JULIUS CAESAR by William Shakespeare

For years, this was the play that American high school students first encountered Shakespeare with. As is often the case, good literary intentions led to lamentable results. The mere mention of Julius Caesar is enough to make some people cringe. It probably helped turn whole generations off Shakespeare. The play itself is a marvel, maybe the greatest political tragedy ever written. It is not as philosophically or psychologically penetrating as Shakespeare’s later tragedies but it is perfect in its own right. If Shakespeare had remained at the level of this play, he would still be one of the world’s greatest authors. That he actually managed to move beyond the heights he scales here is breathtaking.
All that aside, this is emphatically NOT the place to begin a relationship with Shakespeare. It has nothing that most young people will be grabbed by and this is not the fault of young people. I’ve always felt Othello would be a great first Shakespeare play. Still, everyone should read Julius Caesar at some point. Among many other virtues, it is an incredible answer to any form of political absolutism or fanaticism. Some might think of Shakespeare’s view of rebellion as conservative. I don’t really see that. Rebellion will cause bloodshed and pain. This is one of the few clear philosophical conclusions one can draw from the play. That doesn’t mean the rebellion shouldn’t have happened. It also doesn’t mean it should have. Brutus remains an admirable character throughout but he is tragic because he illustrates the futility of simply being right. Being right and doing the right thing, when it comes to something as complex as governing a nation, can be two very different things. None of this means we shouldn’t act. It does, however, mean we need to always act with grave humility and restraint. Political idealists of all stripes are likely to shake their heads in frustration at such a conclusion. My guess is that Shakespeare would be proud to know he is still raining on their parade. 


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