Sunday, February 13, 2011

Early Modern Hits and Misses

11. Julius Caesar by William Shakespeare

I read Julius Caesar for the first time years ago, but my professor provided background information that was new to me and brought new perspectives to the text.

Shakespeare's source-text for his Roman plays, Plutarch's Lives, includes the rumor that Julius Caesar had an affair with Marcus Brutus' mother and Brutus may have been his illegitimate son. What I also found interesting is that the famous line "Et tu Brute?" is not what Caesar is reported to have said, rather some accounts (not Plutarch's), say he spoke to Brutus in Greek; "You too, my son?" Shakespeare's decision to put the quote in another language indicates that he was aware of this rumor, but decided not to focus on the "son" part, changing it to Brutus.

Previously, my interests in the play have been in Portia's role and the classic speech of Antony, but this time I looked at the characters psychologically, as I feel we're being encouraged to do for all the Shakespeare we're reading. The argument scene between Cassius and Brutus, I think, demonstrates the psychological reality best, these conspirators begin to turn against each other, doubting their cause in the face of battle and blaming each other. Their theatrical threats of murder and suicide are made more poignant when each dies by his own hand later in the play. Suicide is, of course, the final honorable refuge, but is also a comment on the paranoia and self-doubt that destroyed the Roman Republic.

This isn't my favorite Shakespeare play, but it does combine most of the elements of what makes Shakespeare so great-realistic inner turmoil, high external stakes, and language both amusing and precise.

12. If You Know Not Me, You Know Nobodie, or The Troubles of Queen Elizabeth by Thomas Heywood

This play, published in 1605, was of academic interest to me as, being written so soon after her death, it would help to form the legacy of Good Queen Bess. Issues of interest involved the surprisingly kind characterization of Philip II, the adaptation of earlier apocryphal and factual stories about the Princess Elizabeth's imprisonment under her sister, and the hagiographic implications that the Protestant Bible was Elizabeth's progeny and legacy to her nation. The English Prayer Book, developed under Elizabeth's brother Edward VI, would soon be supplanted by the King James Bible, an attempt at undermining or establishing himself as the heir to Elizabeth's legacy?

As a play, I found the dialogue weak, the plot bereft, and the characters, especially Elizabeth, symbols. Yet it is still interesting for a degree of historical accuracy and indication of the opinions of the time. The Queen is plainly regarded here as a heroine, even a saint, which coincides with the rise in her popularity postmortem.

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