Guest Post by Stephen Drover, Production Dramaturg
Stephen is a dramaturg and director who has helped to make over 60 shows and has taught and directed at Memorial University, Douglas College and UBC. He has an MFA in Directing from UBC and an MA in Theatre Theory and Dramaturgy from the University of Ottawa where he researched process analysis of contemporary Shakespeare adaptations. He works at the Arts Club where he oversees New Works and Professional Engagement.
The process of rehearsing a play is a bit of an adventure – we’ve got a pretty good hunch but we don’t always know exactly know where we are going. As we start with this remarkable play, and as we explore what it can and could mean to us in a contemporary arena, we might begin our adventure by looking at the most obvious detail on the map: the title.
An enduring practice in Shakespeare’s work is lending the name of a play’s protagonist to the title of the play. Now, we usually know who the protagonist is based on whose journey we follow and, in many tragedies, who is the last person to die (think about Richard III, Hamlet, King Lear). The play cannot end until that person is done. Given that the titular character of Julius Caesar dies about half-way through the play, we can no longer follow him past his famous murder. He is done, but the play isn’t. Is he, then, the play’s protagonist? It’s okay if he’s not. But if he is not, we might then ask ourselves, “Why is the play called Julius Caesar?”
A recurring gesture in Shakespeare’s work that forms an ongoing and rather reliable pattern is the loss of and restoration of balance – coarsely put: narratives begin when the world is disrupted and they end when the world settles again. For me, this often feels particularly obvious in the history plays where the echo “The king is dead! Long live the king!” feels like a regular anthem playing subconsciously in the background. The medieval notion of the Great Chain of Being – the belief that the universe had a divinely determined hierarchy – was alive and well in Elizabethan England. So, narratives were not really about changing the world – a notion that would become prevalent in the Romantic era – but about efforts to make it stay the same. Shakespeare did not have any “rags to riches” stories, rather (when it came to the tragedies, anyhow) they were more like “rags to riches to rags” stories… or the reverse in the comedies. Shakespeare was interested in the rise and the fall of the individual, in the turning of the wheel of fortune. He liked to show how a central character could first grow in prominence and then fall back down. It’s not terribly hard for us to understand this fascination and perhaps be drawn to this narrative structure. We, for example, tend to love watching celebrities become more and more famous. And also we love it sometimes when they fall off their pedestals.
Julius Caesar historically suffers from the unhelpful idea that the climax of the play occurs at the half-way point, resulting in a rather tepid second half. Actor-managers, directors and adapters have traditionally tried to remedy this by making considerable cuts to the text after the funeral orations, thus swiftly moving to the end of the play. I would suggest that this perspective on the narrative happens because we (maybe subconsciously) see it as Julius Caesar’s play – it is, after all, named for him. But we might gain a different understanding of the play if we consider Brutus, “the noblest Roman of them all” and the last to die, as our protagonist. Maybe we could see Caesar’s death not as the play’s climax but as the zenith of Brutus’ glorious rise to be the saviour of Rome: liberating it from a certain tyrant, and preserving the beloved republic. Let’s say it is Brutus’ story, and let’s imagine what happens if the story ends here with Caesar’s death. It would certainly be Romantic: the hero changes the world. But that’s not Shakespeare’s jam. We’ve risen, now we have to fall again; the wheel has to turn. That’s our Act 2.
If the play was called The Tragedy of Brutus and not Julius Caesar, this might all sit more snugly in our imaginations. What I find interesting here is how the title of a play – the very first piece of information afforded to an audience – can frame and even determine how we see its dramatic structure, its dramaturgy. For example, if the title of Shakespeare’s Macbeth was instead The Tragedy of King Duncan, how quickly and neatly we reconfigure in our imaginations the events of the play into a different dramaturgy.
So why is it called Julius Caesar? Or rather, what is the meaning created by naming the play thus? Maybe there is something in how we think of the word “Caesar.” We tend see it as a last name of a person, as in “Julius Caesar.” But an Elizabethan (and certainly Shakespeare) would have known that his first name was “Gaius,” his family name “Julius” and his hereditary title was “Caesar.” Years after his death, “Caesar” became effectively another word for “Emperor,” a title that was held by almost 60 more leaders – the very next being Octavius, who, in our play, is called “Caesar” by Mark Antony – a moment that both predicts their victory and foreshadows the future of Rome. As we consider the word “Caesar,” perhaps the dramaturgy of the play begins to shift again. Living under the rule of Elizabeth I, there were some things about England that were forbidden to be discussed: the question of succession, the efficacy of the state and the hypothesis of what happens when you kill a ruler. A common idea among scholars is that to discuss these English questions, Shakespeare sometimes wrote Roman plays. In effect, Rome stands in for London and the audience is invited to engage in this active live process of adaptation. It might then be appropriate for us to carry on this tradition: Rome is here, now.
The title of Julius Caesar thus leans into what Andrew James Hartley calls the “slippery temporal dimension” of the play: it looks backwards at an ancient time, it looks ahead towards 60 more emperors and it looks at now, at the concerns and questions of today – whenever that might be. Perhaps this is actually what Ben Jonson meant when he said that Shakespeare was for all time: the work can allow us to venture forth with an Elizabethan brain, a Roman heart and modern-day guts, held together by a communal body and an intrepid spirit of adventure.
Stephen Drover, April 2023