Caesar as comic antichrist: Shakespeare's Julius Caesar and the Medieval English Stage Tyrant.
The Problem of the "Two Caesars"
In the nineteenth century, Shakespeare's representation of Caesar as a self-important blowhard met with cries of critical dismay. (3) William Hazlitt complains, "We do not much admire the representation given here of Julius Caesar, nor do we think it answers to the portrait of him in his commentaries. He makes several vapouring and rather pedantic speeches, and does nothing." (4) George Bernard Shaw is less restrained: "It is impossible for even the most judicially minded critic to look without a revulsion of indignant contempt at this travestying of a great man as a silly braggart." (5) James Boswell, son of the famous biographer, saw the problem as evidence of Shakespeare's proverbial "small Latin and less Greek." (6) Citing Caesar's own Gallic Wars, Boswell writes, "There cannot be a stronger proof of Shakespeare's deficiency in classical knowledge, than the boastful language he has put in the mouth of the most accomplished man of all antiquity, who was not more admirable for his achievements, than for the dignified simplicity with which he has recorded them." (7) By the twentieth century, the problem of the "two Caesars" was well-established. (8) G. Wilson Knight sums up the dilemma: "We are, indeed, aware of two Caesars: the ailing and petulant old man, and the giant spirit standing colossal over the Roman Empire to be. There is an insubstantial, mirage-like uncertainty about this Caesar. How are we to see him? He is two incompatibles, shifting, interchanging." (9)
In his commentary on Plutarch's "Life of Julius Caesar," C. B. Pelling observes that the Greek biographer seems to admire Caesar. Or at least, his portrait of Caesar is more studiously neutral than that of many other classical authors. (10) Suetonius, for instance, praises Caesar for his "admirable moderation and clemency both in administration and as victor in the civil war" but concludes that "the balance is tilted by his other actions and words, so that he is thought to have abused his power and to have been justly killed." (11) Plutarch, in contrast, ends with the remarkable claim that "nothing cruel or tyrannical sprang from [Caesars rule]." On the contrary, he maintains, "it seemed that the state needed monarchy, and Caesar was Heaven's gift to Rome as the gentlest possible doctor." (12) Throughout Plutarch's account, Caesar comes across as a man of superlative natural gifts, honed by discipline. He is generous, merciful, physically tough, an expert general, and a politician of uncanny shrewdness and foresight.
Shakespeare's Caesar is much less dashing and charismatic; less sympathetic, and less extraordinary. For example, Shakespeare is more disparaging about Caesar's epilepsy than Plutarch is. Plutarch acknowledges the handicap: "concerning the constitution of his body, hee was leane, white, and soft skinned, and often subject to headache, and otherwhile to the falling sicknes." But he frames Caesar's debility as a cause for wonder, rather than reproach: "That hee alwaies continued all labour and hardnesse, more then his body could beare ... filled them all [i.e. all the soldiers under his command] with admiration." Caesar
yeelded not to the disease of his body, to make it a cloke to cherishe him withall, but contrarily, tooke the paines of warre, as a medicine to cure his sicke body fighting alwayes with his disease, trauelling continually, living soberly, and commonly lying abroad in the field. (13)
In Shakespeare's play, in contrast, Caesar's "falling sickness" is presented as an occasion for derision. (14) "He fell down in the market-place, and foamed at mouth, and was speechless" (1.2.251-52). According to Casca's bitter conceit, Caesar's "swoon" was brought on by the "stinking breath" of the "rabblement" (1.2.250, 245,243), cheering for him to become their king. "I durst not laugh," he quips, "for fear of opening my lips and receiving the bad air" (1.2.248-49).
Cassius complains about Caesar's epilepsy as well, and, like Casca, in notes of disdain. He describes him as a man of "feeble temper" (1.2.129), compares him to "a sick girl" (1.2.128), and mocks his plaintive request for a drink as he lay recovering from a seizure in Spain. The request is itself an interpolation; Plutarch says simply that "the falling sicknes ... tooke him the first time, as it is reported, in Corduba, a city of Spaine." (15) Shakespeare also invents a backstory of a swimming match between Cassius and Caesar, a race across the river Tiber on "a raw and gusty day" (1.2.100). Caesar not only loses the contest, but in the end almost drowns; Cassius is obliged to rescue him and carry him bodily ashore. Plutarch, in contrast, describes Caesar as a preternaturally strong swimmer. At one point, fighting in Alexandria near the lighthouse of Pharos, Caesar finds himself surrounded by hostile Egyptians. "But hee leaping into the sea, with great hazard saved himself by swimming. It is said, that then holding diverse bookes in his hand, he did never let them go, but kept them alwayes upon his head above water, and swamme with the other hand, notwithstanding that they shot marvellously at him." (16)
The sharpest contrast between Shakespeare's Caesar and Plutarch's, however, lies in their assessment of his political savvy. Plutarch presents Caesar as a politician of consummate skill, laying the groundwork for his ascent to power years in advance through shrewd alliances with other power brokers such as Pompey and Crassus, as well as through carefully arranged displays of generosity, clemency, and eloquence. To illustrate Caesar's "craftiness," Plutarch recounts his foresight in anticipating his later rivalry with Pompey.
Now Caesar had of long time determined to destroy Pompey, & Pompey him also. For Crassus being killed amongst the Parthians, who onely did see, that one of them two must needes fall.... Till then Pompey had not long feared him, but always before set light by him, thinking it an easie matter for him to put him downe when he would, sith he had brought him to that greatnes he was come unto. But Caesar contrarily, having had that drift in his head from the beginning, like a wrestler that studieth for tricks to overthrow his adversary: he went farre from Rome, to exercise himselfe in the warres of Gaule, where he did trayne his armie, and presently by his valiant deedes did increase his fame and honour. (17)
In Plutarch's account of Caesar's rise to power, Caesar's initial disingenuousness is so effective that only the wisest of his contemporaries, Cato and Cicero, suspect his ultimate aim until it is too late to prevent his success. "Cicero, like a wise shipmaster that feareth the calmnesse of the sea, was the first man that mistrusting his maner of dealing in the commonwealth, found out his craft & malice, which he cunningly cloked under the habit of outward courtesie and familiaritie." (18) Norths terms "craft and malice" are more pejorative than Plutarch's own diction; the original reads "tyranniken ... dianoian" meaning simply, "his intention to become an absolute ruler." (19) Like Cassandra, or Shakespeare's Calpurnia, Cicero and Cato find that their warnings go unheeded. "Cato, that then foresaw and prophecied many times what would followe, was taken but for a vaine man." (20)
Shakespeare, in contrast, omits all the political skulduggery, battlefield gambles, and feats of personal derring-do by which, as Montaigne says, Caesar was able "to become Caesar." (21) Caesar appears straightaway at the height of his power. Given his wilful obliviousness, moreover, it is difficult to understand how he ever could have won it. He comes across more like Plutarch's Pompey than he does like Plutarch's Caesar. Speaking to Antony about Cassius, he shows some vestige of political insight: "Yond Cassius has a lean and hungry look: / He thinks too much: such men are dangerous" (1.2.193-94). Yet his willingness to act upon that sound intuition is limited by an overwhelming drive to assert his own invincibility instead. "But I fear him not" (1.2.197), he insists. "I rather tell thee what is to be feared / Than what I fear: for always I am Caesar" (1.2.210-11). This lack of self-awareness then segues into outright comedy. "Come on my right hand," he asks Antony, "for this ear is deaf, / And tell me truly what thou think'st of him" (1.2.212-13). That Caesar is partially deaf is Shakespeare's own invention; it represents his consistent refusal to heed others' counsel, as well as his own generally sensible misgivings.
For example, later in the play, on the day itself of his assassination, Caesar's wife Calpurnia begs him not to go to the Capitol. There are reports of "horrid sights" (2.2.16), and she herself has had a dream which suggests he might be murdered. Caesar dismisses her concerns. "Caesar shall forth," he maintains (2.2.10). "The things that threatened me / Ne'er looked but on my back: when they shall see / The face of Caesar, they are vanished" (2.2.10-12). Caesar casts himself here as an irresistible force. Yet the conceit also shows the limits of his self-awareness in its suggestion of an attack from behind. As the audience is aware, that very day he will be literally stabbed in the back. "Alas, my lord," Calpurnia laments, "Your wisdom is consumed in confidence" (2.2.48-49). Caesar finally starts to give in to Calpurnia's pleas when he is interrupted by one of the conspirators, Decius Brutus. He then proves surprisingly susceptible to flattery, as well as fear of being mocked for staying home: Decius Brutus is able to convince him, despite his wife's objections, to come with him to the Capitol. The basic premise throughout, that Caesar is the gull, the dupe, the victim of manipulation rather than its master, runs very much counter to the spirit of Plutarch's biography. Nevertheless, Shakespeare's characterization is consistent: Caesar can see, but only in one direction; he can hear, but only out of one ear. He has a blind spot, and it is what Knight aptly identifies as a boundless "egotism," an "almost superstitious respect for his own star." He sees himself as at once both man and god: "almost divinity." "Hence his rapid changes, his admixture of fine phrases resonant of imperial glory with trivialities, platitudes, absurdities." (22)
Seneca's Hercules and "the Elizabethan Stage-Caesar"
In an attempt to solve the problem of the "two Caesars," Harry Morgan Ayres suggests that Caesar suffered toward the end of his life from what we would now call mania: "a touch of that obfuscation of the judgment which sometimes attacks the wielders of unlimited power, leading to extravagance in language and to schemes, not wholly impossible in themselves, which come to naught." Ayres compares this condition to the ancient Greek concept of ate: "the infatuation, the judicial blindness laid by the gods on those whose destruction they are meditating." (23) Ayres does not assume, however, that Shakespeare had any degree of familiarity with ancient Greek literature. Instead, he suggests a more immediate precedent: Shakespeare was bound by convention to appease "the preconceptions of his audience," a mental construct that he calls the "Elizabethan Stage-Caesar." (24) "If we could discover ... they conceived him a man that thunders, lightens, and roars," then it is easy enough to understand Shakespeare's departure from Plutarch. "Shakespeare must of necessity endow him with a little strut, a touch of grandiosity, if his audience is to believe that Caesar stands before them." (25) For Ayres, the most likely source of this "pomposity of manner and of language" is Seneca's Hercules. (26) He examines several roughly contemporary plays about Julius Caesar, including the Latin Julius Caesar (1544) of Marc-Antoine Muret, the French Cesar (1558) of Jacques Grevin, and the English Julius Caesar (1604) of Sir William Alexander, and finds that they all draw extensively on Senecas tragedy, Hercules Furens, as well as the pseudo-Senecan Hercules Oetaeus. Shakespeare himself could have read Senecas tragedies as well, in an influential collection of English translations, Seneca his tenne tragedies (1581).
Ayres's analysis of Seneca's Hercules, however, is oddly tone-deaf. To describe the protagonist of Hercules Furens or Hercules Oetaeus as a comic figure is a jarring misreading. In keeping with classical notions of decorum, Seneca's creative work observes a strict separation of the comic and the tragic. In his prose satire, the Apocolyntosis Claudii or "Pumpkinification of Claudius," Hercules does make an appearance as a blustering simpleton, unsure what to make of the Emperor's wandering spirit. In Seneca's tragedies, however, Hercules is a sublime, exemplary Stoic hero. Having completed all his labors, including very literally bearing the world on his shoulders as well as bringing Cerberus back from the Underworld, he now faces a different task: to overcome himself. As Seneca writes elsewhere, in his letters to Lucilius, imperare sibi maximum imperium est ("To rule oneself is the greatest empire"). (27) In Hercules Furens, Juno afflicts Hercules with madness, leading him first to attempt to conquer heaven itself, like the Titans, then to kill his own wife and children, thinking them instead related to his enemy, Lycus. Once he returns to his senses, he is tempted to lose hope and kill himself, but instead chooses to remain alive, stronger than his own suffering. In Hercules Oetaeus, he endures the excruciating pain caused by the fatal Shirt of Nessus, then burns himself alive on Mt. Oeta. Throughout the entire process of self-immolation, the playwright emphasizes Hercules's indomitable and admirable Stoic composure. As in Hercules Furens, he is cast as an exemplar of dignity in misfortune, revealing the potential strength of the human spirit, even in the worst of circumstances.
To find comedy in such material seems misplaced. To be fair to Ayres, however, his interpretation of Seneca's Hercules does reflect a former critical consensus. According to some early twentieth-century critics, Juno represents an impulse within Hercules himself, a tendency toward proud overreaching. (28) More recently, however, other critics have objected that Hercules shows no sign of inappropriate ambition or troubling impiety, outside a sharply circumscribed episode of insanity. The beginning and end of that psychotic break with reality is clearly defined: it begins with a hallucination of an eclipse and ends with his falling down unconscious. For these critics, the tragedy is not a tale of justice designed to show the consequences of sacrilegious pride but instead a study in a more Stoic vein, meant to show Hercules's heroic resistance to overwhelming feelings of grief, guilt, and despair. (29)
A comparison between this vision of Seneca's Hercules and Shakespeare's Caesar is still illuminating, but not for the reasons that Ayres proposes. (30) Hercules has no choice but to go mad; he is at the mercy of Juno's anger. He is a pawn, a means for her to exact revenge on her wayward husband, Jupiter. Shakespeare's Caesar, however, seems able to rein in his delusions of grandeur when the mood strikes him. He may be deaf, but only in one ear. The "baffling" vacillation that Knight identifies in Caesar's language, oscillating between "two Caesars," one "a frail man," the other "almost divinity," is significant because it shows that Caesar, for all his occasional, outrageous grandiosity, is also capable of lucid moments grounded in awareness of his own human weakness. (31) He could come down from the heights of his inflated self-image; he simply does not want to. As a result, he seems more blameworthy, more laughable, than Seneca's Hercules. His mistakes are willful and human rather than the result of intractable divine opposition.
Ayres also seems to have been misled by the allusion to Seneca's Hercules in A Midsummer Night's Dream, a passage which he cites as an interpretive touchstone. (32) When Peter Quince casts Bottom as the lover, Pyramus, the endearing ham actor is sorely disappointed. "My chief humour is for a tyrant," he explains. "I could play Ercles rarely, or a part to tear a cat in, to make all split." He then declaims a few lines:
The raging rocks, And shivering shocks, Shall break the locks Of prison-gates; And Phibbus' car Shall shine from far And make and mar The foolish Fates. (33)
This spoof conflates two passages from John Studley's translation of Hercules Oetaeus, (34) "Phibbus' car" appears in the opening two lines, Sator deorum, cuius excussum manu / utraeque Phoebi sentient fulmen domus ("Sire of the gods, whose hand launches the thunderbolts felt by both homes of Phoebus..."), which Studley translates, "O LORDE of Ghostes whose fyrye flashe (that forth thy hand doth shake) / Doth cause the trembling Lodges twain of Phoebus Carre to quake..." (35) "Raging rocks" that "break the locks" appear in Deianiras nurse's boast about the scope of her magic powers, habuere motum saxa, discussi fores / umbrasque Ditis ("rocks have started to move; I have shattered the doors and darkness of Dis"), which Studley renders as "the roring rocks have quaking sturd, & none thereat hath pusht. / Hell gloummy gates I have brast oape." (36) Essentially, Shakespeare combines the first two lines of the play (as if to signal his source) with another two lines from further in, chosen to reflect the speaker, Bottom, and the situation. Like Deianiras nurse, Bottom is a lower-class character claiming unusual power. He is attempting to help Peter Quince with his casting decision and, as with Deianira and her nurse, his solicitous attention does more harm than good.
Bottom himself, however, is very satisfied with this piece of doggerel. "This was lofty"! he concludes. "This is Ercles' vein, a tyrant's vein." (37) Bottom's admiration for "Ercles" seems to have led Ayres to imagine that Shakespeare saw Seneca's Hercules as akin to Bottom himself. But the butt of the joke is more the translation, as well as outmoded methods of acting, than it is Hercules. Bottom mangles his source material, much as he does the two Greek names he attempts: "Ercles" for Hercules, "Phibbus" for Phoebus. It is also worth noting that Bottom himself does not intend to be amusing. From his perspective, the material is "lofty." The problem is not Hercules, but rather Bottom's own inadequacy and grandiosity. A similar kind of mismatch occurs in another early comedy, Love's Labour's Lost, and here also in a play-within-a-play, the pageant of the Nine Worthies. Like Bottom, the character playing Hercules is woefully ill-suited for the role, albeit physically rather than intellectually: the slightly-built page, Moth, falls far short of Herculean stature. "Great Hercules is presented by this imp," explains Holofernes. "Quoniam he seemeth in minority, / Ergo I come with this apology," (38) The introduction of Hercules here suggests Shakespeare may indeed have seen some sort of connection between Hercules and Caesar: the original set of the Nine Worthies, established by tradition on the Continent in the Middle Ages, included not Hercules, but rather Julius Caesar. (39)
The analogy to be drawn, however, is not between Caesar and Hercules himself but between Shakespeare's Caesar and Shakespeare's comic actors, Moth and Bottom. Like them, he has set himself a role which exceeds his true capacity. In Hercules Furens, Hercules describes his accomplishments in terms which could seem like bravado. He recounts his legendary Twelve Labors and maintains that he can defeat any remaining monster Juno might send against him. In context, however, these statements are not idle boasts. Juno agrees with his self-assessment: the only recourse that remains, as she sees it, is to set Hercules against himself. Some critics, such as Denis Henry and Elisabeth Walker, see Hercules's assertions as arrogant, even laughable. Others, however, such as Anna Lydia Motto and John R. Clark, see this criticism as oddly blind to the assumptions of Seneca's imaginary world. Hercules is not to be measured by the standards of an ordinary human being. He is the half-divine son of Zeus, capable of slaying monsters, returning alive from the Underworld, and standing in for the Titan Atlas. His life ends with an apotheosis, joining the gods among the stars. Within this mythological context, his claims about his own capabilities are not absurd or overblown; they are simply matter-of-fact. Shakespeare's Julius Caesar is a very different case. He has no superhuman powers, although he sometimes seems to imagine that he does. He is not the son of a god. When he compares himself to "the northern star" (3.1.60) or to "Olympus" (3.1.74), his implicit claim to something like Godhead is unfounded, at odds with his own merely human nature.
Shakespeare's Julius Caesar and the Caesar of the Gospels
To think of Shakespeare's Roman play as shaped by the influence of Christianity may seem counterintuitive. The play does not include any explicit reference to Christianity. It makes sense, however, as Steve Sohmer suggests, that an Elizabethan Englishman, steeped in the stories of the Gospels, required to attend church regularly, and old enough to remember the great spectacle of his youth, the Coventry Corpus Christi plays, would have seen ready analogies to Christ's Passion in Plutarch's account of Caesar's assassination. "In North's Plutarch," Sohmer imagines, "Shakespeare and lettered Elizabethans would have encountered a series of uncanny parallels between the lives of Julius Caesar and Jesus Christ." (40) Helen Cooper argues that "audiences of the cycle plays" were "trained to recognize such theatrical analogy": within a given cycle, "every individual pageant is a subplot in the greater drama of salvation ... related to it, not just as a chronological step in the sequence, but by typology, by likeness within difference." (41)
Seen in light of this analogical habit of mind, the story of Caesar's rise and fall lends itself by nature to an intertextual typology of Christ and Antichrist. Caesar's crossing the Rubicon is like Jesus's entry into Jerusalem on Palm Sunday. Caesar arrives at the head of an army, however, whereas Jesus arrives in deliberate self-abasement, riding on a donkey's colt. Caesar is betrayed by a close friend, Brutus, perhaps even his own son; Jesus is betrayed by a chosen disciple, Judas. Caesar is a military commander and a populist, the beloved political leader of the most powerful nation in the world. Jesus, in contrast, is the anti-Caesar. His nation is conquered and weak; he himself spurns violence, and as a result he is rejected by his own people. Caesar is pierced by knives; Christ is pierced by nails and a spear. Both of their deaths are attended by prodigies and omens.
Each story can be seen as the polar opposite of the other, at once similar and diametrically opposed. Moreover, the Gospels themselves suggest such a reading: Caesar is mentioned repeatedly, and always as a foil for true divinity. "Giue therefore to Caesar," Jesus explains, "the things which are Caesar's, and giue vnto God, those which are God's" (Matt. 22:21; cf. Mark 12:17 and Luke 20:25). This contrast is invoked again when the Jews insist that Jesus is a rival to Caesar, an accusation which finally forces Pilate's hand. "Pilate sought to loose him, but the Jewes cryed, saying, If thou deliuer him, thou art not Caesar's friend: for whosoeuer maketh himself a King, speaketh against Caesar" (John 19:12; cf. John 19:15 and Luke 23:2). Less obviously a reference to Caesar, but in the same vein, is Christ's rejection of Satan's offer of worldly political power during his temptation in the wilderness. "All this power wil I giue thee, and the glorie of those kingdomes," the devil promises; "if thou ... wilt worship me, they shal be all thine" (Luke 4:6-7). "Hence from me, Satan," Christ replies, "for it is written, Thou shalt worship the Lord thy God, and him alone thou shalt serue" (Luke 4:8).
In support of his suggestion that Shakespeare's Julius Caesar is a kind of Passion play, Sohmer points out that Shakespeare incorporates a number of slight but revealing departures from Plutarch, serving to bring his version of events more closely in line with the Gospel account of the events of Easter week. (42) For instance, in Shakespeare's play, but not in Plutarch's "Life," Caesar is assassinated at "about the ninth hour" (2.4.23). In all three Synoptic Gospels, Christ finally dies on the Cross at "the ninth houre" (Luke 23:44-45; Matt. 27:26; Mark 15:34). In Antony's funeral oration, Naseeb Shaheen identifies an allusion to the events of Palm Sunday. (43) Protesting with false modesty, Antony proclaims that if he only had Brutus's rhetorical skill, he would "put a tongue / In every wound of Caesar that should move / The stones of Rome to rise and mutiny" (3.2.221-23). In the Gospel of Luke, when Jesus enters Jerusalem, "the whole multitude of disciples began to rejoyce, & to praise God with a loude voice" (19:37). The Pharisees ask Jesus to rebuke the disciples for welcoming him "in the Name of the Lord" (19:38), and he replies, "I tel you, that if these sholde holde their peace, the stones wolde crye" (19:40). Shakespeare also introduces Brutus's curious drive to conceive of the assassination as a "controlled" and "dignified" ritual akin to a Christian liturgy. Instead, David Kaula argues, the conspirators produce "a disastrous imitation of the true redemptive action." (44)
More recently, Hannibal Hamlin has identified a remarkable array of anachronistic allusions to the Bible running throughout Shakespeare's Roman plays, ranging from references to the Book of Revelation in Antony and Cleopatra to suggestions of the Old Testament in Coriolanus. (45) In light of this ongoing contrast between pagan Rome and Christian revelation, Hamlin sees the trajectory of Shakespeare's Brutus, as well as his Caesar, as representing failed, proleptic attempts at a purely political salvation, foreshadowing but not fulfilling Jesus's later role. (46) As he is about to die, Brutus tells Volumnius, "I know my hour is come" (5.5.19). The formulation recalls the Gospels, when Jesus foresees that his Passion is imminent. "Jesus knewe that his houre was come" (John 13:1). "Beholde, the houre is at hand," he says (Matt. 26:45). (47) Brutus wants to see himself as a "sacrificer," a "purger," rather than a "butcher"; Hamlin sees this language as recalling Hebrews 9-10.
Brutus and Cassius hope that the blood ritual they enact (or wish to think they are enacting) will be repeated by Romans in years to come, in commemoration of the original act, suggesting the sacrifice of Christ regularly commemorated when participants in the Eucharist consume the 'saving blood' of Christ. (48)
When they wash their hands in Caesar's blood and imagine themselves represented on stage to future generations, Brutus and the other conspirators try and fail to set up what amounts to a secular alternative to Christianity.
Another episode from Julius Caesar that both resembles and adumbrates the conspirators' odd preoccupation with Caesar's blood is Calpurnia's dream. (49) As part of the plot, a neglected warning, it resembles the dream of Pilate's wife. The original episode appears in only one line in one Gospel, the Book of Matthew: "when he was set downe upon the judgment seat, his wife sent to him, saying, Haue thou nothing to do with that juste man: for I haue suffered many things this day in a dreame by reason of him" (27:19). Pilate's wife appears in a much-expanded role, however, in the York mystery plays. In the Tapisters' and Couchers' play, the Devil hopes to forestall Christ's crucifixion lest he lose control of men's souls, so he tells Pilate's wife in the guise of a dream that Jesus is innocent and that if he is condemned to die, she and Pilate will lose their wealth and station. She sends a message to Pilate, advising him that Jesus is innocent, but Ananias and Caiaphas convince him to ignore it as "wicchecraffe." (50) Their flatteries, bowing and scraping before Pilate, seem to anticipate Shakespeare's Decius Brutus.
Plutarch for his part presents two different versions of Calpurnia's dream, both relatively simple. "Shee dreamed that Caesar was slaine, and that shee had him in her armes." Or perhaps, he goes on, "as amongst other, Titus Livius writeth ... it was in this sort. The Senate having set upon the top of Caesars house, for an ornament and setting forth of the same, a certaine pinnacle: Calpurnia dreamed that shee sawe it broken downe, and that shee thought shee lamented and wept for it." (51) Shakespeare introduces much more detail. Caesar explains to Decius Brutus:
She dreamt tonight she saw my statue, Which, like a fountain with an hundred spouts, Did run pure blood; and many lusty Romans Came smiling and did bathe their hands in it. (2.2.76-79)
Calpurnia herself interprets this dream as a "warning" and "portent" of "evils imminent" (2.2.80-81). Decius Brutus, however, proposes a much more favourable spin.
Your statue spouting blood in many pipes In which so many smiling Romans bathed Signifies that from you great Rome shall suck Reviving blood, and that great men shall press For tinctures, stains, relics and cognizance. (2.2.85-89)
Kaula stresses the anachronism of the key word "relics" and introduces as a possible historical precedent "something members of Shakespeare's audience could have witnessed in their own city: the avid quest for relics by the followers of Catholic missionary priests executed at Tyburn." (52) A. O. Meyer explains,
Great as was the care taken to prevent the people showing reverence to the relics of the martyrs, or dipping cloths in their blood, all was in vain. Relics were secured after every execution, and sometimes it was the executioner himself who sold to Catholics the martyrs' bloodstained garments. (53)
Later in the play, Antony tells the gathered crowd that if they heard Caesar's final "testament," "they would go and kiss dead Caesar's wounds, / And dip their napkins in his sacred blood, / Yea, beg a hair of him for memory" (3.2.131, 133-35).
Crucial here is the fact that Decius Brutus's flattering interpretation of Calpurnia's dream is dangerously false. Nor is Antony merely venting his grief. He uses the sight of Caesar's wounds to provoke mob violence, aimed at unseating the conspirators themselves. Each time the Romans eerily anticipate Christian ritual, treating Caesar as if he were Christ, the result is not security or "salvation," but instead, violent chaos. Caesar is flattered by Decius Brutus's vision of him as a Christ-like redeemer. Put to the proof, however, he is inadequate in that role. He cannot serve in the end as the linchpin of Rome's long-term well-being; he cannot save it from itself. What could be a Passion play is instead marred by an insufficiency at its centre.
Shakespeare undermines Caesar's vaunting claims to quasi-divine superiority as early as the second scene of the play, in Cassius' recollections of his rival's various physical weaknesses: his "fever" (1.2.119), his "fit" (1.2.120) , and his inability to swim across the Tiber. "And this man / Is now become agod," Cassius complains, disgusted (1.2.115-16). Cassius' sarcasm is targeted not only at public opinion, but also at Caesar's own high opinion of himself. In the Senate, just before the conspirators attack, Caesar acknowledges that "men are flesh and blood," but then maintains that he and he alone is "unshaked of motion" (3.1.67, 70). This is a remarkable claim for the epileptic Caesar to make, even only metaphorically, and it is symptomatic of his more general lack of self-awareness. Cassius insists on exactly the opposite term, "shaked," in his account of Caesar's weaknesses. "He had a fever when he was in Spain, / And when the fit was on him I did mark / How he did shake" (1.2.119-21). He then repeats the word for emphasis. "'Tis true, this god did shake" (1.2.121). Later Cassius vows to take Caesar down a peg, again playing on the key word "shake." "Let Caesar seat him sure, / For we will shake him, or worse days endure" (1.2.320-21). As if then to foreshadow Caesar's fate, the next scene begins with Casca describing the very world itself as less than "sure" in its seat. "Are you not moved," he asks Cicero, "when all the sway of earth / Shakes like a thing unfirm?" (1.3.3-4).
Caesar insists, however, that he is an exception to the norms of human nature. Just as the pole star differs from other stars, so he differs from other men. As the conspirators gather about him in the Senate, pleading for Metellus Cimber's brother Publius, Caesar dismisses their petitions. "I was constant Cimber should be banished / And constant do remain to keep him so" (3.1.72-73). Like the impersonal deities of classical philosophy, he does not by nature ever change or need to change his mind. (54) "I am constant as the northern star," he boasts, "Of whose true-fixed and resting quality, / There is no fellow in the firmament" (3.1.60-62). Using the symbol of "the northern star," Caesar presents himself here as the equivalent of Aristotle's "Unmoved Mover." When Cinna continues, nonetheless, to press for Cimber's pardon, Caesar rebukes him sharply. "Hence! Wilt thou lift up Olympus?" (3.1.74). The disdain communicated is truly "Olympian" in today's sense; other men are beneath his notice. The direct reference to himself as "Olympus" confirms his sense of himself as divine. He can no more be "moved" than a mountain.
For Shakespeare, the most important difference between Caesar's assassination and Christ's Passion is the relationship in each case between divine power and human vulnerability. As it is presented in the Gospels, Christ's death on the Cross is the story of the voluntary suffering of the "one man," "one only man," who is in fact divine. The transcendent, awe-inspiring God of Moses and Job is shown as immanent, human: "flesh and blood." This man, Jesus, seems at first incomprehensibly weak, out of all proportion to his status as divine. He repeatedly calls himself "Son of Man," rather than Son of God. He refuses to take up arms and allows himself to be put to death in the most humiliating fashion that the Romans could devise: crucifixion. In the end, however, this mysterious, non-violent Messiah proves surprisingly powerful, able to conquer death itself. In the Garden of Gethsemane, St. Peter draws a sword, but Jesus tells him to put it away. "Thinkest thou, that I can not now pray to my Father, and he wil giue me more then twelue legions of Angels?" (Matt. 26:53). His death is a conscious choice, a temporary setback, so to speak, that he himself is able to overcome.
The tragedy of Caesar's assassination, as Shakespeare sees it, is a variation on this story: a foil or contrastive counterpoint. Caesar seems all but omnipotent at the beginning, but he is not in fact divine. His grandiosity is punctured, disproved. He seems unassailable, like a juggernaut, but turns out to be merely "flesh and blood," like other men. He styles himself the salvation of Rome, but instead proves the rallying cry for a chaotic civil war. The would-be king of Rome, the man whom Cassius mocks bitterly and enviously for setting himself up as "one man" (1.2.152, 154), "one only man" (1.2.56), bestriding all others like a "Colossus" (1.2.135), ends up as a "bleeding piece of earth" (3.1.254).
Shakespeare's sense of Caesar as a wrongheaded, secular pseudo-Messiah is especially apparent toward the end of Antony's funeral oration, in a sequence which invokes the iconography of the Resurrected Christ in medieval English mystery plays as well as English churches before the ravages of early modern iconoclasm. As Pamela King and Clifford Davidson explain, the conventional depiction of the Resurrected Christ in pre-Reformation England showed him with "a piece of cloth," i.e. a cloak or mantle, "draped over his shoulders (the wound in his side is visible)" and "making visible the wound created by the nails in the palm, sometimes extending his arm." As an example, they draw attention to "the much damaged fifteenth-century Resurrection presented in sculpture on a door frame in the chancel of Holy Trinity Church in Stratford-upon-Avon": "here the remains of three soldiers are present in seated posture before the coffer tomb, and above it the torso of a much mutilated Christ rises." (55)
In his funeral oration, Antony first shows the crowd Caesar's "mantle," torn and bloody: "our Caesar's vesture wounded" (3.2.168,194). Then he shows them Caesar's body itself, "marred" (3.2.195). Antony describes this "corse" at some length in an earlier soliloquy, when he compares Caesar's "wounds," which "stream forth ... blood" to "eyes ... weeping" (3.1.200-201). The crowd is outraged: "O piteous spectacle!" (3.2.196); "O most bloody sight!" (3.2.198). Antony's presentation of Caesar's wounds closely resembles, in other words, the story of Christ's Resurrection, but undermined and ironized. It even includes its own secularized version of the ransom theory of the Atonement: Antony goes on to explain that Caesar in his will has left "to every Roman citizen ... / To every several man, seventy-five drachmas" (3.2.234-35), as well as "all his walks, / His private arbours and new-planted orchards, / On this side Tiber" (3.2.238-40).
The success of Antony's speech turns upon the same coup de theatre which seems to have been at the center of the Resurrection play in England. As Pamela Sheingorn suggests, the audience "first ... may have seen a Christus triumphans and heard his victory sung by angels; then, perhaps with a simple motion of pulling aside his cloak and opening out his hands, ... [he] became the Christus patiens who suffered and continues to suffer for mankind." (56) Jesus's entrance in the Towneley play of the Resurrection is an apt example: he appears onstage to the sound of angels singing "Christus resurgens," then draws attention to his wounds. "Behold how dere I wold the by!" he tells the audience. (57) "My woundys ar weytt and all blody" (26.237); "From harte and syde the blood out-ran" (26.244).
Behold my body, in ilka place How it was dight-- All to-rent And all to-shentt, Man, for thi plight. (26.250-54)
Compare Antony describing Caesars mantle: "Look, in this place ran Cassius' dagger through: / See what a rent the envious Caska made, [etc.]" (3.2.172-73). The Towneley Jesus continues: "Thise depe woundys," he insists, "Tholyd I the fore" (26.260-61). "Behald my shankes and my knees, / Myn armes and my thees, / Behold me well, looke what thou sees" (26.269-71). The speech goes on at great length, with unmistakeable emphasis: "Four hundredth woundys and v thowsand," Jesus explains, "Here may thou se" (26.292-93).
Jesus's unabashed willingness to show and acknowledge his wounds is in marked contrast to Shakespeare's Coriolanus, in that play. In Julius Caesar, however, the irony is of a different kind. Caesar is dead, not alive as Christ is. The appearance of his wounded body is not reassuring, a sign of hope, but instead a provocation to riot and the flashpoint for a civil war. "Revenge!" the plebeians cry: "About! Seek! Burn! Fire! Kill! Slay!" (3.2.198). "Sweet Caesar's wounds," as Antony calls them, "move / The stones of Rome to rise and mutiny" (3.2.218, 222-23). That is to say, the "piteous spectacle" of Caesar's "corse" provokes, in the end, the very same kind of worldly rebellion against Roman power that the Jews in the Gospels expect from the Messiah, and that he pointedly abjures.
Shakespeare and the Medieval English Stage Tyrant
Shakespeare's Julius Caesar maps the story of Caesar's assassination onto the familiar framework of Christ's Passion in order to emphasize telling points of incongruity. Caesar serves as what Kaula calls a "distorted replica" or "imperfect imitation" of the Jesus of the Gospels; he is a failed Messiah. (58) What the influence of Christian Scripture does not explain, however, is the comic aspect of Shakespeare's depiction of Caesar. Caesar in the New Testament is foreboding, distant, and frightening, not a figure of fun. The obtuse bullheadedness of Shakespeare's Roman emperor, undermining his pretension to the kind of remote grandeur he possesses in the Gospels, is not drawn from the Bible itself, at least not directly. Instead, Shakespeare's tone can be better understood as a legacy of the distinctive influence of medieval English Biblical drama. In his discussion of "comic relief" in Shakespeare, A. P. Rossiter observes that Shakespeare writes in the same spirit as the anonymous authors of the earlier "Miracle Plays," "juxtaposing the religious and the farcical, the moving-pathetic and the brutal-comic." (59) Mulling over Shakespeare's distinctive style, Erich Auerbach concludes, "the mixture of the sublime with the low cannot in the last analysis come from any other source than the medieval Christian theater." (60)
In keeping with these critics' intuition, the most likely source for the distinctive strain of foolhardy, comic braggadocio in Shakespeare's characterization of Julius Caesar, the element that Ayres associates with "the Elizabethan Stage-Caesar" and that so distressed nineteenth-century figures such as Hazlitt and Shaw, is neither Seneca's Hercules, nor the Caesar of the Gospels, but instead, the stage tyrants of medieval cycle plays, including figures such as Herod, Lucifer, and Antichrist, as well as Augustus Caesar. (61) Heather Mitchell-Buck singles out this archetype, the "ranting tyrant," as "the superstar of the early English stage": "Characters like Herod, Pilate, and Caesar were dressed in the most lavish costumes, assigned the longest and most elaborate speeches, and often supplied the actors who brought them to life with a substantial wage." (62) These antagonists introduce an element of comedy that Shakespeare appropriates, much against the grain of his classical sources.
Shakespeare's Julius Caesar was most likely written and produced in 1599. (63) Performances of mystery plays, especially Passion plays, continued well into the 1570s, despite Puritan opposition. At least some members, therefore, of the original audience for Shakespeare's tragedy, those in their twenties and older, would have been familiar with the conventions of this form of traditional theatre. Shakespeare himself could have easily attended the Coventry cycle, which was staged annually until 1579, when he was in his mid-teens. Coventry is less than a day's walk from Stratford-upon-Avon, and its Corpus Christi plays were famous nationwide as an especially spectacular instance of the genre. (64) John Cox notes that the Coventry Herod comes across as "the liveliest and most memorable" of the various Herods that appear in extant cycle plays, and cites as an example a stage direction prompting the tyrant to rage "in the pagond and in the strete also." (65) In Shakespeare's Antony and Cleopatra, the cycle-play Herod proves a precedent for Shakespeare's own histrionic Eastern tyrant, Cleopatra. "That Herod's head / I'll have!" she exclaims. (66) Vowing to treat Herod as he himself did St. John the Baptist, Cleopatra threatens very literally to, as Hamlet says, "out-Herod Herod." (67)
Taken together with his tendency to boast and bluster, Caesar's failed pretensions to Godhead connect him to the depiction of his successor, Augustus Caesar, as a comic tyrant in medieval English Corpus Christi plays, alongside other overweening, over-the-top antagonists such as Pharaoh and Lucifer. Other examples include the Towneley Pilate and the figure of Antichrist himself. In his study of the genre, John Parker identifies a typology of Antichrist, as well as Christ: worldly potentates such as Herod, "one of Antichrist's finer incarnations," present a "parodic and false approximation" of a saviour who is still to come. "Impotent and false in themselves," their limitations presage "the deferred arrival of yet another, more effective Messiah." (68) This future figure is Christ at the time of his Second Coming, when he will be revealed beyond all doubt as the heir of God the Father and sweep aside any and all would-be competitors. Until then, however, deluded claimants to divine power such as Lucifer and Antichrist enjoy some degree of liberty. They strut and posture for a time on the stage, as a comic prelude to their inevitable, long-foreseen defeat.
Shakespeare's Julius Caesar is a braggart in this vein: a Christian variation on the alazon or miles gloriosus. From the perspective of Elizabethan England, he and his successor, Augustus, are among the few men in human history who came close to possessing power like that of God the Father: autocratic rule of ancient Rome at the height of its Empire. Nevertheless, they fall short of full divinity. Unfortunately, all but two of the original Coventry Corpus Christi plays have been lost. "Caesar" does appear prominently, however, in two other pageants, the Towneley plays and the Chester Whitsun cycle, and his character there serves as an apt example of a medieval English stage tyrant, illustrating variations as well as continuities within such characters' roles.
The Towneley "Caesar Augustus" vs. the Chester "Octavian"
In the Towneley plays, "Caesar Augustus" is a vain, foolish braggart throughout. He revels in the thought of the unprecedented scope of his political dominion and scoffs at the idea of any possible rival. When his minions cannot find the prophesied Christ-child, he grows frustrated, then frantic, to comic effect. In the Chester cycle, "Octavian the Emperor" begins with stock boasts about his unassailable worldly might. When he learns about Jesus, however, he becomes more thoughtful and subdued. Some of the Roman senators try to proclaim him a god, but he resists their flattery and instead reminds them of his own mortality, weakness, and ignorance.
Medieval mystery plays typically begin with God the Father giving a grand speech explaining his own omnipotence. At the opening of the Chester cycle, God announces, "Ego sum alpha et oo." He then grounds this preeminence in the absolute efficacy and unchanging nature of his will: "It is my will it shoulde be soe; / hit is, yt was, it shalbe thus." (69) The beginning of the first of the Towneley plays is very similar. "Ego sum alpha et o," God proclaims. "I am the first, the last also, / Oone God in mageste" (1.1-3). The Towneley God then goes on to emphasize that he alone is divine, pre-emptively undermining any subsequent claimants. "I am god alone," "oone God in mageste," "on God in Trinyte," "oone God in persons thre, / Which may neuer twynnyd be" (1.12, 3, 6, 10-11).
Types of Antichrist such as Lucifer and Herod make similar claims throughout both sets of plays. The Chester Lucifer boasts, "I ame pearlesse" (1.184). The Chester Herod: "I am the greatest above degree / That is, or was, or ever shalbe" (8.181-82). The Chester Antichrist: "I am verey God of might. / All thinges I made through my might" (23.221-22). The Towneley Lucifer asks, "In heuen, therfor, wit I wold, / Above me who shuld won? / For I am lord of blis, / Ouer all this warld" (1.92-95). The Towneley Pharoah proclaims his worldly sovereignty, and, like Lucifer, complains he is not treated with the degree of respect he believes is his due:
All Egypt is myne awne, To leede aftyr my law; I wold my myght were knowne And honoryd, as hyt awe. (8.9-12)
The Towneley Pilate introduces himself as "leyf leder of lawes," and insists, like Lucifer as well as Pharaoh, that he deserves his pride of place: "was neuer kyng with crowne / More wor[thy]" (20.11, 21-22).
Shakespeare's Julius Caesar fits this pattern, alongside the Towneley Augustus and the Chester Octavian. The Towneley Caesar protests himself different in kind from all other men: "Sych an othere ... / In all thys warld is none" (9.35-36). He claims absolute authority: "I am lord and syr ouer all; / All bowys to me, both grete and small, / As lord of euery land" (9.19-21). And, like God himself, he insists on the omnipotence of his will: "I am he that mighty is, / And hardely all hathenness / Is redy at my wyll" (9.25-27). Such rhetoric echoes the Towneley God: "Withoutten me ther may be noght, / For all is in my sight. / Hit shall be done after my will" (1.14-16).
The Chester God warns against pretenders, emphasizing from the outset that he is unique: "Never shalbe twyninge" (1.10). "Was never none so like me," he explains, "soe full of grace, / nor never shall as my figure" (1.120-21).Thus, when the Chester Caesar advances similar claims, the audience is primed to be suspicious. God describes himself as "Prince principall" (1.22); Octavian deems himself "preeved prince most of powere" (6.185). "Under heaven highest am I here" (6.186). Like these figures from medieval drama, Shakespeare's Julius Caesar insists he is unique: "but one in all" (3.1.65). Like "the northern star," he maintains, he has "no fellow in the firmament" (3.1.60, 62). He compares himself to "Olympus" (3.1.74) and boasts about his "unassailable" might (3.1.69).
In his fateful visit to the Senate on the day of his assassination, Shakespeare's Caesar also invokes another characteristic of medieval English stage tyrants: their role in clearing and quieting a crowd. Meg Twycross cites her experience of modern productions of medieval drama: "a lot has been talked about the folk play 'ritual' of clearing the magic circle for the players: it is also a physical necessity, as anyone who has performed with an unstructured audience will tell you." Twycross speculates that this condition of performance, the audience encroaching on the acting space, led to metatheatrical play upon "practical necessity. If an actor has to push his way through the audience, he can't just pretend they are not there, so one might as well write pushing into the part." (70)
For practical purposes, then, it is perhaps no coincidence that the opening speech of various stage tyrants in the Towneley plays tends to be an exhortation laced with threats, urging the audience to sit, kneel, clear the way, and/or fall silent. Pharaoh begins: "Peas! of payn that no man pas, / hot kepe the course that I commaunde" (8.1-2). Herod begins, "I shall tame thare talkyng" (16.116). "Sesse all this wonder," he commands, "for I ryfe you in sonder" (16.127, 129).
Peasse, both yong and old, At my bydyng, I red, For I haue all in wold: In me standys lyfe and dede. Who that is so bold, I brane hym thrugh the hede. (16.131-36)
The Towneley Caesar's opening lines seem designed in like vein not only to establish his character, but also to clear a space for the play itself.
Be styll, beshers, I commawnd yow, That no man speke a word here now Bot I my self alon; And if ye do, I make avow, Thys brand abowte youre nekys shall bow; Forthy be styll as ston. And looke ye grefe me noght, For if ye do, it shall be boght, I swere you by mahowne! I wote well if ye knew me oght, To slo you all how lytyll I roght, Ston-styll ye wold syt downe. (9.1-12)
So, too, in the York cycle, Moses and Pharaoh begins with the Pharaoh declaring, "O pees, I bidde pat no man passe, / But kepe pe cours pat I comaunde." The Slaughter of the Innocents begins with Herod exclaiming "Stente of youre steuenes stoute / And stille as stone 3e stande, [etc.]." At the beginning of Christ before Pilate, Pilate threatens violence:
Yhe cursed creatures pat cruelly are cryand, Restreyne you for stryuyng for strengh of my strakis; Youre pleyntes in my presence vse plately applyand, Or ellis pis brande in youre braynes sone brestis and brekis. (71)
In his procession through the Capitol, Shakespeare's Julius Caesar recreates this imperious tendency toward physical imposition. He airily dismisses Artemidorus's petition, unaware it is a warning about the conspiracy against him. As he walks across the Senate floor, surrounded by an entourage of pleading Senators, he cuts short their "couchings" and brushes past their "lowly courtesies" (3.1.36). "Thy brother by decree is banished," he tells Metellus Cimber. "If thou dost bend and pray and fawn for him / I spurn thee like a cur out of my way" (3.1.44-46). He is unswerving, directorial, right up until the point he is cut down.
Like the Chester God, the Chester Caesar insists on the unfailing power of his will. "Wholey all this world, iwys, / is readye at my owne will" (6.195-96). Or again, "all the world dose my willinge" (6.230). The Towneley Augustus sees "both ryche and poore, more and les, / At my lykyng for to redres, / Whether I wyll saue or spyll" (9.28-30). The Chester Octavian scoffs at the very idea of opposition. "Through vertue of my degree," he boasts, "All this world, withowten were--/ kinge, prynce, baron, batchlere--/ I may destroy in great dangere" (6.189-92). The bluster recalls Shakespeare's Julius: "Danger knows full well / That Caesar is more dangerous than he" (2.2.44-45). Despite such swaggering speeches, however, both medieval Caesars turn out in the end to be troubled and surprisingly weak. The Towneley Caesar admits early on, "oone thyng doys me full mych care: / I trow my land wyll sone mysfare / For defawte of counsell lele" (9.37-39). When he hears of the coming of Christ, who shall his "force downe fell" (9.72), he is distraught; he sends ruffians to try to find the boy and kill him, but without success. "Out, harrow, full wo is me!" (9.74), he cries, agitated and anxious.
The Chester Octavian proves more complex. Over the course of the play, after he hears about Christ, he undergoes a change of heart, making peace with the limits of his own powers. When senators come to honor him as a God, he refuses, and instead maintains, despite their objections, that he is merely a man. His mortality undercuts any pretence to divinity. "Godhead" has "noe begininge" or "endinge" (6.329-31), he explains, whereas he himself is already growing old: "of my life moste parte is gone, / age shewes him soe in mee" (6.327-28). "I must dye I wotte not what day" (6.319). To help convince the senators, he visits the Sibyl, whom he asks, "shall ever be any earthlye kinge / to passe mee of degree?" (6.347-48). He hears her prophecy of the coming Christ-child with interest, but without any sign of envy, and retires peacefully.
The Towneley Caesar entertains an amusing streak of vanity: "Cesar august I am cald, / A fayrer cors for to behald, / Is not of bloode and bone" (9.31-33). He speaks as though he transcended the very stuff from which he is made simply by virtue of his own supposed good looks. The Chester Caesar, however, insists on the fragility of his own materiality. "Neyther of iron, tree, ne stonne / am I not wrought" (6.325-26), he protests. "For of all flesh, blood, and bonne / made I am, borne of a womane" (6.321-22). Shakespeare's Julius Caesar acknowledges that "men are flesh and blood" (3.1.67), but he sees himself as exempt from the vulnerability of that condition: "one / That unassailable holds on his rank / Unshaked of motion" (3.1.68-70). His "blood," he suggests, is not like that of "ordinary men" (3.1.37). The Chester Octavian would be wiser. "Though I bee highest worldly kinge," he concludes, "of godhead have I noe knowinge. / Hit were unkynde" (6.334-36). "Unkynde": unlike Shakespeare's Caesar, the Chester Caesar recognizes that he is a human being, different in "kind" from the divine. The Towneley Augustus is foolish, but the Chester Octavian is surprisingly self-aware.
Shakespeare's Julius Caesar strongly resembles the Towneley Augustus, as well as other medieval English stage tyrants such as Herod and Pharaoh. Like these figures, he is a failed pretender to Godhead, a wilfully oblivious alazdn. His power at the beginning of the play seems to resemble that of God himself. By the end, however, he turns out to be limited, as we all are, by the most basic givens of the human condition: embodiment, old age, mortality, and especially, ignorance. He is not God, as Christ is; he is less, not more, than he seems to be at first. He is deliberately stripped of his initial glamour over the course of the play because he is designed to serve as a photo-negative of the true Messiah: a comic Antichrist.
Shakespeare's indebtedness to what John Parker calls the typology of Antichrist is not necessarily limited, moreover, to Julius Caesar. The plot-structure of punctured delusion is characteristic of Shakespeare's work as a whole. Cox sees a similar pattern in King Lear, for instance, albeit without the comedy. Although Lears "rhetoric is more temperate" than that of the typical medieval stage tyrant, it is still "terrifying" and "arrogant." Like Shakespeare's Caesar, or the Coventry Herod, he "cannot brook the slightest threat to his authority." And in the end, like these more bombastic, comic figures, Lear is "shorn of his power, his dignity, and his seemingly invulnerable self-reliance." This reversal, Cox argues, "has potent dramaturgical precedent in centuries of popular drama whose central images involved making the high low and the low high." Seen in light of medieval English drama, Caesar's assassination and the humbling of Lear's arrogance can be understood as variations on a common theme.
The defeat of Lucifer, the exile of Cain, the destruction of Pharaoh, the conversion of Octavian, the death of Herod, the tricking of Pilate, the abasement of King Robert, all involve essentially the same movement that we see in Lear, the powerful are reminded by the example of their own humiliation that they are no better than fools. (72)
The critical problem of the "two Caesars" is not, then, an inconsistency to be explained away; still less, a product of ignorance; but instead, a revealing expression of a choice of allegiance. Shakespeare departs from classical sources such as Plutarch's Lives in order to tap into the vernacular tradition of the mystery plays. Like the contrast between Christ and Caesar in the Gospels, or between Christ and a stage tyrant in a Corpus Christi pageant, his characterization of Julius Caesar is designed to foreground the contrast between divine power and human vulnerability. This gulf between God and man is reconciled and overcome in the person of Christ; for all others, however, human weakness is an insurmountable limit, dangerous to ignore. Differences between the two most developed extant versions of the medieval stage Caesar, the Chester and the Towneley, hinge upon their grasp of this fundamental truth about their own human nature: the fact that human "flesh and blood" falls short of divine omnipotence. Cox describes the medieval dramaturgical tradition as keenly interested in what St. Augustine calls potentia humilitatis: "the power of humility." (73) In their typology of Antichrist, however, medieval mystery plays also present what might be called humiliatio potentatuum: "the humbling of the powerful." This dynamic is what Shakespeare moves to capture in his vision of the fall of Julius Caesar.
The author would like to thank Larry Manley, David Quint, Brian Walsh, and his colleagues at Durham University for feedback on early drafts of this essay, as well as fellow participants in the seminar on Julius Caesar at the 2014 meeting of the Shakespeare Association of America in St. Louis, led by Michael Stapleton and Sarah K. Scott.
(1) For a more nuanced sense of variation within medieval English Biblical drama, see Pamela M. King, "The Early English Passion Play," Yearbook of English Studies 43 (2013): 69-86; citing new evidence from the Records of Early English Drama project, King argues that English mystery plays were not limited to "cycles of short pageants mounted on processional wagons that tell the story of the world from Creation to Doomsday, such as those from York and Chester." Coventry, for example, seems not to have included any episodes from the Old Testament. King argues for a distinctive subgenre, "the early English Passion play," akin to those in France.
(2) See Luke 2:1. References to Scripture are taken from the 1599 Geneva Bible.
(3) Cf. Edward Dowden, Shakespeare: A Critical Study of His Mind and Art (London: Henry S. King and Co., 1875), 285: "Shakspere's rendering of the character of Caesar ... has considerably bewildered his critics."
(4) William Hazlitt, Characters of Shakspeare's Plays (Boston: Wells and Lilly, 1818), 52. Cf. H. N. Hudson, Shakespeare: His Life, Art, and Characters (Boston: Ginn and Company, 1872), 2:224: "As here represented, [Caesar] is indeed little better than a grand, strutting piece of puff-paste; and when he speaks, it is very much in the style of a glorious vapourer and braggart, full of lofty airs and mock-thunder, than which nothing could be further from the truth of the man, whose character, even in his faults, was as compact and solid as adamant, and at the same time as limber and ductile as the finest gold."
(5) George Bernard Shaw, in a review of Beerbohm Tree's 1898 production of Julius Caesar. Quoted in Shaw on Shakespeare: An Anthology of Bernard Shaw's Writings on the Plays and Production of Shakespeare, ed. Edwin Wilson (London: Cassell, 1962), 110.
(6) Cf. Georg Brandes, William Shakespeare: A Critical Study (New York: William Heinemann, 1900), "It was because of Shakespeare's lack of historical and classical culture that the incomparable grandeur of the figure of Caesar left him unmoved" (1:315).
(7) James Boswell, ed., The Plays and Poems of William Shakespeare, with the corrections and illustrations of various commentators, comprehending a life of the poet and an enlarged history of the stage, by the late Edmond Malone, with a new glossarial index, 3rd variorum ed. (London: Baldwin, 1821), 12:64.
(8) Cf. Horst Zander, "Introduction," in Julius Caesar: New Critical Essays, ed. Horst Zander (New York: Routledge, 2005): "It has become a convention in scholarship to discuss the two Caesars in the play, the private man and the political, public institution of 'Caesar'" (7).
(9) G. Wilson Knight, The Imperial Theme: Further Interpretations of Shakespeare's Tragedies, Including the Roman Plays (London: Oxford University Press, 1931), 65.
(10) See C. B. Pelling, "Judging Julius Caesar," in Julius Caesar in Western Culture, ed. M. Wyke (Malden, MA: Blackwell, 2006), 1-26; and C. B. Pelling, "Introduction," in Plutarch, Caesar, trans. C. B. Pelling (Oxford: Oxford University Press), 18ff.
(11) Suetonius, Divus Julius 75.1, 76.1, quoted in Pelling, "Introduction," 19,18.
(12) Plutarch, Brutus, 55(2). 2, quoted in Pelling, "Introduction," 20.
(13) Plutarch, The Hues of the Noble Grecians and Romans, trans. Thomas North (London: Richard Field for Thomas Wright, 1595), 766.
(14) William Shakespeare, Julius Caesar, ed. David Daniell (London: Thomas Nelson for the Arden Shakespeare, 1998), 1.2.253. All references to Shakespeare's Julius Caesar are to this edition and are cited parenthetically by act, scene, and line number.
(15) Plutarch, Hues, trans. North, 766.
(16) Ibid., 781-82.
(17) Ibid., 771-72.
(18) Ibid., 760.
(19) Plutarch, Caesar, in Lives, trans. Bernadotte Perrin, vol. 7, Loeb Classical Library (New York: Macmillan, 1919), 4.4.
(20) Plutarch, Liues, trans. North, 764.
(21) Michel de Montaigne, "That the taste of good and evil depends in large part on the opinion we have of them," in Essays, trans. Donald M. Frame (Stanford: Stanford University Press, 1958), 43.
(22) Knight, Imperial Theme, 64-65.
(23) Harry Morgan Ayres, "Shakespeare's Julius Caesar in Light of Some Other Versions," PMLA 25 (1910): 183-227 (194-95, 195).
(24) Ibid., 202.
(25) Ibid., 201, 226.
(26) Ibid., 194.
(27) Seneca, Epistulae Morales, Loeb Classical Library (New York: Putnam, 1925), 3:113.31. Translation mine.
(28) Denis Henry and Elisabeth Walker, "The Futility of Action: A Study of Seneca's Hercules Furens," Classical Philology 60 (1965): 11-22.
(29) Anna Lydia Motto and John R. Clark, "Maxima Virtus in Seneca's Hercules Furens," Classical Philology 76 (1981): 101-17.
(30) For an overview of scholarship on Shakespeare's reception of Senecan tragedy, see Patrick Gray, "Shakespeare vs. Seneca: Competing Visions of Human Dignity," in Brill's Companion to the Reception of Senecan Tragedy, ed. Eric A. Dodson-Robinson (Boston, MA: Brill, 2016), 203-32.
(31) Knight, Imperial Theme, 64-65.
(32) Ayres, "Shakespeare's Julius Caesar',' 227.
(33) William Shakespeare, A Midsummer Night's Dream, ed. Harold F. Brooks (London: Arden, 1999), 1.2.24-34.
(34) John Studley, Hercules Oetaeus. In Seneca, Seneca his tenne tragedies, translated into Englysh, ed. Thomas Newton (London: Thomas Marsh, 1581), 187-218. See Ernst Koeppel, "Bottoms 'Ercles' und Studleys Ubersetzung von Senecas Hercules Oetaeus," Jahrbuch der deutschen Shakespeare-Gesellschaft 47 (1911): 190-91.
(35) Seneca, Hercules Oetaeus, ed. and trans. John G. Fitch, Loeb Classical Library (Cambridge, MA: Harvard University Press, 2004), 1-2; Studley, Oetaeus, 188.
(36) Seneca, Hercules Oetaeus, 458-59; Studley, Oetaeus, 196.
(37) Shakespeare, A Midsummer Night's Dream, 1.2.35-36.
(38) William Shakespeare, Love's Labour's Lost, ed. H. R. Woudhuysen (London: Thomas Nelson for the Arden Shakespeare, 1998), 5.2.582, 586-87.
(39) William C. Carroll, The Great Feast of Language in Loves Labours Lost (Princeton: Princeton University Press, 1976), 229. For a more detailed history of the medieval tradition of the Nine Worthies, see William Kuskin, "Caxton's Worthies Series: The Production of Literary Culture," English Literary History 66 (1999): 511-51.
(40) Steve Sohmer, Shakespeare's Mystery Play: The Opening of the Globe Theatre, 1599 (Manchester: Manchester University Press, 1999), 28.
(41) Helen Cooper, "Shakespeare and the Mystery Plays," in Shakespeare and Elizabethan Popular Culture, ed. Stuart Gillespie and Neil Rhodes (London: Arden Shakespeare, 2006), 33.
(42) Sohmer, Shakespeare's Mystery Play, 130.
(43) Naseeb Shaheen, Biblical References in Shakespeare's Plays (Newark: University of Delaware Press, 1999), 530.
(44) David Kaula, '"Let Us Be Sacrificers': Religious Motifs in Julius Caesar," Shakespeare Studies 14 (1981): 197-214 (207, 210).
(45) Hannibal Hamlin, The Bible in Shakespeare (Oxford: Oxford University Press, 2013), 179-230.
(46) See also Peter Lake, "Shakespeare's Julius Caesar and the Search for a Usable (Christian?) Past," in Shakespeare and Early Modern Religion, ed. David Loewenstein and Michael Witmore (Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 2015), 121-30.
(47) Cf. John 2:4, Luke 22.14; cited in Hamlin, The Bible in Shakespeare, 197.
(48) Ibid., 194.
(49) Cf. Kaula, "Religious Motifs," 204-205. See also Leo Kirschbaum, "Shakespeare's Stage Blood and its Critical Significance," PMLA 64 (1949): 517-29; Gail Kern Paster, '"In the Spirit of Men There is No Blood': Blood as a Trope of Gender in Julius Caesar" Shakespeare Quarterly 40 (1989): 284-98; and Clifford Davidson, "Sacred Blood and the Late Medieval Stage," Comparative Drama 31 (1997): 436-58.
(50) The York Plays, ed. Richard Beadle (London: E. Arnold, 1982), 30.293.
(51) Plutarch, Liues, trans. North, 788.
(52) Kaula, "Religious Motifs," 204.
(53) A. O. Meyer, England and the Catholic Church under Queen Elizabeth, trans. J. R. McKee (London: Routledge, 1967), 213. See also Peter Lake and Michael Questier, "Appropriation and Rhetoric under the Gallows: Puritans, Romanists, and the State in Early Modern England," Past and Present 153 (1996), 64-107.
(54) Cf. Seneca, De Providentia, Moral Essays, Loeb Classical Library (Cambridge, MA: Harvard University Press, 1958), 5.8: Ille ipse omnium conditor et rector scripsit quidem fata, sed sequitur ("The great author and ruler of all things wrote the decrees of fate indeed, but he also follows them. He decreed them once for all, he continually obeys them"). English translation by Henry F. Burton, "Senecas Idea of God," American Journal of Theology 13 (1909): 350-69 (360).
(55) The Coventry Corpus Christi Plays, ed. Pamela M. King and Clifford Davidson (Kalamazoo, MI: Medieval Institute Publications, 2000), 38; cf. Clifford Davidson and Jennifer Alexander, The Early Art of Coventry, Stratford-upon-Avon, Warwick, and Lesser Sites in Warwickshire: A Subject List of Extant and Lost Art Including Items Relevant to Early Drama (Kalamazoo, MI: Medieval Institute Publications, 1985), 66, fig. 26.
(56) Pamela Sheingorn, "The Moment of the Resurrection in the Corpus Christi Plays," Medievalia et Humanistica, n.s. 11 (1982): 111-29(122).
(57) The Towneley Plays, ed. Martin Stevens and Arthur C. Cawley, 2 vols. (Oxford: Oxford University Press for the Early English Text Society, 1994), 26.230 s.d., 236. References to the Towneley cycle are to this edition and cited parenthetically by play and line number.
(58) Kaula, "Religious Motifs," 204. Cf. R. E. Spakowski, "Deification and Myth-Making in the Play Julius Caesar," The University Review 36 (1969): 135-40.
(59) A. P. Rossiter, Angel with Horns: Fifteen Lectures on Shakespeare (1961; Harlow: Longman, 1989), 282.
(60) Erich Auerbach, Mimesis: The Representation of Reality in Western Literature, trans. Willard R. Trask. (1953; Princeton, NJ: Princeton University Press, 2003), 323.
(61) For further discussion of Shakespeare's appropriation and reimagining of the dramatic conventions of medieval mystery plays, see Kurt A. Schreyer, Shakespeare's Material Craft: Remants of the Mysteries on the London Stage (Ithaca, NY: Cornell University Press, 2014); Cooper, "Shakespeare and the Mystery Plays"; and John D. Cox, Shakespeare and the Dramaturgy of Power (Princeton, NJ: Princeton University Press, 1989). On "medieval" drama more generally in sixteenth-century England, see also Theresa Coletti and Gail McMurray Gibson, "The Tudor Origins of Medieval Drama," in A Companion to Tudor Literature, ed. Kent Cartwright (Oxford: Wiley-Blackwell, 2010), 228-45.
(62) Heather S. Mitchell-Buck, "Tyrants, Tudors, and the Digby Mary Magdalen," Comparative Drama 48 (2014): 241-59 (241). As an example of the tyrant as "superstar," Mitchell-Buck points out that in the 1478 Coventry Smiths' pageant, the actor playing Herod was paid more than double the amount paid to the actor playing Jesus.
(63) David Daniell, "Julius Caesar in London in 1599," in Daniell, ed., Julius Caesar, 15.
(64) See, e.g., Samuel Schoenbaum, Shakespeare: A Documentary Life (New York: Oxford University Press in association with Scolar Press, 1977), 88, 121; Cox, Dramaturgy of Power, 22, 39; and Michael O'Connell, The Idolatrous Eye: Iconoclasm and Theatre in Early Modern England (Oxford: Oxford University Press, 2000), 20-27.
(65) Two Coventry Corpus Christi Plays, ed. Hardin Craig (London: Oxford University Press, 1957), "Shearmen and Taylors Pageant," line 783 s.d.; quoted in Cox, Dramaturgy of Power, 22.
(66) William Shakespeare, Antony and Cleopatra, ed. John Wilders (London: Thomson Learning for the Arden Shakespeare, 2006), 3.3.4-5.
(67) William Shakespeare, Hamlet, ed. Ann Thompson and Neil Taylor (London: Thomson Learning for the Arden Shakespeare, 2006), 3.2.13-14.
(68) John Parker, The Aesthetics of Antichrist: From Christian Drama to Christopher Marlowe (Ithaca, NY: Cornell University Press, 2007), 96, x.
(69) The Chester Mystery Cycle, ed. R. M. Lumiansky and David Mills, 2 vols. (London: Oxford University Press for the Early English Text Society, 1974), 1.1-4. References to the Chester cycle are from this edition and are cited parenthetically by play and line number.
(70) Meg Twycross, "The Theatricality of Medieval English Plays," in The Cambridge Companion to Medieval English Theatre, 2nd ed., ed. Richard Beadle (Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 2008), 61.
(71) York Plays, 11.1-2,19.3-4, 30.1-4.
(72) Cox, Dramaturgy of Power, 186-87. Sandra Billington sees a similar pattern in English Renaissance drama, but attributes it to the festive tradition of the "mock king": "the rise and fall of kings" as "lords of misrule." Theatregoers "experience disorders under the auspices of a mock king who finally resigns (in comedy) or is otherwise disposed of," leading to "the restoration of order, the promise of such a restoration, or, in the history trilogies, the continuation of disorder through a further false king coming to power." Mock Kings in Medieval Society and Renaissance Drama (Oxford: Oxford University Press, 1991), 5.
(73) Cox, Dramaturgy of Power, 26.
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|Article Type:||Critical essay|
|Date:||Mar 22, 2016|
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