Julius Caesar: History, heterogeneity. (A satire of criticism, c. 2007)

Caesar inspired Eliot’s ‘The Hollow Men’, a poem told by five voices, and throughout it is marked by heterogeneity of discourse important (I speculate) to represent in small the rich breadth of historical experience. History’s people were of course as diverse as today’s, but dramatic portrayal tends to shrink them as allegorical walnut, leeching individuality for compression’s sake. Thus, in obviation, Shakespeare heterogenises his characters’ language by subtle inflecting of syntax and lexis. To say so is nothing new, but my argument, in trying to differentiate itself from previous, should modify slightly the sense of ‘heterogeneity’. Shakespeare’s ‘heterogeneity’ is not just ‘variety’, not just ‘dissimilarity’. Shakespeare forges difference by recognition of sameness; in each heterogeneous discourse are incorporated elements of parity with others, so as greater to realise the truth of heterogeneity, which is that things differ in the ways they are the same. You could colloquially say this is like ‘sleeping with the enemy’. Once you’ve understood that sameness must be the bass note of difference, as dramatist you’re well on the way to characters vitally, rather than irritably (or indeed mechanically), heterogeneous. And vitality lasts.


And when you saw his chariot but appear,
Have you not made an universal shout,
That Tiber trembled underneath her banks
To hear the replication of your sounds
Made in her concave shores?

And do you now cull out a holiday?
And do you now strew flowers in his way,
That comes in triumph over Pompey’s blood?

Pray to the gods to intermit the plague
That needs must light on this ingratitude.


Draw them to the Tiber banks, and weep your tears
Into the channel, till the lowest stream
Do kiss the most exalted shores of all.

They vanish tongue-tied in their guiltiness.

These growing feathers plucked from Caesar’s wing
Will make him fly an ordinary pitch
Who else would soar above the view of men,
And keep us all in servile fearfulness.

These tribunes of the play’s first scene might be assumed twins in language, but such is Shakespeare’s historical sensitivity that he heterogenises even trivial roles, like a hendiadys. Their principal similarity is of political rhetoric—bombastic, grandstanding, rather theatrically redolent of apocalypse. But they differ here too. For where Flavius inflates his rhetoric with grandiose, fantastical imagery, Murellus is calmer measured, keeping to simpler, earthbound tropes; even when invoking god his language stays in realms of tangible consequence. We see the tribunes fall back on similar images of the river (Murellus’ Tiber trembles; Flavius’ floods) but, because they are not identical twins but friends, Shakespeare filters each image through a heterogeneous conception of mind: Flavius’ ‘exalted shores’ are kissed by streams, where Murellus’ ‘concave shores’ hear the replication of ‘an universal shout’. Flavius’ ‘tongue-tied’ quite histrionically, with rhetor’s hyperbole, ‘vanish’. ‘cull out’, a Murellian verb form, is wholly unhistrionic, like his soldierly ‘comes in triumph over Pompey’s blood’, describing Caesar, where Flavius swells, ‘Who else would soar above the views of men, / And keep us all in servile fearfulness.’ The most evocative word Murellus can think of to end on is ‘ingratitude’. I’d hazard ‘Let no images / Be hung with Caesar’s trophies’ is his philosophy—though spoken by Flavius, his heterogeneous counterpart. To end glibly myself, on a soundbite (as if there were better ways to end): Shakespeare’s heterogeneity of history is more mellow fruitfulness than season of mists.

No comments:

Post a Comment