This past weekend, just by chance, I happened to reread Julius Caesar. Took Shakespeare courses in college and taught him here and there amid some lit surveys (usually just the sonnets), but it had been a while since I’d meaningfully spent time with the Bard.
The 400th anniversary of Shakespeare’s death is coming up next month, and with that in mind I decided to download the Complete Works on my Kindle. Without much forethought at all I randomly decided to begin with Caesar. It’s the first step in a plan to read through all 37 plays over the course of the coming year, kind of a belated reprise of my earlier Shakespeare studies.
I say I chose Caesar “randomly,” although it only took a scene or two for me to doubt whether or not there might have been some subconscious motive to the selection. To put it another way, that I might have been fated to make such a choice.
Shakespeare is timeless, which is why four centuries later his plays and poems continue to resonate and provide consistent insight regarding the human condition. That said, the echoes with current events were so loud they threatened to overwhelm what Caesar, Cassius, Brutus, Antony, and others were saying.
Julius Caesar tells the story of a political assassination, based on the actual slaying of Caesar in 44 B.C. that signaled the end of the Roman Republic and subsequent dawning of the Roman Empire first led by Augustus. The play follows a familiar narrative trajectory starting with the conspirators’ plotting Caesar’s murder, the killing itself (coming at the start of the third of five acts), then concluding with the seemingly inevitable battle between Caesar’s killers and those seeking revenge for his murder.
Over the last couple of years I’ve spent probably more time than is healthy studying the Kennedy assassination, reading about and watching coverage of the event while constantly sorting through all of the many theories regarding what actually happened. I even read through the Warren Commission Report not long ago, or at least the summary prefacing the 26 volumes of so-called supporting documents. It began as an innocent digression from my “Nixon studies,” but the JFK rabbit hole can be a hard one to dig out of sometimes.
One of the more complicated conspiracy theories entertained by some regarding Kennedy’s killing describes it as an “inside job” involving many individuals and agencies within his administration, a scenario somewhat resembling what happens in Caesar where those closest to the dictator decide it to be in the public’s interest that he be eliminated. “We shall be called purgers, not murderers,” goes the rationalizing line.
Early on we hear Cassius lamenting how “this man is now become a god” despite being “of such a feeble temper” and unworthy of his power. Brutus agrees he’d “rather be a villager than to repute himself a son of Rome under these hard conditions.” Indeed, at the end of the play, after Brutus has died, Antony credits him somewhat as the only one of the conspirators who acted not out of envy (like Cassius) but out of “a general honest thought and common good to all.”
Such is the perspective assigned to JFK’s killers, or so argue those favoring such a theory. There are several other moments, too, that evoke JFK’s assassination, or at least they do for those of us who find themselves occupied by some of its details.
As I say above, though, the play’s parallels with the contemporary political situation and in particular the increasingly antagonistic presidential race were the most conspicuous for me on this reading. I’m thinking in particular about the current G.O.P. frontrunner and the increasing “alarum” being raised both by the party he represents and by the opposing one, too, over the prospects of his continuing to accumulate delegates and momentum and perhaps even the nomination.
All campaigns consist largely of promises, with each promise falling somewhere on a spectrum between vague and specific, as well as between fantastical and realistic. Candidates gauge voters’ reactions in the form of polls and votes and nudge themselves accordingly up and down each axis to find what seems a favorable position from which to stump. This year, though, one candidate has instead consistently favored threats over promises -- some vague and fantastical, some specific and real -- which in turn has caused others to remark upon the threat he represents by doing so.
Threats are a constant theme in Julius Caesar. The conspirators begin by describing to each other the threat posed by Caesar’s rule, from which come their own threat of violence against him. Caesar meanwhile expresses trepidation to Antony, recognizing Cassius as a threat primarily because “he thinks too much” and “such men are dangerous.” “Such men as he be never at heart’s ease whiles they behold a greater than themselves,” Caesar continues. “And therefore are they very dangerous.”
A little after Casca is talking to Brutus about how fervently Caesar’s supporters are, noting how he seemingly can do no wrong in their eyes. Despite his refusing of the crown, they still showered love on him, Casca explains. “If Caesar had stabbed their mothers, they would have done no less,” says Casca, causing today’s reader to think of other, similar statements regarding supporters of a certain candidate.
There’s talk, too, about how power might change Caesar, discussion that resembles somewhat speculation about how a candidate making promises (or threats) while campaigning might act differently while in office. For Brutus, the worry is that once he reaches the top of the ladder Caesar will turn his back on those down below. He’s like a “serpent’s egg” concludes Brutus -- better to “kill him in the shell.”
Back at Caesar’s, he speaks a little more boldly to his wife, Calpurnia, about those who might oppose him. “The things that threaten’d me ne’er look’d but on my back,” he says to her, “when they shall see the face of Caesar, they are vanished.” Calpurnia isn’t convinced, beckoning him not to attend a meeting at the senate-house, but Caesar won’t hear it, saying he’d be “a beast without a heart if he should stay home to-day for fear.”
He goes to the senate-house and is killed, the threat against him having been realized. Thereafter come further threats between the anti- and pro-Caesar camps, as well as Caesar’s ghost coming to visit Brutus and threaten his well being. The play then ends in bloodshed with Caesar’s death being avenged and, interestingly, most of the deaths shown on stage resulting from suicides.
Hard not to feel a certain foreboding, though, what with all of the threats being bandied about, including threats of violence (from candidates and from their supporters). The results of today’s doling of delegates will affect what happens next, which will seem a promise for some and a threat to others. I look up at the calendar and realize another coincidence suggesting my choice of Caesar to read having been unsettlingly appropriate.
I refer, of course, to the soothsayer’s threatening line from early in the play.
“Beware the ides of March.”
Photos: Julius Caesar (dir. Joseph L. Mankiewicz, 1953) (top); still from JFK Fort Worth Breakfast November 22 1963 TV coverage, KRLD-TV (middle).
Labels: *by the book, assassination, Bernie Sanders, Donald Trump, Hillary Clinton, John F. Kennedy, John Kasich, Julius Caesar, Marco Rubio, political campaigns, politics, Richard Nixon, Ted Cruz, William Shakespeare