It makes me sad, because Julius Caesar has been more important to America than any of Shakespeare's other plays. It was the play most taught in American schools for many decades, because it speaks about questions at the heart of the American experiment: about the nature of a republic and the duties we owe it, about the danger of tyrants and the dangers of civil violence. It's sad to see a public debate based on ignorance about this play.
So, alas, it's time for a special edition of Ask Me About Shakespeare, coming to you this time from Washington, DC, where I'm spending a month at the Folger Shakespeare Library. Let's take it away:
How much of this production was paid for by the NEA? (-Don T., NYC, via twitter)
None of it. Nada. Zilch.
When does a play like this verge into political speech? (-Don T., NYC, via twitter)
It's a play about the Dictator of Rome. It is and has always been about politics. Its central subject is politics. Every major male character is a Roman politician. Come on.
Does that change things? (-Don T., NYC, via twitter)
In that political speech has even more protection under the First Amendment, maybe. Political speech is a guaranteed Constitutional right.
Okay, but Shakespeare isn't about current politics.
Isn't he? Julius Caesar has been used to comment on current politics over and over again. It's been used to critique the rise of Mussolini. And at least once it's been used to implicitly comment on Obama in the same implicit way that Shakespeare in the Park is implicitly pointing at Trump.
One of the basic rules of understanding Shakespeare's history plays is that he is always more interested in the history of his own day than the history he is writing about. Always.
How is it still Shakespeare if it's in modern dress?
People have been doing "modern dress" Shakespeare for more than a hundred years at this point. Let's not act like it's some crazy novelty. And Shakespeare and his partners did "modern dress" themselves; they did Julius Caesar in 16th-century clothes, probably with a few "Roman" costume pieces thrown into the mix. People don't start putting Julius Caesar in togas until the 1800s.
The Public Theater, which stages Shakespeare in the Park, follows a standard rule about modern dress: they change costumes, in ways that are meant to work as visual footnotes, so that Roman senators for example dress like American senators. But they stick faithfully to Shakespeare's actual words and never add any modern language.
This play is not an adaptation of Julius Caesar. It really is Julius Caesar.
Why is Caesar killed by women and minorities? (-Fox N., NYC)
Because the Public Theater has, for the last fifty years or so, been a pioneer in cross-casting across gender and race. Fox News may object to this as political correctness, but it's a way of opening up parts to a wider range of American actors and ultimately making the pool more competitive. It's hard to find good Shakespeareans. Letting talented actors of color into the casting mix, and giving women a wider range of roles to play, definitely improves the overall standard of acting. This has now become standard practice; the last two professional Shakespeare plays I saw (one in DC, and one in Staunton, Virginia) cast across race and gender lines.
If you ever have a choice between seeing a mid-tier white male British actor do Shakespeare and seeing James Earl Jones do Shakespeare, by all means go with James Earl Jones. It's the American thing to do, and you won't be sorry.
But doesn't that look like Trump?
Yes, vaguely. Clearly, the Public is okay with people drawing that connection, which a lot of the audience was probably going to read into this play at this moment anyway. Much the same way that casting African-American Caesars during the last Administration let people draw the Obama connection.
But they aren't calling that character Trump, and Julius Caesar's lines are (how to put this?) deeply unlike the way our current President speaks.
But Shakespeare never depicted a living public figure on stage.
Didn't he? Actors and playwrights in his day were specifically forbidden to depict living people on stage, but they pretty clearly did it anyway. Loves Labors Lost is none-too-subtly about a particular king of France, and gives its King a posse of friends named after actual French noblemen.
Part of Shakespeare's costume inventory was clothing that various noblemen had gotten rid of once it went out of fashion. So there's always been the possibility that his actors could signal a topical reference by dressing like the political figure they were mocking, dressing in the man's actual clothes. Once, a while after Shakespeare died, his acting company bought a much-hated Spanish ambassador's sedan chair when that ambassador went back to Spain. When they carried one of their bad guys around stage in that chair, everyone knew who they meant.
So, they're endorsing Trump's assassination, right?
There is no way that Julius Caesar endorses Caesar's assassination. It is clearly a terrible thing to do, and all of the assassins are punished.
In fact, all of the conspirators except Brutus are clearly self-interested and immoral. (As Antony says of Brutus:
All of the conspirators but only he
Did what they did in envy of great Caesar.)
Let's go to the Public Theater's own website to describe the play. In its director's words:
Eustis is right that the play presents both Caesar AND his assassins as dangers to the public. Caesar is a tyrant in the making, who is destroying the Roman Republic and replacing it with an autocracy. But his assassins are, well, assassins. They traffic in blood, and threaten Rome as much as Caesar does.
"Julius Caesar can be read as a warning parable to those who try to fight for democracy by undemocratic means.
To fight the tyrant does not mean imitating him." – Oskar Eustis
And this, of course, is why earlier productions could invite an Obama reading: that reading is that Obama is being attacked by these vicious politicians.
The joke here is that Julius Caesar depicts Caesar's enemies pretty much the way most of the people denouncing the play see Trump's critics: as a pack of conspirators who envy the great man's greatness.
Then who's the good guy?
Shakespeare's play doesn't have simple bad guys and good guys. That is why the play is still worth reading. It's morally complicated, just as the world we live in is.
But they show him being murdered on stage!
In the original script. It's been like this since around 1599. And that assassination scene is not designed to make you all excited about assassinations. Oh God, no.
No one treated Democratic presidents like this.
Maybe you should read Barbara Garson's Mac Bird! which specifically adapts Macbeth as a critique of LBJ.
Well, they should have left Trump out of it.
They can't. I couldn't be more sorry to tell you this, but there's no way to do that right now. People will make the Trump connection whether you want them to or not.
I just spent a semester teaching Shakespeare's history and tragedies, a semester that started about a week before inauguration. And I never discuss current politics in my classroom, least of all with undergraduates. I never said Trump's name in the classroom. But my students wanted to make the connection, over and over again.
Richard III reminded them of Trump. Hamlet's uncle reminded them of Trump. Macbeth reminded them of Trump. And those characters are much clearer villains than Caesar is. We got to an example of tyranny, or demagoguery or political dishonesty, and I had to keep students from talking about Trump. It got exhausting after a while.
Trump is on everyone's minds. He kind of insists on being on everyone's minds. And so people are going to connect him to plays like Julius Caesar.
Look, it's a play where a successful politician, who attracts huge rallies of the common people, is seen as a threat to centuries of democratic government. That politician has a band of dedicated enemies who are motivated by a mix of patriotism, rancor, and envy.
You don't have to say Trump to get audiences thinking about Trump. (In fact, Shakespeare in the Park literally never says the word "Trump.") The audience is going to make the connection to Trump no matter what. It's inevitable. So there's a logic to just letting them do that and running with it. This has to be the Julius Caesar about the beginning of Trump's presidency, because no audience is going to let it be anything else.
Well, is Shakespeare really any guide to today's politics?
More than two centuries of American politicians have thought so. And Julius Caesar is also a play about the danger of propaganda and mob fury in politics. It's a play about lying to the people to get them angry. Mark Antony is a gifted orator and a smooth liar, who eventually whips the common people into a murderous frenzy based on falsehoods and distortions and then sends them out to do violence.
In fact, one of the key scenes in the play has a mob murder a poet whom they've mistaken for someone else. That happens onstage too.
So, angry people on Twitter, remember: Julius Caesar is also a play about the dangers of being whipped up into an angry, undiscriminating mob. Maybe you should log off for a bit and give it a read.
(cross-posted from Dagblog, where comments are welcome. Comments are closed on this site.)