What with terror attacks, political corruption, government infighting and legislative inertia, the idea of an elected strongman has increasing appeal. Just ask the ancient Romans hailing Julius Caesar. True, this strongman had conquered not anti-Roman forces but his own political (Roman) enemies; nevertheless, Caesar was a man of the people, and the people had spoken. To the masses, he could get things done. To senators clinging to power, he meant the death of their republic.
'In the world of Trump, Brexit, and the rise of populism and (dare I say it) nationalism, Julius Caesar
is perhaps the most relevant and inspiring piece of classical literature,' says Paul Stebbings, founder and director of TNT theatre, which brings the Shakespeare classic to Beijing next month. 'There has been an explosion of productions around the world, certainly in Britain and the US.' Indeed, Caesar
has long mirrored modern politics, beginning with Orson Welles’ 1937 production that made the dictator an amalgam of Hitler and Mussolini.
Other Caesars have represented Margaret Thatcher, Tony Blair, Barack Obama, and segregationist senator Huey Long. Most recently, a production by New York’s Public Theater depicted Donald Trump as the doomed dictator, causing the political right to howl about misappropriated taxpayer funds (the National Endowment of the Arts denies this). The furore led corporate sponsors to ostentatiously pull their support, while scholars and audiences alike bemoaned the state of the education system.
Because, quite simply, the outrage missed the point; as a play, Julius Caesar may be unique in that it lacks both villains and heroes. In Asimov’s Guide to Shakespeare, Isaac Asimov states that the much-lauded Roman republic had become corrupt and stagnant, benefiting only the richest senators. Caesar expanded the range of citizenship, improved trade, revised taxation procedures, reformed the calendar, and established the first state libraries. To many, the republic wasn’t worth saving.
But nations that purge their leaders create new problems; in Julius Caesar, the assassination for the sake – in theory – of democracy led to civil war, mass slaughter, multiple executions and the installation of an emperor. And history is doomed to repeat itself. 'Looking at the disaster of the Middle East, can we say that the killing of Gaddafi and Saddam Hussein has created a better world?' asks Stebbings. 'Tragically, dictators straddle our world "like a Colossus" and we peep beneath their cloaks, just as in Shakespeare’s day. We might agree that Brutus is an honourable man,' he adds, 'but is he right to raise the knife?' Decide for yourself.
In 1864, a New York production of Julius Caesar starred the celebrated Booth brothers, with Edwin as Brutus, Junius Brutus Jr as Cassius, and John Wilkes as Mark Anthony. Five months later, John Wilkes Booth shot Abraham Lincoln, shouting 'sic semper tyrannis' (thus always to tyrants), words the actual Brutus supposedly uttered while stabbing his friend Caesar. However, in between the Shakespeare production and the assassination, Lincoln may have foreseen his own death. Accounts vary wildly, but according to his friend and former law partner Ward Hill Lamon, the president dreamed of seeing a coffin inside (or a crowd of mourners outside) the White House; when he inquired further, he was told the president had been assassinated. Lamon claimed the president was 'annoyed' by the dream for some time after – maybe even until he went to Ford Theater that fateful night. Fact or fiction, there’s no denying that Julius Caesar is universal.