Julius Caesar: tragical-historical parallel / flashback

Think of a Shakespearean character who is a notorious party boy, a man-child who (while second-in-command) is still hanging out with the wrong crowd. An impressive speaker who’s not above using that skill to threaten his living enemies and eulogize his dead ones.

Know who he is?


Now think of his adversary. A too-serious, single-minded idealist, with a caring wife who is desperate to know his secrets, but a wife whose constancy is in enough question for him to keep things close to his vest. A man not above insulting an ally in conflict.

Know who he is, too?

Pretty simple, right? This month, Julius Caesar is on the docket, so I must be talking about Antony and Brutus, respectively, right?

Sure, but I was also describing Prince Hal and Hotspur.

Hal, according to his own father, is linked to “low desires…barren pleasures, (and) rude society” (The First Part of Henry IV [1HIV], ]III.ii.12 and 14), and is described by Hotspur as a dancer, “the nimble-footed, madcap Prince of Wales” (1HIV, IV.i.95). On the other hand, Caesar says Antony “revels long anights” (Julius Caesar [JC], II.ii.116), and according to Brutus, Antony “is given // To sports, to wildness, and much company” (JC, II.i.188-9); according to Cassius, Antony–like Hal–is a dancer, “a masquer and a reveler” (JC, V.i.62).

There’s no doubting Hal’s oratory prowess, as the St. Crispin’s Day speech attests. During his siege declaration to the Governor of Harfleur, Hal has no problem threatening his opponents with war atrocities: “Your naked infants spitted upon pikes, // Whiles the mad mothers (break the clouds) with their howls confused” (Henry V [HV], III.iii.38-9). Compare this to Antony’s prediction after the death of Caesar: “mothers shall but smile when they behold // Their infants quartered with the hands of war” (JC, III.i.270-1). Strikingly (and disturbingly) similar.

When Hal turns his speaking skills to eulogizing Hotspur, he says that “a kingdom…was too small a bound” (1HIV, V.iv.89) for Percy’s spirit, and there is “not alive so stout a gentleman” (1HIV, V.iv.92), while Antony says of Brutus,

His life was gentle and the elements
So mixed in him that nature might stand up
And say to all the world “This was a man.”
  • JC, V.v.72-4

Of course, it’s always easy to say good things when you’ve won and still breathing.


If Hal is a precursor to Antony, it is no surprise that we see a great deal of Brutus in Hotspur. Brutus is not “gamesome” (JC, I.ii.30), while Hotspur is all-business to the point that Hal perceives a “quiet” (1HIV, II.iv.100) morning for Percy as being one in which he “kills…some six or seven dozen of Scots” (1HIV, II.iv.98-99). Neither is a bundle of fun.

Brutus’ wife Portia wonders what is bothering her husband:

You’ve ungently, Brutus,
Stole from my bed. And yesternight at supper
You suddenly arose and walked about,
Musing and sighing, with your arms across,
  • JC, II.i.236-9

while Hotspur’s wife asks,

For what offense have I this fortnight been
A banished woman from my Harry’s bed?
Tell me, sweet lord, what is ’t that takes from thee
Thy stomach, pleasure, and thy golden sleep?
  • 1HIV, II.iii.37-40

Both husbands can neither eat nor sleep when troubled with thoughts of usurpation. Both wives argue to prove their constancy, but only Portia is successful in getting her husband to confide in her. One has to wonder if Lady Percy would have needed to give herself a Portia-like “involuntary wound” to get Hotspur to open up.

While each is an effective speaker, neither Brutus nor Hotspur is an inspiring one. I’ve covered Brutus’ funeral oration, short and prosaic, which does sway the commons to the side of the conspiracy (albeit momentarily). Hotspur’s speech to his soldiers amounts to a four-line let’s-do-this:

Let each man do his best. And here draw I a sword,
Whose temper I intend to stain
With the best blood that I can meet withal
In the adventure of this perilous day.
  • 1HIV, V.ii.92-5

Not exactly St. Crispin’s Day.

Both are better at bitterly insulting their own allies in arguments. Brutus tells Cassius, “Fret till your proud heart break” (JC, IV.ii.96), mocking him until he even offers his own suicide, while Hotspur insults Glendower by telling him, “I can teach thee, coz, to shame the devil– // By telling truth. Tell truth and shame the devil” (1HIV, III.i.58-9). It is only the reputation and martial skills (respectively) of the men that allows them to get away with such contemptuous behavior.

So the parallels are there.

But why?

Hal grows to become the greatest king in English history, or at least in Shakespeare’s English histories. Hotspur is an admirable–if somewhat frustrating–character, whose end is failure.

Antony will grow to become a great leader (and the hero of a later Shakespearean Roman tragedy). Brutus, of course, ends in failure, as well.

Is this a political statement on rebellions, in general, written near the end of the reign of an aging queen, one with no living direct biological heir, and for whom rebellion and usurpation were real dangers? Was it a warning to possible rebels to think twice or to back down? And if so, why didn’t Essex listen?

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