Re-reading Shakespeare: Julius Caesar

(1) I’m not a big stickler for reading Shakespeare the right way, but I acknowledge (as I think you have to) that there is a right way. Or at least that there are wrong ways. It was a performance of Julius Caesar that first brought this home to me, during the opening harangue by Marullus when he launches into the mob celebrating Caesar’s homecoming: “O you hard hearts, you cruel men of Rome.”

As I read it, the only way to deliver these lines is to emphasize “hard hearts” close to equally, giving both words the same weight so as to draw out the near rhyme and emphasize the admonitory tone. I can see Marullus shaking his head at the crowd. “O you hard hearts.”

I may be wrong in this, but I know they’re not meant to be rushed together, as they were in the production that I saw, where they were almost elided as in “hard-hats.” Perhaps that was the intention (the rude mechanicals of Rome are proto hard-hats), but I doubt it. And it sounded awful!

(2) The tag “et cetera” (“and other things”) is designed to make your eye and mind wander, sort of like “yadda, yadda, yadda.” That’s my excuse for never really being aware of the fact, until this most recent re-reading, that when Brutus is considering the letters that have been thrown in his window “et cetera” isn’t his own gloss on what Cassius has written but actually part of the letter itself. I know this should have always been clear to me from the punctuation and the rest of the line — “‘Shall Rome, et cetera.’ Thus must I piece it out . . .” — but it never really twigged. I always read it as Brutus just skimming over the rest of the letter’s contents.

I think part of the reason why I read it like this is that it’s hard to figure out why Cassius would have written the letter in such a way. Just saying “Shall Rome, et cetera . . .” doesn’t make a very persuasive case. I guess the point is that Cassius wants Brutus to do all the work of persuasion, making him imagine the worst that could happen. This isn’t a bad approach, but just writing “Shall Rome, et cetera” seems a remarkable way of going about it.

(3) So true:

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.

The last two lines aren’t always included by people quoting this, but they strike me as the most meaningful, the ones that really seal the deal. That said, how ironic is it that Brutus’s advice in this instance is wrong? He should have skipped this particular tide and avoided Philippi. Or maybe his reasoning was correct and the larger point is that even if you do catch the right tide, it’s not always enough. Such an irony underlines something I’ve often observed during meetings when canvassing for opinions on the best way to move forward. Invariably the argument that wins the day is the one that is best expressed, not the one that is the most reasonable or most likely to succeed. Good rhetoric is meant to be seductive — that’s its whole purpose, really — which is something to keep in mind whenever you can feel it working.

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