‘Do this!’ Performing political analogy in Shakespeare’s Julius Caesar

BRUTUS: Peace! count the clock.

CASSIUS: The clock hath stricken three.

Search the internet for a definition of ‘anachronism’ and it’s likely that this exchange in Shakespeare’s Julius Caesar will be cited as a prime example. Shakespeare uses the conspirators’ response to the sound of the clock striking to interrupt their meeting, reminding them of their limited opportunity for action. But does it also disrupt the audience, reminding them that they are watching an incomplete depiction of an ancient society in which there were no striking clocks? Does Shakespeare deliberately collapse the historical distance between Rome and the present, or is he unconcerned about separating the two or even unaware of the difference? And what are the implications for performances now, when both Rome and Shakespeare are in the past?

Julius Caesar performance
Staging the opening scene of Shakespeare’s Julius Caesar as contemporary protest and performance, Bridge Theatre.

The relationship between Roman past and dramatic present in Shakespeare’s play is fluid, with plenty of other elements – especially material objects and props, costumes, weapons, books – that suggest slippage between the two. But the audible interruption of the clock, itself indicative of his characters’ anxiety about time, is particularly telling. As with his series of English history plays, part of Shakespeare’s purpose appears to be to connect past events with present political concerns, to explore the present through the past, and so one might expect past and present to merge. The Tudor era scarcely lacked political conspiracy and violence, although in a significantly different political landscape from that of the Roman republic; scholars debate the extent to which Shakespeare elided the different societies, although the emergence of strong leadership in a state of growing power offers clear parallels.

For each new production of the play, directors have choices to make in drawing analogies and connections between the Roman past, the Tudor past and the political present. Their choices in emphasising or collapsing historical distance between Rome, Shakespeare and themselves perhaps reveal the political anxieties of the present. They also remind us of the role of drama in providing exemplars and analogies through which we can think about our present concerns.

The current production at London’s new Bridge Theatre, directed by Nicholas Hytner and designed by Bunny Christie, is the first production of a Shakespeare play at this new venue, just as the play’s debut in 1599 was one of, if not the first, productions at the Globe Theatre. For both Shakespeare and Hytner Julius Caesar can perhaps be read as a statement of theatrical intent. The new production’s immersive approach simultaneously acknowledges the active audience of Shakespeare’s theatre, and uses it to foreground present political concerns. Long before the clock strikes, the audience through its participation has bridged past and present. The standing audience in the pit is co-opted to represent the mass of Romans – but kitted out in red baseball caps labelled ‘Caesar’, and exhorted to ‘Do this!’, emphasising their performative role. Like crowds at a contemporary demonstration or festival the spectators wave flags and sing along to the rock band performing for the rude revels of the Lupercalia, its cover versions of rock standards standing in for the low culture of the mob scene that opens Shakespeare’s play.

The audience surges around performers as they rise into view to speak, enacting the changing allegiances of the Roman crowd, as Brutus and Mark Antony take the stage in turn at Caesar’s funeral, to defend their actions and to claim the loyalty of the crowd, many still wearing their Caesar-branded hats. But the constantly moving staging also generates uncertainty and division. As the Roman factions enter battle, the audience is scattered to the margins, performing the collapse of civic order along with the actors.

One aspect of the production’s own manipulation of past and present is to dress the proto-tyrant in the costume of a presidential contender, as other recent US productions have done, to some controversy. In doing so they insist that both Roman politics and Shakespeare’s drama can inform our analysis of present-day events, and that a play insistent in its concern about time can become a timeless commentary.

Indeed, as Mary Beard notes in her note on Roman history for the programme, the whole play is an exercise in exemplarity, setting up Caesar’s death on the Ides of March as the prime example of assassination. And as an exemplar, it benefits from connection to the present through analogy marked by anachronistic references. But as Matthew D’Ancona notes in turn in another programme note, it is not Caesar himself who provides the exemplar for us in our present political circumstances, but Brutus, played in this production by David Calder and Ben Whishaw respectively. D’Ancona sees Shakespeare’s Brutus, the idealist and philosophical conspirator happiest at home with his books, as a paradigm for the failure of Britain’s liberal elite to explain itself and its political projects to the wider public. He connects this to the ‘post-truth’ political rhetoric on which he has written in his book of that title. But Brutus’ inability to match the rhetoric of Mark Antony also taps into a long classical tradition that begins with the disdain for the philosopher depicted by Plato, or even in the Sicilian Expedition debates of Thucydides, and shows no sign of ending.

  • Matthew d’Ancona (2017) Post-Truth: The New War on Truth and How to Fight Back (London: Ebury).
  • Dennis Kezar  (2005) ‘Julius Caesar ’s Analogue Clock and the Accents of History’, in Zander, H. (ed.), Julius Caesar: new critical essays (New York: Routledge), pp. 241-255.

Author: Carol Atack

Researcher in ancient Greek political thought and history, and its contemporary reception. Post-doctoral researcher on Anachronism and Antiquity project, Faculty of Classics, University of Oxford.

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