Louis Butelli on Cassius’ Philosophy (Part I of II)

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Stranger, here you will do well to tarry; here our highest good is pleasure

                                                -Inscription over the gate to Epicurus’s Garden

Playing at the Folger, 10/28-12/7. Pictured: Maurice Jones as Mark Antony. Photo by James Kegley.

Playing at the Folger, 10/28-12/7. Pictured: Maurice Jones as Mark Antony. Photo by James Kegley.

Hello again from your friend Louis Butelli. Last time I told you what it was like to play Cassius at the Folger Theatre 14 years ago. This time, I’ll give you a glimpse into some of my preparations for this year’s production (beginning performances on October 28).

Recently, I joined a team of actors at Omega Studios in Rockville, MD to record the complete text of Julius Caesar for the Folger Audio Editions. The recording will be available through the Folger Luminary App, as well as on CD through Simon and Schuster audio.

In reading Cassius for the project, I was struck again by his line in Act V, scene 1. In speaking to Messala about the omen he has seen, Cassius says, “you know that I hold Epicurus dear and his opinion: now I change my mind.”

Cassius’s “Epicureanism” has been much discussed by scholars and lovers of the play. My suspicion is that for most 2014 folks, the idea of an “epicure” has come to mean something along the lines of “hedonist,” or even “glutton.” But what does it really mean? Are there any clues there for me, as I desperately try to find a hook upon which to hang Cassius’s hat?

I encourage you to visit epicurus.net for a pretty thorough run-down of all things Epicurean. What I want to know is how does this apply to Shakespeare’s Cassius?

Epicurus

Epicurus

Epicurus suggests that the universe is comprised only of atoms (the tiniest particle of a thing, or that which is “uncuttable”) and void (the empty space through which atoms move). He further believes that atoms, by virtue of having “weight” and “swerve,” can collide and interact with each other, thus forming compound bodies of ever-increasing complexity and size.

These compound bodies, Epicurus believes, have both sensible qualities (perceivable by humans, such as “sweetness,” or “heat,” etc.) and mechanistic qualities (thunderstorms, earthquakes, fire, etc.). These collisions, and the resulting compound bodies, are only ever transitory. They are here for the moment and then they dissolve into the void, only to collide and then dissolve again. Not unlike the theater itself.

In this view of the cosmos, there is very little room for the sorts of gods who involve themselves in human affairs. If there are gods, they do not care for us. Rather, they live in the void and concern themselves, as should we, Epicurus believes, with tranquility, pleasure and the absence of pain.

As follows, there is even less room for earthly tyrants. Here, on first principles according to an Epicurean such as Cassius, Caesar simply should not be.

Join me again for PART II of this post next week to continue the conversation. I’ll be discussing friendship and how Cassius’ philosophy influences his relationships.

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