Shortly after Caesar’s assassination, Brutus gives Marc Antony permission to speak at Caesar’s funeral. Then, for a moment, Antony is left alone with the mutilated body. He speaks to the “bleeding piece of earth”—i.e., Caesar’s corpse. And he apologies for appearing “meek and gentle with these butchers”—i.e., Caesar’s assassins. He then prophesizes bad times ahead:
Domestic fury and fierce civil strife
Shall cumber all the parts of Italy;
Blood and destruction shall be so in use
And dreadful objects so familiar
That mothers shall but smile when they beholdTheir infants quarter'd with the hands of war[.]
Antony predicts that “Caesar's spirit” will come looking for revenge, and Caesar will obtain it by “cry[ing] ‘Havoc,’ and let[ting] sip the dogs of war.” [III.2]
Those watching a performance of Julius Caesar—when it debuted and now—would already know what was going to happen soon after Antony says “let slip the dogs of war.” After the funeral, Antony would join up with the young Octavius—at least for a time—and start a civil war to gain dominion over Rome. Later still, Antony would join up with Cleopatra to wage an even bigger war in pursuit of an even bigger empire over which he hoped to rule. In other words, when Antony speaks about Caesar’s ghost “letting slip the dogs of war,” he is really admitting to what he intends to do.
Did real rage about Caesar’s assassination cause Antony to contemplate spearheading a civil war? Or did he harbor such ambitions all along and just recognized that Caesar’s death could be used as a compelling rallying cry? Most likely, he felt genuine rage/loss/sorrow/disgust about the death of his mentor but had also long harbored ambitions that he too might one day rule an empire—thanks to Caesar’s patronage or to his death. Whatever Antony’s motives, he did not feel any compunction about using war as a tool for political expediency.
What is fascinating about this little historical moment through which we are living right now is that the person charged with crying “Havoc” and letting slip the dogs of war does not seem to have his heart in it. Obama seems anything but comfortable about using “a monarch’s voice” to promote “blood and destruction.” If he fully embraced the idea, he would never have gone to Congress for a resolution—especially weeks after somebody’s red line had supposedly been crossed. Meanwhile, it is fascinating how this seems to be déjà vu all over again. Ten years ago, while 9/11 was still an open wound, most Americans warmed to the dogs of war rather easily, embracing the idea of committing “fell deeds” against Iraq, even though there was no coherent connection between Saddam Hussein and the 9/11 attack and no compelling evidence that Iraq’s leader was actually wielding weapons of mass destruction as there is with the Assad regime now. But folks now seem cynical about the war drums or wary of more senseless loss or eager to gain their own political advantage by saying to those dogs “Down!” “Play dead!”
The realization that the dogs of war can lose their power to whip people into a frenzy is also something that Antony—or Shakespeare—recognized. He/they knew that war can become so commonplace that mothers simply shrug it off with a smirk when “their infants [are] quarter'd.” In the States, remaining passive in the face of massive slaughter in faraway lands is hardly new. Consider our response to Hitler’s war against the Jews from 1933 until Pearl Harbor (and really thereafter); we were still struggling with war fatigue caused by WWI and just could not get ourselves worked up about the many signs of widespread persecution in Europe. And more recently, we showed little interest in how the Darfur region of Sudan became awash in blood and gore at about the same time we started intermeddling in Iraq—conflicts that continue to this day.
From all this one might conclude that mass war hysteria and mass war fatigue are both bad barometers for deciding when and how to engage in the rest of the world’s “fierce civil strife."