Well, it seems that I simply cannot get away from watching Shakesperian plays, even if the production is, in my opinion, somewhat sub-par. I am starting to understand why a friend of my really hates going to Australian theatre. Okay, being a regular attendee at theatres of Broadway, and regularly traveling to the United States to go to Shakespeare festivals probably does that to you, and while I have never been to the States, I have been to London, and seen performances in the West End and at the Globe and honestly, these more modern adaptations are really starting to get to me.
I’m not necessarily talking about where the take the play and thrust it into a modern setting, as was the case with Ian McKellan’s Richard III and Ralph Fiennes’ Coriolanus. Even that version of Macbeth that I refer to as ‘Macbeth with Machine Guns‘ where the quote ’til Birnam Wood remove to Dunsinae’ was interpreted as a B-double pulling a trailer full of logs crashing through the gate of some drug lord’s manner, only changed the setting as opposed to the actual style. However, as I sat in my seat, with a beer on my hand, watching this latest rendition of Julius Caesar, I could not help but feel that the director has decided to merge classical Shakespeare with modern dance.
Don’t get me wrong, I absolutely love the play Julius Caeser, with the lines ‘Cry havok and let slip the dogs of war’ and ‘friends, Romans, countrymen, lend me your ears’, and in a way this production very much captialised upon these famous phrases. For instance, when Caeser turns around to see a dagger in Brutus’ hand, he pauses, and says ‘et tu Brutae’. With Mark Antony’s speech, we have a raucous crowd banging on the walls after a rousing oration delivered by Brutus, only to be silenced with the magical words that come out of Mark Antony’s mouth. Of course, we even have the beautiful oration delivered by Mark Antony, how he dares not malign Brutus and the other conspirators, but slowly wins them around by reminding them of what Caeser did for them, and that the whole idea of Brutus being an honourable man really means absolutely nothing.
Yet there was something wrong, something that seems to be moving away from the traditional style of play, even the minimalist style that must have been how they were originally performed (well, not quite considering even back in Shakespeare’s day, elaborate sets and costumes were still very much the norm – Crash Course has an excellent series on the history of Theatre that is currently running). Sure, the play was very much minimalist with only a single prop on stage that would be moved slightly as the scene changed (it was a billboard on one side, and a pulpit on the other). Yet the actors basically wore modern clothes, and modern music would play in the background, and of course there was this interpretive dance that seemed to be performed as the conspirators piled onto Caeser.
While I would normally give a bit of a background, I don’t think that really needs to be done with regards to Caeser. Anyway, I have written another post on this very play, based on another version performed by the Royal Shakespeare Company. Then there is the version from the Globe that is sitting in my cabinet waiting for a time when I can actually get around to watching it, so it isn’t one of those plays that is rarely performed. However, I do wonder if there is really all that much more that I can actually say about it, at least more than I could write that hasn’t already been said in two blog posts. Yet that is the beauty of Shakespeare – there is always something new to be discovered, something new to be explored, such as the garden in Hamlet that I never picked up previously.
However, as for Caeser’s life, here is a great video I found on Youtube, presented by one of the platform’s great presenters – Simon Whistler:
Okay, there really isn’t much in the way of indepth analysis of the man, just an outline of his life, and not much in the way of the legacy that he left, but they still give us a pretty decent outline of who he was, and I even learnt a number of things about Caeser that I never realised, such as the phrase ‘Veni, Vidi, Vici‘ wasn’t said after he conquered Gaul but rather after he put down a rebellion in Asia Minor. Still, this does provide us with a pretty interesting background to the man.
Beware the ides of March
Honestly, despite the fact that Caeser basically dies halfway through the play doesn’t mean that he is relegated to the outer wings – he dominates the play from beginning to end. In fact the play is divided into two parts, the first being the conspirators plotting to bring about his downfall, and the second part being his friends seeking revenge for his murder. In fact it seems as if Caeser himself doesn’t make all that many appearances in the play, except for the middle where he is led by Crassus from his house to the Senate, and then murdered in the Senate. Yet the play focuses upon this one man almost like a laser light – there are no side plots, no other characters playing around outside of the main focus of his murder – the play is about Julius Caeser and the one person that we are constantly focusing on is Julius Caeser. Even when he isn’t on stage, he is still the main focus of the play.
Which is interesting in this particular production since in the original, just prior to the battle, the ghost of Caeser makes an appearance. However in this production the ghost doesn’t enter and leave, but he remains right through to the end, even being given speaking parts. In fact the downfall of both Brutus and Crassus are done in sight of the ghost, and even speaking with the ghost. Interestingly, where Brutus stabs Caeser, in the end Brutus holds out his dagger to Caeser so that Caeser may stab him, despite the fact that Caeser is dead.
Then we can’t forget the scene where he is offered the crown three times, and rejects the crown three times. That is not played in front of us, but behind the scenes. All we get is a retelling of the events by one of the conspiritors, and another retelling by Mark Antony at the funeral oration. Okay, we hear shouts from outside, but we do not see it. This is an interesting tactic that Shakespeare uses because when we compare the two accounts of the event they couldn’t be any different. Mark Anthony does not mention that Caeser had a fit after the third time he was offered the crown, nor does he make mention of the suggestion that Caeser, every time the crown was offered to him, was less reluctant to take it. In a way, looking back at that scene, it makes us cast doubt on the conspirator’s account.
He Stride’s the World like a Collossus
Isn’t it interesting that it is Brutus that is portrayed as the bad guy here, and not Crassus, despite the fact that it is Crassus that is clearly the leader of the conspirators. In a sense, while Crassus could be considered a villain, Brutus is still a traitor, and the worse kind if Dante is to be believed. However, we will get to Brutus soon enough because I really want to say a few things about Crassus here, since he seems to be one of those characters that is particularly important, but seems to fall into Brutus’ shadow.
This is not surprising considering that Crassus is one of the patricians, or the old guard to put it another way. He is basically one of the wealthy elite, and like all conservatives, doesn’t want to give too much power to the dirty masses (though remembering that this is Rome, so when we talk about dirty masses, we are talking about the poorer citizens – slaves don’t count). Yet he is right about Caeser because Caeser is an autocrat. He really doesn’t like ruling with anybody, one of the things about the Roman Republic was the desire not to return to the days of the kings, even though that was something like 400 years ago at this stage.
Yet is it right for Crassus to act the way that he does. In a way it is politics, but then again there is this idea that if there is a threat to liberty then violence is a legitimate means in which to maintain that liberty. However, sometimes I feel that the word Freedom is tossed around so much that it’s meaning has become lost in the mists of history. What exactly is freedom, and what type of freedom are people talking about – freedom from government interference in our lives, freedom to live the lifestyle that we desire to live, or freedom for business to do business without the government getting in the way. When the conspirators painted ‘Freedom’ on the board in Caeser’s blood after the assassination, I could not help but think that it was a loaded word.
Yet Caeser was an autocrat – there is no denying that. It does not matter whether you are supported by the people or not, and autocrat is still an autocrat. Yet, no matter what the laws say, I still don’t think murdering somebody can be justified, no matter what tradition says. Yet this seems to be what Shakespeare is getting at here, because throughout most of his plays, the usurpers never come out on top. This is the case here because the play does not end with Caeser’s death, the play ends with the death of the conspirators.
I should say something about Brutus though, however I have already spoken at length about him in my previous blog post. Sure, he is the tragic figure of the play, being torn between his friendship with Caeser and to the legacy of his ancestors. However, he has gone down in history as being one of the greatest of traitors. Dante puts him at the bottom layer of hell along with Judas Iscariot. It is not that be betrayed his country, it is that be betrayed his friend, and not only that, but he even went as far as murdering him. No wonder Brutus couldn’t sleep afterwards. In way the name Marcus Brutus is also synonymous with Benedict Arnold.
Friend’s, Roman’s, Countrymen
And I will finish this off by speaking something of Mark Antony. It is interesting how he is portrayed in this play when in reality Antony was little more than a thug. Sure, I doubt we can really trust Cicero’s second Phillipic, which really goes to town on Mark Antony, but I still remember watching a television series on this turbulent period, and Mark Antony really wasn’t portrayed in all that great a light. However, Shakespeare doesn’t seem to be too concerned about that, instead painting him as a loyal side kick, and one who goes to extreme lengths to revenge his friend’s death.
I note that Augustus (actually Octavius) appears in the second half of the play, and accompanies Mark Antony on his crusade against the conspirators. However, he is still playing a minor part at this stage. There is no indication of the power he is to obtain once he disposes of Mark Antony and names himself as Imperator. Here it seems to be taking the position of Antony’s side kick, but that isn’t all that surprising considering that it was Antony’s brilliant speech that rallied the people of Rome to his side. In fact it did much more than that, considering that Shakespeare throws in that scene where the poet Casca is murdered simply for having the same name as a conspirator.
Yet I still can’t get it out of my head that Mark Antony is nowhere near as glamorous as he is made out to be here. He isn’t a hero, he’s a thug, one who almost ran Rome into the ground in Caeser’s absence. Okay, it has been over twenty Years since I’ve read Cicero’s Phillipic (actually probably not that long, but it has been a long time), and I suspect that there just might be a lot of truth in what Cicero has to say.
Bestriding the World – Julius Caeser by David Alfred Sarkies is licensed under a Creative Commons Attribution-NonCommercial-ShareAlike 4.0 International License. This license only applies to the text and any image that is within the public domain. Any images or videos that are the subject of copyright are not covered by this license. Use of these images are for illustrative purposes only are are not intended to assert ownership. If you wish to use this work commercially please feel free to contact me