Not a Toga Party

Published June 14, 2017

In this year’s Shakespeare in the Park in New York, Julius Caesar is portrayed in a Trump-like suit, with a Trump-like tie, and with Trump-like hair. He also has a tall, blonde wife who speaks with a slavic accent. The actors wear contemporary clothing, not togas.

In this play, the audience projects that the Senators doing the assassination are the good guys. The Trump-like Caesar is assassinated to applause. To make the assassination scene more hurtful, the Melania-like Calpurnia is made part of the scene.

A few years ago, the Acting Company (a black troupe) portrayed a black Julius Caesar, evocative of Barack Obama. In their play, the Obama-like Caesar is assassinated by white Senators. In their play, there is no applause when the Obama-like Caesar is assassinated. Plus, no Michelle-like Calpurnia is interjected into the assassination scene to make it more hurtful.

So, which is it, are the Senators good guys or bad guys? Should the audience applaud when Julius Caesar is assassinated?

Shakespeare’s Julius Caesar is ambivalent on the matter. In particular, Shakespeare portrays Brutus as a tragic character since, in attempting to defend the Senate, he ushered in a civil war that ended with the establishment of the Roman Empire.

In his play, there are three political tensions: Caesar, the Senate and the mob. The Senate represents the aristocracy. The Senate was the propertied class in an age when only a few owned property. They represent the elite and the privileged. And, they are suspicious of Julius Caesar.

Julius Caesar had just returned to Rome in triumph after military victories abroad. To deal with the threat to Rome, Julius Caesar had been appointed Dictator, but this appointment was only short-term. Such an appointment wasn’t unusual, but the Senators feared Julius Caesar might usurp their powers on a permanent basis.

The other tension is that of the mob. They are easily swayed from one to another cause. In the following video clip, Charlton Heston, as Mark Antony, turns the mob around in the famous Friends, Romans, Countrymen Speech.

Some people say Shakespeare’s Julius Caesar was a commentary on troubles in Great Britain contemporaneous with the play’s writing. We can see in it a timeless commentary on politics: tensions involving strong leaders, countervailing political powers, and the susceptibility of the masses to demagogues. Only today, we don’t have to resort to regicide. We have elections and, even, term limits.