I have a mental block against Shakespeare; I have decided that I do not understand him. While I can approach the bard intellectually I can hardly see the point why he is so vital so as to have retained his appeal in an undiminished manner over four centuries now. What is there in his plays those which must have charged up his audiences then as well as now? Why do dialogues from his plays enter the common parlance of our speech? Why do his plays seem as relevant for the contemporary times as they did for the audiences when they were originally written and performed? My friend Runa Mukherjee has generously offered to give me some lessons in Shakespeare and it is partly through her and partly through my free course online with Prof Stephen Greenblatt of Harvard University that I sit down to piece together a context which Shakespeare must have braced and graced with his genius.
I know from school that the age of Shakespeare was the age of the European Renaissance, or rebirth, a time when the Europeans reread the Greek classics and were much enthused by the vastness of thought, poetry, metaphysics, drama, history and those which presented stuff much more interesting than the boring Bible. But how did so many people get to read the Greek literature? They read all of this in their school, most probably the grammar schools, to one of which Shakespeare went. My grandfather, an educationist would always insist that the European Renaissance could not have taken place until and unless the school system was spread far and wide. And why did the schools become much commoner during the times of Shakespeare? This had something to do with the Reformation of the Church in which at least for Western Europe, the Bible was published widely and read as part of one’s devotion to Christianity. The invention of the printing press by Gutenberg in Germany, the hub of the Holy Roman Empire indeed helped spread literacy as well as the school system. And once the schools were set up children read the classics for those were all that was there to read.
Anyway, the Greek spirit that lingered on like a hangover in the ancient Roman Empire seemed to revive and find a new resurrected life in the 16th century Europe probably because Europe had pretty much the similar issues as of Greece and later of Rome. Conditions in England at the time of Shakespeare reflect much of the times of Athenian democracy in which powerful elites owning private property have emerged and there is a nascent rise of what one calls as the middle class, as yet not so well organized so as to pull off a French Revolution. But the propertied elites, who are cultivated by Henry VIII by the award of private lands which they are enclosing much to the chagrin of the Church, now seem to live in some kind of a limitless world, in which neither the King nor the Bishop holds absolute power over the individual. In such times, it is the intellectual leaders like Aristotle and Plato, Pliny and Cicero that hold the minds of men (and women may be) of consequence. What do these intellectuals do to minds that they matter to? Read them through and you will immediately get what we call as secular philosophy based on logic and reason in which theoretical assertions emanate from a thorough study of the concrete material and not out of metaphysical make belief. Armed with such enormous knowledge of history, logic, and a metaphysics that is rooted in its material context, the renascent consciousness can place both the King and the Church, the royal decrees and the papal dicta right in historical contexts! This kind of intellect that knows the world is also on the anvil of being able to move the world, recreate the world and eventually command it. This is perhaps the birth of what we know in sociology as the individual agency. When many individuals exercise their respective agencies, it is important to then emerge into a consensus or enter into a conflict; men of property may like to reach consensus and then build institutions so that their properties are maintained. Such institutions can only be based upon reason and logic because those are the things which have brought them together in the first place and only to keep their mutual cooperation alive they will build things that will ensure that their camaraderie remains. No wonder the institutions are attacked whenever the larger society wants to break up gangs, for institutions are nothing but a camouflage for gang behavior. Shakespearean drama is all about such institution building by bringing equally placed humans altogether on the stage whose interest congeal or clash leading to various outcomes of eventual cooperation. In comedies, there is a possibility of consensus, in tragedies where conflicts arise, there is internecine destruction for conflict cannot thrive in systems where institutions are built on the dint of reason to protect material status and private property.
No wonder then whenever I watched and even sometimes acted in Shakespearean theatre I used to get a feeling of many heads talking on stage. My idea of the drama is melodrama in which each individual represents an emotion, and the interaction among them are interactions among the emotions producing an ensemble of “ragas” or “tones”; melodrama is laid out like a music piece and our popular cinema does not merely have the song and dance; they are song and dance. But Shakespearean drama is more like a set of conversations, like arguments and discussions born into a stage, very specifically a stage that was a half-way house between the Greek arena and the private drawing room. The public sphere of the Greek theatre was given the semblance of a private space especially created to entertain guests. Around this time we have a change in the architecture of English homes of the aristocrat as well the rise of the French salon but it is only in England that the stage for the drama is invented. Hence Shakespearean plays did much of the work that the salons did, create a public sphere of discourses based on morals, reason and logic which had to be argued out and not merely believed in.
Julius Caesar is the play that I am seeking from Runa. She has observed that the play is not on Caesar but about him, how people discuss him, how people feel about him after having stabbed the guy to death. Almost all of Caesar’s close aides are in the conspiracy to kill him who incite Brutus to take the lead, Brutus being the most loved of Caesar. I cannot understand Shakespeare’s language so I buy a copy of No Fear Shakespeare’s Julius Caesar. The Shakespearean play in printed on the left hand pages while the play rewritten in simple English appears on the pages opposite. I now see Julius Caesar just the way Cicero saw him. I know Cicero because I have recently downloaded his complete works on the Internet and reading through his piece on Caesar. Interestingly, all characters in the play bear fictional names except Cicero who is real. Shakespeare’s self-image is that of Cicero; aloof, objective, documenting things without assigning normative properties to his observations. Shakespeare chose to remain beyond partisan views and no wonder he is universal for he belongs to no particular point of view.
It seems that democracy and dictatorship representing two extremities are always in a state transition from one over to the other depending on what Marx would have called as the material forces of production. We see in the opening lines of the play, Julius Caesar that Cassius, the principal conspirator scolds the poor workmen who have come out in the streets to celebrate Caesar’s victory over Pompey. For Cassius and his ilk, conquest is a rude term, territorial expansion unnecessary; the Roman tradesman want peace and status quo so that daily life may go on and not imperialism which requires an entirely different orientation and posturing. Caesar is becoming powerful because he supports the workmen; who the “citizens” scorn. Caesar creates the mob who hail him and builds up pressure on the Senate to crown him. Did Rome not swear post Tarquin that Rome will be a republic of citizens and not an Empire ruled by the Caesar? Then Julius Caesar’s ambitions are clearly against the spirit of Rome; but there also builds up the pressures from below to be included as equally as the citizens, a pressure of the mob that the structure of the republic does not seem to be able to accommodate.
There are soothsayers and omens and bad dreams of rain of blood, graves opening up and corpses rising and lions giving birth to litter in the streets, indicating a mayhem and chaos. Despite rationality, eminent Romans seem to believe in pagan superstitions. Indeed pagan beliefs made a huge comeback across Europe with the rise of nationalism a few centuries later when the temporal power of the ruler overtook that of the Church leaving the religious needs to be satisfied by a return to pagan roots. Indeed, the French melodrama was pagan, German volk was pagan and Shakespearean motifs contained pagan elements in abundance. Paganism, nationalism, rational legal institutions a la Max Weber and secular liberalism appear to be coming together in the times of Shakespeare and Julius Caesar, the play seem to have captured these trends as part of an overall transition of the traditional society into a modern one.
Caesar’s is a closed world; here the Senators know each other and citizenship is almost a membership in a club. But Caesar, by adding territories and people from the periphery is expanding the population of Rome and this disturbs the sanctity of the exclusion of clubs. Clubs are strained and Caesar, the source of this strain has to be eliminated. Caesar is lured to his assassination by the promise of the Crown, this Crown he had refused thrice, each time more mildly than the previous one but now as Decius tells him that the Senate is all decided. When Calpurnia expresses her worries about Caesar being bathed in blood, Decius promptly inverts the interpretation by saying that actually it was a good dream that anticipates Caesar as giving his royal blood to the people. Caesar is stabbed many times, one each by his aides.
The real drama starts now after Caesar is dead; Mark Anthony emerges as one who bears Caesar in absentia and who establishes the dead Caesar as an entity to reckon with. The objective forces are changing creating a situation when Rome has to transform into an Empire from being merely a Republic; there can be no killing of Caesar for Caesar is the necessity, with Julius dead, many other Caesars will have to be born. The Senators like Cassius and Brutus, Cinna and Decius have only criticized Caesar by noting his weak physical body but Caesar can no longer be evaluated by raising old standards; it is Caesar’s mind that has made him the dictator, his strategies of creating noblemen out of soldiers, his politics of banishment on citizens who might criticize him, dramatic presentation of self instead of rational arguments, and the lust for control of territory through war and subjugation those become totally antithetical to the spirit of Rome. But Rome as a republic has lost its relevance because it now has to accommodate a much larger population, much larger territory. Hence Caesar has to live. This realization of Caesar’s necessity looms large as the guilt that each of his assassins face and which then turns into an internecine warfare and nearly all the characters die.
In the life and times of Shakespeare, Julius Caesar must have been rather relevant because only in 1649 barely a few decades after his death in 1616 that Oliver Cromwell led a revolution against the monarchy and signed the death warrant for the King, Charles I. Oliver Cromwell represents England’s intolerance for monarchy but the guilt among the assassins of Caesar may be a kind of a warning to all those who feel that the monarchy is anti-democratic and against the establishment of a republic. Shakespeare is a bard of all times precisely because each side of the story is presented clearly and with equal empathy; it is as if each person was presenting his case with his justifications and his beliefs. And then the audience becomes the judge and that’s how he gets drawn into the plays, the characters, their plots and in short into the world of Shakespeare.