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Theater Review: Washington and The Tragedy of Julius Caesar

It was in Eighteenth century style to mix facts with fiction. A classical education was prized among the leadership class, and theater-going was the common style of entertainment; the Founding Fathers often confessed to being influenced by classical examples. In particular, Dr. Samuel Johnson the theater critic in the last half of the Eighteenth century had provoked a major reexamination and revival of popular interest in the Sixteenth-century work of William Shakespeare. Shakespeare was to be revived a second time in America when the English actress Fanny Kemble crossed the ocean and married our richest bachelor, Pierce Butler. We are told that George Washington was an inveterate play-goer who attended many performances of his favorite play, Joseph Addison's Cato, and sometimes carried pages of Shakespeare in his coat. Shakespeare's The Tragedy of Julius Caesar was as widely known at that time as it is today, after countless performances by high school theater groups. Our present affection for the Roman Republic can be traced to its Eighteenth-century revival in several of Shakespeare's plays. Its effect on the minds of the Founding Fathers is as sure as the effect of Sophocles on the mind of Pericles, which no amount of scholarship about his actual attendance at performances of Oedipus Rex can diminish.

The tragedy of Julius Caesar is really the tragedy of Brutus, the nobleman who embodied the true spirit of the Roman Republic. In a larger sense, it can be considered an essay on the relative merits of a republic and a king. Caesar is assassinated early in the play, which depicts very little of the qualities which made him the hero of Rome. He seems to function in this play as a symbol, marching onto the stage in the midst of public adoration, but mainly serving only briefly as a prop about which others whisper their opinions. The public may love him, but many of the Senators are jealous of his eminence and fearful of his ambition. Marullus seems to speak for the disgruntled supporters of Pompey, whom Caesar had defeated when he criticizes the common people for switching loyalties so easily. Cassius speaks for many Senators in saying,

"I was born free as Caesar; so were you: We both have fed as well, and we can both Endure the winter's cold as well as he".

In a few short lines, Shakespeare defines the main weakness of a Republic. It can take Cicero years to convince the common people of the value to them of a republic. But even then, it is all Greek to them, easily brushed aside as boring academic blather. The complicated values of representative government are swept away in a moment by some power-mad soldier who wishes to make himself a tyrant, dazzling common folk with a military victory, or as Marc Antony would soon demonstrate, with a single clever speech. Republics are fragile things, hard to establish, easy to demolish. The man of honor makes his reputation through national service first, and Senatorial position is bestowed on him as a reward. But once an ambitious common man achieves the office by luck or stealth, he soon sees the elevation as itself sufficient reason why he should now be King. Shakespeare is even-handed in this play, which is in many ways an essay on the nature of governance. The recurrent problem of one-man rule is the issue of succession. Written in 1599 with the barren Elizabeth on the throne highlighting the issue of Henry VIII's turmoils with lack of an heir, the first word the title character utters is "Calpurnia", the name of Caesar's barren wife. Now little noticed by contemporary audiences, it must nevertheless have had an important impact on the barren George Washington in his proscenium box, perhaps seated next to Martha and her children by an earlier marriage.

Not long before Washington is known to have taken active steps to encourage a Constitutional Convention, but after he had issued his Circular Letters defining the needs of a new government, a momentous event took place in his life. He went to the Confederation Congress, then meeting in Annapolis, to present his resignation as commander in chief. Not satisfied with triumphant accolades such as Ulysses Grant and Dwight Eisenhower received, he went on to announce his permanent retirement from public life. Probably intending merely to put an end to the offers of Monarchy that his friends had been repeatedly urging, he was very likely startled by the world-wide acclaim his renunciation had provoked. It seems to be true that even George III of England greeted this unexpected resignation as something which made Washington the greatest man in the world. Washington intended to put an end to talk of monarchy, but this action slammed the door loud and irretrievably. No one can prove, but who can possibly disprove, that Julius Caesar was on his mind. Listen to Casca describe the wide-spread suspicion of hypocrisy when Caesar thrice refused the offer from Mark Antony:

CASCA I can as well be hanged as tell the manner of it: it was mere foolery; I did not mark it. I saw Mark Antony offer him a crown;--yet 'twas not a crown neither, 'twas one of these coronets;--and, as I told you, he put it by once: but, for all that, to my thinking, he would fain have had it. Then he offered it to him again; then he put it by again: but, to my thinking, he was very loath to lay his fingers off it. And then he offered it the third time; he put it the third time by: and still as he refused it, the rabblement hooted and clapped their chapped hands and threw up their sweaty night-caps and uttered such a deal of stinking breath because Caesar refused the crown that it had almost choked Caesar; for he swounded and fell down at it: and for mine own part, I durst not laugh, for fear of opening my lips and receiving the bad air.

Washington was now surely boxed in. How in the world could he save his country from anarchy, knowing that almost no one else could do it, and still escape the sneers of Casca and his like? He had told Martha and his closest friends, he had told the whole world, that being First in War was enough. If Julius Caesar couldn't do it, how could Washington expect to go on and be First in Peace, while remaining First in the Hearts of His Countrymen?

Originally published: Friday, October 12, 2012; most-recently modified: Monday, June 03, 2019