Again, Poets and Julius Caesar

Article excerpt

Shakespeare's Julius Caesar, a dramatization of Plutarch's account of the death of Julius Caesar and the consequences of that event in the war waged against his assassins by Mark Antony and Octavian, is particularly admired for the elegance of its plot. The main episodes in the history as Plutarch's Lives conveys them are contained in a structure that, by line count, is shorter than any of Shakespeare's English histories and all but two of his tragedies. (1) In relation to his apparent commitment to economy in Julius Caesar, Shakespeare's inclusion in his play of two episodes involving characters identified as poets invites comment and has drawn it concertedly in three essays: Norman Holland, "The 'Cinna' and 'Cynicke' Episodes in Julius Caesar" (1960); Thomas Pughe, "'What should the wars do with these jigging fools?' The Poets in Julius Caesar" (1988); and Gary Taylor's "Bardicide" (1992). (2)

A curious feature of the attention paid these scenes by all three of these essays is that none of them considers all of what is known about Cinna, the poet identified by name in Shakespeare's play. Being specific about this, however, particularly about what was known by Shakespeare of Cinna's poetry (and little more is known today than what Shakespeare knew), heightens the already remarkable effect of Shakespeare including these scenes. In this light, incidental as they remain to the historical and political questions surrounding the play's action, the poet scenes make Julius Caesar eerily predictive of the dilemmas faced by teachers of the humanities these days. Because of them, Shakespeare's Julius Caesar seems to be considering the value of poetry in a time of cataclysmic change; and it is a consideration that, typical of Shakespeare, is unflinching in its unwillingness to mount an expedient defense.

Holland and Pughe avoid the questions attendant on Cinna's poetry by assuming his name is no more than a counter for the figure of a poet. In accord with the critical assumptions implicit in close reading, they justify both 3.3 (the scene depicting the death of Cinna) and lines 123-36 of 4.3 (in which an unnamed camp poet intrudes on the quarrel of Brutus and Cassius) by emphasizing thematic connections to what they define, differently, as the prevailing concerns of the play. Holland sees 3.3 and 4.3.124-38 as "play[ing] into one of the chief complexes of imagery" in the play (sleep) and underscoring an important theme in the play, "the separation between Brutus the idealist and Cassius the realist." (3) Pughe sees the "poets, together with some of the other minor figures [in the play, as] establish[ing] a metalevel of criticism on which the discourse of reason can be seen to deconstruct itself." (4)

Holland, Pughe, and Taylor all notice that it is Shakespeare who makes the person who Plutarch says reconciled Brutus and Cassius in the camp scene of 4.3 into an unnamed poet, transforming him from Plutarch's "one Marcus Phaonius, that had bene a friend and follower of Cato ... and [who] tooke upon him to counterfeate a Philosopher." (5) But only Taylor, approaching the play from a more historicist perspective, acknowledges that the Cinna of 3.3 is an actual, if shadoW, figure in literary history. Noting that the poet Cinna's existence is a historical fact but that his poetry has all but vanished, Taylor argues that what Shakespeare does with the two episodes in Plutarch makes Julius Caesar "Shakespeare's Defence of Poetry." (6) He suggests, in effect, that in Julius Caesar Shakespeare is defending poetry as Sir Philip Sidney does in a treatise published under that name, The Defence of Poesie. (7) In so doing, Taylor says, Shakespeare means to distinguish genuine poetry, that is, his own, from that of writers whose topical satires and epigrams were ordered to be publicly burnt in 1599, the probable date of Julius Caesar's composition and performance.

Taylor pays close attention to the changes Shakespeare makes as he adapts the episodes from Plutarch's life of Brutus, observing (somewhat tendentiously, since the detail that "poore Cinna the Poet" is "torne . …