In addition to the big five, Shakespeare wrote three other powerful tragedies, which are lumped together as the Roman plays. There was in fact another Roman play, Titus Andronicus, but that was early and is bloody and ghoulish and will not repay analysis. The interesting three deal with important historical figures, two of them with those who exercised the most lasting influences of European history, namely Julius and Augustus Caesar. The latter however has only a minor role in Antony and Cleopatra, which deals with his rival for absolute power in what was to become the Roman Empire. Augustus won out, but the play is primarily about love rather than power.
One can indeed see the three Roman tragedies as also looking at what I have suggested are the primary human motives, love and power and identity. The first part of Julius Caesar is about power in itself, and the characterization of Caesar, brief though it is before he is murdered, vividly lays bare the corrupting impact of unbridled power. The rhetoric with which he rejects the plea for mercy that provides the pretext for his assassination illustrates the insensitivity of arrogance that feels no restraining factors. –
I could be well moved, if I were as you;
If I could pray to move, prayers would move me:
But I am constant as the northern star,
Of whose true-fix’d and resting quality
There is no fellow in the firmament.
The skies are painted with unnumber’d sparks,
They are all fire, and every one doth shine;
But there’s but one in all doth hold his place:
So in the world; ’tis furnish’d well with men,
And men are flesh and blood, and apprehensive;
Yet in the number I do know but one
That unassailable holds on his rank,
Unshaked of motion: and that I am he,
Let me a little show it, even in this,–
That I was constant Cimber should be banish’d,
And constant do remain to keep him so.
And if Caesar deludes himself into believing in his indispensability, equally powerful is Shakespeare’s exposition of a different approach to personal power, Antony’s revengeful determination.
O, pardon me, thou bleeding piece of earth,
That I am meek and gentle with these butchers!
Thou art the ruins of the noblest man
That ever lived in the tide of times.
Woe to the hand that shed this costly blood!
Over thy wounds now do I prophesy,–
Which, like dumb mouths do ope their ruby lips
To beg the voice and utterance of my tongue,–
A curse shall light upon the limbs of men;
Domestic fury and fierce civil strife
Shall cumber all the parts of Italy;
Blood and destruction shall be so in use,
And dreadful objects so familiar,
That mothers shall but smile when they behold
Their infants quarter’d with the hands of war;
All pity choked with custom of fell deeds:
And Caesar’s spirit, ranging for revenge,
With Ate’ by his side come hot from Hell,
Shall in these confines with a monarch’s voice
Cry “Havoc!” and let slip the dogs of war,
That this foul deed shall smell above the earth
With carrion men, groaning for burial.-
Given the conflicting motivations of the conspirators, we can understand how easily Antony wins the struggle for the succession.
Interestingly though, in the end the character that makes the greatest impression on us is the diffident Brutus, who is clearly out of place in the ruthless world of his peers, the Caesar he loves whom he decides to kill, the Antony he spares out of a human sympathy that proves fatal, the bitter Cassius whose personal dislike of Caesar obviously trumps the theoretical idealism that is his reason for the conspiracy, the abolition of absolute rule. My view though may be affected by the wonderful old film in which James Mason was Brutus. Watching his eager innocence being played on by John Gielgud’s brooding Cassius provided a civilized alternative to the vulgar energy of an unknown flamboyant Caesar and Marlon Brando’s Antony. Having taken Hollywood by storm with his sexually vibrant Stanley Kowalski in A Streetcar named Desire, he played Antony as an extension of that character, which was powerful but not quite Shakespeare.
Brutus has some wonderful lines in which he considers his action and its possible consequences, and I think no one has better summed up the dilemmas of making decisions that are personal as well as political –
It must be by his death: and, for my part,
I know no personal cause to spurn at him,
But for the general. He would be crown’d:
How that might change his nature, there’s the question:
It is the bright day that brings forth the adder;
And that craves wary walking. Crown him?–that:
And then, I grant, we put a sting in him,
That at his will he may do danger with.
Th’ abuse of greatness is, when it disjoins
Remorse from power; and, to speak truth of Caesar,
I have not known when his affections sway’d
More than his reason. But ’tis a common proof,
That lowliness is young ambition’s ladder,
Whereto the climber-upward turns his face;
But, when he once attains the upmost round,
He then unto the ladder turns his back,
Looks in the clouds, scorning the base degrees
By which he did ascend: so Caesar may;
Then, lest he may, prevent. And, since the quarrel
Will bear no color for the thing he is,
Fashion it thus,–that what he is, augmented,
Would run to these and these extremities:
And therefore think him as a serpent’s egg
Which hatch’d, would, as his kind grow mischievous;
And kill him in the shell.
But equally memorable is the relationship between him and his wife. They are seen together just the once, but their mutual concern more than makes up for the absence otherwise of love in this tragedy –
Kneel not, gentle Portia.
I should not need, if you were gentle Brutus.
Within the bond of marriage, tell me, Brutus,
Is it excepted I should know no secrets
That appertain to you? Am I yourself
But, as it were, in sort or limitation,–
To keep with you at meals, comfort your bed,
And talk to you sometimes? Dwell I but in the suburbs
Of your good pleasure? If it be no more,
Portia is Brutus’ harlot, not his wife.
You are my true and honorable wife;
As dear to me as are the ruddy drops
That visit my sad heart.
If this were true, then should I know this secret.
I grant I am a woman; but withal
A woman that Lord Brutus took to wife:
I grant I am a woman; but withal
A woman well reputed, Cato’s daughter.
Think you I am no stronger than my sex,
Being so father’d and so husbanded?
Tell me your counsels, I will not disclose ’em.
I have made strong proof of my constancy,
Giving myself a voluntary wound
Here in the thigh: can I bear that with patience
And not my husband’s secrets?
I should note though that we have also another example of the relationship between husband and wife, and though Calpurnia is not as sympathetic a figure as Portia, her care for Caesar is also powerfully asserted
Caesar, I never stood on ceremonies,
Yet now they fright me. There is one within,
Besides the things that we have heard and seen,
Recounts most horrid sights seen by the watch.
A lioness hath whelped in the streets;
And graves have yawn’d, and yielded up their dead;
Fierce fiery warriors fight upon the clouds,
In ranks and squadrons and right form of war,
Which drizzled blood upon the Capitol;
The noise of battle hurtled in the air,
Horses did neigh, and dying men did groan;
And ghosts did shriek and squeal about the streets.
O Caesar,these things are beyond all use,
And I do fear them!
The two wives we see so briefly are devoted to their husbands. But there is too in Julius Caesar the exposition of another sort of love, which leads to what seems almost a lover’s quarrel. It follows on the scene in which Antony and Caesar’s nephew Octavius are working on the legacy they will derive from Caesar’s death, when Antony declares that the third partner they had worked with is undeserving
This is a slight unmeritable man,
Meet to be sent on errands: is it fit,
The three-fold world divided, he should stand
One of the three to share it?
So you thought him;
And took his voice who should be prick’d to die,
In our black sentence and proscription.
Octavius, I have seen more days than you:
And, though we lay these honors on this man,
To ease ourselves of divers slanderous loads,
He shall but bear them as the ass bears gold,
To groan and sweat under the business,
Either led or driven, as we point the way;
And having brought our treasure where we will,
Then take we down his load and turn him off,
Like to the empty ass, to shake his ears
And graze in commons.
You may do your will;
But he’s a tried and valiant soldier.
Shakespeare sets against Antony’s brutal cynicism, in the scene immediately following, the touchy angst of Cassius and Brutus. It ends in reconciliation
Come, Antony and young Octavius, come,
Revenge yourselves alone on Cassius,
For Cassius is a-weary of the world;
Hated by one he loves; braved by his brother;
Check’d like a bondman; all his faults observed,
Set in a note-book, learn’d and conn’d by rote,
To cast into my teeth. O, I could weep
My spirit from mine eyes!–There is my dagger,
And here my naked breast; within, a heart
Dearer than Plutus’ mine, richer than gold:
If that thou be’st a Roman, take it forth;
I, that denied thee gold, will give my heart:
Strike as thou didst at Caesar; for I know,
When thou didst hate him worst, thou lovedst him better
Than ever thou lovedst Cassius.
Sheathe your dagger:
Be angry when you will, it shall have scope;
Do what you will, dishonor shall be humour.
O Cassius, you are yoked with a lamb
That carries anger as the flint bears fire;
Who, much enforced, shows a hasty spark,
And straight is cold again.
Hath Cassius lived
To be but mirth and laughter to his Brutus,
When grief, and blood ill-temper’d, vexeth him?
When I spoke that, I was ill-temper’d too.
Do you confess so much? Give me your hand.
And my heart too.
What’s the matter?
–Have not you love enough to bear with me,
When that rash humor which my mother gave me
Makes me forgetful?
Yes, Cassius; and from henceforth,
When you are over-earnest with your Brutus,
He’ll think your mother chides, and leave you so.
But the flood of schoolboy emotion helps to us to understand why the clinical determination of Antony and Octavius wins out in the end.