Tuesday, June 13, 2017

On teaching Caesar in the age of Trump

So I have been in Green Country for almost three weeks, and one of the nice things is that the time difference and the geographic distance mean I'm not bombarded with American news first thing in the morning. In fact, while I haven't absolutely unplugged from American politics, it all feels less urgent and outrage-making here.

Until the latest culture-wars outrage du jour turned out to be about Shakespeare. Shakespeare is always urgent around here. (OK, I'm sort of amused and baffled that a production that has been running for three weeks without anyone paying much attention is SUDDENLY urgent as far as the rest of the world is concerned, but whatever.)

Other, better Shakespeare scholars have weighed in on why nothing about the Public Theater's production of Julius Caesar is particularly new or outrageous; I will note, however, that this play definitely seemed to have more bite when I last taught it, a few weeks after the election, and I plan to teach it again this fall, and probably again every year for the foreseeable future.

It is, in fact, really HARD to get students to read Caesar's assassination as justifiable, so I doubt that a "go assassins!" reading of this play is likely to come naturally to anyone. They don't, as a rule, want to see the conspirators as people they should like. (Particularly Cassius. I really like Cassius, but students in general do not -- they tend to accept Antony's judgment of Cassius, and the other conspirators who aren't Brutus, as acting "in envy of great Caesar," without considering that Antony has political reasons of his own for holding up Brutus as the Great Exception. What we actually get in the text is more nuanced; Cassius is so damn right about most of the questions of strategy, and perceptive and clearheaded about the consequences of letting Antony live and speak, and any successful political movement needs manipulative pragmatists as well as idealists.) As a rule, students tend not to see small-r republicanism as something worth killing to preserve. Politics, at the grand history-making level, are not quite real to them. Friendship is real, and they tend to fixate on the "Brutus literally stabbed his friend in the back!" part, even though Brutus and Caesar's friendship is something we're informed about rather than something we actually see. It's not clear that the Caesar we do see on stage is capable any more of friendship, in the sense of a relationship among equals. (Contrast with the Brutus / Cassius friendship, which is messy and stormy and tender and substantive, to the point where Cassius is the only person with whom Brutus gets to be really human by Act 4, and Cassius noticeably doesn't exploit or take advantage of that vulnerability.)

The idea that reasonable people might be willing to die or kill to protect a tradition of self-governance feels more charged, these days, like something my last crop of students could feel on a gut level.

I don't mean to suggest that the conspirators are right; the point is that we don't know whether they are right. Brutus agonizes over the unknowability of the future; he can't be sure whether Caesar will hatch into a poisonous snake until it's too late to do anything about it. We see farther than Brutus does; we know what he will choose, and what the consequences of his choices will be. But what we don't, and can't, know is what would have happened if he had chosen differently. It's a play about the difficulty of choosing and acting rightly when the information we have is necessarily imperfect (even in a world where omens and soothsayers and prophetic dreams are real, they can pretty much all be read in multiple ways, stymieing everyone's attempts to foresee the future; how much more difficult it is in our world). Moreover, the really fatal choices, from Brutus's point of view, are not the big ones but the little ones, not should we kill Caesar? but who gets to speak last at the funeral?

Some students have a hard time with this, too. They want the messages about right and wrong, and what people should have done, to be clearer. They aren't. They never will be. And I think we desperately need to know that, in a culture that tends to overvalue confidence and decisiveness and undervalue questioning and thought.