Whose Tragedy Is It Anyway?

By Tony Tambasco

Sitting in my tenth-grade English class, I can remember the lesson on Julius Caesar was more or less focused toward proving the point that Julius Caesar was, in fact, all about Brutus. It didn’t seem right to me then: this was Shakespeare, after all, whom in those days would more properly be written SHAKESPEARE, and you would almost think a guy like that would know what he was doing when he gave the play a certain title (which, for those keeping track, in the First Folio, the earliest printed source for this work, is given as “THE TRAGEDIE OF IVLIVS CÆSAR.”).

My English teacher, and so many others, are to be forgiven for this, though, as centuries of tradition have focused on Brutus as the center of the play. He has the most lines, to be sure, and the idea that the most important character in the play is the one with the most lines is hard to shake, but Shakespeare seems pretty clear that this is Caesar’s tragedy in the same way that King Lear is Lear’s, Hamlet is Hamlet’s, and Macbeth is Macbeth’s.  To put it another way, when was the last time you sat there watching Macbeth hoping that the tyrant and child-murderer would come out on top?

Brutus has been one of the roles that top actors have tackled with vigor in their centuries; Edwin Booth, son of Junius Brutus Booth, is probably the most famous actor in that role in this country prior to the twentieth-century, when Orson Welles would re-define Julius Caesar as Death of a Dictator, and his anti-fascist creed would color most productions that followed. Brutus not only had the most lines, but was also the tragic hero dying in service of the cause of freedom, liberty, and the American way.

It’s a story as beautiful as it is wrong.

The republic of Rome that Shakespeare gives us in Julius Caesar is a far cry from the American way. It is a government run by a privileged few who exploit the petty passions of the commoners for wealth and power. At rise, Shakespeare’s Rome is a place where elections determine who governs, but only the sons of wealth and privilege are on the ballot, and political alliances are kept within families. It is a bloated and diseased state where freedoms are weighed down by the tallow of economic oligarchy.

No, wait, on second thought, that’s pretty close to America in the 21st century. Sorry.

The real tragedy of Julius Caesar, from where I sit, is that there is no way out of this mess. Caesar can fix things, but he can only do it the way he knows how, and that means infringing on the privilege of the few, who, fearing their freedoms will be reduced in the new regime, react the only way they know how: by killing the man they fear will oppose them. The people are hopelessly caught in the middle of this, and while Antony and Brutus inflame their passions, they are ultimately helpless to even form an opinion about Rome’s inevitable slide into imperial government.

Whose tragedy is Julius Caesar‘s? Ours.

Shakespeare, writing without the benefit of the Enlightenment, takes only the position that assassination leads to bloodshed, and doesn’t think much of the common people, but we know better, or at least we should. As politics in America is increasingly governed by the whims of a duopoly of corporations and wealthy individuals, we ought all look to Julius Caesar as a warning from the year 1599: we are citizens of a free republic, and if we allow smooth-talking rhetors to use our passions to lead us by the nose against our own interests, we will suffer the same fate.

And we will deserve it. The only ones we have to blame are ourselves.

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