Shakespeare IS political – understand that, and move on
There have been plenty of times when I’ve felt the need to apologise for being political in a blog about Shakespeare. I think it makes my employers nervous, despite the fact that they never get named, and the blog is entirely independent of them.
No more – after my six-month blog holiday I feel a lot blunter, a lot more determined to speak the truth as I see it. To be truly alive in 2020 is to be political. No amount of self-isolation can reduce the effect of politics on us; we must be involved, not least to oppose (or if you prefer, support) the scary direction we are heading in. And to study Shakespeare is to study politics – the politics of then; the politics of now. I’m constantly surprised by how little has changed, apart from technology, in 400 years.
Julius Caesar still matters. A lot.
You only have to look at the almighty ruckus caused by Shakespeare in the Park’s 2017 production, featuring a blond man with a very long red tie and a heavily-accented eastern-European wife. Corporate sponsors withdrew. Protestors interrupted performances. Godwin’s Law was – inevitably – triggered.
And it matters to me. It holds a special place for me because it is the play my father studied at school, the one that he can still – at 76 years old – recite parts of. It was also the first play I photographed during my three-year stint as production photographer for the Cambridge Shakespeare Festival. Somehow, even with the intermediary of the camera, Antony’s funeral speech felt electric. I felt as if it were breaking news that I was covering, as the darkness fell and members of the cast, mingling with the audience, brought the mob’s reactions to life. A personal Shakespeare highlight.
The next few weeks / months are going to see me focussing on Julius Caesar more than any other single play. I’ve been asked to overhaul our Shakespeare offering at school; it’s a great opportunity to get JC included, and I’ll be writing a scheme of work on it for Year 9.
JC can teach Boris Johnson a thing or two about rhetoric.
Despite what I believe is an increasing bank of evidence to the contrary, it appears to be a truth universally acknowledged that our Prime Minister is a tremendous orator in the tradition of, ahem, Winston Churchill.
Holed up in my bunker (Day 8 today), I’ve seen and heard more of the Prime Minister than I would normally care to. English teachers can’t help it: we analyse people’s communications, be they written or verbal. And in the same way that students often over-use rhetorical questions, at the moment he is massively over-using one technique, in his words his tone, and his body language: the rule of three. Grit your teeth, go back and watch him, and you’ll see what I mean. Plus of course we have old favourites like ‘Get Brexit Done’ …
JC certainly enjoyed a good triplet – see ‘Veni, vidi, vici‘ – and three is, of course, the magic number. But the play teaches us what happens when you overdo one rhetorical technique. Here’s what our quotation of the week, from Emma Smith, has to say about it.
‘Mark Antony sets out the incompatibility of the evidence of Caesar’s generosity against the claims made about his ambition by Brutus, all the while famously emphasizing that ‘Brutus is an honourable man’ (3.2.83). Simple repetition of that phrase enacts the work of reinterpretation here, as each time the phrase is uttered it seems to mean something slightly different, until it has completed the 180-degree turn to mean its compete opposite: Brutus is, for Antony, very far from honourable.’ [a]
Antony over-repeats ‘honourable‘; in fact he says it ten times. If you doubt what Smith says about it meaning something different each time, look into Damian Lewis‘ eyes in this majestic performance:
But the difference is that Antony’s exploitation of the word (Shakespeare’s exploitation, of course) is deliberate.
Our Prime Minister does it because he is a one-trick pony.
Sooner or later, familiarity will breed contempt. It already has, for me. When I hear ‘Save the NHS‘ for the umpteenth time, it’s lost any urgency, or connection to Covid-19. Instead I begin to ask myself broader questions, remembering, why the NHS needs saving, and from whom …
(a) Emma Smith, This is Shakespeare, (London: Pelican Books, 2019), p.153
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