It must be by his death…

December 2, 2011

I’ve made a decision that I sincerely hope I’ll stick to.

A lovely friend of mine decided to cast me in a hefty role in his play.  I’ll be playing Cassius in the Dead Playwright’s production of Julius Caesar.  This is the first time I’ve been asked to play a character of any major substance – both in terms of his service to the play’s overall story, and in the level of actual acting required to play him.  I’ve got a lot of lines to memorize, and a lot of emotions to portray.  Because Cassius is, possibly, the most emotionally raw character in the entire play.  Which, for me, isn’t necessarily a stretch… but certainly a challenge.

I’m obviously a very emotional person.  I’m fiery and loud.  I wave my arms a lot when I talk.  So emotional, yes.  I’m just not very good at being so.  I often find myself not knowing what it is I’m feeling.  Only that I’m feeling.  I’m clumsy with my emotions.  I’m irascible and moody.  I’m like my father that way.  And like him, I’ve learned over the years the value of tempering my emotions with logic.  It’s a hat I enjoy wearing – the rational one – the problem solver.  The one in control.

Oh how I adore control – it’s emotion’s kryptonite.  It keeps me held together.  It’s my Higg’s boson, the force not only binding me together, but that which gives me mass – gives me substance.

I’m excited to play Cassius because he and I have so much in common.  He spends the entirety of the play trying to attain control.  He seduces and bullies and guilts and lies.  And he’s a character who, as the plot literally unravels before him, discovers not only that he doesn’t have control, but that he never had it in the first place.

In the end, ruined, thinking his best friend dead, he kills himself – his final act a last stab (har har) at attaining what little control the universe affords him.

“…life, being weary of these worldly bars, / Never lacks power to dismiss itself,” he tells the grouchy Casca in an earlier scene, foreshadowing his own end.  “Cassius from bondage will deliver Cassius;”

Who wouldn’t want to play that?

I’m taking this part seriously.  Not only as a silly community theater actor, but as a person with a neurotic obsession with self-discovery.  Understanding Cassius, I think, is a way to better understand myself.  And so it is my intention, over the next few months, to pour my many obsessive, cerebral analyses of Cassius (and the play as a whole) into this blog.  And I will publish them to cyberspace, and link to them on my Facebook, because I’m a paltry, weak fellow who simply adores other people’s attention.

So here are my first preliminary observations on the play and its characters.  Here’s the jazz in my head.  I sincerely hope it’s not too dissonant.

Brutus and Cassius are obviously dramatic foils of one another.  Certainly emotional foils – Brutus the cold, calculating stoic, to Cassius’ fiery, passionate epicurean.  But their opposition runs deeper than their mere behavior.  They want different things.  They believe in different things.  They conspire to kill Caesar for vastly different reasons.  And in the end, are opposed even in how they see themselves.

Brutus’ every action and choice clothes a central philosophical concept.  He’s kinda vague about it.  He calls it honor.  I’d like to be a bit more specific (nerdy).  Let’s give it a fancy name and call it the Spock Constant.

“The needs of the many outweigh the few, or the one.”

My love for logic and Spock aside, I’ve always kind of hated Brutus.  He’s such a stiff.  I know he’s the play’s tragic hero… but to me he’s always been unthinkably cold – willing, after a few moment’s rumination and torment – to murder his friend.  Not for something real.  But for an idea.  He picks the Republic over Caesar, and in so doing chooses to elevate the transient satisfaction of moral, political, and intellectual harmony above the tangible reality of the man standing in front of him.  He kills his friend because he might become something terrible.  Because he’s ambitious.  To Brutus, Rome is a republic, and Caesar is in the way.  “It must be by his death,” he says, “and for my part I know no personal cause to spurn at him /But for the general.”

What bullshit.

My own blathering to the contrary (and Spock’s brilliance notwithstanding), I’ve always had problems with this kind of thinking: valuing a concept over a person.  Call it what you want: nationalism, morality, honor, “the greater good”.  Even if these things actually had meaning (which they typically don’t, as they are instead so often the thin bloody veils one drapes over greed and ambition), they’re just so damn cold.  Assuming I had it in me to murder someone, I could never murder a man for an idea.  Ideas change.  That’s what’s so great about them.

But placed in the impossible circumstance, I think I could murder a man to save another man.  I could kill someone who threatened to harm the people I love.  My father.  My friends.  My cat.

Definitely my cat.

Brutus takes out Caesar so that all other men might live free.  It’s a compelling idea, in theory.  It’s dramatic and lofty.  Perfect for theater.  But in the day to day… it’s just fucking awful.  It doesn’t really compute.

Which is why I like Cassius’ motivation for killing Caesar so much more.  It’s so much more complex.  Because, unlike Brutus, Cassius’ motivation it isn’t what he claims it is.

On the surface, Cassius is the mythologically American character.  He’s the revolutionary.  The rabble rouser.  He’s the Samuel Adams of Rome.  “I had as lief not be as live to be / in awe of such a thing as I myself.”  I’d rather be dead than worship a man no greater than me, he says.  Down with the king.

This is true.  Cassius does, in a small way, embody this image.  In many ways, Cassius is an Ayn Rand libertarian.  And he’s attractive for the same reasons libertarianism, on its surface, is attractive.  Like libertarianism, Cassius deifies the individual, and turns the savage will required to live as an individual into his highest virtue.  Cassius won’t ever bend.  Won’t ever worship.  Won’t rest until he’s wrung every last drop of freedom from the world.

But like libertarianism, Cassius is only satisfying on the surface.  Like it, he is morally bankrupt.  And like Ayn Rand, Cassius is utterly full of shit.  Elevating the individual means stepping on the necks of all the other individuals around you.  One cannot prosper without another’s ruin.

A person who adores the individual must recognize that they’re not the only individual.  Everyone’s an individual.  So how can one rationalize the crushing of another free, beautiful, powerful person for their own benefit?

Call it what it is, Cassius.  You don’t love the individual.  You love yourself.  It’s not freedom… it’s solipsism.  It’s easy to live that way… like you’re the only one that matters.  Children do it all the time.

You know what you call a child who never learns to share?  You call it a libertarian.

Don’t get me wrong – I worship the individual.  And I worship myself (inasmuch as I detest myself… which is a kind of worship – see: Catholicism).  But I’ve learned that as much as I may love me and want to see me prosper… I recognize that I’m not in this shit alone.  So I’d better save some of my love for my neighbor.  And hope he loves me, too.

Murdering Caesar doesn’t make Cassius strong.  It doesn’t illuminate the glories of his person.  Cassius murders Caesar because he envies him.  Because he hates him.  Because he’s a small, petty, jealous man who’ll do anything he can to get what he wants.  Cassius is afraid.  Cassius wants control.  And so he murders the man who stands in the way of that.

He’s Brutus’ foil through and through.  Brutus kills a man, in order to honestly uphold an ideal, yes.  But he also does it for the good of other men.  This makes him tragic, and therefore a spectacular dramatic construct.

Cassius manipulates an ideal in order to murder a man.  And he does it for the good of himself.  This makes him vile, and therefore incredibly human.  And oh so much fun.

I’ve always seen Cassius as the more likable character – because who doesn’t understand the smaller, uglier human urges that guide him?  I know jealousy.  I know envy.  I know what it is to project my own self-loathing onto another person.  Because that’s really what hating someone is: being too much of a coward to hate oneself openly, and so one pukes that loathing onto another.  Cassius has that in spades.

But Brutus?  Brutus doesn’t hate anyone.  Brutus doesn’t kill Caesar for small reasons.  He does it for the big ones.  Because he really thinks it’s the right thing to do.  He’s willing to get his hands dirty – to harm his friend, and harm himself – for the good of everyone else.  Cruelly, it’s his belief that everyone else is worth helping that gets him killed.  He never suspects that Antony will behave in opposition to what he says.  He never thinks the Romans will not listen to reason.  He’s one of those sad, tragic figures who thinks that ideas can be trusted.  But in the world, ideas change… no matter how ironclad they may be in Brutus’ head.

In the end, Brutus goes out the same way Cassius does, falling on his own sword.  But his suicide isn’t at all the same as Cassius’.  Cassius’ suicide, despite his bluster and his bullshit about the freedom and strength it affords, kills himself to escape.  It’s an act of cowardice.  He dies because he can’t bear to see the outcome of his actions – his army destroyed, his plans ruined, his friend dead… no control.

Brutus kills himself because he realizes that his heart is where that sword belongs.  That he murdered the wrong guy.  That there is glory to be found on that battlefield… that there is an enemy to kill.  And it’s himself.  Brutus dies, and undoes the cruel dishonor of his deeds, and so becomes the very embodiment of honor.  He dies well.  Not scrabbling about for the last shreds of control… but peacefully, cooly letting go.  Because the needs of the many demand it.

I think that’s all I’ve got to say right now.

I’m sure I’ll disagree with myself tomorrow.  Because the great thing about Shakespeare is the great thing about an idea… it changes depending on how you look at it.

So long for now.


One Response to “It must be by his death…”

  1. Jody Says:

    No wonder you did such a good reading today!

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