Bryn Mawr Classical Review

BMCR 2019.06.23 on the BMCR blog

Bryn Mawr Classical Review 2019.06.23

Miryana Dimitrova, Julius Caesar's Self-Created Image and Its Dramatic Afterlife. Bloomsbury Academic studies in classical reception.   London:  Bloomsbury Academic, 2017.  Pp. ix, 236.  ISBN 9781474245753.  $114.00.  


Reviewed by Trine Hass, Aarhus University (klftjah@cas.au.dk)

Preview

This book is a revised version of the author’s PhD dissertation. The aim of the book is to demonstrate the influence of Gaius Julius Caesar’s representation of himself in the Commentarii on the representation of Caesar in English drama from the sixteenth through the nineteenth century. For this purpose, Dimitrova first identifies characteristic aspects of Caesar in the Commentarii, as well as in ancient historiography and in Lucan’s De Bello Civile. These characteristics are then traced in a number of English dramas from various periods under various headings. Among these are three still well-known plays; William Shakespeare’s Julius Caesar (1599); Georg Frideric Handel, Giulio Cesare in Egitto (1724) with libretto by Nicolo Haym; George Bernard Shaw, Caesar and Cleopatra (1898); and six plays that have been rather neglected by tradition: Thomas Kyd, Cornelia (1594); the anonymous play Caesar’s Revenge (1590); Sir William Alexander, Julius Caesar (1607); George Chapman, Caesar and Pompey (c. 1605); John Fletcher & Philip Massinger, The False One (c. 1619-20? [sic]); and Jasper Fisher, Fuimus Troes or The True Trojans (1607).

The scope of the examinations is described as broad with reference to the large timespan covered but narrow in the sense that it is structured around three aspects of Caesar’s self-representation: his celeritas and clementia, the relationship between author and character, and Caesar’s self-institutionalization and self-promotion. The book is divided into four chapters: ‘1.’I Am He’: Aspects of Caesar’s Self-Representation in the Commentaries’, ‘2. Efficient Benevolence, the Shadow of Hubris and an Eastern Infatuation’, ‘3. ‘For Always I Am Caesar’: Performative Actualization of Caesar’s Self-Styled Image and Illeism as a Marker of Self- Institutionalization’, and ‘4. Transhistorical and Quasi-Divine: Caesar Connecting the Threads of Time’. Chapter 1 treats the ancient texts. Each of the subsequent chapters analyze all nine plays, as well as additional ancient material. The four chapters are framed by an ‘Introduction’ and an ‘Epilogue’. Hereafter follow notes, references and index.

The methodology of the study is briefly touched upon in the ‘Introduction’ (p. 4). The study is referred to as reception but not qualified theoretically. The author describes two lines of reception of Caesar’s commentaries, a direct and an indirect, the latter of which is defined as ‘the appreciation of the works as an inspiration and a sort of Caesarean repository for themes, imagery and qualities.’ (p. 4). Suetonius, Plutarch, Appian, Cassius Dio and Lucan are mentioned as particularly important indirect receptions. Another line of what might be termed indirect reception, traces of the reception of Caesar’s works in the times of the dramas, is not considered. This could have helped contextualize the works in their times and circumstances which is only in a few cases a part of Dimitrova’s analyses, but would, necessarily, have meant adding even more material.

Dimitrova places her study in a different role than, e.g., Lovascio,1 who looks at intertextuality between plays, and instead of contextualizing extensively, she claims to provide an ‘alternative, ‘Caesarean’ context’ (p. 26), as she considers that the dramatic reception has absorbed characterization that comes from the Commentarii originally but receives full exposure in the plays. The position of her study would have been clearer if these statements had been embedded in a theoretical framework (her language and style are rather compact). This would furthermore have eased comparison of Dimitrova’s study, on a general level, to other reception studies, which it deserves.

The strengths of this book lie especially in the author’s impressive familiarity with her large number of texts, both from antiquity and later periods, and in her close readings. Most often her analyses are convincing, but some may be questioned. To exemplify, the following focuses on chapter 4. In the opening subchapter, Dimitrova ascertains that there are no attempts in Caesar’s works to establish himself as semi-divine, but a clear drive to portray himself as exceptional. Dimitrova finds that a special relationship to temporality is constructed in the works, partly by Caesar’s displaying mercy since this renders him in command of another person’s lifespan, and partly through his celeritas as this enables him to be ahead of his enemies to an almost supernatural degree. The aspirations to reconfigure past, present and future in the Commentarii are similarly seen as ways of controlling time. Relating these aspects to time, however, lacks support – why not to power or self-fashioning? Dimitrova does not find the same use of time as she detects in Caesar’s works in the dramas, but considers that their presentation of Caesar and time is affected by Lucan. She suggests that Lucan, by presenting Caesar as making use of dark rituals (BC 7.168-9), places him in the same category as Pythia and Erichto (presented in books 5 and 6) whose superhuman qualities are interpreted as their ability to experience all time and even to stop and transcend time boundaries (p. 160-1). Although not specified in Lucan’s texts Dimitrova thus considers Caesar as having the same power over time as Pythia and Erichto. She finds that this conception of Caesar is echoed in historiography in two ways: the calendar reform is seen as a way to reconfigure time, and Caesar’s establishing of a divine genealogy is seen as a way of connecting mythological time to Caesar’s present. It does not necessarily seem logical that these should be ‘practical counterparts’ (p. 161) of her understanding of Caesar’s relationship to time in Lucan’s work. However, the calendar reform, which receives more treatment, can surely be understood as management of time and is arguably one of the most visible marks that Caesar left on posterity. While she presents one skeptic of the reading,2 Dimitrova clearly understands the calendar reform as an introduction of new time and thus a display of power used in Caesar’s self-institutionalization. A good argument in favor of this is that the year of Caesar’s four triumphs, 46 BC, became the longest year ever, as two extra months were inserted in order to make everything fit (p. 163). Caesar’s genealogical self-fashioning is considered a way of enhancing his heroic aura and blurring boundaries between mythology, history and his own time. Dimitrova presents the funerary speech for his aunt Julia as a sign that Caesar took every opportunity to advertise himself. His direct use of Venus and indirect comparison to Romulus as pater patriae are understood as measures taken to justify him in people’s minds as ruler of Rome. She further treats Caesar’s comparison of himself to Alexander the Great and interestingly notes, with Ahl,3 that although the two are fused in Lucan, there is no temporal limit for Caesar, as his empire still stood, whereas Alexander’s had disintegrated (p. 165).

I leave out the consideration of how divine lineage is used in Alexander and time in Shakespeare and jump to Chapman, Fletcher & Massinger, Haym/Handel and Shaw who humanize Caesar, while quasi-divinity remains important. Both Fletcher & Massinger and Haym/Handel use the relationship with Cleopatra for this purpose. Dimitrova dwells on how Cleopatra honors Caesar as a god in order to flatter him in Fletcher & Massinger and rightly notes that this might be a topos of political descriptions. However, she believes Caesar to be sincere when he calls Cleopatra’s beauty divine, although this expression too seems rather topical. Dimitrova does not connect the linking of people in power with gods to the close ties between pharaohs and gods in Egyptian religion which may also be at play – if these cases are indeed more than topoi. Regarding temporality, the plays focus on the present, the civil war, but Dimitrova finds that Chapman presumes Caesar’s later progression to supreme power between the lines (p. 180), while Haym/Handel ends without suggesting other than that the couple would live happily ever after.

In Shaw, Dimitrova focuses on the comic subversion of authority obtained by the treatment of Caesar’s aging, presumably taken as another version of Caesar’s relation to temporality. Cleopatra’s youth and Caesar’s age are contrasted, and Mark Antony plays a large role in a reference that, Dimitrova claims, turns him into a younger alter ego of Caesar (p. 182). In the end, Caesar is capable of transcending the effect of age on his body and of succeeding in spite of it. Dimitrova quotes Berst,4 who understands Caesar as ageless and fusing mythical age, temporal age, spiritual maturity and youthful spirit. Then focus shifts to Shaw’s interaction with time, obtained through contemporalization.

In one incident, Caesar is able to narrate an event that has not yet happened, if the historical timeline is transferred to the play (we are told that Shaw is usually loyal to historical chronology, p. 186). Thereby Caesar can transcend time which prompts likening him to Ra and the sphinx as well as to Hegel’s ideas (the latter with Albert,5 Whitman6) and Wagnerite heroes. Dimitrova claims that the position of Caesar as a Hegelian Superman (argued in chapter 2) seems similar to that of a god. She quotes a significant passage of l. 28: ‘I am he of whose genius you are the symbol: part brute, part woman, and part god – nothing of man in me at all’ (p. 188) but immediately hereafter states that Caesar neither feels like a god nor superior to them but different. She still claims that he comes forward as distinctly quasi-divine, particularly through his religious skepticism. One of the arguments is that Caesar sits on a tripod that is an alter to Ra which Dimitrova interprets as presenting Caesar as being above the gods to the Egyptians watching. However, their response is to whisper ‘Sacrilege!’ which may rather indicate that Caesar’s performance is not successful but comes across as barbaric or transgressive. Caesar is clearly challenging traditional attitudes to religion, but does he ‘become a power above the divine’ (p. 188) for those who still abide by it? Dimitrova concludes, with Vesonder,7 that Shaw rather than presenting Caesar as semi-divine relates him to the connotations of semi-divinity by playing with mythological implications. She understands Shaw’s play as an examination of Caesar’s psychology and a re-imagining of his character as well as his motives.

Dimitrova’s treatments of Shakespeare and Shaw are generally longer than the rest, but this last treatment of Shaw stands out as the longest and, in my opinion, most convincing, not least because she here embeds the analyses in Shaw’s contemporary world of ideas.

Dimitrova could have linked further to the historical contexts of the dramas, more systematically compared the dramas and concluded more explicitly. The first we get from time to time in the respective analyses, but not in a synthesized way. Opting out of drawing big lines in this manner means that the study closes slightly around itself. This is seen also in the fact that there is no general conclusion besides the Epilogue in which the stages of the analysis are summarized, and a couple of summative lines at the end of each chapter. This is a pity. However, Dimitrova is a skilled reader who presents an impressive insight into both the scholarly literature on the subjects treated as well as a high degree of familiarity with both her ancient sources and the nine dramas.


Notes:


1.   Lovascio, Domenico 2015. Un Nome, Mille Volti: Giulio Cesare nel teatro inglese della prima eta moderna. Rome: Carocci Editore.
2.  Will, Wolfgang 2008. Veni, Vidi, Vici. Caesar und die Kunst der Selbstdarstellung. Darmstadt: Primus Verlag.
3.   Ahl, Frederick 1976. Lucan: An Introduction. Ithaca & London, NY: Cornell University Press.
4.   Berst, Charles 1973. Bernard Shaw and the Art of Drama. Champaign, IL: University of Illinois Press: 79-81.
5.   Albert, S. 1956. “Bernard Shaw: The Artist as Philosopher.” The journal of Aesthetics and Art Criticism, no. 14 (1): 419-38.
6.   Whitman, Robert 1977. Shaw and the Play of Ideas. Ithaca & London: Cornell University Press.
7.   Vesonder, Timothy 1978. “Shaw’s Caesar and the Mythic Hero.” The Shaw Review, 21 (2): 72-1.

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