I’ve been thinking, for various reasons, about Shakespeare’s play Julius Caesar. From some cause or other that I can’t fathom now, this play was really fascinating to me when I was 15. I can’t remember if we actually studied it in my English class, or if I just read it on my own because I was a nerd and was obsessed with reading everything in my textbooks whether or not it was assigned. Anyway, it was odd because I wasn’t really into Roman history — I could have taken Latin but it looked deadly dull, and also since we didn’t actually have a Latin teacher, you had to take it via television and call in your homework (remember the 20th century, man?) and that seemed like too much bother. I wasn’t even particularly interested in Shakespeare, either — that obsession didn’t start for me until college, when we got into theater department productions for free. I just particularly liked this play, and the way Cassius talked Brutus into killing his friend (for the good of the republic!), and then Mark Antony came along and talked the republic into hating Cassius and Brutus for killing Caesar. I’m not sure why that story particularly affected me, but I guess it had something to do with realizing that these guys were able to accomplish all this persuasion with just words . Wow, thought my teenage self. Words can do that.

Re-reading Caesar for the first time as an adult, I realizes how much it feels like a written play. This may be why it gets taught so much in high school. There’s not much that needs to be realized in performance. The text practically tells you what the subtext is, and while there’s a good bit of dramatic irony, it’s practically lit with blinking neon: “IRONY”. This is particularly interesting to me because my most recent foray into Shakespeare was the second English history cycle (Richard II/Henry IV parts I & II, Henry V), in which — particularly the Henry IV plays — the rights and wrongs of the situation, the goodness and the badness of the characters, is so devilishly hard to pin down. (I’ve I’ve written about this before.) Even Henry V, on its surface a straightforward story of a king coming into his heroism, is wrought with ambiguities. What I didn’t realize is that, at least according to one chronology, Julius Caesar comes right after those plays. I can’t help wondering if Shakespeare grabbed onto that (literally) ancient history with some relief, after dealing with the dynastic tensions that still resonated in England in Shakespeare’s day. Maybe the same way that I can revel in the bizarre (and appalling, by our standards) social dynamics of Rome on TV, but the 1960s of Mad Men still make me squirm.

Anyway. Re-visiting Julius Caesar, I could sort of understand why I liked it when I was 15, but with a more cynical eye I can divide it into three parts (like Caesar divided Gaul — groan, sorry).

1. Brutus and Cassius bond over how they both hate fun, get together with a bunch of other fun-haters and plan to kill their friend, which they do without running into any particular plot complications.
2. After Caesar is dead, Mark Antony — who has flitted through the background of a couple scenes — shows up to strut around and absolutely PWN everybody. (I realize that the verb “PWN,” deriving as it does from video games, isn’t a verb that gets used in Shakespeare criticism often, but in this case, try to think of a better one –). Brutus and Cassius run away.
3. Brutus and Cassius have a lover’s quarrel, then spend the rest of the play dithering about whether to kill themselves, which they eventually do. Caesar’s ghost also shows up for a while, which is really only notable because it makes me think of Superman’s boss saying, “Great Caesar’s Ghost!” and then I giggle a lot.

This partly occurred to me when I was watching the 1953 film of Julius Caesar, which stars Marlon Brando as Antony. I use “stars” advisedly, because while Mark Antony is ostensibly a supporting role, but Brando gets top billing and he acts like top billing. I was a little dubious about this casting, because Brando’s more famous for mumbling than for Shakespearean diction. But his elocution is fine (yes, movie-going public, he tells us, I can speak the King’s English, I just choose not to), and his strutting and PWNing are better than fine, leading up to a scene between Antony and Octavius (the future Augustus Caesar) that basically consists of Brando making a lot of gratuitous dominance gestures. This doesn’t really make sense as an interpretation of the play (it’s more or less extra-textual and as I mentioned, this play is about putting everything on the page) or as historical foreshadowing (Octavian ended up kicking Antony’s ass, rather than vice versa). As a clinic in Being Marlon Brando, though, it ain’t bad. It does make me wish there was a follow-up movie where this Antony moves to Egypt and started wearing eyeliner. Or a time machine so 2005 James Purefoy Antony and 1953 Brando Antony could hang out and posture at each other. I’m sure I could find some use for that technology, okay???

Getting back to Julius Caesar, I end up wishing that there was an alternate version from Antony’s point of view. i.e., somebody who spends the first act of the play doing things that aren’t boring. Basically, I think the Antony-version would be, “Drunken orgy, drunken orgy, oh DAMMIT shit got real while I was partying, NOW I MUST PWN EVERYBODY.” Which is, come to think of it, not that far from the plot of the Henry IV plays.

Real quick, on a different but somewhat related point, apparently fanfiction about the Iliad is now a valid premise for a literary novel? (Of course I’d argue that the first thousand years or so of Western literature consisted of almost nothing but fanfiction of the Iliad, but why split hairs?) Anyway, hells yes. I need this book my life.

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