Being in both historical fiction and classical theatre, I've naturally spent a great deal of time thinking about Julius Caesar. So it's no surprise that, of the many projects I've worked on, one of my proudest achievements is a play starring Caesar and Brutus on the night before the Ides. It's called EVE OF IDES, and is on sale this week on Kindle for just 99 cents.
Of course, my background is all Shakespearean, so my take on them is informed by Shakespeare's THE LIFE AND DEATH OF JULIUS CAESAR, a thoroughly deceptive title - the play has nothing to do with Caesar's life, and all to do with his death. For a title character he has very little stage time (just five scenes in all, I think, including his ghostly appearance) and is dead halfway through the play. The play belongs to Brutus.
But it's still all about Caesar.
It's taken me awhile to see that. As a huge fan of all things Roman, and a devotee of Colleen McCullough's marvelous MASTERS OF ROME novels, I love Caesar and I rail against the play because it doesn't do the man justice. Shakespeare portrays him as a self-important shell - deaf in one ear, prone to fits, suspicious, and constantly referring to himself in the third person. A formerly great man gone to seed, clinging to his reputation and dignity.
But the play is all about Caesar nevertheless. It's about the way the man's life, and especially death, changed the course of the world. Caesar permeates every scene, and Shakespeare assumes we'll get all the references - who doesn't know the story of Cato's suicide, or that Antony was jealous of Octavius for inheriting Caesar's wealth? It's our own fault that we don't pay attention to history anymore, and Shakespeare doesn't waste time telling us things we should already know. His focus is on the ramifications of the great man's death, and who better to be our guide than the man that murdered him?
It's only recently that I've started thinking how very subversive the play's choice of protagonist is. For over 1600 years, Brutus was the villain. Dante puts him in Satan's mouth alongside Judas (and Cassius), the greatest betrayers of mankind being eternally devoured by the betrayer of God. Boccacio and Chaucer don't go quite so far, but they certainly exalt Caesar and condemn Brutus.
So Shakespeare takes the villain and makes him a hero. It reminds me of the modern play THE TRIAL OF JUDAS ISCARIOT, where they explore Judas' possible motives for betraying Christ. Shakespeare single-handedly rehabilitated Brutus, and despite Antony's rising sarcasm in his claim that "Brutus is an honorable man," Shakespeare's Brutus is just that.
The great flaw in Shakespeare's play, to me, is the lack of interaction between Caesar and Brutus. For men with such a tangled personal and political history, the play is remarkably silent regarding their past.
Oddly, Caesar's character is better explored through a different playwright - George Bernard Shaw. His CAESAR AND CLEOPATRA shows Caesar four years before the assassination, and while he complains of his age, Shaw presents an excellent version of the great man - his humor, his confidence, his arrogance, his wit, his philosophy, and his utter practicality. Also the fact that he was balding, and embarrassed by it, and that he didn't like rich foods or wine. But most of all, Shaw presents his clemency. In this play it's Caesar who is the dreamer, and like Brutus he is disappointed in everyone around him. But unlike Brutus, he is not disappointed in himself.
The relationship between Caesar and Cleopatra in the play is curiously platonic - very strange, considering she bore him a child and followed him to Rome to show the boy off.
Cogitating about Caesar, it's fast becoming my wish to find a theatre company somewhere and settle in to doing THE ROMANS, using the same cast to produce Shaw's CAESAR AND CLEOPATRA and Shakespeare's JULIUS CAESAR and ANTONY AND CLEOPATRA, with my own play stuck in the middle. I'm sure this idea isn't new - in 1951, for example, Olivier and Leigh played the leads in back-to-back productions of C&C and A&C (which must have been weird, I think, having him switch from Caesar to Antony). But I'd still like to try it, and use a year in the theatre to explore the fall of the Roman Republic and the rise of the Roman Empire.
An apt and timely subject, I think, looking at the world around us... America has always had Caesar on the brain. DC was originally named "New Rome" and they tried calling the Potomac the Tiber. There's even a place in the Senate building for the eternal flame of the Vestal Virgins (which they have since reconsidered and no longer keep lit).
At the Lincoln Memorial, Abraham Lincoln is seated in the pose of a Roman consul. And here's where the Caesar connection takes a strange turn. John Wilkes Booth was the son of noted British actor Junius Brutus Booth by his mistress. Booth himself debuted on stage in the role of Richmond in RICHARD III, the man who overthrows the tyrant Richard. He went on to play both William Wallace and Brutus himself. And of course, after he assassinated the president, Booth stole a line from the historical Brutus, one never mentioned in the play - "Sic Semper Tyrannis." It is also the motto of the stage of Virginia.
So happy Ides of March! Remember, it's not just about the murdering. It's the getting together with all your friends and murdering a tyrant.