Final Thoughts I
If there is one overriding impression that remains with me after studying Julius Caesar closely is that the author leaves many basic questions of the play unanswered. Or, to put it differently, he leaves us with many mixed signals, where text and character alike can be read in different and incompatible ways. Rather than take this, however, as a sign of Shakespeare's subtle effort to bring complexity to the play under the guise of the simplicity of rather straightforward language, I see it as Shakespeare's imperfect mastery of the craft of writing a Roman tragedy. Four mixed signals are evident.
Mixed Signals on Brutus
After Brutus ran on his sword, Antony interprets Brutus's death. In memorable words, Antony says,
"This 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 (5.5.68-75)!'"
Antony makes two points. First, Brutus's motivation differed from the other conspirators and second, Brutus's nature evinced a wonderful Stoic harmony of virtues. Both have elements of ambiguity or "mixedness" in them. With respect to the first (motivation), we can agree that Brutus wrestled deeply with himself over his dual loyalties to the state and to Caesar. But, by the time of Caesar's murder, he had also assumed such an imperial manner and authority that some of the rabble wanted to make him Caesar (3.2.47-53). By his death he was using Christological terminology to describe his fate (5.5.20), and he believed that he would have greater "glory" in his losing day than even that of the victors (5.5.36-38). Maybe his motivation was truly to make himself great, and not simply to serve the needs of the Republic. Ambiguity of signals.
Second (nature), the portrait of Brutus the "mix'd" man is ambiguous. In Stoic philosophy, the various impulses were to be brought under the sway of reason in such a way that a man would live in harmony with nature or according to nature and thus achieve an imperturbability and calm that arises from the serene confidence that divine providence is ruling over all. Yet, the picture of Brutus throughout the play is anything other than that of perfectly mixed man. Instead of "mix'd," the better word to describe him would be "vex'd (1.2.39)." Inner turmoil stalks him at every point, whether in his rising from bed to pace in the middle of the night (2.1.235ff.) or his unwillingness to look into himself (1.2.64-65) or his self-observation that between the planning of some great event (like the conspiracy) and the actual event "the state of a man,/... suffers then/ The nature of an insurrection (2.1.67-69)."
Mixed Signals on Antony and Octavian
Does Shakespeare want to give us the impression that these two Triumvirs have a shaky relationship, a relationship which will be in danger of foundering? Already in 4.1 Antony dismisses Lepidus as a "slight unmeritable man,/ Meet to be sent on errands (4.1.12-13)," while Octavian has a more positive assessment of him (4.1.27-29). No conflict is yet supposed.
Yet, in 5.1, as they are going out to battle against he conspirators, they have a disagreement about troop deployment. Antony says, "Octavius, lead your battle softly on. Upon the left hand of the even field (5.1.16-17)." Octavian's reply is a matter-of-fact, "Upon the right hand I, keep thou the left (5.1.18)." "Why do you cross me in this exigent? Antony queries in 5.1.19, only to be answered by Octavian, "I do not cross you; but I will do so (5.1.20)." Does this disagreement mean or presage anything?
At the end of the play, where they appear together again, they both agree in ascribing honors to Brutus. Antony sung his virtue; Octavian rejoins, "According to his virtue let us use him (5.5.76)." Full agreement here.
The point is not a huge one, but it is slightly nagging. Is Shakespeare trying to lay the groundwork for a future fallout between the two? That fallout will be at the heart of his second Roman tragedy, Antony and Cleopatra, written about 1606-07. Shakespeare could have perhaps made more of the differences between Antony's and Octavian's styles: Antony as the "gamesome" one, the party guy and Octavian as the more restrained, cautious, balanced and puritanical leader, but he does not. We are left hanging by the undeveloped relationship between these two Triumvirs.
Copyright © 2004-2007 William R. Long