Brush Up Your Shakespeare

As a teenager, I didn't get Shakespeare at all. Oh, I knew I was supposed to. I had a lot more fun when we read through Julius Caesar in high school, trying to read with some life and thought, compared to my classmates who read in a monotone. Still, I knew I mostly didn't get it.

Then in college I decided that instead of taking the one humanities course meant for engineers, I wanted to sign up for the summer Shakespeare Festival -- 10 semester hours of upper-division English.

It was a wonderful course; about half of it was simply studying the plays and Shakespeare's English, and from that, I learned that once you figure out what they're saying, the plays are interesting and funny and absorbing. One of the directors was a woman named Ricky Weiser, a brilliant director. She told me her philosophy of doing Shakespeare. I don't remember exactly what she said, but it boiled down to:

  • Read the text of the play.
  • Understand the text.
  • Play the text.
  • Don't get cute.

She also added that Shakespeare knew what he was doing; don't step on his words and he'll carry you.

So the Shakespeare in the Park performance of Donald J. Caesar got me thinking about Shakespeare again. Joe Dziemianowicz at the Daily News knew there was something wrong but doesn't really put his finger on it. A commenter at Instapundit did:

Julius Caesar was actually the most admirable character in the piece and was generally recognized as a better man than any of his assassins, even if he needed to die. Their killing of a better man is a theme of the play.

That's the key. Listen to Damien Lewis performing Mark Antony's funeral oration:

Whatever you may think of the historical Julius Caesar, the funeral oration makes it clear that Shakespeare's Julius Caesar is a man to be admired -- and by going for the cheap political sneer, Oskar Eustis the director reveals a disregard for the text. By making Caesar a middle-school caricature, a soap-opera melodramatic villain, Antony's oration can only be ironic and cynical, the play meaningless.

By going for the cheap joke, Eustis and the whole production break three out of four of those rules: they may have read the text, but they neither understood nor played the text, in pursuit of a political trope that's too cute by half.