Julius Caesar - Power #
Most Shakespearean tragedies and historical plays deal with struggles for political power and order. Shakespeare is especially interested in maintaining order through legitimate power and its accountability and responsibility for good governance. He is concerned about a succession spiraling into a renewed civil war.
Shakespeare’s greatest strength is the power of his language and his ability to clearly create characters to illustrate his purposes. It is the richness of his plays and the ambiguity of his themes that resonate with us. In most plays he does not show his hand. Does he favour Julius Caesar or Brutus? I used to think the former, but now am not so sure. In some plays like Richard III, he is clearly depicted as a villain, against all the evidence of history.
Shakespeare obviously suffered an obsessive compulsive condition as most of his plays depict the folly of pompous pretentions of vaunted powermongers.
Hamlet too, rails against
“The oppressor’s wrong, the proud man’s contumely, the law’s delay, The insolence of office and the spurns That patient merit of the unworthy takes, …
We underlings are just expected to fawningly bow and scrap and accept our miserable unworthy lot.
Theories on Power #
There are a multitude of theories on the basis or source of power. Early societies believed all power derived from the gods, the sun or the earth and these had to be appeased by sacrifice if the tribe was to survive. Early rulers claimed to derive their power directly from a deity and in many civilizations leaders were considered demi-gods.
Only in enlightened societies did the concept of power from and by the people (the governed) develop. For 30 years, the Golden Age of Democracy reigned in Greece. A full direct version of democracy flourished but was eventually undermined by the crisis of war. Many early leaders followed the dictum that all power rose out of military prowess and later Mao’s theory that it came out of the barrel of a gun.
Democracy as a political model did not re-emerge until after the 17^(th) C. Its growth and spread was slow and tortuous. The Magna Charter of 1215 is an early step while John Locke in England and Jacques Rousseau in France developed foundation theories on the concept of a Social Contract; government by the consent of the governed. The pendulum now swung behind the idea that “The pen is mightier than the sword” updated as “Can a word processor be more powerful than a nuclear warhead?” Might is not necessarily right.
See also: https://nebo-lit.com/topic-areas/Justice/the-failure-of-democracy.html
Power imposed from above is temporal, while inspirational power induced by the winning of hearts and minds can be more permanent. When people are coerced into action they will do as they are told; no more, no less, however when people are thoroughly convinced, committed, fervent, inspired or full of conviction they will give their all for a cause, even the supreme sacrifice of their lives.
The power of persuasion is a very complex and crafty art.
Antony’s funeral speech is a masterful technique to sway a fickle crowd. It is difficult to discern if Shakespeare approves or not.
Machiavelli, an Italian power broker of the 15^(th) C. is regarded as the authority on it and the adjective Machiavellian¹ is associated with devious and pragmatic power machinations. Mass persuasion and psychological warfare can be very damaging to one’s opponents.
Politicians can be: idealists or visionaries with altruistic values or they can be corrupt self-seeking power mongers without any scruples. People who fall in between these two extremes are called Pragmatists or Realpoliticians. Their Machiavellian¹ philosophy is that the ideal is seldom attainable so the compromise is that as you work toward the ideal, you may use questionable means. They believe in expediency; the ends justify the means. They may play dirty politics as long as the end result is worthy. The machinations and chicanery of politics are committed with impunity.
Powerplays in Julius Caesar: #
Cassius uses a number of devious underhanded tactics to manipulate situations to his advantage justified by his determination to get rid of Caesar. Though motivated by sheer self-serving envy, he masks his motivations in public dressings of patriotism and appeals to Brutus’ vanity by distributing pamphlets critical of Caesar and flattering Brutus.
You gain power by exercising it.
The fault, dear Brutus, is not in our stars,
But in ourselves, that we are underlings.
Vested power derives from either: position, achievements or external imposition. A proud, arrogant, disdainful leader can often enjoy an image of a strong leader, however, if they become smug and complacent and do not fully understand and appreciate the strength of their opposition they become vulnerable.
A good example of this is Julius Caesar. He gained power through his military exploits, his triumph over Pompey and ruled Rome in a variety of positions for many years including being a leading Senator. Rome was unsettled due to changes in leaders and many people agitated for a more permanent stable form of government such as an hereditary monarch might provide. Caesar did not clearly reject this possibility and shows no humility in this statement:
But I am constant as the northern star…
And men are flesh and blood, and apprehensive;
Yet in the number I do know but one
That unassailable holds on his rank
Unshak’d of motion; and that I am he… III.i. 60-70
This sounds a bit too confident and it is no wonder that Cassius and Brutus can find supporters who wish to defend the Republic against such an arrogant autocratic egotist. It is easy for them to present a case to kill Caesar, and within a few minutes of voicing these dramatically ironic words, the “unassailable star” has fallen from the sky.
Brutus is not an evil man, he is considered “honourable” and a friend of Caesar’s but he is totally committed to the ideology of the Republic, controlled by the Patrician class, which the Romans had fought for five hundred years. Brutus, Cassius and the other conspirators are so convinced that Caesar will turn the republic into a popular monarchy that they decide not to debate the issue with Caesar, but to act. They defend their action on ideological grounds:
…not that I loved Caesar less, but that I loved Rome more. Had you
rather Caesar were living, and die all slaves, rather than that Caesar
were dead, to live all free men? As Caesar loved me, I weep for him;
as he was fortunate, I rejoice at it; as he was valiant, I honour him;
but, as he was ambitious, I slew him III.ii.21 – 27
Brutus accuses Caesar of hubris - rising above his lowly station:
The abuse of greatness is, when it disjoins
Remorse from power:
………………….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.
A more prosaic version goes: “The working class can kiss my a-s, I’ve got a government job at last.”
While we accept the right of the conspirators to act, it is the brutality of the action that we reject. It was certainly peremptory retribution. Further is was full of intrigue, treachery, clandestine, backroom machinations and motivated by jealousy. A prudent, considered and measured response was called for.
The Power of Persuasion #
In the art of persuasive power we have learned a great deal. Mark Antony’s funeral speech is an exemplary masterwork of persuasion. Had he stated at the outset what his intentions were, he would have been ambushed and killed. Rather he carefully adopted a cautious lateral approach; adapted his approach by appearing to go along with the conspirators and ironically using Brutus’s words to make it appear he accepts their justifications for the brutal slaying of Caesar. To turn the fickle crowd around to his way of thinking he continues to use the words of the conspirators against themselves and instead of lofty abstract principles, appeals to concrete examples of Caesar’s generosity and good governance.
While Shakespeare has Brutus speak in prose, Antony speaks, as most great Shakespearean speeches; in poetry; high, classical iambic pentameter. He is out to win their hearts and minds and subtly appeals to their personal self – interest. His first statement “Friends, Romans, countrymen, lend me your ears” has become a time cherished phrase of intimacy and a call to patriotism.
Antony’s disarming and disingenuous statement “I come to bury Caesar, not to praise him” is followed by a subtle shift:
The noble Brutus
Hath told you Caesar was ambitious.
If it were so, it was a grievous fault, 3.2. 79 - 80
The small word “if” casts the first doubt on the claims of the conspirators. This is followed by proclamations of friendship;
“he was my friend, faithful and just to me”.
On firmer ground Antony turns his attentions to concrete undeniable evidence of Caesar’s benevolence and altruism;
He hath brought many captives home to Rome,
Whose ransoms did the general coffers fill:
Did this in Caesar seem ambitious? 3.2. 89 - 91
Further, Caesar was in tune with the people;
When the poor have cried, Caesar hath wept;
Ambition should be made of sterner stuff… 3.2. 92 - 93
Yet, Antony admits, Brutus says Caesar was ambitious “and Brutus is an honourable man”. It is the repetition of this ironic mantra that gradually becomes hollow and sways the audience against the conspirators. While Antony assures his audience “I speak not to disprove what Brutus spoke” this is exactly what he is doing. Combined with his self deprecation as a speaker, and his emotional breakdown (..Bear with me. My heart is in the coffin with Caesar, and I must pause till it come back to me.), these tactics work in tandem to endear him and his cause to a malleable fickle mob’s mentality.
Continuing to appeal to their emotions, Antony plays his highest card, his produces two tangible pieces of evidence to clinch is argument; Caesar’s will and his brutally massacred body. All his tactics have had one aim in mind; to incite the mob to riot, and to revenge Caesar’s brutal murder. His exploitation of group psychology by appealing to their non-rational aspects yet providing them with rational proof of Caesar’s generosity and selfless deeds, work together to achieve his ultimate objective.
Brutus is the most ambiguous and perplexing of Caesar’s assailants.
Shakespeare portrays him in a sympathetic light. We can not doubt his sincerity as he alone of the conspirators acts out of altruistic motives as Shakespeare lends weight to this view by having Antony ‘express this eulogy:
This was the noblest Roman of them all;
All the conspirators, save only he,
Did that they did in envy of great Caesar;
He only, in general honest thought
And common good to all, made one of them.
His life was gentle, and the elements
So mix’d in him that Nature might stand up
And say to all the world ‘This was a man’. V.5. 68 - 72
Brutus has a number of admirable character traits; his idealistic purity demonstrated in his indignation at Cassius’ accusation of betrayal before the battle of Philippi, his mutually respectful relationship with his wife Portia and a rather stoic acceptance of the vagaries of life when he expresses this sensible philosophy:
There is a tide in the affairs of men
Which taken at the flood leads on to fortune;
Omitted, all the voyage of their life
Is bound in shallows and in miseries. IV 3 217 - 220
Brutus has his power from an exemplary standing in his community based on his integrity, honesty and incorruptibility.
A further source of power is opportunity or providence. Some are born with power, some attain it and some have it thrust upon them. It is this power that Octavius relies on and in his first power struggle with Antony he simply asserts his dominance by insisting on taking the right side of the battlefield; that reserved for the commander-in-chief.
Octavius, lead your battle softly on,
Upon the left hand of the even field.
Upon the right hand I; keep thou the left.
Why do you cross me in this exigent?
I do not cross you; but I will do so.
Power struggles are evident in all organisations from the earliest playgroups to the highest offices in the land. As long as they are accomplished through legitimate means, it is something we have to live with.
¹Machiavelli ‘s The Prince is an intensely practical guide to the exercise of raw political power. Machiavelli argued that it is primarily the character or vitality or skill of the individual leader that determines the success of any state. The book surveys various bold means of acquiring and maintaining the principality. It is this focus on practical success by any means, even at the expense of traditional moral values, that earned Machiavelli’s scheme a reputation for ruthlessness, deception, and cruelty.
Machiavelli’s conception of the proper application of morality to practical political life is one that judges the skill of all participants in terms of the efficacy with which they achieve noble ends. Whatever the form of government, Machiavelli held; only success and glory really matter.