Julius Caesar: Acting Clues through Scansion

With every play, I like to dive into the non-”stage direction” stage directions found both in the dialogue (as I did yesterday) as well as in the meter itself. These can be little signposts for actors and directors alike to use in revealing character, conflict, pacing, etc.

So what does the meter tell us in Julius Caesar? Well, it’s unlike most of what we’ve seen before. As I mentioned last month, there’s a boatload of short verse lines in the play.

It begins quickly enough. In the first scene, when the tribunes are chastising the commoners for celebrating Caesar’s triumph, Murellus, in the midst of his tirade, exclaims, “Be gone!” (I.i.52), and only when they don’t immediately leave does he continue with full poetic lines to finish the speech:

Run to your houses, fall upon your knees,
Pray to the gods to intermit the plague
That needs must light on this ingratitude.
  • I.i.53-5

Needless to say, Murellus has to pause to determine if they’ll leave.

When Brutus greets the conspirators late in the night before the assassination, he says,

They are all welcome.
What watchful cares do interpose themselves
Betwixt your eyes and night?
                          Shall I entreat a word?
  • II.i.97-9

Here we get a weird mix of a short line (“They are all welcome.”), followed by a regular iambic pentameter line, which in turn is trailed by a shared iambic line. Brutus welcomes them into his home. But then it seems he can’t immediately think of anything to say. When he does, it’s an almost over-earnest version of “What’s up?” forcing Cassius to cut him off: not only does Cassius ask to talk with him privately, but he does so by interrupting Brutus. Count the syllables and feet in that line. Brutus’ portion of the line has three full iambic feet. Cassius’ portion also has three feet. Six feet. Not only does Cassius need to overlap Brutus’ line by a full foot, but note what kind of meter Cassius’ first foot is: Trochee. Cassius jumps on Brutus’ line. He needs to talk to Brutus, and he wants to do it quickly. That’s a clue as to what their mimed discussion should look like.

Later in the scene, when Brutus is about to confide in Portia what is about to happen, there is a knock at the door, and Brutus sends her out of the room, promising to tell her, but only after she leaves:

Hark, hark, one knocks. Portia, go in awhile,
And by and by thy bosom shall partake
The secrets of my heart.
All my engagements I will construe to thee,
All the charactery of my sad brows.
Leave me with haste.
Portia exits.
                          Lucius, who ’s that knocks?
  • II.i.308

In the midst of her send off, there’s a short line (“The secrets of my heart”)… then a two-foot pause. The perfect opportunity for him to show her his love, a kiss.  At the end of the speech, it’s one poetic line, with a caesura, or pause, after the end of the first sentence, the first half of the line. That first half is two feet, a trochee followed by an iamb. The second half is a stressed syllable, followed by two iambic feet. The caesura would take the place of the unstressed first syllable of an iamb. Unstressed but crucial. This is the pause that Brutus uses to ensure that Portia is out of the room. He has to make sure she’s gone before he can bring in another conspirator because he hasn’t explained the situation to her yet.

Finally, the assassination itself marks an interesting use of the iambic line:

Speak, hands, for me!
They stab Caesar, Casca first, Brutus last.
                          Et tu, Brutè?—Then fall, Caesar.
  • III.i.76

In the text, it’s a single line, supposedly an antilabe. However, again there are too many syllables, six feet. A spondee (double stressed “SPEAK, HANDS”, followed by four iambs [one for Casca, three for Caesar], then a trochee). Chaotic. Drawn out. A clue for how the attack should be.

Little clues. Big implications.

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