Wednesday, June 14, 2017

The Julius Caesar Kerfuffle, Take 2: A Theatre Historian's Perspective

Curmie suggests reading the play before
commenting on it.
The saga of Delta Airlines’ and Bank of America’s reneging on promises made to the Public Theater because of a production of Julius Caesar which links Shakespeare’s title character to President Trump continues. It is an oversimplification but likely not a falsehood to suggest that the majority of the people who are up in arms about the show have never voluntarily read or seen Julius Caesar, or indeed any other play by Shakespeare. Curmie has; he has letters after his name and a few decades of teaching theatre history and dramatic literature to college students. It is therefore not boastful to suggest that I might just get this stuff better than does someone whose understanding of English Renaissance drama comes from Breitbart and the Drudge Report. So it’s time to dust off the PhD and talk about something Curmie actually knows something about.

For one thing, a passing knowledge of the central themes of Julius Caesar leads to the inevitable conclusion that the assassination of a nation’s leader is never a good idea. (And how long would William Shakespeare have lasted in Elizabethan England had he suggested otherwise?)  We may, in this play, initially think Brutus is the hero—his is the largest role, after all, and his participation in the murder of Caesar is the central motivating action of the play. But Caesar’s death leads only to precisely the kinds of problems the conspirators were trying to prevent, as Mark Antony begins to understand almost immediately. He demonstrates this new comprehension in the “Friends, Romans, countrymen” speech, which clearly serves to show Caesar as a noble and generous ruler. It is this oration that gets the play into serious structural difficulties: Caesar is the title character, Brutus is the lead, but it is Mark Antony who carries Shakespeare’s voice.

This irony of precipitating fate by trying to avoid it is hardly new with Shakespeare, of course. After all, the back-story of the play Aristotle regarded as the epitome of the tragic form, Sophocles’ Oedipus Tyrannos, involves precisely that phenomenon. Had Oedipus stayed in Corinth, trusting in his sense and moderation to avoid the two-fold horror of killing his father and sleeping with his mother, he would never have been forced off the road at that intersection, wouldn’t have killed Laius in the world’s first documented case of road rage, wouldn’t have been a position to solve the riddle of the Sphinx and thereby be awarded the newly-widowed queen as his bride.

But Shakespeare shows regicide a lot. Think Hamlet. Think Macbeth. Twice each, if you count the pre-play murder of Hamlet’s father. In both cases, the second regicide is linked to the first, but not as clearly as a casual reader or spectator might imagine. For one thing, ghosts were seen by the 16th century Anglican Church as inherently emanations from the Devil, so trusting in the apparition at the top of the former play is, shall we say, contraindicated. Perhaps for this reason, Hamlet constructs what seems to him to be a legitimate test of Claudius’s guilt (it isn’t, as if Claudius were completely innocent, he would reasonably interpret the “mousetrap” scene as a threat on his own life by his nephew, who arranged the entertainment), but even then he balks at actually exacting vengeance on the king. Of course, he believes he’s stabbing Claudius when he actually slays Polonius, but Renaissance thinking concentrates on the deed as much as on the intention: a prince who kills a counselor might not be acting in the best interests of the state, but he’s probably on safe legal and indeed ethical ground.

It isn’t until Claudius has already directly caused the deaths (or imminent deaths) of Gertrude, Laertes, and Hamlet himself that Hamlet plunges his sword, the tip of which was poisoned by Claudius himself, into the usurping king. The killing may be related to the death of Hamlet’s father, but there’s certainly no proximate cause. Moreover, the killing of the king—the one we see in Act V, scene ii—is, if not literally an act of self-defense (Hamlet will die, anyway), at least the first cousin to such an act.

Macbeth is an even more intriguing case. The murder of Duncan is a Very Bad Thing, and we’re reminded of how good the king has been to Macbeth shortly before the Thane repays his Lord by stabbing him to death. But notice that Macduff, even with plenty of evidence that Macbeth had turned into a tyrant, does not take immediate action. Rather, he goes to England to gain the support of Malcolm, the legitimate heir to Duncan’s crown. It is there that he learns of the murder of his wife and children, providing him with a personal motive to go after Macbeth, but it’s important to remember that Macduff is already persuading Malcolm to raise an army: the personal vendetta is simply the icing on the proverbial cake.

But even Macduff’s actions would have been ethically complicated to the Elizabethan mind. Yes, Macbeth’s ascension to the throne came as a direct result of his perfidy. Yes, Macbeth turned out to be a horrible ruler. Yes, Malcolm was rightfully king. But the theory of basileus, what was later to be called “divine right,” affirmed both a political and a religious belief that monarchs are chosen by God and it’s not for mere mortals to interfere with His plan. Bad kings will ultimately get their comeuppance, but it’s God’s job, not ours, both to judge and to impose justice.

Perhaps the best example of this phenomenon comes in the full (modernized spelling) title of an early Elizabethan play generally attributed to Thomas Preston: A Lamentable Tragedy Mixed Full of Pleasant Mirth, Containing the Life of Cambyses, King of Persia, from the Beginning of His Kingdom unto His Death, His One Good Deed of Execution, After That Many Wicked Deeds and Tyrannous Murders Committed by and through Him, and Last of All, His Odious Death by God’s Justice Appointed. Normally, Curmie talks about this title in terms of the English utter disregard for Italian and French ideals of purity of form, but it tells us something about justice, as well. Cambyses is, as the title suggests, guilty of “many wicked deeds and tyrannous murders.” But it’s not up to the populace to exact vengeance. Their job is to endure, and to let God sort it out in the end.

Similarly, the right path for Brutus was to put a check on Cassius et al. and to let Caesar do his thing; everything will be sorted out by a higher power in due course. And the same applies to those who oppose Donald Trump. Curmie is a member of the “Resistance” to the extent that he regards the current occupant of the White House as a dangerous, xenophobic, grifter. Curmie will resist virtually every decision of the Trump administration, but the key word in this sentence is “virtually.” A political position is not inherently bad just because it is advanced by an unethical ass-clown like Donald Trump. Nor will you hear “not my President” rhetoric from Curmie.

And no one, repeat, no one deserves to be killed in cold blood. Curmie suspects that Oskar Eustis, the director of the Public Theater’s Julius Caesar, agrees.

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