Thou Shouldst Not Been Wise Till Thou Hadst Been Worldly

julius-caesar-square

Title: Julius Caesar

Rating: 4 Stars

My apologies for the pretentious title. That’s a paraphrase from King Lear. In King Lear, the great, respected and wise king decides that it’s a good idea to divide his kingdom amongst his three daughter upon the condition that they each verbally declare their love for him. This, in typical Shakespearean tragedy fashion, leads to pretty much everyone dying. Lear’s fool, in exasperation at the stubborn foolishness of the old king, pleads with him not to embark upon this destructive path by telling him, “Thou shouldst not have been old till thou hadst been wise.”

Similarly, in this play you have Brutus. Brutus is recognized as one of the wisest leaders in Rome. The conspirators to assassinate Caesar need to have Brutus in their camp to lend it legitimacy.

First of all, they fool him by leaving anonymous notes for him to find that beseeches him to rise up against Caesar. Apparently random notes are enough to convince this wise man to a path of assassination.

Then, when planning the assassination, the conspirators decide that they should also murder Antony, since it’s known how loyal Antony is to Caesar. Brutus says no, it’s better to shed only a minimal amount of blood. It sends a better message to the Roman people that the conspirators are not bloodthirsty.

Antony is clearly grief stricken by Caesar’s death and asks to give the funeral oration. Cassius, the main conspirator, thinks it’s crazy to let Antony speak to the people over the body of Caesar. Brutus says no, it’ll look better because the conspirators will look magnanimous letting Antony speak and anyway, he (ie Brutus), a great orator himself, will speak first and will pacify the people. What could go wrong?

Of course, immediately Antony gives a speech that turns all of Rome against them. They have to flee and a civil war commences.

Finally, on the field of battle, Brutus’ forces are nicely arrayed in fine defensive position waiting for Antony’s / Octavius’ forces to attack. Cassius advises Brutus, since they are in such fine defensive position, to let the battle come to them. Brutus says no, we are at the pinnacle of our strength right now, so we should leave our fortifications and attack them at Phillipi.

Multiple suicides later, both Brutus and Cassius are dead and Antony and Octavius reign supreme.

Brutus is the classic example of someone with great wisdom, judgement, and respect but just absolutely horrible gut instincts.

Cassius, who is portrayed here more of a sneaky character, does not have Brutus’ gravitas but clearly knows how to get the best of a situation. Unfortunately, his respect for Brutus is so great that he always yields against his own judgment.

This actually reminds me of…Night of the Living Dead. Now, bear with me. For those of you who haven’t seen it, there’s a group of people trapped in a house as zombies are trying to break in and get to them. The two main sources of conflict are between Ben and Harry.  Ben is the conventional heroic type (a young black man in a very early effort at actually representing minorities non stereo-typically) and Harry, who’s kind of a sniveling coward.

Ben is all about trying to figure out to fight the zombies and get out of the situation. Harry just wants to go into the cellar, barricade it, and wait for the authorities. Of course, it wouldn’t be much of a movie if they all went down into the cellar and then spent the night playing pinochle or whatever, so Ben inspires them all to fight the zombies. Of course (yes, spoiler alert for a 50 year old movie), they all die except for Ben. Ben himself dies when he is shot by the authorities who mistake him for a zombie (and well, probably also because he’s black).

The point here is that, although Ben is a indisputably a brave and wise man, Harry was actually right. The zombies weren’t all that strong, the cellar door was solid, and the authorities were coming. If they’d just spent the night in the cellar they’d probably have been perfectly fine.

That connection was also probably triggered because in the play, Brutus was played in a wise, brave, heroic manner by a black actor and Cassius was played by a kind of middle management snivelly white actor. There’s probably a message here that leaders can’t be completely driven by some abstract concept of morality and sometimes have to do things that others might perceive as cowardly and weak. I could connect this even more to events in the 100 years war, but I’m going to stop now because it’s already getting too long.

I’m always a little suspicious of Shakespearean plays that place themselves in the current day, but here Julius Caesar really does seem weirdly relevant, which is bizarre for a 400 year old play. It’s a testament to Shakespeare’s genius and maybe to some common notes of humanity that stretch across centuries.

Here you have, in the background, 24 hour news channels continuously blasting events as they occur (including spot on imitations of how somber news channels get upon the death of a popular leader / celebrity). Here you also have leaders overtly manipulating the masses for their own political ends. Here you have the war hero Caesar, all ego and bluster, pretending not to want the crown while obviously secretly aching for it (every military dictator ever). Here you have the unthinking masses, all fired up in anger, literally tearing to pieces an innocent person in a case of bad timing and mistaken identity.

Also, I like the race / sex neutral casting of the play. Brutus is a black man. Antony is a black man. The Roman senators, Casca and Cinna, are a black woman and an Asian woman, respectively. They all were effective. I have no idea if there are Shakespearean canonical purists out there anywhere that raises a ruckus about this (considering the fact that there was a somewhat defensive note about it in the program, there must be), but if so, they need to get over it, or would you prefer that we go all the way back to the original and have prepubescent boys in drags for all of the female characters?

So, why not five stars? It’s not the players’ fault. The first three acts is where all of the interesting things occur, in my opinion. Acts IV and V have plenty of military action, but the moral questions have been answered, decisions have been made, and the final two acts is just the play heading towards its foregone conclusion. Everything after the intermission just seemed anticlimactic, even if well done.

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