‘Julius Caesar’ remains a lesson for todayPublished 8:52am Friday, February 3, 2012
Column: Notes from Homeswept
Shakespeare has become a minor obsession at our house. Over the past several years, we have seen several plays, mainly at the Guthrie Theater.
So far the list includes “Julius Caesar,” “Henry V,” “Macbeth,” “Winter’s Tale,” “Much Ado About Nothing,” “Midsummer Night’s Dream,” “Merchant of Venice,” “Twelfth Night” and “Comedy of Errors.” And this January, we saw Shakespeare’s “Julius Caesar” for a second time.
True confession: Shakespeare’s pretty cool, but I have a major obsession with things Roman. Four years of Latin will do that; I still remember translating Caesar’s famous Commentarii de Bello Gallico during my second year. The Emperors are fascinating; their “idiosyncrasies” make up my favorite parts of Suetonius’ “Twelve Emperors and Plutarch’s “Lives.” William Shakespeare probably read both during his school days, and Plutarch’s book in particular became a source for him.
Shakespeare’s play, however, is more about politics than it is about ancient heroes, about the politics of Rome as the elected government gave way to dictatorship. It’s a story about patriotism and corruption, about conspiracies and alliances. It’s a story about leadership and the contrast between freedom and tyranny.
As I read up on “Julius Caesar” before seeing it, I found a variety of opinions on what the play is about (not all that unexpected, actually, since it is a play by Shakespeare). Some critics look at the play as a statement about the dangers of an absolute monarch — they look at the play’s performance in Elizabethan and Jacobean England as the most significant thing about it. Others zero in on the way the people — the mob of Romans — are portrayed, and how their fickleness influences events.
Some people argue that this play has no “hero” in the classic sense, because the action revolves around several main characters: Julius Caesar, Marcus Brutus, Caius Cassius, Mark Antony, Octavius Caesar. Others (including me) see Brutus as the protagonist — a tragic hero undone by his patriotic opposition to the tyranny of a dictator. He participates in the plot to assassinate Caesar because, as he puts it, he “loves Rome” more than he loves Caesar.
That love for Caesar is what makes Brutus’ decision so noble, because he really does admire and respect the man. If he saw any other way to stop Caesar from destroying the Republic and becoming the absolute ruler of Rome, he would take it. But violence is presented as the only option. So he chooses it, and thus begins his journey toward his doom.
The Guthrie production uses a modern setting to tell their version of the story. This isn’t really Rome, the set and costumes proclaim, it is Washington, D.C. Press conferences replace speeches to crowds, helicopters replace horses, and, except in the assassination scene, machine guns replace spears and swords.
These men and women walking about the stage aren’t Roman aristocrats, they are politicians. And the mob of Romans become ordinary Americans, who support whoever has grabbed the stage in front of them and is making the most noise.
At some points the parallel is disturbing. Julius Caesar looks eerily like Barack Obama, and his wife, Calpurnia, resembles Michelle. It would be a truly “political” parallel if Brutus and Cassius looked like Mitch O’Connell or John Boehner, but they don’t. Brutus is also an African-American actor. Cassius looks more like a Kennedy. We won’t find clear condemnation or clear praise involving any politicians on the stage of American politics today.
Whatever the intentions of the director and actors, the story becomes very contemporary and, therefore, carries with it the power to disturb — one of the hallmarks of great literature.
What if the imperial presidency that some Americans seem to support became a reality? What if members of Congress — including members of either or both parties — abandoned the checks and balances that keep the government in check and gave the president ultimate power over state and society? What if it didn’t happen in one fell swoop but over a couple of years or during the terms of presidents from different parties?
Impossible, I scoff, it can’t happen here. We’re not Romans, I assert, because we’ve got the lessons of history to instruct us. We would notice how much power the presidency was accumulating. We wouldn’t do that to ourselves. Right?
David Rask Behling teaches at Waldorf College in Forest City, Iowa, and lives with his wife and children in Albert Lea.