In this tragedy of political conflict, Shakespeare turns to the ancient Roman world and to the famous assassination of Julius Caesar by his republican opponents. The play is one of tumultuous rivalry, of prophetic warnings and of moving public speeches. Ironies abound and most of all for Brutus, whose fate it is to learn that his idealistic motives for joining the conspiracy against a would-be dictator are not enough to sustain the movement once Caesar is dead.
Shakespeare’s play has so many memorable passages that have become a part of our collective vernacular over the last 400 years — “Friends, Romans, Countrymen…”, “Et tu, Bute”, “the noblest Roman of them all”, “Beware the Ides of March”, etc. Marc Antony’s speech beginning with “Friends, Romans, Countrymen” is so important and so ingrained within English vernacular that I once had to memorize and perform it in high school for an English class.
“Friends, Romans, countrymen, lend me your ears; I come to bury Caesar, not to praise him. The evil that men do lives after them; the good is oft interred with their bones so let it be with Caesar. The noble Brutus hath told you Caesar was ambitious: If it were so, it was a grievous fault, and grievously hath Caesar answer’d it. Here, under leave of Brutus and the rest — for Brutus is an honourable man; so are they all, all honourable men — come I to speak in Caesar’s funeral. He was my friend, faithful and just to me: but Brutus says he was ambitious; and Brutus is an honourable man. He hath brought many captives home to Rome whose ransoms did the general coffers fill: Did this in Caesar seem ambitious? When that the poor have cried, Caesar hath wept: ambition should be made of sterner stuff: Yet Brutus says he was ambitious; and Brutus is an honourable man. You all did see that on the Lupercal I thrice presented him a kingly crown, which he did thrice refuse: Was this ambition? Yet Brutus says he was ambitious; and, sure, he is an honourable man. I speak not to disprove what Brutus spoke, but here I am to speak what I do know. You all did love him once, not without cause: What cause withholds you then, to mourn for him? O judgment! thou art fled to brutish beasts, and men have lost their reason. Bear with me; my heart is in the coffin there with Caesar, and I must pause till it come back to me.” (pg. 121 – 123)
Surprisingly, that didn’t completely ruin the play for me as my high school teachers had an uncanny ability to do so. And I certainly consider “Julius Caesar” to be one of my favorite Shakespeare plays, although I’ve always felt the play should end with Marc Antony’s speech and the villagers running off to riot. After that point it becomes a little bit too like “Romeo and Juliet” with main characters killing themselves thinking their lover (aka best friend) is dead. Even so, this is still one of my personal favorites; political conflict at it’s finest.
- Shakespeare, William. Julius Caesar. New York: Washington Square Press, 1992. Print. First published 1601. 239 pgs. ISBN: 0743482743. Source: PaperBackSwap.