INTRODUCING: THE SHAKESPEARE COLUMN
How to Make a Bloody Caesar
I was just waking up one morning not so long ago, and somebody on the CBC was talking about a bloody Caesar. Evidently this is some kind of an alcoholic drink that was created in Canada🥃. Imagine that. Me, I did not imagine that, not at all. If you happen to be a retired Shakespeare Professor who doesn’t drink, something made out of vodka and Mott’s Clamato Juice is not the first thing that comes into your mind when you hear about “bloody Caesar.” The first thing that comes into your mind is that play by Shakespeare which you might well have read when you were in High School. It is called Julius Caesar. Not one of Shakespeare’s greatest plays perhaps, but good enough to be worth reading and talking about and - more important for our purposes here - worth staging in a theatrical performance.
It turns out that this play, featuring its own version of a Bloody Caesar, was recently staged in New York City at Shakespeare in the Park. The part of Caesar was performed by a 65-year-old blonde actor named Gregg Henry, who exhibits a vague resemblance to a certain Donald Trump, now the President of the United States of America. I have not seen the Shakespeare in the Park production, but of course the very fact of performing the play with a Donald Trump look-alike in the role of Caesar was bound to provoke violent controversy. Sponsors withdrew support, hate mail and even death threats were sent to Shakespeare festival companies, and protesters even stormed the stage during several performances. Predictably there was outrage expressed in certain media outlets about “incitement to violence” followed almost immediately by further outrage on behalf of “freedom of expression” in others. I certainly have my own partisan interests I might wish to defend in this mess, but frankly I found the indignation expressed on both sides predictable, tedious and demoralizing, so I’m not going to rehash any of the arguments. Here it wouldn’t be much help to explain how the protestors who interrupted the performances at Shakespeare in the Park failed to understand something about the play. In a sense they understood the play all too well, that is assuming they were even dimly aware of what actually happens in the story. So let’s just see what does happen in the story.
It begins with disorder and social unrest. People have gathered in the streets to cheer for Caesar. Mark Antony offers him a crown and he refuses. Suddenly Caesar collapses, stricken with “the falling sickness,” what we now would call an epileptic seizure. Casca, who will join the conspiracy against Caesar, has this to report:
Casca: Three or four wenches, where I stood, cried 'Alas, good soul!' and forgave him with all their hearts: but there's no heed to be taken of them; if Caesar had stabbed their mothers, they would have done no less. 1.2.365
Do you recognize this? “If Caesar had stabbed their mothers to death in Times Square” - does that remind you of anything? One of the truly striking effects of reading a Shakespeare plays or seeing a performance is what I call his uncanny memory. Sometimes you can feel that the works of later thinkers – Spinoza, Freud, Proust, – have already been read or that he has already foreseen events that would not happen for many years after his death. For more on this and on Shakespeare’s creative partnership with Morpheus, Lord of Dreams, you could have a look at The Sandman #19, with story by Neil Gaiman.
Julius Caesar shows what happens when the mass of people in a society exhibit unconditional love for a charismatic figure - a leader, or a führer, somebody who can express their deepest aspirations or their long standing grievances. The late Hugo Chávez would be a recent example of this, but there have been others - Juan Domingo and Evita Perón, Benito Mussolini, Napoleon Bonaparte and of course Julius Caesar himself. This is a form of government sometimes known as Bonapartism or Authoritarian Populism. Its key feature is a close, empathetic bond between “the people” and their leader. Not everybody in Rome is happy about this state of affairs, notably Cassius among others, and this is what gives rise to the conspiracy to assassinate Caesar in the forum on the Ides of March. But they have to convince Brutus to join them to make sure that the killing will appear to be done for the sake of the greater good of the Roman Republic. In fact, Caesar is a minor character in this play, and he is killed off at the beginning of the third act, but not before uttering his famous line: “et tu Brute? Then fall Caesar.” He says that because he realizes that this is not just a run-of-the-mill political assassination but a deliberate betrayal; Brutus and Caesar are close friends.
The bitter irony of the play is that the Roman Republic, which the conspirators set out to save from authoritarian populism by assassinating Caesar, is now completely finished. And at this point the story morphs into what it was all along - a violent power struggle between two factions of the Roman Senate or in other words two factions within the ruling class. The shell of a republic persists, but after Caesar is killed Rome will be ruled by an emperor, exactly the tyranny that Brutus and his companions wanted to prevent. So instead of a brilliant restoration to make Rome great again we have a civil war in which Brutus and his fellow conspirators are all killed. And once young Octavius and Mark Antony have defeated the rebels, they will continue the civil war against each other. Shakespeare will write one of his greatest plays about this; it’s called Antony and Cleopatra.
One of the things that makes Shakespeare a very great poet is his ability to represent an absolutely terrifying sense of human possibility. We see this in the character of Brutus. Julius Caesar is really Brutus’s play and we can witness his personality evolve as the story unfolds. Things do not go so well for Brutus after the assassination. There is a falling out with Cassius, and they very nearly decide to kill each other, but they talk themselves out because they’re old friends and friends do not kill each other. Friend is an important word for Shakespeare, and this is especially true in Julius Caesar where it occurs 44 times, almost twice as often in this play as in most of the others. Friendship is a trust relationship, and because Brutus has deliberately a trusted friend we should not be very surprised when Brutus sees Caesar’s ghost late at night when he can’t sleep. The ghost tells him, “I am your evil spirit.” If you ever happen to see your own evil spirit you can expect him - or her - to look a lot like somebody you have harmed, because people you have treated well do not come back from the dead to haunt you.
At the Battle of Phillipi the armies of Cassius and Brutus are defeated by the forces of Octavius and Antony. Brutus has fled with several of his friends - Clitus, Dardanius, and Volumnius. Since he cannot bear the thought of being captured, he asks each of them in turn to kill him before Antony can arrive. Clitus refuses, saying that he would rather kill himself. Dardanius cannot bring himself to do it either, and finally he asks Volumnius.
Brutus: Thou know'st that we two went to school together:
Even for that our love of old, I prithee,
Hold thou my sword-hilts, whilst I run on it.
You never know what you are going to find when you read a Shakespeare play, but this time I was stopped in my tracks by the way Volumnius replies to Brutus.
Volumnius: That's not an office for a friend, my lord.
Not an office for a friend. Office is another one of those complex words Shakespeare loves to use. It turns up almost 300 times in his works. Here it has the sense of a service performed or kindness done towards someone. It can also have the sense of a duty or an obligation. Stabbing a friend to death is, at least in this story, not a kindness or a duty. Funny echo here of Et tu, Brute?
Well, I’m not going to tell you what this play means or whether you should or should not kill your best friend for the sake of your political ideals. You have to figure that one out on your own. It will take some time, you’ll have to pay careful attention, you might even have to look something up or read it more than once, but at least you don’t have to buy the book. It’s right here. Julius Caesar You can even use the search box to find out if Shakespeare ever mentioned your name, or to find out what’s going on with some other word, like honor or maybe even love. I won’t promise you that you will love it. But it will be time well spent.