Ask Philippa: Julius Caesar

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Philippa giving a grove talk
Philippa Kelly giving a Grove Talk; photo by Jay Yamada

Ask Philippa: Julius Caesar

On August 4, Cal Shakes’ Resident Dramaturg Philippa Kelly began teaching Shakespeare In-Depth—a 10-week deep dive into five of Shakespeare’s most enduring plays—with a pertinent lecture on Julius Caesar. Highlighting the similarities to our current social and political climate, Philippa’s lecture reminded us why Shakespeare is still relevant today. Here are a few questions that came up during the session and the following session on August 11. Feel free to join the conversation by adding your own questions and comments below.  If you missed the class but would still like to be part of Shakespeare In-Depth, there is still time to register for upcoming sessions on Hamlet,  Measure For MeasureKing Lear, and The Taming of the Shrew. 

Questions from August 4:

Question: I am struck by how much the center of the play is Brutus, “with himself at war,” and yet the word Caesar and the presence of Caesar resonates over and over — it’s not as though the play has the wrong character’s name!  I would say that through Caesar’s murder or execution, Caesar becomes a more powerful and destructive presence to those who killed him.

Philippa: I think this really draws on the idea of what an assassination is and means – an assassinated famous person is likely to have an impact that lasts way beyond the deed itself or the life that preceded it. One thing we’ll also discuss next week is that the assassinated Caesar, lying as a bloody carcass on the Capitol steps, is stripped of all his honors and is no more nor less than a dead creature, a piece of meat. It remains for the living to give that body meaning.  Which people do in respect of the word, “assassination.”

Question: Can you talk a little about the role of women in this play?

Philippa: The women in the play are intriguing both for what they say and what they say about their menfolk, in this incredibly patriarchal system that values masculinity, valor, honor. Portia defines herself solely by her relationship to two great men – Cato’s daughter and Brutus’ husband. She swallows fire (why? as a form of public abjection/shame?) when the war does not go well for her husband. Here’s a question we’ll address in class – why does Brutus hear about her death, and then, in the subsequent scene, receive the news as if it is fresh? What does Calpurnia’s warning to Caesar say about his relationship to femininity? He is challenged by the conspirators to put his masculinity above his wife’s intuition. Also, his very first words color him VERY negatively in the audience’s eyes – he tells Antony to touch Calpurnia because he may heal “the barren.” Wow, echoes of Henry VIII!

Question: Do you see a difference between a mob and a movement?  Does Shakespeare?

Philippa: A mob and a movement – so much due to perception. I may march in an anti-racism movement – yet President Trump would call it a mob! We are labelled by others’ words in this world, and this is why “reputation’ and ‘reflection’ re so important to this play – to the depiction and exploration of ‘identity’ inside and out. Speaking of the way in which leaders manipulate the public – take a look at this interview between an Aussie journalist and Donald Trump!

Questions from August 11: 


Question: Could you comment on the part of the play that follows the Marc Antony “Friends, Romans..” speech.  It seems anti-climatical.
Philippa: It’s so intriguing, isn’t it, that we see Antony’s venality peep through and that he now is a man with a new purpose.
Question: Women in Shakespeare are interesting to me.They seem to play truthtellers and/or provide alternative honestly compared to their partner.Is this right?
Philippa: It’s an interesting thought I think I largely agree with you. There are female characters like Tamora in Titus Andronicus, Volumnia in Coriolanus, who have different roles -but many of Shakespeare’s women are truth-tellers, and many of them not listened to.
Question: How do you interpret “eating fire” as Portia’s method of suicide? She swallows fire, which is an incredibly painful thing to do. And after Caesar’s death, what happens to Calpurnia?
Philippa: You can eat fire as a circus act, but if you swallow it, it’s fatal. I think there is also an ornate, or spectacular, aspect of this method of death – which fits in with Portia’s sense of herself as of noble blood. She is very dignified. And we never hear from Calpurnia again. 
Question: Will you please discuss the ideas of freedom, servitude, and service in ActV sc. iii with Pindarus & Cassius?

Philippa: My experience of Shakespeare is that service is a sort-of mark of the antique world – not just a time of loyalty, but of service being the true mark of a (man’s) accomplishment (which was all changing in the new times of self-advancement).  (Just as a cross-reference, I’m thinking, for example, of Macbeth’s “The service and the loyalty I owe/In doing it, pays itself,’ or Othello’s ‘I have done the state some service, and they know it.’ Service was the highest kind of duty, and a breach of service was a breach of the self that, in many Shakespeare plays, leads to mayhem.)

Question:  I always think of the Macbeths as one of the happiest couples in Shakespeare (pre-plot) and I think that one of the things in that play is the destruction of their relationship; and we see them together first at the place where things begin to go south.With Brutus and Portia, we also meet them when the rot sets in.(The evil that has been invited in, in other words, destroys more than what it most obviously destroys (Duncan, Caesar).You cannot destroy another without destroying yourself.

Philippa: So interesting. And yes I think that because we see Brutus’ mind in turmoil before we meet Portia, we do meet them after the rot sets in. I’d also note that this is one of Shakespeare’s brilliant methods of providing back-story.

If you’re interested in watching a filmed version of Julius Caesar, Philippa recommends the 1953 version starring Marlon Brando as Mark Antony; available on Amazon Prime for free if you have a subscription.  Shakespeare In-Depth with Philippa Kelly runs through October 10. Each play costs $60 (includes two one-hour classes and one one-hour study group).

National Endowment for the Humanities

This project is supported by the National Endowment for the Humanities.

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