Comments by Bob Corbett
General Note: In January 2009 I decided that I’d like to go back and read all the plays of William Shakespeare, perhaps one a month if that works out. I hadn’t read a Shakespeare play since 1959, 50 years ago! But I had read nearly all of them in college. I wanted to go back, start with something not too serious or challenging, and work my way through the whole corpus. Thus I began with The Two Gentlemen of Verona. At this time I have no idea how the project will go, nor if it will actually lead me through the entire corpus of Shakespeare’s plays. However, I will keep a separate page listing each play I’ve read with links to any comments I would make of that particular play. See: List of Shakespeare’s play’s I’ve read and commented on
This has always been one of my favorite Shakespeare plays and without doubt the one I have read most often and then have read bits pieces more often.
It also is connected with a beautiful and beloved experience in my life. I was in high school when we were assigned to read the play. I was home one day reading it and my mother was ironing in the other room. Mom had just an elementary school education at a rural school in northeast Arkansas and came to St. Louis during the heart of the depression when she was 20 years old.
She read very little, but when she heard me excitedly reading some passages aloud she asked what I was doing and I told her. She asked me to come and read to her. I did and soon she was in love with the play and even had me read to my father both Brutus’ and Anthony’s main speeches at the slaying of Caesar.
Mom and I viewed the play somewhat differently. She liked to divide the characters into pretty stark good and evil roles, and Brutus was cast as a bad guy, Anthony as a good guy. I pushed for more a subtle interpretation. We had some marvelous discussions, and that led to a long period of her asking me to read aloud to her as she ironed. I treasure those memories and it all started with Julius Caesar.
Now returning to this often read and favorite play, I come back to my own view. I agree with the closing lines of Anthony. Brutus was indeed an honorable man, and that “honorable” is genuine, not the ironic “honorable” of Anthony’s oration over Caesar’s body.
Anthony is standing over the dead body of Brutus who ran on his own sword once he saw his army was in disarray and he would be captured. Anthony says:
This [Brutus] was the noblest Roman of them all.
All the conspirators save only he
Did that they did in envy of great Caesar;
He only, in a general honest thought
And common good to all, made one of them.
His life was gentle, and the elements
So mix’d in him, that Nature might stand up
And say to all the world, “This was a man!”
But let’s go back to the beginning. Caesar has returned to Rome victorious in battle and the people are clamoring for him to become the ruler of Rome. Brutus is not convinced this is a good idea. He sees Caesar as a decent man, but a bit too ambitious and a bit weak. He is convinced that this would be bad for Rome. Yet, the people seem to want Caesar as their leader and are calling for it, flattering him.
While he ponders this the one truly unlikable character of the play for me, Cassius, plays on Brutus’ unsureness and appeals to his own view of himself, trying to show Brutus he is certainly equal to, even better than Caesar.
Brutus and Caesar: What should be in the ‘Caesar”
Why should that name be sounded more than yours?
Write them together, yours is as fair a name;
Sound them, it doth both become the mouth as well;
“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.?
Cassius sees that he has got Brutus thinking about this comparison, and he widens his web, next luring Casco into his plans:
. . . our fathers’ minds are dead,
And we are govern’d with our mother’s spirit;
Our yoke and sufferance shows as womanish.
Little by little Cassius draws others into the conspiracy and he works on Brutus to be the perceived leader (including for Brutus to see himself as leader.)
As seems common in Shakespeare’s time, there are soothsayers who predict doom when it is coming and Caesar’s death is prophesied for the Ides of March, terrifying his wife. Caesar doesn’t take this very seriously and also professes a view that one shouldn’t even worry about such things:
Cowards die many times before their deaths;
The valiant never taste of death but once.
Of all the wonders that I have heard.
It seems to me most strange that men should fear
Seeing that death, a necessary end,
Will come when it will come.
The cabal goes forward and when Caesar addresses the crowd in the forum the plotters, led by Cassius and Brutus do stab Caesar to death. But they don’t flee. At Brutus’ insistence the daub themselves in Caesar’s blood and go into the forum to explain to the people why they have killed Caesar.
Mark Anthony enters significantly at this point. He has been the highest ranking underling to Caesar, and while a good man in general, he sees an important opening that he and his friends might well move into the top position within Rome. He demands to know why Brutus, who is the most respected of the conspirators, would have done this evil deed.
Brutus seems to the very end to believe his own analysis that Caesar had to be killed. He tells Anthony that he will go into the forum, speak to the masses and explain why they have killed Caesar, and then he will even allow Anthony to speak about Caesar to the masses. Ah, yes, it’s a major misjudgment on Brutus’ part as virtually everyone will already know. Cassius is a wiser politician and realizes this is a very dangerous move by Brutus but feels he’d best not challenge it.
Brutus speaks, telling the crowd that Caesar was actually likely to have enslaved them and become a tyrant. He allows that he himself loved Caesar, but that he did this because he loved Rome even more than he loved Caesar. He seems to have convinced the masses and they fickly switch their allegiance to Brutus. He then leaves and allows Anthony speak.
The essence of Brutus’ position is:
If there be any in the assembly, any dear friend of Caesar, to him I say that Brutus’ love to Caesar was no less than his. If then that friend doth demand why Brutus rose against Caesar, this is my answer: Not that I loved Caesar less, but that I loved Rome more.
Most everyone will know the outcome of Anthony’s famous reply beginning:
Friends, Romans, countrymen, lend me your ears;
I come to bury Caesar, not to praise him.
Of course he gives a fantastic soliloquy in which he carefully and ironically repeats that charge that Brutus (and he co-conspirators) have said this or that against Caesar, but they are “honorable men.” I say he did this with great irony. My mother’s view was more blunt and unfavorable to Anthony. She maintained he was sarcastic. I think that is too strong. Anthony certainly used the death of Caesar to advance his own case and to ensure the end of the cabal of Brutus and Cassius, but I think the evidence suggests he would likely have remained faithful to Caesar if the others hadn’t stepped in. But, Anthony’s last lines of the play which I cited at the outset, do certainly suggest he recognized Brutus as a brave and honorable man, yet I think he also thought Brutus was wrong about his analysis of Caesar.
In any case, the essence of the play is over with Anthony’s famous speech. He has won the day, it just remained for the armies of Anthony and his colleagues to defeat the armies of Brutus and the other conspirators, which they did with relative ease.
This is a simply marvelous play. I have read it many times, yet it had been quite a while since my last read before this week. I hope I don’t let that much time pass again until I return again to the joy of this beautifully constructed and well-written play, return to this complex plot with profound psychological insights into people, and having a main villain who is at the same time arguably truly an honorable man, and a victor-hero who is at the same time arguably a rather untoward plotter. I like that complexity. It seems much closer to real human existence than most plots of political significance.Bob Corbett firstname.lastname@example.org
Bob Corbett email@example.com