Written by Luisa Appolloni, Resident Teaching Artist, Education Department (Stratford Festival)
INTRODUCTION TO THE STUDY GUIDE
"The fault, dear Brutus, is not in our stars
But in ourselves, that we are underlings." - Cassius, Julius Caesar, Act I, scene 2
The nineteenth-century British politician Lord Acton once expressed the opinion that "Power tends to corrupt and absolute power corrupts absolutely." Caesar's ambition to be absolute ruler was opposed by those who believed in Republicanism. The result was the assassination of Caesar - with consequences that included civil war, mass slaughter, the death of the Republic and Octavius crowned emperor. Shakespeare explores power and authority in this play and its seemingly contradictory notion of conscience. It is a play that resonates for the twenty-first century audience as it examines the nature of competitiveness, aggression and individuality. These traits are often considered admirable in a politician - but at what cost? What is true leadership? Whose voice carries weight? Students will be challenged by many issues raised in this play - and more importantly, they will ask themselves what sort of a society they want to build for their future.
Grades 7 to 12
- All grades: Language/English (listening to understand, speaking to communicate, reading for meaning)
- All grades: Drama, Music, Visual Art
- Grades 7-12: Health and PE (interpersonal skills, conflict resolution harassment, violence and abuse, leadership)
- Grade 10: Civics [Politics] (civic awareness, civic engagement and action)
- Grade 11: Introduction to Anthropology, Psychology and Sociology (explaining human behaviour and culture, socialization)
- Grade 11: World History to the End of the Fifteenth Century (cradles of civilization, cooperation, conflict, rising civilizations, civilizations in decline)
- Grade 11: Politics in Action: Making Change (foundations of political engagement, policy, politics and democratic change)
- Grades 11-12: Philosophy (metaphysics, ethics, epistemology, aesthetics)
- Grade 12: World Cultures (contributions and influences, power relations)
- Grade 12: World History Since the Fifteenth Century (conflict, cooperation, citizenship)
- Grade 12: Adventures in World History (society and community, politics and conflict)
- Grade 12: Canadian and International Politics (political foundations, civic awareness and responsibility)
- Who he was, body of work, significance in English drama/literature
- Dramatists of the Renaissance
- Early modern drama
- Social and economic structure (class systems, playhouses, plays and players)
- Values and beliefs (four humours, Chain of Being, etc.)
- Conventions of early English drama (tragedy, five-act structure)
- Imagery, blank verse, rhetoric
Themes and Motifs
- Honour and loyalty
- Arrogance and ambition
- State vs. absolute rule
- Truth and justice
- Theatre and politics
- Fate vs. free will
- Public vs. private
- Misinterpretations and misreadings
- Compromise vs. inflexibility
- Rhetoric and persuasion
- Omens and portents
- Love and friendship
- Sickness and disease
An Interview with Scott Wentworth, Director, Julius Caesar
Why did you want to direct this play? What excites you most about this production?
It's a great play. I've had an opportunity to act in it twice. I've seen it a bunch of times and, of course, read it many, many times. I pretty much love directing any play by Shakespeare.
In a way, almost everything excites me about the project. I suppose the main thing about this particular production that puts everything into a larger focus is the experiment with gender parity that we're doing. I think right away that caused me, in rereading the play, to begin to hear it in different ways.
The first question is, if you're going to follow through with gender parity in a production, how will you explore that? There are sort of two main ways - one being, we set up a world, either real or imagined, where women could take on the roles that Shakespeare has assigned to the various male members. You set it in modern times or Margaret Thatcher's England. There was recently an all-female production set in a women's prison. You literally change the male characters into women characters - you change pronouns and titles, perhaps. You call a Duke a Duchess.
The other way is to look at gender the way we have learned to look at race and age (to a lesser extent, I suppose), as yet another trapping of realism with a capital "R." To say, look, these are actors playing these parts. You don't have to be Italian to play a Roman. You don't have to be Danish to play Hamlet. We accept this - not that we have solved all the sorts of problems with that, but we certainly have come a long way - and, of course, gender is the next issue.
In your approach to this production and the way that you conceive Seana McKenna as Julius Caesar, is she playing this role as a woman?
What I want to do - and it's still early days - but in the last two plays I've directed here, Pericles and Romeo and Juliet, we changed the narrative voice from an older, white, male authority figure to a maternal, feminist energy. But those were minor compared to this. I don't want to have to keep re-engaging the audience's participation in knowing what world we are in, so I want to make sure that from the lead characters all the way down to the ensemble parts, we always have two voices speaking - two genders - never going too long with one holding court. So, here is what I'm thinking: we are going to respect, for the most part, Shakespeare's gender distribution partly because the play is so masculine. With the exception of Timon of Athens, I think it has the fewest roles for women.
What I am interested in is not just having more women in the room, but having women give the audience and the production information about a masculine experience that a male actor might not explore as fully because of our own blind spots about our own personas. I thought a lot about the masculinity in the play when I knew how many women would be involved. One of the things I am hearing in the play (and again, one never knows if it's an authorial intention or if those are just the ripples that I am hearing at the moment - one of the things about Shakespeare is that it remains alive as we change as individuals and as our culture changes), but one thing the play asks me to question is if a culture - say, Rome or modern Canada - continues to fetishize male aggressiveness and individuality and the notion of the über-male, is a democracy even possible? Is dictatorship and tyranny inevitable in a world that extols competitiveness, aggression, individuality - those kinds of human attributes - and says that those are the only "virtues" that are appropriate to the public discourse and banishes the so-called feminine to the hearth, saying your discourse is purely personal?
The great question of the Renaissance was about the assassination of Caesar. Was he a tyrant or a great leader? Was he a braggart or was he a genius? Was Brutus an assassin or a patriot? It was debated back and forth by great writers, each weighing in on this question. Shakespeare never came down on one side or the other. He keeps asking those questions in this play. In response to that, I started thinking that, when you are extraordinary, it's very difficult to engage in the action of republic, in the very nature of democracy. If you know better than people, it's very difficult.
Caesar was one of those extraordinary people. I think that this play asks very challenging questions about leadership. Since we are more and more organizing ourselves around notions of either democracy or equality, I think the play still talks to us. It can be easy to assume that we've got it all down. You know, you think, everyone gets a vote and it's all sorted, but then you see what happened down south last year. That's also where I felt that having gender parity would allow us to see things more clearly and that the women actors might be able to explore masculinity more openly.
Shakespeare writes about this notion of twins, or duality, a lot. One can sense in his poetry that when you take the whole and pull it apart - in a world that separates them out this clearly - you lose the whole and see them longing to be back together. Not to dwell on the American president, but here you have someone who postures the male virtues and wins the hearts of millions of people simply by posturing that. The woman who ran against him had to posture her own assertiveness in these horrible suits, and rather than being extolled, she was told she was too shrill and all the rest. It is a complicated gender dynamic, and I feel that's something that is very available to us by having more women in the cast. It gives us a view into the play that we don't normally have access to quite as directly. That's something that I personally find really exciting.
I think it's going to be a great gift to our audience, because these are plays that we redo. Our commitment to repeating them is that they still say something to us. This is a conversation that we are still having. I have a 23-year-old son and it is a much more alive conversation to his generation than it is to mine. I feel like this is also something that young people might be very interested in, because it is a part of a conversation that they are leading.
People think they know the play or they know the story of it. Who do you think this play is for? What might you share with an audience who wants to prepare for it, whether they know the play or not?
It's tricky. We found this with Romeo and Juliet. It's entered our cultural world in a way that's pretty unique. Partly because it's a real historical event, it exists outside of Shakespeare. That's a special challenge - to get people to actually see how Shakespeare is telling this story as opposed to the story itself. The historical notion of it is a kind of a trap. We can think, "It must be pretty realistic if this is a play of what really happened."
In terms of the story and who we meet, Caesar is a very enigmatic figure but disappears halfway through the play. Brutus seems to be the tragic hero, yet Cassius is a huge part and prefigures Iago and Shakespeare's other bitter figures, and then you have Antony who doesn't say much until he does. The other great character is the citizens of Rome. Sometimes they are depicted as a mob. We are introduced to them first - before anyone else. Who are the Romans? Who are the citizens? We meet them again as soldiers, as people carrying out military action at what is essentially a civil war.
The other thing that goes against a purely linear or literal reading of the play is the element of the supernatural. We don't always make a lot of room for it, but the play spends quite a bit of time talking about the events that happen the night before Caesar is murdered - lions in the street, the dead walking, people on fire, meteors everywhere. No one questions the telling of this night. Everyone accepts it, so that is a part of the world that we have to pay attention to in this production. If you don't, then the play can stay earthbound and we miss out.
I also think it's an incredibly modern play. There is a line that Cassius says to Brutus (I am paraphrasing, but): "Caesar talks like he expects everyone to write down what he says." All of the male characters talk like that. I think that partly explains Shakespeare's choice of diction in the play. It's all public address. The women aren't given access to that - Portia and Calphurnia - but all of the men. I think that will really resonate with our audience. We are all aware of that now. We know that everything we do is going to end up online. We know that everything we say is recorded. I think that's something that makes the play feel extremely modern, especially to young people. We understand that everything is sound bites. We understand that we can go quickly from "Brutus is the greatest guy in the world. Caesar was a prick," and eight minutes later it's "Let's hunt down Brutus and kill him. Let's lock him up, lock him up, lock him up!" We see this. My generation watched that shift, but students and those in their 20s and 30s know differently - this is the world they live in.
This is also a political play and now, more than ever, we understand how passionate politics are. They are not dry or intellectual. You know, we see the clashes of the white supremacists and the antifa this past summer - that's the world of Julius Caesar. People are prompted by emotions. They are deep-seated and not always about the event they are allegedly in response to. The play explores the powerlessness of people and what happens when they are suddenly given power. There is a scene in Julius Caesar where a poet is literally torn apart by a mob simply because he has the same name as one of the conspirators. I think of people driving cars into a group of people and I think, that's the same thing.
Our politics are so active, so reflexive. They are embedded in conflict rather than dialogue.
I think one of the traditions of Julius Caesar that needs to be re-examined is the fact that because it is so rhetorical, we sometimes infer that there is reason behind what's said and we think that these are thoughtful men. I don't think they are at all. I think they are seething bags of emotions and are reacting before they think and are impetuous and volatile. I think the reason it sounds as controlled as it is, is because they know they are creating history and are being recorded, but they are impulsive and it's personal. Everything is personal.
That goes back to what you were saying about this extolling of male "virtues" and how all of those are actually what women are so often criticized as being - emotional, overly personal, impulsive. In Julius Caesar, it's this performance of masculinity masking that.
It is. The women in the play are ignored, but they are the ones that are actually thoughtful and considered. They are the ones saying, "Maybe you should stay home from work today. Something's going on with you. Why don't you tell me about it?" Portia gets to articulate it more than Calphurnia, but they are both in despair. These are women who have so much to give to their culture but are fully denied a voice. They can't even make a connection with their husbands, because of their gender.
Can you speak at all about the design?
It's still early days, but I wanted to avoid sandals and togas and at the same time, I find that modern productions tend to cast Julius Caesar as someone like Trump or Thatcher, but I think that misses the mark. He is both Trump and Obama, both Harper and Trudeau. He is a superstar and a control freak. We need to open this up, so we can say to the audience that this is not a play about things that happened a long time, but about things that continue to happen now.
What I think we're going to do with the design is ask the question, "How did the Renaissance view classical Rome? How did Shakespeare's audience view Rome?" Seana's picture kind of exemplifies that - a world that doesn't meld the two, but slams them together. She has a toga and a doublet. I am hoping this makes it easier for a modern audience to think, "Maybe I can slam my world into that too." Otherwise, it feels too far away.
I don't want to distance people from this play. There is a real humanity in the play and I think often it looks like talking statues and I would like for it not to feel like that. I think it really sits in the audience's lap and gets in their face. I suspect Coriolanus is a similar play. This is because they have so many scenes with the citizenry. They are going to be a major factor in the play and the fact that we get to do it in a theatre where there is a strong sense of the audience enveloping the stage, I think it's very easy for us to feel connected. I expect we might be running around in the aisles a bit more than in the average play.