In 1995 Julius Caesar suffered a second and most terrible bout of backstabbing treachery. This time the conspirators were the Qualifications and Curriculum Authority (QCA), who decided the set text had grown surplus to requirements, banishing it from schools for evermore like Jamie and the turkey twizzlers.
For reactionary critic Harold Bloom, the decision signified no less than the collapse of society itself. In a great state of agitation, Bloom wrote, ‘Replacing Caesar is hardly a royal road to enlightenment. A country where television, movies, computers and Stephen King have replaced reading is already in acute danger of cultural collapse. That danger is dreadfully augmented by our yielding education to the ideologues whose deepest resentment is of poetry itself.’
Of course, this callous act of bardicide had nothing to do with resenting Shakespeare, or poetry. It was just that the QCA felt, quite rightly, the play was not challenging enough for sixth formers. But Julius Caesar is unfortunately still relevant: a superpower’s self-destructive pursuit of wealth, the politics of colonial conquest, the human cost of removing a tyrant from power, a leader who believes ‘the cause is in my will’. Sound familiar?
Shakespeare’s play opens in 44 BC, when an astonishing sequence of conquests had made Rome the centre of an empire that stretched from North Africa to Britain, from Persia to Spain. But despite its triumphs, the city was collapsing from within.
A senate had long governed Rome, but as its military endeavours grew increasingly ambitious, its generals became far more powerful than the individually weak senators to whom they supposedly owed allegiance. In addition, the Roman polity suffered from sharp class divisions. After a long struggle the plebeians had won the right to elect their own ‘tribunes’ but all women and most men were still excluded from political power. Though the republic was a democracy in some respects, the majority of Rome’s population did not have much of an interest in sustaining it.
Julius Caesar emerged from his world conquest equipped with celebrity status and absolutist aspirations. After legal and military measures failed to curb his growing power, a group of conspirators led by Caius Cassius and Marcus Brutus summarily assassinated him. Civil war erupted, with those loyal to Caesar eventually winning the day.
While Deborah Warner’s production struggles for new ideas, it does play around with traditional interpretations of the characters. In The Characters of Shakespeare’s Plays William Hazlitt described Brutus as a naive utopian drawn into a mucky political assassination: ‘Thus it has always been. Those who mean well themselves think well of others, and fall prey to their security. That humanity and honesty which dispose men to resist injustice and tyranny render them unfit to cope with the cunning and power of those who opposed them.’
Pacing around his orchard, Brutus seems to convince himself that removing the Caesar will serve ‘the common good’. But Warner takes these words with a pinch of salt – and after so much similar from Blair, who would blame her?
Warner’s Caesar is fierce and imposing, hardly the frail epileptic the text seems to imply. Simon Russell Beale’s Cassius is not so much the scheming Machiavellian, but a timid, bullied character, more resentful than envious of those who hold office. The irritating, self-important Ralph Fiennes dances about the place, wowing the audience with his great range of expressions.
The masses get the inevitable bad press – more of a mob than a majority. Fickle and bloodthirsty, they are swayed by Antony’s rhetoric like a hypnotist’s pendulum. Their mindlessness culminates with the attack on Cinna the poet, raped and stabbed for having the same name as one of the conspirators.
But I suppose that’s what happens when you take classics off the curriculum. I’m not sure what Bloom would make of Warner’s modern day setting. The events of 44 BC are brought crashing into the present, with mobile phones, televisions, machine guns, and modern dress – though she rightly resists making direct allusions to the war in Iraq.
All attempts to familiarise these stories with our time should be applauded. It is pointless to impound the script in its original setting. Shakespeare himself was no antiquarian. He imagined the characters of Julius Caesar wearing Elizabethan dress, and equipped ancient Rome with a medieval invention – the mechanical clock.
These stories stand the test of time because we find their depiction of societies divided by inequality and injustice persistently relevant. In many ways Bloom’s anxieties were misdirected, because the time when Shakespeare has no bearing on the present will be the time when we are most cultured. It is a time we should all look forward to. Ben Jonson’s celebrated epithet to Shakespeare read: ‘He was not of an age, but for all time.’ I sincerely hope not.
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