A 400 year old play about political violence remains relevant
‘If you look at the history of Africa in the last 50 or 60 years since many of the countries gained independence from imperial rule, you get this history of leaders coming to power on a wave of popularity, beginning to gather all that power to themselves, then being overthrown in a military coup that plunges the country into civil war. That’s the plot of Julius Caesar.’
So says Gregory Doran, who directed a highly praised production of ‘Julius Caesar’ in a modern African setting for the Royal Shakespeare Company ten years ago. In the intervening decade his comments remain germane: while bloody revolution is less frequent on the continent than it was, the dangerous effects of unchecked political rhetoric remain.
You might notice the relevance of the play in things as simple as the frequency with which lines from the play are quoted during any election period – it is a source of numerous pithy insights into the nature of politics and politicians. But ‘Julius Caesar’ is more than compendium of quotes for use by stumped columnists in search of a headline.
‘Julius Caesar’ is a play about the corrupting influence of power but at the same time the dangers of usurping that power by violent revolution, the unintended consequences that accompany noble intentions, the diverse and often clashing motivations of revolutionaries and how both the existing political culture and the revolution itself can determine the manner in which power replaces itself. The play is a densely packed analysis of the body politic, not just a story of the assassination of a popular leader turning dictatorial and the subsequent demise of the assassins.
Brutus, ‘the noblest Roman of them all’ is the figurehead the other plotters need to add respectability to their conspiracy. He is a complex foreshadowing of an equally deeply conflicted (if subsequently much bloodier) Shakespeare character, Macbeth. Much of the first half of the play is focused on the inner turmoil Brutus goes through, as is the case with Macbeth. Both are plagued by sleeplessness and horrific visions of violence, for example, and both tie themselves in knots with argument and flawed counter-argument. Both are also manipulated by others (Brutus by the other conspirators, Macbeth by his wife and some witches.)
Unlike Macbeth but as is so often the case in revolutions, the well intentioned figurehead seldom lasts long after the revolution itself: this is the fate of Brutus. It is one of the great ironies of ‘Julius Caesar’ that the one thing that the plotters use as a justification for the assassination of Caesar, Rome turning from being a republic back to a dictatorship, is exactly what they facilitate: the rise of the Roman Empire (Octavian, the prickly young nephew of Caesar who forms part of the Triumvirate who hound down Brutus and the other assassins, eventually became the Emperor Augustus). All very African.
Superstitions, Mob Mentality – and Ignoring Women at your Peril
There are, however, three other things that are worthy of note about ‘Julius Caesar’ in the context of African politics: superstition, the populace and the women.
Now this isn’t to say that politics in Africa lacks the sophistication of politics elsewhere (there’s a distinct lack of sophistication in politics everywhere right now): but the idea of leaders playing on base instincts and deep cultural memes, the origins of which are often long lost, remains dangerously prevalent. Just as in ‘Julius Caesar’, when the elite ‘cry havoc and let loose the dogs of war’, the effect on the citizens of Rome is uncontrollable and bloody, especially for the innocent. (In a case of mistaken identity a poet named Cinna, mistaken for a conspirator of that name, is mobbed and, we presume, slaughtered.) Mark Antony, Caesar’s friend and avenger, gives licence to the mob in his funeral oration over the bloody body and Rome descends into carnage within hours. ‘Julius Caesar’ is a clear warning about the dangers of un-tempered rabble-rousing.
It is also worth noting how both Caesar and Brutus reject the concerns of their wives. Caesar’s wife Calpurnia has a portentous dream of blood gushing from the statues of her husband, but he ignores her warning, just as he dismisses the soothsayer’s warning to ‘beware the Ides of March’ (the middle of March when Caesar is duly assassinated).
Portia, meanwhile, senses the turmoil in her husband Brutus and seeks to dissuade him: but he goes ahead with the assassination of Caesar nonetheless. She kills herself: the Roman historian Plutarch states that she ‘swallowed fire’, killing herself by eating hot coals, a particularly horrible end. As is so often the case, women’s sage counsel is ignored and they suffer the consequences of the actions of their menfolk, sometimes in horrific ways.
A re-reading of ‘Julius Caesar’, especially by politicians, may be very timely.