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Culture: Julius Caesar: A Republican Reading
Saturday, 07 July 2007 Written by Henry Midgley
In 1953 just after McCarthy had conducted hearings into Hollywood and just as the cold war was at its height- not to mention in the clear memory of the rise to power of Hitler in Nazi Germany through a democratic process and the non-democratic but still semi popular regimes in both China and Russia, Joseph Mankiewicz made a film of Shakespeare's play about Julius Caesar and his murder- of course the key point and most famous point in the play is the contest of the speeches between Brutus and Anthony in the Roman Forum.

Brutus, played by James Mason, speaks first to claim that the slaying of Caesar was tyrannicide, Anthony, played by a young and charismatic Marlon Brando, orates then upon Caesar's body ostensibly to commend Caesar's life to the crowd but actually to move the Roman crowd to mutiny and bold insurrection. Once the speeches are given the battle the audience knows is won- Anthony has conquered Brutus and the film nears its climax- a battle in which Brutus, the noblest Roman of them all, prepares to die whereas Anthony and his ally Octavian begin the dispute that will lead to the Principate.

Today I want to examine the nature of those two speeches for through them Shakespeare and Mankiewicz examine the nature of persuasion in a democracy and its difficulty- a difficulty that I submit we still suffer under today. It is worthwhile therefore to examine for a moment the ideas that lie behind the action of Caesar's murder- the ideas that lie within the speeches in the forum and the ideas that both Shakespeare and Mankiewicz wish us to absorb.

The play is about the degeneration of Rome from Republic to Empire- from the proud senate to the venal court- from Livy to Tacitus. The point of Caesar's death is itself important in telling this tale- because in it Caesar utters his own condemnation- he expresses the certainty that he is like the North star, unchanging midst the heavens, whilst all around the other stars move and other men change. In a way what Caesar speaks is a reassertion of reason- its the ultimate assertion of reason- in that Caesar makes the point that he stands to his judgements and will not change them- but in asserting his singularity he makes it clear that he accepts the idea of monarchy- he makes it clear that he is ambitious- oppose this to the conspirators whose actions in particular Brutus's are justified by reasoning, by long thought. The director shows us and the script allows him, Mason thinking, reasoning, doubting not asserting his incorruptability but proving it.

For if we take a step onwards after Caesar's death, to the scene in which Brando stands alone with Caesar's corpse we see the flip side of that serene uncorruptability. For Anthony Caesar's spirit should return hot from hell bearing vengeance in its path and making women glad that their babies are spitted upon pikes- for Anthony the appropriate response to the conspirator's action against the assertion of supreme reason- is the abandonment of all reason, the rennounciation of peace and argument for the principle of wildest abandoned revenge. Brutus offers to convince Anthony with reasons, with ideas and arguments, but Anthony doesn't listen- when his words are those of a courtier in that he feigns to listen to Brutus but in his heart he has not listened and his passion stalks through the cover of politeness to explode in solitude.

Holding up these opposites- reasoned but doubting Brutus and unreasoning by asserting Anthony and Caesar- allow us to appreciate exactly what the main scene of the play is doing for in the battle of two speeches Anthony and Brutus vie for control of the Roman mob and what we therefore have is a warning about the nature of the mob- the nature indeed of democracy- a warning about what the mob will choose in its moments of decision- and whether that is good either for the state or the integrity of democracy.

Both Brutus and Anthony claim the support of reason- but its useful to contrast their approaches in their speeches- Brutus claims reason and speaks about his love for Caesar but encourages the mob to conquer their love for Caesar and see that his existance harmed the state. Anthony though wants the mob to let their love for Caesar overwhelm their faculties- he shows them Caesar's wounds, he visually illustrates his themes- whereas Brutus attempts to persuade on the basis of words. At one key point, Anthony even contrasts their approaches whereas he speaks common sense- Brutus is a rationaliser, a reasoner and the implication is a sophist.

More interesting perhaps than that is that Mankiewicz chose to leave the crowd's interruptions in- and what is fascinating about that is the way that the crowd interrupts. Brutus's speech is all about the fact that no man could become as great as Caesar and be good for the state- he even offers the mob his own dagger to slay him with- but the mob of course doesn't understand- having heard his speech they shout for him to be King, for Caesar's better parts to be crowned in Brutus. They refuse to listen to Anthony at first- though of course a reasonable man would listen to all sides of the question. The thing is that the reaction to Brutus's speech demonstrates to the viewer the fact that the crowd is not what Brutus wants it to be- it is unreasoned.

Anthony of course plays on that to even greater effect- what Anthony creates is a whirling and powerful mob- a mob sweeping away the vestiges of civility in an orgy of violence. Anthony uses various rhetorical tricks to play on the mob's common sense- reiterating the word honourable until the word becomes an insult. Making points that strictly are irrelevant- Caesar's conquests are not relevant to the question of whether Caesar aspired to monarchy- indeed when Anthony moans that judgement is fled to brutish beasts he does so in the context that the Romans are not mourning for Caesar- are strictly not expressing the right emotion. Anthony lastly expresses a classic Republican trope- when he holds out Caesar's will to them, Caesar's will which offers them money (money that Anthony later cynically withholds) and that offer conquers their last resistance! Conquers their reasons!

At one point in Brutus's speech he asks the mob whether they are slaves or Romans- by the end of the contest of the speeches they have revealed themselves to be slaves: to emotion and unreason and even to money! The point that Shakespeare and Mankiewicz are making through this device- in particular because Mankiewicz switches immediatly to the battlefield which Brutus is to lose on, is that the blame for the tyranny of Augustus lay ultimately with the very Romans who allowed it, it was the people that just as in Germany in 1933 in Rome in 45BC permitted tyrants to take them over by exploiting their emotions.

Pessimism about the capacity of democracies to make decisions is not usually in vogue- but it is worth thinking about in the context of the rise of cynical spin doctors and even the far right in Northern towns in England and Southern villages in France- not to mention the calls to torture from the right in the United States- as such Shakespeare's play and Mankiewicz's version demand consideration and thought in the West- not that democracy might be abolished- but that we take its obligations to be reasonable and eschew tyranny seriously.