Wednesday, February 29, 2012

Shakespeare Study: The Tragedy Of Julius Caesar

This is the third year of my Shakespeare study. I read one play each month, and then watch as many film versions as I can get my hands on, and read as many books about the play as I'm able. February, 2012 was The Tragedy Of Julius Caesar. This blog entry has reviews of the films, and little blurbs about the books. (Scroll down for the film reviews.)

Related Books:

- Twentieth Century Interpretations Of Julius Caesar
edited by Leonard F. Dean - This is a collection of critical essays by writers such as Mark Van Doren, David Daiches, Maurice Charney and Northrop Frye. Some are more interesting than others. Maurice Charney writes, in "The Images Of Caesar," "The use of the third person, 'Caesar,' rather than the first person pronoun tends to merge Caesar the man with Caesar the political figure. This identification is one of the sources of the pride that leads to Caesar's murder, for by mingling the personal with the public, Caesar claims for himself as a man the greatness and objective power of a political function" (page 75). Sigurd Burckhardt, finding a connection between the Portia of The Merchant Of Venice and the Portia of Julius Caesar, writes, "Long before this, Shakespeare had discovered a profounder and truer function for poetry; if we recall how Portia became its embodiment in the social order of Venice, we will not miss the more than merely personal weight of Brutus' 'Portia's dead.' It is a different Portia, to be sure, but so was Cinna a different Cinna and yet was killed. For Shakespeare, it's not in dreams but in names that responsibilities begin" (page 79). An interesting thought. Published in 1968.

- Julius Caesar: A Guide To The Play by Jo McMurtry - This book is part of the series Greenwood Guides to Shakespeare, and is intended to function as a guide both to long-time Shakespeare fans and folks who are new to Shakespeare. There is a chapter on the similarities and differences between Shakespeare's play and Plutarch, which is interesting. In the chapter on themes, McMurtry writes about the lines, "That unicorns may be betray'd with trees,/And bears with glasses, elephants with holes," "To 'betray,' or capture, a unicorn, one stands in front of a tree while the unicorn charges, then steps quickly aside so that the unicorn drives his horn into the tree trunk. The glass used for catching bears is a looking glass; the bear, proverbially vain, will stop to admire itself. One induces elephants to walk over covered pits, and drops a net over lions" (page 78). In the chapter on performances, McMurtry talks about the Booth familly, and how the only time all three Booth brothers performed together in their professional lives was on November 25, 1864 in a production of Julius Caesar. Edwin Booth played Brutus; Junius Booth played Cassius; John Wilkes Booth played Antony. Their father, incidentally, was named Junius Brutus Booth. And while John Wilkes Booth was a fugitive (after murdering Abraham Lincoln), he kept a diary in which he compared himself to Brutus. Published in 1998.

- William Shakespeare's Julius Caesar edited and with an introduction by Harold Bloom - This is a volume in the Modern Critical Interpretations series, and includes criticism by Michael Long, Naomi Conn Liebler, Anne Barton and others. Marjorie B. Garber writes about how Decius' interpretation of Calpurnia's dream proves true too: "But there is a curious ambiguity about Calpurnia's dream, and the real irony of the situation is that Decius's spurious interpretation of it is as true in its way as Calpurnia's... For Decius's also a truth. Antony's funeral oration turns on precisely this point, elevating the slain Caesar to the status of a saint or a demigod, exhibiting the bloody wounds to win the hearts of the crowd. And at the play's end Antony shares hegemony - however uneasily - with the novus homo Octavius, literal descendant of Caesar's 'blood'" (page 50). Naomi Conn Liebler writes about the Feast of the Lupercal, giving background to the celebration that begins the play. It's particularly interesting that Caesar changed that celebration so that it honored himself. Also interesting is the relation of the ritual of Caesar's murder to the traditional celebration. Liebler writes, "It would appear that Shakespeare did invent the bloody hand-washing as part of the process of Caesar's murder, as he seems to have invented the expanded imagery of Calphurnia's dream. But the cutting up of the sacrificial pharmakos, whose blood is then smeared upon the flesh of the priestly celebrants, is one of the central events in the rites of the Lupercalia. This is described at length in the Romulus" (page 70). Published in 1988.

- Julius Caesar by Jennifer Mulherin; illustrations by Roger Payne - This is a volume of the Shakespeare For Everyone series, aimed at children. The book begins with this note from the author: "There is no substitute for seeing the plays of Shakespeare performed. Only then can you really understand why Shakespeare is our greatest dramatist and poet. This book simply gives you the background to the play and tells you about the story and characters. It will, I hope, encourage you to see the play." The book not gives background on the play of Julius Caesar, but also a bit of background on the schooling of children during Elizabethan times. It tells the basic plot of the play, and includes passages from Shakespeare's play. It doesn't shy away from mentioning the numerous suicides, but does avoid talking about Portia's self-inflicted thigh wound. Published in 1989.

- Readings On Julius Caesar edited by Don Nardo - This book is a volume in The Greenhaven Press Literary Companion series. It contains essays on the plot, major characters (particularly Brutus) and the themes, from such writers as Norman Sanders, Richard France, Anne Barton and Cumberland Clark. Published in 1999.

- Julius Caesar On Stage In England And America, 1599 - 1973 by John Ripley - This is a detailed history of the staging of Julius Caesar, including information about which scenes were cut from various productions, the re-distribution of lines, actors known for the roles, the way key scenes were staged, and so on. About a 1934 production, Ripley wrote, "By having each man participate in the bloodrite separately, Bridges-Adams tellingly points Shakespeare's contrasting portraits - Brutus, the humanist and philosopher, detachedly speculating about history as theatre, and Cassius, the politician, subjectively assessing his role in it" (p. 206). (In that production, Brutus bathed his hands in Caesar's blood while asking "How many times shall Caesar bleed in sport," and then Cassius knelt SL of the body, giving his line about them being called "the men that gave their country liberty.") Details like this make this book completely fascinating. Though it's a book that is difficult to read straight through, as it does get a bit dry at times. Published in 1980.

- Heil Caesar by John Bowen - This play is an adaptation of Shakespeare's Julius Caesar, made contemporary and set in an unnamed country. It's not bad, but is completely unnecessary. In the introduction, the author writes, "Ronald Smedley, the BBC Producer who both commissioned and directed my play, is an educated man of middle age, and he told me that when even he went to see Julius Caesar in a theatre or tried to read it, half the time he didn't know who anyone was or even what they were saying, and consequently often went to sleep except during the scenes of mob violence which woke him up again." So it was commissioned and directed by an idiot. An educated idiot, but an idiot all the same. Published in 1974.

Film Versions:

- Julius Caesar (1979) with Charles Gray, Richard Pasco, Keith Michell, David Collings, Sam Dastor; directed by Herbert Wise. This adaptation has some excellent performances, particularly by David Collings as Cassius and Sam Dastor as Casca. But it suffers from its use of voice over. Asides in Shakespeare work to draw the audience in, and make them more connected to the characters. This voice over stuff does exactly the opposite - it pulled me out of the play nearly every time it was used. Oddly, in this version, they chose to use the emendation "walls" in place of "walks" in Cassius' line, "When could they say, till now, that talked of Rome,/That her wide walks ecompass'd but one man?" (in Act I, Scene ii). Cassius' speech at the end of that scene is done as voice over, and the shot becomes an extreme closeup of his eyes for the last line, "For we will shake him, or worse days endure." In Act II Scene i, much of Brutus' speech is done as voice over, starting with "It must be by his death." He does suddenly speak one line aloud: "Then, lest he may, prevent" and then goes back into voice over. Lucius has the line from the First Folio, "Sir, March is wasted fifteen days" rather than the emendation "fourteen days." The change to "fourteen" had been made because this was the beginning of the Ides Of March, not the end of that day. Not even Caesar is spared from the awful voice over. His lines at the beginning of Act II Scene ii are spoken in voice over: "Not heaven nor earth have been at peace tonight:/Thrice hath Calpurnia in her sleep cried out,/'Help, ho! They murder Caesar!'" Then his line, "Who's within?" is changed to "Ho there." Caesar's death scene should have been stretched out more. It was too quick. And we didn't see enough of Caesar's reaction to Brutus' betrayal. However, the scene with Antony's great speech was done extremely well. Caesar's Ghost in Act IV Scene iii is done as Charles Gray's face superimposed as a giant image on the right side of the screen. In Act V Scene i, Octavius says, "Never, till Caesar's three and twenty wounds/Be well aveng'd" rather than "three and thirty wounds," as Shakespeare had written. The reason for this change is that according to North's Plutarch, the number of Caesar's wounds was three and twenty, so they are correcting what they perceive to be Shakespeare's mistake. But why do that and yet leave the "March is wasted fifteen days" line? The death scene of Cassius is done really well. Like the BBC production of Romeo And Juliet, this one leaves "The Tragedy Of" out of its title. (time: 161 minutes)

- Julius Caesar (1953) with James Mason, John Gielgud, Marlon Brando, Louis Calhern, Deborah Kerr; directed by Joseph L. Mankiewicz. This version, filmed in black and white, begins with a title card with a quote from Plutarch's Lives. At the end of Scene i, when Falvius has pulled garlands from a statue of Caesar, Roman soldiers step in and take hold of both him and Marullus. The Soothsayer is blind, which makes Casca's line "Look upon Caesar" a bit cruel. Soothsayer remains there, and the crowd passes by him. We see Brutus being kind to Soothsayer before Cassius begins speaking to him. Cassius says "wide walls," not "wide walks." In Scene iii, Cassius enters early and watched the conversation between Casca and Cicero, so his "Who's there?" to Casca is calculated, not an honest question. Brutus' first lines of Act II Scene i are re-arranged. Lucius says, "Sir, March is wasted fifteen days" rather than the emendation "fourteen days." The conspirators are hooded, leading Brutus to ask, "Know I these men that come along with you?" Portia's lines about giving herself a voluntary wound are cut, which is a shame. I think it's important to see that she's done harm to herself, for it lays the groundwork, in a sense, for her later suicide by swallowing hot coals. That scene ends with Brutus' line to Ligarius, "That must we also," and thus the last several lines are cut. Act II Scene ii starts with Calpurnia crying out from her nightmare. The moment before Brutus stabs Caesar is excellent, that connection between the two men. Brutus' lines after "Let us bathe our hands in Caesar's blood" are cut, so we lose "Up to the elbows." The only lines cut from that great scene with Antony are his last: "Now let it work: mischief, thou art afoot/Take thou what course thou wilt." Instead, Marlon Brando shows it with a smile. Then, oddly, there is a title card which begins, "The conspirators having fled, there came to Rome the young Octavius whome Caesar had adopted as his son." It then goes right into Act IV Scene i. And so cut is the murder of Cinna The Poet by the mob. The other Poet is cut from Act IV Scene iii. Messala asks Brutus if he received letters from his wife, but cut are the lines where he says she is dead. Act V begins with Cassius' line "Now, most noble Brutus/The gods to-day stand friendly." And so, cut is the dialogue between Antony and Octavius. And cut is the parley between the two sides. Cassius' speech to Messala where he mentions it's his birthday comes after Brutus' line "And then the end is known." Pindarus' lines after he stabs Cassius are cut. Lucius, whose fate is unclear in the play, is more or less doomed in this film. The instrument he played for Brutus is found broken, implying that he likewise didn't fare well. It then goes to Act V Sceneiv, where Lucilius tells Antony that Brutus is safe. Then Scene v is combined with the end of Scene iii. Cut is Titinius' suicide. The film ends with Antony's line, "And say to all the world, 'This was a man!'" (time: 121 minutes)

Related Films:

- Me And Orson Welles (2009) with Zac Efron, Christian McKay, Claire Danes; screenplay by Holly Gent Palmo and Vince Palmo, based on the novel by Robert Kaplow; directed by Richard Linklater. This delightful film is a fictitious tale about Orson Welles' 1937 mounting of Shakespeare's Julius Caesar. Having seen photos from that production, it was a treat to see many scenes from it come to life in this film, particularly the Cinna the Poet scene. It also has references to Hamlet, Antony And Cleopatra, Henry The Eighth, Henry The Fifth, and The Second Part Of King Henry The Fourth.

Films With References To This Play
- Came The Brawn (1938) a Little Rascals short film directed by Gordon Douglas. Alfalfa is trying to come up with someone to play the Masked Marvel, someone he can beat in the wrestling ring. In walks Waldo, a nerdy kid, reading aloud from Julius Caesar. From Act III Scene ii he reads, "Friends, Romans, countrymen, lend me your ears; I come to bury Caesar, not to praise him." He then trips over a box. Then, in a later scene, the nerdy kid reads aloud from Hamlet and Romeo And Juliet.
- Free Enterprise (1999) with Rafer Weigel, Eric McCormack and William Shatner; directed by Robert Meyer Burnett. In this film, William Shatner pitches a full-text version of Julius Caesar as a musical in which he would play all the male roles. And at the end, he does a rap version of some of Julius Caesar, titled "No Tears For Caesar."
- Gnomio & Juliet (2011) with James McAvoy, Emily Blunt, Matt Lucas, Michael Caine, Maggie Smith, Jason Statham, Ashley Jensen; directed by Kelly Asbury. This animated film features the tale of Romeo And Juliet as portrayed by garden gnomes and other lawn ornaments. So while obviously this film is mostly Romeo And Juliet, it does contain references to other Shakespeare plays, including Julius Caesar. Gnomeo's mom says, "Unleash the dogs of war," a variation on "Let slip the dogs of war" from Act III Scene i of Julius Caesar. She is referring to the giant lawn mower in this case. (time 84 minutes)

Next month: Hamlet.

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