20. Julius Caesar
One of the remarkable things that struck me this week, as I sat down to read Julius Caesar, was that I’m over halfway through my Shakespeare Challenge and yet I still haven’t read many of the plays that might be considered his greatest. Hamlet (next week), King Lear, Macbeth, Othello, Twelfth Night are all yet to come. It certainly feels like the more I progress through his work, the more complicated, multi-layered and nuanced it becomes.
Julius Caesar is certainly a great play but not one without its challenges.
One of the biggest challenges with this play for me is simply the number of characters. There are a lot of people involved – all men (though there’s no reason why you wouldn’t cast this gender-blind). Not only are there a lot of people but a lot of them have quite similar names! Undoubtedly this is more confusing when reading than when watching but it is still a challenge for the modern director to make these characters clear and distinct for an audience. You want audiences to be questioning the action, but you don’t want them questioning who is who. For that reason, it is a play that I feel is best tackled with a large company.
That aside, the play is a fascinating one on many levels. Firstly, the political manoeuvrings are very relatable and leave us with lots of interesting questions. The play hinges on the issue of whether Julius Caesar will accept the crown of Rome – thereby shifting the political system from a republic to a monarchy. For Brutus and his co-conspirators, Caesar is on the cusp of become a tyrant and needs to be removed from power. What is fascinating is, why do they need to kill him in order to prevent him from becoming a tyrant? If this is their only option, surely he has become a tyrant already? By taking this option, aren’t they acting tyrannically themselves? Most fundamentally, what is the difference between Caesar as leader of the Republic and Caesar as the monarch of Rome? What difference would him accepting the crown actually make?
The way in which the senators and political figures of Rome decide that Caesar has become too powerful and needs to be removed, feels incredibly familiar to modern political world of (metaphorical) backstabbing. ‘I’ll support you, while it serves my purpose but turn on you as soon as it doesn’t.’ In this way, this is definitely a play that merits repeat performance and has a lot to say to a modern audience.
Furthermore, it is a play that puts public opinion at the heart. I can’t think of any other Shakespeare play in which ‘the people’ play such a clear role. Whether that is welcoming Caesar at the start of the piece or being persuaded by Mark Anthony of the ‘honour’ of Brutus, the people of Rome are a central character throughout. This also strikes me as very modern. The politicians of Rome are constantly seeking public approval, and the people are swayed by strength of personality and rhetoric much more than any kind of objective fact. I’d love to do a version of this play in traverse, with the audience on two sides, so that the people are looking at each other and aware of each other throughout.
The other thing that I found striking about this play is how big a role superstition plays. A successful production really needs to make this part of the world, otherwise it just won’t hang together. Not only does it start with the famous warning to ‘beware the Ides of March’, but there is also a stormy night of ghoulish portents of evil, and Brutus is visited by the ghost of Caesar on the eve of battle (in much the same way Richard III is visiting by the ghosts of those he has murdered). This is a central aspect of the play and can’t be shied away from.
This is absolutely a play that I would like to direct. It is also, however, a play that I would want to direct with a large ensemble cast, probably with a decent size stage. So, I might have to wait a few years before giving it a go!