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Early existentialism in Julius Caesar

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  1. Introduction.
    1. The worldly turmoil all around.
  2. The conflict with Brutus.
    1. The miscalculation of Brutus.
    2. His inner anguish following the murder.
  3. The little optimism to be salvaged from the play.
  4. How Shakespeare's play was ahead of its time.

There is a saying among political scientists that the citizens of a nation deserve their leader. In other words a dictator or tyrant will never appear out of a vacuum, but as the result of countless historical events, and as an expression of the society's current values and priorities. As such, even the most brutal despot is as much a subject of the society as the powerless, as he is ultimately appealing to them to allow him to stay in power. In Shakespeare's Julius Caesar, written and premiered in 1599, the title character, arguably the most powerful statesman to have ever lived, serves as an illustration this theory. As the Emperor of Rome, a near-invincible power sprawling across Europe, the Middle East and North Africa, Caesar, in the words of the conspirator Cassius, ?doth bestride the narrow world like a Colossus? (I. ii. 134-135).

[...] In a manner pre-cursing 20th century existentialists, the characters in Julius Caesar are faced with the choice of either compromising themselves and accommodating the institutions, as Caesar does, or sacrificing themselves for their principles and individuality, as Brutus does. Caesar's choice leads to the duality of his nature, the split between his public and private persona. While Caesar the man can be indeterminate and superstitious, Caesar the institution is allowed no such luxuries. He must be that which his office calls him to be: ?Constant as the North almost delusional in his sense of invincibility (which, in a global sense, he and unwilling to shrink from threats, even in the face of death (he refuses the assassins' demands at knifepoint). [...]

[...] What Brutus doesn't realize, however, is that Julius Caesar the man had already become irrelevant in the face of his own power. Brutus, the naïve patriot, believed that individual agency was still the more important, not realizing that the actions and justifications of he, the conspirators and even Caesar, had become of far less importance than the new realities, structures, and methods of manipulation that Roman power was taking. This becomes clear to him only after the fact, when Antony and Octavius have expelled him from Rome, and the machines of empire continue to work without a hitch. [...]

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