Ides of March: The Noblest Roman of Them All

This was the noblest Roman of them all:

All the conspirators, save only he,

Did that they did in envy of great Caesar;

He, only in a general honest thought

And common good to all, made one of them.

Mark Antony on Brutus

Julius Caesar, Act 5, Scene 5

(I originally posted this at The American Catholic, and I thought the Roman history and Shakespeare mavens of Almost Chosen People might enjoy it.)

I think it would have amused the Romans of Caesar’s generation if they could have learned that the assassination of Julius Caesar would eventually receive immortality through a play written more than 16 centuries after the event by a barbarian playwright in the Tin Islands that Caesar had briefly invaded.  It would have tickled their well developed concept of the ludicrous, judging from Roman comedy.

The Roman Republic had been visibly dying for generations before Marcus Junius Brutus the Younger was born into this vale of tears in 85 BC, amidst one of the Roman Civil wars that were becoming the new norm, with the Republic awaiting with trepidation the eventual return of Sulla from Greece after he defeated Mithridates, and the slaughters that he would doubtless inflict on his enemies.  This was the world Brutus was born into:  a world in which he was taught the glories of the Republic as a boy, but as he grew into manhood he could see old Roman morality being forgotten, a growth of decadence fueled by ever more wealth from foreign conquests, endless amounts of slaves flooding into Italy from the same foreign conquests, factions in the Senate engaging in what amounted to a cold civil war between bouts of hot civil war, the Roman Republican government teetering on the brink of permanent military dictatorship.

Ironically the man who would establish the permanent military dictatorship, Julius Caesar, was ever his friend and mentor, Caesar being the long time lover of his mother Servilia.  Nevertheless, from his first entry into the Senate, Brutus aligned with the Optimates ” the best”, against the Populares, “the people” .  The names are really beside the point between these two factions.  By the late Republic, political and military power had become one and the same, and pretty wrappers of claims to loyalty to the Republic or to the People usually were merely masks to hide naked ambition.  However, that was not the case with Brutus, who, like his uncle Cato the Younger, was a true idealist who wished to preserve the Republic. (more…)

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Published in: on March 18, 2014 at 5:30 am  Comments (2)  
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A Solid Hollow Crown

 My crown is called content:  A crown it is that seldom kings enjoy.

Words put into the mouth of King Henry VI by Shakespeare in Henry VI, Part 3

(I originally posted this at The American Catholic, and I thought the Shakespeare mavens of Almost Chosen People might enjoying it.  The Henry V episode is being run on October 11.)

I have been greatly enjoying The Hollow Crown BBC presentation of the history plays of Shakespeare.  Henry IV Part Two is on tonight on Great Performances on PBS at 8:00 PM CST and this series concludes with Henry V next week:

Directed by Rupert Goold (Richard II), Richard Eyre (Henry IV, Part 1 and Henry IV, Part 2) and Thea Sharrock (Henry V), The Hollow Crown features some of the most pre-eminent Shakespearean actors of our time. The Kings are played by Ben Whishaw, Jeremy Irons and Tom Hiddleston respectively, supported by a phenomenal cast including Rory Kinnear, Patrick Stewart, David Suchet, David Morrissey in Richard II, Simon Russell Beale, Michelle Dockery, Julie Walters and Maxine Peake in Henry IV and John Hurt, Anton Lesser and Paterson Joseph in Henry V. The plays were filmed on location in England between Summer 2011 and Spring 2012 and are all set in their authentic medieval period. The series premiered to rapturous reviews in the U.K., and was honored with BAFTA Television Awards for Whishaw (Leading Actor) and Simon Russell Beale (Supporting Actor), BAFTA Craft Awards for Original Television Music (Stephen Warbeck) and Sound (Fiction) (Richard II), and an RTS Programme Award for Single Drama (Richard II).

Pippa Harris, who serves as Executive Producer with Co-executive Producer Sam Mendes at Neal Street Productions (makers of Call the Midwife), explains, “The Hollow Crown shows the trials and tribulations and the murderous backdrop behind our own history. Whilst these four plays collectively say so much about Britain, the global appeal of Shakespeare is never-ending. Our phenomenal cast and crew have brought a vivid and inspirational edge to Shakespeare for a worldwide audience.” (more…)

Published in: on October 9, 2013 at 5:30 am  Comments Off on A Solid Hollow Crown  
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597 Years Since Agincourt

The anniversary of the long ago battle of Saint Crispin’s Day gives us yet another opportunity to recall the immortal “Band of Borthers Speech” that Shakespeare put into the mouth of Henry V, a speech that could put fight into a dog dead three days, or, mirabile dictu, even a live Congress Critter:

WESTMORELAND. O that we now had here

    But one ten thousand of those men in England      

That do no work to-day!

  KING. What’s he that wishes so?

    My cousin Westmoreland? No, my fair cousin;      

If we are mark’d to die, we are enow

    To do our country loss; and if to live,

    The fewer men, the greater share of honour.

    God’s will! I pray thee, wish not one man more.

    By Jove, I am not covetous for gold,     

Nor care I who doth feed upon my cost;

    It yearns me not if men my garments wear;

    Such outward things dwell not in my desires.     

But if it be a sin to covet honour,      

I am the most offending soul alive.

    No, faith, my coz, wish not a man from England.      

God’s peace! I would not lose so great an honour

    As one man more methinks would share from me

    For the best hope I have. O, do not wish one more!    

  Rather proclaim it, Westmoreland, through my host,    

  That he which hath no stomach to this fight,      

Let him depart; his passport shall be made,

    And crowns for convoy put into his purse;

    We would not die in that man’s company

    That fears his fellowship to die with us.      

This day is call’d the feast of Crispian.

    He that outlives this day, and comes safe home,

    Will stand a tip-toe when this day is nam’d,

    And rouse him at the name of Crispian.

    He that shall live this day, and see old age,

    Will yearly on the vigil feast his neighbours,

    And say ‘To-morrow is Saint Crispian.’

    Then will he strip his sleeve and show his scars,      

And say ‘These wounds I had on Crispian’s day.’

    Old men forget; yet all shall be forgot,

    But he’ll remember, with advantages,

    What feats he did that day. Then shall our names,

    Familiar in his mouth as household words-     

Harry the King, Bedford and Exeter,

    Warwick and Talbot, Salisbury and Gloucester-

    Be in their flowing cups freshly rememb’red.

    This story shall the good man teach his son;      

And Crispin Crispian shall ne’er go by,

    From this day to the ending of the world,     

But we in it shall be remembered-      

We few, we happy few, we band of brothers;

    For he to-day that sheds his blood with me

    Shall be my brother; be he ne’er so vile,      

This day shall gentle his condition;    

  And gentlemen in England now-a-bed

    Shall think themselves accurs’d they were not here,

    And hold their manhoods cheap whiles any speaks

    That fought with us upon Saint Crispin’s day. (more…)

Published in: on October 25, 2012 at 12:17 pm  Comments (7)  
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Ides of March

(Oringally posted at The American Catholic.  I think the history and Shakespeare mavens of Almost Chosen People will enjoy it.)

This was the noblest Roman of them all:

All the conspirators, save only he,

Did that they did in envy of great Caesar;

He, only in a general honest thought

And common good to all, made one of them.

Mark Antony referring to Brutus in Julius Caesar

I think it would have amused the Romans of Caesar’s generation if they could have learned that the assassination of Julius Caesar would eventually receive immortality through a play written more than 16 centuries after the event by a barbarian playwright in the Tin Islands that Caesar had briefly invaded.  It would have tickled their well developed concept of the ludicrous, judging from Roman comedy. (more…)

Published in: on March 25, 2012 at 5:30 am  Comments (7)  
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Coriolanus

(I origninally posted this at The American Catholic.  I assume that the history mavens of Almost Chosen People will not mind a one day detour into Roman history.)

 

 

Though the great houses love us not, we own, to do them right,

That the great houses, all save one, have borne them well in fight.

Still Caius of Corioli, his triumphs and his wrongs,

His vengeance and his mercy, live in our camp-fire songs.

Thomas Babbington Macaulay

The above film is being released on December 2, 2011 here in the US, and I am greatly looking forward to it.  Coriolanus is one of Shakespeare’s plays that is not performed as regularly as other plays of the Bard, which is a shame, because it is a powerful play about love and hate.  Gnaeus Marcius is a Roman patrician who fought in Rome’s wars shortly after the expulsion from Rome of the last of the Tarquin Kings and the foundation of the Roman Republic, conventionally dated at 508 BC.  Our ancient sources in regard to his career are plentiful, including Dionysius of Halicarnassus, Livy, Appian and Plutarch.  Unfortunately these writers wrote 450-600 years after the time of Coriolanus, and early Roman history is almost impossible to distinguish myth from fact. (more…)

Published in: on August 26, 2011 at 5:30 am  Comments Off on Coriolanus  
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Henry V, Shakespeare and Just War

(Off topic.  I originally posted this on The American Catholic, and I thought our Almost Chosen People readers would enjoy it.)

In the comments to  my post last week, Henry V Times Four, which may be viewed here, and which had four versions of the immortal “band of brothers” speech, commenter Centinel posed a very interesting question to me:

Mr. McClarey,

I’ve come to respect your knowledge of history and your insights. I just wanted to get your honest opinion on oneissue. As I understand it, Catholic doctrine would say that wars of aggression are not justified (most of the time). Though I enjoy Shakespeare’s plays, it bothers me that Henry V was fighting a war of aggression – hence, an unjust war.

From Henry V’s point of view, the war was about his (legitimate?) claim to the French throne. But from the point of view of the French peasantry, whichever dynasty sat on the French thronedid not really make any difference in their lives. They were merely caught in the middle; the longer the war lasted, the greater the collateral damage to French civilians. Besides, Henry V already had the Kingdom of England. Hence, it was just pure greed driving Henry V to claim the French throne.

I would appreciate your opinion on this.

My response:

Centinel thank you for very kind words and for inspiring a forthcoming post! The more I thought about your question the more complicated my answer became and only a post length reply, which I will attempt to do in the next week, will do it justice. The short answer is that Henry V, by the just war analysis of his day, had a defensible claim to be fighting a just war, while under the just war analysis of our day his war would be unjust. However, there is much more to say than that, and I will attempt to do this intriguing question justice in my forthcoming post.

In answering the question we must first examine how the formulation of the Just War doctrine has changed from the time of Henry V to our time. (more…)

Published in: on March 31, 2011 at 5:30 am  Comments (1)  
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Henry V Times Four

Americans in the Nineteenth Century liked to be entertained just as much as their descendants do.  One of their favorite forms of entertainment was the plays of Shakespeare.  Amateur performances and traveling troupes of actors and actresses would normally play to packed houses whenever a Shakespeare play was presented.  Illiterate men and women not uncommonly would have memorized lines from Shakespeare, and the literate peppered their letters with quotations from the Bard.  The family of Junius Brutus Booth specialized in bringing Shakespeare to the entire nation, including the wildest mining camps of the old West.  After Lincoln was murdered by John Wilkes Booth, his brother Edwin, a fervent supporter of the Union and Lincoln and who saved Robert Lincoln’s life a few months before his brother took the life of Lincoln’s father, battled for years to overcome the shame of his brother’s crime as depicted in this episode of the Sixties western Branded.

Of course all this merely an excuse for me to post the Henry V video!   I have always loved this speech, and one video containing four perormances of the “band of brothers” speech from Henry V is too sweet not to share with our readers.  Courage, memory and love are powerful motivators, and this speech is a reminder of just how powerful: (more…)

Published in: on March 8, 2011 at 5:30 am  Comments (1)  
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