Caesar: Drama, Legend, History

This is the transcript of a talk that was delivered at the Annual Faculty Convocation at New York University on November 14, 1984. It derives from a longer text.


Julius Caesar
Julius Caesar; drawing by David Levine

The play that bears the title Julius Caesar does not deal with the tragedy of Caesar himself. The person confronted with a tragic dilemma is somebody else, namely Marcus Brutus. Furthermore, for people who have been brought up on classical studies or who have read the Bellum Gallicum, the presentation of Caesar in this drama is not a little disquieting. We do not discover the great man of action. Instead, a man whose language is often pompous, whose behavior is wavering and uncertain. On the morning of the 15th of March, will he or will he not go into the Senate House? Someone says about him, “He is superstitious grown of late.” Emphasis is put on his physical fragility. For example, he says to Antony, “Come on my right hand, for this ear is deaf.” And, much worse, there is what Cassius relates. When Caesar had challenged him to a swimming match in the river Tiber, Caesar was just not good enough: “Help me, Cassius, or I sink!”

Now the three items I mention are not to be found in Plutarch, Shakespeare’s main source; that is to say, he made them up. Therefore, we can use Shakespeare for a certain degree of guidance. Just as when we’re dealing with ancient historians, such as Thucydides or Tacitus, the things that they make up—i.e., speeches or digressions—have a singular value. Not only the inventions that I have mentioned, but the presentation of Caesar, the despot, is illuminating in various respects. For example, by a touch of genius, Shakespeare makes Caesar refer to himself in the third person. “Shall Caesar send a lie?” or “Caesar doth not wrong”; or, again, when Caesar emphasizes his virtues of courage and resolution and generosity (but perhaps in an exaggerated form) he says, “If I could pray to move, prayers would move me: But I am constant as the Northern Star.”

We ask ourselves, is Caesar wishing to give confidence to others? Or to himself? And is he not overplaying his role? For example, when he compares himself to Danger personified, declaring: “Danger knows full well / That Caesar is more dangerous than he. / We are two lions littered in one day, / And I the elder and more terrible.” This outburst takes one back about sixty years to Italy of the 1920s. It is an exhibition of terribilità (to use the Italian term). One is reminded of the famous aphorism of the leader: “Better one day of a lion than a hundred years of a sheep!”

Now, what are we to do with this presentation of Caesar? One could say, “It doesn’t matter, for it is only the art of a dramatist. It doesn’t represent the facts…

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