Though some of Shakespeare can be hard to access or seemingly old-fashioned and irrelevant to our needs and concerns today, many of his plays, characters and words are so relevant and applicable to our society that it’s as though Shakespeare was a contemporary writer. His political commentary in particular, the way he understood and criticised power, will remain relevant for centuries to come. This is perhaps most prevalent in Julius Caesar, Shakespeare’s play about power, government and tyranny. In this play, Shakespeare assesses the threat of tyrannical rule and the consequences of rebellion against it.
Through the character Brutus we have one of Shakespeare’s most interesting and well written characters. Brutus is full of internal conflict and indecision about the best actions to take, and how to determine what is right and wrong for the people of Rome. Today’s soliloquy, from Act 2, scene 1 is a fantastic piece for an actor auditioning for theatre or drama school who wishes to demonstrate a command over language and a capacity for high stakes intellectual drama.
As with any soliloquy of Shakespeare’s, in order to perform it we must first understand the context of it. The best way to do this is to take the time to carefully read the play it is from.
Though this play has many complexities due to the amount of characters and the ancient political subject matter, what is at the root of Brutus’ conundrum is actually quite clear and powerfully simple: should he or should he not take action to prevent a man from becoming a tyrant? The way in which he would prevent this is clear: he must decide whether or not it is right to kill caesar. This is not a political assassination he is considering, it is a full blown assassination involving murder, conspiracy and bloodshed.
The context of Brutus’ concern is common to the history of Rome. Rome had seen both successful experiments with democracy, and devastating tyrannical rule, resulting in the deaths of countless Roman citizens. The Roman government had fluctuated over the centuries between a monarchy and a republic and one question always remained: was power best controlled by a single person or a group of people.
In the case of Brutus, he firmly believes that ultimate power given to a single person (in the form of a crown) will corrupt even the most noble and honorable of men. In the case of Julius Caesar, Brutus sees him as a snake about to hatch: a force of tyranny and corruption which must be prevented. Brutus’ conundrum is that by the very nature of prevention of a threat there is currently no threat to behold. Julius Caesar is a good politician who is loved by many. There is no certainty that he will be corrupted by being crowned King, Brutus can only go off his understanding of history and what his gut is telling him.
Let’s read the text:
It must be by his death: and for my part
I know no personal cause to spurn at him
But for the general. He would be crowned:
How that might change his nature, there’s the question.
It is the bright day that brings forth the adder,
And that craves wary walking. Crown him that,
And then I grant we put a sting in him
That at his will he may do danger with.
Th’abuse of greatness is when it disjoins
Remorse from power; and to speak truth of Caesar
I have not known when his affections swayed
More than his reason. 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 upmost round
He then unto the ladder turns his back,
Looks in the clouds, scorning the base degrees
By which he did ascend. So Caesar may.
Then, lest he may, prevent. And since the quarrel
Will bear no colour for the thing he is,
Fashion it thus: that what he is, augmented,
Would run to these and these extremities.
And therefore think him as a serpent’s egg
Which hatched, would as his kind grow mischievous,
And kill him in the shell.
Spurn: Reject, strike, despise
General: General good, the general population. “The people”
Affections: Emotions, empathy
Lowliness: Low status, low class, an upbringing without status or power, potentially in poverty
Upmost round: The highest rung (round) on a ladder
Bear no colour: Dissimilar, the two objects of comparison do not look the same
Augmented: Made greater, more powerful (i.e with the crown)
The only solution is his death.
But for me, I don’t have any reason to attack him but for the general good.
He is going to be crowned King:
How that crown might change him, that’s the issue.
It is the daylight which encourages the snake,
and that means we should walk carefully.
If we crown him King, we will give him power to do terrible and dangerous things.
People abuse greatness when they lose their remorse because of their power
And if I’m honest about Caesar, I have not known a time when his empathy was greater than his logic.
But it is easily proved that low status brings about the birth of ambition,
Making the climber always look skywards until he has reached the top.
Once the climber has reached the top, he only sees great heights of power, and dismisses the lowly class he began at.
This is what Caesar might do. So – incase he does this – I must prevent it.
But since the fight is not actually about what Caesar currently is, consider it this way:
What he currently is, when given a crown, will run to these heights of power and tyranny which I have described.
I must therefore think of him as a snake in an egg, (that, when he hatches he will grow into an evil snake like all snakes are) and kill him in the shell.
What is going on for Brutus in this moment, though it is very political, is also very human. He is concerned with the good of the people, people he has been charged with protecting and governing, but he also has concerns for his soul. In this way he has similarities with Hamlet, a man who has been tasked with taking violent action, but who has also been graced with a moral conscience and understanding of right and wrong.
Contextually too, this soliloquy is intrinsically human. Brutus is sleepless and walking around his garden in the early hours of the morning. It is cold. He is clearly wracked with concern over the decision he must make. All of these factors contribute to the performance of the actor. The emotional experience of Brutus is turbulent. He is sleepless, conflicted and anxious.
When approaching a soliloquy (or any speech or scene), it’s important to identify what is at stake. Declan Donnellan, writer of The Actor and the Target, breaks down the concept of ‘Stakes’ into two parts: “What does my character stand to gain?” and “What does my character stand to lose”. If we apply these questions to Brutus’ situation, Brutus has both the potential to gain the safety and security of the Roman people, and the potential to lose his reputation and untarnished soul. Like many of the characters in Shakespeare, it is one thing to take a life in the heat of battle, but it is another thing entirely to commit cold-blooded murder. This murder will haunt Brutus until the end of his life.
A useful tool for approaching this soliloquy is to consider who it is that you are talking to. The literal answer is no-one, or the audience. Sure. I appreciate that, but would encourage you to dig a little deeper. Who or what is Brutus trying to gain clarity from? Is it a God or a heightened figure? Is it his mind or soul? Whatever it is, it is essential that you (the actor) are speaking these words at something, and playing an objective on something. These words cannot be spoken in isolation, there must always be action, energy and intention.
Even the most powerful figures in history have moments where they feel very small. This is one of those moments. Brutus is in private, and completely daunted by the task he must undertake. This fact is useful and liberating for the actor: you do not need to play the grandeur of a Roman senator: you just need to play a person who has a very difficult decision to make. Invest in and understand the given circumstances so you are best able to weigh up Brutus’ argument, then allow yourself to breathe and find freedom through the words you are speaking. Engage with the imagery of the text – it is vivid and powerful. These words, images and the natural thought progression of the speech will support you wonderfully through your performance.