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June 08, 2006

A play poised between human agency and the majesty of the state: Julius Caesar - RSC at the Royal Shakespeare Theatre, Stratford

Posted by David Womersley

William Shakespeare's Julius Caesar
directed by Sean Holmes
Royal Shakespeare Company
Royal Shakespeare Theatre, Stratford-upon-Avon
in repertory 6th May - 10th October 2006

David Womersley - Thomas Warton Professor of English Literature, University of Oxford - reviews the RSC's production of Julius Caesar.

In Julius Caesar, Shakespeare put into the mouth of Brutus two celebrated, but also opposed, speeches about our experience of time. The first occurs in Act 2, Scene 1, when Brutus is waiting for his fellow-conspirators on the eve of the Ides of March (II.i.63-69):

Between the acting of a dreadful thing
And the first motion, all the interim is
Like a phantasma or a hideous dream.
The genius and the mortal instruments
Are then in council, and the state of man,
Like to a little kingdom, suffers then
The nature of an insurrection.
The second occurs in Act 4, Scene 2, when Brutus is urging his colleagues to leave their current position and march to Philippi (the last in a series of instances in which, as is often observed, Brutus over-rules Cassius to disastrous effect) (IV.ii.268-74):
There is a tide in the affairs of men
Which, taken at the flood, leads on to fortune;
Omitted, all the voyage of their life
Is bound in shallows and in miseries.
On such a full sea are we now afloat,
And we must take the current when it serves,
Or lose our ventures.
On the one hand, we have an evocation of the elasticity of duration, and of the lassitude which attends it: normality seems to be suspended, and there is apparently limitless opportunity for reflection and "council". On the other, we find a metaphor describing the rapidity and ineluctability of process, once set in motion, which denies to men any leisure for reflection.

Both aspects of time are present in Julius Caesar, and are underlined by Shakespeare's audacious, brilliant decision to dramatise this great hinge of history by fastening on just two moments: first, the assassination of Caesar in Rome, and second, the battle of Philippi.

It's worth pausing for a moment to realise just what this decision obliged Shakespeare to forego in terms of raw material. It entailed overlooking the conquest of Gaul; though in Henry V, written virtually simultaneously with Julius Caesar, Shakespeare was exploring how one might turn a military campaign into a play. It entailed leaving to one side the civil conflict with Pompey and the other republicans, and hence the battle of Pharsalia (when Roman legions for the first time fought other Roman legions), with all its poetic possibilities; though most recently in 1 and 2 Henry IV, and before that in 1, 2 and 3 Henry VI and Richard III, Shakespeare had demonstrated that he knew how to put civil war on stage.

But by shaping Julius Caesar as he did, Shakespeare made his play pivot around the catastrophe of the assassination. Before that defining action, futurity is not yet in place and contingency is uppermost. After it, the course of human affairs is simply the unpacking of its consequences. The exhilaration of the first half of Julius Caesar derives from the imaginative opportunity it holds out to us, of vicariously experiencing a time when a very different future was still possible. The power of the second half of the play flows from the inexorableness with which we see the tide of human affairs running into its familiar channel.

In the theatre it is hard to do justice to both aspects of the play, so its even-handedness concerning the experience of time has tended to present itself as a directorial dilemma: which of these two sides of the play do you allow to predominate, that which emphasises historical contingency, the fact that it could have been otherwise, or that which underlines the inexorable enchainment of consequences? What do you place at the centre of the play, human agency, or the majesty of the state?

Peter Hall's RSC production a few years ago opted for inexorability and majesty: the actors were dwarfed by massive, but disconnected, architectural elements, expressing the grandeur of the state and the onward press of the conversion of experience into history.

The present, thoughtful RSC, production takes the other route. There is no monumental architecture on stage, which is instead a bare space flanked by massive brick piers. In this production, Rome is not a place of parade or public display so much as of urgent conference. So the scenes which dominate here are Act 1, Scene 2, in which Cassius involves Brutus in the conspiracy against Caesar (a wonderful dramatisation of two men sounding one another out under conditions of tyranny); Act 2, Scene 1 (the meeting of the conspirators at Brutus's house) and Act 4, Scene 2 (the council before Philippi) – these are the dramatic and emotional centres of this production. By contrast the great set-piece speeches after the assassination of Caesar by Brutus and Mark Antony, although as always a thrilling contrast in oratory, are here rather displaced.

That distribution of emphasis is reflected in the quality of the performances. Brutus (John Light), Cassius (Finbar Lynch) and, among the minor characters, Portia (Mariah Gale) are all excellent. Caesar (James Hayes) does not seem particularly easy in the part, and did not always take advantage of the alternation Shakespeare suggests between the projection of a façade of omnipotence and a more intimate and human register. Mark Antony (Ariyon Bakare) was rather too solemn from the outset, so the transformation he undergoes from playboy to ruthless triumvir did not make quite the impact it could have done.

One of the more incidental illuminations of Julius Caesar is that of how unpredictable affairs become following the dislodgement of a great leader, and of how those summoned into the vacuum created by his absence find unsuspected qualities stimulated within them. There is thus, at present, a fortuitous topicality to the play's anatomising of how in the world of politics things fall apart. Certainly Tony Blair seems to have taken to heart Caesar's principle, "Let me have men about me that are fat" (I.ii.192) – surely only adherence to this maxim can explain why John Prescott's fingers have not been prised from the last few shreds of power to which he still lays claim?

But to bring modern politics up against the subject matter of this play is to be convinced that we have lapsed into pettiness. Our modern politicians are no less corrupt, possibly even no less criminal, than their predecessors; the difference lies in the tawdriness of their motives and misdemeanours. One of the deep insights of Julius Caesar is that the finest kind of rectitude is to be found in close proximity to the most momentous crimes – indeed, the latter is the soil of the former. In our administrative government, with its shabby transgressions, it is hard to see how a culture of political virtue can arise. There are of course comforts and consolations in this decline, as well as hidden costs.

David Womersley is Thomas Warton Professor of English Literature, University of Oxford. His previous reviews for the Social Affairs Unit can be read here.

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