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Language of Julius Caesar

 

Shakespeare was fascinated by language. He couldn’t resist playing with words, rhythms and styles. He loved to invent words, and to give existing words new meanings by fresh uses and unexpected twists.

 

Shakespeare is renowned for the poetic imagery of his language and for the word pictures he creates. His reputation is well founded because while he was writing English was not the dominant language – it was Latin.  Shakespeare culminated what Chaucer had begun; to make English a respectable language for expressing complex, personal and imaginative ideas. 

 

There is only one reason why Shakespeare’s plays are still alive and read 400 years after they were written; his mastery of clear, powerful visual language.   As we have seen most of his plots are not original, but it is his ability to revitalise old stories and histories, shape them into compelling dramas with syncopated plots and revitalise them with resonant forceful language that still appeals to us today. 

 

It is interesting to note that in most transformations or adaptations to contemporary productions, directors may update everything except Shakespeare’s Language.  Al Pacino admits that it is the appeal of Shakespeare’s language that convinced him to attempt to attract more people to his plays.

 

Some outstanding features of Shakespeare’s Language are:

  1. His powerful imagery which allows us to visualise his scenes without props or concrete backdrops.
  2. The use of nuances, the power of suggestion, implied meanings.
  3. His varied vocabulary, including the fact that he coined many new words and hundreds of new sayings that have become part of our argot.
  4. The lyricism  of his verse and sometimes even his prose has a lightness and resonance or lingering effect on us.
  5. The wide range of his allusions to classical, religious and historical icons, stories and people.
  6. The play on words; he likes to use puns, oxymorons, s-xual innuendo, assonance, alliteration, ambiguity and any other tactics to engage and entertain his audiences.

 

Shakespeare’s language is still very much in use, but we just don’t notice it because it’s so familiar it appears clichéd.

Here are just some memorable expressions coined by Shakespeare in Julius Caesar.


"But, for my own part, it was Greek to me". -  Casca  (Act I, Scene II).

"Yond Cassius has a lean and hungry look; He thinks too much: such men are dangerous" Julius Caesar  (Act I, Scene II).

"Beware the ides of March". - ( Act I, Scene II). ides: ( used with a singular or plural verb ) (in the ancient Roman calendar) the fifteenth day of March, May, July, or October, and the thirteenth day of the other months.  Each month had three reference dates: the Calends, Nones, and Ides . … In March, May, July, and October, the Nones fell on the 7th day and the Ides on the 15th.

-- Richard Stephenson, "Astronomy in the monasteries," New Scientist, April 19, 1984


"Men at some time are masters of their fates: The fault, dear Brutus, is not in our stars, but in ourselves, that we are underlings". - Cassius ( Act I, Scene II).

“There is a tide in the affairs of men

Which taken at the flood leads on to fortune;

Omitted, all the voyage of their life

Is bound in shallows and in miseries.”    BRUTUS  IV 3 217 - 220


Let's kill him boldly, but not wrathfully;
Let's carve him as a dish fit for the gods,
Not hew him as a carcass fit for hounds:  
BRUTUS  (Act II, Scene I 173 - 5).


"Cowards die many times before their deaths; The valiant never taste of death but once. Of all the wonders that I yet have heard, it seems to me most strange that men should fear; Seeing that death, a necessary end, will come when it will come". Julius Caesar  (Act II, Scene II).

"Et tu, Brute!"  (Act III, Scene I).

"Cry "Havoc," and let slip the dogs of war". Antony  (Act III, Sc. I).

"Not that I loved Caesar less, but that I loved Rome more".  Brutus (Act III, Scene II).

"As he was valiant, I honour him; but, as he was ambitious, I slew him" . (Act III, Sc. II).

"Friends, Romans, countrymen, lend me your ears; I come to bury Caesar, not to praise him".  (Act III, Scene II).

"For Brutus is an honourable man; So are they all, all honourable men". - ( Act III, Sc. II).

"When that the poor have cried, Caesar hath wept: Ambition should be made of sterner stuff". - ( Act III, Sc. II).

"This was the noblest Roman of them all". - ( Act V, Sc. V).


Shakespeare’s language is vivid and memorable. Antony's vicious description of Lepidus, Cassius' resentful characterization of Caesar, Brutus's reference to tides in the affairs of men to spur action, Caesar's insufferable self-descriptions, Antony's masterful speech at Caesar's funeral, all of these make Julius Caesar not just a play of "one-liners," but a play of sustained eloquence.
Many passages are worth memorizing, reciting and incorporating into educated conversation on subjects quite distinct from this play.

 

Three Arresting Lines

"The torrent roar'd, and we did buffet it

 With lusty sinews, throwing it aside,

 And stemming it with hearts of controversy "  (1.2.107-09).

For a detailed analysis of the above passage see:  http://www.drbilllong.com/ShakeJC/VividLanguageI.html

 


Anachronisms:   Because Shakespeare is writing for an audience of 17th century English people,  he refers to and uses many images that did not necessarily apply to a Roman one.  Especially the first tradesmen scene is more British than Roman.

Biblical Allusions:   Much of the language has biblical resonance merely because it was written in the same period as the King James Version of the Bible.

Puns combined with antithesis:

Second Commoner

“indeed, sir, a mender of bad soles.”  I.1. 8.


The language of Conflict

Shakespeare gives expression to moments of strong emotion in the play.

Caesar uses strong imperial authoritative language to attempt to assert his authority and control events:

Caesar shall forth: the things that threaten'd me
Ne'er look'd but on my back; when they shall see
The face of Caesar, they are vanished.

As drama thrives on conflict for its tension, much of the language is dialectical – polemical - language of extreme opposites or antithesis often suggesting two contradictory meanings that contribute to the thematic ambiguity of the play. As one of Shakespeare’s more balanced plays, he gives us the strengths and weaknesses of both sides of the characters and parties.

Conflicts:

Cassius and Brutus

 

There are many opposing points of view expressed throughout the play.  In both camps, the conspirators and in Antony and Octavius’s camp there is rivalry and dissension on the best strategy.  Generally it is a power struggle for control.  First we look at the tension in the camp of the conspirators in Act IV sc. 2 & 3. Again Shakespeare reveals both admirable and negative qualities in his characters by dramatisation, interaction and language.

Scene 2

This scene takes place at Sardis in Asia Minor in the camp of Brutus and Cassius. Brutus is awaiting the arrival of Cassius and his forces. Brutus is angry because of the way Cassius has been raising money.

 

The linguistic features of the conflict:

Cassius enters and at once peevishly accuses Brutus of wronging him.  Cassius begins with an accusatory tone and his first peevish words and impetuous actions begin the quarrel.

 

Most noble brother, you have done me wrong.

 At the beginning of the quarrel Brutus calmly has the presence of mind to realise how their dispute is unseemly so on the suggestion of Brutus they retire to their tent to continue their quarrel out of hearing of the army.

Brutus, this sober form of yours hides wrongs;

Later Brutus becomes more heated and Cassius gives way.

On the other hand, the loyalty of Pindarus to Cassius, and the fact that Cassius is loved by all the soldiers indicates that he must have been an excellent general.

 

The fight becomes nasty as both continue to hurl accusatory insults:

 

BRUTUS

 ..... Cassius, you yourself
Are much condemn'd to have an itching palm;

CASSIUS

I an itching palm!
You know that you are Brutus that speak this,
Or, by the gods, this speech were else your last.

BRUTUS

Away, slight man!

Cassius makes a claim of superiority over Brutus and they quibble over words:

CASSIUS

I am a soldier, I,
Older in practise, abler than yourself
To make conditions.

BRUTUS

You shall digest the venom of your spleen,
Though it do split you; for, from this day forth,
I'll use you for my mirth, yea, for my laughter,
When you are waspish.

CASSIUS

Is it come to this?

BRUTUS

You say you are a better soldier:
Let it appear so; make your vaunting true,
And it shall please me well: for mine own part,
I shall be glad to learn of noble men.

CASSIUS

You wrong me every way; you wrong me, Brutus;
I said, an elder soldier, not a better:
Did I say 'better'?

 

Brutus asserts his views in a domineering manner and  Cassius’s defers to Brutus. Because of his seniority Brutus’s view prevails over that of Cassius whose expertise in military strategy should have carried greater weight.

 

Conflicts between Anthony and Octavius

 

Things are not much better in the Antony and Octavius Caesar camp where both decide to spar for dominance:

Anthony and Octavius have secured complete control of the city and we instantaneously see the corruption of power in the cold, cruel, unscrupulous natures of these two men. Antony’s dismissive and derisive treatment of Lepidus, his callous manner of executing suspects and subversion Caesar’s will, all undermine the warmth, charisma and high principled impression he conveyed during the oration scene. We can assume that Anthony even then was thinking chiefly of his own interest. 

It warns us of the coming battle and foretells the fate of Lepidus. 

The following scene succinctly reveals the character of Octavius by showing how both spar for dominance:  ACT V Scene 1 ll. 15 – 20.

ANTONY

Octavius, lead your battle softly on,
Upon the left hand of the even field.

OCTAVIUS

Upon the right hand I; keep thou the left.

ANTONY

Why do you cross me in this exigent?

OCTAVIUS

I do not cross you; but I will do so.

 

The right hand side equates with strength, while the left represents the weaker or subordinate side so when Antony, a seasoned soldier , though of dubious reputation, offers young Octavius the left, he asserts himself imperiously insisting on taking the right side, identifying and symbolising him as the commander-in-chief.  He denies “crossing” Antony but simply threatens he will if opposed.

Antithesis is used to indicate internal conflict. Elsewhere linked opposites (oxymoron) are used to convey the clash of opposing emotions:

I come to bury Caesar, not to praise him". Antony (Act III, Scene II).

Let's kill him boldly, but not wrathfully;
Let's carve him as a dish fit for the gods,
Not hew him as a carcass fit for hounds:
Brutus (Act II, Scene I 173 - 5).

 

 "Not that I loved Caesar less, but that I loved Rome more".   Brutus (Act III, Scene II)

Oxymorons:  (incongruent words side by side – loving hate, /bitter sweet)

Consistent with the clash of opposites is the use of oxymorons that reveal inner turmoil and confusion especially in youth.

 

Julius Caesar Figurative Language

Shakespeare uses a lot of metaphors to enrich the language of the play.

Food:

Upon what meat doth this our Caesar feed

 That he is grown so great? (I, ii, 149-50)

 

Let me have men about me that are fat

 Sleek-headed men, and such as sleep o' nights

 Yond Cassius has a lean and hungry look;

 He thinks too much, such men are dangerous. (I, ii, 192-5).

 No, Caesar hath not it; but you, and I,

 and honest Casca, we have the falling sickness. (I, ii, 255-6)

Ladders for climbing to the top

But 'tis a common proof

That lowliness is young ambition's ladder,

Whereto the climber-upward turns his face;

But when he once attains the utmost round,

He then unto the ladder turns his back,

Looks into the clouds, scorning the base degrees  

By which he did ascend. (II, i, 21-7)

Pardon me, Julius! Here wast thou bayed, brave hart; here didst thou fall; and here thy hunters stand. (III, i, 204-5).

 

Inanimate objects:

 

Marullus contemptuously calls the members of the mob:

 

You blocks! You stones! You worse than senseless things!

O you hard hearts, you cruel men of Rome!

 

Antony gives them more respect:

    You are not wood, you are not stones, but men;

    And, being men, hearing the will of Caesar,

    It will inflame you,

In every wound of Caesar, that should move

    The stones of Rome to rise and mutiny.

Animals:  The dogs imagery prevails:

Antony:

 Julius! Here wast thou bayed, brave hart;

            Here didst thou fall; and here thy hunters stand,

"Cry "Havoc," and let slip the dogs of war". Antony  (Act III, Sc. I).

Octavius:

    And bayed about with many enemies;

    And some that smile have in their hearts, I fear,

    Millions of mischiefs.

Brutus: 

     I had rather be a dog and bay the moon,

    Than such a Roman.

Similes:

The skies are painted with unnumbered sparks, / They are all fire, and every one doth shine; / But there's but one in all doth hold his place. / So in the world: 'tis furnished well with men. / And men are flesh and blood, and apprehensive, / yet in the number I do not know but one / That unassailable holds on his rank, / Unshaked of motion; and that I am he. (III, i, 63-70).

 

 

Why man, he doth bestride the the narrow world / Like a Colossus, and we petty men / Walk under his huge legs and peep about / To find ourselves dishonorable graves. (I, ii, 135-8).

 Find other figurative language at: http://www.brighthub.com/education/homework-tips/articles/36206.aspx


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