I was eager to read Julius Caesar because I wanted to know the context for the line, “Cry ‘Havoc!’ and let slip the dogs of war.” But I didn’t much care for the play. I was going to lump it with Henry VIII and write about Julius and Henry but I actually have other plans for Henry. On top of which, if I just quoted all the famous lines from Julius Caesar, it would take up half this post. So I’ll make my few comments and then leave you to contemplate how much of this play has entered literary consciousness.
I am not all that interested in a bunch of men standing around in togas, overly impressed with themselves, and plotting how they plan to topple one another. That’s half the play. The rest of it is war, which interests me even less.
There are two small parts for women: Chalpurnia and Portia, Caesar’s and Brutus’ wives, respectively. They are so minor they don’t each even get a sentence from me. Actually I think one of Portia’s few speeches makes a good monologue for actors. The one where she shows off the wound she gave herself in the thigh just to show how tough she was. Later in the play we learn she has died by swallowing hot coals and Brutus gets to show how stoic he is by not reacting.
I couldn’t read the play as history and think, okay, that’s what happened. Some of the things that “happened” make me want to first vomit and then pass out: After Caesar is stabbed 23 times, the assassins wash their hands in his blood to suggest the assassination was a holy undertaking. At the end of the play Cassius and Brutus, knowing they have lost the battle, both die by falling on their swords. When I read this, I wonder what kind of deformed minds create a culture so obscene that these are understandable, even celebrated actions. A whole culture still exists–in our country– that glorifies killing other human beings, yammering all the while about honor and freedom, dressing up in little outfits, and leeching the life from our country so they can continue to validate their twisted little ceremonies.
OK, whew, I think this diatribe is also being fed by all the War of the Roses plays that I just read. It is truly time to move on to the comedies and fantasies. I found out that the cry of “Havoc!” means that wholesale slaughtering, butchering, plundering, pillaging and raping can begin. Just the sort of trivia I like to have bustling around my mind.
Here are lines, some of which I have heard since I was in junior high school:
*Beware the ides of March (I, ii)
*. . . with himself at war,
Forgets the shows of love to other men. (I, ii)
*He doth bestride the narrow-world
Like a Colossus, and we petty men
Walk under his huge legs and peep about
To find ourselves dishonorable graves. (I, ii)
*Yond Cassius has a lean and hungry look.
He thinks too much. Such men are dangerous. (I, ii)
*. . . it was Greek to me (I, ii)
*Between the acting of a dreadful thing
And the first motion, all the interim is
Like a phantasma or a hideous dream.
The genius and the mortal instruments
Are then in council, and the state of a man,
Like to a little kingdom, suffers then
The nature of an insurrection. (II, i)
*. . . grey lines than fret the clouds are messengers of day. (II, i)
*Cowards die many times before their deaths;
The valiant never taste of death but once. . .
It seems to me most strange that men should fear,
Seeing that death, a necessary end,
Will come when it will come. (II, ii)
*Et tu, Bruté? (III, i)
*Cry ‘Havoc!’ and let slip the dogs of war. . . (III, i)
*Friends, Romans, countrymen, lend me your ears. .
The evil that men do lives after them;
The good is oft interrèd with their bones. . .
Brutus is an honorable man;
So are they all, all honorable men. . . (III, ii)
*The most unkindest cut of all. (III, ii)
*Now let it work. Mischief, thou art afoot. (III, ii)
*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 miseries.
On such a full sea are we now afloat,
And we must take the current when it serves
Or lose our ventures. (IV, iii)
*Thou shalt see me at Philippi (IV, iii)
*For ever and for ever, farewell. . . (V, i)