So recently I watched a production of Julius Caesar and it struck me that Shakespeare, who I thoroughly enjoy, can be a bit, well, verbose. I think it’s something I struggle with too, but it’s much more noticeable when peppered with doths and thous.
I usually have an unfair advantage with theatre, in that I’ve read a lot of plays. But I have not read Julius Caesar, and for the first time in a long time, I found myself noticing the play and not following it. So it got me thinking:
Why is it when theatremakers want to ‘modernise’ Shakespeare they always just end up changing the setting, or the costume, or the genders of the characters?
Is there a way to keep the imagery and metaphors while at the same time, making the play a little easier to follow?
As a generally muted person, how can I relate to the overwrought emotions of a Shakespeare performance?
So I decided to have a go at tackling those questions by rewriting the scene where Cassius visits Brutus after the death of Caesar. Read on.
I want to leave, Brutus.
(Approaching him) Now, Cassius. This is the time for us to stand together, brother.
I’m not your brother! Okay? I’m just a member of a conspiracy you happened to get involved in! One that should have ended a long time ago, but, for some reason, some oversight, has twisted into this- abomination that I don’t recognise. I don’t want any of this! I did what I set out to do and the results are what they are. There is nothing I can do about it now, so let me go home. I need you to let me go.
This feeling will pass.
You don’t understand! If I stay here any longer, I’ll lose my mind.
And you’re not listening! I shouldn’t have come this far in the first place! Let me go. Please. I’m not doing you any favours by being here.
You’re doing me many favours, actually, without even realising.
Then, let me rephrase: You’re not doing me any favours by keeping me here. We will lose-
(Turning away from him) Stop it, Cassius-
We will, though, unless you send me away! I am not a warrior, Brutus. I’m not a commander. I’m a man. A man who spoke too rashly and acted too quickly. You will lose if you continue to take my advice.
Then don’t consult me about the war! We can talk about something else.
What else is there? The games? The Lupercalia? Should we sit and discuss the murder we committed? Run through it scene by scene, like a play? (Forcing his knife into Brutus’ hand) You take this knife, and I’ll pretend to be Caesar! (Kneeling) Put me out of my misery, Brutus.
(Throwing the knife aside) This isn’t a game, Cassius.
(Jumping up) Yes! Exactly! It was never a game. What we did with our two hands was snatch a life. We took control of something that was never ours to control. We were stupid- I was stupid to think that killing Caesar would be a quick fix, an reversal, a slight shift. What we have created- What I led us to create, and I can take full responsibility, is worse than what came before. (Turning away) We thought we were liberating Rome by killing one of her fathers but what have we given her instead? Freedom or Chaos?
Chaos is not something to fear. In the beginning, there was chaos.
Yes and nothing else. For centuries. Is that what you want? Is that why you plunged that knife into his heart, so we could be ravaged by war for centuries? In the beginning there was chaos, yes. But this is not the beginning. Life has already started. We have this great land, this spirit, this history. To return to chaos would be backwards, would be wrong. A sin against the very state that we made Caesar bleed for. What we created, what I missed in my patriotic mania, my jealousy even, was that we are a civilisation now. And we damage our own foundations when we behave in uncivilised manners.
What should we have done then, Cassius? Do you think democracy would have saved us? Do you think we could have talked Caesar down?
Down from what exactly? From ambition? From pride? From our pride? Our ambition? No, Brutus. It has never been the task of men to judge their peers and cut down those whose senses are heightened. That belongs to the gods. That is why we have the Fates. Caesar’s crime was being beloved, and being beloved is not so great a height, when you remember how fickle the rabble is. I was beloved once. You were beloved once. And now we are here. Called traitors and conspirators. (He paces the room, distracted) Nothing is permanent, Brutus, and if we had practiced patience- (He changes direction) Who would have thought that such a quick act would have led to these long and tumultuous years? If I’d known- (He turns to Brutus) But isn’t that always the way?
So impatience and jealousy led us here?
That is what I have finally understood. At my very core, I am impatient, I am jealous and you must not let me lead you again. Send me home, Brutus. Or better still, don’t send me home. Don’t let me face my mother, my children, my countrymen while I wear this shame. Exile me. Exile yourself! It’s what we deserve for robbing Rome of a father, and robbing ourselves of Rome as we knew it. For after this nightmare will come another and I would sooner gouge my eyes out than witness my city burn.