Masterpiece Monday: Julius Caesar

Brutus (right) and Cassius after they have murdered Caesar on the HBO show "Rome"

Rating: 5 out of 5

Ten more days until the Ides of March, and since I’ll be too busy conquering my comprehensive exam on that day, I wanted to tell you to beware now!

If you aren’t familiar with the Roman calendar (which you should, because we owe Rome big time for our current system), I’ll share some tidbits. “Calendar” comes from the Latin term “Kalendae,” which meant the first of the month. Two other important days were the Ides (15th–or oftentimes the 13th–of the month) and the Nones (8 days before the month’s Ides).

These days were planned according to the moon, but the Ides of March have become famous due to William Shakespeare’s play Julius Caesar, which narrates the events before and after Caesar’s assassination on March 15. I can’t believe that I’ve blogged for this long without reviewing a Shakespearean play for Masterpiece Monday, but better late than never, right?

In 44 BCE, Brutus and other prominent Romans, such as Cassius and Casca, feel threatened by Julius Caesar, who has become dictator for life. Afraid of his corruption and their loss of freedom, they plot to kill the ruler and restore democracy. Brutus is one of Caesar’s closest friends, and most of the play revolves around his struggle to commit such a betrayal.

Meanwhile, Caesar ignores many signs of his doom, including his wife Calpurnia’s dreams and a soothsayer’s warning to “Beware the Ides of March.” When he arrives at the Senate that day, he is met by the conspirators, who stab him to death. Caesar’s last words in the play are “Et tu, Brute?” meaning “And you, Brutus?” because he finally realizes his friend’s treachery.

Karma comes back around, however, when the public finds out about Caesar’s will, since the tyrant left large sums of money for every citizen. Enraged by his murder, the common folk demand the conspirators’ deaths. Brutus gives a famous speech offering his defense, but fellow Roman Marc Antony follows with his even more famous “Friends, Romans, countrymen, lend me your ears” speech and calls for the murderers’ exile.

The end of the play describes the battle between Brutus and Cassius and Antony and Caesar’s adopted son Octavius (who will become the future emperor known as Augustus). Caesar’s ghost visits Brutus and tells him of his defeat. During the fight, both conspirators commit suicide, and Antony gives the final speech, calling Brutus “the noblest Roman of them all” for his good intentions to save liberty.

I absolutely love this play, but I love the Roman history behind it even more. In high school, we had to memorize a speech from Julius Caesar, and I chose to perform as Portia, Brutus’ devoted wife, who also commits suicide by swallowing hot coals due to Antony’s rising power.  I think that all students should have the opportunity to experience the Bard’s exquisite words for themselves.

I don’t think that I learned anything as rewarding as Roman history, literature, and the Latin language–which is why I highly recommend this tragedy. Also check out the amazing HBO show “Rome,” which does a fantastic job showing Caesar’s rise and fall in season one.

I hope doom does not befall you on the Ides of March this year, so be sure to listen to your spouse and any fortune tellers walking around. And of course, don’t piss off your friends, because you never know when they might stab you in the back.

Favorite Quote:

Cowards die many times before their deaths;
The valiant never taste of death but once.
Of all the wonders that I yet have heard,
It seems to me most strange that men should fear;
Seeing that death, a necessary end,
Will come when it will come. (Caesar, 2.2.34)

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