Thursday, 12 June 2014

Review: Three Roman Plays (Penguin Classics) by William Shakespeare

William Shakespeare

Three Roman Plays:
Julius Caesar
Antony and Cleopatra

Penguin Classics, Paperback, [1995].
8vo. 652 pp. Introductions and Notes to all plays by the editors.

Julius Caesar edited by Norman Sanders.
Antony and Cleopatra edited by Emrys Jones.
Coriolanus edited by G. R. Hibbard.

First published separately in the New Penguin Shakespeare, 1967-77.
First collected thus, 1995.


Julius Caesar

Further Reading
An Account of the Text

Julius Caesar
Act I, Scenes 1-3
Act II, Scenes 1-4
Act III, Scenes 1-3
Act IV, Scenes 1-3
Act V, Scenes 1-5

Antony and Cleopatra

Further Reading
An Account of the Text

Antony and Cleopatra
Act I, Scenes 1-5
Act II, Scenes 1-7
Act III, Scenes 1-13
Act IV, Scenes 1-15
Act V, Scenes 1-2


Further Reading
The Language of the Play
An Account of the Text

Act I, Scenes 1-10
Act II, Scenes 1-3
Act III, Scenes 1-3
Act IV, Scenes 1-7
Act V, Scenes 1-6


It makes a lot of sense to collect these three plays in one volume. Nobody to my knowledge has summarised the matter better than Harold Goddard:

Antony and Cleopatra may be taken not only by itself, but as the final part of Shakespeare’s Roman trilogy – Coriolanus, Julius Caesar, Antony and Cleopatra – last not in order of composition but in historical sequence. Coriolanus, Brutus, Antony; Volumnia-Virgilia, Portia, Cleopatra: the men, and even more the women, give us a spiritual history of Rome from its austere earlier days, through the fall of the republic, to the triumph of the empire. What lights and shadows, what contrasts and illuminations this immense canvas affords, surpassing even those in each of the separate plays! Only in the light of the whole, for instance, is the full futility of the conspiracy of Cassius and Brutus evident. This is Shakespeare’s historical masterpiece.

Considered as three related Tragedies or even as a tragic trilogy, there are notes of triumph and even of hope to redeem the suffering at the end of each play and at the end of the whole. But considered as a single history or as the story of the evolution of imperialism, there is little but disillusionment and a sense of predestined tendency of freedom, when it has once been wrested from slavery, to return again to slavery as in a perpetual circle.

Can anyone doubt for a moment whether Shakespeare considered the tragic-poetical or the historical-political the profounder way of regarding life? Certainly the last thing Shakespeare was offering us at the end of his trilogy was any doctrine of “all for love” in the cheap popular scene of this phrase as suggested by the title of Dryden’s famous version of the story of Antony and Cleopatra. But he is certainly saying that there is something that there is something in life in comparison with which battles and empires are of no account. As statesman and soldier it was Antony’s duty to fight to the bitter end at the Battle of Actium for his half of the empire. If he had, at the price of depraving the world of the story of Antony and Cleopatra – including Shakespeare’s play – is it certain that the world would be better off? The destiny of the world is determined less by the battles that are lost and won than by stories it loves and believes in. This is a hard saying for hardheaded men to accept, but it is true. Stories are told, grow old, and are remembered. Battles are fought, fade out, and are forgotten – unless they beget great stories. We put up massive monuments to military heroes because otherwise they very names will be erased. We do not need to put up monuments to great poets nor to those heroes they have made immortal.[1]

Spoilers ahead!


Antony and Cleopatra

The Characters in the Play

Mark Antony, Octavius Caesar, Lepidus: triumvirs

Demetrius, Philo, Domitius Enobarbus, Ventidius, Silius, Eros, Canidius, Scarus, Decretas: Antony's friends and followers

Maecenas, Agrippa, Taurus, Dolabella, Thidias, Gallus, Proculeius: Caesar's friends and followers

Sextus Pompei
Menecrates, Menas, Varrius: Pompei's friends

Cleopatra, Queen of Egypt
Charmian, Iras, Alexas, Mardian, Diomedes, Seleucus: Cleopatra's attendants

Octavia, Caesar's sister

Messengers, A Soothsayer, Attendants, Servants, Soldiers, A Boy, A Schoolmaster (Antony's Ambassador), A Sentry and Watch, Guards, An Egyptian, A Clown
Cleopatra's ladies, eunuchs, servants, soldiers, captains, officers


In addition to being one of Shakespeare’s least popular plays with readers and theatergoers, Antony and Cleopatra has gathered some curiously mixed responses from Shakespearean authorities. Hazlitt called it a “very noble play” but immediately went on to exclude it from “the first class of Shakespeare’s productions”.[2] Dr Johnson, amazingly even for so insensitive a Shakespearean as himself, declared that “no character is very strongly discriminated”; at least he had the decency to exclude “the feminine arts, some of which are too low”.[3] G. B. Harrison, my favourite Shakespearean scholar, takes the palm for most ambiguous attitude. He opens his essay on the play thus:

Antony and Cleopatra is the most magnificent of all Shakespeare’s plays. The verse is gorgeous, the characterization subtle, and the construction elaborate.

He continues to observe that, unlike the other two Roman plays in which Shakespeare tries to “preserve a suitable classical decorum”, in Antony and Cleopatra “he is at his freest, writing with delight, understanding and gusto and with a new command of words, rhythms and imagery.” Furthermore, and more provocatively, while in the language of Lear and Macbeth there is a “suggestion of deliberate, conscious experiment, especially in the use of a more elaborate and pregnant kind of imagery”, in Antony and Cleopatra “the new technique has become instinctive.” But he ends the essay thus:

Antony and Cleopatra is not deep tragedy but rather a comment on history. […] To read or to watch – if the producer can overcome the difficulty of presenting a play so essentially Elizabethan to a modern audience – Antony and Cleopatra is gorgeous, with the loveliest word-music, but it never reaches down to the depths of emotion. The reason is clear. The story is not by any standard essentially tragic, for a man who throws his wealth into the lap of a harlot and then kills himself is no tragic hero; his death is not heroic, but the final degradation.

Nevertheless, though not a deep tragedy, and indeed Shakespeare never intended it to be, Antony and Cleopatra is not a failure, but a triumph, a thing of beauty incomparable.[4]

Mr Harrison’s criteria are quite exalted – only two of Shakespeare’s plays, Lear and Othello, does he consider to be “deep tragedies” – so we, the common mortals, are perhaps allowed to disagree with his opinions. Personally, I think he misses the point with breathtaking completeness. Using his own criteria, one might say with equal justice that an old man’s folly and the death of his youngest but most arrogant daughter or the demise of a dumb military man and his nagging wife does not constitute anything like “deep tragedy”, either.  

Another foolish injustice is the favourite tool of the critics: comparisons. In his Oxford Lectures on Poetry (1909)[5], the venerable A. C. Bradley famously disagreed with Coleridge and argued that Antony and Cleopatra is not on par with the Big Four. This is missing the point in the grand manner. Never could Bradley comprehend that generalizations and categorizations lead nowhere as far as Shakespeare is concerned. The Bard’s too big for that. Comedy, tragedy and history are so effortlessly merged in Antony and Cleopatra that trying to separate them is futile.

Coleridge[6], the arch-Bardolater, and Goddard[7], his faithful disciple in the twentieth century, belong to the minority who consider Antony and Cleopatra a truly great play. No reservations. I tend to belong to this party. The first reading is bound to be baffling. Forty-two scenes and just about as many speaking parts, altogether amounting to 3028 lines, is no joke. But the play rewards careful study. You might be surprised how much it grows on you, at any rate it has grown a great deal on me.

One minor drawback is that the play requires a good deal of historical background. If you are relatively well-familiar with Roman history from the end of the first century BC, you will immediately know, for example, why Octavius feels threatened by Pompey and why he can’t defeat him alone but has to seek Antony’s assistance. Searching for historical accuracy in a work of fiction is among the stupidest occupations of the mindless bookworm. Nevertheless, it is astonishing how accurate and incisive some of Shakespeare’s historical references are. For example, Pompey’s remark that “Caesar gets money where / He loses hearts” (II.1.13-14) refers to his (Octavius’) raising the taxes at the expense of mass indignation.[8]

The other side of the historical equation is North’s translation of Plutarch’s Lives, Shakespeare’s main source for all of his “Roman plays”. Now, you don’t have to know The Life of Marcus Antonius in order to enjoy the play to the full. But if you do, your appreciation of Shakespeare’s genius will be greatly increased. As C. T. Winchester has noted, “in no one of Shakespeare's plays does he keep so close to his original.” He even asserts that the play “might almost be called a poetic paraphrase” of Plutarch.[9] There are very good reasons for that. The complete plot, from earth-shaking events to minor incidents, comes straight from Plutarch. So do quite a few words and phrases. And yet, how original and how marvellous is Shakespeare’s transformation of Plutarch’s verbose original. The most famous example is, of course, Enobarbus’ description of Cleopatra’s first meeting with Antony on the river Cydnus. It’s been quoted a million times. Here it is again.

Therefore when she was sent unto by divers letters, lumpful both from Antonius himself, and also from his friends, she made so light of it and mocked Antonius so much, that she disdained to set forward otherwise, but to take her barge in the river of Cydnus, the poop whereof was of gold, the sails of purple, and the oars of silver, which kept stroke in rowing after the sound of the music of flutes, hautboys, citherns, viols, and such other instruments as they played upon in the barge. And now for the person of herself: she was laid under a pavilion of cloth off gold of tissue, apparelled and attired like the goddess Venus commonly drawn in picture: and hard by her, on either and of her, pretty fair boys apparelled as painters do set forth god Cupid, with little fans in their hands, with the which they fanned wind upon her. Her Ladies and gentlewomen also, the fairest of them were apparelled like the nymphs Nereides (which are the mermaids of the waters) and like the Graces, some steering the helm, others tending the tackle and ropes of the barge, out of the which there came a wonderful passing sweet savour of perfumes, that perfumed the wharf's side, pestered with innumerable multitudes of people. Some of them followed the barge all alongst the river's side: others also ran out of the city to see her coming in. So that in th' end, there ran such multitudes of people one after another to see her, that Antonius was left post alone in the market place in his lmperial seat to give audience: and there went a rumour in the people's mouths, that the goddess Venus was come to play with the god Bacchus, for the general good of all Asia.[10]

[Shakespeare, II.2.195-223:]
The barge she sat in, like a burnished throne,
Burned on the water. The poop was beaten gold;
Purple the sails, and so perfumèd that
The winds were lovesick with them; The oars were silver,
Which to the tune of flutes kept stroke, and made
The water which they beat to follow faster,
As amorous of their strokes. For her own person,
It beggared all description. She did lie
In her pavilion, cloth-of-gold of tissue,
O'erpicturing that Venus where we see
The fancy outwork nature. On each side her
Stood pretty dimpled boys, like smiling cupids,
With divers-coloured fans, whose wind did seem
To glow the delicate cheeks which they did cool,
And what they undid did.
Her gentlewomen, like the Nereides,
So many mermaids, tended her i’th’eyes,
And made their bends adornings. At the helm
A seeming mermaid steers. The silken tackle
Swell with the touches of those flower-soft hands,
That yarely frame the office. From the barge
A strange invisible perfume hits the sense
Of the adjacent wharfs. The city cast
Her people out upon her; and Antony,
Enthroned i’th’market-place, did sit alone,
Whistling to th’air; which, but for vacancy,
Had gone to gaze on Cleopatra too,
And made a gap in nature.

Apart from turning the turgid prose into musical verse (no mean achievement in itself), Shakespeare’s touches are few and subtle, but of great importance.[11] Note that he makes the winds “love-sick” and the water “amorous”, thus suggesting Cleopatra’s powerful sensuality. This alluring image is greatly intensified and made far more evocative than it is in Plutarch. The barge is not just “in the river of Cydnus”: it sits there “like a burnished throne, / Burned on the water”; Cleopatra is not just like Venus “commonly drawn in picture”: she is “o'er-picturing” even the Venus born of imagination that surpasses nature; the gold is “beaten”, the fans are “divers-coloured”. “And what they undid did” is hardly Shakespeare’s most happily euphonious invention, but “glow the delicate cheeks which they did cool” already foreshadows not just the impossibility to neutralize Cleopatra’s smouldering sexuality, but the counterproductive effect when one tries to. Note also, in the very end, how Shakespeare implies that the Egyptian queen almost defies the laws of probability by creating a vacuum where none should exist. Even nature is forced to obey Cleopatra. How could Antony be expected to resist her?

Such examples are countless. In his copious footnotes, Emrys Jones gives a number of quotations from Plutarch and the reader has many opportunities to see how Shakespeare arranged, condensed, heightened and transformed his pedestrian prose into glorious verse. The method is very much the same as that of Franz Liszt who often took the music of others, Bellini, Meyerbeer, Donizetti and even Mozart for example, and then created – I use this verb deliberately! – a new composition of startling originality. I know of few better illustrations of sheer genius. Those who still hold Shakespeare’s stealing of plots against him are like the fellows who go to the Louvre to see Mona Lisa and nothing else.

Reading the play for the first time, the thing that immediately impresses me is the immense richness. The variety of scenes is dazzling. Political intrigue in Rome (II.2.), a drunken party on Pompey’s galley (II.7., and what a fine satire of our betters it is!), off-stage battles all around the Mediterranean (III.7-10. at Actium; IV.6-8 around Alexandria), high comedy and low comedy, farce and tragedy, often follow one another within a single scene. There’s everything for everybody. The poetry matches this variety to perfection. It is extremely condensed and meaningful. No superfluous rhetoric, no lines out of character, no plot digressions (the criticisms often levelled at the multitude of scenes are result of careless study). Couple of examples will demonstrate best what I mean.

The opening of the play shows how grandiloquence can be put to a fine dramatic use. In exactly ten lines, you get a vivid impression of Antony’s Alexandrian degradation (I.1.1-10):

Nay, but this dotage of our general's
O’erflows the measure. Those his goodly eyes,
That o’er the files and musters of the war
Have glowed like plated Mars, now bend, now turn
The office and devotion of their view
Upon a tawny front. His captain’s heart,
Which in the scuffles of great fights hath burst
The buckles on his breast, reneges all temper,
And is become the bellows and the fan
To cool a gypsy’s lust.

When politics are discussed, the verse mutates completely. It becomes blunt and matter-of-fact. My favourite example is Pompey’s perceptive explanation – in exactly 16 words! – why Lepidus is by far the least important of the triumvirs (II.1.14-15):

                            Lepidus flatters both,
Of both is flattered; but he neither loves,
Nor either cares for him.

When it comes to elaborate imagery, Shakespeare is unsurpassed. Consider Antony’s reply to Cleopatra when, after his ignominious flight at Actium, she tells him she didn’t know he would follow her. He beautifully evokes the marine nature of the accident and then expands it further (III.11.56-61):

Egypt, thou knew’st too well
My heart was to thy rudder tied by th’strings,
And thou shouldst tow me after. O’er my spirit
Thy full supremacy thou knewest, and that
Thy beck might from the bidding of the gods
Command me.           

Some of the most affecting passages are notable for the opposite. For my money, Antony’s Hamletian musings on the transience of existence are unrivalled for moving power and sheer eloquence coupled with utter simplicity (IV.14.1-22):

Eros, thou yet behold’st me?
                                                Ay, noble lord.
Sometimes we see a cloud that’s dragonish;
A vapour sometime like a bear or lion,
A towered citadel, a pendent rock,
A forkèd mountain, or blue promontory
With trees upon’t that nod unto the world,
And mock our eyes with air. Thou hast seen these signs;
They are black vesper’s pageants.
                                                         Ay, my lord,
That which is now a horse, even with a thought
The rack dislimns, and makes it indistinct,
As water is in water.
                                       It does, my lord.
My good knave Eros, now thy captain is
Even such a body. Here I am Antony,
Yet cannot hold this visible shape, my knave.
I made these wars for Egypt; and the Queen –
Whose heart I thought I had, for she had mine;
Which, whilst it was mine, had annexed unto’t
A million more, now lost – she, Eros, has
Packed cards with Caesar, and false-played my glory
Unto an enemy's triumph.
Nay, weep not, gentle Eros, there is left us
Ourselves to end ourselves.

But all this is by the way!

What makes this a great play is the one thing that always does, no matter the defects, the one thing without which the most exciting plot and the most sublime poetry are worthless. Great characters. Tony and Cleo are real, alive, fascinating, compelling. Deeply flawed, of course, but aren’t we all? Terribly irritating now and then, but aren’t most of us so? How historically accurate they are is, of course, irrelevant. (Fact and fiction are so inextricably mingled that we’ll never know just how close Tony and Cleo are to the “real” Antony and Cleopatra.) The point is that Shakespeare has managed to humanize two of the most mythologized persons in all history. Like them or not, once you’ve read the play, you’re not likely to forget them.

Shakespeare’s Cleopatra is a mind-boggling creature of baffling complexity. She is vain, coy, jealous, hysterical, mysterious, fickle, vindictive and charming. Above all, she is manipulative. She doesn’t seem to be terribly smart. However intelligent the historical Cleopatra may have been, Shakespeare’s Cleo is a dumb doll. She is neither politically nor socially astute. She is even more incompetent in military affairs. Her only talent is to seduce and manipulate men. But it’s a talent that amounts to genius.  

CLEOPATRA [I.3.2-13:]
See where he is, who’s with him, what he does.
I did not send you. If you find him sad,
Say I am dancing; if in mirth, report
That I am sudden sick. Quick, and return.
Madam, methinks, if you did love him dearly,
You do not hold the method to enforce
The like from him.
                             What should I do, I do not?
In each thing give him way. Cross him nothing.
Thou teachest like a fool: the way to lose him.
Tempt him not so too far. I wish, forbear.
In time we hate that which we often fear.
But here comes Antony.

The irony – one of the many ironies in this play – is that once and only once did Cleo listen to Charmian’s advice, and it proved fatal (IV.13.):

Help me, my women! O, he’s more mad
Than Telamon for his shield; the boar of Thessaly
Was never so embossed.
                                           To th’monument!
There lock yourself, and send him word you are dead.
The soul and body rive not more in parting
Than greatness going off.
                                            To th’monument!
Mardian, go tell him I have slain myself;
Say, that the last I spoke was ‘Antony’,
And word it, prithee, piteously. Hence, Mardian,
And bring me how he takes my death to the monument!

Why should you care about Cleopatra at all? Well, for one thing, the character is drawn with consummate skill and great verisimilitude; likeable she is not, but alive – oh yes! For another, in the final scene she is miraculously transformed from shallow to sublime. The amazing thing is that her character loses nothing of its vividness and coherence in the process. It takes a Shakespeare to do that. The superb final scene has been lavishly praised by the critics and wilfully misunderstood by the readers. It is common among the latter to suggest that Cleopatra kills herself only because she knows she can’t seduce Octavius and fears the humiliation of a Roman triumph. This, of course, is nonsense. Harold Goddard has brilliantly argued the matter and concluded, to my mind rightly, that those who believe this are taken in by Cleopatra just as much as is Caesar himself. When she says to the dying Antony “My resolution and my hands I’ll trust” (IV.15.49) she has already decided on the course she is going to take. The scene ends with Cleopatra’s hardly ambiguous words (IV.15.86-90):

Let’s do’t after the high Roman fashion,
And make death proud to take us. Come, away:
This case of that huge spirit now is cold.
Ah, women, women! Come; we have no friend
But resolution, and the briefest end.

This happens before she meets Proculeius, Dolabella and Caesar (V.2.), even before the Romans learn of Antony’s death (V.1.). Cleopatra’s death is a strangely elating experience. It is completely devoid of the profound devastation that usually occupies the final massacres in the other great tragedies. I suppose this is as good a reason as any to dismiss the play as tragically subpar by Shakespeare’s own, and rather high, standards. It is not a reason I care for. I will presently explain why.

Mr Goddard’s argumentation is worth quoting at some length:

Incredibly, many readers and critics find in the conclusion of Antony and Cleopatra only the old Cleopatra, thinking at bottom just of herself, bent above all things on saving herself from being shown in Caesar’s triumph. That the old Cleopatra, bent on precisely this end and with every histrionic device still at her command, is still present cannot indeed be questioned. But that she is now the only or the predominant Cleopatra everything in the text converges to deny. What has happened is that a new Cleopatra is now using the old Cleopatra as her instrument. It is the new one who issues the orders. It is the old one who obeys.
The fact is that the new Cleopatra, with all the histrionic devices of the old Cleopatra at her command, acts so consummately in these last hours of her life that she deceives not only Octavius Caesar but full half the readers of the play. She stages a mousetrap beside which Hamlet’s seems melodramatic and crude, enacts its main role herself, and, unlike the Prince of Denmark, keeps her artistic integrity by never for a second revealing in advance what its purpose is or interrupting its action for superfluous comment. Blinded by victory and the thought of his triumph in which she is to figure, Octavius is clay in her hands, infatuated in a sense and to a degree that she and her lover never were. She twists him, as it were, around her little finger. […] Those who think that Cleopatra is driven to suicide only when she is certain that if she does not kill herself she will be shown in Caesar’s triumph are taken in by her as badly as is Caesar himself.
The change in Cleopatra is again confirmed in the first words we hear from her in the last act:
My desolation does begin to make
A better life.
Better! – a word, in that sense, not in the lexicon of the original Cleopatra. The rapidity of the change going on within her is registered in another word in the message by Proculeius to Caesar:
I hourly learn
A doctrine of obedience.
Caesar, poor fool, thinks, as she intends he shall, that it is obedience to his will that she is hourly learning. But it is obedience to her own new self and to her own Emperor, Antony, to which she of course refers. The very words with which she hoodwinks Octavius most completely are made to express, on another level, the highest fidelity to her own soul. When Caesar first enters her presence, she kneels to him:
Caes: Arise, you shall not kneel.
I pray you, rise; rise, Egypt.
He wishes to dupe her into thinking she can still remain a queen. But to be a queen in that sense is the last thing that she wishes.
Cleo:                           Sir, the gods
Will have it thus; my master and my lord
I must obey.
“You, Caesar, are now my lord and master; I have no choice but to kneel and obey,” Caesar thinks she means. It sounds like obeisance to the point of prostration. But what Cleopatra is really saying is that she now listens only to divine commands. She must obey her master and her lord, her Emperor Antony, not the mere emperor of this world to whom she is kneeling in mockery.      
The interlude with her treasurer Seleucus is to the undiscerning overwhelming proof that Cleopatra is still angling for life, if she can only get it on her own terms. But surely this is the old histrionic Cleopatra placing all her art at the disposal of the new Cleopatra who is bent only on death and immortal life. Whether this little play within the play was planned in advance in consultation with Seleucus and he too is acting, or whether it is a piece of inspired improvisation on her part alone, struck off at the instant of her treasurer’s betrayal of her, makes little difference. The reason Cleopatra kept back some of her treasures is the same in either case: to throw the gullible Caesar off the track of her intention.
He words me, girls, he words me, that I should not
Be noble to myself,
she cries the moment she is alone with her women. His pretended mercy has not fooled her.
But hark thee, Charmian,
and she whispers in her maid’s ear. What she tells her of course is that she has already ordered the instrument of death, the asp.
I have spoke already, and it is provided,
and bids her “Go, put it to the haste.” This tiny incident is calmly left out of account by those who think that Cleopatra has been seriously debating between life and death in the previous scene and that the interlude with her treasurer is just what it seems to be – a provision for avoiding death if a way of escape with safety to her person should present itself in the last moment. Caesar, as I said, is not the only one these scenes deceive.
Shakespeare sees to it that it is only after the sending for the asp, with its clear implication that the die is cast, that Dolabella – with one exception the last of many men to come under Cleopatra’s spell – confides to her the fact that Caesar does indeed intend the worst. The effect of the information is to fortify further what needs no fortifying.
Caesar enters [after Cleo’s death]. He is first told the truth and then looks down upon it. The sight seems to lift him outside of himself. Quite as if he had overheard those earlier words of Cleopatra,
I dream’d there was an Emperor Antony.
O, such another sleep, that I might see
But such another man.
and had come to declare that prayer answered, he exclaims:
She looks like sleep,
As she would catch another Antony
In her strong toil of grace.
Another Antony indeed, her Emperor! Whatever has happened elsewhere, here on earth, in those perfect words, the lovers are reunited. And Octavius, of all men, spoke them!
Many, including Bradley (who says that to him they sound more like Shakespeare than Octavius), have declared the lines out of character, entirely too imaginative for this boy politician whom Cleopatra herself derided so unmercifully. They are. And yet they are not. And when we see why they are not we have seen into the heart of the play.
Caesar, practically alone, has shown himself immune to the fascination of this woman, and only now is he in a position to realize how utterly, even at his own game, she has outplotted and outwitted him, led him, as it were, by the nose. Conqueror as he is, she has dragged him behind the chariot of her superior insight and power. But all that now is nothing to him, less than nothing, not even remembered, and, gazing down as if entranced, this man, who had been cold to her and to her beauty while she lived, utters the most beautiful words ever spoken of her. Dead, she proves more powerful than the most powerful man alive. She makes him realize that there is something mightier than might, something stronger than death. She kindles the poet within him. She catches him in her strong toil of grace. She leads him in her triumph![12]

“An absolute twerp’’ was Laurence Olivier’s verdict on Antony.[13] This is a little too harsh. First of all, Antony is anything but stupid. Though he is not the brilliant demagogue from “Friends, Romans, countrymen” (Julius Caesar, III.2.74-108, which indeed makes for a fine contrast and vividly shows his Egyptian degradation), he is still a shrewd and dangerous political rival, as evident from the intense scene with Octavius (II.2.). He is remarkably cordial and open-minded in his dealings with his own soldiers and with messengers who bring bad news (I.2., cf. Cleopatra’s fit of rage in II.5.). He is greatly popular, at least until Actium, with his men. He treats them as equals and they love him for that. Even Caesar, unwillingly, is impressed with Antony’s endurance during long campaigns in far-off, hostile lands (I.4.56-71):

                                                 When thou once
Wast beaten from Modena, where thou slew’st
Hirtius and Pansa, consuls, at thy heel
Did famine follow, whom thou fought’st against,
Though daintily brought up, with patience more
Than savages could suffer. Thou didst drink
The stale [urine] of horses, and the gilded puddle
Which beasts would cough at. Thy palate then did deign
The roughest berry on the rudest hedge.
Yea, like the stag when snow the pasture sheets,
The barks of trees thou browsèd’st. On the Alps
It is reported thou didst eat strange flesh,
Which some did die to look on. And all this –
It wounds thine honour that I speak it now –
Was borne so like a soldier that thy cheek
So much as lanked not.

Antony’s greatest moment, at least as far the reader’s admiration is concerned, comes when he learns that his best friend has left him for the enemy.  Impulsively, as always, he orders his effects sent to him. This is usually called generosity, but I think it is more than that. It is magnanimity. It is an exceedingly rare quality, all the more difficult to practice when the fates seem to conspire against you. “There is always this kind of divine spark in Antony” as G. B. Harrison perfectly put it.[14] Indeed, it requires a peculiar strength of mind to meet the betrayal of those who are closest to you with words like these (IV.5.11-16):

Go, Eros, send his treasure after; do it.
Detain no jot, I charge thee. Write to him –
I will subscribe – gentle adieus and greetings.
Say that I wish he never find more cause
To change a master. O, my fortunes have
Corrupted honest men! Dispatch. Enobarbus!

But it’s a grave mistake, very often encountered unfortunately, to discuss the title characters by themselves. Should you do so, you may well come to the conclusion that Antony is a perfect moron, Cleopatra a vicious bitch, and the play on the whole a lame farce. It is the relationship between Antony and Cleopatra that really does matter. Also, this is what makes any comparisons with the Big Four ridiculous. In all of them, the tragic interest is concentrated in a single individual, Hamlet, Lear, Othello and Macbeth, and though they are always accompanied by women who share their faith and are related to them, namely Ophelia, Cordelia, Desdemona and Lady Macbeth, hardly in any of these cases is the relationship central to the downfall. The only play Antony and Cleopatra can be cautiously compared to is, of course, Romeo and Juliet; more of that anon.

Yet the relationship between Tony and Cleo has been misunderstood just as much as the play itself. Laurence Olivier, who played Antony against Vivien Leigh’s Cleopatra quite a few times, offers this charmingly flippant and altogether wrong opinion:

It was a purely physical relationship. Two very attractive human beings determined to do wonderful things to each other. Result... suicide. There is nothing cerebral about their love: it is pure passion, lust and enjoyment. And why not? How would you feel alone in a chamber with that lady? I don't think you'd want to discuss The Times crossword.[15]

It was a great deal more than “purely physical relationship”. Of course there is nothing “cerebral about their love” – nor about any love, one might add – but there certainly is a strong mental component that is often neglected. Words like “passion” and “lust” are commonly attached to Tony and Cleo, but I don’t think they tell the most important part of the story, much less the whole story. Equally often, it is said that they both lost the world for love and there their tragedy lies. I don’t buy this either. Nobody has yet made a convincing case why the world is worth winning in the first place, nor why it is not worth losing for quite a few things, love among them.

I think the tragedy of Antony and Cleopatra lies in the fact that they never really enjoyed their love. He never knew how much he meant to her. Perhaps she didn’t know either. Only when death finally came did they comprehend what bliss it might have been. So, in a way, death is positive and that is, I think, why the ending is not engulfed in gloomy pessimism, as in the other great tragedies, but seems elated and inspirational. This is enough to make the tragic puritans suspicious. If the play ends on so – how shall we say? – optimistic a note, they argue with their brilliant selves, it can’t be a profound tragedy. Nonsense, of course. In this play, death simply plays a more important role than usual; that is all.

When Cleo is alone with her attendants, dreaming of Antony (I.5.), it is clear that she is in love with him, and not just in love, but madly, furiously, blissfully, mind-numbingly in love. She is obsessed by him. She raves about him in extravagant terms. She thinks of nothing but Antony. Just consider this piece of gorgeous poetry (I.5.18-34), but note how she switches to her other conquests and to herself:

                                               O Charmian,
Where think’st thou he is now? Stands he, or sits he?
Or does he walk? Or is he on his horse?
O happy horse, to bear the weight of Antony!
Do bravely, horse, for wot’st thou whom thou mov’st?
The demi-Atlas of this earth, the arm
And burgonet of men. He’s speaking now,
Or murmuring ‘Where’s my serpent of old Nile?’
For so he calls me. Now I feed myself
With most delicious poison. Think on me,
That am with Phoebus’ amorous pinches black,
And wrinkled deep in time? Broad-fronted Caesar,
When thou wast here above the ground, I was
A morsel for a monarch; and great Pompey
Would stand and make his eyes grow in my brow;
There would he anchor his aspect and die
With looking on his life.

Yet she never shows anything like that to Antony. Nearly all of their scenes together, with the significant exception of Antony’s death (IV.15.), consist of dreadful scenes, sometimes out of jealousy, for example after he breaks the news of Fulvia’s death to her (I.3.), and sometimes out of distrust, for example after her flight from the Battle of Actium (III.11.) and when he thinks she has betrayed him by securing her safety with Octavius (IV.12.). In the last two Antony is the sole cause of trouble, but in none of their scenes together is she even remotely affectionate. She doesn’t need to be; he weakly forgives her every time. The closest Cleopatra comes to expressing her love for Antony is the gentle teasing in the first scene. Compared to her ardent reveries in his absence, this is a cold fish (I.1.14-17):

If it be love indeed, tell me how much.
There’s beggary in the love that can be reckoned.
I’ll set a bourn how far to be beloved.
Then must thou needs find out new heaven, new earth.

It is easy to see, of course, why she does what she does. She is afraid of losing him. She knows only too well that “the love that lasts longest is the love that is never returned”, as Somerset Maugham once wisely observed.[16] She is careful to return just as much as to keep Antony on a leash. Too much will result in satiety which breeds, if not contempt, at all events indifference. If Shakespeare had wanted to show Antony and Cleopatra as sharing a passionate, requited, unblemished by personal vanity love, I think he would have shown us, or at least alluded to, something like the Balcony Scene or the consummation of the marriage in Romeo and Juliet. He never does. The love between Antony and Cleopatra is deeply buried under their gigantic egos. It’s a case study of mutual obsession.

Antony’s attraction to Cleopatra is far more unrestrained but harder to define. It is significant, I think, that when he refers to her power over him he never alludes to great physical beauty or devouring sexual passion. I won’t claim that Cleopatra looks like Marylin Manson or that she and Antony remain chaste. Not at all. But Antony speaks of her as “this enchanting queen” (I.2.129), as “thou spell” (IV.12.30) and other magical terms. His idea of spending the night with her is to “wander through the streets and note / The qualities of people” (I.1.53-54). When he refers to “one other gaudy night” (III.13.181), he means the wild drinking parties, and these can’t be the reason for his Egyptian slavery; he could have had them in Rome, too. In short, he never speaks of his love for Cleo as driven by lust. (Nor does she, for that matter. Though her conversations with Mardian (I.5.) and the Clown (V.2.) are quite bawdy, Cleo’s visions of Tony are amazingly free from carnal elements.) Either he is not smart enough to recognise it, or, what seems to me much more likely, the sexual passion isn’t all that important.

The element of lust is not exactly prominent in Caesar’s description either, though it is central to Pompey’s. We should never forget, of course, that these fellows are outsiders. They have never been at the wild parties they speak of, much less in Cleopatra’s bedroom. They rely on “news”, which is a polite name of gossip, and it is not a little remarkable how different their accounts are:

CAESAR [I.4.3-10.]
                                                From Alexandria
This is the news: he fishes, drinks, and wastes
The lamps of night in revel; is not more manlike
Than Cleopatra, nor the queen of Ptolemy
More womanly than he; hardly gave audience, or
Vouchsafed to think he had partners. You shall find
A man who is the abstract of all faults
That all men follow.

POMPEY [II.1.20-27.]         
                                  But all the charms of love,
Salt Cleopatra, soften thy waned lip!
Let witchcraft join with beauty, lust with both!
Tie up the libertine in a field of feasts;
Keep his brain fuming. Epicurean cooks
Sharpen with cloyless sauce his appetite;
That sleep and feeding may prorogue his honour
Even till a Lethe’d dullness –

Strictly speaking, Pompey is not exactly an outsider. He is one of Cleo’s ex-lovers. This explains the naughty nature of his speculation. He assumes that what the case with him once was must now be with Antony. There is no reason to believe that this is true. Pompey was an ephemeral conquest. Antony is a great deal more than that.

Enobarbus, like Mercutio, is an entirely Shakespearean creation; he is barely a footnote in Plutarch. Few things convince me in the Bard’s awe-inspiring genius better than such characters. He created Enobarbus out of this tiny morsel:

So Antonius, through the persuasions of Domitius, commanded Cleopatra to return again into Egypt, and there to understand the success of this war.


Furthermore, he dealt very friendly and courteously with Domitius, and against Cleopatra’s mind. For, he being sick of an ague when goeth unto he went and took a little boat to go to Caesar's Octavius camp, Antonius was very sorry for it, but yet he sent after him all his carriage, train, and men: l and the same Domitius, as though he gave him to understand that he repented his open treason, he died immediately after.[17]

Enobarbus is by far the wisest and the wittiest fellow in the whole play. Cynical satirist, salacious raconteur, astute politician and military tactician, unsurpassed psychologist of Cleo’s seductive power and Tony’s empty poses, Enorbarbus is the most quotable of all characters. In that tense scene with Octavius (II.2.), he is the only one bold enough to put into words the real status quo, an unmistakable hint from Shakespeare, I think, that the political chit-chat of Antony and Caesar is moonshine. When he is rebuked, unusually harshly, by Antony, he comes with two perfect rejoinders (II.2.107-115.):

Or, if you borrow one another's love for the instant, you may, when you hear no more words of Pompey, return it again: you shall have time to wrangle in when you have nothing else to do.
Thou art a soldier only. Speak no more.
That truth should be silent I had almost forgot.
You wrong this presence; therefore speak no more.
Go to, then; your considerate stone.

Antony is not right in calling a man of the world like Enobarbus “soldier only”. But it is certainly true that Enobarbus is first of all a soldier. During the preparation of the Battle of Actium (III.7.), he shows tremendous military foresight. He sums up Antony’s supremacy by sea and weakness by land, treats Cleopatra with total lack of reverence, as if she were an ordinary mistress, and urges the General to disagree with her foolish advice and fight by land:

                               Your ships are not well manned.
Your mariners are muleters, reapers, people
Ingross’d by swift impress. In Caesar’s fleet
Are those that often have 'gainst Pompey fought;
Their ships are yare; yours, heavy. No disgrace
Shall fall you for refusing him at sea,
Being prepared for land.

Most worthy sir, you therein throw away
The absolute soldiership you have by land,
Distract your army, which doth most consist
Of war-marked footmen, leave unexecuted
Your own renownèd knowledge, quite forego
The way which promises assurance, and
Give up yourself merely to chance and hazard,
From firm security.

Last and most important of all, Enobarbus is the chorus who chronicles Antony’s downfall and analyses Cleopatra’s make-up. He shows great perspicacity in both endeavours. When the General wants to leave immediately Egypt, Enobarbus, not knowing of Fulvia’s death yet, perceives this to be a complete sham. He’s heard this story a thousand times before. He replies with a bawdy satire worth quoting (I.2.133-145):

I must with haste from hence.
Why, then, we kill all our women. We see how mortal an unkindness is to them. If they suffer our departure, death’s the word.
I must be gone.  
Under a compelling occasion, let women die. It were pity to cast them away for nothing, though between them and a great cause, they should be esteemed nothing. Cleopatra, catching but the least noise of this, dies instantly. I have seen her die twenty times upon far poorer moment. I do think there is mettle in death, which commits some loving act upon her, she hath such a celerity in dying.

Considering that “die” and “dying” may also mean sexual intercourse, the passage is quite saucy indeed! When some Roman business lures her Antony away, all Cleo has to do is to die – and he stays. The wordplay ominously anticipates both of her deaths, the real and the fake, in the end of the play.

Enobarbus grasps instantly how ridiculous Antony’s challenging Caesar to a duel is. In one of the few moments “aside”, he mutters these words with, I suppose, bitter sarcasm (III.13.29-37):

Yes, like enough, high-battled Caesar will
Unstate his happiness and be staged to th’show
Against a sworder! I see men's judgments are
A parcel of their fortunes, and things outward
Do draw the inward quality after them
To suffer all alike. That he should dream,
Knowing all measures, the full Caesar will
Answer his emptiness! Caesar, thou hast subdued
His judgment too.

Of course he is right. In the next scene (IV.1.), Caesar laughs at the challenge and refuses it. Enobarbus’ ability to anticipate the action is remarkable. When he whispers, in another “aside”, that Thidias will be whipped (III.13.88), well, just a few lines later Antony orders it. In the end of this very scene, Enobarbus resolves to leave Antony. He is the last to do that. Canidius and Scarus, disgusted with the debacle at Actium, have already gone to Caesar’s side three scenes earlier (III.10.31-34); Enobarbus, against his reason, stayed then (III.10.34-36). Three scenes later, having witnessed Antony’s rage at himself and foolish demands at Caesar, it is too late even for Enobarbus:

Mine honesty and I begin to square.
The loyalty well held to fools does make
Our faith mere folly. Yet he that can endure
To follow with allegiance a fallen lord
Does conquer him that did his master conquer
And earns a place i’th’story.

Now he’ll outstare the lightning. To be furious,
Is to be frighted out of fear; and in that mood
The dove will peck the estridge; and I see still,
A diminution in our captain's brain
Restores his heart: when valour preys on reason,
It eats the sword it fights with. I will seek
Some way to leave him.

Enobarbus’ reflections of Cleopatra are of the greatest interest – especially when they are compared with Antony’s. “She is cunning past man’s thought”, the General observes (I.2.146), apparently wisely, but Enobarbus objects (I.2.147-152):

Alack, sir, no; her passions are made of nothing but the finest part of pure love. We cannot call her winds and waters sighs and tears; they are greater storms and tempests than almanacs can report. This cannot be cunning in her; if it be, she makes a shower of rain as well as Jove.

The sea allusion already prepares the reader for the Battle of Actium, 14 scenes in advance, but much the more important point is that Enorbarbus rejects the accusations of “cunning”. There seems to be a contradiction here. If she is not cunning, how could she be so overwhelmingly manipulative? Can manipulation be sincere? The answer, I think, is yes. Cleo, together with Tony Montana from Scarface, could say “Me? I always tell the truth, even when I lie.” It is in her nature to deceive everybody, especially her lovers, to get what she wants. Many people do that of course, but with them it is either a conscious effort or an acquired reflex. It is kind of like charm: it can be learned by practice, but it is much more devastating when it is natural. With Cleopatra it is innate, and that makes her very special indeed. I am pretty sure she never was “cunning” even with Caesar in her “salad days / When I was green in judgment” (I.5.73-74), though I am ready to admit she had grown more proficient by the time she met Tony. Cleo’s notorious “theatricality”, the part within the part, is yet another popular notion that the text, as far as I am concerned, does not support.

On the other hand, Enobarbus may well be joking. The passage is written in the same fluent prose as his let’s-kill-all-women suggestion. It depends much on how the actor would speak the lines, but I do think he is telling the truth even if he pretends to be jesting.

Enobarbus gives Agrippa and Maecenas another account of Cleo’s charms. Allowing for some exaggeration, as might be expected from a soldier spinning a yarn to other soldiers, it agrees well with the more intimate version to Antony. It is bawdier, but to my mind not enough to justify the widespread misconception that the relationship between Tony and Cleo is one of pure lust. The beginning has become the most famous quote from the whole play, though the rest is more important (II.2.240-245):

Age cannot wither her, nor custom stale
Her infinite variety. Other women cloy
The appetites they feed, but she makes hungry
Where most she satisfies; for vilest things
Become themselves in her, that the holy priests      
Bless her when she is riggish [wanton].

Enobarbus’ death is only slightly less moving that Antony’s or Cleopatra’s. It is yet another masterful touch of dramatic irony that he dies, conscience-stricken, after he receives his effects, that is after one of Antony’s most noble deeds that we have seen on the stage. Enobarbus has his own downfall, swifter than his master’s, yet not swift enough to be unconvincing. As has been mentioned above, he leaves Antony reluctantly and only in the last moment. His mind makes the right decision, but his heart is not able to carry it out. Enobarbus dies of broken heart, aka guilty conscience. Now this is something exceedingly rare, and it puts him up there in the exalted company of Tony and Cleo.

[IV.6.30-39, upon receiving his effects:]
I am alone the villain of the earth,
And feel I am so most. O Antony,
Thou mine of bounty, how wouldst thou have paid
My better service, when my turpitude
Thou dost so crown with gold! This blows my heart.
If swift thought break it not, a swifter mean
Shall outstrike thought; but thought will do’t, I feel.
I fight against thee? No, I will go seek
Some ditch wherein to die; the foul’st best fits
My latter part of life.

O sovereign mistress of true melancholy,
The poisonous damp of night disponge upon me,
That life, a very rebel to my will,
May hang no longer on me. Throw my heart
Against the flint and hardness of my fault,
Which, being dried with grief, will break to powder,
And finish all foul thoughts. O Antony,
Nobler than my revolt is infamous,
Forgive me in thine own particular,
But let the world rank me in register
A master-leaver and a fugitive
O Antony! O Antony!

Caesar is Antony’s antithesis. If the General’s passion for Cleopatra “o’erflows the measure”, so does Octavius’ lust for power. This is coupled with an almost pathological restraint. Not only is Caesar impervious to Cleopatra’s charms (V.2.), but he won’t even get drunk, for once, to celebrate the truce with Pompey (II.7.). He is an emotionally crippled man, a stark contrast to Antony’s and Cleopatra’s fiery natures. When he finds Cleopatra’s dead body, his first impulse (if that’s the word) is to become a pathologist. How did she die? If she took poison why is the body not swollen? Only then does he deliver his emotionless eulogy.

I can think of only three brief moments in the whole play – the farewell with his sister (III.2.39-41), her coming back from Athens (III.6.42-55) and the news of Antony’s death (V.1.14-19) – when Caesar shows some emotion. How much of it is sincere and how much is playing to the gallery, for in both cases there are others present, I do not know. To me, strictly personally, he sounds hollow on all occasions. There is much to admire in Caesar’s dispassionate detachment, but I cannot help finding him faintly ridiculous. In the 1963 movie, Antony (Richard Burton) put it best by telling Octavius (Roddy McDowall) that he was in danger of dying without ever having been alive.

The reconciliation between Caesar and Antony (II.2.) is one of the most fascinating scenes in the whole play. It is tempting to speculate what goes behind the tense dialogue. What do the masters of the world think? Are both of them sincere? Or neither is? Is Caesar trying to outwit Antony or vice versa? As I have said above, Enobarbus’ remarks suggest that the whole thing is nothing but an elaborate charade. The situation curiously reminds me of Stalin and Hitler signing their “non-aggression pact” in 1939 while waiting for the suitable moment to pounce on each other. To make the parallel more accurate, Tony and Caesar split the world more or less in the same way as Stalin and Hitler split Poland. But I think it’s a false parallel. It seems to me that Antony is more honest in trying to find a permanent solution that suits both parties. Of course his marriage to Octavia fails, because “i’the east my pleasure lies” (II.3.41), but I think he sincerely believed it could succeed to reconcile him with her brother; it was one of his many schemes, like the breaking from Cleo, that was doomed from the beginning. Octavius, on the other hand, uses Antony only in order to defeat Pompey. He knows Tony’s marriage to his sister won’t be a success but is a good solution for the time being; in this respect, he should be commended on not really sacrificing Octavia. But I think his ambition from the beginning is to rule in the West as well as in the East.

When all is said and done, life is a constant struggle between reason and passion. Antony and Cleopatra shows the disastrous consequences when either of these components is in great excess. Reason, coupled with luck and ambition, may well make you master of the world, like Octavius, but only at the heavy cost of emotional sterility. Pure passion, on the other hand, will never lead you anywhere worth going, but the journey is totally worthwhile and who is to say if this is not the greatest wisdom of life? It all boils down to the old conundrum between contemplation and industry; in extreme cases the former leads to hedonism, the latter to imperialism. Contrary to the popular belief, I do not think the play has much to do with elusive stuff like ethics, with the war between the virtuous and the dissolute life that is. Antony and Cleopatra are, in many ways, highly moral individuals, true to each other until death, while Octavius, a ruthless politician if there ever was one, is hardly a paragon of virtue.

It is difficult to resist, by way of conclusion, a comparison with Romeo and Juliet. Yet it should be resisted. The parallels are entirely superficial. Both couples are famous examples of irresistible love that would rather destroy itself than submit to the world. Both stories end tragically with the death of the lovers. The weapons, poison and blade, are switched, but in both cases he dies first under the false impression that she has died before him. Dramatically more effective, Tony and Cleo share a few moments before his death, while Romeo and Juliet, whatever you may have seen in the movies, do not.

The differences are enormous and far more revealing. The styles couldn’t have been more different. The youthful exuberance of Romeo and Juliet has been transformed into the highly condensed style of Shakespeare’s late maturity. The star-crossed lovers are teenagers, Antony and Cleopatra are middle-aged (she’s in her late thirties, he in his early fifties). Though the early play is not devoid of social dimensions, these are hugely expanded in the later one; to the ancient Romans and Egyptians the Mediterranean was virtually the whole world. The love of Antony and Cleopatra is based on a very different sort of enchantment: politics are inextricably mingled with passion; enchanting personality is more powerful than mere lust. The greatest and most tragic difference is that Romeo and Juliet savour their love to the full, if only for a short while. Antony and Cleopatra, except perhaps for a few instants before his death, never do. This, together with the vast political picture and the visionary language, makes the later play the greater tragedy.


Julius Caesar

The Characters in the Play

Julius Caesar
Calphurnia, his wife

Marcus Brutus, Caius Cassius, Casca, Trebonius, Decius Brutus, Metellus Cimber, Cinna, Caius Ligarius: conspirators against Caesar

Octavius Caesar, Mark Antony, Lepidus: triumvirs after Caesar's death
Cicero, Publius, Poplius Lena: Senators
Flavius, Marullus: Tribunes of the People

Lucilius, Messala, Young Cato, Volumnius, Titinus, Varro, Clitus, Claudius, Dardanus: followers of Brutus and Cassius

Portia, Marcus Brutus's wife
Cinna, a poet
Pindarus, a servant of Cassius
Lucius, Strato: servants of Brutus

A Soothsayer, A Poet, A Cobbler, A Carpenter, A Servant of Caesar, A Servant of Antony, A Servant of Octavius, The Ghost of Caesar, Senators, Soldiers, Plebeians, Attendants and others


Julius Caesar is the most audaciously titled of all Shakespeare’s plays. Is there another one in which the title character is killed in the first scene of the third act? Two grave defects stem from this awkward construction: 1) we see too little of Caesar; 2) the last two acts are positively anticlimactic. I think it’s better to take stock of these defects before proceeding further.

In the play named after him, Julius Caesar appears in only three scenes (I.2., II.2., III.1.) and speaks exactly 135 lines (out of 2455 overall). Most of his words are sheer claptrap. Now he is lost in self-aggrandizement, likening himself to the constant Northern star (III.1.60) or grandiloquently stating that danger is more afraid of him than he is of it (II.2.44-45), then he is a goofy old man, deaf with one ear and foolishly superstitious, or a callous husband who humours his hysterical wife (II.2.). I suppose the last thought that passed through his head before he fell in Pompey’s feet was something like “Without Brutus I might have remained a little more than a footnote in history, but now – now I will become a legend forever.” Caesar’s opinion of himself might have been obnoxious had it not been ridiculous. I can’t help wondering how he managed to attain the nearly absolute power and godlike status he enjoys among the Roman people, if not among the Roman aristocracy. There is only one place where Caesar hints – just hints – at his stunning powers of observation that might have been instrumental in his ascent to dictatorship. This is, of course, his penetrating portrait of Cassius (I.2.193-194, 200-209):

Yond Cassius has a lean and hungry look;
He thinks too much: such men are dangerous.
He reads much;
He is a great observer, and he looks
Quite through the deeds of men. He loves no plays,
As thou dost, Antony; he hears no music;
Seldom he smiles, and smiles in such a sort
As if he mocked himself, and scorned his spirit
That could be moved to smile at anything.
Such men as he be never at heart’s ease
Whiles they behold a greater than themselves,
And therefore are they very dangerous.

If he only knew how right he was! Some critics, like Norman Sanders in this edition, have tried to find some complexity in this character. What I find is only a demented old man, hardly worth bothering about, certainly not worth conspiracy and assassination. Likewise, wise critics have pointed out that Caesar controls the action even after his death. True, of course, and I don’t mean insignificant details like his ghost. Both Brutus (V.3.90) and Cassius (V.3.45-46) commit suicide with Caesar’s name on their lips. The whole civil war that ends at Philippi results from Caesar’s assassination. But all this is a poor substitute for the feeble Caesar “in the flesh” (to be read “in Shakespeare’s lines”, not in whatever historical facts we know of him). He may control the action of the whole play, but his very character undermines its meaning.

The unevenness of characterization extends to the plot as well. After the great scene with Antony’s masterful performance for the crowd (III.2.), the rest of the play is one long anticlimax. The Brutus-Cassius confrontation (IV.3.) is admittedly an exception, but the rest is consistently dull. Unlike Caesar, who could have been – should have been – shown only through the eyes of other characters, these scenes are logically necessary. If the downfall of Brutus and Cassius were not shown, the play would be incomplete. But I am under the impression that Shakespeare was much more interested in the motives that led to the conspiracy than in the consequences for the conspirators.

Nevertheless, Julius Caesar is a very fine play. Tragedy it is not, but as a tense drama it works really well. It shows how momentous political events may be caused by purely personal motives. It is the ultimate proof that history is made by individuals, not by the masses. It contains some of the finest examples of psychological manipulation, both on personal (I.2.) and social (III.2.) level, ever put on paper. The language lacks the concise power and the rich imagery of the later plays, but on the lower level of pure drama it works supremely well; some of the longer speeches may sound slightly artificial, but none fails to propel the action or enrich the characters. The play has spawned a respectable number of quotes out of the context:

There is a tide in the affairs of men,
Which, taken at the flood, leads on to fortune;
Omitted, all the voyage of their life
Is bound in shallows and in miseries.
[Brutus, IV.3.216-219.]

The evil that men do lives after them,
The good is oft interrèd with their bones;
[Antony, III.2.76-77.]

He thinks too much: such men are dangerous.
[Caesar, I.2.204.]

Cowards die many times before their deaths;
The valiant never taste of death but once.
[Caesar, II.2.32-33.]

I really don’t understand the protagonist debate about this play. Brutus and Cassius are obviously the main characters. Both are fascinating in themselves, but they also illuminate each other. Neither makes sense without the other, while Caesar might never have graced the stage for all they care. (The title in the First Folio, “The Tragedie of Ivlivs Cæsar”, if it did originate with Shakespeare at all, was one of his finest ironical touches.) Mark Antony is a remarkably complex character, considering the limited space dedicated to him, and he deserves a full discussion. Let’s have a look at these people.

Brutus is a sorry specimen. Torn asunder by contradictory qualities, he is the closest to a genuinely tragic character, but he never quite makes it. He is admirably idealistic, but not very bright; noble and upright in intention, but self-righteous and obnoxious in action. He has a genius for making wrong decisions: to leave Antony alive (II.1.162-183), to let Antony speak at the funeral (III.1.231)[18], to move the army to Philippi for a final showdown (IV.3.201-222): these are just a few that he hopelessly bungles, with fatal consequences. Cassius is correct on all occasions, and says so, but he lacks the authority to overrule Brutus’ decisions.

Harold Goddard, whose chapter on Julius Caesar is far less convincing than his take on Antony and Cleopatra, claims that if Brutus’ downfall is not a tragedy he doesn’t what it is.[19] I have no doubt it was a tragedy to him. It is not to me. Brutus is too much of a fool to excite my sympathy – he manages to fool completely even himself – and without sympathy there is, of course, no tragedy; the whole story becomes a mere part of the statistics. Mr Goddard’s fantasies on symbolism – Portia being Brutus’ conscience, Lucius being his innocence – don’t help the matter, either. I appreciate these efforts to endear “the noblest Roman of them all” (V.5.68, Antony’s epitaph) to the reader, but they are not enough to make him a tragic character. Many readers may well find him so, and find good reasons, too. But for me he only gets what he deserves. The argument of respect from his enemies, also advanced by Mr Goddard, is the most fallacious of all. It’s easy to be magnanimous to your enemies when they are dead. It’s difficult to say how far Antony’s final words are sincere (V.5.68-75):

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 mixed in him, that Nature might stand up
And say to all the world, ‘This was a man!’

Brutus’ great soliloquy (II.1.10-34) is a magnificent piece of dramatic poetry, “one of the first soliloquies in Shakespeare’s tragedies to display a mind trying to work its way clear through a difficult problem”[20], a dramatic device to be brought to perfection in Hamlet (probably written not much later). It is curious, however, to observe his reasons for Caesar’s death.

It must be by his death; and for my part,
I know no personal cause to spurn at him,
But for the general. – He would be crowned.
How that might change his nature, there's the question.
It is the bright day that brings forth the adder,
And that craves wary walking. Crown him! – that!
And then, I grant, we put a sting in him,
That at his will he may do danger with.
The abuse of greatness is when it disjoins
Remorse from power; and, to speak truth of Caesar,
I have not known when his affections swayed
More than his reason. But ’tis a common proof,
That lowliness is young ambition’s ladder,
Whereto the climber-upward turns his face;
But when he once attains the upmost round,
He then unto the ladder turns his back,
Looks in the clouds, scorning the base degrees
By which he did ascend: so Caesar may.
Then, lest he may, prevent. And, since the quarrel
Will bear no colour for the thing he is,
Fashion it thus: that what he is, augmented,
Would run to these and these extremities;
And therefore think him as a serpent's egg
Which, hatched, would, as his kind, grow mischievous,
And kill him in the shell.

Clearly, Brutus decides against Caesar’s life not because of what Caesar is, but of what he might become. This may pass as a noble motive for murder only in a mentally deficient individual. Nor does it speak in Brutus’ favour that never for a single line does he reflect what he is going to do about Rome when the tyrant is dead. Will it just revert to the old Republic? How can this be expected to handle an Empire? Not considering even the immediate consequences of your actions is the crowning achievement of human folly; deceiving others is a weapon, but deluding yourself is an act of moronity. Brutus is more than guilty of both offences.

As for the future of Rome, the conspirators have several slogans. According to Cassius, it is “Liberty, freedom, enfranchisement” (III.1.81). Brutus goes for “Peace, freedom, and liberty!” (III.1.110). Cinna, who is but another puppet of Cassius, cries “Liberty! Freedom! Tyranny is dead!” (III.1.78). “Words, words, words”, as a famous character from another play might say. All slogans are curiously similar to the French Revolution’s equally phoney “Liberté, Égalité, Fraternité”. In both cases, one dictatorship simply led to another. Octavius just turned out to be smarter than Caesar (or Napoleon, for that matter) and his kingdom lasted longer. When one remembers the long history of political assassinations, some of dictators but most not, one cannot but appreciate the remarkable ability of Cassius to foresee the future (III.1.111-113):

How many ages hence
Shall this our lofty scene be acted over,
In states unborn, and accents yet unknown!

Cassius is one of the great villains in Shakespeare. Bitter and hate-driven man, insanely jealous of Caesar’s position, far more intelligent and less impulsive than Brutus, Cassius is a dangerous rival. Both G. B. Harrison and Norman Sanders have discovered in the back of his mind some remnants of republican ideals. I can’t say that I have. To my mind, when he slips into idealistic reverie, occasionally, he does so for the sake of appearance, to add more credibility, more decency, to his argument. He is far more politically and militarily astute than Brutus. It is he, Cassius, who suggests that Antony should be murdered, too (II.2.155-161), that he must not speak on Caesar’s funeral (III.1.231-236), or that their army should not move to Philippi but wait for the enemy in Sardis (IV.3.196-200). Had Brutus listened to him, things might have turned out in a very different way and history would have been changed profoundly; but it was not to be. An even more remarkable instance of his ability to grasp immediately the complex situation comes when Antony meets the conspirators, their hands still smeared with Caesar’s hot blood. Without any preliminary nonsense, Cassius promises him a share of the power and then, significantly, asks him if he is with them (III.1.177-178, 215-217).

Your voice shall be as strong as any man’s
In the disposing of new dignities.
But what compact mean you to have with us?
Will you be pricked in number of our friends;
Or shall we on, and not depend on you?

Like the witches in Macbeth, Cassius insinuates in Brutus what is already in him but he is afraid of confessing even to himself. This exquisite manipulation forms the best part of one of the most terrific scenes in the play (I.2.). Cassius is a puppeteer par excellence. He mingles a vicious harangue against Caesar, who is deemed physically and mentally inferior to them, with subtle playing on his friend’s considerable vanity, for Brutus is a nobleman from a family with great traditions in expelling tyrants from Rome, throwing in for good measure some stuff about the future of Rome to stir his victim’s sense of moral obligation. Brutus is noncommittal, but the seed is planted and, as we see a few scenes later in his orchard (II.1.), it bears fruits. Cassius ends the scene with a brutally frank soliloquy in which he freely confesses what – and why – he has been trying to do. These lines might have been written for Iago (I.2.305-319):

Well, Brutus, thou art noble; yet, I see,
Thy honourable mettle may be wrought
From that it is disposed: therefore it is meet
That noble minds keep ever with their likes;
For who so firm that cannot be seduced?
Caesar doth bear me hard, but he loves Brutus.
If I were Brutus now, and he were Cassius,
He should not humour me. I will this night,
In several hands, in at his windows throw,
As if they came from several citizens,
Writings, all tending to the great opinion
That Rome holds of his name; wherein obscurely
Caesar’s ambition shall be glancèd at.
And after this, let Caesar seat him sure;
For we will shake him, or worse days endure.

The Brutus-Cassius confrontation (IV.3.) is the natural outcome of this uneasy union. Cassius obviously “seduced” Brutus to lend some respectability to his revenge to Caesar; he well knew he didn’t have the authority to pull it off. Brutus let himself be seduced and convinced his feeble mind that he was acting for the good of Rome. Now, he and Cassius are in Sardis, far away from home indeed, hunted by the armies of Antony and Octavius. Both are aware that their conspiracy had exactly the opposite effect to the one desired. Quite contrary to Brutus’ muddled reasoning (II.1.169-170), Caesar’s body died only to make his spirit immortal. Whatever friendship they might have shared before the conspiracy, it is gone now. It is funny to observe how in the process of degradation Brutus becomes the aggressive and ignoble party, while Cassius preserves dignity he hardly possessed earlier in the play. Had Lady Macbeth been around in this scene, she might have exclaimed “Nought's had, all's spent” (Macbeth, III.2.4).

In a much neglected scene permeated with thunder and lightning (I.3.), Cassius works his charms on Casca in a completely different manner but with exactly the same result; Casca being a much flightier man and therefore easier target, the results are actually better. The scenes make for a revealing comparison, and it was a stroke of genius on Will’s part to place them one after another. Cassius has a gift for exploiting every man’s weakness. Casca is scared to death of the stormy night, he regards it as some sort of supernatural menace, and his cynical detachment from the previous scene has now vanished. Cassius seizes the moment. In a fit of splendid rhetoric, he makes Caesar look “most like this dreadful night”. Casca is interested but not impressed. Cassius checks himself and switches to a blunt attack on Casca’s vanity, much more direct than in the case of Brutus, suggesting that he is only a “willing bondman” (I.3.113) under Caesar’s yoke. That settles it. Casca is won completely for the cause in half the space in which Brutus is only half won. It’s a brilliant performance (I.3.103-120):

And why should Caesar be a tyrant then?
Poor man! I know he would not be a wolf,
But that he sees the Romans are but sheep.
He were no lion, were not Romans hinds.
Those that with haste will make a mighty fire
Begin it with weak straws. What trash is Rome,
What rubbish, and what offal, when it serves
For the base matter to illuminate
So vile a thing as Caesar! But, O grief,
Where hast thou led me? I perhaps speak this
Before a willing bondman; then I know
My answer must be made. But I am armed,
And dangers are to me indifferent.
You speak to Casca, and to such a man
That is no fleering tell-tale. Hold, my hand;
Be factious for redress of all these griefs,
And I will set this foot of mine as far
As who goes farthest.

Antony in this play makes for a stark contrast with the debauched party animal from Antony and Cleopatra. We do get a few casual remarks that suggest he is by nature a playboy well given to loose life. Cassius calls him “a masker and a reveller”, Caesar is surprised to see him up so early because “Antony, that revels long a-nights” (II.2.116). If these hints prepare us for Antony’s Alexandrian dissolution, “shrewd contriver” (II.1.158, Cassius again) shows that he is skillful in political intrigue as well. Significantly, it is Cassius, his only rival as far as brains are concerned, who is also the only one among the conspirators who shrewdly anticipates the danger from Antony’s side:

Yet I fear him;
For in the ingrafted love he bears to Caesar –
Alas, good Cassius, do not think of him.
If he love Caesar, all that he can do
Is to himself: take thought, and die for Caesar;
And that were much he should; for he is given
To sports, to wildness and much company.[21]

I know that we shall have him well to friend.
I wish we may: but yet have I a mind
That fears him much; and my misgiving still
Falls shrewdly to the purpose.

Antony is just as important in himself as in relation to the other characters, especially Brutus. Their orations to the crowd form by far the most exciting part of the play. What a contrast! Brutus merely makes a speech that is soon forgotten. Antony creates a scene with momentous historical consequences. Brutus states his reasons and expects the population to believe them on the grounds of his noble character and inflexible honesty. Antony plays subtly on their emotions and stirs them first to pity and then, much more powerfully, to hate. This is why honest men don’t make good politicians. Brutus’ measured prose (III.2.12-40) is not devoid of rhetorical elements, but on the whole he appeals to reason (as if any crowd has any idea of it!) and his own authority (as if any crowd would submit to it!). Antony’s emotionally charged verse (III.2.74-108, 119-138, 170-198, 211-231) appeals to deeper and stronger instincts. One cannot but admire his brilliance and subtlety. The constant repetition of “honourable”, the affecting contemplation of Caesar’s bloody corpse, the reluctant reading of his will, the disingenuous claims that he is no orator and does not want to incite “hearts and minds to mutiny and rage”: everything is carefully calculated to produce the desired effect.

(Bertrand Russell once wondered why propaganda is so much more effective in breeding hatred than friendship. He reached the conclusion that “the human heart as modern civilisation has made it is more prone to hatred than to friendship.”[22] I think he was only partly right. The proclivities of the human heart, alas, can hardly be doubted, but I think they haven’t changed much through the ages. What is true in our modern world was pretty much true in Elizabethan England or ancient Rome. No better example of that than Antony’s pulling the strings of the mob.)

This is the most devastating moment for Brutus in the whole play. For all authority and respect that he commands, he proves himself totally incapable of finishing what he started with Caesar’s assassination. The greatest irony of all is that he doesn’t even know it. He leaves the stage, rather presumptuously, before Antony even begins. More than once does Brutus insist on being the single leader of the conspirators, for instance when he rejects the oath proposed by Cassius (II.1.114-140) or the inclusion of Cicero who, he knows, “will never follow any thing / That other men begin” (II.1.150-152). No case in defense of Brutus can be made here. One may argue, to my mind unconvincingly, that the vile crime is thrust on Brutus’ noble nature by the circumstances and view him as a Hamlet-like tragic hero: deeply flawed but still magnificent. But the leadership, which is the main reason for the failure, is the result only of his colossal vanity and incredible stupidity. Of course, he doesn’t realise that. Thus he is reduced to an ordinary human being, with too many flaws and not enough virtues to merit anything more than mild interest.

Harold Goddard, amazingly, calls Brutus’ address “a dishonest speech”[23], claiming that Antony’s is more genuinely felt because of his grief for Caesar. This is nonsense. Brutus is perfectly honest. He is delusional, not dishonest. He is noble enough to be honest, but not smart enough to perceive his delusion. Antony’s soliloquy (III.1.254-275), when he is alone with his dead friend, is sincere; his speech at the forum is complete sham, bread and circuses for the mindless crowd. The scene on the whole is surely among the greatest moments in Shakespeare. The finest analysis I have come across is G. B. Harrison’s; an extended quotation is more than justified (for the speeches I use Mr Harrison’s spelling and punctuation)

Brutus’s speech is in prose:
Romans, countrymen, and lovers, hear me for my cause, and be silent, that you may hear. Believe me for mine honour, and have respect to mine honour, that you may believe. Censure me in your wisdom, and awake your senses, that you may the better judge. If there be any in this assembly, any dear friend of Caesar's, to him I say, that Brutus’ love to Caesar, was no less than his. If then, that friend demand, why Brutus rose against Caesar, this is my answer: Not that I lov’d Caesar less, but that I lov’d Rome more. Had you rather Caesar were living, and die all slaves; than that Caesar were dead, to live all free men?
As Caesar lov’d me, I weep for him; as he was fortunate, I rejoice at it; as he was valiant, I honour him: but as he was ambitious, I slew him. There is tears, for his love; joy, for his fortune; honour, for his valour; and death, for his ambition.
Who is here so base, that would be a bondman? If any, speak, for him have I offended. Who is here so rude, that would not be a Roman? If any, speak, for him have I offended. Who is here so vile, that will not love his country? If any, speak, for him have I offended. I pause for a reply.
It is the speech of a trained orator who has carefully composed his oration in sets of clauses elaborately balanced against each other. The rhythms are pleasing, the phrases apt and the sentiments appropriate; and yet by its very rhetoric the effect is cold and complacent. The plebeians are moved to respectful applause, but they understand so little of the principles at stake that one of them cries out, “Let him be Caesar’.
When Antony enters with the corpse of Caesar, Brutus is so sure of himself and his audience that he gives place to Antony and does not even stay to listen to his funeral speech.
Antony’s speech is a much subtler performance, for he knows more of the tricks of the rabble rouser – rhythms which are almost incantations, phrases repeated with such subtlety of intonation that the meaning is completely reversed, the direct appeal to sentiment, pity, gratitude, horror and greed, the rise and fall of tone, the catch in the voice, the histrionic tears. The difference between the two orators is fundamental. Brutus makes his set speech and expects his audience to agree; Antony plays on his hearers and forces them to dance on his tune.
At the beginning Antony faces a hostile crowd; but for an accomplished mob orator hostility is better than indifference. He starts quietly and sombrely, feeling his way as if he found it difficult to order his thoughts or to express them in words; but this very hesitance seems to imply greater sincerity than any set oration. The speech is worth analyzing in detail.
Brutus has left the mob with three ideas: that Caesar was ambitious, that his murder was a good deed, and that the murderers are therefore honourable men. Antony’s first task is to upset these three ideas.
His opening words are uttered quietly, for the crowd is still under the sway of Brutus. Having won a hearing, he begins by apparently agreeing with Brutus:
The noble Brutus,
Hath told you Caesar was ambitious:
If it were so, it was a grievous fault –
and Brutus’s supporters agree –
And grievously hath Caesar answer’d it –
and Brutus’s supporters cannot disagree. Antony pauses to let the idea sink in. Then he resumes, still in the same quiet humble tone:
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 –
And on such occasions even when the dead man has been murdered by his political opponents, one can at least pay personal tribute to his private virtues.
He was my friend, faithful, and just to me;
But Brutus says, he was ambitious,
And Brutus is an honourable man.
There is a slightly heavier stress on the word “honourable”, but still no hint of irony.
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 –
sheer clap-trap, but it passes.
Ambition should be made of sterner stuff,
Yet Brutus says, he was ambitious:
And Brutus is an honourable man –
‘Honourable’ is beginning to grow somewhat blowsy, but the audience is listening intently.
You all did see, that on the Lupercal,
I thrice presented him a kingly crown,
Which he did thrice refuse.
Antony has reached the first critical moment in the speech, for the episode of the crown was the direct cause of Caesar’s murder. It the crowd will accept Antony’s version the rest would be easy.
Was this ambition?
– he demands, and from the crowd comes back a murmur of sympathy.
Now Antony can begin to attack. Since Caesar was not ambitious, Brutus must be a liar, and liars are not honourable men. Antony repeats his refrain, and this time as if he were puzzled by some strange inconsistency in a good man’s nature –
Yet Brutus says, he was ambitious:
And sure he is an honourable man.
The crowd retorts, but more loudly, ‘No’. Antony is not yet ready to use the spur. Still very quietly he continues:
I speak not to disprove what Brutus spoke,
But here I am, to speak what I do know –
the plain, private friend who is too simple to understand any of these high mysteries of the politicians. Then with the catch in the throat and the voice broken as if by sudden uncontrollable emotion –
You all did love him once, not without cause,
What cause withholds you then, to mourn for him?
O judgement! thou art fled to brutish beasts,
And men have lost their reason.
At this point he breaks down completely so that the crowd may have a chance to sympathize with his sobs. The effect has been perfectly calculated and timed. When he hears the remark, ‘Poor soul, his eyes are red as fire with weeping’, he knows that the game is won.
The first phase of the speech is now complete; and the sympathy of the crowd is with the dead Caesar and against his murderers. Antony begins again. Now he will erect Caesar into a national hero:
But yesterday, the word of Caesar might
Have stood against the World: now lies he there,
And none so poor to do him reverence.
The crowd are in the right mood, but they need considerable goading. He sets about stirring them into action, but he will keep them in check until they have reached the pitch of fury. Antony’s passion rises:
O masters!  if I were dispos’d to stir
Your hearts and minds to mutiny and rage.
but with an effort he holds himself in –
I should do Brutus wrong, and Cassius wrong:
Who (you all know) are honourable men.
The crowd are getting excited. Something tangible, something that they can see, will stimulate them still further. Antony produces the sealed testament to whet their curiosity – there is always something exciting about a sealed paper. He refuses to read it. They cry out impatiently, but they are with him in whatever he urges, and he can throw off restraint. When he repeats the word ‘honourable’, he evokes the answering word for which he has been waiting:
They were traitors: honourable men!
The second phase in the speech has been accomplished, and Antony is ready for the final effort when he will make the crowd mad with a lust for blood. He comes slowly down from the pulpit and stands down by the muffled corpse of Caesar. He is tense and deliberate as he reaches the dramatic moment. He takes hold of the cloak covering the face.
If you have tears, prepare to shed them now.
You all do know this mantle, I remember
The first time Caesar ever put it on,
‘Twas on a summer’s evening in his tent,
That day he overcame the Nervii.
Look, in this place ran Cassius’ dagger through:
See what a rent the envious Casca made –
It is sheer fantasy, for Antony had not even been present at the murder, but the crowd is in such a mood that it will believe anything. He continues with rising passion –
Through this, the well-beloved Brutus stabb'd,
And as he pluck'd his cursed steel away,
Mark how the blood of Caesar follow'd it,
As rushing out of doors, to be resolv’d
If Brutus so unkindly knock'd, or no:
For Brutus, as you know, was Caesar's angel.
So our honourable Brutus has turned out to be that meanest of creatures, the man who stabs his best friend:
Judge, O you gods, how dearly Caesar lov’d him:
This was the most unkindest cut of all:
For when the noble Caesar saw him stab,
Ingratitude, more strong than traitors’ arms,
Quite vanquish'd him: then burst his mighty heart,
And in his mantle, muffling up his face,
Even at the base of Pompey’s statue,
(Which all the while ran blood), great Caesar fell.  
This touch about Pompey’s statue is the most cynical of all, for this same crowd, a few weeks ago, had made holiday over Caesar’s destruction of Pompey, and now in their muddled heads Caesar and Pompey are somehow connected as martyrs for Rome. As the rage of the crowd turns to lamentation, Antony suddenly snatches the cloak away to reveal the face of the dead Dictator. The plebeians are now hot for blood, but still Antony holds them back. He reverts to the tone of sweet reason with which he began:                   
They that have done this deed, are honourable.
What private griefs they have, alas I know not,
That made them do it: they are wise, and honourable,
And will no doubt with reasons answer you.
He knows well enough that they are well past reason as he continues:
I come not (friends) to steal away your hearts,
I am no orator, as Brutus is;
But (as you know me all) a plain blunt man,
That love my friend, and that they know full well,
That gave me public leave to speak of him.
For I have neither writ nor words, nor worth,
Action, nor utterance, nor the power of speech,
To stir men’s blood.
After this piece of irony he works up into a crescendo of emotional appeal:
                                                       I only speak right on:
I tell you that, which you yourselves do know,
Show you sweet Caesar's wounds, poor poor dumb mouths,
And bid them speak for me: but were I Brutus,
And Brutus Antony, there were an Antony
Would ruffle up your spirits, and put a tongue
In every wound of Caesar, that should move
The stones of Rome, to rise and mutiny.
With the idea of mutiny it would seem that he had ended his peroration and the crowd are ready for action, but once more he pulls them back. They had forgotten Caesar’s will. When they have learned that Caesar’s last wish was a generous bequest of money to every citizen and his estate for public use, Antony at last lets down the barrier and they rush off to burn the body and smoke out the traitors.
The great Forum Scene is a wonderful example of skilful demagogy, and Shakespeare devised the whole speech from the merest hint in Plutarch:
Afterwards, when Caesar's body was brought into the market place, Antonius making his funeral oration in praise of the dead, according to the ancient custom of Rome, and perceiving that his words moved the common people to compassion, he framed his eloquence to make their hearts yearn the more: and taking Caesar's gown all bloody in his hand, he laid it open to the sight of them all, shewing what a number of cuts and holes it had upon it. Therewithal the people fell presently into such a rage and mutiny, that there was no more order kept amongst the common people.[24]

I have only one thing to add. Shakespeare wisely takes care that we should witness Antony’s “Cry havoc” soliloquy and his brisk dealing with Octavius’ servant before the Forum Scene. Thus we immediately know that the meek Antony we have just seen to shake hands with the conspirators is a part played by an actor. Also, we are well prepared in advance for his ruthless manipulation of the mob. This “spoiler” only helps to appreciate better Shakespeare’s meticulous craftsmanship.

For once I agree with G. B. Harrison that Julius Caesar is not a “deep tragedy”. Neither Caesar as a fallen dictator nor Brutus as a corrupt nobleman comes close to be a tragic personage. To me, the former remains a failure in terms of characterisation, and the latter is much too noble, idealistic, upright, honest, etc., etc. – in short, stupid – to excite any deep sympathy. Brutus is pathetic rather than tragic, but he is nevertheless a fascinating character. So are Cassius and Antony, however appalled one may be by some sides of their personalities. As a study of the relationship between personality and politics, Julius Caesar is a tremendous achievement that remains as timely today as it ever was.


The Characters in the Play

Caius Martius, afterwards Caius Martius Coriolanus

Titus Lartius, Cominius: Roman generals against the Volsces
Menenius Agrippa, friend of Coriolanus

Sicinius Velutus, Junius Brutus: Tribunes of the People, opposed to Coriolanus

A Crowd of Roman Citizens
A Roman Herald
Nicanor, a Roman in the play of the Volsces

Volumnia, mother of Coriolanus
Virgilia, wife of Coriolanus
Young Martius, son of Coriolanus
Valeria, friend of Virgilia
A Gentlewoman attending on Virgilia

Tullus Aufidius, General of the Volsces
A Lieutenant under Aufidius
Conspirators with Aufidius
Adrian, a Volsce
A Citizen of Antium
Two Volscian Guards

Roman and Volscian Senators, Patricians, Aediles, Lictors, Soldiers, Messengers, Volscian Citizen, Servants of Aufidius, and other Attendants


[1] Harold Goddard, The Meaning of Shakespeare (1951), University of Chicago Press, 1960, vol. 2, pp. 207-208.
[2] William Hazlitt, Characters in Shakespear’s Plays (1817; 2nd ed., 1818), J. M. Dent & Sons / E. P. Dutton, 1921, ed. F. J. S., p. 73.
[3] Dr Johnson on Shakespeare, Henry Frowde, 1908, ed. Walter Raleigh, p. 180.
[4] G. B. Harrison, Shakespeare’s Tragedies (1951), Routledge, 1966, pp. 203, 226.
[5] A. C. Bradley, Oxford Lectures on Poetry (1909), Indiana University Press, 1961, pp. 279-305. Bradley’s essay contains many points of interest but is fatally compromised by his highly subjective criteria which he inflicts on the reader at the expense of Antony and Cleopatra. Of course he praises greatly the characters and the poetry, but it all sounds cold and insincere.
[6] Coleridge’s Essays and Lectures on Shakespeare & Some Other Old Poets and Dramatists (1907), J. M. Dent & Sons / E. P. Dutton, 1914, ed. Alfred W. Pollard, p. 97.
[7] Harold Goddard goes as far as to claim that the play “best represents all aspects of [Shakespeare’s] genius and preserves the most harmonious balance among them”, ibid., p. 184. I have come to see more truth in this statement than I used to.
[8] See Si Shepard, Actium 31 BC: Downfall of Antony and Cleopatra, Osprey, 2009 (Campaign 211), p. 7. Mr Shepard’s introduction, though a trifle laboriously written, is an excellent summary of the historical events that led to the Battle of Actium, including many dramatized by Shakespeare.
[9] C. T. Winchester, An Old Castle and Other Essays, Macmillan, 1922, p. 64. Mr Winchester’s essay on Antony and Cleopatra is an unjustly neglected masterpiece. Reportedly, it was the favourite among his lectures on Shakespeare and dashed off in a single afternoon, or so he told the editor (ibid., p. vii, note).
[10] Shakespeare’s Plutarch, Duffield / Chatto & Windus, 1909, vol. 2, ed. C. F. Tucker Brooke, pp. 38-39.
[11] For some of them I am indebted to Cedric Watts and his introduction to the play in the Wordsworth Classics series (2006, pp. 10-13).
[12] Harold Goddard, ibid., pp. 198-203.
[13] Laurence Olivier, On Acting (1986), Sceptre, 1987, chapter 9, p. 104. Larry evidently wrote, or rather dictated, this book in a wide range of moods, from goofy adulation of the Bard (“the world's greatest man”) all the way to extreme irreverence to his characters (Lear is a “stupid old fart”, Romeo is somebody who “lets an erection rule his life”).
[14] G. B. Harrison, ibid., p. 219.
[15] Olivier, ibid.
[16] Somerset Maugham, A Writer’s Notebook (1949), “1894”.
[17] Shakespeare’s Plutarch, Duffield / Chatto & Windus, 1909, vol. 2, ed. C. F. Tucker Brooke, pp. 88-89, 99-100.
[18] As regards Brutus’ obstinately underestimating Antony, G. B. Harrison makes the following comment: “Self-righteous men so often make the mistake of supposing that a man of loose morals is necessarily a fool.” (G. B. Harrison, ibid., p. 74.)
[19] Harold Goddard, ibid., vol. 1, p. 307. To be fair to Mr Goddard, his exact words are “If the story of Brutus is not tragedy, it is hard to know what it is.”    
[20] G. B. Harrison, ibid., p. 72.
[21] See note 18.
[22] Bertrand Russell, The Conquest of Happiness (1930), chapter 6.
[23] Harold Goddard, ibid., p. 322.
[24] G. B. Harrison, ibid., pp. 78-84.

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