Author: William Shakespeare
Type: Fiction, play
Full title: The Tragedy of Julius Caesar
I read it: December 2017
Among the dozens of books constantly vying for my attention, the ones that get read often have an appealing physical presence. Because of this, I supported the Rock Paper Books campaign on Kickstarter when they proposed their Shakespeare collection a couple years ago. I now have three on the shelf, but this is the first of them I’ve read. (Thanks to my wife for the solstice gift!)
I had no real knowledge of the history behind the play, so I took Shakespeare’s work as a starting point for understanding the broad strokes. Caesar is a powerful leader who is respected, feared, and despised, and those around him conspire to take him down for reasons that boil down to “we’re doing it for the good of the republic” but really “we’re doing it because we want his power.” Surprisingly, Caesar is murdered halfway through the play, putting a weird spin on the title of the play itself. The story has a lot do with Brutus, who helped orchestrate the events, and Antony, who remained loyal to Caesar and fought back against Brutus. As for the other characters, I recognized the name Cicero (if indeed it’s the Cicero I remember from school), but otherwise it’s nearly impossible to separate the long list of Cassius, Popilius, Decius, Artemidorus, Lucius, Lepidus, Varrus, Octavius…
The tale is a quick read with few extraneous scenes, including some act five battles that occur offstage and only a touch of the supernatural in the form of fortune-telling. I ended up reading some of the actual history on Wikipedia, and it seems that Antony is the same man who features in the play he shares the title of with Cleopatra.
One major disappointment with this printing of the book is some proofreading oversight when it comes to stage directions. Multiple times they are not formatted correctly (set apart on their own line and italicized). For example, partway through Brutus telling people goodbye, it appears that he has a line of dialogue that says “Exeunt all but Brutus and Lucius.” I understand that Kickstarter does not allow creators to put a ton of resources behind a project, but it’s truly surprising that these items, which can be caught in a single reading, weren’t corrected.
The cover features the columns of an imposing government building transforming into the upside-down reflections of men of power. The whisperers, conspirators, traitors, and schemers all hide in shadow under a striking teal title. Turn it upside down and a few horizontal bars take prominence, as if representing the shades of a boardroom. A knife is visible in the hand of one man.
Each paperback features a popular quotation on the back that starts in gray font and fades as you read down. For Julius Caesar, the selected quote is “Men at some time are masters of their fates. The fault, dear Brutus, is not in our stars, but in ourselves, that we are underlings.”
- “Beware the ides of March.” (From a soothsayer predicting when Caesar will die; it’s March 15.)
- “The eye sees not itself/ But by reflection, by some other things.”
- “It was Greek to me.” The character Casca means it literally: Cicero spoke Greek and Casca didn’t know what he meant. Of course, now we mean it only figuratively.
- “But men may construe things after their fashion,/ Clean from the purpose of the things themselves.”
- “But when I tell him he hates flatterers/ He says he does, being then most flattered.” Yes, there are plenty of jabs at rulers, which seem overly relevant to the American mind.
- “Et tu, Brute?” (“And you, Brutus?” in Latin.)
- “How many ages hence/ Shall this our lofty scene be acted over/ In states unborn and accents yet unknown!” Gettin’ pretty meta.
- “Friends, Romans, countrymen, lend me your ears!” I can only think of that scene from Robin Hood: Men in Tights where the listeners throw their actual ears at the speaker.
- “Hollow men… Make gallant show and promise of their mettle.” (America again.)
Other phrases and words perhaps coined in this play according to this person:
- “let slip the dogs of war”
- “live long day”
- “You All Loved Him Once” is a Conor Oberst song about himself or Jesus or apparently Julius Caesar.
- On Such a Full Sea by Chang-rae Lee takes its title from the play.
- As does The Fault in Our Stars by John Green, of course.
Now I know everything I need to know about the man, myth, and legend who is Julius Caesar. Thankfully he lives on in the modern mind… or stomach, rather. Time to get some Little Caesar’s and wash it down with an Orange Julius.