Julius Caesar

Every time I read Julius Caesar, I find something new to love. Of all the literature I’ve had to read and reread through school years, I think it is actually the play I have read the most. It is also a story that most people are familiar with, regardless of their familiarity with Shakespeare, and so it is a great play to stage. Julius Caesar was a man who became elevated to the status of a god after his death, and elevated into myth after his story became history.

Much like Elvis, also a Las Vegas staple.

In fact, I’m not even going to recap the story, because you know the damn story. And I am certainly not going to say I won’t do it, and then do it, because that’s what the historical Cicero did all the damn time – having studied Latin in high school, I hate Cicero. Really, I’m glad that he dies a subtle death offstage, just another name on a list with a black spot next to it, a victim of revenge assassinations by Marcus Antonius and Octavius Caesar.

If you are unfamiliar with Cicero's contributions to society, study how these men talk to someone they disagree with. Cicero was the guy who formalized that style of conversation.

But I digress.

Unlike the most of the British history plays, Julius Caesar is about a period of history that I actually have a modicum of outside knowledge about. And from that outside knowledge, I must conclude that this play is not entirely accurate as a history.  Of course there is the notorious anachronism of “the  clock hath stricken three” when that style of clock had not been invented until somewhere around the 12th century in Europe (although the Romans apparently did have some awesome style of water clock that I learned about while fact-checking the above statement).  The events of this play take place between 44 BC and 42 BC , and yet Shakespeare uses dramatic timing to place the battle of Phillipi pretty quickly after the assassination.  Oh, and then there’s the crazy amount of supernatural shit happening all around the place, like “graves have yawn’d, and yeilded up their dead.”

I can't help an opportunity to reference a zombie apocalypse. There are worse faults that a person can have.

So really, in staging this or any of the other so-called History Plays, I feel no compulsion to tie the story down to that historical period. This is not the only time Shakespeare has ignored or manipulated historical fact for the sake of good storytelling, either. The events of King John, for example, wildly contradict a lot of its historical basis. Henry VIII is just complete bullshit. So although I don’t know much about the events of the historical Richard III, I think it was really cool and justifiable for Sir Ian McKellan to rip the story from it’s basis in England and set it in the context of Germany’s Wiemar Republic.

You know, the Republic that elected this guy.

So I know what you’re thinking: I want to embrace the idea of Caesar as tyrant, portray him as a jackboot-wearing fascist, “And therefore think him as a serpent’s egg, Which, hatcht, would, as his kind, grow mischievous; And kill him in the shell,” with Marcus Brutus as some sort of Inglorious Basterd that saves the world.  But no, dear reader, that’s not where I’m going with this (although I would absolutely watch that production). The sort of Julius Ceasar that I want to explore with a contemporary audience is somehow far more incendiary than that.

It's a brilliant concept, right?

See, here’s the thing – I don’t think Caesar was a budding tyrant, and I don’t think Shakespeare portrays him that way. But obviously a lot of patriotic citizens thought his reforms were a threat to the basis of Roman society, and so they felt compelled to brutally stab the man to death on the Senate floor, as the government was in session.

I wouldn't put it past them, to be honest.

So that is the context I would love to see this staged in, I think it would be emotionally powerful and intellectually polarizing, and most of all it would be relevant to a contemporary audience. That’s it, really, I’m not making a political statement beyond that. The characters in the story all believe what they believe, those beliefs are at odds with each other, and violence erupts. The conspirators exclaim, “Let us bathe our hands in Caesar’s blood p to the elbows, and besmear our swords: Then walk we forth, even to the market-place And, waving our red weapons o’er our heads, Let’s all cry, ‘Peace, freedom, and liberty!'” – and they view it as an act of patriotism. Caesar’s adopted son – Octavian – views it as treason, and helps to crush the rebellion with his nation’s army. What makes it tragic as a story is that Brutus and Caesar are both noble men, both essentially good men, and even friends with each other, but their ideologies clash. Brutus is approached by enemies of Caesar, and he is brought into the growing conspiracy.

Just like the founding fathers conspired against that other tyrant that one time!

The coup fails, though, because Brutus stupidly allows Marc Antony to live. Brutus plays by the rules, and in Antony’s own words “Brutus is an honourable man.” Honourable men cannot win at politics. Cassius and the other conspirators know it is a tactical mistake to let Antony live, but Brutus reasons: “Our course will seem too bloody, Caius Cassius, to cut the head off, then hack the limbs, – like wrath in death, and envy afterwards; for Antony is but a limb of Caesar: let’s be sacrificers, not butchers, Caius.”

So, clearly, they underestimated his disgusting power.

And I really can’t get over how stupid it is. I mean, Brutus’ fatal flaw is that he plays by the rules – much like Shakespeare’s other Roman heroes that blindly follow the doctrines that they were raised in. And I suppose that is the most tragic flaw to have, which is dramatically beautiful. Even Antony eulogizes, “His life was gentle; and the elements so mixt in him, that Nature might stand up And say to the world, ‘This was a man!'” But really, guys. He was stupid when he let Antony speak at Caesar’s funeral, and then just walked away. Nobody is even concerned that Antony will manipulate the situation, they think Antony is no more than “A masker and a reveller.”  The soldier offers nothing but praise to Caesar’s assasins, but all of his words are consumed with deliberately growing doubt, repeating that “Brutus is an honourable man” as if to reassure himself. The rabble of citizens pick up on that doubt, and they run with it.  His brilliant manipulation complete, Antony smiles – “Now let it work: mischief, thou art afoot, Take thou what course thou wilt!”  The revolution that Brutus and Cassius meant to start is immediately turned against them, because they think too highly of their cause. Historically, they are actually responsible for the death of the Republic in this action.

But you must never let facts get in the way of the Truth!

There are so many awesome scenes in this play, including the storm where conspirators gather on the street, the scene between Caesar and his wife Calphurnia, argument between Brutus and Cassius near the end of the play. I could go on forever about these great scenes, analyze them, expound on my interpretations of them, but at the end of the day this is just a great play and you should read it or see it as soon as possible. And if you steal my concept, you better involve me with the production or I will find you. I will find you and reenact the final episode of HBO’s Rome Season 1 on you.

And so, with that, I am taking a week off to visit my girlfriend in Louisville. I will return with Antony and Cleopatra, which follows the romantic events that follow this play. I never liked it, but I’ll give it another chance because our nation’s nemesis is dead and I’m in a good mood. Wait, no, I’m in a good mood because I’m spending the week with my girlfriend. Regarding the news of Osama’s death, actually, I have to reflect on the Third Citizen’s concerns when Caesar’s corpse was brought out for display: “I fear  there will a worse come in his place.”

Not to be a downer or anything.

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  1. […] on my bastardizing.”  It’s a sort of violent inverse to Cassius’ call to greatness in Julius Caesar, but also inversely great in his ownership over his own character.  Here is a man who has been […]



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