On 12 June 1599, Julius Caesar premiered at the grand opening of the new Bankside Globe, a three-thousand seat custom-built theatre (Sohmer 3–16). As Shakespeare had taken personal and financial risks to build and become a stakeholder in the Globe, it is fitting that he made risk the dramatic fulcrum of the action. In Julius Caesar, Shakespeare explores risk in all its guises: first, as danger, second, as exposure to danger, and finally, as the trigger of devastating low-probability, high-consequence events.
It is 44 BC.1 History has arrived at a crossroads between the old and the new, the Republic and the Empire, the last of the Romans and the first of the Caesars. On one fork lies dignity, uncomfortable liberty, and the rule of the unhappy many. On the other fork lies new things, comfortable servitude, and the rule of the one. Though history’s wheel inclines towards empire, the furrows, four-and-a-half centuries deep, follow the familiar ways. Risk is the dramatic fulcrum of the action because the wheels are flying off the tracks. It is a time of risk and a time to take risks: at stake is the soul of Rome.
Four risk-takers—Caesar, Antony, Brutus, and Cassius—will clash as they wager all-in on the fate of the Eternal City. This daredevil quartet will trigger the improbable acts, accidental judgments, and unintended consequences that ensure Julius Caesar will be acted in new Globes many ages hence. As freedom is to the soul of Rome, so is risk to the soul of tragedy.
Risk as Hazard – An Improbability unto Truth
Polysemous risk has many faces. The first face of risk is its most familiar: risk is “danger” and “the possibility of loss, injury, or other adverse or unwelcome circumstance” (“Risk,” n. 1, 4b). From the get-go, warnings, prophecies, prodigies, omens, thunderstorms, and supernatural events, the shadows of unhappened things, simultaneously flash danger. It begins with the Soothsayer telling Caesar to “Beware the Ides of March” (1.2.23). Casca’s amazed “never till tonight, never till now” declaration quickly follows, amplifying the Soothsayer’s forebodings:
Thunder and lightning. Enter Casca, with sword drawn, and Cicero, meeting
Cicero. Good even, Casca. Brought you Caesar home?
Why are you breathless, and why stare you so?
Casca. Are not you moved, when all the sway of earth
Shakes like a thing unfirm? O Cicero,
I have seen tempests when the scolding winds
Have rived the knotty oaks, and I have seen
Th’ambitious ocean swell, and rage, and foam,
To be exalted with the threat’ning clouds;
But never till tonight, never till now,
Did I go through a tempest dropping fire. (1.3.1–10: Oxford edition)
To impart upon the audience the singularity of the moment, Casca adds to his litany of prodigies: a lion fascinating Romans, a slave impervious to fire, men on fire, the bird of night calling during day (1.3.15–28).
To Casca, the prodigies are illegible signs. Cassius, however, can see that the portents are physical manifestations of nature’s consternation that one man should wear the crown. Caesar had recently been proclaimed dictator for life (Plutarch Caesar 57). Now he would be king. Nature retches.
Brutus also sees nature’s goings-on. “The exhalations whizzing in the air,” he says, “Give so much light that I may read by them” (2.1.44–45). The prodigies, blazing across the sky, ensure that 14 March is a night to remember. As the scene shifts to Caesar and Calpurnia’s on the morning of the ides, the portent sensory overload continues. “Thrice hath Calpurnia,” says Caesar, “in her sleep cried out ‘Help, ho! They murder Caesar’” (2.2.2–3). She sees a dream where Caesar’s statue “with an hundred spouts, / Did run pure blood” (2.2.76–77). He asks the haruspices for insight. The priests cut open the sacrificial animal to discover that, though lacking a heart, it had lived, breathed, and ran. Even the omens about the other omens cry nature’s revolt.
Calpurnia continues reciting litanies of prodigies, recounting how the watch has witnessed a whelping lioness, graves yielding their dead, warriors fighting in the clouds, blood raining on the Capitol, neighing horses, the groans of the dying, and shrieking ghosts (2.2.15–24). The portents connect together the Capitol, the noises of battle, and the forms of war. It so happens that Caesar is heading to the Capitol to prepare for war. He will go east to recover the standards Marcus Crassus carelessly lost. At the Capitol, the senators will declare him “King of all the provinces outside Italy with the right of wearing a diadem in any other place except Italy” (Plutarch Caesar 64; 1.3.85–88, 2.2.93–94). Their declaration would fulfil an oracle in the Sibylline books that Rome could only conquer Parthia if led by a king (Plutarch Caesar 60). Calpurnia recognizes the portents presage ill. She tells him to stay home.
The portents heighten, increase, and augment the suspense. They activate our intuitions and speculations on the probable, the improbable, and the impossible. A black cat or comet is commonplace. So many cats are black. Every few years a comet visits. It is probable, therefore, that, every so often, one sees a prodigy. To see a flurry of prodigies, however, is improbable: a prodigy, by definition, is unusual and, therefore, unlikely. Calpurnia argues from probability to persuade Caesar:
Calpurnia. Caesar, I never stood on ceremonies,
Yet now they fright me. There is one within,
Besides the things we have heard and seen,
Recounts most horrid sights seen by the watch. (2.2.13–16)
While unsuperstitious (“I never stood on ceremonies”), she argues that the flurry of portents is overwhelming (“these things are beyond all use,” 2.2.25). In a stroke of dramatic economy, we are never told “the things we have heard and seen.” By tacit accord, however, unspoken things intensify the prodigiousness of the supernatural. To see so many prodigies is improbable, and, being improbable, likely presages catastrophe: in these portents are no rainbows and halcyon beaks, but the shapes of apocalypse now.
Calpurnia’s probabilistic argument echoes that of Casca, who says to Cicero:
Casca. When these prodigies
Do so conjointly meet, let not men say
‘These are their reasons, they are natural’;
For I believe they are portentous things
Unto the climate they point upon. (1.3.28–32)
Casca drives home the point, that, while natural explanations may account for scattered prodigies, they fall flat when so many prodigies “conjointly meet.” Although Shakespeare’s Cicero downplays Casca (1.3.34–35), the historical Cicero may well have agreed. In his treatise on divination, Cicero classifies the highly improbable in a category outside chance:
Can anything be an ‘accident’ which bears upon itself every mark of truth? Four dice are cast and a Venus throw [where each of the four four-sided dice displays a different value] results—that is chance; but do you think it would be chance, too, if in one hundred casts you made one hundred Venus throws? (On Divination 1.23)
Each prodigy is like a Venus throw. A Venus throw results: that is chance. If the dice were fair (and not the rectangular knucklebones of livestock), the probability of rolling a Venus throw is 1:256 (the outcome of four independent rolls being the product of their individual probabilities: 4 * 4 * 4 * 4). Two Venus throws result in succession: the probability is 1:65,536 (1:2562). This, too, chance will produce. But, should a hundred Venus throws happen in succession, it is no longer chance, as the odds—1:256100—are beyond all use. The number lies beyond nature’s ken. In powers of ten, you could scale the universe from Planck’s infinitesimal length to the broadest expanses of its outermost limits, and never encounter such an abomination.
Through a superabundance of prodigies, Shakespeare fills Julius Caesar with such abominations of probabilities that, whatever it is, it is no longer chance. It is something greater than chance. Nature, imbued with hylozoism, the idea that all matter is somehow alive, is partaking in history’s grand march. Improbability can supply the proof.
In the old day, they discovered that improbability could be the basis of something to believe in. Centuries before French philosopher and mathematician Blaise Pascal was credited with putting belief on a probabilistic footing by making his famous wager known as “Pascal’s Wager,” an obscure theologian writing on the shores of North Africa found a way.2 Sometime in the early third century, Tertullian, an early Christian apologist, demonstrated that the higher the improbability, the greater the cause for belief:
The Son of God was crucified; I am not ashamed because men must needs be ashamed of it. And the Son of God died; it is by all means to be believed, because it is absurd. And He was buried, and rose again; the fact is certain, because it is impossible. (On the Flesh of Christ 5)
Over the centuries, his conclusion certum est, quia impossibile (“the fact is certain, because it is impossible”) led to the anti-rationalist declaration credo quia absurdum (“I believe because it is absurd”). Improbability, by being unlikely, becomes the highest of signs and the most assured of proofs. It is a proof that dumbfounds naysayers because the unlikelihood of it being mistaken can be stated in figures which are ovewhelming.
I know not whether people today still believe it is impossible for the dead to rise. It is likely that some do. Myself, however, believe that Shakespeare uses improbability to announce that the Ides of March is a moment like no other. Revolution is in the air. The world will never be the same because the odds of so many wonders happening at once transcend reason. That the prodigies signify imminent historical metamorphosis is certain, because they are impossible. This is the improbability unto truth. Probability, the familiar stranger, is truly one of the least understood yet most potent of devices, whether on the stage of theatre or on the stage of life.
Risk as Opportunity – Caesarism’s Paradox
The contact point between the bicycle and the road is all but two square inches of rubber, one square inch per tire. Upon two rubber inches, riders ride. To hobby riders, harrowing alpine descents, hairpin corners, poor visibility, slick roads, and raging crosswinds are signs to ease off. Risk unnerves. To riders riding the Tour de France, however, these are signs to attack. Some attack to help teammates, some attack out of envy and spite, some from principle, and some for the thrill of it all. Descending the Col de Vars, a high alpine pass with gradients of twelve percent, at 80kph is pedestrian; go into the supertuck and scream down over 100kph. Attack them at the switchbacks on the world’s edge. Attack them where the road is slick or the visibility poor. Carve a line and drop them on the S-curves. If two square inches suffice, you will wear the coveted maillot jaune, the yellow jersey. Down they go on history’s slopes into time’s valleys, the Cassiuses, Brutuses, Antonys, and Caesars, blazing into glory or riding into ruin; it is uncertain whither.
This brings us to the second face of risk. Risk as a noun denotes hazard. As a verb, however, risk paradoxically denotes the exposure to danger (“Risk,” v. 1). Risk refers to both danger and its exposure because it derives from the early Italian risicare meaning “to dare” (Bernstein 8). To those reckless of danger, risk is opportunity. In Julius Caesar, many opportunities arise.
In the daredevil quartet, Caesar speaks least: he has 1126 words to Brutus’s 5394, Cassius’s 3709, and Antony’s 2540 (Rowe 152-53).3 His words, however, fascinate: with each utterance he is, curiously, assessing, defining, and saying out loud his relationship with risk. The Soothsayer warns him of grievous danger. Caesar looks him straight in the eye. “He is a dreamer,” says Caesar, “Let us leave him. Pass” (1.2.24). In a perfect pentameter line, he reveals his DNA. “Pure gold,” says Granville-Barker (374). “A line of magisterial finality,” says Humphreys (1.2.24). Though it is the holiday of the Lupercalia, Caesar is ever the general, his ear (the one that works) ever attentive. Like a general on the field, he is constantly identifying, evaluating, and negotiating risks. Risk affords Caesar an existential opportunity to be Caesar. Caesar becomes Caesar by walking the line.
Now, contrast Brutus’s attitude to risk-taking. As soon as Caesar’s Lupercalia train exits, Brutus finds himself alone with Cassius. Now, it is Brutus’s turn to confront risk. Cassius warns him of grievous danger. Brutus looks away (“If I have veiled my look,” 1.2.38). Cassius presses on, prompting Brutus to ask: “Into what dangers would you lead me, Cassius / That you would have me seek into myself / For that which is not in me?” (1.2.63–65). Brutus’s dithering reply, full of question marks, is a far cry from Caesar’s “pure gold.” Another fifteen lines later, they come to the elephant in the room: Caesar is fast becoming a god. Brutus awakens:
Brutus. What means this shouting? I do fear the people
Choose Caesar for their king.
Cassius. Ay, do you fear it?
Then must I think you would not have it so.
Brutus. I would not, Cassius, yet I love him well.
But wherefore do you hold me here so long?
What is it that you would impart to me?
If it be aught toward the general good,
Set honour in one eye, and death i’th’other,
And I will look on both indifferently;
For let the gods so speed me as I love
The name of honour more than I fear death. (1.2.78–89)
Risk presents him with an ethical-political opportunity to demonstrate his ancestry: he is descended from Lucius Junius Brutus, expeller of kings. For the good of Rome, he would die.
Like Caesar, Brutus sees risk as opportunity. But, unlike Caesar, Brutus is slow on the uptake. “For the present,” he says, “I would not, so with love I might entreat you, / Be any further moved. What you have said / I will consider” (1.2.165–67). He retrenches into endless musings. It is not until the beginning of act two that he finds his magisterial line: “It must be by his death” (2.1.10). Caesar found his gold in one line and Brutus his after tens and hundreds. Their appetite for risk lies powers of ten apart because risk encapsulates the idea of both opportunity and loss.
Brutus appears to lack nerve. It is an illusion. Shakespeare has him hesitate for another reason: to show that Brutus has more to lose than Caesar. Once Brutus commits, he puts at risk his friend and benefactor Caesar (who, rumour has it, is his father; see Plutarch Brutus 5.2; Shakespeare 2 Henry VI 4.1.136–37), his wife Portia, his boy Lucius, and many Romans’ safety. Caesar, on the other hand, gives the impression that he has too little to lose. Brutus and Caesar’s differences are encapsulated in another work of art: the sculptor Auguste Rodin’s The Burghers of Calais.
Rodin’s monumental six-figure bronze sculpture depicts a tragic moment in Calais’s history. In ad 1347, Calais falls after a difficult siege. The English victor, Edward III, will tame the conquered: if six of Calais’s leaders voluntarily give up their lives, he will spare the people. The sculpture depicts the six volunteers walking to the gallows. Three burst out. The next three, with wandering steps and slow, stumble out. One interpretation is that, while the former are bona fide heroes, the latter deserve less commendation. Rodin rejects this interpretation:
While these three men of Calais may be less brave than the three first, they do not deserve less admiration. For their devotion is even more meritorious, because it costs them more. (Rodin Conversations 36)
The case between Caesar and Brutus is analogous: Brutus is held back not by a lack of nerve, but by a higher estimation of all he leaves behind. Shakespeare captures the beauty of all Brutus leaves behind in his final scene with Portia. He loves her more than he dares to tell:
Brutus. O ye gods
Render me worthy of this noble wife!
Hark, hark! One knocks. Portia, go in awhile
And by and by thy bosom shall partake
The secrets of my heart.
All my engagements I will construe to thee,
All the charactery of my sad brows. (2.1.303–9)
Adding credence to this view is his reaction to her death. Although he is a philosopher, his philosophy fails: “I am sick of many griefs,” he says (4.3.142).
Caesar’s final scene with Calpurnia lies in stark contrast. He chides Calpurnia, who rolls her eyes as she hands him his death robe:
Caesar. How foolish do your fears seem now, Calpurnia!
I am ashamèd I did yield to them.
Give me my robe, for I will go. (2.2.105–7).
She recognizes in this terrible moment her perceived smallness—and indeed, the smallness of all the world—when set against Caesarism’s immensity. This is the horrible contradiction of Caesarism, that, because everything must be on the line, and all the time, nothing can be worth much. It is easy come and easy go. That is the price Caesar pays to create the Caesar myth.
Risk speaks differently to Cassius. It presents him with an opportunity to reclaim his dignity. Cassius is a person we all know: the smartest kid in school, the valedictorian who was marked for celebrity. But somewhere along the line, he lost his way. Now you can find him in the taverns talking about his glory days: his 8.93 GPA, how he was recruited like a rock star, how he used to do things no one else was doing, and easily. Cassius is a has-been.
When Brutus and Cassius squabble, Brutus, in a fit of rage, takes a swipe at his dignity:
Cassius. Urge me no more, I shall forget myself.
Have mind, upon your health. Tempt me no further.
Brutus. Away, slight man!
Cassius. Is’t possible? (4.2.86–89)
Brutus’s “Away, slight man!” stops Cassius because the truth hurts. Back in the day, Cassius and Caesar would campaign together, colleagues in arms (1.1.119–121). At home, they would swim together in the Tiber’s flood (1.2.100–15). They grew up together, went to the same schools. Now Caesar has overleapt him. Now Caesar favours others (1.2.310). Now Caesar no longer returns his calls. They were equals. Now, when Caesar lifts his legs, Cassius, like a cur, stoops down. Cassius is envious.
Envy drives Cassius to distraction. On the night of the prodigies, he walks the streets, raving:
Casca. Who ever knew the heavens menace so?
Cassius. Those that have known the earth so full of faults.
For my part, I have walked about the streets,
Submitting me unto the perilous night,
And thus unbracèd, Casca, as you see,
Have bared my bosom to the thunder-stone;
And when the cross blue lightning seemed to open
The breast of heaven, I did present myself
Even in the aim and very flash of it.
Casca. But wherefore did you so much tempt the heavens?
It is the part of men to fear and tremble
When the most mighty gods by tokens send
Such dreadful heralds to astonish us. (1.3.44–56)
Not only is his shirt undone, he taunts the thunderclouds. Envy emboldens him. Recent events, however, are handing him an opportunity to regain his mojo. Although Caesar has not gone all the way, Cassius can convince others that Caesar will go all the way. That will be the basis of his sham conspiracy to liberate Rome. Once Caesar is dead he will walk his streets again, again the cock of the walk. That is his opportunity and his risk.
As Brutus and Caesar reflect one another’s genius—the former with too much to lose and the latter with too little—so too are Cassius and Antony mirrors. While envy prompts Cassius, the opposite emotion—friendship—moves Antony. Antony is “beloved of Caesar,” is the one who walks on Caesar’s right hand (2.1.157, 1.2.213). Caesar’s assassination affords Antony the opportunity to demonstrate the ties that bind. To memorialize Caesar, Antony, like a proper friend, will do cosmic terrors:
Antony. A curse shall light upon the limbs of men.
Domestic fury and fierce civil strife
Shall cumber all the parts of Italy.
Blood and destruction shall be so in use,
And dreadful objects so familiar,
That mothers shall but smile when they behold
Their infants quartered with the hands of war,
All pity choked with custom of fell deeds.
And Caesar’s spirit, ranging for revenge,
With Ate by his side, come hot from hell,
Shall in these confines, with a monarch’s voice,
Cry ‘Havoc!’ and let slip the dogs of war,
That this foul deed shall smell above the earth
With carrion men, groaning for burial. (3.1.262–75)
To do cosmic terrors, however, is easier said than done. It involves risk.
Caesar is dead. A void opens. Antony steps up to fill the void. That he does so is unexpected. Antony is the Roman Hal. Like Hal from Shakespeare’s Henriad plays (which were written concurrently in the century’s last lustrum), Antony is perceived as “gamesome” (1.2.28), a lover of plays (1.2.204), “given / To sports, to wildness, and much company” (2.1.189-90), one who “revels long a-nights” (2.2.116), and “a coward or a flatterer” (3.1.193). He is “but a limb of Caesar,” incapable of grand politics (2.1.166). Like Hal becoming Henry V, Antony surprises all. The surprises begin with Antony pledging allegiance to Brutus (3.1.133–34). If the conspirators look him askance, he offers his life (3.1.159–63). So far so good: he is welcomed by Brutus. Then, in tragedy’s white heat, he takes their hands, dripping purple gore:
Antony. Let each man render me his bloody hand.
First, Marcus Brutus, will I shake with you;
Next Caius Cassius, do I take your hand;
Now, Decius Brutus, yours; now your, Metellus;
Yours, Cinna; and, my valiant Casca, yours;
Though last, not least in love, yours, good Trebonius. (3.1.184–89)
Perhaps Homer’s Iliad—an ancient Greek epic that Shakespeare alludes to in the next act (4.2.180-82)—was on his mind here as well. In the crowning moment of the Iliad, Priam takes the hand of the man who has murdered his son [Priam to Achilles]:
“I have borne what no man
Who has walked this earth has ever yet borne.
I have kissed the hand of the man who killed my son.” (24.535–43)
Shakespeare exploits the full dramatic potential of Homer’s narrative by investing Antony with Priam’s lines: as Priam’s words awed Achilles, Antony’s actions awe the conspirators. Awestruck, they allow him to speak at Caesar’s funeral. Antony, in making the most of his opportunity, pulls off a coup.
Antony’s transformation into the man of the hour highlights the face of risk as opportunity. When dangers proliferate, the hero may be who you least expect. In ad 1415 at the Battle of Agincourt, it was the transfigured Hal, now Henry V. In 44 bc at the Battle of Philippi, it will be Antony. To do tales of glory is different than talking about tales of glory. The difference is risk. Talk is cheap. Doing involves exposing yourself to risk, kissing the hand of the murderer. Risk, though it denotes “danger,” is not all downside. Sometimes, when one takes risks, things swing to the upside. Risk opens doors. “Fortune is merry,” says Antony after his coup, “And in this mood will give us anything” (3.3.259-60). This brings us to the third, and final face of risk: risk as uncertainty, and even as destiny. Risk is truly a familiar stranger, one with the power to transfigure either a person or an entire world.
Risk as Uncertainty and Destiny – Crossing the Rubicon
But when at last the fatal die is thrown,
The hollow mask no longer serves, they fall
Into the mighty hands of nature, of
The spirit that obeys none but itself,
Knows of no treaties, and will deal with them
Not on their terms, but on its own alone. (Schiller, Wallenstein’s Death 343)
When one confronts risk, whether by throwing Schiller’s “fatal die” or by crossing Caesar’s stream, one opens the uncertain doors behind which peer snake eyes, black swans, unsolved mysteries, unintended consequences, unknown unknowns, and many things that were—before they happened—unthinkable. Risk, in this guise, is “uncertainty” (“Risk,” n. 2a, 2b). Uncertainty arises because risk-takers, having spread themselves too thin, can no longer cover their positions. Containing chance involves keeping some powder dry. Keeping powder dry, however, is the last thing on risk-takers’ minds. Risk-takers prefer to light up the stage with the fireworks of their all-in bets. When risk-takers leverage and multiply their positions beyond what they can cover, chance is in the ascendant.
In Schiller’s memorable phrase, when players play with risk, they fall into “the mighty hands of nature.” In this sense, the term “risk” recalls its derivation from the Arabic “rizq” denoting “fortune, luck, destiny, chance, and lot” (“Risk,” etymology). Risk becomes destiny. We think we master destiny, but chance is the true master. How we encounter and provoke chance is through risk. Risk is a gateway from a place where events occur in terms of probability or necessity into a place where wild improbabilities play.
Antony throws the fatal die by approaching the conspirators alone and unarmed. He pledges allegiance; he bares his neck; he takes their hands. It may turn out poorly. Instead, Brutus allows him to speak last at Caesar’s funeral (3.1.251). It is a boon he could hardly have anticipated. He will attain his finest hour in his funeral oration by inciting the mob to riot, lynch, set fire to the conspirators’ houses, and drive them running from Rome (3.2.246–52). Having thrown himself into the hands of nature, he feels a rising tailwind. Chance has his back.
After the funeral oration, the second half begins. It will culminate in the final confrontation at Philippi where they decide the fate of Rome. Brutus and Cassius have applied the tyrant’s emergency brakes, have activated powerful kill and dead man’s switches in a last-ditch attempt to save the Roman machine. But Caesar’s spirit, ranging for revenge, will have none of it, knows of no fail-safes, having now shed the mortal form of risk to take on risk’s incorporeal form. Risk is becoming destiny.
Brutus throws the fatal die when he decides Caesar must die. Caesar’s death opens a can of worms. First, he discovers that, to do God’s work, he must conspire with the devil: “O conspiracy,” he says, “Sham’st thou to show thy dang’rous brow by night, / When evils are most free?” (2.1.77–79). Next, he discovers that, by pre-emptively striking, Caesarism grows stronger, not weaker. Ere Caesar’s blood cools, Caesarism grows warm. Ere he finishes his funeral oration, Caesarism stirs:
Brutus. With this I depart, that as I slew my best lover for the good of Rome, I have the same dagger for myself, when it shall please my country to need my death.
All the Plebeians. Live, Brutus! Live! Live!
Brutus comes down
First Plebeian. Bring him with triumph home unto his house.
Fourth Plebeian. Give him a statue with his ancestors.
Third Plebeian. Let him be Caesar.
Fourth Plebeian. Caesar’s better parts
Shall be crowned in Brutus. (3.2.43–51)
As Caesar triumphed over Roman friends instead of foreign enemies, the plebs will bring Brutus home with triumph. Brutus will be a new Caesar, crowned their new king. Brutus had little idea the precariousness and power of risk.
Brutus preferred liberty because he had the luxury to ponder the constitution, the history of Rome, and the nature of freedom. It had not occurred to him that the tired plebeians, working nine-to-five, would prefer comfortable servitude to uncomfortable liberty. Though he dies, Shakespeare vouchsafes him the deeper understanding that comes with death: he will see the new direction the world turns. “O Julius Caesar,” says Brutus in his apotheosis of Caesar, “thou art mighty yet!” (5.3.94). As his day sets, Brutus understands how, in saving the Republic, he destroys the Republic.
Cassius likewise plays with the fates. He has assembled the right conspirators to access and assassinate Caesar. His band, however, is short on nobility and long on “youth and wildness” (2.1.148). They lack the cachet to usher in the new world order. To gain respectability, Cassius enrolls Brutus. By doing so, Cassius brings into the conspiracy the ineptitude of the good. The train wreck of unintended consequences quickly follows.
Cassius foresees division among the conspirators. To forestall division, he would have them swear an oath (2.1.113). Brutus, in his ineptitude of goodness, vetoes Cassius (2.1.114–40). Cassius foresees the benefits of inviting Cicero into the conspiracy (2.1.141–42). Brutus vetoes Cassius (2.1.156–62). Cassius, foreseeing the cunning of Mark Antony, proposes to kill him. Brutus, in his ineptitude of goodness, vetoes Cassius (2.1.163–84). Cassius, foreseeing mischief, opposes Antony’s request to speak at Caesar’s funeral (3.1.231–35). Brutus, by the ineptitude of goodness, overrules Cassius (3.1.235–42). Cassius, foreseeing the advantage of rested troops, proposes to wait for the enemy. Brutus, thinking fortune favours the good, marches to Philippi. Cassius had little idea the ruinousness of virtue.
Like the others, Caesar triggers unintended consequences. The unintended consequences of Caesar’s daring is that it makes him hated and a hazard to the Republic. He can see how some are envious of his person, but he fails to see his threat to the Republic. He thinks the risks he takes benefit the Republic. “What touches us ourself,” says Caesar, “shall be last served” (3.1.8). He is there to guide the Republic: “What is now amiss,” he asks, “That Caesar and his Senate must redress?” (3.1.31-32). Like Brutus, Shakespeare vouchsafes Caesar the higher understanding that comes with death. Even after so many wounds, he would have lived, but when Brutus strikes, he realizes how odious he has become:
Caesar. Doth not Brutus bootless kneel?
Casca. Speak, hands, for me!
They stab Caesar, Casca first, Brutus last
Caesar. Et tu, Brute?—Then fall, Caesar! He dies. (3.1.76–77)
He conveys his astonishment at how hated he has become by speaking Latin. Ever the Caesar, he commands himself to die for Rome’s sake.
Each character, by taking inordinate risks, triggers indeterminate, out of control anarchy. Risk is the dramatic mechanism animating Julius Caesar. The more risk they take, the more they expose themselves to chance, the principle of which may be illustrated through the bicycle analogy. If you eschew risk, descending the Col de Vars on the brakes and black winds batter you, you will have a fright, falling like Gloucester in King Lear (Shakespeare 4.5.41). If you embrace risk, however, descending at terminal velocity where the wild winds blow, you will, with Brutus, say: “Fates, we will know your pleasures” (3.1.98). Risk makes a difference.
When players stretch their means beyond what their means will allow, they expose themselves to “incertain affairs” “fortune,” “the tide in the affairs of men,” and “hateful Error” (5.1.96, 5.3.110, 4.2.268, 5.3.67). Because he has set too much at stake, a trick of the light compels Cassius to kill himself: he thinks Titinius has been taken when, in reality, Titinius is hastening back to crown him in laurel (5.3.78-90). So, too, Caesar, Antony, and Brutus are, like Cassius, desperadoes on history’s verge, leveraging their mortal positions many times beyond their mortal prowess.
Wong contra Aristotle – Risk contra Hamartia
Ever since Aristotle, there has been a tendency for armchair quarterbacks to see personal fault, mistake, or error—otherwise known as hamartia—as the dramatic pivot in tragedy. The change from “prosperity to adversity,” says Aristotle, is brought about “by a great error [hamartia] of a character” (Poetics 1453a). If only the characters had been listening to the armchair quarterbacks shouting from their couches, they would have avoided the fall. From their couches, the armchair quarterbacks shouted: “Antony, do not party so hard, Caesar needs you to be sharp.” From their couches, they shouted: “Brutus, less principle and more ruthlessness, please.” From their couches, they shouted: “Cassius, be not so envious, accept your lot.” From their couches, they shouted: “Caesar, why go for a home run, when you can get by with a hit?” Many thought, and perhaps some still do, that these critics expressed high literary theory’s most profound truths.
The reason why Aristotle focused on agency in bringing about the fall was to rehabilitate tragedy. His teacher, Plato, had labeled the art degenerate, banning it from his ideal city-state (Laws 817a–e; Republic 607b). By theorizing that: 1) the fall results from error, and 2) the sequence of events follows a probable course (eikos, Poetics 1454a), Aristotle could argue that the events in tragedy, because they are “the kinds of things that might occur and are possible in terms of probability or necessity,” are replicable in life (Poetics 1451a; Wong “Faces of Chance” 98–99). Being replicable, the audience, by seeing the mistake on the stage, would avoid it in life. It is a brilliant argument, and one that restores tragedy’s social function. But it is wrong. While it is highly questionable whether the great error could so easily be subtracted from the individual, it is patently false that hamartia is the dramatic pivot of tragedy.
To Aristotle and the armchair critics, if Brutus had been more ruthless, he would have carried the day. If Caesar was not always hitting home runs, he would have lived, and so on. To others, however, Caesar’s confidence and Brutus’s goodness, far from being errors, were written in their DNA. Without confidence, Caesar would not be Caesar. Without goodness, Brutus would not be noble. Each great error is written into the DNA of a character’s blended humours. Aristotle’s “You would have scored had you not fumbled the ball” is impudent and unhelpful. The good and evil geniuses are bound together by the Gordion knot of human nature.
In this essay, I have offered you another reading, one in which the pivot of hamartia was unnecessary. Instead of error, risk is the dramatic fulcrum of the action. Instead of straight line runs of predictable and probable events following a tidy cause and effect causality, improbable events abound. “Et tu Brute?” says Caesar (3.1.77). “O Julius Caesar, thou art mighty yet!” says Brutus (5.3.94). To Aristotle and the armchair critics, these words signify the characters’ reactions to the culmination of a sequence of events that followed a necessary or probable course. With their last words, the characters offer helpful advice to playgoers by recanting their errors. To keener critics, however, these words signify the characters’ utter surprise over the complete disproportion of their improbable losses in the face of the probable risks they took. Hamartia was the old dramatic fulcrum. Risk is the new dramatic fulcrum. The probable and the necessary were the old mechanisms: make mistake x and y will certainly occur. Improbability and risk are the new mechanisms: wager everything and anything can happen. When anything can happen, actions are no longer replicable. Risk falsifies the hamartia hypothesis.
Risk is the basis of my new theory of tragedy called risk theatre (Wong Risk). Risk theatre is, in turn, the basis of the world’s largest competition for the writing of tragedy, now in its fourth year (Wong Competition). Risk theatre is my daring attempt to restore tragedy’s legacy of audacity. Once upon a time, the greatest poet, inaugurating his new theatre, elected tragedy.
If tragedy is not about avoiding the same mistakes, then what is it about? These days we concern ourselves with statistics and awards, honours and accolades. The Pulitzer Prize is the measure of a writer. The best basketballer is the one with the most rings. The boxer dreams of going 50–0. Conversely, the self-published writer is scorned, the street-corner basketballer is a nobody, and the defeated boxer yesterday’s headlines. What a shame. I think the sensibility Shakespeare presents is that, whether 50–0 or 0–50, the final record of victories, losses, awards, and accolades is inconsequential. What is important is how we comport ourselves on life’s journey.
In Julius Caesar, there are no “bad guys.” Cassius, Brutus, Antony, and Caesar shine. I think they are bright because they dared to overcome the smallness of their existence by the greatness of their daring: Caesar by daring majesty, Brutus nobility, Cassius choleric envy, and Antony friendship. In Julius Caesar, Shakespeare administers a concoction of ancient Roman values as an antidote to American virtue with its base preoccupation with statistics, accolades, and awards. Some win all and others lose all. That is inconsequential. What is important is how greatly one dares. The agon is for a moment; the beauty is forever.
If, in future ages, theatregoers exiting the theatres say: “I should be less envious; I saw what happened to Cassius” or “I should be less ambitious; I may die for my ambition,” then Aristotle will be proved correct: we can learn, in life, to foresee the things that the characters could not even imagine. Tradition vouches for Aristotle: for a long time teachers taught and students learned by pointing fingers, remonstrations, and assigning blame. If, however, risk is the trigger and do-gooders keep doing themselves in and politicians keep blowing up, then, perhaps, the dawn of the new day breaks here. On this new and blameless day, teachers and students, imbued with a higher sensibility than the rod, will insist that—instead of hamartia—risk is the great pivot because the soul of drama is less about fault-finding and more about entertaining. Risk, being danger, opportunity, uncertainty, and fate entertains in a way hamartia never could.
While we render unto Caesar what is due to Caesar, Caesar renders unto risk what is due to risk. What is due to risk are the entertaining and unintended consequences of “incertain affairs,” “fortune,” “the tide in the affairs of men,” and “hateful Error.” Risk entertains because what they thought would happen did not happen, and in a way they least expected.
The year is 2021. Wonders and signs return. History has arrived at a crossroads between the old and the new, the poetics of the probable and the poetics of risk. On one fork lies Aristotle, hamartia, and didactic theatre. On the other fork lies risk theatre, a magic gateway into the world of clouds, dews, and dangers. At stake is the soul of drama. Whither, Roman, will you choose?
- In an act of dramatic compression, Shakespeare binds three years of events (from Caesar’s triumph over the sons of Pompey in October 45 bc to the festival of the Lupercalia on 15 February and the Battle of Philippi in October 42) tightly around the centrepiece of Caesar’s assassination on 15 March 44 bc.
- In the game of chance known as Pascal’s Wager, Pascal sets the existence of God on a probabilistic footing by arguing for God’s existence based on the expected future value of the belief in God:
Let us examine this point, and say, “God is, or He is not.” But to which side shall we incline? Reason can decide nothing here. There is an infinite chaos which separated us. A game is being played at the extremity of this infinite distance where heads or tails will turn up. What will you wager? According to reason, you can do neither the one thing nor the other; according to reason, you can defend neither of the propositions.…
Let us weigh the gain and the loss in wagering that God is. Let us estimate these two chances. If you gain, you gain all; if you lose, you lose nothing. Wager, then, without hesitation that He is. (81)
For a discussion of the wager—which is more complex than it appears on a first examination— see Hacking 63-72.
- In terms of line numbers, Brutus speaks 738 lines, Cassius 513, Antony 361, and Caesar 155 (King 199).
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___. Lives: Dion and Brutus. Timoleon and Aemilius Paulus. Translated by Bernadotte Perrin, Loeb-Harvard UP, 1918.
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___. Rodin on Art and Artists: Conversations with Paul Gsell. Translated by Romilly Fedden, Dover, 1983.
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___. Julius Caesar. Edited by Arthur Humphreys, The Oxford Shakespeare, 1984.
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Wong, Edwin. “Faces of Chance in Shakespeare’s Tragedies: Othello’s Handkerchief and Macbeth’s Moving Grove.” Critical Insights: Othello, edited by Robert C. Evans, Salem, 2021.
___. The Risk Theatre Model of Tragedy: Gambling, Drama, and the Unexpected. Friesen, 2019.
___. The Risk Theatre Modern Tragedy Playwriting Competition. Risk Theatre, 12 April 2018, https://risktheatre.com. Accessed 18 July 2021.
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Don’t forget me. I’m Edwin Wong and I do Melpomene’s work.
sine audacia nihil