Book Review: Julius Caesar

Julius Caesar, by William Shakespeare, edited by Jonathan Bate and Eric Rasmussen

Off and on over the past few months I have been rereading the Shakespeare plays in the Royal Shakespeare Company editions [1] which look at not only the text of the plays but also the way in which those plays are performed by a premier acting company.  Strangely enough, Julius Caesar is the first play of the bard’s that I ever read, in a small quarto edition that was absent any sort of supporting material and just included the text of the play.  In reading this version of the play I was struck by the way in which the various directors of the play were very confident in their portrayals even if there were mixed to adverse critical reviews and popularity of their portrayals of the events of this play.  A great part of that springs from the difficulty in making a play like this one relevant without making it too relevant, a temptation that many directors succumb to in taking historical plays and reading into them the contemporary politics of the age by making it appear as if Julius Caesar is supposed to be about fascism or about some sort of political movement or enemy and not a play that has many layers and a great deal of nuance.

The text of this play begins with introductory material about Elizabethan politics and the roman example as well as Roman philosophy, before noting some aspects of the text (which only appears in the First Folio and not any quarto editions) and some key facts about the play that demonstrate Caesar’s small presence in this play, even if it is all about him.  The text of the play itself is a bit less than 100 pages, and has some powerful dialogue and deeply interesting characterization.  After that there are some brief textual notes and a scene-by-scene analysis of the play.  There is a somewhat lengthy discussion of the overview of Julius Caesar as it was performed, with some notes by the editors that the play was performed largely intact because it was capable of many readings, both pro-authority and anti-authority, and therefore largely immune to the redacting tendencies of many later editors that plagued many of Shakespeare’s dramas, along with the way the plays have been performed by the Royal Shakespeare Company.  After this there is the usual discussion of Shakespeare’s career in the theater as well as various historical and chronological notes and references and suggestions for further reading.

The most interesting aspect of this play, and particularly this text of this play, is the way that the editors seek to justify their own modernization of the setting of the play in light of Shakespeare’s own use of then-contemporary costuming and anachronistic elements that were not historically accurate.  It is frequently the case in literature that plays, whether they be Japanese No dramas or Shakespearean ones, use the past in order to shine a light on the present in a way that is too delicate to be done through contemporary dramas alone.  There is a reason, for example, that the historical plays end a few monarchs before the current one in avoiding too great a degree of topicality that might be hazardous to a playwright.  Seen in this light, Julius Caesar has a high degree of perennial relevance because of its pessimism about civil war and its high degree of ambivalence towards both authoritarian and revolutionary tendencies.  It is not always difficult to kill a dictator, but how does one preserve a republic in the face of the social tensions that afflicted the late Roman Republic and many contemporary regimes?  As that is not a straightforward problem to solve, the play itself is not a straightforward one.

[1] See, for example:

https://edgeinducedcohesion.blog/2018/06/20/book-review-the-tempest/

https://edgeinducedcohesion.blog/2018/06/20/book-review-measure-for-measure/

https://edgeinducedcohesion.blog/2018/05/17/book-review-cymbeline/

https://edgeinducedcohesion.blog/2018/05/17/book-review-pericles/

About nathanalbright

I'm a person with diverse interests who loves to read. If you want to know something about me, just ask.
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