What’s the deal with Shakespeare’s Julius Caesar anyway? Is this thing supposed to be a history play like the great Henry IV, Part I (Shakespeare’s masterpiece, by the way), or is supposed to be a tragedy like Macbeth (Shakespeare’s most underrated tragedy, by the way.) Julius Caesar is an odd duck that is situated in a strange kind of limbo halfway between history and tragedy.
Adding to its left of center placement in the Bard’s canon is that if it is a tragedy, the most tragic figure in it certainly isn’t Julius Caesar, who comes off as pretty much a jerk who deserved his appointment with a bunch of sharp knives while wearing a dress. Whichever side of the tragedy/history conundrum you place this Shakespeare effort one thing remains as certain as death, taxes and the inability of Donald Trump to recognize the truth even when it is staring up at him from Rudy Giuliani’s eyes like angry marbles: if you are an American student you will be forced to read it at some point in your academic career.
William Shakespeare begins his story of Julius Caesar his glorious defeat of Pompey, an opponent of Caesar who seeks the leadership of Rome for himself. Caesar has disposed of the he thought was his greatest rival and arrives for the festival of Lupercal at which a fascinating little crowd has gathered. Two bureaucratic devotees of Pompey dress down constituent of the crowd over the relative ease with which they forget their support of Pompey and toss in their cache for Caesar.
This sets up one of the primary themes of the play and it is what lends it a particular relevance in the America of today: the power of persuasion and manipulation. Throughout the course of the play the masses show a weak-willed eagerness to support anyone who manages to achieve the enviable position of having the last word on a subject. Caesar and his wife Calpurnia arrive for the Lupercal fertility games because Calpurnia has committed the biggest sin possible: she hasn’t done her part in getting knocked up by Julius.
This is a very big deal, made evident by the rather creepy scene in which J.C. gives the go-ahead to his best friend Mark Antony to touch Calpurnia due to a superstition of the era that doing so would cure her unfortunate infertility. Superstition is another major theme of the play that has contemporary relevance. There is growing apprehension among the Roman senators that Julius Caesar hides a secret ambition to become emperor and serve over Rome as essentially an elected dictator. Today, most people think of ancient Rome solely in terms of Roman Empire run by a bunch of crazed dictatorial lunatics, but prior to Caesar, Rome was a republic ruled by elected white men.
Kind of like America at the dawn of the 21st century. But in Rome during Caesar’s ascension to power, his actions seemed to point to a man making a grab to become emperor of the world. Kind of like America in the early 21st century. Unlike in modern day America, however, the Roman Senators who saw Caesar making this grab for power thought it might turn out to be a bad thing. Unlike modern day Senators who facilitate the movement from a republic to something far less, Roman Senators cared enough about keeping what kind of democracy they possessed to take whatever measures were required.
In this case, of course, they convince an honest man named Brutus to go along. Clearly, we are no longer trying to make a connection to modern times when the idea of finding an honest man in the Senate would be about as easy as finding a smart young blonde female celebrity. Plans are drawn up to kill Caesar-not that I’m trying to say a contemporary effort at the same should be made, but wouldn’t it be nice if at least some kind of effort to save our republic were made by Senators?