The line “The fault in our stars” is today most commonly linked with the bestseller YA novel of that name by author John Green: or soon to be the successful film adaptation of said novel. And it may just be an act of self-aggrandizing to piggyback of this popular franchise in order to launch into my reflection of The Tragedy of Julius Caesar (Caesar), but it is a fitting starting place for the question of power in this play. With a subtle pen, John Green touches on the point I wish to start with. At the end of chapter seven of The Fault in our Stars, through the character of Van Houten (not Millhouse), John Green alludes to the reference that gave his book its name.
Men at some time are masters of their fates: The fault, dear Brutus, is not in our stars, But in ourselves, that we are underlings. (Caesar I.ii)
In this quote Cassius tells Brutus that the reason they are underlings is due to their own shortcomings: fate/destiny/gods/some higher power has nothing to do with it. Van Houten calls Shakespeare out on this notion, saying that any of our faults (including those of the two lovers in the novel) can be blamed on “our stars.” If you want the exact quote, consult the end of chapter seven of The Fault in our Stars. And if you do not have the book to do so, it is in itself a fault that is not in our stars. But I digress.
Is Cassius right or is he wrong? Does Caesar make the case that our power (and subsequent) faults are written in the stars, or derived from ourselves? Shakespeare presented a clear answer to this question in his earlier tragedy Romeo and Juliet. The Prologue introduces the lovers as “star-cross’d,” and indeed there is no shortage of fortune’s presence on the stage. Everything is stacked against the lovers – and their only fault is that fate gets in their way. Sure they may be
too rash, too unadvised, too sudden;
Too like the lightning, which doth cease to be
Ere one can say ‘It lightens. (Romeo and Juliet II.ii)
but let’s face it – if it were not for the random plague all would have worked out well. Maybe. Either way, some elements of Romeo and Juliet linger on into Caesar: the relationship between Cassius and Brutus takes on a Romeo and Juliet quality towards the end of the play (I’ll get back to that), but moreover, the idea of the story being written before it begins hangs over the play. The acknowledged, but often dismissed, supernatural elements are sprinkled throughout this play. What is the most famous moment of this play? The one that supersedes the play and has become ingrained into popular culture. No, it is not Mark Antony’s speech. It is the moment in I.ii:
Ha! who calls?
Bid every noise be still: peace yet again!
Who is it in the press that calls on me? I hear a tongue, shriller than all the music, Cry ‘Caesar!’ Speak; Caesar is turn’d to hear.
Beware the ides of March.
What man is that?
A soothsayer bids you beware the ides of March.
Set him before me; let me see his face.
Fellow, come from the throng; look upon Caesar.
What say’st thou to me now? speak once again.
Beware the ides of March.
He is a dreamer; let us leave him: pass. (Caesar I.ii)
Shakespeare did not invent the soothsayer, or the date of Caesar’s death – he is simply credited with the famous line. Both were derived from the primary source material of the play: Plutarch’s Parallel Lives. Whether Plutarch invented the story of the soothsayer (or seer), whether it came from an earlier source, or whether there was a seer who accurately predicted the future is irrelevant. By introducing the supernatural element into the story – by informing Caesar that something will happen on the Ides of March, coupled with Shakespeare playing upon our retrospective knowledge – he condemns his play to the stars. Cassius is wrong – Caesar’s fault is in his stars. Sort of.
Let’s first build up the case by focusing on the character of Julius Caesar
Caesar is very quick to dismiss the soothsayer as a dreamer, but just a few lines earlier he says to Antony:
Forget not, in your speed, Antonius,
To touch Calpurnia; for our elders say,
The barren, touched in this holy chase,
Shake off their sterile curse. (I.ii)
Antony is racing during the Feast of the Lupercal: a feast dedicated to fertility and fruitfulness. According to legend, if touched during the race, a barren woman may become pregnant. Caesar wants an heir (though it is not the subject of the play, and really just a wink and a nod to Shakespeare’s contemporary monarchy), but in his desire for an heir, he turns to the supernatural as quickly as he rejects the supernatural when it is not in his favour.
In Caesar’s first scene, we see the supernatural in elements that we commonly associate with the ancient Roman customs. In his second scene – Act II, scene ii – we see the supernatural – or “the stars” –presented in a different light. In this scene, the supernatural is intertwined with revisionist retellings: or (as we see time and time again in Shakespeare) the corruption of words.
We begin the scene with simple words. Caesar informs us that Calpurnia (Caesar’s wife) cried thrice in her sleep: “Help, ho! They murdered Caesar” (II.ii). Is she worried about the soothsayer’s words, or can she herself see the future? Next, we have Calpurnia reporting someone else reporting the watch as having seen:
A lioness hath whelped in the streets;
And graves have yawn’d, and yielded up their dead;
Fierce fiery warriors fought 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. (II.ii)
Surely this apocalyptic scene did not happen (unless there are some very unobservant Romans about), and who knows how distorted the witness became throughout the game of broken telephone. Caesar gives another dismissive response: “What can be avoided/Whose end is purposed by the mighty gods?” However, Caesar is convinced (at first) that he will not go forth to the capitol. When giving his excuse to Decius Brutus (a different Brutus), he transforms this abstract vision into one of his own machination:
Calpurnia here, my wife, stays me at home: She dreamt to-night she saw my statua, Which, like a fountain with an hundred spouts, Did run pure blood: and many lusty Romans Came smiling, and did bathe their hands in it: And these does she apply for warnings, and portents, And evils imminent; and on her knee Hath begg’d that I will stay at home to-day. (II.ii)
He lies to Decius Brutus, and speaks of a general distrust he has for the “lusty Romans,” but again, Shakespeare plays upon our historic knowledge and turns Caesar’s revision into something resembling a future event (Caesar being stabbed on the capitol) rather than an abstract doomsday.
Ultimately, this is a confusing scene. All that needs to be understood from it to comprehend the play is that Caesar is determined not to go to the Capitol until he becomes Marty McFly and commits to something stupid because someone called him a chicken. However, what we see here is that no matter how abstract it begins – whether by five simple words, or yawning graves – the abstract will manifest itself as the stars have prescribed. Caesar does die. We know this. The gods know this. Caesar knows this? After all, he is one of the few characters that has command over his own death.
Et tu, Brute! Then fall, Caesar. (III.i)
This is a revisiting of the idea of not being able to escape what the gods have laid down, or what is written in the stars. Caesar sees his end for what it is, and rather than shirking from it, gives the command, proving himself “a man, he doth bestride the narrow world/Like a Colossus” (I.ii) until the very end.
There is a certainly a case to be made for Caesar’s relation to the stars. Shakespeare was no stranger to Ovid’s Metamorphoses, as he references the work in Titus. Metamorphoses ends with a wink and nod to Augustus Caesar: that is the placing of Julius Caesar as a star. Venus, knowing what is to come of Caesar, begs the fates to change their course. When they do not, she conjures up a series of portents to warn men: this is from where Shakespeare drew the whelping lioness, yawning graves, and fiery skies. When this too fails and Caesar is killed, Venus collects his soul and places him among the stars. Given all of this, how can the play not support the idea that our lives are written for us – our fault are in our stars? Cassius must be, as Van Houten suggests, wrong. But let’s look at Cassius’ side.
What exactly is Cassius’ complaint in this play? Many peg him as a pre-Iago, and there are certainly some comparisons to be made. Like Iago, Cassius is motivated by jealousy: he is jealous that someone inferior to him is receiving higher honour. In I.ii, just prior to the central quote, Cassius relates a story in which he saves Caesar from drowning, thereby making him the better man (somehow). Thus, it is not through any great providence that Caesar has all the power and not Cassius. And yet, it is not through any great fault on Cassius’ part that he doesn’t have Caesar’s power. For all the supernatural spirit that hangs around Julius Caesar, Caesar presents a chaotic view of the world. This is particularly true in the latter half of the play: if the gods were instrumental in Caesar’s death, they left a pretty large power vacuum that nearly everyone rushes to fill.
The chaos left behind following the death of Caesar is made immediately evident in the dark comic scene following Caesar’s funeral. The scene begins with more of the same: Cinna the Poet (who is not the same Cinna that stabbed Caesar earlier that day) says to us
I dreamt to-night that I did feast with Caesar,
And things unlucky charge my fantasy:
I have no will to wander forth of doors,
Yet something leads me forth. (III.iii)
This is reminiscent of Calpurnia’s dream, and its resulting consequences. By this point in the play, we know something bad is about to happen to Cinna the Poet: the gods decree it. Yet, what happens to him is too absurd to have the stars’ influence behind it. Cinna is stopped by a group of Plebeians, an uneducated mob. They question Cinna and when they learn his name immediately declare that he is the Cinna that killed Caesar, and must die.
Tear him to pieces; he’s a conspirator.
CINNA THE POET
I am Cinna the poet, I am Cinna the poet.
Tear him for his bad verses, tear him for his bad verses.
CINNA THE POET
I am not Cinna the conspirator.
It is no matter, his name’s Cinna; pluck but his name out of his heart, and turn him going. (III.iii)
The comedy here resides in the “tear him for his bad verses” line: the mob, so hungry for death, will kill Cinna regardless of any factor. His name is Cinnia, therefore he must die. There is no justice here – this is not an act of vengeance. The fault, dear audience, is not in Cinna’s stars, or himself, that he is underground: it is in a disordered world.
In Act IV, we see the major players vying for power, and the resurgence of Cassius’ philosophy. In the first scene, the triumvirate of Antony, Octavius, and Lepidus debate over who shall be marked down for death.
Your brother too must die; consent you, Lepidus?
I do consent–
Prick him down, Antony.
Upon condition Publius shall not live, Who is your sister’s son, Mark Antony. (IV.i)
Octavius is quick to silence Lepidus following his consenting. I always enjoy when Shakespeare splits a line of perfect iambic pentameter between two characters. It is an instruction for the actor playing Octavius to jump directly on top of Lepidus’ line. Furthermore, if you accept my interpretation that the word condition would have been a four syllable word in Shakespeare’s tongue (con-di-si-on), then Lepidus’ intended line, “I do consent, upon condition” would have also been a perfect iambic pentameter, robbed by Octavius. Perhaps this is close reading gone too far, but Octavius is very much trying to place himself above the others – which he continues to do until the Battle of Actium. As soon as Lepidus leaves, Antony turns on the old man, launching into a tirade about Lepidus being the useful ass to bear their treasure, but:
Then take we down his load, and turn him off,
Like to the empty ass, to shake his ears,
And graze in commons. (Iv.i)
Antony is engaging in the same rhetoric that Cassius accuses Caesar of at the start of the play. It is not the fault in any stars that Lepidus is made to be an underling, but in himself – for letting Octavius and Antony treat him this way.
Act IV, scene iii is one of the scenes which prove that Brutus is the strongest pillar of this play, and often the central theme of analyses. The reason I have avoided Brutus for the most part is because I have little to say that has not been more strongly expressed elsewhere. It is in this scene that we also see Cassius following his own advice. It may have been his fault that he was Caesar’s underling, but now he would ensure that he was no one else’s.
Brutus arrives at the camp, and is none too pleased. After some odd pleasantries, and a desire not to fight in front of the kids (soldiers), Brutus finally airs his grievances.
Let me tell you, Cassius, you yourself
Are much condemn’d to have an itching palm;
To sell and mart your offices for gold
To undeservers. (IV.iii)
Apparently, Cassius has been taking bribes. He has been selling honours for gold: essentially a politicians’ trick. Why is Brutus upset? Is it because Cassius hasn’t included Brutus in the deal, given him a cut? No. Brutus is an honourable man – as much as Antony’s famous speech tries to undercut the fact.
Remember March, the ides of March remember:
Did not great Julius bleed for justice’ sake?
What villain touch’d his body, that did stab,
And not for justice? What, shall one of us
That struck the foremost man of all this world
But for supporting robbers, shall we now
Contaminate our fingers with base bribes,
And sell the mighty space of our large honours
For so much trash as may be grasped thus?
I had rather be a dog, and bay the moon,
Than such a Roman. (IV.iii)
How could they kill Caesar in order to save Rome (as Brutus believed he did) only to succumb to corruption? Cassius will not be abused by Brutus. He was silent during Caesar’s abuses but not Brutus’. Brutus calls him out on this:
When Caesar lived, he durst not thus have moved me.
Peace, peace! you durst not so have tempted him.
I durst not!
What, durst not tempt him!
For your life you durst not!
Do not presume too much upon my love. (IV.iii)
Is Cassius so blunt with Brutus, does he tempt him, out of love or desire for power? Cassius would have us believe it is the former. Borrowing from Iago’s future tricks, he gives up his life to Brutus’ disposal (knowing full well that Brutus will not kill him) in order to prove his love for Brutus. I cannot believe that at this point Cassius has any real love for Brutus, but is simply trying to maintain his own power. Like the relation between Antony and Lepidus in IV.i, Cassius needs Brutus to carry his load, but once delivered has every intention of relieving him. This has been Cassius’ game since he first recruited Brutus in Act I. This is what makes his anagnorisis and pitiful death more satisfying.
Cassius has tried being master of his own fate, and all that it got him was the ability to manipulate Brutus and a bit of gold. As soon as he finds himself in battle, in an uncertain position, he is ready to abandon his philosophy and transfer fault back into the stars.
You know that I held Epicurus strong
And his opinion: now I change my mind,
And partly credit things that do presage.
Coming from Sardis, on our former ensign
Two mighty eagles fell, and there they perch’d,
Gorging and feeding from our soldiers’ hands;
Who to Philippi here consorted us:
This morning are they fled away and gone;
And in their steads do ravens, crows and kites,
Fly o’er our heads and downward look on us,
As we were sickly prey: their shadows seem
A canopy most fatal, under which
Our army lies, ready to give up the ghost. (V.i)
Brutus is given the final death in this play, just as Juliet and Cleopatra in their respective plays. And yet, like Romeo’s death, and Antony’s death, I think I prefer Cassius’ death to that of Brutus. Just as Romeo rushes to Juliet to find her “dead” and, without question, drinks his poison, so does Cassius perceive Brutus to be overtaken and so takes his own life.
Come down, behold no more. O, coward that
I am, to live so long,
To see my best friend ta’en before my face!
Come hither, sirrah: In Parthia did I take thee prisoner;
And then I swore thee, saving of thy life,
That whatsoever I did bid thee do,
Thou shouldst attempt it. Come now, keep thine oath;
Now be a freeman: and with this good sword,
That ran through Caesar’s bowels, search this bosom.
Stand not to answer: here, take thou the hilts;
And, when my face is cover’d, as ’tis now,
Guide thou the sword.
PINDARUS stabs him
Caesar, thou art revenged, Even with the sword that kill’d thee.
Shortly after, we learn that his men were triumphant in battle, Brutus, like Juliet, was not yet dead. But it ididnt matter: Cassius was caught up in his stars. He makes several mentions in this act that it is his birthday, and attributes his good and bad fortune to this fact. He blames his cowardice (his fault) for his downfall, but it was really poor perception on the messenger’s part.
If my chaotic roaming through this aspect of the play has proven anything, it is that the faults of the characters in this play cannot be traced to a single, simple source. While this may seem like a simple statement, it is actually unusual in the world of Shakespearean tragedy. In Hamlet, Claudius is the source of all tragedy. In Othello it is Iago. In Romeo and Juliet it is fortune. I could go on, but in Caesar, the tapestry woven leaves no easy answer.
How did Caesar come to power? Was it right for the conspirators to kill him? These are questions asked long before Shakespeare, these are questions that had a great impact on the Roman world and subsequently our world. And these are questions which Shakespeare plays around with but offers no clarification. And that is why we read or watch this play over and over – yes, it is an entertaining play, but it is one of the few plays where the philosophy – the questions – take centre stage.
Noli mirabilis esse oblivisci!