Theater review: The Tragedy of Julius Caesar, tyranny, and the Stoicism of Brutus

(Brandon J. Dirden playing Brutus.)

The other day I went to see “The tragedy of Julius Caesar,” by William Shakespeare, in the Polonsky Shakespeare Center (Brooklyn, NY) production, directed by Shana Cooper. The New York Times’ Alexi Soloski really disliked it, but I’ll explain in the postscriptum to this article why Soloski — in my perhaps not too humble opinion — completely missed the point.

But first I’d like to present a philosophical review of the play, both in general and of Cooper’s version in particular. To do so, I will largely focus on the true main character, despite the title: Brutus, majestically played in Brooklyn by Brandon J. Dirden. Though I will also tell you of a surprising post-show bit involving Matthew Amendt, who played Cassius on stage, and who displayed a pretty good mastery of Stoic theory in the discussion that followed the performance.

The basic outline of the play is well known. Caesar is at the peak of his power, and there is talk in Rome that he is about to do the unthinkable: declare himself king. (The Romans had kicked out the last king, Lucius Tarquinius Superbus — Tarquinius the Arrogant — back in 509 BCE, 465 years before the time in which the play is set. In fact, one of the people responsible for the fall of Tarquinius was none other than Lucius Junius Brutus, whom Marcus Junius Brutus (the protagonist of the play) claims as his ancestor. A long family tradition of fighting against tyranny.

Cassius is organizing the plot to kill Caesar on the ides of March (i.e., March 15th), but he needs the support, and indeed leadership, of a highly visible and virtuous Roman, Brutus. Brutus, however, initially questions whether the situation truly requires such an extreme act, particularly as Caesar considers him a friend. But in the end he decides that the danger of a tyranny is indeed too great, and that a free Rome (so to speak, of course, given the times) is worth even betraying a friend.

There is a beautiful scene in the play (significantly altered by the director for greater dramatic effect in the Polonsky production) where Porcia Catonis — daughter of the famous Stoic politician Cato the Younger, and wife of Brutus — displays her own Stoicism. She knows her husband is up to something, but she thinks he isn’t sharing his plans because he thinks that a woman is weak in her body, and may talk under torture. To show her husband just how wrong he is, without flinching she stabs herself in a thigh. Later in the play we learn that she has killed herself upon hearing of Brutus’ defeat and death at Philippi (though at that particular moment he was actually still alive). She died, according to Plutarch — on whose Lives Shakespeare based his script — by ingesting hot coals (though Plutarch is actually skeptical of this particular detail). Tough woman indeed.

The conspiracy proceeds as intended, and Brutus is the last one to stab Caesar, who famously utters the words “Et tu, Brute?” (not according to Plutarch, that’s Shakespeare’s own dramatic invention). At this point, Cassius wisely suggests to Brutus that they should also kill Mark Anthony, Caesar’s righthand. But Brutus is in it for the principle of defending liberty from tyranny, and is not about to kill someone else for the sake of prudence. It will turn out to be a highly unwise decision, since Mark Anthony — to everyone’s surprise, given his reputation for being all brawn and no brains — delivers a populist, highly emotional speech at Caesar’s funeral, immediately after the lofty, rational one delivered by Brutus. Predictably, the people of Rome are swayed by emotion, not reason, and they turn on the conspirators.

Mark Anthony and young Octavian (the future Octavian Augustus, the first emperor of Rome) then pursue the conspirators and defeat them at the battle of Philippi, where first Cassius then Brutus take their lives. The tragedy ends with Mark Anthony reminding Octavian that while all other conspirators acted (in his opinion) out of envy or greed, Brutus acted out of virtue and concern for Rome.

Throughout the play, Caesar actually speaks comparatively few lines, and the verbal action is centered on Mark Anthony, Cassius and especially Brutus. And it is the latter who is the really tragic figure, as he tries to do his best to stem the flow of historical events, even betraying a friend, only to utterly fail and usher in the age of empire and the consequent end of the Republic. (If this reminds you of the general plot of Star Wars, there’s good reason.)

The figure of Brutus is interesting in terms of practical philosophy because he is following Stoicism, and several ancient writings pertinent to that philosophy are dedicated to him (for instance, Cicero’s Tusculan Disputations. As noted above, his wife Porcia was also a Stoic, as was of course her father (and Brutus’ father-in-law) Cato the Younger. Let’s try to unravel a few interesting threads pertinent to Brutus’ (and Porcia’s) Stoicism here. I will comment on three in particular: violent opposition to tyranny; betrayal of friendship in favor of a broader benefit to society; and suicide.

I. Violent opposition to tyranny. To begin with, of course, there is Brutus’ opposition to what he perceives as tyranny and the undoing of the Roman Republic by the increasingly autocratic actions of Julius Caesar. The Stoics were not pacifists, though they did think that violence is to be used only as the last resort. Cato famously took up arms against Caesar, committing suicide after defeat in Utica (northern Africa) in 46 BCE, just two years before Brutus conspired on the ides of March. Brutus, therefore, was not just inspired to oppose tyranny by his Stoic philosophy, but also by the examples of his namesake ancestor and of his own father-in-law. In fact, later Stoics would oppose the tyranny of three emperors, Nero, Vespasian, and Domitian, paying for their stance with exile or death. That group is often referred to as “the Stoic opposition,” and included both Epictetus and his mentor, Musonius Rufus.

The philosophical point here is that extreme danger calls for extreme actions, so long as two conditions are met: (i) the danger really is extreme, and it is not just perceived to be so; and (ii) the Stoic reminds herself that she only controls her decisions to act, not the outcomes of those decisions.

Point (i) is precisely what causes Brutus so much anguish when he is first approached by Cassius. Is it really the case that Caesar is positioning himself to be king? If so, then the conspiracy is justified, within the framework of Roman history and the fact that the Republic emerged precisely from the rejection of the idea of monarchy. Then again, as Mark Anthony will shrewdly point out during his eulogy, Caesar had been offered (by Mark Anthony) the crown of king three times, and three times he had rejected it. Shakespeare, wisely, doesn’t tell his audience whether, ultimately, Brutus’ or mark Anthony’s assessment of Caesar’s intentions is correct. (For my money, though, I bet on Brutus’.)

Point (ii) is, of course, dramatically made by the unfolding of events in the play (and historically). The conspirators’ actions initially seem to alter things in favor of the survival of the Republic, but Mark Anthony’s speech turns the table on them, and the decisive second battle of Philippi in 42 BCE effectively kills the Republic. The triumvirate that shares power in Rome, composed by Octavian, Mark Anthony, and Lepidus will last until 31 BCE, when at the battle of Actium Octavian routs the combined forces of Mark Anthony and Cleopatra, marking the beginning of the Roman empire. (Lepidus, after attempting to stand up to Octavian, faced a rebellion of his own troops, was stripped of power, and sent into exile in Circeii.) The whole episode is a stark reminder of the truth of the dichotomy of control, particularly the version that Cicero gives (putting it in the mouth of Cato!):

“If a man were to make it his purpose to take a true aim with a spear or arrow at some mark, his ultimate end, corresponding to the ultimate good as we pronounce it, would be to do all he could to aim straight: the man in this illustration would have to do everything to aim straight, yet, although he did everything to attain his purpose, his ‘ultimate end,’ so to speak, would be what corresponded to what we call the Chief Good in the conduct of life, whereas the actual hitting of the mark would be in our phrase ‘to be chosen’ but not ‘to be desired.’” (De Finibus III.22)

Brutus and Cassius did all they could to “aim straight.” But the arrow did not hit the mark.

II. Betraying friends for the benefit of humanity. There is another important philosophical issue to explore in the story of Brutus, Cassius and Caesar: friendship. Friendship for the Stoics is crucial:

“If you consider any man a friend whom you do not trust as you trust yourself, you are mightily mistaken and you do not sufficiently understand what true friendship means. … Ponder for a long time whether you shall admit a given person to your friendship; but when you have decided to admit him, welcome him with all your heart and soul. Speak as boldly with him as with yourself.” (Seneca, Letters to Lucilius, III.2)

Accordingly, Brutus does take his friendship with Caesar seriously. It is part of what pains him so much about joining the conspiracy. This is a classic application of role ethics, as articulated by Epictetus. We all play a number of roles in life, including, in Brutus’ case, that of friend to both Cassius and Caesar. But the most fundamental role, the one that trumps every other one, is that of a member of the human cosmopolis:

“For, if we do not refer each of our actions to some standard, we shall be acting at random. … There is, besides, a common and a specific standard. First of all, in order that I [act] as a human being. What is included in this? Not [to act] as a sheep, gently but at random; nor destructively, like a wild beast. The specific [standard] applies to each person’s pursuit and volition. The cithara-player is to act as a cithara-player, the carpenter as a carpenter, the philosopher as a philosopher, the rhetor as a rhetor.” (3.23.3–5)

And the friend as a friend. But just like one wouldn’t put one’s role as a carpenter, or a cithara-player, ahead of one’s role as a human being, so it goes for friendship. Brutus is making the right decision in betraying his friend, because his best judgment is that such a betrayal is likely to result in a better cosmopolis. That judgment, as we have seen, will turn out to be incorrect, but that’s the thing about the dichotomy of control. We should be judged by our intentions to act, not by the outcomes of our actions, since the former but not the latter are “up to us.”

III. Suicide. The last important philosophical thread evident in The Tragedy of Julius Caesar is that of suicide. Plenty of characters in the play commit it: Porcia, when she thinks Brutus has died; Cassius, also when he thinks Brutus has died; and of course Brutus himself. (And, in the historical background, as mentioned above, the suicide of Cato the Younger.) How does this square with Stoic philosophy and virtue ethics?

The Stoics were famously accepting of suicide, though they were also very clear that the decision should not be taken lightly. Epictetus talks of the so-called open door policy:

“Remember that the door is open. Don’t be more cowardly than children, but just as they say, when the game is no longer fun for them, ‘I won’t play any more,’ you too, when things seem that way to you, say, ‘I won’t play any more,’ and leave, but if you remain, don’t complain.” (Discourses I.24.20)

Suicide, that is, is our ultimate ticket to freedom from oppressing circumstances. If we can’t take it anymore, we have the option to leave. But, as Epictetus also immediately points out, if we decide to stay then we have a responsibility to tackle the situation at hand, rather than just complain about it. Seneca directly connected suicide and freedom:

“For Cato did not outlive freedom, nor did freedom outlive Cato.” (On the Firmness of the Wise Person, II)

In this sense, then, all three characters — Porcia, Cassius, and Brutus — choose the open door because they see their freedom now hopelessly curtailed. If Brutus has lost at Philippi, there will no longer be freedom for Porcia (who, remember, had lost her father in a similar fashion just two years earlier). And there definitely won’t be any freedom for the two chief conspirators.

Needless to say, but I’m going to say it anyway because my experience has taught me that it is necessary in the context of this kind of discussion, the Stoics are most certainly not endorsing an easy way out. Indeed, Epictetus explicitly forbids it to a friend of his who had taken the matter far too lightly (Discourses II.15.4-12). Nor, of course, does the “open door” option apply to people who are not of sound mind, for instance because they are clinically depressed. But assuming that someone is in her right mind, and has seriously considered the implications of suicide, I find it insufferably patronizing for people to go around criticizing her, or making emotional pleas to the effect that she is about to leave her friends or family. She is. And she knows it. And has nevertheless reached that ultimate conclusion, which requires a lot of courage to execute. Let us then please respect and honor people like Brutus.

My chat with “Cassius.” After the performance at the Polonsky Shakespeare Center my fiancee and I stayed for a moderated chat with three of the actors: Brandon J. Dirden (Brutus), Matthew Amendt (Cassius), and Merritt Janson (Portia). The discussion was interesting for a number of points, some of which I will touch on in the postscriptum to this article. But imagine my surprise when Amendt was asked about the Stoicism of his character, of Porcia, and of Brutus, and he answered that last year he attended the Night of Philosophy event in Brooklyn, where he saw a talk about “how to be a Stoic.”

From the talk, Amendt had learned that Stoicism isn’t about suppressing emotions and going through life with a stiff upper lip, but rather about virtue and doing the right thing. Moreover, he correctly explained that the Stoics relied on a sort of buddy system to keep each other making progress in their practice of the philosophy. This is the concept of a virtuous friend, which is found also in Aristotle, and of which the Cassius-Brutus pair is an exemplar. Cassius, Amendt pointed out, never once hints in the play that he wishes to replace Caesar, he seems to be moved by the same honorable concern that moves Brutus, though he defers to his friend to the bitter end.

Overcoming a bit of natural shyness (a good Stoic exercise!), after the panel discussion I made my way to the stage, approached Amendt and introduced myself as the very same guy who gave that talk on Stoicism at the Night of Philosophy. He was very pleasantly surprised, even more so when I reassured him that what he had said about Stoicism was, in fact, correct. It’s a small world, and New York is a wonderful town.


Postscriptum: the New York Times review. To close this already long essay, let me say a few words on Alexis Soloski’s review in the New York Times, linked to above. I can’t comment on Soloski’s general ability as a theater critic, but in my opinion she badly misread both the play and Shana Cooper’s production.

Soloski opens her review by stating that “Julius Caesar is practically bespoke for 2019 America. … But Shana Cooper’s revival at Theater for a New Audience — busy and butch — is so deep in conversation with itself and its dance battles that it nearly forgets to speak to us today.” Which is wrong on both counts. Beginning with the second point, the dance battles that the director used to convey the harshness of war were enthralling and perfectly tailored for this production in modern dress, accompanied by a suitably minimalist stage setting. (Incidentally, during the panel discussion Amendt-Cassius reminded the audience that in Shakespeare’s own time the plays were staged in “modern” dress, so this isn’t exactly a 21st century invention.)

In terms of the play being “practically bespoken for 2019 America,” no, absolutely not. As Janson-Portia forcefully remarked after the performance (possibly because she had fresh in mind Soloski’s review), the reason the play is so enduring is precisely because it does not speak solely to whatever current political events the audience happens to be living through, but rather to the endless cycle of violence and tyranny that humanity has experienced at least since Homeric times. That’s why the 2017 Public Theater’s staging in New York, which is lauded by Soloski for featuring “a cigar-puffing combed-over Gregg Henry as Caesar,” was in fact a mistake. I’m not talking about the silly outrage by the right-wing media about an alleged incitement to kill the president. I’m talking about the fact that the play’s importance and universality is diminished precisely when one wishes to tie it too directly to the contemporary political climate. Besides, Trump as Caesar? Please, let us not insult the memory of the great Roman statesman.

Soloski then indulges in fashionable but somewhat inane comments, like: “Despite the casting of women in a few small male roles, this is a homosocial world and potentially a homoerotic one — a lot of the pants are too tight.” First off, and setting aside the powerful female character of Porcia, the homoeroticism of the play is all in Soloski’s own mind. Second, casting the soothsayer who warns Caesar of the ides of March as a woman actually worked very well. Third, Cooper made the daring move of casting Cicero as a woman. She explained that she did so to emphasize Cicero’s recalcitrance to join either Caesar and Mark Anthony or Brutus and Cassius, because he did not see the situation as black and white as they did. I don’t think Cooper’s move worked, for the simple reason that the actress playing Cicero was below par, and because Cicero has too few lines to articulate such a nuanced take on the unfolding events. But it was a bold move nevertheless.

Back to Soloski: “Shakespeare spikes his play with enigmas (is Caesar really so ruthless, is Brutus really so upright), and we look to a director to help us puzzle them out. Instead, Ms. Cooper supplies a lot of stage blood and a lot of stage business and dance numbers that look like an especially savage Zumba class.” Okay, the “Zumba class” comment is funny, though, again, I thought the dance battle scenes were great. But no, the audience doesn’t look to the director to somehow divine what Shakespeare had in mind. The play is nuanced on purpose, his endurance linked to such nuance, and to the fact that the audience is charged with making up its mind about whether Brutus (or Caesar) was a good guy or a bad guy. Or neither. Or both. To ask the director to do that work for us is both missing Shakespeare’s point and patronizing to the audience. Julius Caesar is a great play, and Shana Cooper’s version is a great way to enjoy it.

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