Tuesday, May 26, 2009

Pardon me, thou bleeding piece of earth

O, pardon me, thou bleeding piece of earth,
That I am meek and gentle with these butchers!
Thou art the ruins of the noblest man
That ever lived in the tide of times.
Woe to the hand that shed this costly blood!
Over thy wounds now do I prophesy,
--- Which, like dumb mouths, do ope their ruby lips,
To beg the voice and utterance of my tongue ---
A curse shall light upon the limbs of men;
Domestic fury and fierce civil strife
Shall cumber all the parts of Italy;
Blood and destruction shall be so in use
And dreadful objects so familiar
That mothers shall but smile when they behold
Their infants quarter'd with the hands of war;
All pity choked with custom of fell deeds:
And Caesar's spirit, ranging for revenge,
With Ate by his side come hot from hell,
Shall in these confines with a monarch's voice
Cry 'Havoc,' and let slip the dogs of war;
That this foul deed shall smell above the earth
With carrion men, groaning for burial.

William Shakespeare


This brief extract from Shakespeare's play Julius Caesar Act III, Scene I demonstrates his extraordinary talent for coining phrases which have passed into idiom – in a mere 20 lines there are 'the tide of times', 'hot from hell' and 'the dogs of war'

Julius Caesar was the first play performed at the Globe Theatre and tells about the perils and pitfalls of ambition, jealousy, power, as well as the forfeiting for the greater good - even if it is another's life. The scene takes place in ancient Rome in 44 B.C., the empire stretched from Britain to North Africa and from Persia to Spain.

As the empire grew, so did dangerous elements that threatened its survival. Rome suffered from continuous power struggles amid ruthless military leaders and the far weaker senators to whom they purportedly owed allegiance. The region also endured a sharp division among citizens, who were represented in the senate, as more and more of the plebeian masses were left out. A progression of men sought to be the absolute ruler of Rome, but only Julius Caesar seemed likely to achieve this status.

Afraid that Caesar's rule would lead to enslavement many Roman citizens favored a more democratic rule by one of their own. As a result, a group came together and hatched a plot to assassinate Caesar. Only Brutus among the tragedy's traitors fully believed in the assassination of Caesar for the greater good of the Republic. Mark Antony makes no blunder; remains unconvinced that the conspirators are warranted in crying "peace". He condemns the executioners for their deeds. Just preceding his elegy Antony has made a pretense in joining them when he says:

"Let each man render me his bloody hand." (3.1.185).

Actually marking them, he calls them by name and shakes hands with each of the conspirators. The final hand he takes is that of Trebonius, who in fact didn't partake in the murder since he was diverting Mark Antony at the time, but even so merits marking. Antony's hands, now bloody from touching the other mens' hands, provides the blood of Caesar on Trebonius as well.

Antony is anarchy personified at this staining them with Caesar's blood, highlighting the culpability of the conspirators. Chaos erupts slowly when Antony is at last left alone with his fallen comrade vowing to seek revenge on Brutus and his cohorts by launching a civil war. Caesar's sole faithful friend has just made his peace with Caesar's assassins Brutus, Cassius et al. And begins this speech over the corpse of his slain friend. By beginning with 'Pardon me'; his words make clear, he has already resolved to take revenge.

The assassination failed to put an end to the power struggles dividing the empire and history tells us that Antony's bloodthirsty lexis was indeed prophetic: for the next decade, the Rome Empire was overrun by a succession of civil wars; finally ending with the ascension of Caesar's nephew Octavius (later known as Augustus).

The first authoritative text appeared in the 1623 First Folio edition. Shakespeare employs a suggestion of under handed treachery where he says Até shall "cry havock! and let slip the dogs of war." The line " With Ate by his side come hot from hell;" refers to the goddess of mischief and vengeance Ate who took shelter among the sons of men after she was driven out of heaven.

Two lines later: "Cry 'Havoc,' and let slip the dogs of war;" the author brings into play an early military cry "havock" meaning to begin a general massacre without quarter. Havock or to wreak havoc means " to cause confusion and possibly death to one's enemies." The expression started out as "Cry Havock" an ancient military cry derived from the Old French "havot" meaning "plunder". Very common in the 14th and 15th centuries and some say that the phrase likely began as a shout in hunting wild beasts like lions and wolves that were attacking herds of sheep in the night. The Welsh word is hafog meaning devastation; Irish use a similar sounding term, arvach both of which can be compared to the Anglo-Saxon havoc describing a hawk. By the ninth year of Richad II this cry was forbidden "on the pain of death" Another etymological source describes the phrase as "derived from the Old French 'crier havoc' – to send out the signal to begin pillaging." Latter-day usage of 'cry havot' follows Shakespeare in the figurative sense of 'call down destruction.'

As a dramatic verse the poem possesses a measured intensification of passion and tenor, beginning with the restrained and sorrowing 'Pardon me' to the heraldic rage in 'And Caesar's spirit...' at the end - as Antony's thoughts run higher, phrases become more forceful and the images used become a composite commanding chorus --by the end of the speech, one feels almost sorry for Brutus and his co-conspirators.

Shakespeare's colleagues, were well acquainted with ancient Greek and Roman history, many probably saw the similarities between Julius Caesar's portrayal of the change from republican to imperial Rome alongside the Elizabethan era's movement in the direction of a merging monarchal control. The phrase 'Cry Havoc!,' also reappears in King John. Queen Elizabeth I had sat on the throne for almost 4 decades when the play was initially performed in 1599. By then her monarchy had grown at the expense of the nobility and the House of Commons. Sixty-six years old, her sovereignty seemed likely to end soon, yet she lacked any heirs; as did Julius Caesar. Her death, many feared, would thrust England into the type of anarchy that had beleaguered England during the 15th century Wars of the Roses. In an era when censorship restricted direct commentary on these uncertainties, Shakespeare could, all the same, use the story of Caesar to remark upon the political situation of his day.

Sources:

Brewer's Dictionary of Phrase and Fable

Brush Up on Your Shakespeare! By Michael Macrone (Gramercy Books, New York, 1999).

ClassicNote on The Tragedy of Julius Caesar

Public domain text taken from The Wondering Minstrels

SparkNotes: Julius Caesar

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