Julius Caesar — RSC Film Review
Royal Shakespearean Company Performance
Film Release, Clay Theater, San Francisco
June 13, 2017
This play is not really about Julius Caesar. It is about his assassins, particularly Brutus and Cassius. Julius Caesar’s role is actually subordinate, although he is a strong presence and the whole impetus for the play and its dynamics revolve around him. But don’t expect to see an exploration of the character of Caesar. Caesar is dead and out of it about half way through (Act III, Scene 1). Nothing in this play is very clear. I don’t think Shakespeare understood this event. Cassius sums it up in Act I, Scene 2.
Why, man, he doth bestride the narrow world like a Colossus, and we petty men walk under his huge legs and peep about to find ourselves dishonourable graves. Men at some time are masters of their fates. The fault, dear Brutus, is not in our stars, but in ourselves, that we are underlings.
Caesar is magnified into this larger than life force, a godlike figure walking among petty men who envy and fear him. It’s naive. It totally ignores the political ferment of ancient Rome, the turmoil and deterioration in the society that created the need for dominant military leaders. Killing Caesar did not stop the march toward imperial rule. The forces in the society that would eventuate in this outcome were already well in motion. Caesar had already been given the title ‘Dictator for Life’ by the Senate. Of course, Caesar was ambitious. They were all ambitious. Ambition is not enough reason to kill a leader. Ambition is a prerequisite to be a leader. There were entrenched factions in the politics of Rome that had economic components as well. Shakespeare doesn’t explore these aspects of the matter. Shakespeare’s conception of the assassination comes down to warding off a single individual’s drive toward becoming a monarch by a group with conflicting, but noble motives. However, Rome was already a plutocracy that depended on vast numbers of slaves and tribute from conquered peoples in the ceaseless and ever expanding military campaigns. It is commonly estimated in the first century BC that the slave population in Italy was 30-40 percent. Rome was already a de facto military dictatorship, the only question was who would command it and reap the spoils. In Shakespeare’s eyes the assassins knew Caesar, admired him, even loved him. He sees them haunted by guilt, conflicted within themselves, driven to suicide. I don’t buy all of this. The characters and motivations of the assassins as Shakespeare presents them, don’t make sense. Shakespeare presents them as weak men full of self doubt and petty envy. But historical accounts allege 60 senators participated in the assassination of Julius Caesar. It was a very decisive verdict by the ruling elite.
One cannot see this play as a historical depiction of Julius Caesar or of his assassins. Julius Caesar’s assassination was pivotal event in a long civil war within Roman society over who would govern and how the growing wealth being amassed from numerous foreign military conquests would be distributed. To understand this play properly I think one must look at contemporary politics in Shakespeare’s England and also at Shakespeare himself.
Much of present day interest in this play is stimulated by the rise of Donald Trump and his supposed pretensions to dictatorship. But the only thing Donald Trump and Julius Caesar have in common is pathological ambition, and even in that Caesar was much more astute and prudent than Trump. Keep in mind, Caesar was given the title of ‘Dictator for Life’ by a vote of the Roman Senate. Not even the most foolhardy Republicans would vote that upon Trump. Caesar had friends. He had a broad constituency. He was respected and admired even by his enemies. He was an accomplished soldier and general. He had notable achievements and was a natural leader of men. His soldiers loved and respected him and were intensely loyal to him. He never had to ask for their loyalty. He commanded their loyalty by the force of his personality and his capable leadership in battle that inspired their faith in him and their will to fight to the death for him. Trump has nobody like that. Major biographers say that Trump has no friends. Caesar had a vision for Roman society that involved redistributing land to the common people and to his war veterans. But Trump has no vision for society beyond his own aggrandizement, mean spirited exclusions, and further enriching the already fabulously wealthy. He is a charlatan who has seduced a wide swath of disenfranchised people in American society, promising them things that they desperately long for, but which he cannot deliver and has no intention of fulfilling. Caesar said at one point, “I am as constant as the northern Star.” (Act III, Scene 1). When did Trump ever profess any constancy? If he did, he would be laughed to scorn. He is erratic, fickle, impulsive and lacking in foresight. He often seems to fail to grasp the consequences of his own words and actions. A closer comparison to the situation of Julius Caesar would be John F. Kennedy. Kennedy was the leader of a faction that wanted to fundamentally change the direction of American politics, particularly in foreign policy, as well as in domestic priorities that rankled the established elite. Donald Trump is no Jack Kennedy. And he is no Julius Caesar either.
This RSC production was perfectly capable. I thought Martin Hutson stood out as Cassius. James Corrigan did a good job with Mark Anthony. Hannah Morrish was a little weak as Portia. I felt that she recited the role, but she did not feel it. The character seemed to lack intensity. The rest were fine, but not overly impressive. It is a good solid presentation of Julius Caesar, but I think comparisons and parallels to contemporary political events are based on a lack of understanding, both of the Shakespeare play and the people and events depicted in it.