Julius Caesar is one of Shakespeare’s most compelling Roman plays. The plot against Caesar and the infamous assassination scene make for unforgettable listening. Brutus, the true protagonist of the play, is mesmerizing in his psychological state of anguish, forced to choose between the bonds of friendship and his desire for patriotic justice.
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I think that reading Shakespeare's plays does not do them justice - they aren't meant to be read, they are meant to be performed, and seen performed. However, you also miss a lot if you aren't already familiar with the context and the Shakespearean language, because of course ol' Will packs a lot into every single line.
So, this is the famous play about the conspirators who assassinated Julius Caesar, fearing his ambition to become king. Among the famous lines to which we owe this play: "Et tu, Brutus?" "Cry havoc, and let slip the dogs of war!" "Cowards die many times before their deaths; the valiant never taste of death but once." And "The fault, dear Brutus, is not in our stars, but in ourselves."
Mark Antony's speech is probably the highlight of the play. Having just been informed of Caesar's death, and with the assassins having convinced the Roman public that they'd saved Rome from a tyrant, Mark Antony gives his famous speech which is a masterpiece of mob manipulation, turning them against the conspirators and in favor of the slain Caesar.
The conflicts are patriotism versus friendship, loyalty versus ideals, and the taint of self-interest always present in one's motives. As a tragedy, this is one of those Shakespearean plays where almost everyone ends up falling on a sword one way or the other.
Brutus is clearly the protagonist, but I think Mark Antony wins it.
Performances were clear and dramatic in this production. Not quite as good as seeing the play, but all the action is clear enough with minimal sound effects.
Cassius is eager to recruit Brutus for his preemptive strike on Julius Caesar, before Caesar's "ambition" may harm Rome by becoming the tyranny of a crown. The thundering and flaming ill omens warn everyone to take a quiet time out, but, although Brutus loves Caesar, he loves Rome more, and so joins the conspiracy. Perhaps Brutus' feeling for Caesar causes guilt to undermine his instinct for self-preservation, for after the Ides of March assassination, he makes some stunning errors regarding Mark Antony, for instance allowing him to give his famous "Friends, Romans, countrymen, lend me your ears" rabble-rousing speech, punctuated by Antony's increasingly ironic claims that Brutus et al are honorable men, that it isn't the time or place to read Caesar's will, that he isn't an orator, and that he sure isn't inciting anyone to do anything violent against the conspirators. Then it's expeditiously on to the climactic Battle of the Four Armies at Philippi.
Shakespeare's play is fascinating in the complexity of its situation and characters. Cassius begins as a sneaky manipulator motivated from envy to kill Caesar and involve Brutus by any means necessary (including the tossing of fake incendiary letters through Brutus' window), but he becomes ennobled through love of Brutus and finally adopts Brutus' freedom from tyranny motive. Mark Antony begins as a feeling man motivated by grief and justice and ends a ruthless uber-politician greedy for power and capable of stirring up the masses, gloating, "Mischief, thou art afoot," and then having 70 or 100 senators executed to fund his army with their revenues. Brutus' words about his fears for Caesar's ambition apply most to Mark Antony: "The abuse of greatness is, when it disjoins/ Remorse from power." And of course at the center stews the self-destructively noble Brutus.
Along with many deservedly famous speeches and lines, Shakespeare's rich language reveals many neat insights into human nature: how people subjectively interpret signs; how power corrupts and selfishness taints any action; how violence begets chaos and more violence; how intense situations stress friendships; and how flawed is human nature ("The fault" lying "in ourselves"). He also keeps the action moving swiftly. Even though this is very much a man's play, there is a potent scene between Brutus and his wife Portia in which she tries to plumb what ails him: "Dwell I but in the suburbs of your good pleasure?"
Shakespeare writes doubling scenes that comment on each other. There are obvious pairs, like Caesar and Calpurnia's exchange followed by Brutus and Portia's, Brutus' speech followed by Mark Antony's, or Mark Antony and Ocatvius' tete-a-tete followed by Brutus and Cassius', as well as some less obvious ones that would be easy to miss were one simply reading the play but which the dramatized Naxos version highlights (as a good theater version would). My favorite example is the comical opening scene when some aristocrats interrogate a punning cobbler paired with the horrifying scene when the enraged mob interrogates a frightened poet.
THIRD CITIZEN Your name, sir, truly. CINNA THE POET Truly, my name is Cinna. FIRST CITIZEN Tear him to pieces; he's a conspirator. CINNA THE POET I am Cinna the poet, I am Cinna the poet. FOURTH CITIZEN Tear him for his bad verses, tear him for his bad verses. CINNA THE POET I am not Cinna the conspirator. FOURTH CITIZEN It is no matter, his name's Cinna; pluck but his name out of his heart, and turn him going. THIRD CITIZEN Tear him, tear him! Come, brands ho! fire-brands: to Brutus', to Cassius'; burn all: some to Decius' house, and some to Casca's; some to Ligarius': away, go!
Hearing the terrified and confused Cinna, the ruthless and frenzied citizens, and the violent sound effects, hits home that we are witnessing a mob tearing someone apart limb from limb, confronting us with the results of Mark Antony's "mischief."
The sound effects of the Naxos audiobook production of the play enhance its moods and immerse the listener in the dramatic world: thunder on the eve of the Ides of March, ominous crowd shouting noises at Caesar's funeral, wine pouring when Brutus and Cassius make up, eerie background noise for Caesar's ghost, war trumpets and marching soldiers and galloping horses for the battle, and so on. David Timson directs a stellar cast of actors (many with experience acting in the Bard's plays). Standouts are Sean Barrett as Caesar, Paul Rhys as Brutus, Pip Carter as Cassius, and Roy McMillan as various men. Of course, if you haven't read much Shakespeare or haven't before seen or read Julius Caesar, it would help if you had the text handy when listening to this audiobook, but the quality of the voice acting is such that even without reading along with the play I could mostly follow the action and--thanks also to clues in the characters' speeches--could usually understand who was speaking. This version of Julius Caesar, then, is excellent.