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Barron's Booknotes-Julius Caesar by William Shakespeare
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LINES 1-25

The scene opens in Caesar's home the morning of March 15th-the ides of March.

The thunder and lightning are stage effects which make the moment more dramatic. They also remind us that the order of the universe has been disturbed. The gods are unhappy with men and apparently will not rest until harmony has been restored.

Three times Calpurnia cried out in her sleep, "They murder Caesar!" Her dreams will soon come true-another indication that there are forces at work beyond our rational understanding or control. Some readers view Caesar's wife as a weak and frightened child, yet no one could be closer to the truth.

Shakespeare must have taken special delight in catching Caesar at his most private moment-in his dressing gown at home. If he ever intended to show the private man behind the public mask, now was the time.

He doesn't disappoint us. Caesar first appears as a frightened, superstitious man, asking for sacrifices to the gods. Calpurnia humiliates him by announcing, "You shall not stir out of your house today"; and Caesar immediately puts on his public mask, and says for all the world to hear:

The things that threaten me Ne'er looked but on my back; when they shall see The face of Caesar, they are vanished.

Act II, Scene ii, lines 9-11

LINES 26-54

Caesar would love to rise above normal human emotions, both to satisfy his own image of himself, and to satisfy his public. But the next moment he is his old superstitious self again, asking his servant what the augurers advise him to do. The fortune tellers caution him to stay home, but he is Caesar, isn't he?- more dangerous than danger itself.

Back and forth Caesar goes, from the private individual to the public figure: one moment succumbing to his private fears, the next, drawing back behind his mask, becoming the god he would like to be.

Is Caesar aware of the inconsistencies in his behavior? Possibly. But like many politicians, he may have worn his mask so often that, even in the privacy of his home, he can no longer tell when it is on or off.

LINES 55-68

Caesar finally gives in to his wife's wishes and agrees to stay home. Perhaps he is being a considerate and loving husband; it is more likely, however, that he is using her as an excuse to hide his own fears from himself and from the public.

Worried that his concession to her may be taken for weakness, he tries to act like the mighty emperor again, and announces to Decius, "I will not come today."

That Caesar's concerned about his public image is obvious. What is less certain is whether he is blindly obsessed with it, or simply shrewd enough to recognize the need to project a strong public image.

LINES 69-106

Shakespeare's characters, from a simple cobbler to a noble senator, are continuously being manipulated by others-and Caesar is no exception. To convince him to visit the Senate, Decius first plays upon his vanity-interpreting Calpurnia's dream as "a vision fair and fortunate" of Romans bathing in Caesar's blood to restore their health. Next, he plays upon Caesar's ambition, telling him the Senate plans this very day to offer him the crown. Will the great Caesar have the Senators whispering that he is afraid?

Caesar is an actor who comes alive in the eyes of his audience, and nothing could upset him more than the loss of his public's esteem. To be afraid is to be merely mortal, and Caesar wants to cast himself in the role of a god. And so he laughs at Calpurnia's fears-fears he shared only a moment ago-and goes to the Senate, and to his death.

LINES 107-129

Caesar is strikingly polite to his would-be assassins-thanking them for their "pains and courtesy," blaming himself for keeping others waiting, and inviting them to share some wine with him.

This is a side of Caesar's nature that we have not seen before. Is Shakespeare painting him in a favorable light to emphasize the horror of the assassination? Perhaps he is merely showing how double-faced politicians can be in public.

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Barron's Booknotes-Julius Caesar by William Shakespeare

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