“He thinks too much, such men are dangerous” – Shakespeare via “Julius Caesar”
If you read my post last week, you’ll notice this is the second blog in a row where I am referencing Shakespeare. Last week it was “The Merchant of Venice,” this week it’s “Julius Caesar.” This is because I’m in the middle of a repertory, or mini-showcase as it were, of four Shakespeare plays going up simultaneously. Maryland Shakespeare Festival (no, it’s not the same as the Ren Fair) rotates the four shows, with one performing each Friday, Saturday, or Sunday with the same group of actors and only three rehearsals per show. This is how it was done (or close to it) in Shakespeare’s time, and almost no one does it like this anymore. So we think we are pretty awesome. Maybe you’ll agree. Okay, enough shameless self-promotion.
With every show we open, we take the time to examine why Shakespeare is still relevant, and the answer I’m finding is because people don’t really change. Well, we as individuals maybe do (emphasis on maybe), but the Romans had many of the same problems with politics that we have. When I heard that exit poles from this Tuesday’s Republican primary showed that a huge portion of the South still believes Obama’s a Muslim, like so many other liberals, I was outraged at the ignorance of Americans. I believe my exact words were “What the f-ck is wrong with America?” Then I started working on “Julius Caesar,” and I was reminded that manipulating an ignorant public is not something new or exclusive to America. It’s the oldest tactic in the book.
The funny part about “Julius Caesar” is that it’s not about Julius Caesar. It’s about four men fighting for power after Caesar dies only a few scenes in, leaving them to spend three acts pandering to an angry mob of plebs. Sound familiar? It should; it smacks of election year politics. First comes Brutus, who in one monologue convinces the public that it was a good idea to assassinate Caesar in the town square. Then enters Antony (gallantly played by myself), who makes up a very romantic and almost completely fictional account of Caesar’s death, and four monologues later the plebs are ready to burn down Brutus’s house. The plebs in “Caesar” don’t think. They are easily manipulated by a few pretty words. They are told what to think, and they do what they are told. Only in a play can the public be so stupid and quickly turned, right?
Oh wait…if that were the case, would we have Rick Santorum still in the running? I think not. For all the fighting and pandering for power, Rome ends up in a dictatorship, which is not what anyone wanted. When people can no longer listen to each other and the tactics get nastier and nastier, the end result is never good. Eventually the ignorant plebs are the ones who get shat on the most. Is this our fate? I guess one plus is that Obama hasn’t shared Caesar’s fate and been assassinated (yet); does that mean we are less violent than the Romans? I don’t think so. How many people would kill him if they could? Or, vice versa, how many people would kill Newt Gingrich or Rick Santorum if they could get away with it? Many, I think, if technology hadn’t complicated things. But Rome didn’t fall overnight either. The decline was gradual, brought on by a lifestyle that was unsustainable and, at least in part, by the influx of Christianity.
I’m scared for America. How do we avoid the Romans’ mistakes? Obviously I’m far from the first to make these observations; countless graduate students have no doubt written their dissertations on this subject far more eloquently than me. But I think it behooves us to let art remind us of these lessons. Isn’t that the point of art, after all? Perhaps our freedom of expression is one thing we’ve done better than the Romans. It certainly helped to drive England in the right direction, as Shakespeare reminds us. I hope it’s enough. I hope.