REVIEW
Traversi, Derek. "Julius Caesar." Shakespeare: The Roman Plays.
Stanford, Calif.: Stanford UP, 1963. 21-75.


Thesis: In the general introduction to his book, Traversi describes Julius Caesar as "a play in which dramatic suspense is supported by a keen and detached insight into human motives" (12), and his chapter on the play is a persuasive and detailed examination of the motives of the four most substantial characters—Brutus, Cassius, Caesar, and Antony. Traversi goes through the play from beginning to end, showing how each of these four have mixed motives. Cassius feels genuine respect and friendship for Brutus, and also a sense of cunning superiority. Brutus is both virtuous and self-righteous, both compassionate and coldly idealistic. Caesar's confidence in his own greatness is often defensive. Antony's grief for Caesar's death is deeply felt, but he puts it to good use for his own political purposes.
         Throughout the chapter, Traversi displays a subtle appreciation of Shakespeare's understanding of the workings of the human mind. Following is an example of Traversi's close reading, from his examination of Brutus' soliloquy which begins "It must be by his death":
The argument . . . is pressed home with less than complete conviction. 'How that might change his nature, there's the question,' Brutus urges upon himself, in a strangely tentative attitude, only to recognize in a later outburst of honesty that
                        the quarrel
will bear no colour for the thing he is; [II.i.28.]
but, since a contrary necessity of his nature urges him to overrule these doubts, calls upon him to assert a certainty which he is far from feeling, emphasis must be laid on a possible, an unproven danger:
Fashion it thus; that what he is, augmented,
Would run to these and these extremities. [II.i.30]
The vagueness, the readiness to 'fashion it thus' in accordance with preconceptions in which observed reality has little part to play, is highly symptomatic. Brutus, precisely because the vacillation which has characterized his reactions since the beginning of the play covers deep inner uncertainty, speaks to himself evasively in terms of specious 'philosophical' commonplace—
     lowliness is young ambition's ladder . . .
The abuse of greatness is when it disjoins
Remorse from power— [II.i.22,18.]
and takes refuge in an imposed ruthlessness: (43)
                   think him as a serpent's egg
Which hatch'd would in his kind grow mischievous,
And kill him in the shell [II.i.32.]
The tendency to cover lack of intimate consistency with a show of impersonal brutality belongs to Brutus' particular brand of theoretical idealism. It is part of the presentation of human contradiction whose exposure is so close to the spirit of this play; the whole speech may be read as an early effort to follow thought in the clarifying of its uncertain ideas, and not a few of its phrases anticipate later Shakesperian presentations of the tragic implications of moral choice. When Brutus affirms that Caesar 'would be crown'd', it is as though we heard, but to another end, the voice of Lady Macbeth meditating on her husband's indecision; and when the serpent is conjured into the sunlight—
It is the bright day that brings forth the adder;
And that craves wary walking— [II.i.14.]
or when the speaker reflects upon the temptations which accompany the exercise of authority we seem to be hearing intimations of the greater tragedy. Brutus seeks at this moment to resolve an intimate, tragic disharmony through an act of decision foreign to his nature; the confusion revealed in his own motives, and in his attitude to the world of external realities around him, is one which will follow him through the contradictions of his career to the final resolution of suicide. (34-5)
Bottom Line: Very worthwhile.