The Inverted Order of Things: Act 4 of Shakespeare’s “Julius Caesar”
The word “merry” occurs twice in Shakespeare’s Julius Caesar.  The first time in Act 2.4, where Portia asks her servant to tell Brutus that she is “merry” at home, even though she is not, given that she is lacking her husband “word” (39-46).  The second occurrence is in Act 3.2, where Antony suggests that “Fortune… The post The Inverted Order of Things: Act 4 of Shakespeare’s “Julius Caesar” appeared first on VoegelinView.




The word “merry” occurs twice in Shakespeare’s Julius Caesar.  The first time in Act 2.4, where Portia asks her servant to tell Brutus that she is “merry” at home, even though she is not, given that she is lacking her husband “word” (39-46).  The second occurrence is in Act 3.2, where Antony suggests that “Fortune is merry!” “at Caesar’s house” and in response to “a wish” (265-67).  Antony would seem to agree with Cassius that the “mood” (268) of the heavens reflects that of men; but Antony’s suggestion narrows the comparison down to men seated in the house of authority.  Antony’s “Fortune” supports Caesar’s title; indeed, she is married to his formal cause, his authoritative word.  Why, divine providence may be blind to particular Caesars (these come and go), but it is not blind to the necessary preservation of the Whole.
The final scene of Act 3 is crowned by the opening of Act 4: Fortune is indeed blind to particulars, for it marries “names,” not men-in-the-flesh per se.  What Fortune punishes is the severing of wisdom from the Good and thus from truth properly, or poetically understood.  The punishment is blind to blood or family relations, or more simply to physical bodies, which it does not count (4.1.1-6).  What counts for Fortune is not any particular will, but impersonal Reason of State (7-11); today we would say, the Rule of Law.
What is Antony to do in light of Fortune’s “pricking” of names in which “many then shall die” (1, 16-17)?  He shall fend off the legacy of Brutus, of the almost-son, and “damn him” as stained by his own sin (5-9)—lest a new Brutus rise to kill new Caesars.  Every determinate Caesar is to “determine” what Fortune does not; Antony himself is to will “how” to respond to danger, or how to “read the will” of Caesar in the name of the people (8-9; compare 3.2.156-61).  Every determinate Caesar is to “descend” to punish and reward in a way consonant with merit (4.1.11-28).  That is something Fortune or Heaven cannot do on its own.  Yet, the honor or dignity that Antony has in mind defines merit, more than reflect it (18-40): the justice of the ruling spirit involves raising the common(er) in name, governing the flesh as a grazing ass (26-27) into legal forms reflective of, though irreducible to the ruling will.  The ruling spirit is to make of “the melting spirits of women” (to cite 2.1 after Act 1.3) the semblance of free men, or of manly spirits.  Such is the case with Antony’s agency over Lepidus, “a barren-spirited fellow” (36), among the last of men (36-39) who is to appear among the first.
If Caesars as such are but barren images of manliness, images produced by the art of governance, or the spirit of noble supporters, then not Lepidus, but Antony and Octavius are to face danger (41-47), thereby complementing Fortune in securing political order (compare the “straight” of 42 and that of 3.2.266).  Behind the face of Caesars stand “covert” spirits that are best suited to respond to “open perils” (45-47).  Those few covert allies (45) emerge as the backbone of Rome and the real target of Rome’s enemies, of which by far the most threatening are false or feigned friends (47-51).
Scene 2 invites doubt (2.10-14) that those delivering themselves to the spirit of deceit could ever be friends to each other.  These false-friends of Caesar look upon honor and blood-ties with fear-bound suspicion, rather than positive doubt (after 2.12 after 1.19), considering all honor as but a convention effective most notably in masking resentment in the minds of the gullible, lest these see that the ends they follow are but unnatural “ideals” masking a nature incompatible with honor (37-45).
Scene 3 opens with a “behind the scenes” discussion between Brutus and Cassius, the latter betraying the false indignation of the mercenary mind that Dostoevsky would painstakingly explore, most notably in the persons of Raskolnikov (in Crime and Punishment) and Ivan Karamazov.  Yet, both Cassius and Brutus fall short of regretting stabbing Caesar (18-28, 58).  If Cassius is measuring honor with gold (11), Brutus is pretending that he acted out of real love of justice (20-21).  Both are pretending, although Cassius alone takes pretension for granted, thereby betraying a shamelessness foreign to Brutus.  Cassius’s betrayal of his political mandate for “gold” reminds us of Antony’s earlier reference to honor (15) as “gold” carried by asses (1.21).  The honor Cassius sells nonchalantly is a fabrication.  Brutus finds the trade unacceptable, apparently because he is not ready yet to concede that all honor is a fabrication.  Cassius’s “older” (31), cynical attitude disturbs Brutus, as anything shameless would a soul undisposed to forsake a natural sense of shame—civil pudor.  In Brutus’s eyes, Cassius stands as paradigm for the mad corruption resulting from a visceral “split” suffered by venomous creatures upon their betraying the divine (15, 40, 46-48).  These “waspish” (49), reptilian spirits tend to entice ordinary men into believing that virtue or nobility cut off from truth is preferable to virtue bound to truth.  On this Machiavellian-like view, “ability” is to be sought aside from the good, or the original bond between virtue and the good (30-31, 51-52, 56), where what is “better” is not necessarily superior.  The “superior” man is the one who is able to be ambivalent about goodness.  For the new superior man, virtue is no longer a good in itself.  Accordingly, Cassius invites Brutus to cultivate impious “ability” on the way to establishing a new morality of shamelessness, a morality of inverted values, for which the exception becomes the rule, emergency the norm (compare 2.40-41 and 3.8).  Cassius rises as prophet of what today would be dubbed “the new normal”.
Brutus’s objection to Cassius is far from immune to just rebuke.  His indignant denunciation of “money by vile means” is only faintly evocative of the Gospels’ condemnation of Judas Iscariot (69-73); for what Brutus finds vile is being tainted by the “vile trash,” i.e., money, illicitly “wr[u]ng from the hard hands of peasants” (73-75).  In voicing sympathy toward financing his soldiers by other, upright means (75), Brutus has suggested that money is trash to the extent that it is plebeian: what is plebeian is vile and Cassius’s vileness reminds Brutus of the plebs, whom Brutus, however, does not despise insofar as they at least are not idle (1.1.1, 2.1.117, 4.3.68).[1] For the virtue that Brutus honors is the prowess of “nobles” in combat (14).
Cassius’s response to Brutus’s allegations of miserliness draws Brutus to accept Cassius’s own ways.  Cassius’s own fault is attributed to a foolish emissary (83-84) and tangentially to his own mother (119), while Brutus’s own anger and hatred is excused as a transient, if only rash, expression of pain for the loss of his wife Portia (87-89, 104-05, 140-59).  Nothing precise is said about the “fool” who related to Brutus a denial Cassius now denies to have ever proffered (82); nothing, that is, until a poet steps in uninvited, only to be chased out as one of “these jigging fools” (134)—rashly chided, as Cassius’s own mother might have done with her own son (122).  Neither Cassius, nor Brutus would then be at fault, but poetry dismissed as distraction from the “many griefs” and “accidental evils” of life (141-43).  Without poetry, “your philosophy” (in Brutus’s case, Stoicism—142) remains utterly ineffective in moderating our passions.  In philosophy’s stead—and in the absence of poetry—Cassius proposes a “noble pledge” (157), even though he must recall that Brutus had vehemently rejected oaths in the face of political danger (Act 2.1).  While Brutus had rejected oaths in the name of nobility, now, in the absence of poetry, Cassius invites Brutus to toast to “that noble pledge” to what Brutus had just called for, namely to “bury all unkindness” (4.3.156-158), a euphemistic expression referring to memory of death (29, 35, 119, 152, 163).  In the absence of the pure nobility Brutus had once juxtaposed to oaths, Cassius drinks solemnly of a cup filled with a mixture of love and hatred (157-59 after 103-06).  In the absence of poetry, love and law are reconciled by death-forgetful hatred.
Both good and its absence are needed to plot in the absence of natural light, “and call in question our necessities” (160-62).  Read “mechanically” or along the lines of Cassius’s own realpolitik hermeneutics, Shakespeare’s verse refers merely to military tactics.  Read, however, poetically (in its proper poetic context), the verse tells us that what is at stake is a radical subversion of order—a subversion of all order and thus of all necessity.  In calling into question “our necessities,” Brutus sets out to free himself of all “accidental evils” (142).  Old (Stoic) philosophy has failed Brutus, although we are given reasons to believe that it failed by having been left bereft of poetry (it is the scene that tells us—the action of the play, rather than the sole argument).  Mere philosophy is evidently ineffective; it fails to rescue us in the moment of need, or in the face of evil.  Thus has Brutus become a victim of “many griefs” (141).
Cassius’s answer to the bankruptcy of Brutus’s nobility involves a calling into question of nobility’s presuppositions.  While old nobility had pitted itself against all evils, a new nobility may rise via subversive conspiration, integrating all evils into the establishment of a new moral-political order in which we (patricians, to begin with) could all be safe from dire grief in the absence of both old philosophy and poetry.
Cassius’ formal target is the old aristocracy and its reliance on old blood-relations and friendship as well as the old use of political-poetic masks to secure public order.  The old moral code entailing conflict between good and evil is to be replaced by conflict between A. old “mighty power” valuing goodness and friendship, and B. new powers (compare 166 and 1.42-44).  Beneath the smokescreen of realpolitik “literalist” rhetoric (replacing old poetry—164, 167), the new powers are really fighting against an old conception of friendship as bound to goodness—an old ethics entailing a natural hierarchy of ends (compare the “bending” of 3.167 and the “straight” of 1.42).
Conscious of their weakness, the conspiring heralds of the new order do not fight in a straightforward manner, preferring to rely on ambushes capable of obviating the natural tendency in people to seek liberation from compulsion (195-208).  Since soldiers are not naturally mercenaries, or since our original impulse to fight is not defined by unqualified lust for power, Cassius’s plan is to act abruptly and surreptitiously (in verse 197, the “lying still” pronounced by someone who, as advocate of inverted morality, is likely still lying, is semantically ambiguous).  Instead of openly attacking the forces of the old order, Cassius would rather attract them in his own field, ambushing them as a snake that hides in the grass; for, as Virgil reminds us, latet anguis in herba (Virgil, Eclogue 3.93).
Brutus favors a more direct or traditional strategy involving abrupt maneuvers that are, however, not surreptitious.  For Brutus senses that cunning is bound to natural or necessary limitations, even though Brutus would agree with Cassius that those limitations are to be understood mechanistically.  For both false-friends (209-11), war is a gamble and the “better” (196) fighter is the one who weighs possibilities with greater exactitude (215-21).
Cassius yields to Brutus’ martial wager (221-22) for the same reason that he had first called upon Brutus to carry out Caesar’s assassination.  The overturning of the old order requires the cooption of the old spirit or “will” of nobility (ibid.).  The old order cannot be overcome unless it is used against itself, driven to destroy itself on the basis of a more or less tacit rejection of divine providence, or of an order of things that is neither mechanically necessary, nor dependent upon human whims.  Both Cassius’s chance and Brutus’s necessity or blind will (224) are to be combined to replace providence as nature’s master (219-25).  Victory is to result from a nominal alliance between A. an all-too-human will cut off from any divine counterpart and B. systematic channeling of chance.  The combination of these two elements produces what we could call the empirical-scientific “method” that Cassius has been seeking to establish as authoritative and definitive (226-28) alternative to an old art of governance.
A new “Good” and brotherhood is asserted through repetition (227-29 and 233, after 209) in the night, on the basis of “an ill beginning” (231).  What counts now is that the principle of “pleasure” has been established to secure ignorance of ends (246-48, 254-57), where what is right is defined by might: our duty is to do what we can do, that is, to wield power, to invest all of our capacities in the establishment of an order representing them (258).[2] Therein, or in the possibility of the realization of a realm representing our will cut off from any underlying good, lies our new good (262-63).  The new good is not an actuality, but a possibility; not something we really mean, but something we posit as hypothesis, or even as a mere manner of speech, something we may read about in a pocketbook (250) enjoyed with musical accompaniment (252-53).
Brutus’s principle of pleasure based on forgetfulness (252) of an original way of reading—one exemplified earlier by Antony with respect to Caesar’s written will—fails to ward death off.  For the sleep it induces emerges as foremost reminder of death (264).  Yet, whereas Brutus had formerly sought to forget death as an evil, upon its resurfacing via a new reading, death appears to Brutus as a monstrosity beyond the distinction between good and evil (274-76).  Nor is the “monstrous apparition” accounted for by Brutus’s new reduction of duty to might: no weakness (273) can spare Brutus the grief of facing death, not as a mere, momentous fatality (such as the one Brutus assumes Portia to have faced—188), but as a problem to “read” and thus live with: death as interlocutor (278).
Death now speaks as Brutus’s own “evil spirit”: a reflection of Brutus’s own falsehood, as if in a dream (284-93).  No longer capable of distinguishing true from false, or wakefulness from sleep, Brutus has condemned himself to see himself, his own death—“the ghost of Caesar”—as an outright evil.  Incapable, more than ever before, of bearing the vision of death, Brutus is compelled to die with all his might, urging at once that Cassius’s armies, his “powers” be engaged as soon as possible to fight their enemy (303-05).
If Brutus had earlier assumed that forgetfulness of death, or the hypothetical relegation of death to a single moment in the future, could make life bearable (189-92), now the assassin finds himself drawn to death as his only viable response to an unbearable life.  Brutus’s earlier “patience” fails him (189) as the empty vestige of “art” (viz., the rhetoric of Stoics—191), falsely-tuned “instrument” (289) inapt to help us bear (192) the presence of death in our daily life.
In Act 1.2, Brutus had already shown us that patience alone is easily lost; that when it is cut off from truth (the ultimate context of wisdom/knowledge), patience all too easily yields to the demands of cunning speech and so to the compulsion to carry out those demands, those “duties,” unto death.  Having turned his back on Portia’s reminders, Brutus would become impatient to execute the plan set forth by Cassius, who would otherwise readily admit to his incapacity to live with death (4.3.192): the import of Cassius’s plan is not merely political, but also theological, for the enemy it tackles is not merely one on the battlefield, but one coinciding with the battlefield itself.  Cassius teaches of a new stage for conflict, for life itself; a stage that makes life bearable even to “natures” such as the one Cassius concedes to possess (ibid.).  By the end of Act 4, Brutus has learned that, having entered into Cassius’ new inverted order of things, he Brutus is forced to follow Cassius’s weaker nature (4.3.304).  In the new order, the weaker nature emerges as the only way the stronger or better nature is able to bear life, even when stronger men suspect that their weak “savior” is leading them to their demise.


[1] The word “idle” appears only three time in the entire play.  The first occurrence is found in the very first verse of the play, where the word is uttered by Flavius; otherwise, the word is pronounced by Brutus.
[2] On the basis of a nominal abrogation of divine providence, given which might is a function of right—where, as Dante had taught, power conforms to the will (Inferno 3.95-96 and 5.23-24)—“Lord” Brutus urges his servant Lucius to accept that his duty goes as far as his might does and that thus divine providence is expendable.  Lucius is to die for what is right; his duty ultimately marks his demise, without any openness to an otherworldly justice.

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