Julius Caesar: Miscalculation + Mistakes = Tragedy

In the two tragedies we’ve covered thus far, the downfalls come from outside forces: Titus has to deal with the machinations of Tamora and Aaron; Romeo and Juliet are victims of circumstance (at least to the point where the choices they have are limited to bad ones). In Julius Caesar, though, most of the wounds feel self-inflicted.

Had Caesar’s right-hand man Antony actually listened to the concerns of Caesar regarding Cassius, the conspiracy might have been discovered and Cassius arrested as easily as Flavius and Murellus. Instead, Antony says, “Fear him not, Caesar; he’s not dangerous. // He is a noble Roman, and well given” (I.ii.197-8), and Caesar is dead a month later.

Had Brutus agreed with Cassius’ (correct) assessment of Antony, and allowed the assassination to extend from Caesar to Antony, the regime change in Rome would have been successful. Instead, Brutus says Antony “can do no more than Caesar’s arm // When Caesar’s head is off” (II.ii.182-3), and Cassius will expound on his regret later in the play when he says,

                    Now, Brutus, thank yourself!
This tongue had not offended so today
If Cassius might have ruled.
  • V.i.46-8

Had Caesar only listened to Calpurnia and her rather adamant statement that he would “not stir out of (his) house today” (II.ii.9), he might have survived Act Three. Instead, he–in third person, no less–proclaims, “Caesar shall forth” (II.ii.10). Ditto when news of the offerings made by the augurers is returned. You’d think that finding no heart in a sacrificed animal might give one pause, but not Caesar. Again, in his arrogance (four third-person references in a single eight-line speech [II.ii.41-8]), he refuses and cements his fate.

Had Caesar maintained his decision to (at least momentarily) agree to Calpurnia’s advice to stay home later in the same scene, he would have made it through the Ides of March. Instead, he listens to Decius’ reinterpretation of her dream, the promise of a crown, and–finally–a slight dare (Decius’ interpretation of Caesar’s actions as “Caesar is afraid” [II.ii.101]). Interestingly, though, in the four-line response, there’s not a single third-person self-reference. De-deification? Yep… Julius is but a man.

Had Caesar read Artemidorus’ letter outlining the conspiracy and identifying the conspirators, he would have survived. Instead, he tells the man, “What touches us ourself shall be last served” (III.i.8). And he’ll be dead in less than 70 lines.

Had Brutus listened to Cassius’ fears of Antony before he arrives at the assassination site, the decline of the conspirators in the second half of the play might have never happened. Instead, Brutus naively believes that they “shall have him well to friend” (III.i.144).

Had Brutus allowed only the conspirators to handle the messaging regarding Caesar assassination, they might have been able to gain and maintain control of the masses. Instead, Brutus allows Antony to take Caesar’s body to the marketplace and speak at the funeral, despite Cassius’ prophetic warning that “the people may be moved // By that which he will utter” (III.i.236-7).

Had Brutus even decided to stay for Antony’s speech at the funeral, he might have been able to rebut Antony’s swaying of the crowd. Instead, he “depart(s) alone” (III.ii.55), and by the end of the scene he and Cassius will be “rid like madmen though the gates of Rome” (III.ii.261).

Had Brutus listened to Cassius’ plan to have the Triumvirate’s army chase their own, they may have had a tactical advantage. Instead, Brutus–citing his “better” (IV.ii.255) reasons–convinces Cassius to march on Philippi, of which Octavius will later say, “Our hopes are answered” (V.i.1), and any tactical advantage is lost.

And had Cassius waited for verbal confirmation of who had captured his headquarter tents, rather than trying to interpret long-off visual clues–secondhandedly–he would have learned that his camp had been re-taken by Brutus’ forces. Instead, he “misconstrue(s) everything” (V.iii.83), and has his bondman Pindarus kill him.

Quite a few “had”s there, no?

If the old standard “My Way,” written by Paul Anka been about Julius Caesar, the second verse might have opened, “Regrets, I’ve had a boatload…”

These men did it their way.

The Tragic Way.

[interesting that the opening paragraph of this entry has a tossed off reference to Billy Joel’s “My Life” (and its lyric “victim of circumstance“), and we close with Paul Anka/Frank Sinatra/Sid Vicious’ “My Life”…]

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