Crossing the Rubicon

“Julius Caesar and the Crossing of the Rubicon,” Francesco Granacci, 1494

On this date in 49 BC, returning general Julius Caesar crossed the Rubicon into Rome with his army, signalling the start of civil war.

Here’s Frye in Fools of Time with some observations on Shakespeare’s Julius Caesar relevant to the issues of social order, social authority and their relation to demagoguery, which we’ve been considering the last couple of days.  Money quote: “The good leader individualizes his followers; the tyrant or bad leader intensifies mass energy into a mob.”

This [Elizabethan] view of social order, with its stress on the limited, the finite, and the individual, corresponds, as indicated above, to Nietzsche’s Apollonian vision in Greek culture.  That makes it hard for us to understand it.  We ourselves live in a Dionysian society, with mass movements sweeping across it, leaders rising and falling, and constantly taking the risk of being dissolved into a featureless tyranny where all sense of the individual disappears.  We even live on a Dionysian earth, staggering drunkenly around the sun.  The treatment of the citizens in Julius Caesar and Coriolanus puzzles us: we are apt to feel that Shakespeare’s attitude is anti-democratic.  In my own graduate-student days during the nineteen-thirties, there appeared an Orson Welles adaptation of Julius Caesar which required the hero to wear a fascist uniform and pop his eyes like Mussolini, and among students there was a good deal of discussion about whether Shakespeare’s portrayal of, say, Coriolanus showed “fascist tendencies” or not.  But fascism is a disease of democracy: the fascist leader is a demagogue, and a demagogue is precisely what Coriolanus is not.  The demagogues in that play are the tribunes whom the people have chosen as their own managers.  The people in Shakespeare constitute a “Dionysian” energy in society: that is, they represent nothing but a potentiality of response to leadership.  We are apt to assume, like Brutus, that leadership and freedom threaten one another, but, for us as for Shakespeare, there is no freedom without the sense of the individual, and in the tragic vision, at least, the leader or hero is the primary and original individual.  The good leader individualizes his followers; the tyrant or bad leader intensifies mass energy into a mob.  Shakespeare has grasped the ambiguous nature of Dionysus in a way that Nietzsche (like D.H. Lawrence later) misses.  In no period of history does Dionysus have anything to do with freedom; his function is to release us from the burden of freedom.  The last thing that the mob says in both Julius Caesar and Coriolanus is pure Dionysus: “Tear him to pieces.” (18-19)

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