Honor in Julius Caesar by Shannon Fitzgerald

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By Shannon Fitzgerald

Shakespeare’s Julius Caesar and it’s recounting of the historical downfall of Caesar places a great deal of focus on honor, particularly the honor, or lack thereof, of Brutus, ultimately making the play much more about Brutus’s arc than the death of Caesar. Throughout the play Brutus is referred to as being noble and from one of the oldest families in Rome. This sense of honor and nobility is integral to and inseparable from his identity as a person. It is his preoccupation with honor that enables Cassius to convince him that Caesar must be destroyed and after the conspiracy is carried out Brutus’s desperation to maintain his honor becomes increasingly evident in his speech, and finally it is honor that Brutus dies for, successfully returning to his lauded status of “the noblest Roman of them all” (V.v l.68) after his suicide.

Cassius’s hatred for Julius Caesar is by and large for personal and emotional reasons. He is jealous that Caesar has reached such great political heights in spite of his physical deficiencies and he enviously questions what makes Caesar any better than Brutus, himself or any other Roman when he says “Why should that name [Caesar] be sounded more than yours?”(I.ii. l.142) He knows that Brutus wouldn’t be moved to kill a man, a man who considered Brutus to be a close friend, by such petty reasons, but Cassius knew that Brutus, above all else, would act in the defense of Rome. Knowing how inexorably tied together Brutus’s identity and honor are, all Cassius needed to do to gain Brutus’s necessary support was to question the safety of Rome and it’s people under the potential rule of Caesar as a king. The theoretical picture Cassius paints, that Caesar would possibly become a tyrant if he was king, isn’t all that convincing, as such it’s doubtful that Brutus really believes this reasoning, and it would in turn seem that there are some personal reasons for his actions after all. The preemptive murder of a man who just might be negatively influenced and corrupted by power hardly seems like a logical course of action, yet Brutus thinks Caesar “a serpent’s egg / Which hatched, would as his kind grow mischievous” (II.i ll.32-33) and it would be be best to “kill him in the shell” (II.i l.34).

Ultimately, Cassius’s efforts at manipulating Brutus by his honor is successful, but it doesn’t change just how dedicated Brutus is to maintaining his noble and honorable image. As soon as the decision is made to kill Caesar, Brutus works towards doing so in such a way that the Roman people will see that the conspirators had all acted to save Rome from tyranny. He needs the assassination to be seen as a sacrifice and the conspirators to be “purgers, not murderers” (II.i l.179), if they are not, then the brutal stabbing of Caesar would be nothing more than a “savage spectacle” (III.i l. 223), in turn destroying his honor.

Brutus’s doubts that his actions were honorable become clearer in his speech to the people in the second scene of the third act. He repeats “mine honor” four times within the space of about twenty lines as he tries to drive home the message “not that I loved Caesar less, / but that I loved Rome more” (III.ii ll.21-22), but who is he trying to convince? The common people accept his story readily enough so it must be assumed that a good deal of Brutus’s speech is intended to convince himself that he’s done the right thing. Immediately after this speech the idea that honor can be a liability is returned to with Antony’s eulogy and his own repetition and questioning of the honor of Caesar’s murder. “But Brutus says he was ambitious; / And Brutus is an honourable man” (III.ii. ll.87-88) Antony says time and time again, until not only is Brutus’s honor thrown into question the very words being used have reached a point where they are meaningless.

It is telling that the play ends with the suicides of Cassius and Brutus and the subsequent switch in the way the survivng characters view them to be honorable once more. They chose to die for their principles rather than living without honor and so Julius Caesar closes with one of the few examples in the play of what true honor is.

Pyramus and Thisbe in the Twentieth Century

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This week, I’m going to be a little self-indulgent and tell you about my trip to England and my spring break discoveries.  My big project is researching the stage history of Pyramus and Thisbe, the play within a play of A Midsummer Night’s Dream.  The performance by Shakespeare’s “rude mechanicals” has been produced, or recreated as an independent drama consistently off and on across the centuries.  My project is tracing the ways in which it is used at particular moments when the aesthetic landscape is changing – for example, at the time when Shakespeare was being canonized as the world’s poet in the eighteenth century, and with the rise of American realism as a literary genre in the nineteenth century.  What I was looking at in England was the way in which Shakespeare becomes a staple of light entertainment in the mid twentieth-century.
It’s hard to explain what I mean when I talk about variety, or light entertainment, because it seems like a peculiarly British genre.  The best way to explain this to an American audience is to tell you that it is exactly like the Muppet show (the original one, back in the 1970s and 80s).  Variety entertainment was the next evolutionary step for Victorian music hall, and was a revue show, with dirty songs, dancing girls, and slapstick sketches.  This was, essentially working class entertainment.  It came out of the music-halls, which were part-theatre show, part-drinking club, popular among the lower classes, and opposed to the “legitimate” theatres of the English west-end.  This theatre was defiantly vulgar and working class, but a variety of factors, from the rise of television, to the simple exhaustion of audiences, gave this genre an expiration date. Television was a huge factor in keeping people out of the theaters, but more importantly, attempted to create a national culture that was more encompassing of the class disparity, and needed to soften its edges in order to be able to appeal to all classes.  As revue evolved, and moved on to television, it became less abrasive, and less defiantly working class, and the satire turned in on itself.  Comedians parodied themselves, not the institutions of class that defined them, and one of the most commonly held sketch format was of the overreaching actor, whose hubris drives him to humiliation as he fails to create the masterpiece he envisions.  Sound familiar?

Shakespeare, being the monument of respectable culture, was an easy target for such comedy.  A fine example of this is Morecambe and Wise, whose sketches routinely parodied formal productions of Shakespeare, even including actors such as Laurence Olivier and Glenda Jackson in their act.  This week, I was able to watch one of the most popular comedy troupes of the 1930s, 40s and 50s, The Crazy Gang, perform Pyramus and Thisbe.  The Crazy Gang did Pyramus and Thisbe as part of a half-hour show called The Music Box.  Here are a couple of stills:

 

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Pyramus and Thisbe is ideal for this type of performance, essentially because Shakespeare does all of the work for the performers  by constructing hilariously bad theatre in his script.  Hamlet may be more familiar, or even more open to parody, but Pyramus and Thisbe is already a parody of a Shakespearean tragedy, written by the man himself.  What I love about variety performers using Pyramus and Thisbe is that the comedy is embedded in the Shakespearean text – in attempting to mock Shakespeare, they inadvertently honor him.  It’s the idea of Shakespeare that gets sent up in these performances, and in doing so, this critiques the audience more than the Shakespearean text itself.

To close, I’m just going to point out that The Beatles shamelessly stole The Crazy Gang’s performance in 1964 when they did their own Pyramus and Thisbe, which can be seen here.

 

Things Unfinished by Rashi Bhaya

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Shakespeare’s As You Like It provides the reader with an undefined ending, which is completely open to interpretation. This is a liberty that we have not been previously afforded. Most of his plays end with a character giving a speech summing up the events in the play, and providing some sort of moral or lesson learned from the play. The characters either commend the actions of another character or condemn the actions of a character. The epilogue at the end of this play, which is spoken by Rosalind, does not leave a lasting impression on us. This is a key difference from most of the other plays, which we have read this semester. It allows us to reinterpret all the events of a play, as WE like.

It has been said that the ending of a work of literature is what ultimately defines that piece of work. It allows the reader to put the beginning and middle of a work into perspective as a series of events that are all connected in leading up to the finale. If an ending is nondescript, we are left feeling somewhat uncomfortable. This feeling of “unfinished business” and incompleteness is unsettling in some ways. We, as readers, are searching for the meaning or some sort of context that we can put this in. In this same way, the characters of a work are on a quest to discover something as well. They begin at a certain point, and have a goal or desire, which they hope to fulfill by the end of the story. This journey is therefore seen as important, and as the pillar of a work.

In As You Like It it is hard to point out why exactly the plot moves forward. The characters are not seeking to accomplish something, and have no explicitly stated goals. Or if they do, we do not see the culmination of these objectives. Orlando begins the play hoping to receive from his older brother Oliver a part of his father’s estate, which he feels is owed to him. He has not been provided with the education or life, which his father intended for him. Rosalind is the disinherited daughter of a Duke and lives in the home of her usurping uncle, yet she does not raise a single objection. Duke Senior is not strategizing a plan to take back his kingdom, but is rather trying to live out his life in the forest by making the best of a bad situation. In this way, the characters can be seen as lacking ambition and drive.

Upon their arrival in the Forest of Arden these characters feel obligated to ascribe significance to their actions. But this fails to happen, because their actions now are just as anticlimactic as before. Rosalind passes away the time pinning for and re-training Orlando, and Orlando abandons his goal of acquiring a better quality of life. Rather, he spends his days writing unimpressive poetry, and fawning over a woman that he cannot even speak to. We are presented with these characters that are the basis of the play, but it seems like they end up doing nothing.  We are then faced with this same problem of needing meaning, because we expect every action to have a cause and an effect. We feel that something palpable must come out of this, but we are deprived of this.

Jacques tries to explain to the characters that life is a just a series of events from birth to death. He understands the simplicity of the different stages of life, and knows that this cycle cannot be broken. He feels that the complications of life are unnecessary because the cycle will always carry on as it has. Experiences do not always have to be meaningful. The other characters mock him and choose to disregard him for this reason.

By at the end of the play, all the other characters achieve what they felt they desired or deserved but nothing really comes from this and the play is no different from when it started. Most of the couples end up married, and the usurped Duke is given back his kingdom. The rituals of court-life still exist, and the characters remain unchanged throughout the play.

The need to apply meaning to experiences is inherent in this play. But the play seems more like a series of events that end up being inconclusive, and cause us to raise ours brows in vexation. As we discussed in class, this play reflects the how Shakespeare comedies become ambiguous because of how we are left grasping at straws.  The happy ending in this play seems as a step that must come about, just like a stage that must be fulfilled, and for this reason seems unsustainable. Much like the characters in the play searching for meaning, we too are hoping to find meaning at the end of the play. But we must, like Jacques suggests, understand the play as a series of acts and scenes, just like the stages in life, which proceed from a beginning to an end.

The Renaissance Pastoral

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As I had mentioned briefly on Monday, As You Like It, by virtue of being set in the forest of Arden, establishes itself as a play in the Renaissance pastoral tradition.  The Renaissance pastoral is quite wonderful, and being a country lass at heart, this blog post is dedicated to talking about one of my favorite genres.

The pastoral emerged in Roman culture, firstly with Theocritus, then Virgil, who really made the form what it was. The Idylls of  Theocritus was based on the conceit of shepherds singing songs in a contest, for Pan, the god of pastoral poetry.  When Virgil took over the form, he used his Eclogues as a means of reflecting on the injustice of having his family farm confiscated from him by Augustus Caesar, who wanted to reclaim the land and offer it as payment to soldiers returning from wars fought on his behalf.  So, even though Virgil’s poems are celebrations of the respite that an idyllic rural landscape can offer, they are laments for a paradise that is lost.

Although pastoral poems frequently feature love poems, one of their defining characteristics is their self-reflexive nature – they are poems about poetry.  This is in part because of the recognition that paradise is unsustainable, whether it’s Virgil’s lost home, or the Milton’s fallen Christians.  A paradise can only exist in the mind, and this is something the poet can furnish.  In Virgil’s Fourth Eclogue, for example, the poet predicts a glorious race of men who will come with the imminent birth of Augustus Caesar’s son, creating a spectacular vision, then asserting his right to create this paradise when he asserts that, given the chance, “nor Thracian Orpheus should out-sing me then.”

During the Renaissance, pastoral poetry re-emerged with Edmund Spenser as a popular art form. Spenser, following the Virgilian model, began his career with his own eclogues, The Shepheardes Calendar” before writing his pastoral epic, The Fairie Queene in 1595.  These poems engaged with socio-political utopian fantasies of England, and, like the earlier form, continually asserted the role of the poet.  Shakespeare engages charmingly with the tradition in As You Like It.  The fantasy of pastoralism is perpetually betrayed by the cold and harsh conditions they face, and the Duke’s attempts to ameliorate the situation by using his language to romanticize reality, as indeed, Rosalind does when she tries to re-fashion her slightly useless boyfriend, Orlando.  I think Touchstone describes the pastoral trend best, when he recognizes that “the truest poetry is the most feigning.”  The pastoral flaunted its artificiality at every turn, while actively seducing its reader into succumbing to it’s Arcadian idyll.  As you like it, indeed.

 

january“January” from Edmund Spenser’s The Shepheardes Calendar.
This little chap is named Colin Clouts.

 

What Makes a Good King: Comparing King John and Richard II-Kristen Miro

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Upon Reading Shakespeare’s King John, it is evident that there are specific standards with regards to taking over the thrown. Needless to say, there is way in which one presents himself in order to play the part of King. Looking at Shakespeare’s work, one can make clear connections and parallels to Richard II as well as the different characteristics each character possesses. While both King John and Richard II were often critiqued among society for their tactics, it is evident that Richard II comes across as a more powerful, independent leader when compared to John. Based off of their backgrounds and language, Richard II ultimately makes a better leader and ruler legitimizes the significance of kingship.
Though Richard II and King John both seem to have a disconnect among their communities, Richard ultimately achieves legitimacy with regards to the thrown and his kingship while John is often viewed as a negative asset to the thrown of England. While Richard II is often critiqued for his flamboyant, over dramatized character and his extraordinary language (such as his use of poetry and prose in his speeches), his unique and powerful language is what allowed him to maintain his title as the ruler of England. Compared to King John, everything is as Richard II defines it to be; his use of his extravagant language redeems his position as ruler due to his lack of scars or battle wounds. As Richard mentions, ‘if he still feels like a king, he is king.’ Due to this idea, the use of such poetry instills an authoritative voice within Richard, allowing him to maintain the crown. Because of this, it plays on the idea of the God given right that one must possess in order to rule the throne. In order to be a good ruler, you have to play the part; with regards to Richard the II, one must demonstrate their power or divine right in order to be considered a legitimate ruler. Richard’s need to make a spectacle allows him to hold power among England and we see this among Shakespeare’s work. Richard willingly knows that language holds power and regardless of what others tell him, no one can take his authority away from him. Richard stills has the respect him even if they don’t necessarily agree with him, ultimately proving his legitimacy within England.
Compared to Richard II, King John is questionable in terms of his position and his legitimacy to the throne. Not only is he a questionable asset to the thrown because Arthur should have been the rightful heir next in line, his tactics with regards to stealing money from the church and having Arthur killed puts him more at a disadvantage. By the play’s conclusion, King John eventually is poisoned and dies perhaps for having involvement in Arthur’s death, leaving a negative impact on England. While John can be critiqued for his decisions made while he was in government, he is also looked down upon for his dependence on others (I.e. being forced to sign the Magna Carta, and having others make decisions for him). Among the play, King John’s use of language seems meaningless. Not only does he have his mother who makes most of his decisions and comments on his lack of nobleness, but he turns society against him by his actions. His words in a sense become instantly ignored and he is disregarded as a ruler in general. Even when King John tries to justify himself for having Hubert assassinate Arthur, blaming Hubert for his decisions, his words become invalid for the people are infuriated with him. As mentioned in class, John broke the cycle of kingship; by not having his people respect him, he becomes obsolete among society. Though Richard II was also questioned for his peculiar tactics while in charge of the thrown, Richard ultimately proves himself to be a good ruler and most definitely fits the part of ‘King’ more so than John.

King John and Richard II

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Coming to King John for the first time in I-don’t-know-how-long, I was fascinated by the parallels to Richard II. My Riverside Shakespeare puts composition of King John somewhere between 1594 and 1596, which means that it was written at the same time as Richard II.  Both plays are meditations on “troublesome” kings, but the differences could not be more stark.  The sanctity of kingship that overflows the measure of Richard II is entirely absent in King John.  Whereas Richard II is the epitome of sacred kingship (whether that be through the force of performance or divine right), King John, as Megan noted today, is defined entirely by its lack of regality.  This nobility is scrappy, fickle, and desperately clawing onto any power they can hold.  The play is overshadowed by the great spirit of an absent king, Richard the Lionheart, but this Richard’s failure as a king is manifest in the political mess he has left behind.  John assumes the rites kingship because there is nobody else to stop him, but lacks even Bolingbroke’s common touch that renders him the man of the people who can depose Richard II.  The one indisputable king we meet, Philip, fares no better.  He is uncertain, politically self-interested, and lacking the rhetorical greatness to at least convince us that there is any potency to his lofty words, when he speaks of ideologies of faith and honor.

And this is where the fascination lies: that these plays appear to be two sides of the same coin, yet, stylistically, are so vastly different. In many ways, I always think that Richard II is a play that is defined by its dramaturgical stillness – none of the promised confrontations ever come to fruition – Bolingbroke and Mowbray do not fight, Richard’s army never arrives to support him, and even in the deposition scene, Bolingbroke is unable to assert his claim in any meaningful way, and submits to Richard’s histrionics.  King John, by comparison is Marlowe-esque in its grotesquely dramatic plot.  In acts 1-3 alone, we have two battles, one marriage, one ex-communication, and one sinking of a kind-of-maybe-sort-of Armada.  And we still don’t know anything about the characters.  The language is rude, direct, and uncontrolled – whereas in Richard II, we recognize the fallacy inherent in that the words, the language is so compelling that it sweeps us away.  By contrast, the “high” speeches of King John seem to advertise their false values, and everything else is blunt to the point of coarseness.

I think the difference is the difference between stagecraft and reality.  Richard II gives us an exploration of the symbolic power of kingship – how it is cultivated, why we might need it, and the price we might pay to have such a leader (for good or ill).  King John gives us the ugly realities of politics – the truth about the messiness of ruling a kingdom that Bolingbroke discovers in act four of Richard II is unpacked and given full-length treatment in King John.