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Barron's Booknotes-Julius Caesar by William Shakespeare
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13. Shakespeare's portrait of the common people is not very flattering. When we first see them, they're enjoying a day off from work to celebrate Caesar's triumphant return. Politics don't seem to interest them: they're too wrapped up in their own private lives to care about anything but their holiday. In his funeral oration, Brutus tries to reason with the people, but they misunderstand him and try to turn him into a Caesar. No intellectual argument is going to reduce their need for a leader; if Caesar the man is dead, they will find someone else to take his place. Antony succeeds in his speech because he appeals to the blind emotions of the crowd. When he finishes speaking, the crowds cry, "Revenge! About [let's go!]! Burn! Fire! Kill! Slay!" (Act III, Scene ii, line 206). Their murder of the innocent poet Cinna (Act III, Scene iii) reminds us how dangerous they can be when their emotions are unchecked. If you were going to compare the Roman populous to a single person, you would have to compare the common people to the body, and the rulers to the head. The assassination is justified by the need to continue a Republican (representative) form of government. But from what we see of the people, they lack the intelligence or interest to select rulers to represent them. What interests them are the trappings of greatness, the pageantry and the glory. Caesar is murdered to give these people their freedom, but it's doubtful that freedom is what they want or need.



14. You can write a strong paper arguing that Shakespeare's women are weak, subservient, and superstitious. And you can write an equally strong essay arguing that Shakespeare was hundreds of years ahead of his time in his view of woman as man's equal, perhaps even his "better half."

Let's start with the less flattering view of women. Calpurnia speaks only 26 lines, so you have no excuse for not reading them carefully. The second time she appears (Act II, Scene ii) she comes across as a frightened child haunted by bad dreams and omens. She is undignified, nervous, and weak. Living with Caesar has apparently not taught her how to deal with him, for she orders him not to leave the house-the surest way, of course, of forcing him to go. Portia asks to be treated as her husband's equal; when he does so, she falls apart and eventually takes her life. Note, too, that Portia wants to be Brutus' equal only so that she can be more a part of his life; nowhere does she suggest that he be more a part of hers.

If you want to write a paper portraying Shakespeare as a defender of women's rights, point out that all of Calpurnia's dreams, and all of Portia's fears, come true. Thus Shakespeare's women, in their intuitive way, seem closer to the truth than the men. Both Portia and Calpurnia have an innate sense of wisdom that lets them see through words to the very heart of things. Both women are also devoted wives, concerned about the well-being of their husbands. Calpurnia may seem a bit shrill, but who wouldn't be, with a pompous husband like Caesar? Portia is modest and tender, but she is also strong willed and dignified. She is one of the few characters in the play who use language to communicate their feelings, rather than to hide from them. If the men in Julius Caesar had listened to their women, the assassination would never have taken place, and Rome would never have been plunged into civil war.

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Barron's Booknotes-Julius Caesar by William Shakespeare
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