Julius Caesar

Controversy has followed Shake-speare's Julius Caesar since it was first written, so the bruhahas generated over the title character resembling, for example, the past two US Presidents is par for the course, even if such adaptations miss the mark when it comes to the author's intent.

Caesar! Caesar!
"Caesar! Caesar!"
Photo: Jennifer Koskinen
Indeed, de Vere wrote this piece with a particular figurehead in mind. On December 23, 1588, Henri, Duke of Guise, the leading Catholic contender to replace Henri III, as king of France, was lured into a private antechamber at the royal château of Blois, "where a squad of nobles surrounded him and stabbed him dozens of times. ... The comparisons between Guise and Caesar is no happenstance. As the literary historian John Bakeless notes, 'the [French] Catholic party habitually referred to their champion, the Duke of Guise, as Caesar.' ... de Vere had in 1577 sent servants to France to fight on Guise's behalf ... At least four English plays from as early as 1589 use distinctive lines (such as "Et tu, Brute?") suggesting a borrowing from the Shake-spearean original,"1 likely performed initially at court.

Thankfully, the Colorado Shakespeare Festival's current production is helmed by Anthony Powell, whose insight into the canon is clearly evident once again in this production, set in Rome towards the end of Julius Caesar's reign, less than a century before the birth of Jesus of Nazareth.

Left to right, Christopher Joel Onken as Mark Antony and Robert Sicular as Julius Caesar
(L to R) Christopher Joel Onken as Mark Antony
and Robert Sicular as Julius Caesar
Photo: Jennifer Koskinen
Powell immediately draws the audience into the fray, by deploying a number of players around the amphitheatre, as shouts of "Caesar! Caesar!" arise, as he who would be a god and the Emperor enters with his entourage. Powell returns to this conceit later, when Marc Antony stirs up the masses to take arms against those who conspired to assassinate Caesar.

This distrust of the manipulable commons is a theme that also appears in 2 Henry VI and Richard III. In fact, under another of his many pen names, de Vere makes his contempt quite clear in a pamphlet ("The Return of the Renowned Caviliero, Pasquill of England, from the Other Side of the Seas"), where Pasquill notes: "The chronicles of England—and the daily enclosures of the commons in the land—teach us sufficiently how inclinable the simpler sort of people are to routs, riots, commotions, insurrections, and plain rebellions when they grow brain sick, or any new toy taketh them in the head ..."2

(Left to right) Matthew Schneck as Cassius and Scott Coopwood as Brutus
(L to R) Matthew Schneck as Cassius
and Scott Coopwood as Brutus
Photo: Jennifer Koskinen
The real power struggle, both in Caesar's Rome and Elizabeth's London, was at the top. To the nobility of Rome (Brutus and his supporters), the political question at this time, was "Republic or empire?", with Caesar on the verge of becoming Emperor (and a god). Much the same was going on in England, a constitutional monarchy (under the terms of the Magna Carta), with "the virgin Queen" benefitting from her own private navy (privateers, such as Sir Francis Drake), who split their pirate's booty (Spanish gold) with her, with no cut to the nobility.

Robert Sicular cuts a fine figure as Caesar, both imperious and Jovian. With his regal robes and bearing, he is every inch the legend, equally compelling in his fleeting, ephemeral appearances as "great Caesar's ghost!"

In Shake-speare's version of these events, Mark Antony (Christopher Joel Onken), is both Caesar's protégé and Octavius Caesar's ally. Onken deftly balances Anthony's loyalty and intelligence, which gets him a pass from Marcus Brutus (Scott Coopwood), while cleverly masking his imperial leanings.

Friends, Romans, countrymen, lend me your ears.
I come to bury Caesar, not to praise him.
The evil that men do lives after them;
The good is oft interrèd with their bones.
So let it be with Caesar. The noble Brutus
Hath told you Caesar was ambitious.
If it were so, it was a grievous fault,
And grievously hath Caesar answered it.
Here, under leave of Brutus and the rest—
For Brutus is an honorable man;
So are they all, all honorable men—
Come I to speak in Caesar’s funeral.
He was my friend, faithful and just to me.
But Brutus says he was ambitious,
And Brutus is an honorable man.
Julius Caesar, III, ii, 72-86

Scott Coopwood as Brutus
Scott Coopwood as Brutus
Photo: Jennifer Koskinen
When delivering this famous speech (on par with Iago and Richard III, in terms of convincing others to act against their own interests), Onken's pacing and phrasing is spot on, slowly drawing in the mob and then unleashing them against Brutus and his co-conspirators.

Coopwood's Brutus, whom Antony calls "the noblest Roman of them all," after Brutus has perished by his own hand, is all of this: thoughtful, circumspect, honorable, and brave, all in service to a just cause, to support the Republic and prevent the Empire.

Brutus was recruited to head up this effort by Caius Cassius (Matthew Schneck). Schneck's layered performance captures Cassius' eloquence ("... The fault, dear Brutus, is not in our stars, But in ourselves ..." [Julius Caesar, I, ii, 140-141]), bravery, and hot-headed passion.
Anne Penner as Soothsayer
Anne Penner as Soothsayer
Photo: Jennifer Koskinen
The entire ensemble is strong, but we'd be remiss if we didn't recount the shivers that ran down our spine when the Soothsayer (Anne Penner) tells Caesar to "Beware the ides of March," conveying the same otherworldy and prescient forces that the playwright imbued in the witches, in the Scottish play.

The fight scenes, choreographed by Christopher DuVal, follow Shake-speare's venerable prescription from the Prologue to Henry V:

O, pardon! since a crooked figure may
Attest in little place a million;
And let us, ciphers to this great accompt,
On your imaginary forces work.
Suppose within the girdle of these walls
Are now confined two mighty monarchies,
Whose high upreared and abutting fronts
The perilous narrow ocean parts asunder:
Piece out our imperfections with your thoughts;
Into a thousand parts divide one man,
And make imaginary puissance;
Think when we talk of horses, that you see them
Printing their proud hoofs i' the receiving earth;
For 'tis your thoughts that now must deck our kings,
Carry them here and there; jumping o'er times,
Turning the accomplishment of many years
Into an hour-glass ...

(Left to right) Evan Ector as Young Cato, Tony Ryan as Lucilius, and Scott Coopwood as Brutus
(L to R) Evan Ector as Young Cato,
Tony Ryan as Lucilius,
and Scott Coopwood as Brutus
Photo: Jennifer Koskinen
And thus, we have a massive battle distilled into a number of fine vignettes. As you can see, Clare Henkel's costumes are classic and classy throughout.

Returning to the contemporary significance of the original Roman chronicle and its Shakespearean adaptation for Elizabeth's court: For those who still believe that the United States is a democratic republic, this play is a strong wake-up call for action; for those who believe that the United States is a cog in a larger imperial organization, this play is a cautionary tale on the perils in which we are presently mired.

The Colorado Shakespeare Festival's presentation of Julius Caesar runs in repertory with The Taming of the Shrew and Hamlet through August 12th. For tickets:

Bob Bows

1 Mark Anderson, "Shakespeare" by Another Name, Gotham Books, New York, 2005, pp. 239-240
2 Ibid, p. 243

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