being silent or moderate on the debate of Julius Ceasar’s assassination and all that occurs afterwards. I will attempt to make my own argument based off of no research and only speculation. (This is never recommended, but this blog is a farce).
Perhaps no writer has better accomplished the ability to create neither angels nor demons in his plays. Dickens’ characters are either white or black (or gray in the extreme). Steinbeck has only demons. But Shakespeare never lets us pick on a man too much or praise him too highly. Henry V is the best of his kings (that I have read), yet the entire play on second glance (I have glanced twice) appears to be a commentary on his brutality from the eyes of the commoners. Falstaff is more heroic in those plays than any king. Unfortunately, commoners do not play a huge role in Julius Ceasar. With this, I cannot help but turn to the idea of suicide in this play. Suicide, in my opinion, is enough commentary for the time being.
In my brief reading of Shakespeare, an underlying argument that he is making is that a country is better off with a poor king as its leader than with no king at all (or with multiple kings). The idea of a two-headed or headless monster (monstrous is echoed twice by Cassius and twice by Brutus) haunted the people of Shakespeare’s day. If a country had two people vying for the crown, it represented a two-headed monster, and if no one was leading the country, a headless monster was depicted. Shakespeare argues, in my opinion, that an ugly head is better than none, and even a misshapen head is better than two.
Though I cannot help but feel that Shakespeare is taking the side of Julius Caesar in this play, he obviously cannot help but make fun of Caesar as he was not an angel. At the beginning of the play, we see Caesar feign his indifference to taking the crown. Shakespeare makes fun of him again at the end of his life. As Caesar’s wife warns him from going to the capitol, Caesar agrees until Decius, a conspirator, enters and explains “the Senate have concluded to give this day a crown to mighty Caesar.” Caesar’s response: “How foolish do your fears seem now, Calphurnia! I am ashamèd I did yield to them. Give me my robe, for I will go.” And with that Caesar is led to his slaughter.
The aftermath of Caesar’s death portrays more commentary than the actual death of Caesar. After they flee and begin to prepare for battle against Mark Antony, Brutus and Cassius often disagree about what to do. No foundation to their plans seems evident. Disarray and confusion are better words to describe Brutus and Cassius’s Rome with no leader. In the end their suicides and defeats lead to another Caesar, and nothing is accomplished except many deaths. Above all, their suicide is the biggest argument against them.
If their suicide is at all justified for their time period, it must be due to their looking a shameful and disgraceful future in the face. Taking their own lives may have been honorable for that time period in those circumstances, but Shakespeare’s time period was much different. And although the Catholic church did not necessarily damn anyone outright who took their own lives (for one could still be prayed for afterwards), it was still regarded as a very serious sin — much like murder. Though Shakespeare’s personal beliefs toward religion remains a mystery (perhaps he leaned Catholic), he was much more in the business of “sucking up” than anything else. I believe suicide in Shakespeare is much a way of his condemning the actions of said person. In Romeo and Juliet I cannot (and will not) believe that Shakespeare wrote the play in defense of love. If anything, he wrote on the tragedy of what two star-crossed lovers so taken in by the idol worship of eros would do in the name of love. Is killing oneself over the death of a loved one displaying love or selfishness? Commitment or despair? If erotic love is all we have, do we really have anything at all? The courtly lover (the tragic lover) is often mocked and made fun of in literature, and Shakespeare is no different.
While I can see any argument that would say Brutus’ suicide is more “honorable” than Romeo’s, I would still not argue that it is condoned. He is not wholly demonic, as Mark Antony praises him as the most noble of the conspirators. However, his self-murder condemns his previous deeds of assassinating Caesar. In the end nothing is really accomplished, and Shakespeare seems to be laughing at this. He was at least laughing at the beginning of the play.
Another futile attempt at analyzing the greatest of all writers aside from the apostle Paul has been completed. It is fair and not hopefully cliché to call Shakespeare the greatest English writer. I adhere to the belief that “the best tastes in life are acquired tastes,” and Shakespeare is no doubt acquired. Rarely does one pick him up the first time and fall in love with anything he says. Not even the third time through may do it. But during the fourth, maybe the fifth, we pick up on little tidbits here and there that we missed before and we begin to see the genius at work. On first shaking the hand of a curious individual, we may squint our eyes and furrow our brow in doubt. But by the third or fourth handshake, we are won over. And the wonder and magic is on full display as our eyes are open. As this work of shaking Shakespeare’s hand once again is much closer to that of a absentminded cobbler than any skillful carpenter, precise and minute in his details, I do hope, however than in the end of all my bungling and boggling, I was able to mend a few souls.