Friday, December 17, 2010

Julius Caesar: The Problem With Top Billing

The Death of Caesar at the Hands of the Senators by Vincenzo Camuccini, 1798

As Shakespeare dramatizes the over two-thousand-year-old assassination of Roman general Julius Caesar, he raises a number of timeless questions about the problematic nature of success.  Late rap music great Christopher Wallace, The Notorious B.I.G., famously hinted at the heart of the problem when he said that “The more money you make, the more problems you get.”  Whether the bar is set by money, power, position, or even virtue, the rise of any individual to some substantial level of greatness always seems to simultaneously give rise to envy, criticism, and even hatred.   Haters will want to see a great man brought down.  Unfortunately for Caesar, back in 44 BC, haters weren’t just going to hate; they were going to stab you thirty-three times in the chest.

The Notorious B.I.G.

Julius Caesar opens with Caesar definitively on top, but the marquee-level problems aren’t exclusive to him.  In fact, with Caesar getting the ultimate raw deal halfway through, the number one Julius Caesar question seems to be “whose play is it?”  Caesar does have the title page, and the main “pride then fall” component of classical tragedy, but he doesn’t have a lot of stage time, or a lot of lines.  Caesar is perhaps more central to the play as an idea than he is as an actual character.  The “noble” Brutus, on the other hand, is very much the central character of the play, and a tragic figure in his own right.   First, a troubled Brutus is persuaded to conspire against Caesar, then he Et tus his way through the assassination, and he is finally left to deal with the aftermath.  Also in the mix for the spotlight is Mark Antony, who heroically seeks to avenge the death of Julius Caesar, his friend and mentor.  Antony wins many to his cause, and emerges as a great man in his own right.  Sadly for him, he has to split his only Shakespearean marquee with that diva, Cleopatra.

Regardless of which character is the main event, greatness has its consequences for them all.  The same strength and leadership that have led Caesar to so much success on the battlefield have bred ill-will as they gained him political advantage.  As the play opens, Rome seems poised to name Caesar its king; however, the conspirators, led by the manipulative Cassius, are determined not to be ruled by any one man.  These shady characters are willing to do anything to bring Caesar down, even though they are swimming against the tide of public opinion which is in his favor.  Brutus himself, who ultimately joins the conspiracy, is also made the target of envious men.  Brutus is known for his great righteousness; Antony even refers to Brutus at one point as “the noblest Roman of them all.”  It was because of Brutus’s nobility that the conspirators make it such a priority to win him to their side; they’re banking on a sort of innocence by association.  If the virtuous Brutus would kill Caesar, then he must have had a really good reason.

Brutus is convinced that he does have a good reason; the problem is that he’s been heavily manipulated by Cassius.  Caesar knows that Cassius can’t be trusted from the get-go, and warns Antony of it in the second scene of the play.  Caesar says of Cassius that “Such men as he be never at heart’s ease whiles they behold a greater than themselves” (1.2.218-219).  Cassius proves Caesar right later in the same scene as he whines to Brutus about having to bow to Caesar, this regular man who has now “become a god.”  Cassius realizes that, while bright green envy is motive enough for him personally, Brutus will need a different kind of persuasion.   He needs to trick Brutus into thinking that killing Caesar is the right thing to do.  Cassius sets about forging letters to Brutus, meant to seem as though they come from the common people of Rome, basically begging Brutus to liberate them from the tyranny they face under Caesar.  Unbeknownst to him, Cassius manages to convince Brutus that killing Caesar is their duty as free and loyal Romans.    

Michael Emerson as Ben Linus
There is a lot of Cassius in Benjamin Linus from Lost, both in terms of cunning and motivation.  Ben often plays one person or one group against another, in order to get what he wants.  Ben is constantly manipulating others, very much like Cassius does.  As to motivation, there is a powerful scene in the penultimate season of Lost when Ben confronts Jacob asking him after all he did for the island, where was his recognition?  Ben asks angrily, “What about me?”  And Jacob disdainfully replies, “What about you?” hinting at the lack of integrity that Ben and Cassius share. These two have the same problem: they both see men around them being acknowledged as special, and are left feeling unimportant.  For Cassius, he sees Caesar achieving both military and political greatness, and he sees Brutus being recognized for his great honor and virtue.  Caesar’s kind of success has evaded Cassius, and he has ruined any chance at the Brutus’s by choosing to be the conniving and untrustworthy man that he is.  So, Cassius sets out to kill the seemingly immortal Caesar, and to corrupt the virtuous Brutus, leaving neither man, in any sense, above him. Cassius, like Ben Linus, finds that the notoriety that comes with being a standout villain is an empty and unfulfilling parody of real success.

So with Caesar and Brutus as tragic figures, and Cassius as a definitive villain, Julius Caesar seems to look to Mark Antony as a sort of conventional hero.  The conspirators recognize the great potential in Antony, and his profound loyalty to Caesar – in this he seems to have the best of Caesar and Brutus both – but this makes Antony a threat to them, and thus a target.  Only at Brutus’s insistence does Antony live through the Ides of March; Cassius – again seeing his better – would have preferred to kill him along with Caesar.

B.I.G. went on to say of envy that “it’s just negative energy” and Shakespeare shows in Julius Caesar that great men would do well to be wary of this dark force.  Here, envy proves as dangerous in the form of a dishonest word as it does in the form of a blade.  Topping the charts in any category seems a surefire way to put a target on your back, and trust that the haters will take aim with one weapon or another.  But there is bad news for all the Shady McGradys out there: if Cassius and Ben Linus are any indication, misery may indeed love company, but that doesn’t mean it’s going to be any better off when company arrives.

Sorry, Ben.  Kinda is your bad though.

No comments:

Post a Comment