A Lingering (but Mechanical) Presence
A problem noted by all commentators on Julius Caesar is how one is to identify Caesar as the main character/protagonist of the play when he is killed midway through it, in 3.1. Granted, he is the center of the action in the long and riveting 3.2, but the remainder of the play goes on to other things and culminates in the battle at Philippi in 42 B.C. Thus, those who want to maintain Caesars' prominence until the end have to find another way to explain his presence in Acts IV and V. The literary device of Caesar's ghost is one way to do this. However, the invocation of this ghost, which Shakespeare derived from Plutarch, is seemingly an unnecessary and even artificial presence. Indeed, Shakespeare tries only half-heartedly to give the impression of the ghost's being a brooding omnipresence stalking the conspirators' minds.
Meeting the Ghost
Surprisingly, when we first meet the ghost it is not identified as "Caesar's ghost" but rather as Brutus's ghost. Brutus has been reconciled to Cassius and has just pulled rank again, this time on the issue of whether the conspirators should march on Philippi or await the approach of the Triumvirs. He is alone in his study, and a wraith-like figure appears. Brutus says he thinks "It is the weakness of mine eyes/ That shapes this monstrous apparition (4.3.276-277)." He is terrified, and asks the spirit to identify itself. All it answers is, "Thy evil spirit, Brutus (4.3.282)."
Is this meant to suggest that the apparition is what we might call Brutus's conscience? But it doesn't seem to involve guilt at this point. In addition, the apparition is not connected by Shakespeare with the major problem I have posited about Brutus in the play: his lack of self-knowledge. Thus, the ghost is not an instrument of this, either. All it says is that it will meet him at Philippi. Shakespeare seems to conflate two passages from Plutarch without comment.
The Ghost on the Battlefield
Reference to Caesar's "spirit" as avenging itself on the conspirators appears on Brutus's lips in 5.3.94-96. Previously, however, Cassius was overcome by "hateful error, melancholy's child (5.3.67-68) and has Pindarus kill him. The last words on his lips are "Caesar, thou art reveng'd,/ Even with the sword that kill'd thee (5.3.45-46)." No mention is made of a ghost or a spirit that is seeking revenge.
Yet, a few lines later, Brutus gives his interpretation of Cassius' death. "O Julius Caesar, thou art mighty yet!/ Thy spirit walks abroad, and turns our swords/ In our own proper entrails (5.3.94-96)." Here the ghost is no longer "thy evil spirit" of 4.3; it is transmuted into Caesar's avenging spirit. Caesar not only has the last word, as Cassius seems to suggest, but Caesar is still a power and presence actively working against the conspirators.
In the last scene of the play, Brutus mentions that the spirit, this time called "The Ghost of Caesar (5.5.17) appeared to him the previous night at Philippi warning him, using language familiar to any reader of the Gospel of John, that "I know my hour is come (5.5.20)."
Brutus's last words combine some of these themes. He addresses Caesar and says, "Caesar, now be still,/ I kill'd not thee with half so good a will (5.5.50-51)." These words adopt the notion that at the death of the murderer, the spirit of the deceased will be avenged. Though Brutus may have had second thoughts regarding killling Caesar, no such doubts plague him as he takes his own life.
So, Caesar has "won" in the end, and the presence of the ghost is proof of that. Yet this literary element, which could have been developed more fully as Brutus's conscience or avenue of self-knowledge, is not developed. In addition, the theory of the conspirators' deaths as the result of the avenging spirit's activity is absent from Antony's interpretation of the battle or of Brutus's death.
Thus, the device just seems to sit there in the play. Shakespeare takes it over from Plutarch, to be sure, but he has not devised a way to make this element "sing" for him. Though it adds an immediacy and element of fear for Brutus in the play, it never becomes an integral aspect of the play. It could have become the key to Shakespear's making Caesar the uncontroverted leading character in the play. But I think that Shakespeare was still learning, in this his first Roman tragedy, to appropriate and assimilate his sources. His linguistic richness in Acts IV and V is not matched by his control over his sources and the shaping of his scenes. Caesar's Ghost is a prime example of this.
Copyright © 2004-2007 William R. Long