Saturday, April 25, 2009

Julius Caesar--Shakespeare (Part 1)

Cleopatra of course isn't in this one. It was doubtless thrown in at this spot on my list source as a deceptive answer.

I had read it a couple of times, but not for many years, and never officially for this reading program I have made more or less my fate (which increasingly appears to have been not quite the right choice).

With reference to an earlier discussion on Gil Roth's site, this is, I am pretty sure, the 14th Shakespeare play I have read. In any case, if I have read more, I have no memory of them. There are quite a few big ones still out there.

I still find Julius Caesar a great, ebullient entertainment. It is not usually reputed by most maturer and more advanced readers among this author's first rank of work. I am more of a pass/fail reader than one of those who feels compelled to rank everything into very distinct gradations of quality. Life is short and potentially grisly enough, I think, and decidedly good or pretty things are rare enough occurrences even to one of a generally generous disposition, that if a book or anything else has ought of excellence in it, and no obvious deficiencies or uglinesses by the usual standards of human existence, I am more than delighted to have it.

This prevents me from attaining real connoisseurship or expertise in any field, I suppose, and allows the possibility that my pleasures and insights are cheaper, if not catastrophically so, then they otherwise might be. However, if I were to prove unable, or were to succumb to the idea that I were unable to properly comprehend, for example, Hamlet--which if I were to take someone like Harold Bloom's word for it (which obviously I don't), no one currently living, apart from himself, does, and the culture and language are greatly diminished for it--I would run the risk of becoming unable to find delight in anything, which has actually been a problem I have struggled with for some years.

This is the standard 10th grade English Shakespeare play in American high schools, which probably accounts for a good deal of the surprising lack of fervor for it I detect among large swathes of the current grown-up intelligentsia. The play does seem to lend itself, even in years long afterwards, to a sort of tenth-grade level interpretation no matter how much additional knowledge and experience you bring to the reading. As I was not at a tenth-grade level of reading or anything else when I was actually in tenth grade, at this late date it is not so much irritating, as it is moderately pleasant, to feel oneself having attained somewhat of that status of proper sophomorehood at last.

Many of my notes on this play are enigmas to me as I finally get ready to post my thoughts on it. I said--probably mouthed--"One can see it is the work of a man in the unfolding of construction, matter of fact language of introductory scene." Did I mean here man as opposed to woman? Or man as in man--mensch, philosopher-king, etc? If the first why did this strike me as important? We are talking about Shakespeare, it is hardly of interest that he wrote in some way characteristic of one sex, which he probably was, rather than another. I don't understand.

Cassius's famous speech at I.ii.135 ("Why, man, he doth bestride the narrow world/Like a Colossus, and we petty men, etc...") demonstrates succintly why there had to be war; there were too many great (in the sense of largeness of presence and self-conception) men, independent men, spirited men, strong men, what have you, yet active to allow for a bloodless submission to Caesar. This is often the case during the origins and ascendencies of great peoples--this is where England considered itself to be in the 1590s incidentally, and with reason--but maturity and decline largely winnows such spirits as a percentage, almost even as an identifiable type, of the population.

"One goes over every line not gotten because of the anticipation of its importance." I wrote this, and certainly I meant something by it, I was trying to express that the play was not in fact wholly dead to me, that there was something in it comprehensible that had resonance in my mental if not my visible and social life. It is still a conflicted and tortured relation to literature however.

II. i. 63-65 BRUTUS: "Between the acting of a dreadful thing
And the first motion, all the interim is
Like a phantasma or a hideous dream:"

"The Roman code of honor as painted by W.S. has 'universal' application...Tension of action/necessity--would have been avoided." More of my notations. I don't know what the second refers to. The first I think is the old bit that the Roman code of honor, or the chronicles of the Hebrews, or anything else that is a product of a particular society in a particular time, has lasting resonance and importance across time not in themselves and on account of their original purposes but because writers of genius caused the ideas in them to be formed as fundamental developments and ideals in the collective imagination.

Apparently at the time I read this play I was quoting from it in arguments with my wife, and seem to have especially proud of employing a variation of the "Upon what meat doth this Caesar feed/That he is grown so great..." speech in such a combat, which seems to have momentarily disarmed my tyrannic opponent, for the end of the note states with rare assurance, "Women love W.S."

II. ii. 30-33 CALPURNIA: "When beggars die, there are no comets seen,
The heavens themselves blaze forth the death of princes.
CAESAR: "Cowards die many times before their deaths;
The valiant never taste of death but once."

These are accurately expressed ideas, the real dint of which I need to try to impress upon my sons before they develop too strong a stake in death and cowardice.

"What is W.S.'s position regarding this action (the murder of Caesar)? Crowd is silly--Antony's rhetoric silly." Wow. That's a rather bold assertion for me. I guess I was thinking maybe he was subtly sympathetic with it.

Some other quickie observations:

Brutus sees Cassius as self-possessed, but himself as not.

Brutus shows concern on numerous occasions for the will of the people as opposed to the will of the conspirators.

Cassius's speeches denouncing Caesar nonetheless reveal grudging, perhaps even unconscious, acknowledgements of his leadership and other virtues.

Cassius laments that "Rome, thou hast lost the breed of noble bloods/When went there by an age, since the great flood/But it was famed with more than one man", though ironically, admittedly in large part due to the conspiracy, this age in the end produced more famous Romans than any other.

Caesar notes of Cassius that he cares not for representations of life (art, music, etc) and that this indicates danger.

I thought it noteworthy to state that this play is funnier than Coriolanus.

Whereas the greatness of Coriolanus is acknowledged throughout his play, that of Caesar is minimized. Caesar also appears more affected by the crowd. The ideas in this play are lighter. Life and death themselves are lighter.

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