Julius Caesar, ahoy!

Taposh Chakravorty | October 05,2010 06:32 pm IST

When I had started writing this on March 15 about Shakespeare's Julius Caesar it suddenly struck me that the day was 2054th death anniversary of that celebrated first emperor of the ancient Roman empire..

He was stabbed to death by a group of honourable senators of Rome as a patriotic act on 15th March 44 BCE. Hm!

But I had wanted to write more about Shakespeare's Julius Caesar rather than the historical one, but somehow the anniversary coincidence has changed my mood.


The thing is, I am rereading Shakespeare (b.1564 - d.1616 ) after a very long time - almost after a lifetime. And I am not one of those Shakespeare buffs, and never will be - I hope. Like most of us I too had been thoroughly discouraged by school - teachers from even hoping to actually enjoy Shakespeare. And mind , my English teacher, Mr. Menon, was truly one of the best in the business ; he even drew chalk portraits on the blackboard of Peggoty or Mr. Micawber while teaching us Dickens.


Shakespeare had always been High Literature, pontificated upon endlessly by the hyphenated Eng-Lit people, filling several daunting shelves of the British Council Library to which we were encouraged to go by our ever- hopeful school- teachers. But it has always remained Best To Be Avoided Stuff for me, like for most other proletarians. Till I was past forty and working in Bombay in what passes for the Financial World of India, and hanging around whenever I could with the best people to hang around with in that city- the film people, who else? In the usual endless yakking that went on there I caught a chance remark one day that Shakespeare`s plays can be best read as he actually wrote them to be seen(often the night before the rehearsals) - as commercial nautanki ! I took that thought home and tried the nautanki approach on the Collected Works I have been lugging around since childhood because my father had got it with best intentions for his first- born, alongwith Concise Oxford Dictionary and, being a Bengali family after all, Tagore . And it worked! I couldn`t believe my eyes. Was I going into early senility? I checked. Not, quite. I tried it on different days, on different portions, and on different plays. It worked, each time. Voila! I had got the Key To Reading Shakespeare And Enjoying It. I had resolved to reread it all, when I have the time. Well, now I have. And I am rereading Shakespeare.


So, Julius Caesar.

First of all ,what is the point of the play? It was never made clear by the school- teachers. The story of the play is simple: after winning many wars of conquest Julius is becoming popular with Roman people. Cassius and his party, who are his friends and senators of Rome, don't want Julius to be declared an emperor. They conspire, alongwith Brutus, to kill Julius. They do so. But Julius's friend Mark Anthony incites the public by telling them that Julius, as Caesar, was about to abolish taxes. Public rallies around Julius Caesar's standard. Defeated, Cassius / Brutus kill themselves, or are killed in the war with army aligned with Caesar.


The Hollywood version has Caesar's wife Cleopatra playing a Hollywoodish love-triangle role in all this. So what is the big deal? Happens all the time. What is all that gaff about in Anthony's famous speeches - "friends, romans, countrymen", etc.


and that "Brutus is an honourable man" refrain? Why was Shakespeare so worked up about a straightforward palace intrigue?


I geddit only now. Julius Caesar was born on 13th July 100 BCE. The global conquests of Alexander about 200 years earlier had vastly changed the mental map of Greek and Roman city- states. The Greek city- kingdoms had by then fought themselves into ruins and Roman city- states were already ascendant. But these were city- states, their 'democratic' politics in the hands of a handful of aristocratic republican senators, their economies based on a vast army of conquered slave- labour.


But the military conquests of several general like Julius, Pompeii and others had subjugated vast tracts of the world including England, France, Middle East ,etc which had been first brought on the radar by Alexander's conquests. The city-state form of Roman republics was inadequate to cope with the vastly increased scale of territory now under rule and quantities of revenues so made available by the military conquests. A qualitatively new from of social arrangement and politics transcending the older republican form was historically needed. Alexander , a Macedonian upstart, not a true Greek, had already shown a glimpse of what a single man's rule could do - People of Rome were fed up of high- taxation imposed by narrow- minded republican senators - like Cassius, Brutus, etc. People wanted revenues from conquered lands to be used to lighten their tax burden. It was , in technical language , a revolutionary situation. A move was afoot as Shakespeare's play accurately catches, to change the politics and declare Julius an emperor - in fact "Caesar" is "Kaiser" in Latin i.e., emperor.


The Caesarisation of Julius was, it can be seen, a yugantar, a turning point of European history - it was the onset of the Roman Empire to come first unHoly, then , after Constantine Ceasar, Holy , or the other way round depending on viewpoint . No wonder the senators felt they were being bypassed by history. No wonder they tried to stop it, even by choosing to murder a close friend like Julius.


No wonder they felt patriotic, honourable, and noble while doing so " they were defending an older established paradigm of society. (Remember, Duryodhan's dying speech at the end of the Mahabharata War? In a brilliant piece on ideology of socio-political transcendence he curses in stark and telling detail all individual Pandavas, and particularly Krishna for having destroyed the old established order of Dharma and introducing new, destabilising ideas of Adharma. He was lamenting the upstaging of the older Kuruvansha- time pastoral socio-political nizam by the rising agriculture-based one embraced by the Pandavas on Krishna's advice and encouragement.) No wonder they failed. After his murder, Julius Caesar's heir Octavius was declared emperor. Europe changed, and also the world" and started on the long historical road to dark, feudal Middle Ages.

Well, this is much better! Now we can begin to understand the huge angst with which the whole play is shot through. Now we can glimpse Shakespeare's art. 

Catching the public sentiment for coronation of Julius as emperor and outraged by this sentiment, here is Cassius:

"Now, in the name of all the gods at once,
Upon what meat doth our Caesar feed
That he is grown so great? Age thon art
Ashamed! When could they say, till now,
That talk'd of Rome
That her wide walls encompass'd but one man?"


Cassius's outrage arises out of being caged by the "walls of Rome" and the bygone "Age", while Julius and the public were seeing the new big wide world. 


I am going to resist the temptation of quoting wholesale. I will only highlight some dramatic moments in this powerful political play – arguably the first modern political play of the world. 



Taposh Chakravorty has spent 30 years delving in the what passes for the world of finance, via institutions like State Bank of India, IFCI , and IDBI with a keen but ironical eye. Then took voluntary retirement to do as he pleases. Has also been a journalist, poet, social activist, film buff, writer, blogger, cartoon...