Illuminating “Julius Caesar”

A scene from OSF's 2011 production of Julius Caesar
Julius Caesar (2017): Rodney Gardiner, Stephen Michael Spencer, Armando Durán, and Danforth Comins. Photo by Jenny Graham.

OSF’s 2017 production of Julius Caesar opened weeks after Donald Trump’s inauguration as the 45th president of the United States, and we now present an archival stream of this same production weeks after Joe Biden’s inauguration as the 46th president of the United States. So much has happened in the intervening four years, and Shana Cooper’s staging of Shakespeare’s play about power, politics, and democracy feels as relevant in March 2021 and it did in March 2017.

Below is a selection from Garrett Eisler’s article about Julius Caesar from OSF’s 2017 Illuminations magazine. In this excerpt, Eisler, writing at the beginning of the Trump presidency and after the vitriolic 2016 presidential election, explores the ambivalent contours of Shakespeare’s own views on democracy and rule by the people. “Perhaps in the wake of our own tumultuous election season,” Eisler wrote, “we can ponder the play’s cautionary history lesson in a more critical and questioning frame of mind.” Read on to see how the questions Eisler poses about Julius Caesar feel both familiar and new when considered against the backdrop of our current political moment.

A selection from IlluminationsJulius Caesar

By Garrett Eisler

Shakespeare and Democracy

Shakespeare’s lasting popularity in the United States may appear to suggest his plays appeal to a democratic sensibility. But would the playwright—a loyal servant of two very powerful monarchs—have been surprised by that kind of reception?

In the case of Julius Caesar, American audiences have historically been inclined to see the conspirators as freedom fighters out to vanquish a tyrant, the man who “crossed the Rubicon,” marched his armies on his native country and began the transformation of Rome from a republic into an empire. Caesar’s very name has long been synonymous with power-hungry dictatorships, and the idea of tyrannicide has always been a popular American rallying cry. Many of the Founding Fathers were known fans of the play, including Thomas Jefferson, who could have been channeling it when he wrote, “The tree of liberty must be refreshed from time to time with the blood of patriots and tyrants.”

Americans’ take on the play

The play has a long legacy in the U.S. as a rousing pro-democracy pageant. Published scripts and performances proliferated widely during the American Revolution. In the Civil War, the Confederacy co-opted Shakespeare for their own cause; John Wilkes Booth, hailing from a family of famous Shakespearean actors, was so obsessed with the role of Brutus that he acted out his own assassination, in a theatre no less, shouting a line of Latin—“sic semper tyrannis” (“thus always to tyrants”)—clearly evoking the world of the play, if not quoting exactly. In the 20th century, actor-director Orson Welles updated the freedom-fighter interpretation with his 1937 stage production set in the Rome of Mussolini, replete with jackboots, armbands, and Nuremberg-rally imagery for Antony’s funeral oration. He even retitled the play Caesar: Death of a Dictator.

But was Shakespeare really approaching Roman history as a small-r republican or a small-d democrat? It surely would have been risky to fully advocate the violent overthrow of a beloved ruler in 1599, a time of much anxiety over England’s “homeland security,” including several revealed plots against Queen Elizabeth herself. With the nation threatened by Catholic-Protestant religious turmoil within and foreign powers abroad, the ever-present monitoring of London’s public theatres loomed especially large over Shakespeare’s company. Caesar was also more revered than reviled during the Renaissance. Elizabeth even had a bust of him installed at her Greenwich palace, and Dante condemned Brutus and Cassius to the final circle of hell alongside Judas Iscariot.

Julius Caesar (2017): Ensemble. Photo by Jenny Graham.

That fickle mob

Censorship or self-censorship aside, though, “power to the people” was probably not the message Shakespeare ever intended to convey. In this and his other Roman plays (especially Coriolanus), he expresses plenty of skepticism about democracy. Nowhere is this clearer than in his depiction of the Roman electorate as a fickle and malleable mob. When Brutus defends his actions before them, they, at first, effusively agree that “This Caesar was a tyrant” and “We are blessed that Rome is rid of him.” (Ironically, one plebeian, overlooking Brutus’s whole argument, cries, “Let him be Caesar!”) But when Antony takes the stage, he has no trouble reversing their sympathies, stirring them up against the man they just praised: “We’ll burn the house of Brutus,” they say now. “Most noble Caesar! We’ll revenge his death!”

Antony quite deliberately and skillfully unleashes mob violence in his manipulation of the plebeians. “Now let it work,” he prays privately, “Mischief, thou art afoot.” Shakespeare shows us the chilling effects of such mass hysteria in the very next scene, when citizens corner a man named Cinna, which also happens to be the name of one of the conspirators. He pleads with them that he is just an innocent poet, not the man they seek, but the mob attacks him anyway. “Tear him for his bad verses,” they say. So much for vox populi.

Rather than simply a blanket anti-democracy or pro-tyrannicide statement, Julius Caesar more objectively appears to be a continuous debate between the two extremes.

The funeral oration and the murder of Cinna mark a key tonal shift midway through the play from the lofty justifications of the assassination to the act’s bloody repercussions and the conspiracy’s ultimate failure. This tragic reversal gives the text a balance and juxtaposition that is essential to considering Shakespeare’s true political mindset while writing. Rather than simply a blanket anti-democracy or pro-tyrannicide statement, Julius Caesar more objectively appears to be a continuous debate between the two extremes. As scholar James Shapiro notes, “Even as Shakespeare offers compelling arguments for tyrannicide in the opening acts of the play, he shows in the closing ones the savage bloodletting and political breakdown that . . . were soon to follow.”

Julius Caesar has often been promoted as a kind of civic text in America. (Theatre producer Joe Papp often recalled how his first exposure to Shakespeare was reciting from the play in public school in the 1930s.) But recurring skepticism about democracy throughout Shakespeare’s work indicates he may have considered its greatest flaw a capacity for self-destruction at the hands of a gullible electorate. “When he tried to imagine electioneering, voting and representation,” Stephen Greenblatt observes in his book Shakespeare’s Freedom, “he conjured up situations in which people, manipulated by wealthy and fathomlessly cynical politicians, were repeatedly induced to act against their own interests.” Perhaps in the wake of our own tumultuous election season, we can ponder the play’s cautionary history lesson in a more critical and questioning frame of mind.