“A vision fair and fortunate”: Ideology, Politics, and Selfhood in 'Julius Caesar'

Adrian Phoon


Samuel Johnson declared that in Julius Caesar Shakespeare’s “adherence to the real story, and to Roman manners, seems to have impeded the natural vigour of his genius.” Johnson’s distinction between Roman manners on the one hand and the natural vigour of Shakespeare’s genius on the other has since become a critical commonplace in interpretations of the play, though it has been variously reformulated. Gary Miles has recently identified a conflict between “Shakespeare’s distinctive interest in the interior life of his characters” and “the public dimension of his Romans’ lives”. Edward Pechter has phrased this distinction as a tragic tension between the affairs of the state and the specific interests of the individual. For Pechter, the central dilemma facing Brutus – that is, the choice between honouring his friendship to Caesar and protecting the Republic from the tyrannous threat posed by Caesar’s absolutist aspirations – entails a conflict between the unique cares of the individual and the pull of political circumstance. “The tragedy, then, the pity of it, is not that Brutus fails to realise or to recognise his political ambitions,” Pechter explains, “but that the total politicisation of experience in Rome blocks access to any area of self free from these ambitions, or allows no possibility for the expression of such a self apart from the murder of Caesar.” These readings of the play reflect a longstanding preoccupation with related themes of social mores and natural genius, public obligation and private desire, the state and the individual. They base their arguments in part upon the stylized formality of the play’s language and characters, who comport themselves at all times as though they were in public, to the detriment of any private or more intimate conceptions of selfhood; even in soliloquy Brutus and Antony frequently sound as though they are participants in an oratorical debate. But if such readings appear intuitively correct, they are complicated by the fact that, while the characters’ inclinations towards public formality may seem alien to us, it is entirely natural to them.

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