The man who made dictator’ a dirty word

Lantern’s Julius Caesar’ (2nd review)

5 minute read
Death of Caesar, Japanese-style: Political marriages of convenience. (Photo: Mark Garvin.)
Death of Caesar, Japanese-style: Political marriages of convenience. (Photo: Mark Garvin.)

The two dirtiest words in the political lexicon are “tyrant” and “dictator.” It wasn’t so originally, though. In ancient Greece, a tyrant was not an illegitimate ruler but a neutral party called in when political tensions boiled over in a city-state. Sophocles’s Oedipus Tyrannos (miscalled Oedipus Rex) depicts such an individual, who rescues Thebes and rules justly until doom strikes him. Similarly, a Roman dictator was a citizen given plenary powers for a stipulated period in times of crisis.

By Caesar’s time, the office of dictator had been abused by ambitious generals, of whom Caesar himself was the last. When he assumed the title and had it declared permanent, he precipitated a crisis that resulted in his assassination by the Senatorial opposition. The Republic perished with him, and the one-man rule he sought to establish became permanent in the office of imperator (emperor).

It was not the word “emperor” that attracted opprobrium though, at least until modern times, but the failed office of “dictator.” An emperor was precisely a person who could rule indefinitely, whether by birth or appointment, and whose power was regarded as legitimate. A dictator was someone whose power was illegitimate by definition.

Tyranny as disorder

Shakespeare’s Julius Caesar is a dictator in this more modern sense, although in the Europe of his time, “tyrant” was the preferred term for a sovereign whose rule was judged to be wicked. Shakespeare’s earlier monarchical tragedies, Richard II and Richard III, depicted such individuals. In Julius Caesar, however, it’s the assumption of power rather than its abuse that constitutes the fatal flaw that brings destruction.

All political order is rule-governed. For Shakespeare and his contemporaries, tyranny meant a state of lawlessness and hence disorder, in which the will of a single person alone directed affairs. Elizabethan England was a commonwealth in which the sovereign ruled with the advice and consent of her subjects in Parliament, which in turn represented the national elites and, in theory at least, the realm as a whole. This activity was in turn circumscribed by the laws, which themselves represented the wisdom of the past and the heritage of the future. The problem a Julius Caesar presented to republican Rome — and, no less, to what a modern commentator calls “the monarchical republic” of Elizabeth I — was that of a power uncircumscribed by limits and unfettered by law.

The contrast Shakespeare draws between the two principal conspirators against Caesar, Cassius and Brutus, reflects his sage understanding of public behavior. Caesar notes Cassius as a “lean and hungry” man, i.e., an ambitious one, and Cassius complains that Caesar is no better than himself. This is unlikely; Caesar has not ascended the pinnacle of power by accident. What Shakespeare discerns in Cassius is resentment, which is not only a sign of inferiority, but also a dangerous emotion.

Rome’s tragedy

Brutus, on the other hand, is genuinely concerned with liberty: not the quality that sets one man above another, but the one that provides equal respect for each. These complaints are different but connected, for where respect is accorded, resentment cannot fester, while resentment itself is the sign that liberty is imperiled.

At the same time, these complaints also portend instability. Caesar has disturbed the balance of government that channels ambition toward virtue and provides ordered liberty; removing him by the same violence that brought him to power does not restore order but only leads to chaos and strife.

The Tragedy of Julius Caesar — to give the play its full title — is thus not Caesar’s but Rome’s. Shakespeare shows us only enough of the man for us to appreciate both his caginess and his susceptibility to the corrupting effects of the power he wields; he is a man fatally conscious of playing a role.

Marriage of convenience

The real action of the play concerns those who would succeed him: Cassius and Brutus on one side, Octavius and Mark Antony on the other. Antony sneers in his funeral oration for Caesar that Brutus “is an honorable man,” but in fact this is the case, and Brutus grows in stature as Cassius diminishes. Brutus and Cassius patch over their differences, but their estrangement is irreparable.

Similarly, Octavius and Antony have only a marriage of convenience. Only one man will be standing at the end, and he will inherit Caesar’s mantle, willingly or not. The republic is doomed.

The Lantern Theater’s director Charles McMahon chose to set his production in feudal Japan, a period contemporaneous with Shakespeare’s England, and, in McMahon’s view, likewise dominated by an aristocratic ethos of military prowess and honor. The analogy goes only so far, but once one adapts oneself to the unfamiliar attire and headgear, the verse is as resonant as ever, and Meghan Jones’s Japanese screen is employed to good effect to suggest the violence of Caesar’s assassination and the culminating battle at Philippi. McMahon keeps the action moving briskly, as it generally does in Lantern productions.

The sound design and music were a little overbearing at times, but Shon Causer’s lighting was suitably vivid and dramatic. The Elizabethan stage was as volatile a space as has ever existed, and McMahon was faithful to the excitement it generated.

Forrest McClendon’s Caesar conveyed both suspicion and command, though the one person he no longer knows is himself. McMahon himself portrayed Brutus in the performance I saw. He is very much the reclusive intellectual as Cassius tries to draw him into conspiracy, but vigorous and decisive in action once committed. Joe Guzmán’s Cassius, for all his bravado, is a man who cannot act without a better man to lead him. Bradley K. Wrenn’s serpentine Octavius was a bit scanted by the show’s pacing, but Jered McLenigan’s Mark Antony, suddenly apprehensive in the moment of victory, suggests in the production’s final moment someone who has overreached himself and knows that his destiny is spent. The prize that is Rome will go not to virtue or valor, but to the ablest schemer.

To read Alaina Mabaso's interview with director Charles McMahon about the controversy about the casting of this production, click here.

To read another review by Gary L. Day, click here.

What, When, Where

Julius Caesar. By William Shakespeare; Charles McMahon directed. Lantern Theater Company production closed March 16, 2014 at St. Stephen’s Theater, 923 Ludlow St., Philadelphia.

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