Blog

Political Speech in Julius Caesar

January 25, 2019

Thanks to Alissa Simon, HMU Tutor, for today’s post.

Most humans are inundated with political speech, the current pace of which seems unsustainable (or at least unhealthy to me). I think this has often been the case in other civilizations too. Shakespeare gives us a great example of political speech among chaos in Julius Caesar. Though there are many layers to this play, I want to focus on the speeches given by Marcus Antonius (Mark Antony) and Marcus Brutus (Brutus) directly following Caesar’s murder.

First, it is important to understand that Brutus is a statesman. He is of a noble and honorable family. He is well-educated, well-read, and well-spoken. His identity is closely linked to this nobility. Also, it is important to understand that Brutus likes Caesar in many respects. However, something within Brutus makes him distrust Caesar as a leader and popular figure. Shakespeare does not explicitly state what makes Brutus cautious about endorsing his friend. When Cassius questions Brutus as to whether or not he would choose Caesar for his king, Brutus replies only, “I would not, Cassius; yet I love him well” (I,ii,82) and then adds that he loves honor more than death (I,ii,89). Brutus’s character is founded on ideals of justice, honor, and government. Cassius, however, is more ambitious and plants the seeds of Caesar’s demise into Brutus’s head. Cassius’s brilliant, and ultimately convincing speech reads:

“Why, man, he doth bestride the narrow world

Like a Colossus, and we petty men

Walk under his huge legs and peep about

To find ourselves dishonourable graves.

Men at some time are masters of their fates:

The fault, dear Brutus, is not in our stars,

But in ourselves, that we are underlings.

Brutus and Caesar: what should be in that ‘Caesar’?

Why should that name be sounded more than yours?

Write them together, yours is as fair a name;

Sound them, it doth become the mouth as well;

Weigh them, it is as heavy; conjure with ‘em,

Brutus will start a spirit as soon as Caesar.

Now, in the names of all the gods at once,

Upon what meat doth this our Caesar feed

That he is grown so great? Age, thou art shamed!

Rome, thou hast lost the breed of noble bloods!” (I,ii,135-151)

Cassius knows that nobility, honor, and justice are the keys to convincing Brutus. Cassius reinforces fears that Rome is splintering and being taken over by unworthy and uneducated classes. The fact that Julius Caesar rose from poverty, used plain speech, and created programs for the poor is all slightly absurd to the elite. Cassius knows how much a name means to Brutus, and also how little it means to Caesar. Even though Brutus replies, “I am nothing jealous,” the seed has been planted. And I do believe Brutus, his mission is not out of jealousy or even straight ambition. Rather, I believe he truly abhors the idea of a fallen Rome, one in which anyone can rule, regardless of nobility and lineage. To me, Brutus acts as though he believes himself to be Rome’s savior.

Unfortunately, Brutus does not understand politics, the people, or the time. In Act III, at the moment when Brutus and the conspirators murder Caesar, Caesar faces his friend and murderer. He speaks the famous line: “Et tu, Brute! Then fall, Caesar!” (III,i,77). After Caesar’s death, chaos ensues. Antony decides to appeal to the conspirators and so he sends his servant to Brutus with the message that “Brutus is noble, wise, valiant and honest” (III,i,127). Of course, Brutus admits Antony and the two discuss how to calm the growing crowds. In this meeting, Antony commits two noteworthy acts. First, he asks to be killed along with Caesar. This theatrical display is meant to demonstrate loyalty. The conspirators will have no more blood on their hands, though. Instead, they ask Antony to join them in representing Rome. And quickly, perhaps too quickly, Antony agrees and asks to shake each bloody hand (III,ii). However, Antony is keenly aware of the precarious situation. He appeals to Brutus’s nobility and honor more than anything and then requests to speak at Caesar’s funeral. After agreeing to let Antony speak, Brutus thinks to give himself the upper hand by speaking first. And so it is decided that Brutus will first appeal to the crowd and then Antony may address the public in the way of a formal ceremony.

Brutus gives a perfectly serviceable speech. He speaks with candor and humility. He speaks of friendship and duty. He speaks reasonably. Antony, however, follows with a knockout speech. (Also, watch Damian Lewis perform Antony’s funeral speech. ) He utilizes poetic device, repetition, and emotion. He praises Brutus many times, but ends his speech: “O judgment! Thou are fled to brutish beasts,/ And men have lost their reason” (III,ii,109-10). “[B]rutish” is very nearly Brutus. In other words, those who used to represent the epitome of reason now make no sense. Clearly, Antony knows people whereas Brutus knows the law. But who is to be believed? Did Caesar offer all the money and favors to the poor in earnest? What part of Antony’s speech is theatrics and what part real?

I think it matters very little whether one finds this play more reflective of Shakespeare’s time or Roman times. Though 1,000 years separates Roman speeches from Shakespeare’s play, the characters play large roles still played out today. A number of sources (Plutarch included) have noted Antony’s eloquence and Brutus’s honor, but do they act virtuously? To me, the play demonstrates larger human truths with which we still wrestle (and likely always will): what is justice, virtue or nobility? Who demonstrates it and how are we to judge of honesty?

In hindsight, we also know that in the future, Antony’s passions and ambition will overcome his reason and good-will. These faults only grow larger with his rise to fame. So, we are left with a scenario where either Brutus pursues nobility to a fault or Antony overindulges at everyone’s expense. The irony is that good and bad elements were always present in their characters and in their political rhetoric, but it took time to discover which trait would dominate.

To leave a comment, click on the title of this post and scroll down.

Shakespeare's Troilus Versus Chaucer's Criseyde

September 14, 2018

Thanks to Alissa Simon, HMU Tutor, for today’s post.

Shakespeare is a favorite topic of mine, and of many of our students. Recently, I read and discussed Shakespeare’s Troilus and Cressida. Though we didn’t have time to compare it to Chaucer’s poem Troilus and Criseyde, I wanted to spend a few moments doing just that. Before I do, however, I will list a few of my lingering questions about Shakespeare’s play.

1] Based upon the title, I thought this play was about love, but where is the romance?

2] Why, after lamenting about the loss of order, does Ulysses allow Ajax to face Hector? If Ulysses is so concerned with the natural order of things, shouldn’t Achilles, the best Greek fighter, face Hector, the best Trojan fighter?

And 3] Why does Shakespeare end the play with Pandarus moaning about his own degradation? I thought this play was about the romance, not the middleman.

It would be safe to assume that a story titled Troilus and Cressida would mostly be about Troilus and Cressida. Yet, if you have read Shakespeare’s play, then you’d be surprised to find how little time is spent upon the love affair. In fact, Shakespeare’s Troilus laments about love for a few scenes, and only one scene involves the actual love affair. The play’s focal points involve talk of war, such as Ulysses’s long speech on order in Act III, and Achilles’s tragic slaying of Hector. The play questions what it means to be noble or heroic. Framed by an unjust war (stemming from a love affair), these characters face the very modern problem of living in a fallen society. Troilus and Cressida become lost in the societal conflicts at the play’s center. Love becomes a lens with which to judge the nobility of the characters. Often labeled one of Shakespeare’s problem plays, Troilus and Cressida offers difficult, but very worthwhile, questions.

Some differences between the two works are easy to note, such as the fact that Chaucer wrote a metered poem, whereas Shakespeare chose to write a play. Chaucer’s poem does focus on the lovers. Shakespeare’s play, on the other hand, spends much of the time on discussion of war. Shakespeare wrote long speeches for Ulysses, Hector, and even Nestor. They discuss war at length, introducing the idea of honor in a fallen state. After Criseyde has been sent to the Greek camp, Chaucer focuses on Troilus’s plans to wait for her each night. Shakespeare’s characters must decide whether or not to fight a dishonorable war.

I find the last lines of these two works very interesting. Chaucer ends his poem with Troilus’s death which grants a final release of Troilus’s damaged soul. In this poem, it is fitting that Troilus dies by the heroic sword of Achilles. Chaucer writes, “And having fallen to Achilles’ spear,/ His light soul rose and rapturously went/ Towards the concavity of the eighth sphere,/ Leaving conversely every element,/ And, as he passed, he saw with wonderment/ The wandering stars and heard their harmony,/ Whose sound is full of heavenly melody.// As he looked down, there came before his eyes/ This little spot of earth, that with the sea/ Lies all embraced, and found he could despise/ This wretched world, and hold it vanity,/ Measured against the full felicity/ That is in Heaven above” (273A)*. In other words, Troilus is released from his earthly cares and upon reflection he realizes that earthly life is a truly “wretched world.” There is a feeling of rejoice as he rises. Throughout the poem, Troilus is consistently loyal, honorable and (other than his inability to act on love unaided) he demonstrates virtue. Clearly, then, Troilus find peace, not in love, but in heaven.

On the other hand, Shakespeare gives the play’s final word to Pandarus, who appears to be the least honorable character in the play. In the last scene, he asks the audience to weep at “Pandar’s fall.” These ironic lines underscore the brutality and depravity of the previous scene in which Achilles and his men slaughter an unarmed Hector and then drag his brutalized body behind Achilles’s horse. Through Achilles’s actions, Shakespeare questions the often idyllic view of ancient myth. Pandar’s words, then, become doubly painful. Hector is the true hero, not Pandarus, but it is Pandarus who lives to beg for the audience’s sympathy. He also invites the audience to join him in this fallen future. In Shakespeare’s play, Hector, perhaps, comes closest to attaining nobility, but even he falls prey to tradition or pride or duty. In this play, the characters act as pawns, which makes Pandarus’s final words even more fitting. Troilus and Cressida is about the fallen state. The tangle of love affairs play off each other nicely to demonstrate the fallen state. Through these characters, we must ask: What is love? What is honor or nobility? And how do they display any signs of love?

Chaucer clearly elevates the idea of love from earthly to celestial. Though Troilus’s passion is true and he remains loyal to Cressida, he realizes the folly of this love as he leaves earth. Cressida, likewise, understands that earthly love will not save her soul. Chaucer’s Cressida is complicated. She sincerely loves Troilus, but is unable to stay with him. Her choice of a Greek lover seems more rational, more necessary, than Shakespeare’s. The reasons for this decision once again highlight the impossibility of earthly love. Furthermore, by forcing Cressida/Criseyde away from Troilus, both play and poem reflect how little choice women have in their lives. The one man she wants is the one man that she cannot have.

Shakespeare turns that idea of love on its head by the parallel stories of Helen and Paris, Troilus and Cressida. In the following passage, Shakespeare treats love (brotherly love, romantic love and patriotic love) with irony and sarcasm. (It is good to know that the Trojan war began because Paris stole Helen from King Menelaus.) During the play, Greece offers to trade a Trojan prisoner for Cressida. Hector accepts the trade, much to Troilus’s dissatisfaction. Then, Troilus laments to Paris (his brother, and also the cause of the war) the fact that Cressida must leave Troy. Troilus says, “I’ll bring her to the Grecian presently;/ And to his hand when I deliver her,/ Think it an altar, and thy brother Troilus/ A priest there offering to it his own heart.” Paris offers only this: “I know what ‘tis to love;/ And would, as I shall pity, I could help!” (128A)*. How ironic that the man who began this war by stealing Helen, could not find a solution to Troilus’s problem. He feels pity, but very little remorse. If Troilus’s love is true, Paris’s feels rather covetous, rash, impersonal and selfish. The play highlights the immorality of these actions purportedly based upon love.

There is so much more that I could say. Reading Chaucer’s Troilus in tandem with Shakespeare’s version enlightened great ideas of love, world, and honor. With wonderful skill and wit, these authors question nobility and virtue. Both pieces are worthy of much discussion, more than I have given them here. If you have a thought on these works, I invite you to post it below.

If you enjoy this topic, you may also enjoy this lecture on more of Shakespeare's play: Harvard lecture (~1.5 hours).

* All citations are from the Great Books of the Western World, volumes 19 (Chaucer) and 25 (Shakespeare), published 1990.

To leave a comment, click on the title of this post and scroll down.

 

National Poetry Month

April 28, 2017

Thanks to Alissa Simon, HMU Tutor, for today's post.

Did you know that Poetry is listed as one of the Great Ideas in the Syntopicon? If you didn't you are not alone. However, the importance of this inclusion is often overlooked. Since it is National Poetry Month, now is the best time to better understand why poetry might be considered one of the “great ideas”. For me, poetry is an easy sell. It's like a puzzle that the reader can assemble and reassemble at will. It may continue to be a puzzle, and maybe the final piece remains missing or blurred. I do understand how annoying it can be when we do not understand something. Yet, I continue to be drawn into poems because of the universality of the emotions and ideas given through a unique voice, experience and vision.

Mortimer Adler links the poetic conversation back to Aristotle and Socrates. In the Syntopicon, Adler suggests that authors like Kant and Plato judge poetry by its contribution to knowledge. Poetry, without a doubt, creates connections that can lead to knowledge. Furthermore, Adler suggests that poets have an obligation to speak or find a truth. Poetry brings this about not through fact alone, but by imaginative associations. For Bacon, poetry leads the imagination of the reader through the imagination of the author. This is important because it is precisely this technique that defines the great ideas themselves. All of this learning, education and fact-finding is founded upon the idea that great ideas have traveled and changed throughout history, by a variety of peoples and cultures. These great writers transcribed their thoughts, experiences, facts and data into conversations. Poems, then, are simply structured rooms of play that allow one to learn, grow or understand through someone else's eyes and experience.

The following examples give just a taste of some poetic voices that we discuss.

 

“So, on you move/ Over the seas and mountains, over streams/ Whose ways are fierce, over the greening leas,/ Over the leafy tenements of birds,/ So moving that in all the ardor burns/ For generation and their kind's increase,/ Since you alone control the way things are./ Since without you no thing has ever come/ Into the radiant boundaries of light,/ Since without you nothing is ever glad,/ And nothing ever lovable, I need,/ I need you with me, goddess, in the poem/ I try to write here, on the Way Things Are.” - Lucretius, The Way Things Are

 

"I and my company were old and slow/ When at the narrow passage we arrived/ Where Hercules his landmarks set as signals,/ That man no farther onward should adventure./ On the right hand behind me left I Seville/ And on the other already had left Ceuta./ 'O brothers, who amid a hundred thousand/ Perils,' I said, 'have come unto the West,/ To this so inconsiderable vigil/ Which is remaining of your senses still/ Be ye unwilling to deny the knowledge, following the sun, of the unpeopled world./ Consider ye the seed from which ye sprang;/ Ye were not made to live like unto brutes,/ But for pursuit of virtue and of knowledge.'" - Dante Alighieri, "The Inferno"

 

“Our terrors and our darknesses of mind/ Must be dispelled, not by the sunshine's rays,/ Not by those shining arrows of the light,/ But by insight into nature, and a scheme/ Of systematic contemplation. So/ Our starting-point shall be this principle:/ Nothing at all is ever born from nothing/ By the god's will.” - Lucretius, The Way Things Are

 

“What are the stars? There is the sun, the sun!/ And the most patient brilliance of the moon!/ And stars by the thousands!/ Point me out the way/ To any one particular beauteous star,/ And I will flit into it with my lyre,/ And make its silvery splendour pant with bliss./ I have heard the cloudy thunder: Where is power?/ Whose hand, whose essence, what divinity/ Makes this alarum in the elements,/ While I here idle listen on the shores/ In fearless yet in aching ignorance?/ O tell me, lonely Goddess, by thy harp,/ That waileth every morn and eventide,/ Tell me why thus I rave, about these groves!/ Mute thou remainest – Mute! Yet I can read/ A wonderous lesson in they silent face:/ Knowledge enormous makes a God of me./ Names, deeds, gray legends, dire events, rebellions,/ Majesties, sovran voices, agonies,/ Creations and destroyings, all at once/ Pour into the wide hollows of my brain,/ And deify me, as if some blithe wine/ Or bright elixir peerless I had drunk,/ And so become immortal.” - John Keats, “Hyperion”

 

“Let's talk of graves, of worms and epitaphs;/ Make dust our paper and with rainy eyes/ Write sorrow on the bosom of the earth,/ Let's choose executors and talk of wills: And yet not so, for what can we bequeath/ Save our deposed bodies to the ground?/ Our lands, our lives, and all are Bolingbroke's,/ And nothing can we call our own but death/ And that small model of the barren earth/ Which serves as pste and cover to our bones./ For God's sake, let us sit upon the ground/ And tell sad stories of the death of kings:/ How some have been deposed; some slain in war;/ Some haunted by the ghosts they have deposed;/ Some poison'd by their wives; some sleeping kill'd;/ All murder'd: for within the hollow crown/ That rounds the mortal temples of a king/ Keeps Death his court and there the antic sits,/ Scoffing his state and grinning at his pomp,/ Allowing him a breath, a little scene,/ To monarchize, be fear'd, and kill with looks,/ Infusing him with self and vain conceit,/ As if this flesh which walls about our life/ Were brass impregnable, and humour'd thus/ Comes at last and with a little pin/ Bores through this castle wall, and farewell king!” - Shakespeare, “The Tragedy of King Richard II”

 

“And no rock/ If there were rock/ And also water/ And water/ A spring/ A pool among the rock/ If there were the sound of water only/ Not the cicada/ And dry grass singing/ But sound of water over a rock/ Where the hermit thrush sings in the pine trees/ Drip drop drip drop drop drop drop/ But there is no water.” - T. S. Eliot, “The Waste Land”

 

“Enter: two rivers, gracefully bearing/ countless little pellucid jellies/ in cut-glass epergnes dragging with silver chains./ The flight is safe; the weather is all arranged./ The waves are running in verses this fine morning./ Please come flying.” - Elizabeth Bishop, “Invitation to Miss Marianne Moore”

 

“proud flesh,/ as all flesh/ is proud of its wounds, wears them/ as honors given out after battle,/ small triumphs pinned to the chest - / And when two people have loved each other/ see how it is like a/ scar between their bodies,/ stronger, darker, and proud;/ how the black cord makes them a single fabric/ that nothing can tear or mend.” - Jane Hirshfield, “For What Binds Us”

To post a comment, click on the title of this blog and scroll down.

Shakespeare's Henry V

April 14, 2017

Thanks to Alissa Simon, HMU Tutor, for today's post.

When reading historical documents, it may be easy to forget the more mundane effects that occur when two cultures collide. However, Shakespeare's Henry the Fifth paints an example of this exact thing. In the play, the actual collision is often thought to take place in the battle between France and England, however it is actually through details of everyday life that Shakespeare exemplifies the angst of cultural divides. Shakespeare frames this combination of two cultures very well in his dramatic interpretation of the life of Henry the Fifth. Having just discussed both the text and the BBC's version of Henry the Fifth, I owe much of my rambling to a continued conversation from our film series. I am indebted to those participants for having inspired so much continued thought about this play.

To say that Henry the Fifth is a history play is not entirely true. It is, however, a well-developed sketch of a young king taking possession of land in France. In combining two empires, Shakespeare incorporates the French language directly into the text which offers an accurate portrayal of the experience. In addition, he includes characters with accented speech and he foregrounds a variety of ethnicities. Shakespeare also incorporates the classic technique of a chorus, a practice which stems from ancient Greek theatre, which helps to introduce the scenes and move through both time and place.

Henry the Fifth begins with an introduction from the Chorus, which frames the play. The film brilliantly portrays this as a voice-over narrator who renders commentary on the action. At the end of the film (spoiler alert!), we find out that the Boy is actually the narrator. For me, this creates an astonishing and brilliant use of the Chorus. In this case, the frame becomes the actual lens of the Boy as he has seen and lived through these times and with these characters. As an actual witness to their pranks, emotions, jokes and lives, he becomes an authority and a sage. In Henry IV, Part 2, it was Henry himself who sent the Boy to wait on Falstaff. So, it is very fitting to use his particular lens to navigate both Falstaff's death (at the beginning of the play) all the way through to Henry's own death. Throughout the play, the Boy attempts to separate himself from characters he finds unworthy (such as Pistol and Bardolph). He takes the audience a step closer to understanding honor and virtue through the life of Henry the Fifth. Therefore, his view of the battles and the politics becomes extremely important.

The film begins and ends with Henry V's funeral. The audience immediately understands the transitory nature of life, even the life of this great king, who died at the age of 44. It is somber to note that his young, French wife has an infant. At the end of the film, she kisses the infant and carries him away from Henry's casket. This moment follows closely on the heels of the courtship scene (which ends the text). Therefore, it accentuates the painful separation which comes so close upon the actual union. Shakespeare understands that everyone identifies with life, death and love. The final scene of Henry the Fifth surprises us with Henry's tenderness and care for Katherine, which itself comes close on the heels of the fierce battle scenes. Henry presses Katherine to speak English, but while she struggles with the language, she does not struggle to show her interest in Henry's proposal.

I am not surprised to find that Shakespeare writes brilliantly both in English and in French. Shakespeare uses French in a way that is, again, universally unmistakable. First, in a scene with Katherine and Alice, her attendant, Katherine attempts to learn a few English words. The scene beautifully demonstrates what it is like to learn a foreign language. In addition, it walks the audience through Katherine's excitement and nervousness represented by her approach to English. Then, in the end of the play, Shakespeare combines French and English as Henry V asks Kate to marry him. This documents, of course, a real experience in these communities which often clashed. Even the reader must change the manner in which they approach these sections of text. This abrupt language change clearly communicates the experience of fracture, but also of the fact that some experiences are universal and require no translation.

Plays often shift linguistic paradigms and there are many bridges to gap. In other words, the text of a play is not meant to stand alone on the page, but to be read out loud, acted and imagined. The addition of French is only another way of expressing the idea that we are always translating outside experience into personal experience.

Once again, I thank the group for a wonderful discussion of Henry the Fifth. I look forward to our next film course in the fall. For more information on the film series, email rfisher@hmu.edu.

To post a comment, click on the title of this blog and scroll down.