Doing the Deed of Death

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Review of 'Julius Caesar' by William Shakespeare, Barbican, London

'The fault, dear Brutus, is not in our stars
But in ourselves that we are underlings.'

Very early on in Shakespeare's play 'Julius Caesar' one senior senator, Cassius, engages another, Brutus, in one of the most eloquent and effective agitations in all literature. Rome is threatened by a dictatorship under Caesar, the military conqueror, and the more democratically minded senators are moved to revolt. Cassius stirs Brutus with Caesar's overriding ambition, and above all by his claim to be greater and more 'constant' than other men. If Rome is to prove true to its democratic traditions, he argues, Caesar must go. Popular revolt is out of the question since it might threaten the senators themselves. So when he considers the options to himself, Brutus concludes that 'it must be by his death'. The seeds of the patrician conspiracy are sown and put into practice.

William Shakespeare was not a revolutionary--quite the reverse. His own sympathies would have rested, almost certainly, with the dictator and his fawning successor, Mark Anthony. The playwright's supreme artistry, however, did not depend on his views, but on his powers of observation of human behaviour, and transmitting what he observed into drama. Thus Cassius's argument is as accurately conveyed as is Caesar's determination not to give an inch to reform or the reformers, or Brutus's insistence that the assassination must be carried out as decently as possible.

Moreover, as I realised for the first time watching the Royal Shakespeare Company production, Cassius is always right. He is right about refusing permission to Mark Anthony to speak at Caesar's funeral, and right to seek to avoid the disastrous battle at Philippi. Mark Anthony is a great orator, and makes a famous speech over Caesar's body, but once he successfully turns the mob in his favour he reveals himself as no less ruthless a tyrant than his hero. The ebb and flow of the argument in the first part of the play is irresistible, whatever side you take.

In this production,Tim Piggot-Smith reveals Cassius's agitation eloquently enough without really conveying the anger and passion that Shakespeare intended. Though the production clearly favours the conspirators by dressing Caesar's supporters in fascist uniforms and ridiculing Caesar (Ian Hogg) as a ranting buffoon (which he wasn't), and although Greg Hicks sensitively identifies Brutus's dilemmas, it's still hard to come away from the production with the feeling that the conspirators get as fair a hearing as they should. Partly this is the fault of the play itself, which disintegrates horribly after the assassination. I've never been able to understand the row between Cassius and Brutus as they prepare for the final battle, and nor is the play helped by the ghost of Caesar staggering round the stage in his underpants. But the early arguments, the excitement of the conspiracy and its aftermath, are as powerful as ever, and not to be missed.