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Shakespeare and power



Power is a structure (as shown in the ‘Chain of Being’), and its influences on virtues such as love, loyalty and friendship goes a long way towards defining the trilogy (Julius Caesar, Antony and Cleopatra, and Coriolanus) written by the most widely read, and adapted author from the Middle Ages to the present day. Shakespeare’s historical and political views, that is, his feeling of the necessity of one strong head in the state, and his distrust of the commonalty are closely paralleled by those of Plutarch, a classical historian who penned The Makers of Rome. Shakespeare’s work welcomes Caesar’s assumption of tyrannical power, and looks on the triumph of Octavius as a desirable pledge of peace. In his treatment of historical figures in the Roman trilogy, Shakespeare reveals a tendency to show his protagonists as aloof, proud and in many ways vulnerable to vices associated with abuse of power. Shakespeare’s characters have equals and parallels throughout history from the moment they were presented on the stage of the famous Globe Theatre, and they have stayed relevant despite the era they were acted in; because Shakespeare was an explorer of the human condition, that is: his themes and plot followed the deeds of men to the tee with regard to the conditions the character is presented with in each scene of the particular play. The Renaissance period in which Shakespeare lived in was dominated by humanists who are described by the Colliers Encyclopedia as followers of a school of thought which advocated a new curriculum which put emphasis on a group of subjects known collectively as the studia humanitas, or, the humanities. These included the study of grammar, rhetoric, history, poetry, and ethics, as studied in classical texts. The nature and extent of Shakespeare’s education is unknown but it can probably be assumed that he did get some primary school education where he got the humanist influence in his native Stratford-upon-Avon primary school. Boys in his day normally went to school until they were sixteen years of age, and he could have by then gained some insight into the two major branches of Elizabethan learning, that is, trivium that included Latin grammar, rhetoric, logic as core subjects and quadrivium made of arithmetic, geometry, astronomy and music as its areas of study. From these, he could have gained some of the Roman and Greek influences that would later be seen in his works. The foolish does not listen to the advice of anyone, for example, in Julius Caesar, Julius Caesar does not respect the advice of the supernatural powers that could be considered to be from God if one is to draw from the La Scala Naturae as he should, and this leads to his demise. He ignores the warnings in his dreams and the signs interpreted by the oracles and soothsayers; which leads to his assassination in the parliament. One hears of the same attitude in the leaders of the present age that are overtaken by megalomania and soon drown in their power. The character of Antony and Coriolanus also seem to be victims of the same attitude of pride that ignores warnings that could well save them from imminent danger if they take heed. It seems Shakespeare sought to show that power corrupts in his history plays; it alienates man from the simple fact that all of us are human despite social standing. And this is seen to this day if one is to look at the megalomaniac tendencies of such figures as Napoleon Bonaparte, King Shaka Zulu, and Adolf Hitler. His history plays do not just cover the political figures, but they also show the audience the dangers of pride as a vice. If one were to look at the original form and the design of Shakespeare’s Globe Theatre, one realises that the design of the theatre was based on the Roman amphitheatre, with the audience sat in the aisles of the three-tier polygonal auditorium of the playhouse. Aptly called ‘The house with the thatched roof,’ the Globe theatre where Shakespeare’s works were performed was a marvel of its time and, in a lot of ways, a masterpiece that surpasses even theatres of the modern times. It was the first modern theatre house which, as described by one theatre goer made for wondrous watching of the productions staged within its wooden auditorium walls. His description goes: …There in the house with the thatched roof witnessed an excellent performance of the tragedy of the first Emperor Julius Caesar with a cast of some fifteen people; when the play was over, they dance very marvellously and gracefully together as is their wont, two dressed as men and two as women… Thus daily at two in the afternoon, London has two, sometimes three plays running in different places, competing with each other, and those which play best obtain most spectators. The playhouses are so constructed that they play on a raised platform so that everyone has a good view.   This description of the Globe by the member of the audience gives one the opinion that Shakespeare’s theatre not only influenced literature, but it seems to have gone on and influenced the politics of this world (think of the campaign trails politicians use in their quest for seats in the parliaments, they are actually theatrical performances on a grand scale!). Julius Caesar’s oratory is replicated countless times in politics across the globe (the term was probably borrowed from Shakespeare as well), and the masses follow as they used to do in the Classical Greece or Rome. Man is the primary interpreter of all of order and his role is to act as the mediator of all the steps in the laws, because his existence is in close relation with all of these elements in the chain. Being possessive of an intelligent brain that gives him the capacity to learn, to know the world and himself, man becomes the main component of the chain of being. It is said by A.C. Horan that, “Knowing oneself was the hallmark of Elizabethan striving and was considered so important that it was said to be the gateway to virtue.” Julius Caesar contains elements of both Shakespeare’s histories and tragedies, and has been classified as a “problem play” by some scholars. The play describes a senatorial conspiracy to murder the emperor Caesar and the political turmoil that ensues in the aftermath of the assassination. The emperor’s demise, however, is not the primary concern for critics of Julius Caesar; rather, most critics are interested in the events surrounding the act and the organisation of the conspiracy against Caesar and the personal and political repercussions of the murder. Shakespeare’s tragedies often feature the death of the titular (lead) character at the play’s end. Many scholars are interested in the play’s unconventional structure and its treatment of political conflict, as well as Shakespeare’s depiction of Rome and the struggles the central characters face in balancing personal ambition, civic duty, and familial obligation. Modern critics also study the numerous historical, social and religious affinities that Shakespeare’s Rome shares with Elizabethan England. These perspectives are what makes the core of this discussion on the author’s treatment of history in his tragedies and whether they are relevant to the realities one sees in modern governance that has its roots in Roman times. Shakespeare added salient details to the Caesar he found in his source, Plutarch’s Lives; by humanising the leader and inventing physical defects that the historical figure did not have: deafness and poor swimming. He also ascribed to Caesar a concern with superstition in his last days, stressing an intellectual corruption produced by power (which is seen also in other non-Roman plays like Macbeth), in preparation for the audience’s sympathetic response to the assassins when the murder is committed. However, he did omit a number of anecdotes from Plutarch that would have portrayed Caesar too negatively, leaving less room for doubt about the killing. For instance, Caesar is said to have looted a famous temple and to have acquiesced in dishonouring an earlier wife in order to divorce her. This deliberate omission could have been done by the author to strengthen the exploration of the plot and to appeal to the audience. Shakespeare followed Plutarch in exaggerating Caesar’s real threat to the privileges of the Roman aristocracy that spurred the assassins historically. In fact, modern scholars find Caesar’s policies were surely not directed towards creating a monarchy, as the conspirators and Plutarch believed. They were to some extent not directed at all, being largely driven by events. This is the simple case if one is to look at the histories of famous figures in the history of the world. Many of these figures’ lives are marked not by decisions but by events; it is as if some kind of fate is at work, some kind of fate meant only for them. After his well-known conquests in Gaul and Britain, Caesar had, at the time of the play, recently won a civil war against another Roman political and military leader Pompey the Great as shown by Legatt. Julius Caesar still goes on to be murdered (assassinated). The assassination is either spurred by jealousy or is simply a result of the historical fate present throughout the passage of time. It is reminiscent of the quote ‘progress is watered by the blood of patriots’. Maybe Caesar’s blood is what will see Rome advance into the future and progress. As the head of a faction intent on admitting new members to Rome’s small ruling class, Caesar had fought a group of conservatives and had more nearly represented the republican ideals later associated with Brutus in part because of Shakespeare’s presentation than Brutus himself did. He was in no sense a revolutionary in the sense of today’s politics, but he however comes across as a man of the people (as is seen in his will which bequeaths his entire estate on the people of Rome). In the course of his conflict with Pompey, Caesar had assumed the dictatorship, a legitimate office of the Roman government that carried extensive powers and was temporarily awarded to leading military commanders in times of crisis. Caesar had been dictator briefly in 49 B.C., but this time he had held the dictatorship for several years, using its powers to protect his gains in the civil war. In early 44 B.C. the Senate which Caesar had greatly enlarged and filled with his followers declared him dictator for life. This event sealed the conspirators’ determination to kill him, and whether it was out of jealousy or fear of his supposed megalomania rising one cannot exactly say. The orations at his funeral reveal only snippets of the true motive behind his murder but, when it comes to its relevance to the treatment of history, this aspect of the play proves true to the events in the history of mankind. There have been many a military leader and revolutionary who have been assassinated by their apparent comrades after their assumption of power due to unclear motives (think of Thomas Sankara and Blaise Compaoré). Shakespeare may have realised this one fact about the human condition; the greatness of man and the amount of his achievements for the common good of the state does not count. What counts is what history remembers, and history remembers what its writer remembers or chooses to remember. Facts are obscured, events are omitted, for the sake of a good history, the story of the hero in the play on stage or the hero in real political life. After all history can loosely be defined as ‘his’ story, that is, the story of the hero who just happens to be human; fallible and vulnerable to the conditions of humanity like pride, jealousy, greed and other vices. The human condition comes with its conditions that can or cannot be changed, and the literature of the age if good enough sets out to define them. This helps the audience that gets to read or watch them to realise one fact: all of us are somehow fallible, all of us are changeable. Sometimes, it takes a look through the leaves of a well-penned tale to make sense of the world. This is one of the basic intentions of literature; to prepare the student thereof for the realities they shall encounter out there in the real world. Shakespeare is often dismissed as too hard, but the audiences have over the ages sympathised with Romeo and Juliet, and fawned at the countenance of Shylock the money lender in The Merchant of Venice (because they hate his cruel demeanour but love his money perhaps!). This occurs after over 400 years of reading Shakespeare, one of the most quintessential writers in the writing of literature, a man for all seasons of sorts when it comes to the understanding of what literature is for. This is the power of his literature, proven by its timelessness and relevance regardless of the era and the age it is read in. Tšepiso S. Mothibi

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