When I had started writing this on March 15 about Shakespeare’s Julius Caesar it suddenly struck me that the day was 2054th death anniversary of that celebrated first emperor of the ancient Roman empire. He was stabbed to death by a group of honourable senators of Rome as a patriotic act on 15th March 44 BCE. Hm!
But I had wanted to write more about Shakespeare’s Julius Caesar rather than the historical one, but somehow the anniversary coincidence has changed my mood.
The thing is, I am rereading Shakespeare (b.1564 – d.1616 ) after a very long time — almost after a lifetime. And I am not one of those Shakespeare buffs, and never will be — I hope. Like most of us I too had been thoroughly discouraged by school – teachers from even hoping to actually enjoy Shakespeare. And mind , my English teacher, Mr. Menon, was truly one of the best in the business ; he even drew chalk portraits on the blackboard of Peggoty or Mr. Micawber while teaching us Dickens. Shakespeare had always been High Literature, pontificated upon endlessly by the hyphenated Eng-Lit people, filling several daunting shelves of the British Council Library to which we were encouraged to go by our ever- hopeful school- teachers. But it has always remained Best To Be Avoided Stuff for me, like for most other proletarians. Till I was past forty and working in Bombay in what passes for the Financial World of India, and hanging around whenever I could with the best people to hang around with in that city– the film people, who else? In the usual endless yakking that went on there I caught a chance remark one day that Shakespeare`s plays can be best read as he actually wrote them to be seen(often the night before the rehearsals) – as commercial nautanki ! I took that thought home and tried the nautanki approach on the Collected Works I have been lugging around since childhood because my father had got it with best intentions for his first- born, alongwith Concise Oxford Dictionary and, being a Bengali family after all, Tagore . And it worked! I couldn`t believe my eyes. Was I going into early senility? I checked. Not, quite. I tried it on different days, on different portions, and on different plays. It worked, each time. Voila! I had got the Key To Reading Shakespeare And Enjoying It. I had resolved to reread it all, when I have the time. Well, now I have. And I am rereading Shakespeare.
So, Julius Caesar.
First of all ,what is the point of the play? It was never made clear by the school- teachers. The story of the play is simple: after winning many wars of conquest Julius is becoming popular with Roman people. Cassius and his party, who are his friends and senators of Rome, don’t want Julius to be declared an emperor. They conspire, alongwith Brutus, to kill Julius. They do so. But Julius’s friend Mark Anthony incites the public by telling them that Julius, as Caesar, was about to abolish taxes. Public rallies around Julius Caesar’s standard. Defeated, Cassius / Brutus kill themselves, or are killed in the war with army aligned with Caesar. The Hollywood version has Caesar’s wife Cleopatra playing a Hollywoodish love-triangle role in all this. So what is the big deal? Happens all the time. What is all that gaff about in Anthony’s famous speeches – “friends, romans, countrymen”, etc. and that “Brutus is an honourable man” refrain? Why was Shakespeare so worked up about a straightforward palace intrigue?
I geddit only now. Julius Caesar was born on 13th July 100 BCE. The global conquests of Alexander about 200 years earlier had vastly changed the mental map of Greek and Roman city- states. The Greek city- kingdoms had by then fought themselves into ruins and Roman city- states were already ascendant. But these were city- states, their “democratic” politics in the hands of a handful of aristocratic republican senators, their economies based on a vast army of conquered slave- labour. But the military conquests of several general like Julius, Pompeii and others had subjugated vast tracts of the world including England, France, Middle East ,etc which had been first brought on the radar by Alexander’s conquests. The city-state form of Roman republics was inadequate to cope with the vastly increased scale of territory now under rule and quantities of revenues so made available by the military conquests. A qualitatively new from of social arrangement and politics transcending the older republican form was historically needed. Alexander , a Macedonian upstart, not a true Greek, had already shown a glimpse of what a single man’s rule could do… People of Rome were fed up of high- taxation imposed by narrow- minded republican senators – like Cassius, Brutus, etc. People wanted revenues from conquered lands to be used to lighten their tax burden. It was , in technical language , a revolutionary situation. A move was afoot as Shakespeare’s play accurately catches, to change the politics and declare Julius an emperor – in fact “Caesar” is “Kaiser” in Latin i.e., emperor.
The Caesarisation of Julius was, it can be seen, a yugantar, a turning point of European history — it was the onset of the Roman Empire to come first unHoly, then , after Constantine Ceasar, Holy , or the other way round depending on viewpoint . No wonder the senators felt they were being bypassed by history. No wonder they tried to stop it , even by choosing to murder a close friend like Julius. No wonder they felt patriotic, honourable, and noble while doing so – they were defending an older established paradigm of society. (Remember, Duryodhan’s dying speech at the end of the Mahabharata War? In a brilliant piece on ideology of socio-political transcendence he curses in stark and telling detail all individual Pandavas, and particularly Krishna for having destroyed the old established order of Dharma and introducing new, destabilising ideas of Adharma. He was lamenting the upstaging of the older Kuruvansha- time pastoral socio-political nizam by the rising agriculture–based one embraced by the Pandavas on Krishna’s advice and encouragement.) No wonder they failed. After his murder, Julius Caesar’s heir Octavius was declared emperor. Europe changed, and also the world – and started on the long historical road to dark, feudal Middle Ages.
Well, this is much better! Now we can begin to understand the huge angst with which the whole play is shot through. Now we can glimpse Shakespeare’s art.
Catching the public sentiment for coronation of Julius as emperor and outraged by this sentiment, here is Cassius:
“Now, in the name of all the gods at once,
Upon what meat doth our Caesar feed
That he is grown so great? Age thon art
Ashamed! …. When could they say, till now,
That talk’d of Rome
That her wide walls encompass’d but one man?”
Cassius’s outrage arises out of being caged by the “walls of Rome” and the bygone “Age”, while Julius and the public were seeing the new big wide world.
I am going to resist the temptation of quoting wholesale. I will only highlight some dramatic moments in this powerful political play – arguably the first modern political play of the world.
When he is summing up the spirit of the whole conspiracy to murder Julius as a needed public act, Brutus says to his cohorts:
“Let us be sacrificers, but not butchers, Caius
We all stand up against the spirit of Caesar,
And in the spirit of men there is no blood:
O, that we then could come by Caesar’s spirit,
And not dismember Caesar! But, alas!
Caesar must bleed for it!… And, gentle friends,
Let’s kill him boldly, but not wrathfully;
Let’s carve him as a dish fit for the gods,
Not hew him as a carcass fit for hounds…
We shall be called purgers, not murderers”
And a bit later, when the conspiracy had advanced, and Caesar is preparing to go to the stadium, or wherever, as invited, to meet Brutus and others, everyone is trying to stop him – augurers, sorcerers, his own mind, and his wife Calpurnia, who says:
“Caesar, I never stood on ceremonies,
Yet now they fright me. There is one within,
Besides the things we have heard and seen,
Recounts most horrid sights seen by the watch.
A lioness hath whelped in the streets;
And graves have yawn’d, and yielded up their dead,
fierce fiery warriors fight upon the clouds,
in ranks and squadrons…
and ghosts did shriek and squeal about the streets.
O, Caesar, these things are beyond all use,
and I do fear them.”
Caesar does not quite listen to her.
“When beggars die, there are no coments seen,
The heavens themselves blaze forth the death of princes.”
To which, Caesar says the famous line :
“Cowards die many times before their deaths…”
Great nautanki, no? Remember Mughal-e-Azam?
After the murder, there is great turmoil, rumour, horror, gossip, public meetings, speeches to Rome’s citizen. Brutus, much respected by all, makes his case:
“…This is my answer – not that I loved Caesar less,
But that I loved Rome more.
Had you rather Caesar were living,
And die all slaves, than that Caesar were dead,
To live all freemen?
As Caesar loved me, I weep for him,
As he was fortunate, I rejoice at it,
As he was valiant, I honour him:
But as he was ambitious, I slew him … “
Perfect dramatic blending of the political and the personal lines. Script writers, look again.
But it did not work. Anthony, otherwise a lesser orator then Brutus, emotionally stirred the public to mutiny. Anthony’s long speech is justly famous, but if it should be quoted it should be quoted full, which will take much space. But here is the very modern sounding economic trick he uses, apart from the most gory soap-operatic tear-jerking metaphors and emotions over Caesar’s bleeding corpse, to swing the public which is already aroused enough to mutiny, and to burn the house of Brutus:
“Wherein hath Caesar deserved your love?
Alas, you know not– I must tell you then.
You have forgot the will I told you of…
Here is the will, under Caesar’s Seal.
To every Roman citizen he gives,
To every several man, seventyfive drachmas …
Moreover, he hath left you all his walks,
His private arbours and new planted orchards
On this side of Tiber : he hath left them you,
And to your heirs forever : common pleasures,
To walk abroad and recreate your selves…”
It is not clear if there was an actual Will, but the necessary economic basis of a wide- based commonly- held public goods, for a public which will willingly pay taxes for a coming monarchy is already spelt out. No wonder the public abandoned the nobility’s narrow republican rule.
Hmm!! And why is it that the literary types, and even Shakespeare buffs, do not talk of Caesar`s political economy which Shakespeare put in Anthony’s mouth? It is the pivot of the storyline!
There is war. After much touch-and-go manoeuverings between Brutus and Anthony the plot fails and the public opinion, and the military battle, veers round to Caesar`s standard. The conspirators do ritual suicide. Here is Brutus dying:
“My heart doth joy that yet in all my life
I found no man but he was true to me.
I shall have glory by this losing day,
More than Octavius and Mark Anthony
By this vile conquest shall attain unto…”
And after his death , in victory, Anthony sums up Brutus, saying:
“This was the noblest Roman of them all:
All the conspirators, save only he,
Did that they did in envy of great Caesar;
He only, in a general honest thought
And common good to all, made one of them.
His life was gentle, and the elements
So mix’d in him that nature might stand up
And say to all the world,
‘This was a man!’…”
Slick, smart, politically correct to the day.
In short the ‘subject’ of the play is the epoch- making transition of the ancient civilized part of Europe from its Greek tradition of slave-labour based city-states to the coming thousand five hundred – year long feudal monarchies of Middle Ages, the fulcrum of which was the assasination of Julius Caesar by the noblemen of the Roman ancien regime. Few subjects can be meatier than that! And all this in the setting of Rome where it was happening. Shakespear does it with panache, and uncanny insights which perhaps only nautanki mode can make possible. The whole play is on a sustained high from the opening dialogue, and playful , and many-hued. As it had to be, for the end-16th century London’s newly forming proletarian audience to pay hard-earned pennies at the theatre`s box-office — amidst poverty, plagues, pestilences and political intrigues. The days of Rome evoked in the play must have been similar to those of Hastinapur around the Mahabharata War, or of Paris during the 18 century French Revolution, or of Moscow and St. Petersburg during October 1917. The play was a blast. Still is, on a staggeringly broad canvas.
What made Shakespeare take on such a theme? He a small town non college- educated, “player” ( as theatre writers/actors were then called, and as the Big Business likes to call itself today) trying to make it in London`s theatre scene while keeping his fathers’ glove- making business going in Stratford. He was 36 when Julius Caesar was “played”, in 1600, London.
The date is important. England was trying to come out of the Roman Catholic Church, which was to excommunicate Galileo 30 years later .The universe was still geocentric. Although Spanish and Portugese voyagers had opened up the world’s mental horizons, England’s first democratic spasm, with Oliver Cromwell, was yet to happen – it did 40 years later .It was an England where farmers were being uprooted from lands now being given over to sheep-rearing for wool trade in overseas markets. The Biblical world was still the outermost mental horizon of matriculate citizen, leavened a bit by Greek and Latin classic literature. England had killed Mary, Queen of Scots. Civil wars between small kings were on, disguised as Catholic vs Protestant clash of faiths. The uprooted peasantry was thronging in congested, unhygienic London, making up the new proletariat for the rising capitalism. There was deep uncertainty and vast silence.They wanted amusement, diversion, etc. sure, but they also wanted hope, justice, joy, comforting.
Shakespeare was providing that, while smarting from small- town diffidence and an inferiority complex from not having had college–education like his competitors Jonson, Marlowe, Burbage. He had started with writing rollicking, fantastic “comedies”, but after the death of his 11-year old son Hamnet in 1596 his spirit darkened, and he turned to what came to be known as “tragedies”. But all along he was also writing “histories”– plays on several English king’s lives and times. Today it may sound strange, but then it was a vital matter for life and livelihood of the “players” and their audience (think of Bollywood vs. Sena/MNS on a national scale). The political paradigm of England and Europe was about to be shattered and personal and social life of people was about to be altered beyond recognition by the onrushing juggernaut of capitalism. Shakespeare’s sensitive soul was catching the early straws is the wind, for his audience, and also for his own troubled heart. Julius Ceasar was actually a beginning of a personal turning point for him. More anguished plays like Hamlet, King Lear, Othello were to come later. Caesars’ drama in Rome chimed with the drama he was witnessing in London.
I can’t help noticing that it also chimes with today’s world too. Since the self- destruction of Soviet Union and regimes of Reagan & Thatcher our world has become a strange and unsteady place. Dreams and doctrines, both of the Right and the Left, have failed us; major icons have shown up their feet of clay ; solid economies and nations are suddenly crumbling ;and the world is boiling with despairing civil wars and roving uncivil wars of military powers.There is deep uncertainty and vast silence. Another sea- change, another epochal turning- point doth seem to be at hand, methinks! Brutus, always mindful of common good, had said:
“the abuse of greatness is when
it disjoins remorse from power…”
My point , gentle reader , was to say that Shakespeare is Cool and rewarding even for proles like you and me , and nautanki is the best route to reaching him. And also, of course , to share my joy of reading him.