Posts Tagged ‘Julius Caesar’

Julius Caesar at the RSC

May 15, 2017

I’ve just got back from my annual Shakespeare week, having seen productions of both Julius Caesar and Antony and Cleopatra.

They’re doing a Roman season at the RSC, so there’s a certain coherence to the staging and set design, which I really liked, and I think one of the things that struck me most about this production was its coherence: all the characters worked well together and the set enhanced the overall effect. And I was fortunate enough to have a seat in the middle of the third row, so the view was stunning.

Brutus and Cassius made a really good pairing, and I got a strong, clear picture of the closeness of their friendship, and their centrality to the play which I did not have from previous readings of the play and filmed performances. We see the strength of the bond between them, the stresses and tensions it endures, and its survival to the bitter end: the scene of their quarrel in the Roman camp was very moving, particularly when it came to the news of Portia‘s death; despite his stoicism, Brutus’ humanity shone through as well. And the moment of their final farewells to each other on the morning of the battle, which I’ve always found effective even in a reading, was very touching.

The nature of the stage set made the moments after the murder of Caesar astonishingly effective: you really had the impression that not only had the conspirators not thought things through beyond the actual killing, but also that they somehow had not fully realised that they were going to kill someone, and what that meant…

There were strong performances from other characters, too: Caesar’s physical weaknesses and frailties were well portrayed; Antony was clearly a chancer and a gambler, and the callow youth that Octavius was seemed very real, like an arrogant sixth-former who has just been chosen as deputy head-boy, polite and well-behaved but with a power-hunger just below the surface. It’s not a play with strong female roles; Portia worked for me, but Calpurnia didn’t: I just couldn’t see her as Caesar’s wife.

I’m really glad to have finally seen a performance after having taught it so many times in the past; the BBC Shakespeare film version never really cut the mustard for me, so this really was a special treat.

Shakespeare: Antony and Cleopatra

January 29, 2017

516lgrk3f0l-_ac_us200_Antony and Cleopatra is a later play than Julius Caesar; it’s also longer and more subtle, and it has real human interest: the characters and the characterisation draw us in and engage us. The infatuation of Antony with Cleopatra is convincing, as is their flirting and their quarrelling: the portrait of an ageing man torn between duty and pleasure, between resolve and weakness, is brilliantly drawn. Beautiful poetry, haunting images support and enhance the pair’s relationship, fleshing out character, and their entourages further develop the picture: Cleopatra’s women, and Antony’s close friend Enobarbus are an integral part of the play.

The other thing that’s hard to notice unless you are aware of it and deliberately look out for it – and it will be clearer in performance, I’d imagine – is how little the pair are actually together onstage. In Shakespeare’s time, Cleopatra’s role would have been played by a boy, of course (she refers to this in one of her final speeches when she imagines the horror of being part of Caesar’s triumph in Rome) and the last thing that Shakespeare would have wanted would be for his couple to look ridiculous. So, the passion is largely created by what the two say about each other when they are apart – it’s then that their feelings for each other are strongest, whereas when they are together the relationship is stormy, to say the least – and through what other characters say about them and their relationship, particularly Antony’s friend Enobarbus. When you look out for the way Shakespeare has managed it all, you have to agree the achievement is brilliant.

And it’s also perhaps through the storminess of their relationship that Shakespeare is most successful: it’s not puppy-love at first sight, as with the teenagers in Romeo and Juliet; this is mature love between two people who have, to put it mildly, been around a bit, and Cleopatra (who is 38) is clearly worried about being past her beautiful best, in comparison with Octavia…

In their political and military defeat, the ties between them, and their love, grow stronger in spite of their mutual recriminations; now they only have each other, and are inseparable, even by Caesar, for this is another twist Shakespeare adds to the power of their relationship: how calculating is Cleopatra? is she playing a double game? will she come to a deal with Octavius? As an audience, I suggest that we desperately hope not: we are involved, and we want this to be real love, and love to die for, which in the end it is. And Shakespeare produces some of his most sublime poetry to show it.

Students used to ask me which was my favourite Shakespeare play. They never got a straight answer, because I usually found that my favourite play was the one I was currently teaching. Now that I can take a step further back, as it were, I think I can be clearer: though Othello comes a close second, I really do think Antony and Cleopatra is my favourite. (For now.)

Shakespeare: Julius Caesar

January 26, 2017

51dtgromsl-_ac_us174_It’s Shakespeare time again, as in preparing for my week of Shakespeare study and visits to the RSC in the spring; this year it’s Julius Caesar and Antony and Cleopatra, neither of which I’ve yet seen in performance. I’m really looking forward to A&C in particular as it’s possibly my favourite play…

Julius Caesar often seems rather dull and worthy; that’s certainly the reaction of most people when I mention it. It does lack the intrigue of the great tragedies; true, there’s the conspiracy to murder Caesar but it’s the matter of a night’s work and never really threatened with betrayal or failure. A dramatist is constrained a little when dealing with ‘proper’ history, although Shakespeare does play fast and loose with plenty of details. Neither are there any characters for us to really warm to – even Brutus, though noble, is too naive, and the play is basically an all-male play, interrupted only briefly by brief appearances from Portia and Calphurnia.

Whose play – whose tragedy – is it really? Though it’s named after Julius Caesar, he’s dead before the play is half done, and Brutus is the one whose story we’re really meant to be following and interested in. Disinterested, honourable, unsuspicious, the naive idealist manipulated by Cassius, flawed in his short-sightedness and over-confidence, his lofty motives are submerged in the dirty dealings of real politics. The contrast with Cassius is too obvious: thinker-philosopher against envious manipulator.

Caesar does not come across as a bad ruler; in historical terms in the chaos of the disintegrating republic, he was probably as good as it gets, but hadn’t been chosen in accordance with the rules, and was clearly arrogant and full of himself: look at the way in which he refers to himself in the third person. So here is Shakespeare coming back to one of his oft-visited questions: is it right to depose a ruler, whatever his flaws: does it actually get you anywhere? Marlowe had touched on the idea first in the tragedy of Edward II, and Shakespeare tackled the same issue in Richard II: what do you do with a useless king who’s making a total hash of things? Divine right is all very well, but there’s the country to consider too, and then, when the king has been successfully deposed, along comes the next problem: what do you do with a spare king? You have to kill him. Claudius has gained the throne through murder, but there’s no suggestion that he’s ineffectual: the issues of Hamlet’s revenge and kingship are quite separate. And in Julius Caesar, clearly the death of the eponymous hero unleashes more chaos as the state slips through the hands of Brutus and Cassius into those of the cynical Antony and the cold, calculating Octavius, heading for another thirteen years of war…

Which brings us on to the sequel, which I’ll be reading next.

The flaws of Julius Caesar – and I don’t think it’s that bad a play – are those of any chronicle or history play: the action is linear, and circumscribed by fact (Shakespeare is no Donald Trump) which means that the major interest has to come from characters and their interaction, rather than plot, and this play doesn’t really have them. The struggle between the ambitious Octavian and the ageing Mark Antony, and the intrigues of the wily Cleopatra are something else, though, and there are even some interesting minor characters – who could not warm to Enobarbus, for instance?

To be continued…

The book as perfect object

August 7, 2016

The book as we know it is a pretty nearly perfect piece of design, which hasn’t really changed since the codex – a number of sheets attached to each other, inside a protective cover of some kind – replaced the scroll at some point during Roman times. It’s never really been clear whether Brutus’ book, referred to in Act IV of Julius Caesar, and of which he turns down the corner of a page (!) is an anachronism introduced by Shakespeare, rather like the striking clock which features in the same play, or a thing which had actually developed by that time…

So, although handwritten at first, before the invention of printing, and on vellum or parchment before the advent of paper, bound in leather or wood before the invention of cardboard, the object has been a familiar one for getting on for two millennia. It’s obviously much more widespread nowadays, too, and relatively cheaper – somewhere I recall reading that in Chaucer’s time, when a book still had to be hand-written by a scribe, it would cost roughly the same amount as a modest house… were that still the case, I’d be a multi-millionnaire!

When you look more closely, a book is a marvel of versatility. Nowadays, it can contain illustrations or not. It can be cheaply produced for mass circulation, as a paperback, or made more lasting and durable, printed on acid-free paper and in hard covers. It can vary greatly in size, from the smallest paperback to the huge Times Comprehensive Atlas which I value so much. It can be an exciting novel or a dull telephone directory – though why they bother to produce those any more, I cannot fathom.

The way it’s laid out is also logical as well as variable. After the title page, there can be a contents page; at the end there can be an index, although some countries have the – to me – rather curious convention of putting both contents and index at the end of the book. Notes can be included, as foot- or end-notes. And – though less common nowadays – at the very end, other books which might be of interest to a reader can be discreetly advertised.

People have prophesied the disappearance of the printed book for most of my life, initially in fantasies about an electronic future, and more recently with the appearance of e-readers and tablets. And yet recent surveys have show that our friend the printed tome continues to hold its own, even to become more popular, whilst its electronic rival fades – our leading chain of bookshops has discontinued selling the most popular brand of e-reader.

And I can see why. I find my e-reader a frustrating device. I know I’m not a typical user: I have to remind myself of its very existence somewhere among my piles and shelves. But it’s not easy to move around an e-book, to flip from page to page, to keep a thumb in one place while I read another, to look back to the contents page or to the index. Footnotes get shunted all over the place. In the end, as often as not, I just don’t bother. The only real advantage the e-reader has is that I can carry several hundred books around in the physical volume of a single paperback.

When, perhaps in ten years’ time, someone has developed an e-book with pages like a real book has, but that can display the text of any book and all my books, perhaps storing their text and illustrations in memory built into its hard cover, then, perhaps, the printed book may be on its way out. I’m not holding my breath.

On teaching Shakespeare

May 13, 2016

51QrP0QTnTL._AC_US160_A follower’s question about the teaching of Shakespeare has had me reflecting on my experiences in the classroom.

I was wary of teaching Shakespeare too early on in secondary school. I know there are people who think ‘the younger the better’, but the other side of that idea is dealing with the kind of questions students are likely to ask; I have never been one to censor anything in the classroom, and so waiting until students were – hopefully – of a suitable mature age to be given honest and truthful answers to their questions, felt more sensible to me. Inevitably questions about sex would arise: Shakespeare is full of allusions, references, and, more than anything, word-play. Explaining Romeo and Juliet even to Y9 students demanded a certain level of care… so my personal preference was to wait until Y9.

There is the idea of beginning earlier with something more innocuous, like A Midsummer Night’s Dream, for example, but I tried that once, at the start of my teaching career, and never went back to it. Trying to interest eleven and twelve year-olds, particularly boys, in fairies and magic is just not going to work.

The choice of play is crucial when students are younger. Macbeth, Romeo and Juliet, and Julius Caesar all offer something to students in terms of plot, action and issues for reflecting on. And I think that to be able to offer some recognisable connection with their own lives helps to make the plays work. With Romeo and Juliet there is lively action, the idea of young love, and the idea of parents trying to control one’s life, and my students were more than willing to engage with these issues! Macbeth raises the ideas of hopes, dreams and ambitions and how far one is prepared to go in achieving those, as well as the idea of someone being influenced by their partner to do things they might otherwise not have done. And Julius Caesar obviously raises the idea of what one should do about bad rulers, tyrants, and how we make such judgements on rulers, as well as the ways in which the common people are manipulated.

Clearly, as students grow older, they are able to engage with more complex plays and issues: they can understand the idea of sexual jealousy as raised in Othello and The Winter’s Tale, for example, although they might not kill as a response to it… and one can explore racism in many ways by studying Othello, or The Merchant of Venice.

51uUn84EtSL._AC_US160_

Studying Shakespeare in the classroom is a bit of a contradiction, as he was a dramatist and wrote for performance, not reading. Some schools are fortunate in having theatres reasonably accessible and can often take students to live performances which present the plays as they were meant to be experienced. Other schools – ours included – are not so fortunate. I tried, over the years, to develop a way of teaching which addressed this problem.

I’d always do a very quick read through of the whole text, with the emphasis on getting a grasp of the plot and the main characters, and noticing what the main ideas were. I must stress here, that I was never one for just studying extracts. I think that’s a meaningless activity; if there isn’t time, or you can’t make the whole play work, then best not bother. After an initial read, we would watch a TV or film performance of the play. We’d watch it straight through – obviously it might take several lessons, but I wouldn’t constantly be pausing it to comment or explain; again, allowing students to try and grasp the overall effect seemed much more important. If they were studying it for examination, I’d suggest they try to follow the text as they watched, the idea being that if they matched dialogue, gestures and action to the printed words it would improved comprehension. Feedback suggested that this did indeed work.

After that, we had a choice, depending on whether they were studying for an examination, or to write coursework on the play. If a detailed study of the play and serious questioning and note-making were required, now was the time to do it. This was often the lengthiest, and perhaps the most tedious part of the work, but at least the class now understood what they were dealing with.

After this, we would look in more detail at character, themes and issues raised by the play, and I used to do this through group work and presentations to the class; each group would be enabled to show both their understanding of the play and their allocated topic, and their ability to explain it to their peers, as well as manipulating their knowledge and understanding in ways which were a good preparation for what they might be asked to do in an examination. If there was time at this stage, it was also good to be able to watch another (different) complete performance; if we were really lucky, it might be possible to see the play in the theatre…

Looking back over my nearly thirty years in the classroom, I can honestly say that I always loved teaching Shakespeare – correction, trying to pass on my love of Shakespeare. I miss it, but the week after next is my annual Shakespeare week.

John F Danby: Shakespeare’s Doctrine of Nature

March 7, 2016

31M42iJdaRL._AA160_I’ve been having a tidy-up and clear-out, and rediscovered this, which is one of those books that you come across once in a while, that do a superb job in explaining key concepts and background material in cultural and literary works. Danby’s work, although more than half a century old, seems to me to sit alongside other such classics as Huizinga‘s The Waning of the Middle Ages, and Tillyard‘s The Elizabethan World Picture: essential reading for students who need to have a clear understanding of the ideas and thinking of another age.

I’ve found, over years of reading and study, that many books, particularly history and literary criticism, are rewritten by each generation (academics do have to make a living, after all), with new interpretations and updated expression and examples replacing those of a former age, but I haven’t yet come across what could replace any of the books mentioned above.

Danby’s book is certainly an excellent key to making sense of the word ‘nature‘ in King Lear, two diametrically opposed meanings of which are illustrated and explored both through the action and in certain key characters in that play; that is where I first came across the book more than forty years ago. The explanations and the illustrations are precise and clear, and Danby widens his scope by bringing in aspects of, and characters from, Richard III, King John, Henry IV (both parts) Julius Caesar, Hamlet, Troilus and Cressida, Othello and Macbeth, to flesh out his thesis and illustrate developments in Shakespeare’s overall thinking. Through his close focus on Nature, we can also perceive more clearly how what Shakespeare has to say in his plays remains relevant to us today, even though we may nowadays use different words to articulate our feelings and fears.

Danby has also sent me back to the play King Lear itself, which I haven’t read for many a year; though I studied it at A level a long time ago, and have always liked it, I only ever had one opportunity to teach it as a text – it’s now another of those that examiners seem to regard as ‘too difficult’ for today’s students…

 

On reading history…

May 4, 2015

I had planned to do A-level History when I entered the sixth form, but on the first day, I switched to English Literature. Thus are historic decisions made. This means that, although I have never lost my interest in history, my knowledge is scattered, unstructured and probably pretty uncritical. It hasn’t put me off, though!

I studied Ancient History at school and still retain some interest in Ancient Rome and its politics and achievements; it enabled me to make sense of Shakespeare’s Julius Caesar and Antony and Cleopatra, too.

Having had a fairly religious upbringing, I’m also interested in religious history. I’ve been taught the history of the Reformation several times, from various different perspectives. For me, the crucial issue has been how spiritual organisations have so quickly lost their way and got into bed quite shamelessly with secular powers, and the subsequent mayhem that this has caused throughout the centuries. I have found books written half a century ago by Philip Hughes very interesting, and much more recent tomes by Diarmaid MacCulloch very stimulating. I don’t think my reading counts as balanced historical knowledge, though.

I’m somewhat interested in the history of this country, although I am put off by the Ruritanian monarchy to which we are expected to submit, and the appallingly damaging and damaged class system which endures while everything else seems to crumble around us. Delusions of grandeur based on the glory of past centuries don’t help either. Norman DaviesThe Isles was very interesting, and challenging, when I first read it, and I’m thinking of going back to it. Shakespeare’s history plays have made rather more sense when I’ve explored their historical background.

As someone who is half-Polish, I’ve long been interested in the history of that country and of Central Europe in general, which has been so radically different from the experiences of the natives of our small island that I’m repeatedly brought back to the idea that here in England we don’t really know very much about the rest of the world at all. Poland fascinates me in numerous ways: an elective monarchy (!?), the first country to abolish corporal punishment in schools (allegedly), a country with crazy and romantic notions about itself, delusions perhaps in a similar way to those of the English. A country that has moved around the map over the centuries, so that maps of where my forebears came from are maps of nowhere, places that do not exist. Here again, Norman Davies’ writings have informed me and also made me think a great deal, and more recently, books by Timothy Snyder which explore the incredibly complex national, political and racial issues of that part of the world have been very illuminating.

My previous post alludes to my interest in the history of the Second World War; my teaching of literature at school has led me recently to become very interested in the First World War too, visiting various battlefields and trying to imagine the mindset of politicians who could make such mayhem happen, and those who participated in it (often voluntarily!) as soldiers.

Finally, I suppose because somewhere I yearn for utopia, I read quite widely about the Soviet experiment. It failed, horribly and murderously, and has enabled capitalism to retrench its hegemony on the grounds that communism and socialism ‘have been tried and have failed’. And, as one Polish relative, who is a historian, pointed out to me once, the Soviet era was just another way for a different group of people to get their snouts in the trough… But, I am fascinated by the possibility that humans might find a way to do things differently, though they probably won’t in my lifetime, and I will always remember that those who ignore the past are doomed to repeat it…

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