Sunday, December 29, 2019

2019 Back to the Classics Wrap Up

Here are the eleven books I was able to read and review this year for the 2019 Back to the Classics Challenge hosted by Karen K at Books and Chocolate:

20th Century Classic - Farmer Boy by Laura Ingalls Wilder.

Classic by a Woman Author - Excellent Women by Barbara Pym

Classic in Translation - The Wreath by Sigrid Undset.

Classic Comedy  - The Code of the Woosters by P. G Wodehouse

Classic Tragic Novel - Lord Jim by Joseph Conrad

Very Long Classic - The Adventures of Augie Marsh by Saul Bellow

Classic Novella - A Christmas Carol by Charles Dickens

Classic from the Americas or Caribbean - Appointment in Samarra by John O'Hara

Classic from Africa, Asia or Oceania - The Good Earth by Pearl Buck

Classic from a Place You've Lived - A Tree Grows in Brooklyn by Betty Smith

A Classic Play - Julius Caesar by William Shakespeare

For the 19th century classic category I chose The Way We Live Now by Anthony Trollope.  I finished the book a few days ago but with the end of the year approaching  I didn't have enough time to compose my thoughts and write a review that would do justice to this great novel and it is great.  Fortunately two of my blogging friends, Brian at Babbling Books and Ruthiella at Booked for Life (please see links to their excellent websites under blogs I follow) have reviewed The Way We Live Now and I urge people to check out their insightful comments..  This is my first time reading Trollope.  It won't be my last!

Monday, December 2, 2019

Julius Caesar by William Shakespeare

I first read Julius Caesar by William Shakespeare during my sophmore year of high school.  Our teacher, Mrs. Jensen, did a wonderful job walking us through the play line by line.  But after all these years I would probably have been somewhat lost trying to reread this classic play if it weren't for the Shakespeare Made Easy series.  They give you both the original and modern versions of Julius Caesar.  I read both and it made all the difference. What I quote below of course will be the original Shakespeare.

Julius Caesar is set in 44 BC.  The play opens on the streets of Rome where two tribunes, Flaius and Marullus, are trying to break up a crowd.  They come upon a carpenter and a cobbler and the cobbler tells them that the crowd has gathered because today is a holiday.  Caesar has defeated Pompey (a rival Roman general) and is returning to Rome a hero and the crowd is there to cheer him on as he enters the city.  This infuriates Marullus who is no fan of Caesar:

"Marullus You blocks, you stones, you worse than senseless things!
                       O you hard hearts, you cruel men of Rome,
                       Knew you not Pompey?  Many a time and oft
                       Have you climb'd up to walls and battlements, 
                       To towers and windows, yea, to chimney-tops, 
                       Your infants in your arms, and there have sat
                       The livelong day, with patient expectation,
                       To see great Pompey pass the streets of Rome 
                       And do you now cull out a holiday?
                       And do you now strew flowers in his way,
                       That comes in triumph over Pompey's blood?  
                       Be gone!"

The next scene is a public space where many have gathered to celebrate the Feast of Lupercalia.  The four major characters in this drama are there as well, Julius Caesar, Marcus Brutus, Cassius and Marcus Antonius.  A soothsayer comes up to Caesar famously warning him to "Beware the ides of March".  

Caesar dismisses the soothsayer as a dreamer but then we are introduced to Brutus and Cassius, both of whom are Roman Senators.  Brutus looks worried and Cassius asks why?  It turns out that though Brutus loves Caesar he also fears his ambition.  Caesar is amassing more and more power and Brutus worries that Rome is heading toward one man rule where the rights of ordinary citizens will be gone.

Cassius is unhappy with Caesar as well but with Cassius it's about envy.  He tells Brutus that years ago he rescued Caesar from drowning and Caesar as Cassius sees it behaved shamefully by calling out to Cassius for help.  Now Caesar is about to be crowned and Cassius is furious:

Cassius: Why man, he doth bestride the narrow world?
                  Like a Colossus, and we petty men
                  Walk under his huge legs, and peep about 
                  To find ourselves dishonorable graves
                  Men at some point are masters of their fates
                  The fault dear Brutus is not in our stars,
                  But in ourselves, that we are underlings"

Cassius along with other Roman politicians are conspiring to murder Caesar and they convince Brutus to join them.  The night before his murder Caesar's wife Calpurnia has a dream and begs her husband not to go to the Senate that day but Caesar says he must go.  Caesar heads to the Senate House where the conspirators, including Brutus, stab Caesar repeatedly.  Caesar dies and the city of Rome is in an uproar.  They want the men who killed Caesar to hang but Brutus addresses the crowd with a pwerful and moving eulogy telling them that it was "Not that I loved Caesar less, but that I loved  Rome more."  

The crowd is ready to hail Brutus and the other conspirators as the saviors of Rome for putting an end to Caesar's reign.  But then Marc Antony, a great general and loyal friend of Caesar, takes the podium.  Antony is a much more powerful orator than Brutus.  He also recognizes that Brutus having swung the crowd to his side he cannot straightforwardly disparage Brutus, calling him a traitor and a murderer.  So instead Antony begins one of the most famous passages in literature:

Antony - Friends, Romans, countrymen, lend me your ears;
                  I come to bury Caesar, not to praise him
                  The evil that men do, lives after them, 
                  The good is oft interred with their bones, 
                  So let it be with Caesar.  

But then Antony goes on to both praise Caesar's bravery, his goodness, his genorosity to the people of Rome and how it must have tore at Caesar's heart when Brutus delivered the fatal blow.   Not that the crowd should blame Brutus, Antony hastens to add "For Brutus is an honourable man".  But by the time Antony finishes his speech, Brutus, Casius, and the other conspirators have to flee the city for their lives. They form an army to take on Antony and his men but they are no match and seeing no way out, Cassius comitts suicide and Brutus does as well, asking one of his soldiers to hold his sword while Brutus runs into it, thus ending his life.

It's a brilliant play and a political one in which many issues are addressed, honor, friendship, envy, loyalty, ambition and the fickle nature of crowds and how they can be with you one day and cheering your successor the next. And sometimes the crowd can be swayed by a powerful orator such as Marc Antony who turns the crowd against Brutus with one speech. 

Back in high school the character I felt the most empathy for was Brutus and that's still true because as Antony acknowledges at the end of the play, Brutus' concern, unlike Cassius and the others, was for Rome and preserving the rights of his fellow citizens and he feared Caesar once crowned would seize all power for himself.  Brutus had a blindspot though where Cassius was concerned and assumed that Cassius was motivated by honor and a sense of duty, which he was not.  Also would Caesar have made such a terrible leader if he had lived?  But to know more I would have to read up on Roman history.  In the meantime I am grateful to Mrs. Jensen for assigning Julius Caesar to our high school class and grateful to Shakespeare Made Easy so I could enjoy rereading it after all these years..

Julius Caesar fulfills the category - choose a classic play - for the 2019 Back to the Classics Challenge.