Note: This is the second of a two-part series on some thoughts I had after reading the play Julius Caesar. You can read the first part here. Slate’s Lend Me Your Ears podcast has an excellent episode that looks at the play from a modern context and that helped me gain some valuable perspective on this famous piece of literature. I would highly recommend listening to it if you have read the play.
Julius Caesar is a tragedy. Characters exhibit flaws and make choices that lead to terrible consequences. It is easy to feel sorry for Caesar, who gets stabbed by his good friend, or Brutus, whose misplaced idealism comes back to haunt him (quite literally at that). But the individual I felt sorry for the most was one who had a bit part role, the poet Cinna.
In the aftermath of Mark Antony’s incendiary speech, the Romans go berserk, searching for the men who murdered Caesar. They come upon Cinna on the street and kill him because his namesake was one of the conspirators. The scene is short but shocking, but with a tinge of black humour when the crowd realises they have the wrong man but kill him regardless, justifying their action on the basis of his supposedly bad verses.
I have two thoughts on this little episode.
One, it best showcases Shakespeare’s cynicism about human reason that I touched upon in my previous post. If it was not clear already, this scene shows just how vacuous a crowd can be. The broader implications this has on a democracy and a republic cannot be ignored.
Two, it asks questions about Antony’s role in Cinna’s death. Yes, he could claim he had no intention and that Cinna’s death was an unfortunate case of collateral damage. But he was aware of the crowd’s nature and knew exactly what buttons to push to get them riled up. Shouldn’t he then bear some responsibility for his words? Or does the blame lie solely on the crowd even though their capacity to reason is stunted? These questions act as a precursor to a conversation about hate speech and how best one can prevent it while still preserving a right to free speech. That we are still having this conversation centuries after Shakespeare wrote the play shows just how vexing a problem it is.