Caesar's Self-Deception in 3.1.69
The more you read Julius Caesar, the more you realize that most of the leading figures are well-characterized in one or two words that either they or others speak about them. We know this is true in our political life and culture: the appellation "tricky Dick" to distinguish Richard Nixon and "slick Willy" to mark Bill Clinton may not fully be true or just, but they illustrate in one word what many people think about them. Shakespeare is a master at using spare prose to capture the essence or nature of some of his leading figures.
For example, Portia's use of the word "stole," to describe the twofold action of her husband Brutus as he both "stole away" from her bed in the night to pace about and "stole" intimacy from her by not telling her what was on his mind, gives the impression that Brutus's fault may be to shortchange others and, by so doing, to injure himself (2.1.238).
Likewise, one of Brutus's first words regarding himself is "vexed (1.2.39)." He is vexed by deep conflicting emotions which he tries to sort out but finds, to his dismay, that all he feels are explosive inner tensions that he likens to an insurrection (2.1.69). Thus, "vexed" is a powerful word that admirably summarizes Brutus's mental condition through much of the play.
I could further argue that Caesar's description of Cassius as a man with a "lean" and "hungry" look (1.2.194) helps to define this conspirator. In addition, I would venture that the word "prick'd" used by Antony in 4.1.1 emphasizes his ruthlessness and political opportunism better than any other word. Thus, all the major figures of the play, no matter how complex their personalities, are "one-word" figures.
The word which best describes the contradictory realities of Caesar's power and vulnerabilty is "unassailable (3.1.69)." This is what Caesar thinks of himself. He will not reverse his sentence of banishment against Publius Cimber because that would be to change an earlier decision he made. He does not bear such "rebel blood" that will be "thaw'd from the true quality" to change an earlier decision by appeals to flattery or "base spaniel fawning" (3.1.40ff). Rather, he is "constant as the northern star," and "unshak'd of motion (3.1.60,70)." This constancy is part and parcel of his unassailability (3.1.69). That he has meditated long on his own constancy is evident by his 10 lines describing the stars and the northern star (3.1.60-70). Maybe as he rested during the evening of a campaign, perhaps even against the Nervii, he looked at the sky, saw the shooting and disappearing lesser lights but also saw the constant northern light, and he knew that he was like the latter.
He not only "holds on his rank" with constancy but also he "unassailable" holds on his rank (3.1.69). He is unassailable because he has been brought up with danger (he and danger are "two lions litter'd in one day"--2.2.46) and danger knows full well that "Caesar is more dangerous than he (2.2.45)." He knows that "cowards die many times before their deaths,/ The valiant never taste of death but once (2.2.32-33)," and that death "will come when it will come (2.2.37)." He is unassailable also because always "he is Caesar," a patent reference to Christ's comments in the Gospel of John that "I am he," whether it refers to Christ as the God of Abraham (Jn 8:56-58) or another divine figure.
Caesar's unassailability therefore consists of two things: his immunity from danger and his constancy under pressure. But this word also brings to the readers' minds Caesar's extreme vulnerability and bad judgment. He judges Cassius correctly but then errs when he thinks he has nothing to fear of him because "always I am Caesar (1.2.212)." He welcomes the conspirators into his home in the middle of the night and then says some words that are so portentously self-deceptive that the reader winces--he tells the conspirators, "Remember that you can call on me to-day;/ Be near me, that I may remember you (2.2.122-123)." Indeed they will be near him that day, very, very near him.
Thus the word "unassailable" neatly captures Caesar's self-understanding as well as his blindness and arrogance. When we hear him saying in 3.1.60 that he is unassailable, we know that the assassination is coming soon. Indeed it does, within 17 lines.
Copyright © 2004-2007 William R. Long