Julius Caesar is dead. (Again). Long live “Julius Caesar.”
Whether the famous dead Roman is a look-alike for Donald Trump, with a blond comb-over and a long red tie, a cool black dude in a tailored suit suggesting Barack Obama, or a 1930s Orson Welles with a Sam Browne belt resembling Benito Mussolini, the character has captured the imagination of public and players since Shakespeare wrote it more than four centuries ago.
The spectacle changes with fresh costumes and new sets to emphasize contemporary issues for specific audiences, but the words continue to plumb psychological depth and measure human insight no matter where and when it’s played, or who plays it.
More’s the pity that the furor over the fleeting production of “Julius Caesar” in New York’s Central Park draws most of the public attention to current politics, and misses an opportunity to expand appreciation for the Bard’s language and his brilliant character studies, enlivened by many points of view.
To rephrase and expand the words of Hamlet, “the play’s the thing.” The words can prick the conscience of a king or a subject, a president or a voter, even a director and an audience. They can activate emotions, broaden the power of the brain and deepen understanding, but it’s important not to allow them to narrow the focus to contemporary animosities. That only reinforces prejudice, and doesn’t sharpen insight.
With a media, social and otherwise, obsessed with polarizing hatreds, we miss another opportunity to stretch the mind.
In all the bitter protests and defenses of the summer’s production of “Caesar” in the park, it’s a good bet that few of the frenzied opinionators have ever actually read or watched the whole play. “Julius Caesar” was once a staple of high-school English classes, but a limited, informal survey suggests that few graduate from high school or even college having read it. A formal survey supports my speculation that teaching Shakespeare is in dramatic decline.
The American Council of Trustees and Alumni (ACTA) a nonprofit academic watchdog for traditional educational standards, found two years ago that only 4 of the nation’s 52 highest-ranked universities and colleges have a Shakespeare requirement, and only 8 percent of the top universities require even English majors to take a course in Shakespeare. Since many of these English majors become English teachers, it’s not likely they will teach what they haven’t studied. They probably wouldn’t recognize the title of the ACTA report as taken from “Julius Caesar”: “The Unkindest Cut: Shakespeare in Exile in 2015.”
Literary criticism suffers on the contemporary campus because there’s so much emphasis on race, class, gender and sexuality. Requirements are reduced for the study of Shakespeare’s plays, and they’re expanding for “noncanonical traditions,” giving equal weight to other forms of expression.
After the ACTA report encouraged a serious discussion of the need to “brush up your Shakespeare,” an inner-city teacher at a high school in Sacramento wrote in The Washington Post that she does not think she is “cheating” her students by not teaching Shakespeare. “I do not believe that a long-dead British guy is the only writer who can teach my students about the human condition,” wrote Dana Dusbiber, capturing multi-culti zeal. “So I ask, why not teach the oral tradition out of Africa, which includes an equally relevant commentary on human behavior?”
This could be taken as satire if she were not so earnest in her literary equivalency argument, but it’s a sad example of the thinking that infects education across a broad spectrum of both thinking and geography. Writers of the ACTA report couldn’t resist applying another quotation from Hamlet, “O! what a noble mind is here o’erthrown.”
One reason “Julius Caesar” became a staple for students in high school was that the language is straightforward, more rhetorical than poetic, illustrating the power of simplicity with dozens of well-chosen monosyllabic words, as in, for example: “Lend me your ears.” At the same time, the drama engages a variety of complex points of view, offering substantial red meat for teenagers to debate social and psychological motives, and to see how difficult it is to untangle principle from passion, personal emotion from political motive, naive action from harmful consequence.
The simplistic rhetoric of the conspirators bathing their hands in the blood of the dead Caesar, and crying, “Peace, freedom and liberty!” is not so glibly experienced when Mark Anthony shakes those bloody hands, and the symbolism runs onto his flesh with the real blood of a murdered human being.
When social media polarized the summer’s production of “Julius Caesar,” another Shakespearean insight was lost, an insight that might apply to those who argue from their own narrow convictions, and not from the play: “The fault, dear Brutus, is not in our stars, But in ourselves.”
• Suzanne Fields is a columnist for The Washington Times and is nationally syndicated.
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