Oftentimes powerful men have a tendency to ignore uncomfortable truths in favor of idealized flattery which feeds their self-concept. As a result, their problems compound and the outcomes are grim. Such is the state of affairs in Shakespeare’s well-known political play, Julius Caesar. In arguably the the most pivotal scene of the play, Caesar’s wife, Calphurnia, and one of his closest confidantes, Decius, attempt to persuade him to their respective sides. While Calphurnia pleads with him to stay home from the Senate, Decius dismisses her pleas and urges Caesar to go. Both characters present compelling arguments which sway Caesar to their side; however, when Calphurnia’s dream and the resulting discomfort are dismantled by Decius’s more positive interpretation and additional flattery of Caesar’s ego, Caesar is compelled to leave home, which leads to his death at the hands of the conspirators.
Calphurnia begins her argument with a foreboding dream, containing ghastly, war-like images that catch Caesar’s attention. As the scene opens, she laments, “Fierce fiery warriors fought upon the clouds/ In ranks and squadrons and right form of war,/ Which drizzled blood upon the Capitol;…” (7-9). The fierce fiery warriors of whom she speaks suggest the gods are at war with one another, which is unnatural and should signal to Caesar that something is notedly amiss. Since his power is influenced by the gods, this cosmic disturbance should give Caesar pause. Furthermore, the result of the heavenly disturbance results in casualties and blood shrouding the Capitol, the very symbol of Roman power. Since the Roman Capitol gives rise to Caesar’s power, any sign of its demise should lead him to question his decision to go to a meeting in the very same building. However, instead of heeding this supernatural warning, he dismisses Calphurnia’s fear, answering, “What can be avoided/ Whose end is purposed by the mighty gods” (lines 15-16)? At this refutation, Calphurnia realizes she has to change her tactics, and she responds to his dismissal of her fear by flattering his stature, “When beggars die, there are no comets seen;” (19-20). Again, Caesar dismisses her pleading by claiming he is no coward and that his absence would harm his hard fought reputation in the Senate and the empire. She quickly realizes she is not going to overcome his confidence and courage, and moves to persuade him to stay by blaming his absence on her or a feigned illness, “Call it my fear,…/We’ll send Mark Antony to the Senate House,/ And he shall say you are not well today” (30-32). Calphurnia realizes Caesar will honor Mark Antony’s influence in the Senate and Antony’s stature will be enough to influence the Senate to allow Caesar an absence. At this, Caesar reluctantly agrees to stay home, and Calphurnia takes brief comfort in having detained her husband.
Although Calphurnia succeeds in persuading Caesar to stay, her argument based on discomfort and pleading is short lived when Decius arrives and takes a much more positive approach. While the blood shrouding the Capitol in her dream suggests that Caesar is walking into a trap, Decius takes the blood imagery and flatters Caesar’s influence, “Your statue spouting blood in many pipes,…/ Signifies that from you great Rome shall suck…Reviving blood…” (47-50). Far from being a negative assessment of Caesar’s attendance in the Senate, Decius’s revision implies to Caesar that his very blood is what sustains the empire and will lead to its recovery and continued power. Caesar is an already powerful leader, who is persuaded by Decius’s interpretation because it exaggerates his influence. Decius knows he is addressing a powerful man with a developed sense of pride, and he does not falter in his attempt to build on Caesar’s already burgeoning hubris. With his growing awareness of Caesar’s agreement, he moves to dismiss Calphurnia’s fear by implanting doubt in Caesar, “If you shall send them word you will not come,/ Their minds may change…” (57-58). A change in this particular circumstance would mean Caesar loses the opportunity to become the most powerful man in the world. When this ultimatum is offered to Caesar, he cannot relent to his wife’s fear because the stakes are simply too high. If he stays, he may seem like a coward; if he goes, he may be taking a risk, but the reward is absolute power. Decius firmly persuades Caesar to his side when he adds, “Pardon me, Caesar, for my dear dear love/ To your proceeding bids me tell you this,… (64-65). The combination of positive re-interpretation of Calphurnia’s fears coupled with implanting doubt and playing to Caesar’s best interest– even though Decius plans to lead him to his death–wins the argument. Decius’s positive vision of Rome’s future, dependent on Caesar’s influence, shapes reality in such a fortuitous light that Caesar is willing to take the risk and leave for the Senate.
The key difference between Calphurnia and Decius’s arguments is in their tone. On one hand, Calphurnia uses fear of omens, and a plea for his loyalty to her to attempt to keep Caesar from the Senate. Initially, this is enough because Caesar is inclined to listen to his wife, especially when she is so disturbed by her dreams and other notable disturbances. However, this negativity is quickly defeated when Decius turns Calphurnia’s fear into a positive vision of Rome’s future with Caesar at its helm. This more positive tone, and the confidence Decius uses in delivering it, acknowledges Caesar’s importance to the empire, which weights heavy in comparison to his importance to Calphurnia, a single, albeit important individual. Thus, Calphurnia’s discouragement and fear of her husband’s safety is short-lived and Caesar’s vision of his own ascension to power prevails. Unfortunately, when the needs of the largest, most powerful empire on earth are set against a wife’s pleading, there is no contest. Men will always fall victim to arguments which favor their own self-image and promise growing influence. It is in such instances where skepticism and a healthy sense of doubt should prevail, but where flattery and ego will continue to allow for overly benevolent views of reality.