‘Tis the season of Shakespeare once again. Today is his birthday – April 23. All of last year belonged to him as the world celebrated the 450th year after his time on earth, and even this year he is well remembered as his work is locally exhibited now more than at any other time.
Forever a man of the theatre and an everlasting poet for all seasons, it was he who wrote, “All the world’s a stage, /And all the men and women merely players” – a line so popular and so fittingly appropriate that it became the property of all the world; so oft repeated that it became a cliché. And indeed, he had prophesied with pinpoint accuracy that “in eternal lines” his verse “in black ink . . . may still shine bright”.
It is doing so now. A film version of A Midsummer Night’s Dream was shown a week ago by the British High Commissioner, and Julius Caesar will be on stage next week, done by GEM’s Theatre Productions in collaboration with the National School of Theatre Arts and Drama – very helpful to those writing Caribbean Secondary Education Certificate exams.
Indeed, the themes and concerns interrogated in those works, as does the interest in them today, prove the accuracy of William Shakespeare’s prediction about the conquest of time; just as what he says about the world and its inhabitants. He learnt his trade actually working his way up in the theatre, and as Bob Dylan remarked in his Nobel Lecture, 2016, he most likely was always thinking like a producer of how his works would fare on stage. Not surprisingly, but remarkably, references to the theatre, the stage, and the art of acting are ubiquitous in various plays.
In fact, the famous lines comparing the world to a stage are immediately preceded by an even more pointed metaphor in the same play (As You Like It). Every personal unhappy experience is echoed everywhere in the world. It is one scene in a larger play.
This wide and universal theatre
Presents more woeful pageants than the scene
Wherein we play in.
That is how Shakespeare viewed the world as a theatre, and indeed a place where all the tragedies and comic follies of mankind are played out. One editor of A Midsummer Night’s Dream, Charles Sisson, observed, “The play is remarkable for its sidelights on the actor’s quality.” Shakespeare was probably laughing at the flaws of his own company, or parodying those of rival companies in that play where “rude mechanicals” blunder their way through the staging of a tragedy.
British High Commissioner, His Excellency Greg Quinn, and Mrs Wendy Quinn, hosted a showing of A Midsummer Night’s Dream earlier this month. This “Shakespeare Film Night” was a repeat of a similar event held last year to mark the 450 years being widely reprised at the time in Britain. “April is the cruelest month” to T S Eliot, but to everyone else it is Shakespeare’s month. So another of his great comedies was shown. The film highlighted the blundering but comical efforts of a group of artisans to stage a play, mixing tragedy with comedy as Shakespeare does to show how comedies of errors come very close to causing tragedies – so mankind should heed the warning.
The exploits of these men, however, are used as a foil to comment on the equally fallible actions of those who are supposed to know better – including those in authority. The play shows “Oh what fools these mortals be” as echoed by the fairy mischief-maker, Puck, and at the same time that “The course of true love never did run smooth” as sadly lamented by one of the lovers in trouble. The “mortals”, members of the court in Athens, run to the forest to solve the problems they create and have to be rescued by the magical powers of the fairies, who, ironically, have gone there to sort out their own personal issues.
The film version of this play shown by the British High Commissioner, has two things in common with the tragedy of Julius Caesar set to be put on stage early next month. It reflects Shakespeare’s deep interest and use of the supernatural, and it tries out a few techniques of the post-modern.
Caesar will be directed by Subraj Singh, a member of the National Drama Company who is working with GEM’s Theatre for this production. He will be working with a number of experienced actors as well as the students of the National School of Theatre Arts and Drama for whom this is a practical assignment for the Acting class. The performance is on May 3 starting at 10 am in the National Sports Hall – an unconventional venue. The Sports Hall arena is being converted into a stage for the performance and this is where some of the post-modernist techniques are employed. It will be a kind of thrust stage with the audience looking down at the action from three sides. Interestingly, that aspect of it resembles the Elizabethan thrust stage used in Shakespeare’s time. But the unusual conditions allow the director to put innovative techniques into action, including the staging and a few other performance elements.
The film A Midsummer Night’s Dream employed similar innovation in deliberate anachronisms and costuming. The elements of the supernatural also come into play, parallel to Puck and the fairies. It is, however, a gloomier brand of beliefs, superstitions, “pathetic fallacy” and the spirit of vengeance. The play is charged with major ironies and some of them may be found even in the way the supernatural is used.
First of all, Caesar is great. From the very beginning of the drama this greatness is emphasized. He returns to Rome in triumph following military conquests on behalf of his country and is greeted by large gatherings of cheering citizens who treat him as a hero. His enemies complain that he stands astride the world “like a colossus”, he commands superlative power and dominates Rome to the point where his enemies resent his great influence, expressing a fear that he might become too possessed of power; will use it for his own ends and become a tyrant. He is so dominant that first he, as a man, then the fury of the people whipped up by Antony after his assassination, then his spirit – both metaphorical and physical – all conspire to bring about revenge for his murder and achieve justice. He does indeed, as Cassius grieves, “bestride the narrow world” and the whole play from beginning to end, whether alive or slain.
In the face of this, to make Caesar mortal, human and vulnerable, Shakespeare gives him certain human weaknesses which introduce some of the ironies. He is superstitious, believing in many local customs and rituals, with augurers searching supernatural signs to advise and protect him. Calphurnia, his wife, who shares these beliefs, has a prophetic dream and warns him. There is a soothsayer who sees into the future and also warns him. The supernatural forces in the play are on Caesar’s side, yet, at the most crucial moments he sets them aside and do not follow them because of his own conceit and belief in his own greatness and sense of invincibility.
Calphurnia remarks, “When beggars die there are no comets seen / The heavens themselves blaze forth the death of princes.” And so it was with Caesar, because the city of Rome experienced several strange, unnatural sights and events on the night before the assassination, to add to Calphurnia’s warning dream. These not only foreshadow the murder, but proclaim Caesar’s greatness that the heavens and the elements should “blaze forth” his death before it happens. These (un)natural elements are in sympathy with Caesar (“pathetic fallacy”). Yet despite the supernatural warnings, it was Caesar himself who decided to disregard them.
Even in the themes of vengeance and justice the supernatural holds sway. The play may be regarded as a Roman Revenge Tragedy because a quest for vengeance is at its core. Marc Antony evokes the spirit of revenge – Ate, the goddess of discord – to come to his aid “hot from hell” to wreak “havoc” and let the conspirators pay for “this fell deed”. From that moment on the whole play is focused on the quest for justice and the defeat of Brutus and Cassius. Additionally, the ghost of Caesar appears to both of those conspirators as a symbol of this quest. Here is a mixture of both vengeance and justice, typical of such tragic drama, because the play is clear in its position that Caesar was wronged by Cassius’ envy and hate and Brutus’ own conceit and self-adulation.
Julius Caesar is very strong as a political play with themes of power and deceit. In the dramatisation of these, further ironies arise. Caesar is accused of political ambitions to be crowned a king, which would violate the Roman commitment to republicanism. Cassius uses this claim to convince Brutus to join the conspiracy, deceiving and flattering him into thinking he is the best suited to lead the plot. Ironically, Brutus falls for flattery, just as Caesar does, and is overcome with conceit, power and a belief in his own indispensability – that he is the only one capable of saving Rome, thus agreeing to betray his friend.
Yet Shakespeare treats Brutus as if he were a tragic hero, and in Acts IV and V manages to give Cassius very sympathetic and almost similar tragic treatment. In this, Shakespeare is at his most innovative handling of the tragic formula. While the last word is that the play is indeed the tragedy of Caesar, it interestingly complicates and departs from the conventions sufficiently to create something more original – creative use of an established formula to produce a play that earned the name of Shakespearean tragedy.
The genius of the playwright also gives us one of his strong female characters in Portia, wife of Brutus, to both support and confound the dramatic formulae. Equally, he creates one of the strongest heroic characters in Marc Antony, whose oratory is among Shakespeare’s most acclaimed. The “Friends, Romans, countrymen” speech might be second only to Hamlet’s “To be or not to be” as the best known oration in drama.