Ellis Washington
On Shakespeare: Richard III & Julius Caesar
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By Ellis Washington
October 25, 2014

Shakespeare was not of an age, but for all time.

~ Ben Johnson

Biography

William Shakespeare (1564–1616) was an English playwright, poet, and actor, celebrated as the most outstanding writer in the English language and the world's greatest dramatist. Known as England's national poet and the "Bard of Avon." Although the source of some of his work is unreliable his surviving works including some collaborations, about 38 plays, 154 sonnets, two long narrative poems, and some ancillary verses. His plays have been performed more often than those of any other playwright and translated into every major living language.

Richard III: Prologue to Julius Caesar

Shakespeare's plays from his first period were written in the orthodox manner of English classical playwrights during the Renaissance. Shakespeare wrote in a formalized language that didn't always confirm to the requirements of the characters or the narrative of the drama. His poetry is contingent on complex, drawn-out, often extravagant metaphors and vanities, and the language is often rhetorical – written for actors to proclaim instead of regular speech. For example the majestic speeches in Titus Andronicus and the verse in The Two Gentlemen of Verona have been proclaimed by scholars as critical supports of the action.

Two of my favorite plays by Shakespeare, Richard III and Julius Caesar, are seemingly related to one another in that the former is a type of prologue to the latter in a similar manner as Richard Wagner's musical drama (i.e., opera) Das Rheingold was an colossal prologue to his opera trilogy: Die Walküre, Siegfried and Gotterdammerung. In the opening soliloquy of Richard III Shakespeare adapted the customary styles of the willfulness and outrageous pride popular in medieval drama to conform to his own purposes. In this classic play we see what would become Shakespeare's modus operandi – a bigger-than-life historical figure whose tragic flaws – pride, lust, greed, willfulness, envy, duplicity, cowardice, etc. causes the would-be hero to fall into an equally ruination of historical proportions.

In Richard III we see Richard's powerful, passionate self-awareness and willfulness anticipating the famous soliloquies of Shakespeare's latter plays particularly Hamlet and Julius Caesar which I will discuss shortly. While there is no particular play which defines the change from the conventional manner to what later Romantics like Richard Strauss called Ein Heldenleben (A Hero's Life) or improvisatory style. Shakespeare combined the traditional and freer styles throughout his career as evident in Romeo and Juliet which is the greatest model of the juxtaposition of the styles. During the mid-1590s when Shakespeare wrote Romeo and Juliet, Richard II, and A Midsummer Night's Dream, the master had developed writing in a more organic poetry. He gradually tuned his metaphors and idioms to the requirements of the dramatic situation of which Julius Caesar in my opinion is the pinnacle achievement of this genre.

Synopsis of Julius Caesar

William Shakespeare's The Tragedy of Julius Caesar (1599). It is one of his most renowned historical plays which interprets historical figures and historical events in Elizabethan times of the playwright. Other plays that depict Roman history include Coriolanus and Antony and Cleopatra. The play Julius Caesar dramatizes the conspiracy against the Roman dictator Julius Caesar, his assassination and the downfall of Brutus and the conspirators at the Battle of Philippi; events that would change the course of world history. Despite the fact that Julius Caesar is the title of the play in Shakespeare's treatment Julius Caesar only appears in five scenes. The central figure of the play is the leader of the conspiracy against Caesar, Marcus Brutus and whose character is the protagonist of this epic psychological drama of struggle amid the contradictory difficulties of friendship, loyalty and honor. Here's a synopsis of the play:
    The action begins in February 44 BC. Julius Caesar has just reentered Rome in triumph after a victory in Spain over the sons of his old enemy, Pompey the Great. A spontaneous celebration has interrupted and been broken up by Flavius and Marullus, two political enemies of Caesar. It soon becomes apparent from their words that powerful and secret forces are working against Caesar.

    Caesar appears, attended by a train of friends and supporters, and is warned by a soothsayer to "beware the ides of March," but he ignores the warning and leaves for the games and races marking the celebration of the feast of Lupercal.

    After Caesar's departure, only two men remain behind – Marcus Brutus, a close personal friend of Caesar, and Cassius, a longtime political foe of Caesar's. Both men are of aristocratic origin and see the end of their ancient privilege in Caesar's political reforms and conquests. Envious of Caesar's power and prestige, Cassius cleverly probes to discover where Brutus' deepest sympathies lie. As a man of highest personal integrity, Brutus opposes Caesar on principle, despite his friendship with him. Cassius cautiously inquires about Brutus' feelings if a conspiracy were to unseat Caesar; he finds Brutus not altogether against the notion; that is, Brutus shares "some aim" with Cassius but does not wish "to be any further moved." The two men part, promising to meet again for further discussions.

    In the next scene, it is revealed that the conspiracy Cassius spoke of in veiled terms is already a reality. He has gathered together a group of disgruntled and discredited aristocrats who are only too willing to assassinate Caesar. Partly to gain the support of the respectable element of Roman society, Cassius persuades Brutus to head the conspiracy, and Brutus agrees to do so. Shortly afterward, plans are made at a secret meeting in Brutus' orchard. The date is set: It will be on the day known as the ides of March, the fifteenth day of the month. Caesar is to be murdered in the Senate chambers by the concealed daggers and swords of the assembled conspirators.

    After the meeting is ended, Brutus' wife, Portia, suspecting something and fearing for her husband's safety, questions him. Touched by her love and devotion, Brutus promises to reveal his secret to her later.

    The next scene takes place in Caesar's house. The time is the early morning; the date, the fateful ides of March. The preceding night has been a strange one – wild, stormy, and full of strange and unexplainable sights and happenings throughout the city of Rome. Caesar's wife, Calphurnia, terrified by horrible nightmares, persuades Caesar not to go to the Capitol, convinced that her dreams are portents of disaster. By prearrangement, Brutus and the other conspirators arrive to accompany Caesar, hoping to fend off any possible warnings until they have him totally in their power at the Senate. Unaware that he is surrounded by assassins and shrugging off Calphurnia's exhortations, Caesar goes with them.

    Despite the conspirators' best efforts, a warning is pressed into Caesar's hand on the very steps of the Capitol, but he refuses to read it. Wasting no further time, the conspirators move into action. Purposely asking Caesar for a favor they know he will refuse, they move closer, as if begging a favor, and then, reaching for their hidden weapons, they kill him before the shocked eyes of the senators and spectators.

    Hearing of Caesar's murder, Mark Antony, Caesar's closest friend, begs permission to speak at Caesar's funeral. Brutus grants this permission over the objections of Cassius and delivers his own speech first, confident that his words will convince the populace of the necessity for Caesar's death. After Brutus leaves, Antony begins to speak. The crowd has been swayed by Brutus' words, and it is an unsympathetic crowd that Antony addresses. Using every oratorical device known, however, Antony turns the audience into a howling mob, screaming for the blood of Caesar's murderers. Alarmed by the furor caused by Antony's speech, the conspirators and their supporters are forced to flee from Rome and finally, from Italy. At this point, Antony, together with Caesar's young grandnephew and adopted son, Octavius, and a wealthy banker, Lepidus, gathers an army to pursue and destroy Caesar's killers. These three men, known as triumvirs, have formed a group called the Second Triumvirate to pursue the common goal of gaining control of the Roman Empire.

    Months pass, during which the conspirators and their armies are pursued relentlessly into the far reaches of Asia Minor. When finally they decide to stop at the town of Sardis, Cassius and Brutus quarrel bitterly over finances. Their differences are resolved, however, and plans are made to meet the forces of Antony, Octavius, and Lepidus in one final battle. Against his own better judgment, Cassius allows Brutus to overrule him: Instead of holding to their well-prepared defensive positions, Brutus orders an attack on Antony's camp on the plains of Philippi. Just before the battle, Brutus is visited by the ghost of Caesar. "I shall see thee at Philippi," the spirit warns him, but Brutus' courage is unshaken and he goes on.

    The battle rages hotly. At first, the conspirators appear to have the advantage, but in the confusion, Cassius is mistakenly convinced that all is lost, and he kills himself. Leaderless, his forces are quickly defeated, and Brutus finds himself fighting a hopeless battle. Unable to face the prospect of humiliation and shame as a captive (who would be chained to the wheels of Antony's chariot and dragged through the streets of Rome), he too takes his own life.

    As the play ends, Antony delivers a eulogy over Brutus' body, calling him "the noblest Roman of them all." Caesar's murder has been avenged, order has been restored, and, most important, the Roman Empire has been preserved.
Shakespeare's Julius Caesar in Modern times

Shakespeare's work has been continually adopted and revived by different movements in scholarship and dramatic presentation. Since the early 1900s to the present time his plays continue to be very popular and are frequently studied, performed, and reinterpreted in different social and political backgrounds all over the world.

The pinnacle of the play the Tragedy of Julius Caesar is the transcendent eulogy to Brutus (Caesar) by Mark Antony, who declares that Brutus has endured as "the noblest Roman of them all" since he was the only conspirator who defended Rome and endeavored to maintain the Republic against tyranny and against the tyrant Julius Caesar. In Mark Antony's eulogy of Caesar you can detect a leitmotiv of struggle between Mark Antony and Octavius and especially between Mark Antony and Brutus which is why Antony repeatedly, almost cynically over and over says, "For Brutus was an honorable man." To my mind Antony's eulogy to Caesar is a metaphor or parable that there aren't any honorable men in the world anymore, for the more power men heap upon themselves, the more tyrannical and evil they become against their fellow man. Lord Acton said it in this manner: "Power tends to corrupt and absolute power corrupts absolutely."

Epilogue to Ebola (a poem)

Ebola and AIDS out of Africa exported to America; their revenge for our American slavery? Our pound of flesh given to glorify Obama's immigration policy. To publish 40 million green cards for his South American voters and turn the Republican Party into an eternally irrelevant endangered species.

ISIS is on the march rewriting the borders in blood, bombed out mosques and churches with the aid of weaponry either abandoned by those we trained or dropped out of the sky to ISIS... a gift from President Obama.

IRS unleashed on Obama's enemies: Christians, Israel-loving Jews, conservatives, churches and Tea Party groups. Mosques and Muslims are safe in America. The liberal fascists howl at the moon at night like Hitler's wolves howled during Kristallnacht... Like Nero's torches of crucified Christians he used to light the night of his extravagant, grotesque bacchanalias... The cries of the Christian martyrs, music to the Tyrants' ears. Nero fiddled while Rome burned... the disembodied voices of His Saints like spirits of the night. God will keep their tears in a vial. God will remember their suffering.

Where have all the good men gone? Where have all the strong men hidden? Why in times of universal tyranny do good men do nothing?

Hail Caesar! Heil Hitler! Hail Obama!

*N.B.: This essay is based in part on ideas from Encyclopedia Britannica Great Books of the Western World, Robert Maynard Hutchins, Editor-in-Chief (University of Chicago, 1952), Vol. 3, Chap. 90 – State; Chap. 97 – War and Peace; Vols. 26-27 – Shakespeare I & II. Cliff Notes Plot Summary, Shakespeare's Julius Caesar, http://www.cliffsnotes.com/literature/j/julius-caesar/play-summary


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Ellis Washington

Ellis Washington is a former staff editor of the Michigan Law Review (1989) and law clerk at the Rutherford Institute (1992). Currently he is an adjunct professor of law at the National Paralegal College and the graduate school, National Jurisprudence University, where he teaches Constitutional Law, Legal Ethics, American History, Administrative Law, Criminal Procedure, Contracts, Real Property, and Advanced Legal Writing, among many other subjects... (more)

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