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REVIEW
Prior, Moody E. "The Search for a Hero in Julius Caesar."
Renaissance Drama n.s. 2 (1969): 81-101.


Thesis: Prior pleads for an understanding of Julius Caesar as "an unusual and original work . . . with its own distinctive artistic merits," rather than as "an imperfect realization of the qualities and powers of the major tragedies" (100). If Julius Caesar is compared with the tragedies which follow it (Hamlet, Othello, King Lear, and Macbeth), then it seems to come up short. In this view, Brutus must be the tragic hero, but he "lacks the final full realization of himself and the meaning of his catastrophe, the tragic anagnorisis, which . . . is a distinguishing mark of the Shakespearean tragic hero" (95). However, Prior says, it is more appropriate to compare Julius Caesar with Shakespeare's plays on English history which preceded it. In those plays, Shakespeare examines the interplay between character and politics. Prior writes,
One source of the complexity and richness of the history plays is the more than implicit awareness of the inherent paradox—or better, the irreconcilable contradiction—at the center of all political involvement. Political power gives a man the opportunity to concern himself with the well-being of society—"power to do good is the true and lawful end of aspiring," as Bacon said—and since it is directly concerned with actions that affect others it lies within the province of ethics; but political action considered as a science or art is as non-moral as engineering, and men deeply committed to a political course, though they may believe that its aims are of the highest merit, cannot always enjoy the luxury of being morally fastidious in the means.  (90)
Prior believes that if Julius Caesar is seen as a play with similar concerns, its power and originality is revealed. All of the developed characters (Brutus, Cassius, Caesar, and Antony) have admirable qualities and yet compromise themselves. Our sympathies shift as the play progresses, and in the end we are left with a grand impression of how the conflict between political ends and means produces a gulf between intent and outcome.

Evaluation: Prior is generally persuasive, and is particularly good in his comments about Cassius. He points out that we may see Cassius as spiteful and cynically manipulative, but only if we focus only on his first scenes. By the end of the play, Cassius has yielded to Brutus in every way, and values Brutus' friendship over his certainty that Brutus' plan of battle will lead to their defeat.

Bottom Line: Solid analysis


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   Author: Philip Weller
   Last Modified: 1 November 2005