Some more Julius Caesar, do you mind?
The fact is that, because of Shakespeare in Words, I had a special thrill when, in Act 3.I, the conspirators bathe their hands in dead Caesar’s blood – half barbaric ritual, half preparation to face the angry and upset crowds outside. Very much like actors before a play, they plan to appear with bloody hands and swords, shouting “Peace, freedom, and liberty.”
And as they kneel there, hands in the spilled blood, Cassius has one of those moments when one sees oneself from outside – and in history:
CASSIUS …How many ages hence
Shall this our lofty scene be acted over
In states unborn and accents yet unknown!
I’ve always liked the notion of people stopping while they do world-changing deeds to muse on their nachleben – and, apparently, so did Shakespeare. What he gives us, is a a wonderfully metadramatic moment: I can’t remember where I read it described as a historical event imagining itself as a play within a play about the event itself… There’s irony there, because Cassius asks this of audiences watching precisely that lofty scene in states and accents quite unborn in 44 b.C. – and, come to think of it, some unborn in 1599 as well. Cassius isn’t out for irony, though: he is in such dead earnest that one might wonder. Can he mean “to act over” in a less theatrical sense, as “to carry out again”? Is he imagining himself less as a tragic hero of future stages than as an inspiration for countless generations of tyrannicides to come? At least, this was my impression the first time I ever read Julius Caesar… until Brutus rejoined like this:
BRUTUS How many times shall Caesar bleed in sport,
That now on Pompey’s basis lies along
No worthier than the dust!
Well, now this brings us back firmly on the stage, doesn’t it? I might be imagining things, but I can’t help hearing a certain down-to-earth bitterness in Brutus’s words, and an echo of ruffled feathers when Cassius answers back:
CASSIUS So oft as that shall be,
So often shall the knot of us be call’d
The men that gave their country liberty.
Cassius won’t have his bit of history taken from him, he won’t have the spotlight move to Caesar’s bleeding corpse, and snatches it back to himself and his comrades – the men who freed Rome, thank you very much. Which, you’ll notice, we find in a play titled after Caesar…
Also, we have seen once more (and not for the last time) that Cassius and Brutus go on separate tracks – but that was in passing: after this, Decius Brutus breaks the moment with his brisk “What, shall we forth?” and then Antony’s servant arrives, and Antony himself – and the metadramatic whirl is closed, with its vertiginous glimpse of questions within questions, and mirroring ironies, and centuries, and depths… and all within nine lines.
Isn’t it dizzying, and dazzling, and breath-taking?