In 1599, in the 40th year of Queen Elizabeth’s reign, when she had no heir or obvious successor in a time of increasing instability and fears of civil war, William Shakespeare got away with depicting the assassination of a popular and powerful leader – one with no heir or obvious successor in a time of increasing instability and fears of civil war.
How did he do this? By depicting an actual historic incident from the distant past, calling it a tragedy, and focusing on the consequences for the perpetrators of this foul deed.
William Shakespeare’s Julius Caesar is about the death of a tyrant, but its title character is not its central protagonist. Shakespeare’s play focuses instead on two of the leaders of the conspiracy: Gaius Cassius and Marcus Brutus. Cassius’ antipathy towards Caesar is personal; he seems jealous that Caesar is treated like “a god” when in fact he’s very much a man who once needed Cassius’ help swimming across a river. Brutus, on the other hand, fears demagoguery, the political power of the mob, and the dangers of monarchy: “I do fear the people / Choose Caesar for their king.”
Many productions give Julius Caesar a modern spin to make the threat of Caesar’s autocracy more visceral. In his 1937 Mercury Theatre production, Orson Welles gave the play a fascistic makeover that evoked both Mussolini’s Italy and Nazi Germany. He even had Cinna the Poet’s death come, not at the hands of a frenzied mob of “the people” so feared by Brutus (as in Shakespeare’s play), but from a Gestapo-like police force.
In 2017, the Public Theater’s annual Shakespeare in the Park production in New York City presented a Caesar who in costume and mannerisms was clearly supposed to be Donald Trump, accompanied by a Slavic-accented Calphurnia. This caused both amusement and outrage, with critics claiming that liberal-leaning theaters would never have done something similar with a Caesar dressed to look like Barack Obama. Except…an Acting Company production presented by the Guthrie Theater in 2012 did exactly that without a fraction of outrage.
It’s appealing to recast the Roman Empire into something more recent and specific, but the danger of characterizing Caesar as a World War II-era fascist or a recent/current American president is that it can shift an audience’s focus and sympathy over to the victim. If Shakespeare had written a play about the dangers of assassinating Queen Elizabeth, he’d have been thrown in the Tower for even portraying such a thing, and audiences (and the Crown) would have been too outraged to catch the play’s very clear warning about the dangers and consequences of using violence to achieve political aims. Visually transforming Caesar into a contemporary analogue risks weakening the play’s argument by tying the story of Caesar too specifically to the modern moment, something the play already does by making the Roman Empire a metaphor for all eras.
Perhaps most successful at avoiding this trap was Chicago’s Writers Theatre production, which ran in the two months leading up to the 2016 presidential election. Dressed in modern clothes with a Latino actor cast as Caesar, iPhone videos projected onto large monitors, and occasional banners reading “Make Rome Great Again!”, the contemporary parallels were present but not overpowering. More satisfyingly, adapters and co-directors Michael Halberstam and Scott Parkinson focused the script more clearly and specifically on Cassius and Brutus as dual protagonists. They also clarified the relationship between Octavius and Marc Antony by bringing in language from Shakespeare’s Antony and Cleopatra.
In an episode of my Reduced Shakespeare Company Podcast, Parkinson (who also played Cassius) discussed the play’s confusing elements from the viewer’s perspective, especially after the assassination when “suddenly there are all these new characters that get introduced and they have all these names that you’re trying to follow …The story you start with, which to me is the story of Brutus and Cassius, gets a little diffused and a little lost.”
Parkinson’s and Halberstam’s adaptation kept the focus where it should be: On the unintended consequences and personal tragedy of Shakespeare’s dual protagonists. Without changing any of Shakespeare’s words, Brutus and Cassius ran on to each other’s swords, ending their journey — and the play — together.
Another historical assassin, John Wilkes Booth, famously shouted “Sic semper tyrannis!” — “Thus always to tyrants!” — as he leapt to the stage after shooting Abraham Lincoln at Ford’s Theatre. The moral of Shakespeare’s tragedy, which reveals assassination’s grievous repercussions for both individuals and empires, might well be “ita semper interfectoribus” — “Thus always to assassins.”
⇒ Related: The story behind the Ides of March