Shakespeare's Julius Caesar, Erasmus's De Copia, and Sentential Ambiguity

By Yu, Jeffrey J. | Comparative Drama, Spring 2007 | Go to article overview
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Shakespeare's Julius Caesar, Erasmus's De Copia, and Sentential Ambiguity


Yu, Jeffrey J., Comparative Drama


In Shakespeare's Julius Caesar, immediately after the assassination, Brutus and Cassius make the following metadramatic allusion:

Caesar: How many ages hence Shall this our lofty scene be acted over, In states unborn, and accents yet unknown!

Brutus: How many times shall Caesar bleed in sport, That now on Pompey's basis lies along, No worthier than the dust!

Caesar: So oft as that shall be, So often shall the knot of us be call'd The men that gave their country liberty. (1)

The irony of this passage operates on several levels. There is the obvious self-referentiality of the actors, who emphasize the disjunction between the place and time of the historical event they are portraying and its dramatic re-enactment. Shakespeare, in fact, may have been especially concerned with the nature of his craft when composing the play since Julius Caesar is thought to be the first play performed at the new Globe Theatre in 1599. The reference to a play, however, is not necessarily to Shakespeare's work but can refer to other dramatizations of the same subject matter. (2) Moreover, the allusion, like the other metadramatic references in the play, has been thought to refer to the popularity of Roman subjects in general on Elizabethan stages. (3) Furthermore, Cassius refers to multiple performances, and later stagings of Julius Caesar up to the present multiply the potential references for a twenty-first-century reader or audience. The final irony of the passage lies in the obviously mistaken gloss Brutus and Cassius impose on the assassination. Subsequent events prove them wrong, as Rome's populace will not glorify the conspirators as liberators but will, after Antony's funeral oration, drive them from Rome as traitorous assassins.

In their explicit interpretation of the assassination, Brutus and Cassius engage in the kind of unequivocal reading that past critics have imposed on the play as a whole. The play has been read as an unambiguous condemnation of the assassination and the conspirators and a glorification of Caesar. Conversely, Julius Caesar has also been interpreted as a denunciation of Caesar and a tribute to the republican nobility of Brutus and Cassius. (4) The existence of such contrasting readings inevitably casts doubts on both, and more recently, Julius Caesar has been acknowledged to be an ambiguous work that does not assess the principal characters, conflicting politics, or the assassination itself in black and white but in many shades of gray. (5) Such acknowledgment has been due, in large measure, to a greater appreciation of the complexity and contradictory nature of Renaissance conceptions of Caesar. Thus, Shakespeare chose not to impose a didactically political or moral theme on his material, which could not support it anyway. Instead, Shakespeare made the very ambiguity of Caesar and his assassination the focus of his play.

The heart of this ambiguity is identified by Cicero in act 1, scene 3, the night before the assassination. Casca reports the terrible portents he has witnessed to Cicero, and Cicero responds with the following sententia:

   Indeed, it is a strange-disposed time:
   But men may construe things, after their fashion,
   Clean from the purpose of the things themselves.

(1.3.33-35)

Cicero's aphoristic lines transcend their context as a mild rebuke of the frightened Casca; they are the focus of the entire play, encapsulating the manner by which characters and events, especially Caesar and his assassination, are interpreted in the play. The times are indeed strangely disposed, as Rome undergoes its transformation from republic to empire, and, as Cicero observes, one's "fashion," that is, one's personality, predispositions, and biases, dictate one's perceptions of reality, including one's self-perception. Interpretation, Cicero tells us, is a woefully subjective enterprise, fraught with the perils of error, and Julius Caesar is full of such errors--and perils--especially for those who ignore the "fashions" of others and their own.

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Shakespeare's Julius Caesar, Erasmus's De Copia, and Sentential Ambiguity
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