This month’s edition of What Happens in Shakespeare is about Julius Caesar.
Ellen Kushner, who knows a thing or two about Shakespeare and about censorship, recently tweeted that wearing her Shakespeare in the Park sweatshirt is suddenly a statement-making act. It’s old news by now that sponsors of the Public Theater’s production of Julius Caesar pulled out because the theater’s Caesar resembled Donald Trump. Far-right protestors have interrupted subsequent performances.
But the play is not an endorsement of assassination. Far from it. It comments on the ways power corrupts, and on the dangers of a cult of personality, and in one of its most horrifying moments, it shows what can happen when a mob gets out of control.
The Reduced Shakespeare Company tweeted: “When in Rome, watch your back. MORAL: Beware the Ides of March.”
What happens in Julius Caesar
Roman citizens throw a parade and athletic games to celebrate Julius Caesar’s triumphant return from war. Mark Antony, Caesar’s right-hand man, competes in the games. A couple of skeptics try to tamp down the hero worship of Caesar.
On his way to the arena Caesar is stopped by a stranger who warns that he should “Beware the Ides (the 15th) of March.”
Cassius and Brutus (both Senators) are suspicious that Caesar’s overblown power is going to his head and are afraid he will try to become Emperor. Cassius, who is a successful general, is jealous of Caesar’s popularity. Brutus considers himself loyal to Rome and has a more balanced view.
Cassius and his allies visit Brutus at night to persuade him to join their cause. They plan Caesar’s death. Brutus has doubts and can’t sleep, but will not confide in his devoted wife.
On the 15th of March, Caesar’s wife urges him not to go to the Senate, but flatterers convince him to go in order to save face. He goes. Cassius, Brutus and their allies stab him to death. Brutus delivers the killing blow.
At Caesar’s funeral, Brutus calms the nervous crowd by explaining that he and his allies killed Caesar because they were afraid his ambition would lead to bad things for Rome. Mark Antony takes the stage, starts off his speech with “Friends, Romans, countrymen, lend me your ears,” and whips the crowd into an angry froth. The conspirators get out of town because they are afraid the mob will kill them.
The mob questions and then kills an innocent bystander, Cinna the Poet, because one of the conspirators was also called Cinna.
Brutus and Cassius gather an army and go to battle against Mark Antony’s forces.
Brutus stoically receives the news of his wife’s suicide in Rome. He sees Caesar’s ghost as he lies in bed. He gets the feeling the battle is not going to go well.
In the battle the Cassius-Brutus side at first appears to be winning. But then Cassius sees his messenger’s horse apparently being overtaken by the Mark Antony side. Cassius fears the worst and gets his servant to help him to a quick death.
Brutus finds Cassius’s body and commits suicide as the only honorable action left to him.
Antony wins the battle. He praises Brutus as “the noblest Roman of them all” and goes back to Rome with Caesar’s nephew Octavius (famous for becoming Caesar Augustus later).
For actual scholarship and insight, visit the Shakespeare Resource Center‘s page on Julius Caesar.