CHAPTER ONE: The Shakespeare in My Life
Part 1. Julius Caesar
I won my first elocution contest with Patrick Henry’s speech “Peace, peace, but there is no fish!” It did not matter that I mispronounced the last “peace”, I won anyway. In Ateneo we were required to memorize Lincoln’s Gettysburg Address, Toussaint l’Ouverture’s Answer to the French, and Spartacus’ speech to the Gladiators, and occasionally some poem like Invictus, or John Masefield’s “I must go down to the seas again,” or Rudyard Kipling’s “If”, or Longfellow’s “This is the forest primeval,” or “Day is done,” or The Children’s Hour. Also Hamlet, Romeo and Macbeth of Shakespeare.
But it is with a medley of pieces from Shakespeare’s Julius Caesar that I was at my best. And all my children and grandchildren at their school age won many an elocution contest with them. Of all the plays of Shakespeare, I like Julius Caesar best. Romeo and Juliet and A Midsummer Night’s Dream belonged to his first Romantic period. Julius Caesar was the bridge between his second and third periods, between his Histories (Henry V, Richard the Third) and his Tragedies (Hamlet, Othello, Macbeth), and partakes of both History and Tragedy.
Julius Caesar is Shakespeare’s shortest play, and in my opinion, one of his very best. Here in this play do we find a unity of design and a harmony of details. There are no digressions, no sub-plots, no diversionary episodes, no comic scenes, no unnecessary characters. The plot is announced at the beginning, and is held singly and strictly to the very end. It is more than a coincidence that Shakespeare’s dramatic version of the greatest event in classical history, the assassination of Julius Caesar, should also be the most classically perfect of all his plays, in structure and in faithful adherence to the historical details recounted in Plutarch’s Lives.
It is no coincidence too that my children, weaned on Marc Antony’s polemics, went on to win three First Prizes and three Second Prizes in national oratorical contests. Nowhere else in Shakespeare does one find the sheer drama and excitement (gulpe de gulat) that Shakespeare’s Julius Caesar affords. Witness this, all transcribed from my memory:
Mark Antony stumbles into the scene where the assassinated Caesar’s body lies at the foot of Pompey’s statue. Ignoring the assassins and addressing the dead Caesar, he says: “O mighty Caesar, dost thou lie so low? Are all thy conquests, glories, triumphs, spoils shrunk to this little measure? Fare thee well.” Then he turns to the assassins before him, their hands still bloodied, and says: “I know not gentlemen what you intend, who else must be let blood, who else is rank. If I myself there is no hour so fit as Caesar’s death hour, nor no instrument of half that worth as those your swords made rich with the most noble blood of all this world. I do beseech ye, if you bear me hard, now whilst your purpled hands do reek and smoke, fulfill your pleasure! Live a thousand years I shall not find myself so apt to die. No place will please me so, no mean of death as here by Caesar and by you cut off, the choice and master spirits of this age.”
When the assassins left, having promised Antony the opportunity to speak at Caesar’s funeral, alone now, Mark Antony kneels before Caesar’s body, and says:
“O pardon me, thou bleeding piece of earth, that I am meek and gentle with these butchers. Thou art the ruins of the noblest man that ever lived in the tide of times. Woe to the hand that shed this costly blood! Over thy wounds now do I prophecy (which like dumb mouths do ope their ruby lips to beg the voice and utterance of my tongue): a curse shall light upon the limbs of men. Domestic fury and civil strife shall cumber all parts of Italy. Blood and destruction shall be so in use and dreadful objects so familiar, that mothers shall but smile when they see their infants quartered by the hands of war. All pity choked with custom of fell deeds, and Caesar’s spirit, ranging for revenge with Ate by his side come hot from hell, shall in these confines with a monarch’s voice, cry ‘Havoc!’ and let slip the dogs of war, that this foul deed shall smell above the earth with carrion men groaning for burial.”
He then takes the body of Caesar to the market place, and there speaks his famous funeral oration before the people of Rome:
“Friends, Romans, countrymen, lend me your ears. I come to bury Caesar, not to praise him. The evil that men do lives after them, the good is oft interred with their bones, so let it be with Caesar. The noble Brutus hath told you that Caesar was ambitious. If it were so, it was a grievous fault and grievously hath Caesar answer’d it. Here under leave of Brutus and the rest, for Brutus is an honorable man, so are they all, all honorable men, come I to speak in Caesar’s funeral.
“He was my friend, faithful and just to me, but Brutus says he was ambitious, and Brutus is an honorable man. He hath brought many captives home to Rome whose ransoms did the general coffers fill. Did this in Caesar seem ambitious? When that the poor have cried, Caesar hath wept. Ambition should be made of sterner stuff. Was this ambition? Yet Brutus says he was ambitious and sure, he is an honorable man.
“You all did see that on the Lupercal I thrice presented him a kingly crown, which he did thrice refuse. I speak not to disprove what Brutus spoke, but here I am to speak what I do know. You all did love him him once, not without cause. What cause withholds you then to mourn for him? O judgment, thou art fled to brutish beasts and men have lost their reason! Bear with me. My heart is in the coffin there with Caesar, and I must pause till it come back to me.
“But yesterday the word of Caesar might have stood against the world. Now lies he there and none so poor to do him reverence. O masters, were I dispose to stir your hearts and minds to mutiny and rage, I should do Brutus wrong and Cassius wrong, who you all know are honorable men. I will not do them wrong. I rather choose to wrong the dead, to wrong myself and you, than wrong such honorable men. For I have neither wit, nor words, nor worth, action, nor utterance, nor the power of speech to stir men’s blood. But were I Brutus, and Brutus Anthony, there were an Antony would ruffle up your sprits and put a tongue in every wound of Caesar that should move the stones of Rome to rise and mutiny!” Wow! What a speech! Nowhere else in Shakespeare will you experience such moving drama!
Actually, the hero of the play is not Julius Caesar who is depicted as a vain dictator or Mark Antony who is depicted as an opportunist. The real hero is Brutus who of all the conspirators is the only one moved by lofty motives, to save Rome from a tyrant. His co-conspirator Cassius has less worthy motives, he is a mean and envious man. But an exchange of words between Brutus and Cassius foretells how the historic event would be dramatized on the stages and in classrooms over the centuries.
Says Cassius as he stoops to wash his hands in Caesar’s blood: “How many ages hence shall this lofty scene be acted over in countries yet unborn and in accents yet unknown!”
And Brutus answers with a sadness born of the enormity of their deed: “And how many times shall Caesar bleed in sport that now on the base of Pompey’s statue lies no worthier than the dust?”
And how many times will my grandchildren triumph in elocution contests, with Marc Antony’s soliloquies and orations after the death of Julius Caesar?