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 Measure, King 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?
Questions from August 11:
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.)
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).