Caesar at the Bastille

Jan Kott, translated by Jadwiga Kosicka


Julius Caesar is certainly one of the most shocking of all Shakespeare’s tragedies. Caesar is murdered at the height of his triumphs. A moment before his death, before the last words of his final speech, he compares himself to the northern star “of whose true-fix’d and resting quality / There is no fellow in the firmament” (III.i.61–62), and now he is lying bleeding on the steps of the Capitol pierced by the daggers of the Roman senators. Shakespeare saw with the utmost clarity that Caesar’s death is a twofold exemplum, of both history and tragedy, and that it would be played all over again on the steps of many capitols and on the stages of many theaters”…be acted over / In [states] unborn and accents yet unknown!” (III.i.112–113).

For Brecht the last deadly blow given Caesar by Brutus might well be one of those gestures in which history for a split second is frozen in the way a single frame of a film is held on the screen, so that its sense could become transparent and engraved on our memory. There are two tragic actors in the scene of death on the steps of the Capitol at high noon: Caesar and Brutus. The tragedy is called Julius Caesar, but Caesar dies in the middle of Act III, almost exactly halfway through the drama. In political and rhetorical treatises, beginning in the Middle Ages and continuing through the entire Renaissance until after the English and French revolutions, Brutus is portrayed both as a regicide—for the audacious deed of raising his hand against the Lord’s anointed he is cast, in Dante’s Divine Comedy, to the very bottom of hell next to Judas—and as a tyrannicide, the defender of liberty, the patron saint of revolutionary terror.

If the tragedy had ended in Act III with the murder of Caesar and the funeral ceremonies, Caesar would have been its only protagonist. Had it ended in Act V with Brutus committing suicide by running on his own sword, Brutus would have been the secondary and perhaps even the primary actor, and the tragedy could have been called Brutus. But there are other principal actors. Cassius, the fanatical hater, the bribe giver and taker, knows only too well that the end justifies the means. He alone could have saved the Republic, but what kind of republic would it have been? Then there is Mark Antony, a Renaissance type of politician with many faces, a rhetorician, a tactician, and a pragmatist who sides with the Caesars. And finally the most enigmatic character in the play, the one who always appears at the end, Octavius, Julius’ successor, the new, faceless Caesar.

A historical tragedy depends for its meaning largely on what happens at the beginning and the end. In the first scene we find tribunes vainly trying to persuade the tradesmen celebrating Caesar’s triumph in the streets to go back to work. Not long before the same men had celebrated Pompey’s triumph, and now they celebrate…

This is exclusive content for subscribers only.
Get unlimited access to The New York Review for just $1 an issue!

View Offer

Continue reading this article, and thousands more from our archive, for the low introductory rate of just $1 an issue. Choose a Print, Digital, or All Access subscription.

If you are already a subscriber, please be sure you are logged in to your account.