Interpretation of Pride and Political Rebellion in Shakespeare’s Plays (Julius Caesar, Antony and Cleopatra, Coriolanus)

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Pride and Political Rebellion

While many of Shakespeare’s works use politics and rebellion to conjure tension, pride creates political rebellion by alienating characters in the following three plays: Julius Caesar, Antony and Cleopatra, and Coriolanus. Pride causes a character to focus inwardly and view oneself as superior to the other characters in the play despite all reasoning or rank. While characters react to pride in a variety manners and situations, every character who struggles with pride ultimately creates tension with those around.

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In Julius Caesar, the title character states that he fears Cassius because “he thinks too much” (1.2.195-196). Caesar fears Cassius because his intelligence threatens Caesar. This fear of losing power reappears throughout the plays selected for this essay and subtly illustrates how pride can move an individual to drastic measures. Caesar fears losing his position of power because he feels as though he deserves it due to his superiority. Some may argue that Julius Caesar does not struggle with pride or a thirst for power because he rejects the crown three times (1.2.228-230). However, one could also argue that Caesar refused the crown knowing that the senate would offer it to him again. This way Caesar looked honorable in front of his future subjects.

One can see Julius Caesar’s pride intervene with decisions when he refuses to stay home or feign an illness to avoid going to the capitol for the sake of superstition (2.2.50-69). One sees the influence of his pride again when he refuses to readmit an exiled citizen into Rome because he needs to save face and be as “constant as the northern star” (3.1.65-70). This, of course, comes just before his murder. This man’s pride does not create the political rebellion directly, but it antagonizes the conspirators who envy him.

Cassius in particular struggles with pride both before and after the murder of Julius Caesar. He confesses to Brutus that he could not worship an inferior man. He would rather die instead (1.2.95-98). Even after Cassius has Caesar killed, he feels threatened by Antony, a friend of Caesar and wishes to murder as well (3.1.105). Cassius was willing to go as far as killing an innocent man to keep his potential power because he felt that he deserved the position more than Antony deserved to live.

Within the play, Antony’s character contrasts Cassius in that he does not act out of pride. Ultimately, he continues to live when the conspirators die. Antony works humbly within the existent systems of power rather than trying to create a new system. Through reverse psychology, he begs that the conspirators not kill him after they have killed his friend, Julius Caesar (3.1.67). Antony only asks for permission to speak at the funeral and accepts the condition that he must not speak ill of the conspirators (3.1.238-242). Antony even submits to Octavius and calls him “Caesar” which encourages Octavius to adopt Antony’s battle plan (5.1.24). While Julius Caesar illustrates how pride can manifest itself in the pursuit of power, pride also causes characters to act differently.

Antony in Antony and Cleopatra lets his pride take advantage of him, which prevents him from serving Rome to his fullest capacity. Even lowly soldiers on guard duty know that Antony should spend his time in Rome rather than abroad (1.1.1-10). The play opens describing how he has let himself fall madly in “love” with Cleopatra. If he had not let his pride interfere with his sense of civil duty, he would not have let himself get carried away with his Orientalist fantasies of exotic women. Sadly, Cleopatra faces a stronger challenge with her pride. Cleopatra views herself so highly that she feels the need for excessive amounts of attention which tempt Antony away from Rome. Her vanity causes her to send out servants to call Antony so she can pretend to faint in front of him (1.3.3-17). She even assumes that Antony will cheat on his wife for her simply because his new bride does not live up to Cleopatra’s beauty according to her own servants (3.3.9-42). Because Antony and Cleopatra have preoccupied themselves with one another and left Rome in the hands of the other two members of the triumvirate, Octavius decides Antony should no longer hold his position (3.6.1-11).

While Cassius, Caesar, Antony, and Cleopatra all struggle with pride, Coriolanus easily faces a tougher challenge against himself. His pride almost serves as the entire point of tension in Coriolanus. Coriolanus makes his first appearance in the play to swear at the lowly plebeians who simply want more representation in their government. Instead of treating them with respect, Coriolanus considers himself far too superior to hold a discussion with the peasants (1.1.165-192). But Coriolanus does not only look down on the poor. He also curses his men in the heat of battle for being driven back by the enemy (1.4.29-42). After the battle, Coriolanus does not take any spoils of war because the people have paid him enough by stroking his ego (1.9.36-40). He attempts to have the senate overlook the formality of asking the public to elect him to a position of leadership because he feels he entitled to the position regardless of how the common people view him (2.2.139-143). Despite his position as a servant to the people of Rome, Coriolanus leaves the city after refusing to conform to the mob’s expectations of him (3.2.1-6). He then joins the enemy to fight against his home city (4.4.23-26) until his mother convinces him that both Romans and the Volscians would suffer from combat (5.3.131-150). Now that Coriolanus can avoid a fight without sacrificing his pride, he does so. If he fought Rome after hearing the pleas of his wife and mother, he would have dishonored himself. But because he could show mercy, he does not hand off power to someone else as he would if he succumbed to the wishes of the plebeians.

While Coriolanus took a long path to resolve the issue of political rebellion, the simple and probably most overlooked solution to the question of political rebellion is to do away with a political system altogether. Within any system of power, a hierarchy of power arises. Human nature will create envy of those not at the top of said hierarchy and pride for those content in oppressing those beneath them. While it may seem that Shakespeare rejects this notion with the negative outcome in Coriolanus initiated by giving the plebeians some measure of power, one must also remember that Shakespeare did not write in a closed environment but had to remain aware of his audience. He could not give the audience a positive example of the common people exercising power rather than delegating it to a parliament or trusting in the divine right of kings. Those in power could accuse the bard of treason in order to censor his work to prevent a political uprising.

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