Recently, I realized that my sister Erika has something in common with Marcus Brutus, murderer of Julius Caesar (the man) and star of Julius Caesar (the Shakespeare tragedy).
(Near the top of my list of “fun things to do on my blog” is to compare my twin sister to a character in a play she hates…while she’s busy being a camp director and won’t see it. Heh heh.)
For those of you running over the basic plot points right now to guess what I mean, I’m going to rule out at least one: my sister has never, to my knowledge, led a conspiracy to stab a political leader. (I mean, you never know, but it’s unlikely.)
She did, however, tell me about the importance of names.
In college, when I thought I hated kids but accidentally signed up for children’s ministry (loooooong story), one of the best tips Erika gave me was: “Learn their names. All of them, even the ones who aren’t in your group.”
Why? Well, partly so you can call them out when they’re about to dump a bag of slime in someone else’s hair. But also because using names communicates to people that they are valuable. Important. Worth knowing as individuals. Even kids can pick up on that, and while I’m not as good at associating names and faces as my sister is, I always try to make an effort.
So did Marcus Brutus.
(Summary of the plot for those of you not required to read this one in high school: Julius Caesar, who may or may not have been on the path to dictatorship, ignores several direct warnings of his impending doom. Brutus, his friend, and Cassius, definitely not his friend, lead a group of conspirators to murder him. Mark Antony pretends to side with the conspirators…and then turns the tide of public opinion and fights against them. Lots of angst and death and a few women being sensible one minute and then abruptly crazy.)
When watching a production of Julius Caesar recently, what caught me was how deliberate Shakespeare was in having Brutus call people by name. Every minor character on his side is given the dignity of an identity and usually an accompanying adjective of praise—mighty, honorable, most noble, etc.—embodying the ideals of the Roman republic that Brutus said motivated his choice to kill Caesar.
Whereas Mark Antony, the loyalist and alleged hero of the story…not so much. Antony speaks to faceless masses, which is fine when he’s addressing (*cough*blatantly manipulating*cough*) the townspeople, but it continues into his relationships with his subordinates and even at times his inner circle. When he does speak the names of others, it’s not usually in a positive way, like when he trashes co-leader Lepidus as soon as the guy leaves the room.
Need more proof? There are several scenes where Brutus not only refers to his servant, Lucius, by name, but strives to be kind to and look after him. Whereas when Antony needs something from his servant, he hollers, “How now, fellow!”
Brutus is able to call in Varro and Claudius, his guards, to ask a favor of them. Antony addresses his underlings as a mass and even Shakespeare identifies them as Soldiers 1, 2, and 3.
Brutus goes around in a circle to greet and charge each conspirator individually. Whereas Antony’s most famous scene is his speech to a group of nameless, numbered citizens.
It’s possible there was a structural reason for this that has nothing to do with Shakespeare’s portrayal of either man—maybe the characters in Brutus’ scenes are named because they appear more than once and keeping them anonymous might confuse the audience, or maybe Antony addresses everyone generically because his scenes are almost always shorter.
I just can’t think Shakespeare made such a strong contrast between his two main characters accidentally.
Intentional or not, one of the effects, I think, is that audiences are able to see Brutus outright stab his friend and leader onstage…and still relate to him, feel his grief and moral conflict, and believe Antony’s pronouncement that Brutus was “the noblest Roman of them all.” Why? Because Brutus acts in ways that are consistent with the code of ethics he talks about.
Which made me think: do all of the tiny actions of my life back up the broad, sweeping claims I make about what I believe? Specifically, if I say that people are made in the image of God and are of infinite worth and value…how do I treat the people I interact with every day? Not just my friends and family, but the characters playing walk-on roles in my life (and starring roles in their own), the ones who I might never see again or who can’t give me anything in return or who won’t be around for long?
It’s worth thinking about. Can we know all of them by name? No. But we can treat them like they matter so that our words and actions are consistent, just like Brutus.
(And also don’t assassinate anyone. Let’s not take this imitation thing too far.)