Julius Caesar is upon us, or as I think of it, the second show in the month of June in which I’ll say “for here comes one in haste” and just have to hope that it’s always Cinna that shows up and not Ursula from Much Ado because then I’ll just be hopelessly confused which I usually am in rep anyway. This whole summer has come in haste.
Most of Caesar will run in July, though, which seems appropriate since the month was named for him, but also inappropriate because probably no play by Shakespeare is more historically associated with the academic year than this one. It has been said (and I believe it) that for years teachers chose this play as their students’ introduction to Shakespeare in no small part because it lacks the filthy, suggestive, delightful crudeness of all the other big favorites. (I think Romeo & Juliet has probably taken the student mantle now for reasons of being “relatable to teens” or whatever, but JC still does solid bulk scholastic paperback business.)
There was a time when every student in the country know Antony’s funeral oration by heart – or was supposed to, anyway – in part because of its clear rhetorical examples (certainly clearer than the mixed metaphors and long lists of that “To be or not to be” mess, right? Take arms against a sea? That doesn’t work.) But me, I regrettably come from the public school period just a little after great chunks of memorization had stopped; it would have been pretty useful had I only known I’d be memorizing things for a living later. I can do you all of The Blues Brothers and Monty Python & the Holy Grail if necessary, but it seldom is, and it’s not nearly as impressive as knowing the prologue to the Canterbury Tales or “Locksley Hall” or the other bits dumped from the curriculum.
So for those of us who weren’t assigned “Friends, Romans, Countrymen” (or, as the typo I just fixed said, Countryman, which is that crazy Jamaican movie from the early 80s and is great but probably not relevant here), here are a few things useful to know going in to watching Julius Caesar.
-Caesar dies. You knew that, right? As in any other historical tragedy, the author kind of assumes you know the outcome of the Titanic or Hiroshima or Lincoln’s trip to Our American Cousin. It then plays with that, in little scenes and details that do nothing but show you how close the whole thing was to being prevented both through effort and coincidence. Some of these ineffective obstacles are made up, some historically believed, but all of them just make the whole gruesome business seem more inevitable. The actor playing our Brutus, who has played the role before, said in rehearsal it made him feel like he was in an episode of The Twilight Zone, like every production of the play reincarnated Brutus for eternity to do over and over something he regretted. This came out of a conversation about Cassius’s harsh irony just after the assassination:
How many Ages hence
Shall this our lofty Scene be acted over,
In State unborne, and Accents yet unknowne?
The assassination of Caesar and the resulting rule over Rome by triumvirate (Octavius Caesar, Antony, & Lepidus) brought an end to the Roman republic and pretty much to democracy in the Western world until the founding of America (I oversimplify, but still.) The assassination was seen as one of the worst acts of betrayal of all time – Dante put Brutus with Judas in the innermost circle of Hell – until Dan Stevens left Downton*. Shakespeare chooses the fairly bold notion to see the conspirators as humans instead of mustache-twirlers, which just ends up making the whole murder and its aftermath that much worse for individual and country. I note all that only so it stays in mind the next time someone brings up all the kerfuffle at the Public in New York again. (I can’t speak for every company, but at Kentucky Shakespeare we always urge everyone to stay for the whole show. Things tend to, you know, change as the story unfolds. Also, we pass the hat at intermission so you have to stay at least that long, right?)
Well. This was going to be a list, but that’s just about all you need to know that the play doesn’t tell you. Shakespeare very kindly makes clear early on that Honor Suicide was most definitely a Thing for noble Romans; that many in power (as always) had a fair amount of disdain for what Caska calls “the rabblement” and “the common herd”; that people are quickly willing to jump on a new celebrity bandwagon and almost immediately forget what came before – the audience scarcely needs to know who this “Pompey” guy is that gets mentioned early in the play because frankly Rome seems to have forgotten him itself, now that he’s been defeated by someone more charismatic.
I will add one lame little Shakespeare tidbit – this was probably the first play Shakespeare wrote to be performed at his company’s fancy new theatre, the Globe, in or around 1599. Plays were daylight affairs back then, in the late afternoon. Which makes the opening lines all the more entertaining to me: “Hence: home you idle Creatures, get you home:/ Is this a Holiday?” The percentage of the audience slagging off work was probably significant.
Oh, cheap laughs at the audience’s expense…treasure them in a play like this. Things go wrong pretty quickly.
* Isn’t it nice that we live in a day when we don’t have to worry about anything worse than thi – oh, hang on; I just read any newspaper of the last century. Nevermind.