Julius Caesar

By Disch, Thomas M. | The Nation, April 23, 1988 | Go to article overview

Julius Caesar


Disch, Thomas M., The Nation


Julius Caesar is at once the dullest and the most familiar of Shakespeare's tragedies. It has become the most familiar precisely because it is the dullest, a tale so tensed of dramatic meat that it can be presented to any group of teenagers, however rowdy, without danger of awakening their interest. The two women in the play have but a scene each, in which they nag and are ignored. The grounds for Caesar's assassination are never debated, nor even discussed with any political acumen. The great man himself comes across more as a fatuously complacent office-holder than a world conqueror, a judgment Shakespeare himself seems to share when in Hamlet he shuffles the role into the persona of Polonius, who can claim, "I did enact Julius Caesar: I was killed i' the Capitol; Brutus killed me." The last two acts show us the less than riveting spectacle of two incompetent generals quarreling preliminary to their suicides The issue of dictatorship versus democracy is never joined, and the central set piece, the long oration of a character with no other effective moment in the play, is so marmoreally perfect a piece of rhetoric that it cannot tip the balance of the nondebate, since the only lesson to be drawn from Marc Antony's oration is that whatever one's form of government one had better employ a good ad agency.

Given all these liabilities, the best one can hope for from any production of Julius Caesar is stateliness, pageantry and music, an opera seria without arias, and these aren't qualities likely to be in large supply at the Public Theater, which undertook Julius Caesar as the second production of its six-year assault on the whole oeuvre. It was stoically done. Without the ghost of an idea for making it new, director Stuart Vaughan had his cast trot through their lines as best they could and the devil take the hindmost. The hindmost was indisputably Martin Sheen as Brutus. He declaimed every line in the same hoarse timbre and indicated every statement with alphabet-block simplicity: a thump of his hand to his heart when that organ was mentioned, or a finger pointing to his head, when "thoughts" had to be glossed. …

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