History tends to repeat itself. It’s as if our bad actions that we, as a society, partake in, have been woven as a pattern that was sewn in history and that would dictate the future over and over again. There is some level of irrationality among humans that lead us to repeat history, regardless of our notion of its outcome. Shakespeare’s play, “Julius Caesar” is a perfect example of a story that stands the test of time. Which is why it comes to no surprise that this political tragedy of the past has been interpreted by various people in hundreds of ways. From other plays to movies and even on TV shows, the play is brought forth in the present day. Each generation that stages Shakespeare reinvents his work for its own era. And every time someone interprets this particular play, they’re making an argument about what the play means and about the world we live in. The play was written during a monarchy in the 16th century about a falling Republic in the first century BCE. Therefore, what does it mean when we stage it in a representative democracy in the 21st century? One thing that all these adaptations have in common is that they often stage Caesar in times of trouble. It’s the play people turn to when it feels like their own political system is being threatened. Through the use of modern adaptations of Shakespeare’s play, “Julius Caesar”, audiences are able to comprehend and relate the fall of Rome to our current times of dynamic powers of government.
This infamous and quite popular play is one of tragedy because of the death of Republican Rome and reading “Julius Caesar” is like looking at a slow sequence of moving images depicting catastrophe. The play centers around the end of the fall of Rome and depicts the sequence in which republicanism slowly disintegrates into mob rule, violence, and complete chaos. The lead role, Julius Caesar, was the most powerful and beloved man in Rome, thus the start of gossip roamed the city of him becoming King. At the time, it was unfathomable due to the Romans being very anti-monarchy. But for the first time in Roman history, that idea didn’t seem so farfetched due to Julius’ popularity. This, in turn, ignited fear in a group of senators led by Cassius, the mastermind of what will soon be the most gruesome and famous scene in history. He recruits Brutus to lead the assassination, yet their intentions were far different. Brutus believes their cause was just as he states, “The abuse of greatness is, when it disjoins/ Remorse from power: and, to speak truth of Caesar, / I have not known when his affections sway’d/ More than his reason. But ’tis a common proof, / That lowliness is young ambition’s ladder, /…/ By which he did ascend. So Caesar may. / Then, lest he may, prevent” (Julius Caesar 2.1. 18-28). He truly believes with every fiber in his being that Caesar will become a king and when he does, his unlimited power will corrupt him. On the other hand, Cassius mostly wants Caesar dead because Caesar’s rise threatens his own selfish ambitions. As a result, it is illustrated that there is a culture of spying, secrecy, and back-stabbing. As the conspirators all meet to plot the death of Caesar, the audience is visualizing all these people who are public figures retreating into the shadows. So, essentially, what they’re witnessing is something that is like a parody of political prestige.
Performance is perhaps the most dominant theme of Shakespeare’s works and in “Julius Caesar”, performance is one of the vehicles that drive Roman society to extinction. Cassius and Brutus make one fatal mistake and that is letting Mark Antony live for Brutus thought they should be, “sacrificers, but not butchers” (Julius Caesar 2.1. 173). This then leads to Brutus’ brusque speech to the people of Rome in which he makes a case about why he had to kill Caesar. He is aloof and therefore, is devoted to rationality, to the idea of compressing reckless emotions, and assessing things coldly and in an orderly fashion. Thus, he genuinely thought that people could come together and argue their way to a solution which is the assumption that runs the Republican system of government today. He can be compared to many US Leaders due to his, “resort to violence because there is no other way of eliminating a menace to the state” (Observer). They believe there’s a justifiable way to use violence to accomplish political purposes. Nevertheless, Shakespeare deliberately had Brutus’ speech, “delivered entirely in prose and prose…[is] a signal that Shakespeare’s dialing down Brutus’ rhetorical gift” (Butler). He told the crowd that he had loved Caesar but had to kill him for the good of Rome. Although he is supposedly unemotional, it is shown to be a kind of performance, like he’s acting at being dispassionate. But when Mark Antony steps up and carries Caesar’s body, he has instantly swayed the crowd’s emotion. He vividly describes Caesar’s heroism and Brutus ‘ betrayal and wipes the floor with Brutus in one of the most famous speeches ever written. He even starts the speech warning the people that, “If you have tears, prepare to shed them now” (Julius Caesar 3.2. 164). Repeatedly, he reminds the people of Julius Caesar’s devotion to the Romans and points to his wounds. And with each, he further dramatizes the image of Caesar a little bit more. There isn’t much logic or logos in Antony’s speech compared to Brutus but is instead an argument filled with pathos of the highest order. He has won because of his emotionally persuading performance. Mark Antony riles up the Romans and then he uses that angry crowd to seize power. What seems so realistic about this depiction of politics is that it can easily become performative. And by the end of the play, almost everyone turns on each other and dies which is just so very Shakespearean.
In the late 16th century, Shakespeare was worried about his own nation and turned to the story of the fall of the Roman Republic to examine the themes of the importance of tactics, how violence works within a political system, the unreliability of groups, limits of reason, and he injects them into this story of republicanism and revolution. During his time, Queen Elizabeth was growing weak in body but, her power had never been greater. She was very beloved by her people, who even established a religious cult dedicated to her. Yet all of England knew that she had not named an heir to her throne. In consequence, many feared a return to civil war, like the War of Roses, after her death. To Shakespeare, such a war may have seemed relevant to the conflict caused by Caesar’s unexpected assassination. The purpose in why he would choose to recreate a scenario in the past to relate to the fears of having no heirs was that people were simply not allowed to talk about the succession. Therefore, Shakespeare told a story that was well-known to the English since at the time, literacy had vastly increased, and Latin was the main tool for it. Also, the interest in Roman history came from looking at other ways to organize a society and what Republicanism could mean to them. However, with the discussion of republicanism comes the debate of, “What makes people virtuous? Are Institutions more virtuous by having more virtuous people serve them or do virtuously policed institutions make people more virtuous in themselves?” (Butler). The initial point is that individual virtue and institutions can encourage one another. However, Shakespeare shows us how both individual and institutional virtue can collapse together. It demonstrates that when a person becomes more powerful than the institution that they are being contained in, institutions crumble and virtuous people can act in violent manners. We see that monarchy leads to disaster which people who are reading in the 21st century can relate to, with our acceptance that constitutional democracy is the way towards progress and ultimate freedom.
Time and time again, directors of every generation try to recreate “Julius Caesar” to communicate the same message or moral but in their own depictions. There are no shortages of different adaptations with Caesar playing as political men, women even, as cartoon characters, in the past, in the present, and in the future. This is the case because the themes that are present in this story are forever eternal. From the beginning of civilization till now, humans have always tried to tackle with the idea of organizing a society and what it means to be governed. The play makes us grapple with current questions of, “Do we overestimate the power of reason in politics? When the Republic is in crisis, can it be saved by any means necessary? Once violence enters a political system, can it be stopped when it’s no longer useful? How will we know when we’ve reached the point of no return?” (Butler). All these questions and the message itself centers around an idealism, a nation, or an empire. The way in which we group ourselves in by this imaginary construct of having a place in which we belong; something far bigger than ourselves. And that’s exactly what directors try to portray when recreating this infamous play. For “Julius Caesar”, that place was Rome. An empire that structured around the honor and loyalty of its subjects; with which all these men like Brutus are sacrificing for. This holds true throughout certain points in history as well, for example, “John Wilkes Booth acted in a production of “Julius Caesar” …not long before he killed Lincoln, and complained after the assassination that he was being hunted ‘for doing what Brutus was honored for.’ And Claus von Stauffenberg, a leader of a failed attempt on Hitler’s life, reportedly kept a marked-up copy of “Julius Caesar” on his desk” (Cooper). It’s evident that this play correlates with people that come from all walks of life, showing us that history had proved that though Brutus and the other conspirators presumed that Caesar’s assassination would save the republic from tyrannical leadership, it had the reverse effect. Instead, we see that Caesar’s adopted nephew, Octavius becomes the first emperor of Rome and republicanism falls.
“Julius Caesar’ truly stands the test of time as it periodically demonstrates the political awareness in the modern-day presidency. In today’s climate, the play has become fascinatingly popular in modernizing it so that it could relate to our current issues in government. Recently, in the summer of 2017, there was an outdoor play in New York depicting a controversial adaptation of “Julius Caesar”. Without ever naming the protagonist that takes the role of Caesar, it was quite evident that he was portrayed to be Donald Trump. From the orange whirlwind hair, the pouty lip gesture, and the eastern European wife with a thick accent; there was no mistaking it. However, this play received a lot of backlash because, as it would happen in all the plays, the role taking on Julius Caesar gets viciously and violently stabbed to death. And of course, the ever so bloody scene in which the conspirators stain their hands and arms in the blood of the leader. The play bluntly depicted the assassination of a Donald Trump figure which caused an uproar, mostly with right-wingers. It caused such a ruckus in media that, “…two big sponsors, Delta Air Lines and Bank of America, pulled out their sponsorship” (Rajan). It was a very intense and gory scene, but that was how the scene was meant to be taken as; provocative and uncomfortable. The actor portraying Donald Trump wasn’t a man that you would immediately find repulsive but instead was energetic and flamboyant which made the murder that more gruesome. The Central Park play was not created to please people but to make people think about their own political views and it was built as a satire. The adaptation also wasn’t created to mainly focus on the assassination but instead on, “the horrors unleashed when the state, even a very imperfect one, is overthrown and political freelancers have their way” (Pollitt). The one problem this play presented wasn’t that it was grotesque, rather that it’s new message was that there was wisdom in groups. This doesn’t particularly share the same common interest in Shakespeare’s “Julius Caesar”, where he shows us that groups of people are unreliable and not smart in the slightest.
Through comparing “Julius Caesar” to the present day, audiences can also see the appalling similarities between the common people of each era and what that symbolizes in U.S. politics today. The Roman people play an important role in Caesar’s play because as they join together, they make great impacts and it’s usually not a good one. Readers see that every time a group of people get together to organize and come to a decision, they come to the wrong one. The political figures are dimwitted to conclude that murdering the most popular man in their nation’s history will work out well. And the common people are temperamental, unstable, and gullible. All in all, their society is profoundly unstable and over the course of the play, we see it collapsing mainly due to all these people. Shakespeare doesn’t just uphold the elites from the Romans but illustrates how both these groups are venal and dense. The crowd becomes easily swayed based on purely performance and charisma. It implies that when politics turns into a competition at who can gain the most applause and rave, the political system, in general, is being threatened. And by Brutus thinking that he could rely on the public to listen to reason, he is blatantly proved wrong. All while the conspirators believed that they could use violence to hinder the end of republican Rome, it only expedites it. That is the problem that the Donald Trump play faces because when a director doesn’t believe that groups and the way they think are dangerous, they aren’t portraying the true message of “Julius Caesar”. According to a podcast, “There were people coming out of the audience who were supposed to remind us of occupy wall street. Those are things with which the politics of the production are in A-line and yet those people were then shown to be easily led, foolish, homicidal maniac with no self-control. At that point, you see the production fight itself to a standstill” (Butler). There is no virtue that comes within these common people but instead, Shakespeare is telling us that the institutions that we depend on in our governments are made up of these individuals but can only maintain if people want them to.
However, this was not the first or last time that “Julius Caesar” was able to be adapted into contemporary times through a different perspective. The play that alluded to Donald Trump became very famous and controversial quickly but other interpretations that didn’t get to be headlines of many articles were plays depicting politicians like Barack Obama or Hillary Clinton. There were no controversies or disgust when these political figures, one a former president and the other a former first-lady, were savagely “murdered” as, “their claims to be shocked…at the portrayal of the assassination of a sitting president would carry more weight if they had protested when Minnesota’s Guthrie Theater put on the play in 2012, with a Caesar modeled on then President Obama” (Pollitt). Thus, bringing a new question into the modern adaptations of “Julius Caesar” which is, why does one play cause uproar over the others? It’s all the exact same story but, the only difference is that they depict different people as the role of Julius Caesar. The answer is inevitably clear. One is a woman and the other is a man of color. It’s uncomfortably evident that when it’s concerning today’s political climate, many negative factors play out. The play itself isn’t in bad taste because everyone has the right and liberty to portray anyone as anything, but the response to each is what is truly repulsive. Because there were no repercussions to not just one play of Obama as Caesar, but an entire tour, “corporate sponsors at the Guthrie Theater had no public reaction to a 2012 staging that featured a black actor in the role of Caesar” (Preston). Therefore, the play is definitely one that can’t teach us how to fix the problems we face because, although the Roman republic is much like our own democracy, some of the factors that surround these governments are still fundamentally different. However, it might make us see our political views and human hypocrisy in a new light.
The play, “Julius Caesar”, isn’t famous for no reason. It’s a story that we can turn to repeatedly to look at the state of our own government and makes us ask questions about our own politics. However, Shakespeare allows us to ask these scary questions in a safe environment and in this play, we get to see these questions play out in a story taken from history. “Julius Caesar” is able to illustrate that violence within a political system and the power of persuasion is misguided and easily disrupted. It’s almost like it was particularly primed for a 21st-century audience. That is the leading reason for why it’s become so popular in adapting it so that it could relate to our present time of society and government. So, although there isn’t a lot of hope in Caesar, it’s more like a cautionary tale. For those to be wary of group thinking, of emotional persuasion, of violence, of political action, and of tyranny.
Butler, Isaac. “Why Julius Caesar Is the Perfect Play to Read When You’re Worried About the Collapse of the Republic.” Slate Magazine, The Slate Group LLC, 8 May 2018, www.slate.com/articles/podcasts/lend_me_your_ears/2018/05/lend_me_your_ears_podcast_episode_1_shakespeare_s_julius_caesar.html.
Cooper, Michael. “Why ‘Julius Caesar’ Speaks to Politics Today. With or Without Trump.” The New York Times, The New York Times, 13 June 2017, www.nytimes.com/2017/06/12/theater/julius-caesar-shakespeare-donald-trump.html.
Pollitt, Katha. “Orange Julius.” Nation, vol. 305, no. 2, July 2017, p. 6. EBSCOhost,
Preston, Rohan. “Uproar over Trump-Themed ‘Julius Caesar,’ but None for Obama Version at Guthrie 5 Years Ago.” Star Tribune, Star Tribune, 12 June 2017, m.startribune.com/trump-themed-julius-caesar-is-talk-of-theater-world-unlike-2012-obama-version-in-twin-
Rajan, Sujeet. “‘Julius Caesar’ Play Depicting Trump Assassination is really in Poor Taste.” News India – Times Jun 23 2017: 20. ProQuest. 19 Nov. 2018 .
“Shakespeare in the age of Brexit and Trump: the play’s still the thing; In his new book, Peter Conrad explains how the Bard’s plays are the perfect mirror for our troubled times.” Observer [London, England], 29 Sept. 2018. Academic
Shakespeare, William, Burton Raffel, and Harold Bloom. Julius Caesar. New Haven: Yale University Press, 2006. Print.