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Friends, Romans, countrymen
on April 30, 2011
Gaius Julius Cæsar is the Caesar we think of when we hear the word "Caesar" -- he conquered Gaul, bedded Cleopatra, and died a pretty dramatic death. And while he only appears in a few scenes of "Julius Caesar," he's the nucleus that William Shakespeare's taut conspiracy play revolves around -- his murder, his legacy, and the bitter jealousy he inspired.
Julius Caesar is returning to Rome in triumph, only to be stopped by a strange old soothsayer who warns him, "Beware the ides of March." Caesar brushes off the warning, but he has no idea that a conspiracy is brewing under his nose. In a nutshell, a group of senators led by the creepy Cassius are plotting against Caesar because of his wild popularity, suspecting that he wants to become KING.
And Cassius' latest target: Brutus, one of Caesar's best buddies. Brutus is slowly swayed over to the conspiracy's side, beginning to believe that Caesar as a great man corrupted by power. Everything comes to a a devastating assassination on... guess when... the ides of March, which will elevate some men to greatness and destroy others.
Though the story is supposedly about Julius Caesar, Caesar himself only has a few scenes -- but his charismatic, dominating presence hangs over the play like a heavy tapestry. What he does, what he plans, what he thinks and who he is are constantly on people's minds, and even after his death he is a powerful presence in the memories of the living.
And Shakespeare cooks up a dialogue-heavy play that is a bit on the slow side, but whose speeches are so powerful and intense that you don't quite notice. There's a lot of those speeches here -- not only Antony's famous speech to the Roman people ("The evil that men do lives after them; The good is oft interred with their bones"), but Brutus' impassioned argument with Portia ("You have some sick offence within your mind") and Cassius' oily slanted editorials about Caesar.
Shakespeare's depiction of Brutus is also a beautifully nuanced one -- Antony calls him the "noblest Roman of them all" at the very end, despite the fact that Brutus calmly murdered his friend and leader. He's basically a gullible guy who follows his passions rather than his brain, and bounces into the conspiracy rather than trying to find out the truth about Caesar. You feel sorry for him, and at the same time you want the much smarter Antony to kick him like a soccer ball.
"Julius Caesar" is rather slow-moving, but Shakespeare's powerful writing and nuanced depiction of Brutus more than make up for that. Friends, Romans, countrymen...