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Monday, June 19


Much Ado About Shakespeare

Amid the more visceral chaos of the world this year, there has been something of a contretemps involving the Shakespeare in the Park production of Julius Caesar, to wit, that they had placed a Trump-like figure in the part of Caesar.

Those who know anything about the play - or about history - will know one key fact about Julius Caesar, which is to say, he gets stabby-stabby murdered by a gaggle of Roman senators.

Back in the last millennium, I had a minor role in a failed high-school production of Julius Caesar, not so much because I was interested in amateur theatrics, as because it got me out of sports practice for several weeks. The production was being done by the 8th grade, but they were short-handed, so a couple of us 9th graders pitched in seeing as we had studied the play the previous year.

So every week for a couple of months I spent one afternoon in rehearsals. Since my part was a small one and I'd learned it the first day, I took the time to memorise the rest of the play.

And this is the second thing people should know about Julius Caesar, both the play and the man: It's a tragedy.

Was he a tyrant? Perhaps, but less so than many who came later. Was he a great leader? Indubitably. Was it a good idea to kill him?

Friends, Romans, countrymen, lend me your ears;
I come to bury Caesar, not to praise him.
The evil that men do lives after them;
The good is oft interred with their bones;
So let it be with Caesar. The noble Brutus
Hath told you Caesar was ambitious:
If it were so, it was a grievous fault,
And grievously hath Caesar answer’d it.
Here, under leave of Brutus and the rest–
For Brutus is an honourable man;
So are they all, all honourable men–
Come I to speak in Caesar’s funeral.
He was my friend, faithful and just to me:
But Brutus says he was ambitious;
And Brutus is an honourable man.
He hath brought many captives home to Rome
Whose ransoms did the general coffers fill:
Did this in Caesar seem ambitious?
When that the poor have cried, Caesar hath wept:
Ambition should be made of sterner stuff:
Yet Brutus says he was ambitious;
And Brutus is an honourable man.

The play is unequivocal on this. Though its discussion of the honour of the various characters is subtle and complex, its position on that question is clear enough.  When Marc Antony says, So are they all, all honourable men, what he is saying - and the audience will know this - is that in his opinion not a one of them is deserving of the dignity of a final cigarette.

So to me the interesting question was, how does this production handle this question? Does it present Trump as a noble but flawed figure? Does it present Brutus the same, the assassination a tragic error that he must, for honour, pay for with his life?  The parallel with Trump here would be painfully clear - that the fruitless Russia investigations and the inane and incessant calls for impeachment are folly that can only lead in disaster for all involved.

Or does it play it broadly and bastardise one of the greatest works of English literature in service of convenient political point-scoring?

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