This will be a short one, as this is a post I hadn't planned on writing (I've been working on a more positive post for a bit, and I will likely add a post soon talking about the summer class I just finished teaching). As a Renaissance scholar, it's been impossible NOT to follow the story about the Public Theater's production of Julius Caesar. To be perfectly clear up front, this blog post is NOT going to re-hash all the points that have been made by others in my field. Yes, the rage from Republicans regarding this production is misplaced. This is a matter of fact, not one of opinion. Sarah Neville has shown how the play is, by design, not about sending a singular political message, but rather how it, through its "interpretive instability" leads people to see what they want in the text, appropriating it along those lines. Jyotsna G. Singh offers an historical context for the play, pointing out similarities between Caesar in Shakespeare's time and the political situation today. Singh notes that "Shakespeare had inherited over 1,600 years of ambiguity, with little consensus over whether Caesar's killing was justified." The result of such ambiguity was a play where heroes and villains are painted in tones of gray. Finally, Sophie Gilbert at The Atlantic has shown the absurdity of being outraged at the Public Theater's production due to the fact that it's not the first, second, or even third time such an angle has been taken with this play. A 2015 production put Hillary Clinton in the Caesar role. A 2012 production put Barack Obama in the Caesar role. Earlier productions featured JFK and Reagan.
So I wasn't going to write about the Caesar outrage. It seemed that it had all been covered. But a combination of humidity induced insomnia and the fact that I am literally writing this from the scholar residence at the Folger Shakespeare Library has made me change my mind about joining the fray. There IS one aspect of this issue that I have yet to see anyone address (not saying it hasn't been, just saying I haven't seen it). Almost every character in this play exists on a razor's edge of morality. Caesar may have been a tyrant, and he may have been a savior. Antony, Lepidus, and Octavius may have been acting in the name of friendship, and they may have been acting in the name of self-interest. Each conspirator falls along the spectrum of morality in terms of their motive, and at the very least, you must admit that good men and bad men alike stab Caesar. In a play replete with such moral ambiguities, there is one scene that is clearly a depiction of immorality: the murder of Cinna the Poet. It's a short scene, and one that the education wing of the Folger Library uses frequently (another reason, perhaps, this scene came to mind tonight). You can see the scene HERE if you aren't familiar with it.
This scene follows shortly after the famous "dueling speeches" scene where first Brutus gives a speech that gets the mob riled up in favor of the conspirators, and then Mark Antony gives a response that turns the Roman mob against the conspirators. By the time the two orators--both of whom seem to truly believe that they are acting in the best interests of Rome--are finished, the Roman mob is out of control. They don't trust anybody and, following the lead of their politicians, they are filled with suspicion, doubt, anger, and violence. That is their state when they encounter gentle Cinna the Poet, who unfortunately shares a name with a conspirator. The angry mob gangs up on Cinna, intimidates him, interrogates him, and finally kills him. Note the final lines of this scene, however. This is not a case of mistaken identity. Cinna the Poet does reveal that he is not one of the conspirators. That he is Cinna the Poet, not Cinna the Conspirator. The mob seemingly takes that information at face value. And then they kill him anyway, for his "bad verses."
The mob wasn't trying to achieve a goal. They did not believe in a particular ideology. Not really. They were enraged, that rage had to be vented, and it ultimately didn't matter who was on the receiving end. This, too, has been happening in our current politically charged theatrical situation. The Boston Globe ran a story this week reporting that Shakespeare theaters across the country, from Lenox, Mass. to Dallas, Texas and several more in between, have been receiving dozens of unhinged threats from people offended by the Public Theater's production. These theaters, which have nothing to do with the Public's production, received dozens of messages, "including threats of rape, death, and wishes that the theater's staff is 'sent to ISIS to be killed with real knives.'" These threats were fueled by the intentional fanning of those initial flames of rage. Long after it was clear that the play isn't about what people had been told, folks like Donald Trump Jr. tried to blame the production for the shooting in Virginia. Some of the actions were those of cowardice rather than those of opportunism. Delta and Bank of America, rather than standing firm and highlighting what the play is actually about, stepped aside and withdrew their support, lending the perception of credibility to a protest about nothing.
But let's pause for a moment and ask an important question: What was the Roman mob actually angry about? Were they angry at the conspirators for killing Caesar? Were they angry at themselves for cheering Brutus after his speech? Did they feel deceived by Brutus? Does it have anything to do with Brutus, Antony, Caesar, or any of the rest? That's the question of this play, because anyone who has been paying attention lately can see that that's where we are right now. Mobs of people protest and counter protest. They dox people online and send death threats. And it doesn't matter if the person (or in this case the play) is ACTUALLY doing what they've been told it does. Someone from their "side" has pointed at it and declared it the enemy. And, just like the Cinna the Poet scene, the mob isn't even going after the right target. We aren't thinking. We are segregated into packs who follow blindly and attack whichever target is identified, regardless of the facts. We are the Roman mob, and we are killing Cinna the Poet by the thousands because we are all too willing to mindlessly vent rather than stop and think.
We, as a society, needed the message that the Public Theater's production was putting forward. Those who came out in droves to protest this production (and sent death threats to many other companies simply because they turned up in a flawed Google search) need to take a moment to look inward and figure out why they are so very angry. It isn't because of this play. As so many others have pointed out, that logic doesn't stand. The play literally ISN'T doing what the mob has been told it does. Yet they protest it anyway. They kill Cinna the Poet regardless of whether or not that target makes any sense, and it has to stop. We need to figure out why we are ACTUALLY so damned angry and why we are so content to be a mob whose unfixed rage can be manipulated so easily by so few for such selfish reasons. Our elected leaders need to decide if this cut-throat game of win at all costs via violent rhetoric is worth the inevitable result. And remember that "inevitable result" is precisely what Julius Caesar is about. This play shows us what happens when society reaches such a point. Rome (the United States) falls into ruin and despotism. And while the dream of Rome survives elsewhere, Rome itself never truly recovers. It isn't a play about one side violently deposing the other. It's a play about the collapse of democratic society where everyone from every side loses. Think about that next time the occasion to "kill Cinna for his bad verses" presents itself. And then maybe see the play rather than wishing death upon others.
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