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December Books 5) Julius Caesar

5) Julius Caesar, by William Shakespeare

I probably know this best of all the Shakespeare plays - I'm pretty sure it was the one I did for O-level. It is very good. It is unusual in that the title character is killed off before the halfway point; the play is really about the fall of Brutus, and his relations with his ally Cassius, his enemy Antony, his wife Portia and of course his victim Caesar.

The dramatic climax is very early, in Act 3, with the murder of Caesar and then Mark Antony's funeral oration. The rest of the play is really mopping up the aftermath. Brutus' sense of honour is insufficient to see him through, as he bickers with Cassius and makes a series of strategic and tactical blunders; meanwhile, Antony swallows his dislike of Octavian in order to take power.

Like Henry V, it's difficult not to read this in the context of what was happening in 1599; in which case this is the more Essex-sceptic play, of people grasping for power and not quite making it (while the righteous dynastic heir, off in the fringes, takes the power which is his due when the time is right). The character of Mark Antony doesn't fit terribly well into that analysis - which perhaps means that it is not terribly well founded!

Having whined about the Arkangel productions of the last three plays, I was glad to see a return to form here, especially from the three leads - Adrian Lester as Antony, John Bowe as Brutus and Michael Feast as a rather young-sounding Caesar. It's also good to hear, for once in this series, a black actor cast in a part that is usually "white". This is solid stuff, and very enjoyable.

Henry VI, Part I | Henry VI, Part II | Henry VI, Part III | Richard III | Comedy of Errors | Titus Andronicus | Taming of the Shrew | Two Gentlemen of Verona | Love's Labour's Lost | Romeo and Juliet | Richard II | A Midsummer Night's Dream | King John | The Merchant of Venice | Henry IV, Part I | Henry IV, Part II | Henry V | Julius Caesar | Much Ado About Nothing | As You Like It | Merry Wives of Windsor | Hamlet | Twelfth Night | Troilus and Cressida | All's Well That Ends Well | Measure for Measure | Othello | King Lear | Macbeth | Antony and Cleopatra | Coriolanus | Timon of Athens | Pericles | Cymbeline | The Winter's Tale | The Tempest | Henry VIII | The Two Noble Kinsmen | Edward III | Sir Thomas More (fragment)


( 8 comments — Leave a comment )
Dec. 11th, 2008 03:41 am (UTC)
I can confirm that you actually did Macbeth for O-level -- you may remember winning Best Actor as Macbeth wearing nothing but a very short tunic.

I feel like the Essex-era message is not as specific as you have here. The point I get, in common with (say) Richard III and Hamlet, is Shakespeare's conservatism (in the Burkean sense): once things start to fall apart no-one knows where it's going to end. In the hands of the right actor, Octavian's few scenes (particularly where he crosses with Antony over tactics) can be dynamite; but no-one's pointing to him at the start of the play and saying "we must dispose of Caesar before Octavian is old enough to be a threat".

The BBC version of this is disappointing, but I saw a pretty good production in the Abbey a couple of years ago. Peter Hanly (Edward II in Braveheart) did a great job turning Casca into comic relief -- a real reminder of how Shakespeare wrote for actors, not just to be read.
Dec. 11th, 2008 05:25 am (UTC)
I'm pretty sure Macbeth was my third-year play, not my O-level one. (My Lady Macbeth now runs her own training company in Teesside.)

I agree I may be over-Essexing this one. I stand by it for Herny V</a> though.
Dec. 11th, 2008 05:11 pm (UTC)
I have a weird feeling that you did Macbeth in third year and for O-level. Did you maybe do Julius Caesar the year we were in Holland? Because I know you won Best Actor every year you went in for it (1st, 3rd, 4th) and I'm pretty certain you played the Scot a lot. (1st year you were Mercutio, right?)

Do you think Essex, who whatever else he was wasn't fat, is meant to map onto Cassius?
Dec. 11th, 2008 08:36 pm (UTC)
My memory is:
1st year (1979) I did indeed win Best Actor as Mercutio in R&J.
2nd year we were away but the play on the syllabus was Julius Caesar, which I read through when the rest of my class was doing English lessons.
3rd year was Macbeth, and I did indeed win Best Actor again, with Angela as my consort (and Eileen was the slain Duncan).
4th year and 5th year were Julius Caesar again, for O-level; I was Cassius, but am not convinced that I won Best Actor that year. (I think Conor was Brutus; I remember Casca being played by Julie who now deals in antiques in Cligherhead.)

As for Essex, no, I think the parallel is Brutus, as the guy who tried to seize power for what he saw as the right reasons but was basically wrong. I admit this is partly through having just read Loades on the Cecils, who portray Essex as goofy rather than thin and sinister. (Write-up coming Real Soon Now.)
Dec. 11th, 2008 09:38 pm (UTC)
I don't know if you have seen the production of the Resistable Rise of Arturo Ui that is on in the Abbey at the moment, but there is a great scene where Ui uses Antony's big speech to practice demagogy.
Dec. 11th, 2008 10:54 am (UTC)
I too have appreciated it since studying it at school. I got to play Caesar.
(Deleted comment)
Dec. 11th, 2008 05:43 pm (UTC)
I imagine it's like film trailers nowadays that plug whichever star is going to be in the film over other people even if they're not the main character.
Dec. 11th, 2008 09:42 pm (UTC)
I saw the production William mentions too. I picked up from it not that Brutus is indecisive but that he is too noble and honourable for the times he lives in. This, ultimately, is why the Republic is doomed to fail - the Romans no longer have the qualities needed to sustain it. I think maybe you are reading too much into this one with respect to all the Essex stuff, but the play is implicitly about the desirability and necessity of monarchy, with republican rule seen as being something that will inevitably give way to chaos or dictatorship.
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