JULIUS CAESAR was one of three principal plays
by different authors, pitched upon by the celebrated
Earl of Hallifax to be brought out in a
splendid manner by subscription, in the year
1707. The other two were the King and No
King of Fletcher, and Dryden's Maiden Queen.
There perhaps might be political reasons for this
selection, as far as regards our author. Otherwise,
Shakespear's JULIUS CAESAR is not equal as
a whole, to either of his other plays taken from
the Roman history. It is inferior in interest to
Coriolanus, and both in interest and power to
Antony and Cleopatra. It however abounds
in admirable and affecting passages, and is remarkable
for the profound knowledge of character,
in which Shakespear could scarcely fail.
If there is any exception to this remark, it is in
the hero of the piece himself. We do not much
admire the representation here given of Julius
Caesar, nor do we think it answers to the portrait
given of him in his Commentaries. He makes
several vapouring and rather pedantic speeches,
and does nothing. Indeed, he has nothing to
do. So far, the fault of the character might be
the fault of the plot.
The spirit with which the poet has entered at
once into the manners of the common people,
and the jealousies and heart-burnings of the different
factions, is strewn in the first scene, when
Flavius and Marullus, tribunes of the people, and
some citizens of Rome, appear upon the stage.
Flavius. Thou art a cobler, art thou?|
Cobler. Truly, Sir, all that I live by,
is the awl: I meddle with no tradesman's matters, nor woman's matters,
but with-al, I am indeed, Sir, a surgeon to old shoes; when
they are in great danger, I recover them.
Flavius. But wherefore art not in thy shop to day?
Why do'st thou lead these men about the streets?
Cobler. Truly, Sir, to wear out their shoes, to get myself
into more work. But indeed, Sir, we make holiday to see
Caesar, and rejoice in his triumph."
To this specimen of quaint low humour immediately
follows that unexpected and animated
burst of indignant eloquence, put into the
mouth of one of the angry tribunes.
Marullus. "Wherefore rejoice!--What
conquest brings he home?|
What tributaries follow him to Rome,
To grace in captive-bonds his chariot-wheels?
Oh you hard hearts, you cruel men of Rome!
Knew you not Pompey? Many a time and oft
Have you climb'd up to walls and battlements,
To towers and windows, yea, to chimney-tops,
Your infants in your arms, and there have sat
The live-long day with patient expectation,
To see great Pompey pass the streets of Rome:
And when you saw his chariot but appear,
Have you not made an universal shout,
That Tyber trembled underneath his banks
To hear the replication of your sounds,
Made in his concave shores?
And do you now put on your best attire?
And do you now cull out an holiday?
And do you now strew flowers in his way
That comes in triumph over Pompey's blood?
Run to your houses, fall upon your knees,
Pray to the Gods to intermit the plague,
That needs must light on this ingratitude."
The well-known dialogue between Brutus and
Cassius, in which the latter breaks the design
of the conspiracy to the former, and partly gains
him over to it, is a noble piece of high-minded
declamation. Cassius's insisting on the pretended
effeminacy ot Caesar's character, and his
description of their swimming across the Tiber
together, "once upon a raw and gusty day,"
are among the finest strokes in it. But perhaps
the whole is not equal to the short scene
which follows when Caesar enters with his
"Brutus. The games are done, and Caesar is returning.|
Cassius. As they pass by, pluck Casca by the sleeve,
And he will, after his sour fashion, tell you
What has proceeded worthy note to day.
Brutus. I will do so; but look you, Cassius--
The angry spot doth glow on Caesar's brow,
And all the rest look like a chidden train.
Calphurnia's cheek is pale; and Cicero
Looks with such ferret and such fiery eyes,
As we have seen him in the Capitol,
Being cross in conference by some senators.
Cassius. Casca will tell us what the matter is.
Caesar. Let me have men about me that are fat,
Sleek-headed men, and such as sleep a-nights:
Yond Cassius has a lean and hungry look,
He thinks too much; such men are dangerous.
Antony. Fear him not, Caesar, he's not dangerous:
He is a noble Roman, and well given.
Caesar. Would he were fatter; but I fear him not:
Yet if my name were liable to fear,
I do not know the man I should avoid
So soon as that spare Cassius. 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 mock'd himself, and scorn'd his spirit,
That could be mov'd to smile at any thing.
Such men as he be never at heart's ease,
Whilst they behold a greater than themselves;
And therefore are they very dangerous,
I rather tell thee what is to be fear'd
Than what I fear; for always I am Caesar.
Come on my right hand, for this ear is deaf,
And tell me truly what thou think'st of him."
We know hardly any passage more expressive
of the genius of Shakespear than this. It is as
if he had been actually present, had known the
different characters and what they thought of
one another, and had taken down what he heard
and saw, their looks, words, and gestures, just
as they happened.
The character of Mark Antony is farther speculated
upon where the conspirators deliberate
whether he shall fall with Caesar. Brutus is
"And for Mark Antony, think not of him:|
For he can do no more than Caesar's arm,
When Caesar's head is off.
Cassius. Yet do I fear him:
For in th' ingrafted love he bears to Caesar--
Brutus. 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 giv'n
To sports, to wildness, and much company.
Trebonius. There is no fear in him; let him not die:
For he will live, and laugh at this hereafter."
They were in the wrong; and Cassius was right.
The honest manliness of Brutus is however
sufficient to find out the unfitness of Cicero to be
included in their enterprise, from his affected
egotism and literary vanity.
"O, name him not: let us not break with him;|
For he will never follow any thing,
That other men begin."
His scepticism as to prodigies and his moralising
on the weather--"This disturbed sky
is not to walk in"--are in the same spirit of
Shakespear has in this play and elsewhere
shewn the same penetration into political character
and the springs of public events as into
those of every-day life. For instance, the
whole design to liberate their country fails
from the generous temper and overweening
confidence of Brutus in the goodness of their
cause and the assistance of others. Thus it
has always been. Those who mean well themselves
think well of others, and fall a prey to
their security. That humanity and sincerity
which dispose men to resist injustice and tyranny
render them unfit to cope with the cunning
and power of those who are opposed to them.
The friends of liberty trust to the professions of
others, because they are themselves sincere, and
endeavour to secure the public good with the
least possible hurt to its enemies, who have no
regard to any thing but their own unprincipled
ends, and stick at nothing to accomplish them.
Cassius was better cut out for a conspirator.
His heart prompted his head. His habitual jealousy
made him fear the worst that might happen,
and his irritability of temper added to his
inveteracy of purpose, and sharpened his patriotism.
The mixed nature of his motives made
him fitter to contend with bad men. The vices
are never so well employed as in combating one
another. Tyranny and servility are to be dealt
with after their own fashion: otherwise, they
will triumph over those who spare them, and
finally pronounce their funeral panegyric, as Antony
did that of Brutus.
"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."
The quarrel between Brutus and Cassius is managed
in a masterly way. The dramatic fluctuation
of passion, the calmness of Brutus, the
heat of Cassius, are admirably described; and
the exclamation of Cassius on hearing of the
death of Portia, which he does not learn till
after their reconciliation, "How 'scap'd I killing
when I crost you so?" gives double force,
to all that has gone before. The scene between
Brutus and Portia, where she endeavours to extort
the secret of the conspiracy from him, is
conceived in the most heroical spirit, and the
burst of tenderness in Brutus--
"You are my true and honourable wife;|
As dear to me as are the ruddy drops
That visit my sad heart"--
is justified by her whole behaviour. Portia's
breathless impatience to learn the event of the
conspiracy, in the dialogue with Lucius, is full
of passion. The interest which Portia takes in
Brutus and that which Calphurnia takes in the
fate of Caesar are discriminated with the nicest
precision. Mark Antony's speech over the dead
body of Caesar has been justly admired for the
mixture of pathos and artifice in it: that of Brutus
certainly is not so good.
The entrance of the conspirators to the house
of Brutus at midnight is rendered very impressive.
In the midst of this scene, we meet with
one of those careless and natural digressions
which occur so frequently and beautifully in
Shakespear. After Cassius has introduced his
friends one by one, Brutus says,
"They are all welcome.|
What watchful cares do interpose themselves
Betwixt your eyes and night?
Cassius. Shall I entreat a word?
Decius. Here lies the east: doth not the day break here?
Cinna. O pardon, Sir, it doth; and yon grey lines,
That fret the clouds, are messengers of day.
Casca. You shall confess, that you are both deceiv'd:
Here, as I point my sword, the sun arises,
Which is a great way growing on the south,
Weighing the youthful season of the year.
Some two months hence, up higher toward the north
He first presents his fire, and the high east
Stands as the Capitol, directly here."
We cannot help thinking this graceful familiarity
better than all the formality in the world.
The truth of history in JULIUS CAESAR is very
ably worked up with dramatic effect. The councils
of generals, the doubtful turns of battles are
represented to the life. The death of Brutus is
worthy of him--it has the dignity of the Roman
senator with the firmness of the Stoic philosopher.
But what is perhaps better than either, is
the little incident of his boy, Lucius, falling asleep
over his instrument, as he is playing to his master
in his tent, the night before the battle. Nature
had played him the same forgetful trick
once before on the night of the conspiracy. The
humanity of Brutus is the same on both occasions.
----"It is no matter:|
Enjoy the honey-heavy dew of slumber.
Thou hast no figures nor no fantasies,
Which busy care draws in the brains of men.
Therefore thou sleep'st so sound."