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REVIEW
Rabkin, Norman. Shakespeare and the Common
Understanding. New York: The Free Press, 1967.


Thesis: Rabkin's general thesis is that Shakespeare (and every other great writer) "changes our way of seeing by doing through art what can really be done no other way: fusing as complementary to one another and simultaneously valid total responses to life that would seem to be contradictory" (16). In Julius Caesar, the "fusing" which Rabkin discusses most is of Caesar and Brutus:
Both are great men who put country before self: Brutus' concern for the general good is dramatically mirrored in the crucial capacity for self-abnegation which Caesar shows when he refuses to hear Artemidorus' suit on the grounds—not those of his prototype in Plutarch—that "What touches us ourself shall be last served" (III.i.8). Yet in both selflessness is intertwined with a self-destructive vanity and a tendency to play to the galleries; Witness the language of Caesar's rebuff to Artemidorus, or of Brutus' haughty remark to Cassius:
There is no terror, Cassius, in your threats,
For I am arm'd so strong in honesty
That they pass by me as the idle wind,
Which I respect not.
     (IV.iii.66-69)
Significantly Brutus is perceptive enough at this point to see a falling off in Cassius, yet not perceptive enough to recognize worse failings in himself; thus he can reproach Cassius first for contaminating the bleeding of mighty Julius with money illegitimately raised, and second for not sending some of it to him ("For I can raise no money by vile means" [IV.iii.71]. A like balance of perception and self-righteous blindness is apparent in Caesar from the outset. Thus he sees better than Antony that the lean Cassius is not to be trusted, only to cancel out his observation with the fatuous "I rather tell thee what is to be fear'd / Than what I fear; for always I am Caesar" (I.ii.211-212). Both sapient men, Caesar and Brutus alike sacrifice wisdom to egotism. Both generous men, Brutus with Cassius and Caesar with Metellus Cimber are alike predictably unable to relax a self-destructive moral rigidity.
Above all, they are alike in that they both set themselves to alter the course of history, and they both succeed, but not as they planned, because "plans, whether noble or otherwise, have little effect on the course of events" (117).

Bottom Line: An interesting insight.


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PAGE INFO:
   Author: Philip Weller
   Last Modified: 26 July 2005