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Tuesday, March 15, 2011

The Ides of March

This day 44 BC, Shakespeare and history tell us, Caesar was assasinated.  He was in the Theater of Pompey when sixty conspirators surrounded him - pretending to ask for the repeal of banishment for someone - and attacked.  Caesar recieved twenty-three stab wounds.  Shakespeare makes it "three and thirty" which sounds cooler in addition to being a larger number.  Even so, with sixty people at work, you'd expect more wounds than that.  Some people must not have gotten a knife in.
Caesar's last words are somewhat in doubt.  Plutarch says that at the start of the fracas, Caesar said the Latin equivalent of "Casca, you rascal, what do you think you're doing?"  Casca's knife had only grazed the back of Caesar's neck.  Suetonius reports Caesar saying "et tu Brute" which is where Shakespeare got the line.  Personally, I think after the first two jabs, Caesar wouldn't have had enough wind in him to remark any more than "ouch" or possibly "erk."  As unlikely as it is to get off a final zinger, Shakespeare can't resist gilding the lily.  "Et tu Brute," Caesar says, and then adds, "Then fall Caesar," mixing in a little stage direction with his dying breath.  Neat the part about Caesar talking about himself in third person, he's the one who started that, you know.
On general principle I'm in favor of killing tyrants, the problem is they don't stay dead.  Oh, particular tyrants die, but tyranny itself has more lives in it than a bag of cats.  After Julius Caesar came Augustus Caesar and then quickly things got really bad - Tiberius Caesar, and Caligula - who named himself a god and promoted his favorite horse to Senator - and Claudius.  History tells us Claudius was a moron but Robert Graves makes him out to be a pretty wise emporer.  I guess by comparison he was. Besides, it's hard to sympathize with the conspirators, killing someone that way seems pretty harsh.
Martin Luther King gets a day, Abraham Lincoln and Washington share a day, but Caesar gets an entire month, July.  Caear's name became the word for king, not only in Latin, but in German (kaiser) and Russian (czar).  It is the Ides of March.  It's worth remembering the day a man like that fell.

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  1. Caesar's assassination and the ensuing speeches are excellent teaching tools.
    Brutus's speech is a wonderful demonstration of rhetorical questions: "Had you rather Caesar were living and die all slaves, than that Caesar were dead, to live all free men?" and "Who here is so vile that will not love his country?"
    And Mark Antony's speech is absolutely brilliant, the way he turns the crowd away from their adoration of "noble Brutus" using all kinds of little deceitful tricks: Antony wasn't even there, so how does HE know which conspirator made which hole in Caesar's tunic? His best friend (and strongest political mentor) is being murdered...is he REALLY going to stop by Caesar's house and fumble through his closet looking for a will that might not even be there, or is he just pretend-reading off a piece of parchment with "one dozen eggs, loaf of bread, pick up laundry"? And isn't it devious the way he provokes the crowd to "force" him to read that will which, pardon me, "I do not mean to read"? Antony's "I am no orator, as Brutus is" and his claimant to being nothing but a "plain, blunt man" even echoes the old "I ain't nothing but an old country boy just like all o' you" claims of Southern politicians centuries later.
    For sheer eloquence on the grandest scale, Act III of "Julius Caesar" is unsurpassed, to me. Not only does the Brutus/Mark Antony exchange follow Antony's "bleeding piece of earth" speech, but the entire act has a declamatory quality. And I would think that someone who's a debate coach would love the argumentative interplay.

  2. This ain't the way Brother Dave Gardner tells the Caesar story.

  3. Interesting. And Caesar and I share the same birthday. Which cool to no one but me. 23 times. What a way to go.

  4. Had to comment on David's comment - you're right, Antony's speech is hilarious for its effrontery. My favorite bit is when he tells the Plebes, "It's good you know not you are his heirs." Good you know not? Oops, I guess Antony let that little fact slip by accident. What a snake.