Sunday, December 4, 2011

Julius Caesar, by William Shakespeare

Shakespeare is a topic upon which I could pontificate for hours; I can hold forth on a variety of topics concerning the Bard, ranging from his prose to his place in the annals of Western history.  And I could do it all while sounding like a pompous wind-bag (sorry, I just finished reading the play, so my internal monologue is sounding a little 16th century at the moment).  

Last year, I was earning some extra money by tutoring highschoolers in English and History, and one of my students was assigned Julius Caesar as the Shakespeare play her class had to read.  At the time, I read the first Act on my way to our tutoring session, and some of the third Act with her, but nothing else – teachers seem to want to rush through the mandatory Shakespeare unit of the curriculum, and within a week and a half, my student was finished with the play.  What really broke my heart about the whole situation was this: the teacher had assigned them the edition that has the modern English translation opposite the original text, and she gave the class no historical context for the play.

The teacher in question was a major tool for two reasons.  First, one of the reasons you read Shakespeare in the 16th century vernacular is so that you learn how to read Shakespeare in the 16th century vernacular.  Most schools don’t give kids a modern translation, so she did a disservice to her class; the next time they have to read Shakespeare (without the translation) they’re going to be at a total loss.  The second problem I had with that teacher was that she gave her students no historical context on the play.  I shit you not, this is an actual conversation I had with my tutoring student while reading the play: “Wow, you seem to know a lot about this Caesar guy.”  “Well, I’ve studied the time period, so I have an understanding of the politics of the situation.”  “Wait, are you saying this Caesar guy was real!?!”  It almost broke my heart.  And I blame the education system for that.

What I did discover while perusing Julius Caesar in advance of my tutoring sessions was that it was a play that I could get into.  Generally, I have a problem with the quality of Shakespeare’s works – I don’t know who decided that he was the author of great works that deserved the attention of every generation and high school class until the end of time, but I generally don’t agree.  For the most part, Shakespeare’s works don’t interest me – the characters are unsympathetic, the plots are too angst-y, and the pacing always seemed off.  Julius Caesar suffers from these flaws as well, but I found the saving grace to be the moving monologues delivered by the characters.  (The best Shakespeare line of all time can be found in Act 3, s. 1: “ Cry “Havoc!” and let slip the dogs of war...”)   Maybe it was the gravitas, or the slowed-down pacing, but I found this work to have more depth and to hold my interest more than the other plays I’ve read by the author.  Needless to say, I still don’t think Shakespeare truly deserves the place we’ve given him in our zeitgeist.  

So, in a review on Julius Caesar, why aren’t I giving you a plot summary?  Because we all know it.  And if you don’t, go out and do some independent research – Caesar’s tale is a pivotal moment in Western history.  The role(s) of the conspirators had devastating effects in ancient Rome; we might have the hind-sight of 2000 years-plus on the event, yet for some it’s still hard to decide if the ends justified the means.  Brutus, as portrayed by Shakespeare, was an honourable man who acted in the manner he thought was best for Rome, and one has to respect that about him.  But maybe hindsight that time has provided is what’s leaving me with the ‘who cares’ mentality surrounding the events in this play.  Sure, those events are part of humanity's narrative, and who knows where out story would be now without them, but then again it was so long ago (and the story so well known), that I have no sympathy for anyone involved; they may have been real people, but their legacies have been reduced to characters in a play.

So what’s the final verdict?  If you have to read a Shakespeare play, this might as well be the one you choose.  Would I rather read any other author?  Probably.  (So why, you ask yourself did I read a work of his this morning?  What can I say - the mood struck me.)  Shakespeare plays are what they are – key pieces in our literary zeitgeist that, for good reason, don’t get much attention out of high school and academia.  Are you looking for an interesting account of this story?  Then watch HBO’s Rome; to be honest, it’s probably the DVD box-set I’m going to re-watch next.  I guess what I’m saying is read Julius Caesar to make your high school English teacher proud of you, but it’s not something that needs to go on your bucket list.

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