Saturday, February 19, 2005

Levelling classics

I cannot tell what you and other men
Think of this life; but, for my single self,
I had as lief not be as live to be
In awe of such a thing as I myself.
I was born free as Caesar; so were you:
We both have fed as well, and we can both
Endure the winter's cold as well as he:
For once, upon a raw and gusty day,
The troubled Tiber chafing with her shores,
Caesar said to me 'Darest thou, Cassius, now
Leap in with me into this angry flood,
And swim to yonder point?' Upon the word,
Accoutred as I was, I plunged in
And bade him follow; so indeed he did.
The torrent roar'd, and we did buffet it
With lusty sinews, throwing it aside
And stemming it with hearts of controversy;
But ere we could arrive the point proposed,
Caesar cried 'Help me, Cassius, or I sink!'
I, as Aeneas, our great ancestor,
Did from the flames of Troy upon his shoulder
The old Anchises bear, so from the waves of Tiber
Did I the tired Caesar. And this man
Is now become a god, and Cassius is
A wretched creature and must bend his body,
If Caesar carelessly but nod on him.
He had a fever when he was in Spain,
And when the fit was on him, I did mark
How he did shake: 'tis true, this god did shake;
His coward lips did from their colour fly,
And that same eye whose bend doth awe the world
Did lose his lustre: I did hear him groan:
Ay, and that tongue of his that bade the Romans
Mark him and write his speeches in their books,
Alas, it cried 'Give me some drink, Titinius,'
As a sick girl. Ye gods, it doth amaze me
A man of such a feeble temper should
So get the start of the majestic world
And bear the palm alone.
Julius Ceasar, Act 1, Scene 2.

I am incapable of reading that without being moved; as being a simple, concise plea for egalitarianism. Shakespeare's eloquence speaking through a mouth I suspect he disapproves of.

But that is a case of me bringing my own mindset to the peice. It is worth remembering that Cassius, Brutus and Ceasar are all from the same ruling class, the elite of Rome. Cassius' objection is not so much to Ceasar being great, but that Ceasar is no greater than he, is a part of the same class. the core complaint could be read as one against social mobility rather than against elitism or as a leveller tract.

Not withstanding, I think that now it stands as a good egalitarian republican sentiment.


Anonymous Anonymous said...

"Ay, in the catalogue ye go for men,
As hounds and greyhounds, mongrels, spaniels, curs,
Shoughs, waterrugs, and demi-wolves are clept
All by the name of dogs...and so of men." (Macbeth)

Stick that in your egalitarian commie pipe and smoke it.

1:42 PM  
Blogger John said...

Mmm. Macbeth talking to murderers in Act III. Are you suggesting this is also Shakespeare speaking through a mouth he disapproves of? Or is it just Macbeth insulting murderers?

5:01 PM  
Anonymous David Duff said...

My advice is never, but never, quote Shakespeare and assume that he shared those particular views.

These are the words of one of his great tragic heroes, Coriolanus, do you think they represent what Shakespear really thought?

"He that will give good words to thee will flatter
Beneath abhorring. What would you have, you curs,
That like nor peace nor war? the one affrights you,
The other makes you proud. He that trusts to you,
Where he should find you lions, finds you hares;
Where foxes, geese: you are no surer, no,
Than is the coal of fire upon the ice,
Or hailstone in the sun. Your virtue is
To make him worthy whose offence subdues him
And curse that justice did it.
Who deserves greatness
Deserves your hate; and your affections are
A sick man's appetite, who desires most that
Which would increase his evil. He that depends
Upon your favours swims with fins of lead
And hews down oaks with rushes. Hang ye! Trust Ye?
With every minute you do change a mind,
And call him noble that was now your hate,
Him vile that was your garland. What's the matter,
That in these several places of the city
You cry against the noble senate, who,
Under the gods, keep you in awe, which else
Would feed on one another?"

5:17 PM  
Anonymous David Duff said...

Sorry, in my haste I forgot to point out that he is addressing, er, common working men, or proleteriate, as you probably call them.

5:24 PM  
Blogger Bill said...

Actually Duff, yes, I think he did think something like that. Certainly, the mob in all his plays is always easily swayed (actually, they weren't BTW, proletarian, which was a very small class at that time, but artisans and bourgeoisie as well, FYI). COriolanous is often credited as being the first individualist hero, though.

The value of Shakespeare is even when he himself might have disapproved, the power and realism of his plays allows people and positions to speak against his grain.

8:30 AM  
Anonymous David Duff said...

If you have the time, I would be interested in your reasons for thinking that Cassius's words represent Shakespeare's opinions. Why not Ulysses's hymn in praise of conservatism (with a small 'c') in 'Troius and Cressida'?

2:59 PM  
Blogger Bill said...

Er, Dave, man, I don't. In fact, I said precisely the opposite, I'm sure they don't represent his opinions, but that Shakespeare could so well represent the movemements, opinions and people he opposed that minds more sympathetic would agree with them. Likewise my comments on Shylock.

3:05 PM  
Anonymous David Duff said...

Sorry, Bill, your words "..I think he did think something like that." confused me.

You're quite right, his genius in being able to adopt the 'voice' of whatever character he had invented was immense.

You, yourself, point up the weaknesses apparent in Cassius's speech, that element of 'why him, why not me, me, me!' With a stinking head-cold, I cannot instantly think of "..a good egalitarian republican sentiment", but if I do, I will share it with you.

5:05 PM  

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