Lend Me Your Ears: Shakespeare in the Park’s Julius Caesar as a Comment on Rhetoric

This year’s Shakespeare in the Park production of Julius Caesar makes a pointed political commentary – but what is that commentary?

The outrage and backlash focuses on the admittedly stark image of a Trump-esque Caesar being attacked and assassinated. Sitting way off to the left side of the stage on Sunday, June 11, I stared at the bloody body lying onstage while the senators and Marc Antony argued and fought with each other. It was a long few minutes.

But that is not the point of the play.

There’s always outrage about violence in plays and movies, and rightfully so. It’s a conversation worth having, over and over. But the conversation cannot be about “violence” as if it exists in a vacuum. And the conversation here cannot be about “the assassination of a Trump-esque Caesar” as if it exists in a vacuum. Context, literary and theatrical interpretation, are important to figuring out what kind of work this production of Shakespeare’s play does in the contemporary moment.

Bank of America, a long-time sponsor of Shakespeare in the Park, saw fit to include a statement in the program:

“While Bank of America values the right of artistic expression, they do not condone this summer’s interpretation of Julius Caesar and its depiction of political violence in a modern context.”

They missed the point.

Caveat before I get into my analysis: I’m not well-versed in theatrical terms. My area of study is medieval literature, and I deal mostly with poetry and prose, not with drama. Forgive remarks like “sitting way off to the left side of the stage” – I know there are better theatrical terms for that, but I’m speaking merely as an audience member who is knowledgeable about literature and rhetoric.

One of the most amazing things to me as the past year’s events have unfolded has been the way simple rhetoric can galvanize people into action, even when they can’t always articulate the logical reasoning behind their decisions. Rallies and fiery speeches get people fired up, but they don’t always use logic and reason to persuade people. Sometimes they use complex oratory and rhetorical patterns to influence people’s minds.

I saw that moment most clearly in Julius Caesar when Marc Antony (played by Elizabeth Marvel) speaks to the crowd with Caesar’s body behind her. In this production, the coffin she mentions is in fact a gurney, and the body is covered by a sheet. In the scene before this, Brutus has felt empathy for Antony and says he will allow her to speak to the people. The other senators vehemently disagree, but Brutus checks with Antony, who swears that she will not praise Caesar, and she will not condemn Brutus et al.

And she doesn’t.

She says, “I come to bury Caesar, not to praise him. / The evil that men do lives after them; / The good is oft interred with their bones; / So let it be with Caesar.” The subtle implication there, if the “good is oft interred with their bones,” is that in “burying” Caesar, she will talk about his good. But that’s too subtle, lost on a crowd yelling and chanting its displeasure.

She talks about Brutus. Over and over again, she calls him an “honourable man.” But by the end of the scene, the crowd has turned from hailing Brutus as a hero to condemning him as a murderer and traitor.

How?

Because the twists and turns of her speech never come out and say “Brutus is a liar and a murderer.” No, the twists and turns instead lead her audience on a trail so that they can barely even point to the moment when they changed their minds. She contradicts Brutus’s claims even while continuing to pay honor to Brutus:

“Yet Brutus says he was ambitious;
And Brutus is an honourable man.
You all did see that on the Lupercal
I thrice presented him a kingly crown,
Which he did thrice refuse: was this ambition?
Yet Brutus says he was ambitious;
And, sure, he is an honourable man.
I speak not to disprove what Brutus spoke,
But here I am to speak what I do know.”

She claims not to be expert in oratory as Brutus is. And yet her speech is masterful.

She begins by gaining the trust of the crowd, portraying herself as merely a mourner, deep in grief for her beloved Caesar, even while honoring his assassins. They empathize with her. And they listen to her.

Their guard is down because they expect a personal, not a political, speech. And they go along with her opening remarks because they agree with her: Brutus is an honorable man. She never explicitly contradicts that.

And yet by the end of her speech, they have all rallied behind her against Brutus.

This scene, as I experienced it in Central Park with a sheet-covered body and a politician onstage, and with a crowd of actors interspersed in the audience, dressed as protesters holding signs and chanting slogans identical to those in recent protests – this scene was not about the body. The body fades into the background and is forgotten.

This scene was about the horror of how people can be swept up in the moment and not critically think about how rhetoric has been used to influence their thought patterns. How they have not evaluated the right and wrong of the situation but instead were manipulated by clever speeches, by someone who knows how to pull all the right strings, to lead her listeners down a path until they have no idea how they even got to where they are.

What follows in the play is a series of tragedies. The comparison of Caesar’s Rome to contemporary politics doesn’t work completely in the entire play, and that’s okay.

Because the point about upheavals and how transfer of power comes to be and how it affects everything afterwards – that’s clear.

The crowd in support of Brutus is dressed as protesters, and Antony’s crowd as riot police. For a New York audience, there’s almost no doubt which side gets our sympathy. We’re rooting for the protesters, we’re rooting for the resistance.

Everything in the play until this moment has gotten us here – the rhetoric of the play has made us sympathetic to Brutus and his supporters, just as Antony’s rhetoric made the crowd sympathetic to her and her supporters.

And yet, in the final scene of the play, Antony and Octavius stand over the dead body of Brutus, and the stage floor is littered with the dead bodies of the protesters – of Brutus’s supporters – who have been killed by the riot police – by Antony’s supporters – a few scenes prior.

Their bodies remain on stage from the moment of their deaths through the end of the play: a visual reminder of the cost of resistance.

And with the play’s end, with what we know of history – that Antony and Octavius Augustus do in fact gain power and rule Rome – the resistance has failed. The assassination of Caesar has brought no good, only doom and tragedy and death.

So what’s the message of this production? That the contemporary Caesar should be assassinated? Or that resistance is futile and will only result in stricter and stronger policing, and in the deaths of any who dare to resist?

Neither. The message of this production, to me at least, was that we must be aware of how and why we’re doing what we’re doing.

As a teacher of freshman writing, my lessons have always been about critical reading as much as critical writing. In the last year, after watching incredulously as the most flimsy arguments were taken up and used as proof of one thing or another, I made sure that the connection between the rhetorical skills we learn and our ability to make sense of the world around us was crystal clear.

If we can’t strenuously and rigorously interrogate the rhetoric of arguments, we run the risk of being persuaded that Brutus must be killed by arguments that continue to claim that “Brutus is honorable.”

 

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