Friday, January 20, 2012

Sez You

I just read Gary Wills Rome And Rhetoric, his looks at Shakespeare's Julius Ceasar--how Shakespeare creates the characters and their rhetoric, versus what he know about them from Plutarch.

It's an erudite book (actually taken from the Anthony Hecht lectures at Bard) that has some different takes on the play.  For instance, though it's called Julius Caesar, the big parts are Brutus, Cassius and Antony. Yet in the original production, Burbage played the title role.  Wills suggests two things--that Burbage had huge roles in the other plays that season, so he needed to take it easy, but also that Caesar (played by an actor who also probably took on Cicero--they doubled parts then, which also explains why certain characters don't appear at the same time), as opposed to how he's often interpreted today, must maintain a certain dignity and power, so his ghost will haunt the rest of the action after his death.

Wills looks at Brutus's big speech, which is generally considered a decent piece of rhetoric that's completely overshone by Antony's.  Wills claims that Brutus overrelies on certain rhetorical devices--devices that ancient speakers warned against overusing--and worse, was unresponsive to the audience, relying (in a way that shows his character's flaw) on the crowd not doubting his honor as his justification.  No wonder the wilier Antony easiliy turned things against him.

Shakespeare was hardly the only playwright of his time to write about the ancient world, but his humanity makes these portraits live above others.  Ben Jonson's Catiline is a more learned work, and probably more historically accurate. But Shakespeare knew how to create living, breating characters, so his work is not only the one we remember, but the one that helps us conjure up, fairly or not, what ancient Rome may have been like.


Anonymous Anonymous said...

If I recall 10th grade English. Antony v. Brutus was the triumph of heart over head, excitement over logic, passion over duty- if I am correctly recalling the titles on the mimeographed handouts- ah thinking of it makes me smell the purple ink and the unhappy fate of Cinna the Poet

8:00 AM, January 20, 2012  
Blogger LAGuy said...

That is a fairly conventional view. Wills is claiming, among other things, that Shakespeare makes Brutus's speech not something that fails because it appeals to logic, but rather simply weak. Brutus is too certain of himself, and his speech is based on the audience believing in Brutus's honor rather than any reasoning. Brutus makes this mistake throughut the whole play, along with not understanding Caesar himself. At least that's what Wills is claiming.

10:50 AM, January 20, 2012  
Anonymous Anonymous said...

I always thought Brutus was an unimaginative dullard who let himself be swept up by events greater than himself.

For those unfamiliar with Cinna the Poet, see

"Tear him for his bad verse!"

12:25 PM, January 20, 2012  
Anonymous Anonymous said...

Never ever be a smart ass with the mob.

12:27 PM, January 20, 2012  

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