We were in the second row Tuesday night for “Julius Caesar” at Oregon Shakespeare Festival in Ashland. The play, directed by Shana Cooper, is both timely and powerful. This modern production is also highly inventive. The ancient tale is set in contemporary times, with urban decay on full display—the walls are literally decomposing as the narrative unfolds.
The play is full of memorable scenes. The closing of the First Act is absolutely searing and unforgettable. We watched a mob stomp an innocent poet to death while chanting “tear him”.
Violence is at the center of this play and at the center of the human drama. Caesar is murdered. Mobs are incited to kill. A civil war breaks out. Shakespeare wrote “Julius Caesar” in 1599. The events that the play depicts occurred many centuries before that. Yet, the play could not be more relevant than it is right now.
Let’s hear from Cassius, a Senator, on the conditions in Rome…
And why should Caesar be a tyrant then?
Poor man! I know he would not be a wolf
But that he sees the Romans are but sheep;
He were no lion, were not Romans hinds.
Those that with haste will make a mighty fire
Begin it with weak straws. What trash is Rome,
What rubbish, and what offal when it serves
For the base matter to illuminate
So vile a thing as Caesar! (Act 1, Scene 3)
Cassius is the main conspirator, along with Brutus. They’re both moody men who let their assumptions get the best of them, and who are ultimately trapped by their own minds and obsessions. In the above passage, Cassius seems to say it’s the common Roman who is equally at fault, and that people get the leaders they deserve. His conspiracy to murder Caesar was driven by the idea that he might do horrible things sometime in the future. It was not about settling an old score for a crime he had already perpetrated. I like Cassius for the most part, but Caesar rightly notes that “he thinks too much.”
Another theme in the play that stands out is how easy it is to sway the crowd with rhetoric, as Mark Antony proves at Caesar’s funeral.
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. (Act 3, Scene 2)
Shakespeare is the master of duplicitous tongues, and in Mark Antony, the Bard has a perfect snake. Antony praises Caesar while inciting his fellow Romans to drive the conspirators from their homes. He’s a real piece of work, Mark Antony.
What can we learn from this amazing historical drama from the world’s greatest playwright? We can learn that power is a narcotic, while deceit and violence are blunt means to power’s unjust ends.