Monday, July 13, 2009

What I Learned About Shakespeare’s Julius Caesar in Shapiro’s 1599

I read James Shapiro's A Year in the Life of William Shakespeare: 1599 (P.S.) a few weeks ago, and am enjoying to no end going back and rereading it while I prepare blogs on each of the plays Shakespeare produced in that incredibly creative year. I learned a lot more than I'm able to reproduce here. Suffice it to say...if you have even a passing interest in Shakespeare, this is a terrific book.

On to Julius Caesar and the spring of 1599...

This is Ciarán Hinds in HBO's Rome, but I can't think of a better image for Caesar. If only he would play Shakespeare's Caesar for us.

1. There was a second Spanish Armada that threatened England in 1599, eleven years after the more famous invasion attempt in 1588.

2. Writing about Julius Caesar during the final years of Elizabeth I’s life and reign was risky—Elizabeth I was an aging, childless monarch, and with the still remembered examples of Richard II, who also had political trouble with Ireland and was overthrown by an ambitious aristocrat, Henry Bolingbroke (aka Henry IV, the father of the warrior king, Henry V, who had been the hero of the play Shakespeare completed before working on Julius Caesar) and Richard III, who was overthrown by Henry Tudor (i.e., Elizabeth I’s grandfather), the censors were sensitive to not letting anything into print that suggested that overthrowing an annointed monarch could be rationalized as a good thing. According to Shapiro, Elizabeth I actually said, “I am Richard II, know ye not that?

The authorities were concerned that Londoners might draw the same conclusions as their rebellious ancestors had two centuries earlier, when they supported a charismatic aristocrat’s overthrow of a childless monarch who had taxed them ruthlessly and mismanaged Ireland. P. 121

3. “Of all the major playwrights of the 1590s, he [Shakespeare] alone had managed to avoid a major confrontation with those in power. He had seen the innocent Thomas Kyd broken by torture on the rack, Christopher Marlowe possibly assassinated, and Ben Jonson imprisoned…His rivals were now either dead or impoverished. Genius also meant knowing what you could get away with writing.” P. 126

Shakespeare’s works are notorious for not revealing the author’s political and religious views, not to mention his sexual orientation—perhaps this atmosphere of severe censorship in which one had to get a license in order to have a manuscript printed required that genius be honed towards ambiguity, thereby ensuring a longevity and timelessness to the works.

Shakespeare wrote JC during a time of intense book burning by the government and all manner of works were censored—satire, histories, plays.

4. “No play by Shakespeare explores censorship and silencing so deeply as…Julius Caesar.” P.127 At yet, with regards the murder of Cinna the poet, who the Roman mob mistakes for Cinna the conspirator, Shapiro comments that it is surprising that Shakespeare shows so little sympathy for the fate of a fellow poet. Shapiro says that “The message seems to be that it’s a wise poet who knows his place and time, who doesn’t go looking for trouble in a dangerous political world.” P. 127

Earlier Shapiro had suggested that Shakespeare needed to write about topical issues in order to keep the attention of his audience, and so the challenge for Shakespeare was to write topically but neutrally…not an easy task.

5. The notion of the “popularity” of a political figure, a major theme in Julius Caesar, is one that is highly charged in the late 1590s as the meaning of the word itself in a political context was undergoing a significant change. In the mid-sixteenth century, the word popularity was used to describe “a radical form of democracy that was the opposite of tyranny. The new sense of the word, having to do with courting popular favor, emerged in the 1590s, and Shakespeare is one of the first to employ it in this sense. Shakespeare used the term first in HIV, pt 1 in 1596 and in HV in 1599, and then focuses on popularity as a concept throughout JC.

6. Shapiro makes the case that Shakespeare skillfully walks a narrow, wobbly fence in his portrayal of the two sides of the argument regarding whether Caesar was a tyrant and was justifiably “removed” from office or was savagely murdered, but it was one thing “to stage such a play, another to publish it. There would be no quarto editions of this popular play in Shakespeare’s lifetime: twenty-four years would pass before Englishmen and –women could buy and read Julius Caesar.” P.133

7. In JC, “the various strands of politics, character, inwardness, contemporary events, even Shakespeare’s own reflections on the act of writing, began to infuse each other.” P. 134

It contains 2500 lines, and is 800 lines shorter than HV, and it’s all in verse. It also contains fewer invented words than any other of his plays, and it has none of the inconsistencies that characterize HV.

Shapiro feels that Shakespeare was completely focused on creating a new type of work—compressed, tight, focused—and this enabled him to achieve a breakthrough. Shapiro says that Brutus’s pondering of the murder of Caesar is “one of Shakespeare’s first great soliloquies.” P. 135

In addition, in this play Shakespeare discovers that “brevity is the soul of wit”—that is, what characters don’t say can be as important as what they do say. Shapiro says that in JC the most memorable speeches are the shortest: Caesar’s “Et tu, Brute” and Brutus’s “Portia is dead.”

8. “Part of Shakespeare’s genius was discovering in Plutarch’s old story the fault lines of his own milieu.”

During this time of censorship, war with Ireland, concern over a charismatic aristocrat with bounding ambition, Shakespeare wrote a very topical play that explored “assassination, succession, tyrannicide, holidays” in a way that was allowable by the censors and is a masterpiece that foreshadows other masterpieces to come.

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