“Hail Sphinx! Greetings and salutations from Julius Caesar.” That is one of the opening lines from the play Caesar and Cleopatra by George Bernard Shaw. He was a famous English playwright from the 19th and early 20th century. The play is probably best remembered by the 1945 film of the same name starring Claude Rains and Vivien Leigh. The film was a commercial flop and at the time the most expensive movie ever made in England. If was a lavishly designed and extravagantly decorated film. With millions of pounds of sand dumped in the English countryside to create the illusion of the Egyptian Desert. However, that’s not the only illusion that was being created. Shaw intended Caesar to be a God and Cleopatra to be a cruel despot. The truth is they were both a disappointment by any standard. Such is usually the case.
“Part brute, part woman and part God, nothing of man in me at all.” These were the first words spoken by Julius Caesar in his opening scene. Having wondered away from his tent in the middle of the night, thinking he was dreaming, as he stumbled upon the great Sphinx in the desert. There alone in the cold sands of Egypt Caesar talked to the giant stone monument that was half man and half cat and compared his halves to the stoic Cat. Throughout the play Caesar is never angry, he neither seeks glory nor does he in his words, “stoop to vengeance.” Offering clemency and pardoning all those who are his enemies. He never stumbles or miscalculates but instead everything has a “Fox’s reason,” to quote his trusted friend Rufio. In each act Caesar smiles, laughs and outwits those around him. Displaying more God than woman or brute.
His companions do not share his morals or his restraint. Rufio, his trusted friend and an officer in Caesars Army, wants to kill anyone who can be a threat to his master and friend. “As a dog bites out of nature and habit so do I kill, not out of cruelty or malicious intent.” His trusted secretary and slave Britanus is concerned with what is proper. Always encouraging Caesar to take things seriously and informing him that his behavior is not proper. The Proper thing being to find out who his enemies are and kill them so they cannot harm Caesar or his plans. Lastly is Cleopatra. She is found by Caesar at the paws of the Sphinx in the desert. A child who is afraid of everything that becomes crueler with time as he helps here to come into her own. There is nothing sexual or overly romantic about their relationship, instead Shaw chooses it to be one where Caesar dotes over her. Like a father with slight glimpses of romance that she tries to use to her advantage. Cleopatra displays cruelty and brutality at every instance to everyone except the great Caesar who she fears. Like a serpent fears an eagle.
Shaw makes everything he wishes, and perhaps those learned men of the past wished, he was. He is cunning, kind, brilliants, self-deprecating, honest and above all not a mortal man in thought or deed. From cutting off the right hands of the captured Gaul’s at Alesia as a necessary brutality of a statesman for future peace. To letting prisoners escape so as to not tie up two good Romans to forgiving his enemies and offering a place in their service. Caesar is meant to be magnanimous and better than every character in the play. In truth, this was not who Gaius Julius Caesar was at all. He was vain and cruel. A man known to covet titles, power and riches. Whatever good he did was to win him favor so as to benefit himself on his rise to dictator and perhaps even King was his desire. This has been true of ever ruler and leader in history with no real exceptions. From Presidents to Prime Minister, Princes to Popes. Every man man or woman of power has had to make a some form of sacrifice of their person or their character to achieve that power and no matter the good they achieved, it was followed by them desperately clinging to power and living to some degree decadent or depraved.
We are all guilty of hero worship just like Shaw was. We want the great people in history to be just that great. In the end they, regardless of gender or time, are people just like us. Why you or I might be tempted to over indulge in sweets or skip a day at the gym. They might be tempted to murder their rivals and throw feasts while their citizens or subjects starve. The reason the play Caesar and Cleopatra is a great example of this is because the more things change the more they stay the same. What was true in the ancient world is still as true and relevant today. We are all corruptible except the mighty Sphinx who in Caesar own words, “Sphinx, my place is as high as yours in this great desert; only I wander, and you sit still; I conquer, and you endure; I work and wonder, you watch and wait; I look up and am dazzled, look down and am darkened, look round and am puzzled, whilst your eyes never turn from looking out–out of the world.” Power corrupts, absolute power corrupts absolutely. There are no great infallible leaders or ideas in this world. Nor has there ever been. We should never be quick to judge or think ourselves better for our birth, education or perceived righteousness. In the end the world is only a human place filled with humans who want to act as if they change but never the less remain the same.