March 15th was the Ides of March. For some reason I embrace this date in history like St Patrick’s Day or one of those bank holidays that give us a four-day weekend. I look forward to it, perhaps because I had a pretty good teacher in high school for this period of history. Maybe because I did a minor in Classics at university. But mostly I think it’s the writing in Shakespeare’s The Tragedy of Julius Caesar. Studying this play taught me so much about word usage and drama and history and literary terms, which I love.
A tragedy is not something terribly sad, at least as it is defined in literature. It is the story of the fall of a heroic person, which brings us to the question, was Caesar a tragic hero? Well, yes. Because he was noble enough to go against orders from his superiors, but fell victim to his fatal flaw, his ambition. Was he truly the tragic hero in the story? Maybe not. That could be Brutus, who thinks long and hard over actions he takes then thinks long and hard over whether he made the right decision, before falling on his own sword. Brutus is my spirit animal, some days. Think, think, think, then regret. Thankfully I don’t own any swords, and we have something Roman’s didn’t have – therapists and cheap wine from Sainsbury’s.
As I’ve studied English at various levels I’ve read a few of Shakespeare’s plays. Hamlet, Macbeth, King Lear. For pleasure I’ve read A Midsummer Night’s Dream. When I lived in Stratford Upon Avon, I saw the Royal Shakespeare Company perform Twelfth Night and Romeo and Juliet. Due to a stunningly good high school English teacher I can still quote endless soliloquies and sonnets. But it is the story of Julius Caesar that captivates me most. Now, Julius Caesar did remarkable things, but perhaps the most important was appointing his adopted nephew Octavian as his successor. Rome flourished under his calm, competent leadership. Caesar also ushered in the era of the Twelve Caesars, with other exemplary leaders like Claudius and Tiberius and Hadrian. But it is always Caesar and Shakespeare’s take on him that I return to.
If I really think about it, and I have, and I do, it’s the Soothsayer who makes this play my favourite. He has nine lines in the whole thing but is a pivotal character. He does his absolute best to save Caesar but is dismissed as being mad. Still, he tries and tries. I like the way he reads the crowd, how he knows where to stand so he can get close to Caesar to speak to him. I like how when Caesar challenges him, saying as he passes, ‘the Ides of March have come,” the Soothsayer replies, “Aye, Caesar, but not gone.’ I love his confidence in his skill, and I love his quick reply. We all know in the end he was right, and if he gloated about it, Shakespeare never let on, and thankfully it was before the days of cable news and he wasn’t on CNN telling Anderson Cooper his side of the story.
As I’ve gotten older, the play has taught me a lot about life. Brutus was a friend who turned against him, which happens, but Marc Antony went on to be the kind of friend we all wish we had and avenges his friend’s murder. That might be extreme but talk about loyalty!
Caesar himself was no slouch when it came to reading people and I remember being quite captivated as he studied Cassius and drew up his own conclusions.
Caesar asks Antony for fat men to surround him, knowing they are happy, complacent, and will not bite the hand that feeds them. Shakespeare would be called out for fat shaming today, but that was not the point. He knew people happy with their place would be loyal, but not so the thin and scheming Cassius. Perhaps planning a murder burns up calories. This is not something I can easily research, as I’m a bit afraid of plugging that into Google. Still, Caesar sees him and knows to be weary. He says, ‘Yond Cassius has a lean and hungry look
He thinks too much: such men are dangerous.’
If only someone had told Caesar about Brutus. Oh, wait.
The lesson here is to be careful of the people who surround you. Nicely done for showing, not telling, Mr Shakespeare.
I think the play fed my interest in the Roman empire, its history and its accomplishments. I also quite liked the idea of living in a hot climate and wearing flowing white togas and sandals all the time. Sort of solves the mystery of why I didn’t date much in high school, I guess.
So another Ides has come and gone. I spent the day thinking about Julius Caesar and Mark Antony, two men from another time and place, an empire long gone, and how great it would be to have a soothsayer looking out for me. And possibly a friend like Marc Antony.
Shakespeare. Cheaper than therapy and better for you than wine.