Comparables between Shakespeare’s Julius Caesar and John Milton’s Paradise Lost

William Shakespeare’s Julius Caesar is a political tragedy that may be appreciated for its parables such as what astuteness operates in the figures that run state politics and how human nature may act when the stakes are upped as well as how character values such as  ‘loyalty’ become the decisive factor that needs to be defined to precision. In the play, Brutus though a conspirator is presented in the light of a tragic-hero who could be applauded for his noble intentions but playing into the plans and aiding power mongers who ultimately plunge Rome in to the chaos of civil war. A curious comparative can be found in the character of Milton’s Lucifer or Satan who too is clearly placed within a polity called ‘heaven.’ Both the characters, Brutus and Satan present an interesting study on betrayal and what makes a rebel or conspirator against a ruler whose power is perceived as ‘supreme’.  William Shakespeare’s Julius Caesar presents how rebellion against what is perceived and presented as possible tyranny culminates to assassination which rings out the moral issue of ‘betrayal’.  John Milton’s Paradise Lost presents perspective of how Satan’s rebellion raises questions that engender issues that have strong political foundations that tie up with perceptions of morality. Parallels between Brutus and Satan may be seen in how both these characters betray the trust placed in them by their superior. While betrayal maybe seen as a definitive quality of a satanic character, it is also noteworthy that Caesar’s great ambition marks another satanic trait, which is seen as the reason to cause ‘the fall’ of Lucifer. William Blissett (1957) in his essay “Caesar and Satan” looks at the Roman ruler from a point of history as well as literary portrayals in works of fiction. Blissett places great emphasis on the tyrannical ambitiousness of Cesar which sought to usurp the ideal of the Roman republic. The ambitiousness of Caesar is pivotal to the plot in Shakespeare’s play which can be seen as the determinant which drives the events that shape the story and its drama.

Caesar’s ambition is a fiery ground of contention with the rhetoric of both Brutus and Mark Antony engaging the debate of whether or not Caesar was ambitious to the extent of subverting the roman republic. At a crucial juncture of the story, Brutus contemplates on the betrayal of is loyalty to Caesar as a friend and is caught in an embittered battle with his own conscience to decide whether Caesar is a tyrant who must be eliminated for the greater good. In Act 2 scene 1 of Julius Caesar Brutus presents a soliloquy in which he says thus-

“I know no personal cause, to spurn at him,

But for the general. He would be crown’d:

How that might change his nature, there’s the question?

It is the bright day, that brings forth the adder,”

While character traits are one line along which the parallel(s) can be drawn, imagery used by Shakespeare in Julius Caesar also resonates biblical schema which maybe seen as thematic relation to the story of Paradise Lost.  The metaphor conjured in the above words of Brutus paints a potent image in terms of “Paradise Lost” and the story of the Garden of Eden. Caesar’s possible ambition which would create a tyrant is likened to an ‘adder’. This serpent image used by Shakespeare shows evil being captured in an image associated with Satan, who took the body of a snake to tempt Eve. Interestingly the character of Satan in “Paradise Lost” refers to Julius Caesar as Blissett’s articles notes.  And Blissett cites Milton’s words on how Caesar is a figure referred to by Satan.

“Great Julius, whom now all the world admires,

The more he grew in years, the more inflam’d

With glory, wept that he had liv’d so long

Inglorious.”

Apart from character traits that may portray Caesar in the light of a supra-human persona, the views of his contemporaries may be seen as ground on which the psyche of the character of Shakespeare’s Caesar may be read through the words of others. The words of Caius Cassius to Brutus, in the course of inciting the latter to join the conspiracy, shows how the idea of godhood is disdained when a man aspires to godly stature of power wielding.

“But ere we could arrive the point propos’d,

Caesar cried, Help me Cassius, or I sink.

I (as Aeneas, our great ancestor, Did from the flames of Troy, upon his shoulder

The old Anchises bear) so, from the waves of the Tiber

Did I the tired Caesar: and his Man,

Is now become a God, and Cassius is a wretched creature, and must bend his body”

(Julius Caesar, Act 1 scene 2)

In the rhetoric of Brutus we find reference to Caesar’s ambition which seeks to affirm the slain ruler’s tyranny and justify the assassination.

“As Caesar lov’d me, I weep for him; as he was fortunate, I rejoice at it; as he was valiant, I honour him: But, as he was ambitious, I slew him. There is tears, for his love: joy, for his fortune: honour, for his valour: and death, for his ambition.”

(Julius Caesar, Act 3 scene 2)

This rhetoric would posit the Satanic quality of ambitiousness in Caesar, and portray tyranny through the figure of the roman dictator. It is noteworthy that Milton’s Satan is also a gifted speaker whose oratory is charismatic, and relies on it to gain support and favour from fellow fallen angels. And the oratorical prowess of Brutus is a means by which popular support is sought for the assassination of Caesar, an act that would be perceived as a wrong.

Joan Webber (1973) in “Milton’s God” states that Satan’s rebellion is incited when God decides to introduce a change in the system of government, which can be seen as the state of affairs in Rome when Caesar was feared of ousting the roman republic to install a system of complete dictatorship. Therefore Brutus, like Satan takes the risk of turning against his superior at a crucial point in the change of polity that would have taken place. Webber also sees that Milton’s God is a dictatorial figure, which would resonate with the autocratic ways Caesar is seen in Julius Caesar.

Critics have likened the act of assassination led by Brutus to be a betrayal of the magnitude of Judas of Christ. And as D.S Brewer (1952) in “Brutus’s crime: A footnote to Julius Caesar” observes there are two views that form the portrayals of the historicized Brutus, that being the medieval one vantage that sees Brutus in an admirable light as a courageous statesman who stood up to the dictatorship of Caesar which began the downfall of Rome, and the renaissance view which sees him as a traitor who most treacherously betrayed his friend and leader. Between these two views Brewer is of the opinion that the latter more accurately depicts the role of Brutus when studying works of fiction.

John Carey in “Milton’s Satan” explicates how the character of Satan is built with traits such as ‘courage’ by Milton. Along such a line of discussion one may say that Brutus’s act of turning against Caesar required great courage. In Act 1 scene 2 of the play Brutus makes known that his participation in the conspiracy is a matter of honour, and that he would place that above his fear of death.

“For let the Gods so speed me, as I love

The name of Honour, more than I fear death.”

(Julius Caesar, Act 1 scene 2)

While there has been debate over whether it is Satan who is the hero of Paradise Lost, Robert L. Jordi (1976) in “Brutus and Hotspur” states- “Critics have long recognized Brutus, not Caesar, as the tragic protagonist of Julius Caesar.” Thereby one may argue that Shakespeare’s Brutus, like Milton’s Satan occupies a position that is both admired and condemned.

The position of Brutus as a ‘tragic hero’ would infer by Shakespearean conceptions that he fell from the position of ‘a great man’ one who is admired and lauded for his honour, to one who is criticized and condemned, and no longer admired. It should be noted that Satan prior to his fall from heaven was God’s chief musician by the name of ‘Lucifer,’ who occupied a position of great privilege.

In terms of attitude a somewhat similar sentiment is expressed by Brutus that echoes Satan’s preference of reigning in hell to serving in paradise. In the course of conversing with Cassius, Brutus when made to see the possibility of living in a city that would be corrupt in autocratic rule, says thus-

“Brutus had rather be a villager,

Than to repute himself a son of Rome

Under these hard conditions, as this time

Is like to lay upon us.”

(Julius Caesar Act 1 scene2)

These words can be seen as redoubtable and steadfast of resolve not to yield to a higher power, which shows how defiance is a character trait in both Satan and Brutus.  The role of the conspirators against Caesar may be likened to Lucifer’s rebellion against God with the other fallen angels. And in “Dante’s Satan and Milton’s Byronic Hero” by Anne Paolucci (1964) reinstates the likeness of Satan and his rebellion in heaven to that of the conspirators against Caesar.

The words of Mark Antony in describing Brutus (in the funeral oration) as “Caesar’s angel” shows a designation of sorts, where Brutus can be seen as a persona who was above the common fray and was to Caesar a figure whose friendship and allegiance was of immense significance. The descriptive designation of Brutus as the ‘angel’ prompts one to query what then was Caesar in such a context?

The character of Caesar if read in the context of his tyrannical and dictatorial ruling, governing, may be likened to Milton’s God who could be criticized as autocratic in his ways of ruling heaven and earth. And the traits of ambition may posit Caesar in the likeness of Satan who demonstrates the villainous usurper type of character. Brutus as a tragic hero may represent a traitor who betrays the sanctity of friendship, and paves way for war and chaos through rebellion against the establishment, by assassinating Caesar.

In such light one may view a host of intriguing comparables evident between the Shakespeare’s play and Milton’s epic poem, and of it one may devise a study on state politics and human nature through works of classical English literature.

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