Shakespeare warned us
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*Cromwell and Ireton were Brutus and Cassius; and the flamboyant Merrie Monarch himself, Charles II, comes back like Caesar Augustus.. It was rather glorious serendipity. At almost exactly the same moment as Donald Trump was giving his first State of the Union address to a deeply divided Congress, Nicholas Hytner’s production of Julius Caesar was opening at the new Bridge Theatre on the South Bank.
Now, as it happens, a different production of the same Shakespeare play has already caused a huge row in the US, because of the tyrant Caesar’s passing resemblance to a certain blow-dried, orange-faced property tycoon now in possession of the Oval Office.
According to Professor Peter Holland, an eminent Shakespearean scholar, after The Public Theater production in New York: “Shakespeare companies all across the US began to receive hate mail, even though most recipients were not even performing the play. The name Shakespeare was apparently enough to warrant the ill wishes….”
It was at the very least a reassuring sign that the Bard remains relevant, though also a warning about the dangers of artists getting too close to politics. As Holland reminds us, during Shakespeare’s play the poet Cinna is mistaken by the enraged mob for one of the conspirators, who had the same surname, and torn to pieces. When he protests his innocence they roar that it’s no matter: “Tear him for his bad verses! Tear him for his bad verses!”
It is a grimly comic moment. One of the great virtues of this new production is that it brings home to us just how extremely violent Ancient Rome was at the end of the Republic. By substituting pistols and machine guns for daggers and swords, and bombarding the audience with explosions, Hytner rips away the gentility of traditional toga-and-laurel-leaf Shakespearean settings. His Rome looks and sounds more like today’s Syria.
That is surely right. If you want a gripping, easy primer to the world Shakespeare is describing in this play, then it is the trilogy of novels by Robert Harris (coincidentally recently adapted by the RSC) about Cicero — briefly name-checked in Julius Caesar.
We all know about the bloodiness of the assassination itself but Harris depicts homicidal gangs of unemployed gladiators roaming the city and military murder squads hunting down enemies of the state. Cicero himself died by having his neck cut, and then his head, hands removed and pinned up in public in the Forum. Mark Antony’s enraged wife, Fulvia, then had Cicero’s eloquent, dissident tongue pulled out and stabbed it with her hairpin. Even for a lawyer, this was a rough ending.
The bigger question is whether Shakespeare’s Rome has real lessons for us today. Julius Caesar is often played as a military dictator, a swaggering, populist hard man who deserves what’s coming to him. And certainly, Shakespeare is interestingly sympathetic to the conspirators — in this production Brutus, “the noblest Roman”, is played by Ben Whishaw as a geeky, punctilious intellectual, though in fairness I guess he would find it pretty difficult to play a beefy thug.
Anyway, no modern person should shed a tear for Caesar. He himself boasted that his military campaign in France resulted in the deaths of at least 1.2 million people in battle, and it is thought at least as many died through starvation afterwards. Up to one in three of the population of what was then called Gaul disappeared. This makes him one of the biggest genocidal killers in history — as bad in his way as the Black Death. A third of all people! After the Siege of Uxellodunum in the Dordogne in 51 BC, he cut off the hands of all survivors and sent them home to wave their stumps and tell of his mercy.
- Trump? Kim Jong-un? No, not even Stalin or Hitler — there is no modern equivalent to the historic Caesar at all, thank God.
- Trump? Kim Jong-un? No, not even Stalin or Hitler — there is no modern equivalent to the historic Caesar
But Shakespeare is nuanced, and it’s dangerous to look for contemporary lessons. He was a lifelong democracy-sceptic. From the English history plays to Rome, the mob is, in his view, easily led and dangerous. Commoners can be easily whipped up into xenophobic hatred of immigrants (Sir Thomas More) and are ludicrously easy to flatter (Coriolanus). We should not forget that Shakespeare ended his life as a relatively wealthy man.
For him, the hard question is about the nature of authority. His Caesar is not a monster — David Calder plays him in this production as a man over-familiar with power but with natural authority and a certain pleasant easiness. His crime is forgetting that Rome was a free Republic, which allows Shakespeare to praise what is, effectively, regicide — rather dangerous in front of Elizabeth I’s censors.
But he is absolutely clear that cutting off ultimate authority, even to stop dictatorship, is incredibly risky. In Rome it leads to civil war and extreme violence. If we think of Brutus, Cassius and the other conspirators as revolutionaries, then the revolution soon eats its children. Noble Romans, or not, they have led their state into chaos, which will only ultimately be resolved by the arrival of the next Caesar.
So although Hytner’s production is a roaring, exuberant, ear-splitting celebration of popular culture, from rock music through to football-fan galumphing, the play is at heart a warning about the dangers of anarchy and political breakdown. I had forgotten how, 40 years before it happened, Shakespeare was eerily predicting the fall of the British state and the civil wars here. Charles I played Caesar; Cromwell and Ireton were Brutus and Cassius; and the flamboyant Merrie Monarch himself, Charles II, comes back like Caesar Augustus.