Some may know the story, but when I was in eighth grade I got in trouble for using liquid paper to graffiti my English teacher’s bookcase with the term “u suck.” I know—quite clever. The idiotic turn was met with a challenge from my teacher: I could either read “To Kill a Mockingbird” or “Julius Caesar.” He would quiz me on my choice by having a discussion.
The memory stands out as so foundational to me for two reasons. First, that’s an example of being a great teacher. Second, I met William Shakespeare for the first time. Franz Kafka once said, “A book must be the axe for the frozen sea within us.” He thought that books and stories should literally “stab or wound us.” A fitting image when thinking of The Bard’s Caesar. I’m reminded of the story because this year in our Academy’s Performing Arts program, we are focusing on our beloved country. Through drama and comedy we will explore the vast complexities this great country has to offer. In these turbulent social and political times I am interested in how artists have interpreted the particularly American question: What does it means to live in a pluralistic democracy? Shakespeare’s play is more relevant than ever.
The play is a vehemently anti-war and anti-violence statement. Shakespeare, in his brilliance, was able to see the destructive power of political, personal and mob violence. To paraphrase Saint Pope John Paul II: Violence destroys the very thing it tries to create. We only need to look at our own history to know that non-violent change is the only lasting kind. Shakespeare knew this and the play serves as a stern warning that even well-intentioned good people can do horrible things. Just look at the historic record. Democracy would disappear from the West for two thousand years due to the actions of the seemingly well-intentioned conspirators. Shakespeare’s Brutus stands as a dire warning to us, that the wrong thing, especially for the right reason, is always the wrong thing. Period.
The story also has deep theological implications and is a study on that first of human frailty, pride. We do not know all Brutus’ reasons for his actions and we don’t want to Christianize a secular story, but certainly Shakespeare was a Christian if not a Catholic and Brutus’ act of political assassination is also an act of great heresy. Throughout the play Caesar describes himself as a god. “He doth not wrong.” He is an imperturbable “Olympus,” he is “constant,” “unassailable,” “unshaked of motion.” He is even more than a god as even “prayers cannot move him.” In Brutus’ killing of him, he in turns kills his creator, a stark lesson for us Christians as all sin hurts our Beloved Lord. An article in Crisis Magazine clarifies it: “Sin at its root is pride, and pride is always, to a greater or lesser degree, making oneself God. Caesar’s self-deification is subtly mirrored in all the characters” (Crisis Magazine, March 2016), especially Brutus!
So the play, whether viewed through our spiritual or political lenses is much more than a bunch of guys in togas spouting off poetry. It still feels contemporary but thankfully never modern. Often, sincere theatre directors try to modernize Shakespeare and the result usually has to cram Shakespeare into a concept as opposed to letting Shakespeare be Shakespeare. The Bard doesn’t need our help. I particularly cringed when hearing of the Public Theatre’s latest, near-literal interpretation of the play this past summer. The one thing that I was happy to hear was the creators’ defense and the very public conversation this play underwent. Four hundred years later we are still discussing it!
“How many ages hence shall this our lofty scene be acted over?” asks Cassius after Caesar’s murder. Hopefully never again. May the God of justice and peace continue to show us the way.