Nashville Great Books Discussion Group

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Saturday, May 01, 2010

SHAKESPEARE: Julius Caesar

There’s a famous country song about a couple of outlaws named Pancho and Lefty. The Federales have been trying to get Pancho for a long time. Finally they got him. They gunned him down in Mexico. The song goes on to say that The day they laid poor Pancho low, Lefty split for Ohio. Where he got the bread to go, ain’t nobody knows. Ain’t nobody knows for sure maybe, but it sure sounds like Pancho got sold out by Lefty. This kind of betrayal doesn’t just happen out in the Wild West. The same thing happened in The Gospel of Mark when Judas betrays Jesus. And the same thing happens in Julius Caesar. The men he thought were friends end up betraying him. Human nature doesn’t change whether it’s Mexico, Jerusalem, or Rome.

Betrayal by a friend is the unkindest cut of all, according to Shakespeare. Lefty may have been nothing but a lowdown, no-good scoundrel to Pancho. Lefty just wanted the reward; but Brutus wasn’t in it for the money. He betrayed Caesar because Caesar had betrayed Rome, at least according to Brutus. And Brutus wasn’t alone in thinking Caesar had seized too much power and threatened the whole republic. To men still faithful to the old Roman republican virtue of liberty, Caesar was a mortal danger and had to be eliminated. One of the conspirators, Cassius, puts it to Brutus this way: I was born free as Caesar; so were you: We both have fed as well, and we can both Endure the winter's cold as well as he. And yet Caesar is on the verge of becoming king and absolute dictator of the whole Roman Empire. Why should one man have so much power? It would destroy the traditional freedom of Romans to govern themselves. Under a republic all men have political equality. Under Julius Caesar one man would control everything. Cassius points out that Caesar is consolidating all the power into his own hands and urges Brutus to put a stop to it: Why, man, he doth bestride the narrow world Like a Colossus; and we petty men Walk under his huge legs, and peep about To find ourselves dishonourable graves. Men at some time are masters of their fates: The fault, dear Brutus, is not in our stars, But in ourselves, that we are underlings. Is Cassius patriotic, or is he just jealous of Caesar’s success?

Julius Caesar is no fool. Politicians like him don’t rise to power by accident. He’s a shrewd judge of men, and he doesn’t trust Cassius. He mentions this to one of his aides, Mark Antony: Let me have men about me that are fat; Sleek-headed men and such as sleep o' nights; Yond' Cassius has a lean and hungry look; He thinks too much: such men are dangerous. Julius Caesar is indeed a shrewd judge of men. Cassius is in fact lean and hungry, and he is dangerous. But the quality that made Caesar so great is also the very thing that will cause his downfall. Caesar has this fatal flaw: he’s in love with the greatness of his own image. He boasts that Danger knows full well That Caesar is more dangerous than he: We are two lions littered in one day, And I the elder and more terrible. Caesar can size up other men. He knows how and which men can be useful to him. But he can’t see himself clearly, and his enemies know it. They also know how to manipulate him: when I tell him he hates flatterers, He says he does, being then most flattered. Caesar can size up other men, but other men can size him up too. In the last days of the Roman republic this was a fatal game to play. Brutus is caught in the middle of a vast power struggle and he struggles to do what’s right. He’s a true friend to Caesar but he’s also a patriotic Roman. Which is more important? Brutus has to choose and he chooses the honorable path of patriotism. Caesar must go. The assassins do their work but it’s Brutus who hurts Caesar most: Et tu, Brute? Then fall, Caesar! The great man is dead but Rome’s troubles are far from over. In fact they’re just beginning. Mark Antony yells Cry, 'Havoc!' and let slip the dogs of war. Caesar’s death is the first, but it's not the last. The dogs of war have been let loose.


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