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REVIEW
Bonjour, Adrien. The Structure of Julius Caesar.
Liverpool: Liverpool UP, 1958.


Thesis: This monograph (81 pages, including notes) has three sections: "Antithetical Balance and the General Structure of the Play"; "The Structural Role of Motives"; and "Structural Imagery."

The first section asks a question which other critics have wrestled with: Is Julius Caesar about Brutus, or Caesar? The divided interest of the play, often considered a weakness, Bonjour treats as a strength. Bonjour says that Shakespeare, instead of choosing only Caesar or only Brutus as his tragic hero, found a "more difficult and elegant solution: combining and condensing the drama of both great characters into one majestic sweep and thus deliberately abandoning the usual single hero structure" (3). Bonjour believes that this choice of Shakespeare's has a profound impact on the effect of the play:
For one thing, the choice is not between a confirmed tyrant and a noble, but unlucky liberator. Neither is it between a great sovereign or a ruthless conspirator or usurper: in either case there would have been no conflict in our sympathies. The choice is between two heroes, each of whom has his own greatness and his faults, each of whom in turn perplexes us, then deeply moves us, each of whom is in a way the other's victim and the other's bane. It looks indeed as if Shakespeare wanted "to prove the moral value of suspended judgment." [Bonjour is quoting D. A. Stauffer, Shakespeare's World of Images (New York, 1949), p. 111.] And before it is suspended, our judgment has been constantly questioned, shifted and revised: in fact, Shakespeare made of Julius Caesar the drama of divided sympathies.  (3)
The second section treats three motives: "Superstition," "Suicide," and "Sleep and Slumber."

In the section on the motif of superstition, Bonjour points out that Caesar, Brutus, and Cassius all have shifting attitudes about the meaning and validity of portents. Caesar is said to have "grown superstitious," but he brushes aside the warning of the Soothsayer; both Brutus and Cassius profess disbelief in portents until the battle turns against them. Bonjour writes, "To conclude, the motive throbs in what might be called a systolic rhythm, and its two complementary movements thus stand in close and harmonical correlation with the pulse of the main theme" (42).

About suicide, Bonjour writes that "what underlies the treatment of the theme and gives it full significance is the use of tragic irony—here a sharp and penetrating instrument which exhibits the governing hand of fate" (44-5). Cassius, in the early scenes of the play, speaks of suicide as act which defies fate, but, ironically, "Cassius is morally defeated before the last fateful stroke" (45). And Brutus, who had once considered suicide as a cowardly evasion of fate, resorts to it because fate threatens him with the humiliation of captivity.

The section on "Sleep and Slumber" is concerned primarily with Brutus' sleeplessness; Bonjour writes, "his murder of Caesar meant breaking established order, here symbolized by the harmony and stillness of sleep and music" (57).

The idea of Bonjour's final chapter, "Structural Imagery," is explained in the following passage:
At the outset of the play, Caesar stands high—much too high in fact for not being a challenge to those opposite forces who want to bring him down. Shortly after his fall Brutus in his turn stands high—but we know that he is also doomed to fall. And thus, two "mighty opposites" are in turn destined to stand high and then to lie, and from the fall of one hero to the fall of the other, the play majestically sweeps. The imagery centered on the antithesis between "rise" or "stand," on the one side, and "fall" or "lie", on the other is so crucial, and its bearing on the main theme so obvious, that it hardly needs emphasis.  (63)
However, Bonjour does emphasize it, at length.

Evaluation: Bonjour offers many persuasive insights, but his arguments often take hard-to-follow twists and turns as he does battle with (or enlists the aid of) earlier critics. I prefer criticism that marches in a straight line.

Bottom Line: Worth the time, if you have the patience.


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   Author: Philip Weller
   Last Modified: 29 April 2005