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Anis Haffar Writes | William Shakespeare's "Julius Caesar" Part 2

Wed, 24 Jan, 2018

Picture: Caesar Addressing his Troops.
Revisited for WASSCE & IGCSE (Drama) Students

The Part 1 of this piece centred on three aspects: One, the importance of Shakespeare’s work in bridging the gap between the ancient and modern, and cutting across cultures; Two, the heroic adventures of Julius Caesar, and his murder in the Roman senate; and Three, Mark Antony refuting Brutus’s claim that Caesar sought a kingly crown through excessive ambition.

The play, Julius Caesar, set the dramatic tone in the assassination of “a tyrant”, “a man too full of himself”. It also exposed the fickle and gullible mob, as Cassius allowed that Caesar “would not be a wolf / But that he sees the Romans are but sheep”.

In the famous Forum scene, after the murder, the mob (played by the plebeians) scream: “They were traitors: honourable men!” The mob sways irrationally between Brutus, Cassius, and Antony: It didn’t seem to matter anymore to the masses who it was that led Rome: “Let him be Caesar”.

Just as quickly the mob ignored their own curiosity and greed to know about Caesar’s will; and later turned on Cinna the poet, mistaking him for Cinna the conspirator: “Tear him for his bad verses …It is no matter, his name’s Cinna... Tear him... burn all”: Brutus, Cassius, Decius, Casca, Ligarius.

Conspicuously missing from the list was Cinna the conspirator. Having mangled the wrong Cinna to death, the search party forgets the real culprit.

We’d just witnessed a spectacle common in some communities, the primitive battle between the hunter and the prey, that is, mob-lynching. It’s “hail [the] honourable” one moment, and “tear [the] villain” the next. The scene - orations, riot, war - is prescient, and has modern flavours.

Anyone with a feel for “the crowd” can relate to the mob mentality; and, alas, the sly rhetoric and cunning devices used to sway the public in divisive politics and/or dictatorships.

In crafting dialogue, Shakespeare’s scripts showed that all men are fallible, and it was a mistake to trust anybody too much. He fit the scales where each character was individualized and in symmetry.

Consider Mark Antony, for example: He was righteously peeved at the murder of his close friend Caesar, and prepared to avenge his death. But lurking behind that uprightness was the egoistic design to use Caesar’s dead body and the funeral to further his tastes for the “revels long a-nights” – wine, women, and sport.

With his cunning oratory in the Forum, “Here was a Caesar: when comes another?” he swayed the mob against Brutus. But, in the end, gazing at Brutus’s dead body, he admitted “This was the noblest Roman of all …/ His life was gentle … / This was a man.” Mark Antony’s loyalty was to corpses; he loved the dead for the convenience of having them out of the way.

Brutus offered another example of Shakespeare’s ability to compartmentalize characters. Brutus was “in a general honest thought / And common good to all.” But did “regicide” or “tyrannicide” morally justify his idealistic cravings to save the Roman Republic? Without committing, the playwright threw that debate squarely into the audience’s lap. The conflicts between “the means” and “the ends” offered riddles that dogged Socrates and any gang of thinkers to this day.

Brutus is the pivot that skews the play from the start to finish. Though the key issues are spread among the main characters, Brutus embodied the chief elements epitomizing him as a treacherous murderer. How could one love and murder at the same time without the least envy?

How could he allow himself to be deceived to murder the man he loved through Cassius’s flattery: “Brutus and Caesar … / Why should that name be sounded more than yours? / yours, is as fair a name:”

Who would need Brutus for a friend? Through his noble idealism, he “stumble[d] down the ladder of love to the bottom rung”, to sponge a line from Nat King Cole’s jazzy blues “Welcome to the club”.

Brutus was not killed fighting in the civil war that ensued. He climbed a rock (and assisted by a friend, Strato) drove a sword right through his chest. His last words: “Caesar, now be still, / I kill’d not thee with half so good a will.”

Earlier, Cassius too (assisted by Pindarus) had stabbed himself with the very same dagger he thrust into Caesar, confessing, “with this good sword / That ran through Caesar’s bowels, search this bosom … / Caesar, thou art reveng’d.”

Julius Caesar himself appeared only thrice, and briefly, in the play named after him. One, in Act I, 2: confronting the soothsayer’s “Beware the Ides of March”; two, in Act II, 3: where “Calpurnia, in her sleep cried out, / Help, ho: They murther Caesar”; and, in Act lll, l: with his last words, “Et tu Brute”, when he was murdered.

Through a measured mix of history and inventive drama, Shakespeare offered mirrors for everyone’s self-examination, before judging the other: “For the eye sees not itself.”

Breezing on this titanic reputation, Shakespeare’s loyalty to theatre lit the fires. He attracted King James himself who conferred royal patronage on him as part of “the King’s Men” for the distinctive contribution to the art and craft of drama. Shakespeare has consistently enchanted and inspired greatness in droves of patrons and actors to this day.

In eulogizing Marlon Brando, the American actor who played a sterling Mark Antony in the film “Julius Caesar” (1953), the Economist wrote: “The scene in which he enters the senate after Caesar’s murder, acknowledging none of the conspirators but gliding regally past as if they did not exist, points vividly to the play’s denouement. For this, credit Marlon Brando, not Shakespeare.” [Like we say in Akan, “Otwi faa won so.”]

You should hear the actor’s famous Mark Antony speech in the film: “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.”

Brando’s brand of delivery forged the perfect synergy of character and actor. [He died July 1, 2004 at age 80].

Some producers applied Shakespeare to make contemporary points. For example, Orson Welles (1937) used Julius Caesar as anti-fascist propaganda against Hitler and others at the onset of World War ll. Similarly, the play was used to protest the Vietnam War (1960s).

More cinematic versions of Shakespeare have come from non-English speaking countries as well; for example, the Japanese variation of Throne of Blood (1957) derived from Macbeth. Other plays were reworked for Italian audiences through opera. The new depicted right-on variations; and confirmed, “He was not of an age, but for all time.” But, the original scripts remained key in resisting fads.

[The King James Bible too, appearing in Shakespeare’s time, stabilized standard English. Is it possible then that, in writing great verses and sonnets and performing classic plays for the King’s pleasure, Shakespeare inspired and contributed to the poetry of the good book?]

For classrooms, and successes in WASSCE and IGCSE, producible interpretations of Shakespeare’s plays enhanced critical thinking skills. There’s never a dull moment with drama. The play is the thing. Selected performances or thematic skits bring out the skills essential for appreciation and functional literacy.

The idea is to not merely know the story and repeat a few lines, but to put the text into action. Actors have to forge intimacies with the innermost thoughts of the characters to achieve mastery.

Cambridge examiners, for “empathetic” examples, may ask: “You are Calpurnia, Caesar’s wife. You’re advising your husband not to attend the Senate today. Write your thoughts.” Or “You are Caesar. You have just arrived in the senate against Calpurnia’s wishes. Write your thoughts.” Or, “You are Mark Antony, about to address the mob in the Forum. Write your thoughts.” Or, “You are Brutus, about to commit suicide. Write your thoughts.” The suitable responses provided the emotional cues for playing Calpurnia, Caesar, Antony, or Brutus successfully.

For education to be useful, it is not enough to just say I learned this or that. Focus on what you become as a result of the learning. That is the challenge! Select any key scenes or characters, and play them out. Enjoy Shakespeare: To miss him is to miss a literary treasure trove.

The world is a stage, and the role you play today may just be your road to Damascus. Make a difference. Application develops skills, which in turn, calls up purpose, and spots of joy.

Who knows, you may be the next Afua Sutherland, Wole Soyinka, Professor Kwabena Nketia, Kow Ansah, Ama Ata Aidoo, KSM, Fritz Baffour, or Marlon Brando! Be inspired by these great role models. Get an “A” in the exams. Ghana needs your diligence and practical skills. Cheers!

[The author is the founder of GATE Institute for Teacher Education. He provides consulting services in English Language Skills, and Learning Methodologies for Primary, Secondary, and Tertiary levels. Email:]

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