reason and power in Julius Caesar

Julius Caesar is a play about power. The ultimate source of power is popular will–and not only in an official republic like Rome. Even a monstrous dictator like Stalin cannot physically kill millions of his own people; he must harness many others’ wills.

Thus Julius Caesar begins: “Rome. A Street. Enter Flavius, Marullus, and certain Commoners.” There follows a testy interchange between the Senators and the workers, in a public space, concerning political opinions. The people’s choices are and will remain central to the plot.

Once Caesar is killed, the question becomes whether the people in the streets will follow his killers or his surviving allies. Brutus, one of the conspirators and a stoic philosopher (according to the play), has a specific view of how this should play out. The killing itself was appropriately a private act, undertaken secretly by Senators who, by bathing their hands in Caesar’s blood, become a unit. (The play is interested in how different bodies can become one by pact: Portia says that Brutus, “By all [his] vows of love and that great vow / … did incorporate and make us one.”)

Brutus recognizes that he is accountable to the Roman people, so he appears before them to explain what he has done in private. “Public reasons shall be rendered / of Caesar’s death.”

The giving of rather abstract reasons is Brutus’ preferred mode. He uses the word “reason” seven times in the play, twice in clear contrast to “affections.” When he argues a point of military strategy, he states, “Good reasons must, of force, give place to better.” The force, here, is the power of reason itself. (And the problem, again, is persuading the people. The “better reason” that Brutus offers is that “the people ‘twixt Philippi and this ground / Do stand but in a forced affection.”) Although Brutus deeply loves his idealized spouse Portia, when she dies, he takes no time for grief or lamentation. He thinks there is no good reason for such behavior. For Brutus, “reason” means highly cerebral, deliberative, and impersonal thought leading to right action.

Brutus is so confident of the people’s reason that he allows Caesar’s favorite, Mark Antony, to appear immediately after himself and with the body of the assassinated ruler. Mark Antony has a completely different view of how to persuade. He speaks with irony, misdirection, insinuation, and a barrage of rhetorical questions. He offers bribes in the form of Caesar’s (alleged) legacies to the Roman people. Most powerfully, he enacts a public, physical demonstration, in which the people may directly participate.

    Then make a ring about the corpse of Caesar,

    And let me show you him that made the will.

    Shall I descend? and will you give me leave?

He fingers the blood-soaked robe and possibly lets them who “press” near touch it too:

    Look, in this place ran Cassius’ dagger through:

    See what a rent the envious Casca made:

    Through this the well-beloved Brutus stabb’d …

And then Mark Antony invites his countrymen to weep, a physical response that echoes Caesar’s shedding of blood. By this time, they are ready to tear conspirators “to pieces” in the street. When one says, “Methinks there is much reason in [Mark Antony’s] sayings,” the use of the word “reason” is heavy with dramatic irony.

Mark Antony knows that his manipulation of the people is “mischief.” There is really no dispute in the play that Brutus’ way is morally better. At the very end, with Brutus dead, Mark Antony praises him as “the noblest Roman of them all.” What makes Brutus great is his “general honest thought” and concern for the “common good to all.”

The question Shakespeare raises is whether those who openly and candidly promote the common good can possibly prevail in public affairs. I suspect his answer is No. In real life, Caesar led the “populares” (populists) in the Senate, and Brutus belonged to the “optimates” (elitists). The populares appealed to the lower classes with grain subsidies and by limiting slavery, which undercut freemen’s wages. In the play, the populares are wicked (after power rather than the public good), and the optimates are doomed men of virtue. That would make the play deeply conservative.

Shakespeare does not seem to consider a democratic interpretation: the people act badly in the play because they have no part in the crucial decision to kill Caesar but are merely asked to render judgment after the fact. Brutus is not simply virtuous but also cold and peremptory, reserving decisions to himself and expecting others to follow his “reasons.” Brutus and Mark Antony are not the only two possible models of a politician in a republic: we can hope for empathy and modesty along with virtue. To describe that third course would have made Julius Caesar a worse tragedy, and less accurate as history, but it would have opened democratic possibilities.

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