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REVIEW
Burckhardt, Sigurd. "How Not To Murder Caesar."
Shakespearean Meanings. Princeton, N.J.: Princeton UP, 1968. 3-21.


Thesis: Burckhardt opens his essay with a brief review of the dispute about the political meaning of Julius Caesar. Some have argued that Shakespeare's sympathies are on the republican side, so that Brutus is "the republican idealist, who is defeated by the very nobility of his ideals"; others that Shakespeare is a monarchist, so that Brutus is "no better than a regicide, who is justly punished for his terrible crime" (3). Burckhardt is sure that both arguments miss the point. He leads up to his view of the matter by considering the anachronism of the clock which is heard to strike as the conspirators are discussing their enterprise in the early hours of the ides of March. Burckhardt's radical assertion is that the anachronism is deliberate, that Shakespeare knew that there were no striking clocks in Rome, but inserted one to make the point that a new age had dawned, unknown to Brutus. According to Burckhardt, Brutus adheres to the classical style, and wants to stage the killing of Caesar as an act "noble, purgative, impersonal, inevitable" (9). However,
The classical style has disastrous consequences, because Brutus is utterly mistaken about the audience for whom the tragedy is intended. He is thinking of an audience of noble, sturdy republicans, capable of the moral discrimination and public spirit which classical tragedy demands. But we know from the opening scenes that the actual audience is very different: eager to be led, easily tricked, crude in their responses. The people insist on having their good guy and their bad guy; they are perfectly ready to accept Brutus as their good guy, provided he lets them have Caesar for their bad guy. But this, Brutus' ideal of style forbids. Brutus is most irretrievably damned, not when the mob is ready to stone him, but when it acclaims him: "Let him be Caesar!" Nothing shows so clearly as this shout of applause how totally the audience has missed Brutus' point, and how totally Brutus has misjudged his audience.
         That is why Shakespeare makes the clock strike at the very moment when Brutus has persuaded the conspirators to adopt the classical style for their performance. The political point of the play is not that the monarchical principle is superior to the republican—nor the reverse—but that the form of government, the style of politics, must take account of the time and the temper of the people, just as the dramatist's style must. Brutus is not guilty of treachery, nor of having embraced an inherently wrong political philosophy; he is guilty of an anachronism. The clock, striking as soon as he has irrevocably committed himself to the Old Style, signifies to us—though not to him—that time is now reckoned in a new Caesarean style.  (9)


Evaluation: The idea that Brutus is unable to adapt to the realities of Rome is persuasive by itself; so is the idea that Shakespeare is neither a republican nor a monarchist. Neither idea needs to be supported with the overly ingenious assertion that Shakespeare deliberately inserted an anachronism.

Bottom Line: So-so.


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   Author: Philip Weller
   Last Modified: 27 July 2005