The Abuse of Greatness: Shakespeare’s Caesar

The abuse of greatness is, when it disjoins
Remorse from power . . . . — Shakespeare, Julius Caesar

The best way to enjoy a Shakespeare play is to see it acted. Then one can turn to the script for better understanding. Having recently read Plutarch’s life of the famous Roman dictator, I decided to watch the 1979 BBC television play, which is a faithful rendition of the original.

Shakespeare’s drama, which relied heavily on Plutarch’s account, brings to life the events surrounding Caesar’s assassination. There are important lessons about the dangers of political violence, and the role of unintended consequences. “Cry ‘Havoc,’ and let slip the dogs of war” is Mark Antony’s fateful pronouncement. Violence, once unleashed, is hard to contain.

Our course will seem too bloody, Caius Cassius,
To cut the head off and then hack the limbs,
Like wrath in death and envy afterwards;
For Antony is but a limb of Caesar:
Let us be sacrificers, but not butchers, Caius.

It is true that Brutus was not willing to kill Antony. But having killed Caesar he set a dangerous precedent. The ensuing civil war and murderous purge by the Second Triumvirate—comprising Mark Antony, Octavius (future Emperor Augustus) and Lepidus—is far more disastrous than Brutus, Cassius and their colleagues foresaw. The scene where the triumvirs haggle over who will be killed or spared is one that has been played out many times since by revolutionaries and dictators. Men will forsake even friends and family for the sake of hatred or ambition.

Shakespeare attains great artistry by the ambivalence which surrounds many of the play’s characters. Caesar is not without his nobility. Antony’s loyalty to Caesar is admirable, just as Brutus’ betrayal seems ungenerous. The actions of the conspirators appear motivated by impatience and vanity. But once the tide turns, Antony and his allies appear completely ruthless and power hungry, without the mitigating scruples or magnanimity of the man they claimed to avenge. There are apparently many ways to abuse greatness.

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