Julius Caesar: about that title…

Why is the play titled Julius Caesar?

The seeming protagonist is Brutus. We see him from the first scenes to the last one; we follow his dramatic journey. He appears in more scenes and has more speeches than any other character in the play (11 scenes with 194 speeches; compared to Cassius’ 8 scenes and 140 speeches, Antony’s 8 scenes and 51 speeches, and Caesar’s 4 scenes and 42 speeches [and these tallies include those of the Ghost]).

So why isn’t the play titled Brutus?

It isn’t because Brutus is some obscure figure found only in a few arcane historical texts. Shakespeare refers to him in four other plays (Hamlet, Henry V, The Second Part of Henry VI, and The Merchant of Venice). Putting references into these plays would be useless if the audience wasn’t already aware of the name and his character.

There must be some other reason.

Remember yesterday’s discussion of the prevalence of “ghost” and “spirit” in the play?

In a play with so many references to this idea of a living entity beyond the corporal body, this concept takes on a greater role (both figuratively as an item of discussion, and literally as a dramaturgical device). The final two “spirit” and “ghost” references in the play pertain directly to Caesar, whose ghost “appeared” (V.v.17) to Brutus, and whose spirit “walks abroad, and turns (their) swords // In (their) own proper entrails” (V.iii.94-5).

If the spirit of a dead man can be so active, then that man’s influence can safely be said to be felt throughout the play.

did I say “man”? Caesar was a god by the time of the Battle of Philippi, having been deified by decree of the Senate in January of 42 BC,  a full ten months before his ghostly appearance in the final acts of the play…

So, the play really does need to be titled Julius Caesar.

But why The Tragedy of Julius Caesar?

It could just as well be called The History of Julius Caesar or The Chronicle of Julius Caesar, or heck just Julius Caesar, but it’s not; it’s The Tragedy of Julius Caesar.

Looking back on the concept of the tragic hero, Caesar’s reversal of fortune is easy to find: It’s Casca’s dagger in Caesar’s back. His hamartia or “error in judgment”: not listening to the Soothsayer? (or Calpurnia?). And his anagnorisis? “Et tu, Brute?”

It all just seems kind of weak, right?

Maybe the tragedy is best found in a couple of phrases used in Act Three, Scene Two. Antony says that Caesar’s death and fall was “all of us (falling) down” (III.ii.188). And one of the commons “fear(s) there will a worse come in (Caesar’s) place” (III.ii.111). And worse does come, in civil war, in a Triumvirate led by liars and ruthless leaders calling for political assassinations, in the run of kings started by Augustus Caesar… that’s Octavius later in life.

The tragedy is Rome’s.

And if you want to tie it back to the whole Hal/Hotspur connection, then the tragedy is for any country whose leader is usurped or ousted by coup.


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