Julius Caesar was required reading in my sophomore year at Marshall High School. Some 30 years later, having seen countless film, operatic and live productions of a great many of Shakespeare’s plays it remains my favorite, though I love most of his plays and sonnets. One of the greatest characteristics of his plays is how adaptable they are to modern times – whatever time that may be.
Most recently, the venerable Public Theater in New York has staged a production of Julius Caesar. The staging is reflective of modern politics in America. Yes, the actor playing Julius Caesar brings to mind the current President. As the actor playing Julius Caesar 5 years ago in the production by the Guthrie Theater in Minneapolis “looked” like President Obama. It is not new to cast Shakespeare in modern political imagery. It is a long-accepted method of making Shakespeare “accessible” to modern audiences, and helping us to see ourselves in the story.
In my life I have seen everything from slick corporate CEOs to “period” kings to Nazis to “Jersey Shore” types speaking the Bard’s iambic pentameter. Images of our time can easily be superimposed on Shakespeare’s language, though it be 400+ years old, because many of the major challenges we face in human interaction and politics have remained largely unchanged. For all our ranting about how “bad” things are in politics right now it is helpful to remember that we are not the first generation to see politicians and their “flocks” threaten each other. We are not the first to experience false prophets and snake oil salesmen. Nor are we the first to watch non-politicians or celebrities cravenly seek naked power and profit through careless manipulation of the mob. For in chaos, always, there is profit.
Contemporaneous casting of Julius Caesar is nearly as old as the play itself. Yet in our 140 character world of social media this Julius Caesar has become controversial for “glamorizing” or “glorifying” the assassination of the President of the United States. Nothing could be further from the truth. Sadly, “truth” has become relative and hard to find. The “truth” of Julius Caesar is that it does not glamorize or glorify the assassination of Caesar (and it is CAESAR who dies, not a character named Trump). Quite the opposite. While the conspirators (the Roman Senators who, each in turn, stab Caesar) believe they will be hailed as heroes of the Republic, the reality is by the end of the play they are dead. They have been killed as revenge for Caesar’s death. The play is actually anti-assassination and shows the horrific after effects of political violence. In short, the near complete collapse of society results from Caesar’s bloody end. And THAT is the point of the play, not the assassination. The assassination takes place at about the MID POINT of the play. It is not the culmination of events, it is the catalyst that shows how destructive violence as a political tool can be to society.
Sadly, critical thinking gets lost in 140 characters and sound bites. Rather than read the play, see the play (there’s even a 1953 film with Marlon Brando as Marc Antony!), or dare I say, recall their sophomore year reading of the play, protesters tweeted. They “rushed!” the stage and “shut down!” the production. The latter of which never actually happened. Yes, the production was interrupted briefly and promptly resumed once the paid (or hoping to win a $1,000 prize) protesters were removed. It’s a pity security couldn’t have held them in a location where they would have to see the remainder of the play. Thousands more having taken to email, twitter and phone lines (frequently to the wrong theaters) and threatened real violence, not the staged violence in Central Park. They have threatened rape, murder and wished for death by cancer on any and all associated with this production. Interestingly some theater companies are actually responding to these calls as they do with any criticisms – they are calling these people back. Even more astonishing in this world of 140 characters, rather than simply saying “hey it’s not us” they have engaged in conversation with those threatening violence and talked about the heart of the play. Not surprisingly, very few at the end of the call are still wishing death by cancer on the employees of the theater.
This kind of knee-jerk emotional reaction is not an affliction solely of the “right”. Liberals are just as capable of the same lack of critical thinking and emotional response. It’s easier to repost and retweet than read and think. I’m working on it myself. One of the challenges, of course, is if you say you love Shakespeare and defend the production you are accused of being a liberal or New York elitist. Ironically, the production is part of Free Shakespeare in the Park, the Public Theater’s longstanding effort to make Shakespeare available to everyone. Hopefully, Delta’s and Bank of America’s rather cowardly and knee-jerk overreaction won’t hurt The Public’s commitment to free Shakespeare. Nor did Shakespeare write plays for just “the elite”. Poor and rich alike attended plays in Shakespeare’s day as well as today. Again, the more things change, the more they stay the same.
One of our greatest challenges today is to reclaim and encourage critical thinking and fight back against the denigration of education and all that goes with it. There are many who prefer us simply reacting and retweeting than actually thinking. After all, as Caesar says “Let me have men about me that are fat; Sleek-headed men and such as sleep o’ nights: Yond Cassius has a lean and hungry look; He thinks too much: such men are dangerous.” To those seeking profit in chaos, a thinking citizenry is a handicap. An engaged citizenry is dangerous. They will sow chaos without thought as to the ramifications. Marc Antony, Caesar’s most loyal friend, whips the Romans into murderous frenzy following Caesar’s assassination and then shrugging off all leadership and responsibility for it says “Now let it work. Mischief, thou art afoot; take thou what course thou wilt.” We are all too familiar with the careless viral nature of this type of tactic. We must be vigilant to it and fight against it. We must think critically and often before speaking, tweeting, posting. We must ask ourselves, are we contributing to the discussion or simply setting mischief afoot?
We can be better. We must do better. After all, as Shakespeare says in another of his plays, As You Like It, “All the world’s a stage, and All the men and women merely players.”