Shakespeare, Conspiracies & Boycotts, oh my!

Friends, Romans, Countrymen, led me your ears.

(Note, this is a corrected update)

This has been a crazy (and I mean it in the literal sense) week regarding Shakespeare & conspiracies. I’ve been meaning to write this blog post since last Tuesday, after what I was sure would be a calming of the storm, but the crazy is spiraling out of control. Someone is going to get hurt, all because of a Shakespeare play.

In case you have been blissfully unaware, this year the New York Public Theater’s Shakespeare in the Park production is Julius Caesar; a very modern production, with Caesar having blond hair, a blue suit, and long tie. The play is aimed at a modern audience who just happens to have a sitting president that has dyed blond hair, and seems to only wear blue suites and long ties.

This is not the first time a Shakespeare theater company has depicted a sitting president as Julius Caesar. My friend Jason reminded that in 2012, the Guthrie Theater in Minneapolis also produced a modern retelling of the story, this time with a black man in a dark suit as Caesar. I’m sure if we were to go back in time, we’d find other theaters doing the same thing to other leaders. Modernizing Shakespeare is nothing new. What is new is the outrage this particular production has sparked.

The outrage, the distorted news stories, and silly boycotts are all clear examples of something I have talked about in the past; the dumbing down of America. Though I cannot now think of a better example than this one. It seems everyone is getting this play wrong, and asserting things that are not true, simply because the have not bothered to read the play. Hell if they had bothered to read this cliff notes we’d all be better off. So before we get into the conspiracy and boycott, let’s talk about Julius Caesar, the play.

Julius Caesar is thought to be one of Shakespeare’s first plays to be performed at the newly constructed Globe Theater. Shakespeare’s audience would have been fully aware of the history of Rome, and the controversy surrounding the emperor’s murder. It was a subject of debate at the time and continued to be debated up to the early 17th century. Dante put both Brutus and Cassius, the two main co- conspirators, in the 9th circle of hell as traitors, but by the 16th century, philosophers like Philip Sidney thought Brutus was brave by trying to save the republic (spoiler, he didn’t). Shakespeare seemed to weigh in by giving his audience a play that showed the assassination and its aftermath; both bloody, and both seemingly pointless.

Here is a mini version of the cliff notes version of Julius Caesar:

Several members of the senate, fearing Caesar has become too powerful, decides the only course of action is to assassinate him. They think they will be “greeted like liberators” to quote anther modern politician, but they are not. Anthony, horrified by what they have done, gives a moving speech in which repeatedly calls Brutus “honorable” but clearly means the opposite. The speech works, and results in its intended effect; the crowd calls for the blood of those who killed Caesar. The conspirers, now fearing for their lives ,flee Italy only to be hunted down by Anthony and Caesar’s nephew, Octavius. Realizing they cannot win, Brutus and Cassius kill themselves. In the end all of the conspirers are dead and Roman order is restored.

There are several lesson this play gives us, all of which seem to be lost this week. The first is the error of the lust for power. The Senate, fearing they are losing their collective power of privilege, decides to take it upon themselves to grab it back. And in doing so, act worse than the leader they all fear. The second, is assuming the end justifies the means, or assuming you are in the right. The conspirers are so determined to “save” the republic they assume all will agree with their actions, even if it means getting rid of a beloved emperor. The people turned on them because they miscalculate how the deed is taken by the masses. Thirdly, this play shows what happens when there is a loss of balance of power. When one part of any government becomes too strong, the other side pushes back. Julius Caesar demonstrates this cycle with no defined winners. I could do a whole post about this one topic alone, but we will skip the analysis for another day. My main point to this brief outline is to assert that this particular play is not about the assassination of a leader; rather it is an argument against the assassination of a leader. Anthony’s moving and often-cited speech, along with the death scenes of Brutus and Cassius, are proof of this claim. Anyone who tells you differently has not read the play. And here my friends, is where my ranting begins, or in the words of one of my favorite podcasts, Stuff They Don’t Want You to Know, “here is where it gets crazy”.

Last weekend Fox Faux News reported that New York’s Public Theater was hosting a play depicting the murder of Donald Trump. Clearly knowing nothing about the play, or the history of modernizing Shakespeare, the news site reported this as part of an alarming trend of how the left is disrespecting the president. How they did this straight faced is beyond my comprehension. They seemed to forget this happened to Obama in 2012, and clearly have selective amnesia when it comes remembering that many on the left put up public signs with illustrations of nooses that read “Hang in there Obama”. Where was Fox’s outrage then?

But, it gets even crazier. Last week’s Twitter hashtag game #ShakespeareSunday’s theme coincidentally was ‘Rebellion”. For those who don’t know what I may be talking about, every Sunday hundreds of people engage in a Twitter hashtag (#) game hosted by a an amazing lady (not several as noted before) with the Twitter handle, @HollowCrownFans. This game was started when the first of the BBC Hollow Crowns series aired, and we’ve been playing ever since. The rules are simple. Each week a theme is picked and players use the theme to quote Shakespeare; more often than not, accompanied by a picture that links the quote to our modern world. This is our way of demonstrating Shakespeare’s relevance to the modern world. Because last week’s them was “Rebellion”, Twitter was overrun with bard quotes and Star Wars pictures and memes.

Luke
Henry IV, Part 1 Act 5

But, because of the dumbing down of America, Trump supporters smelled a conspiracy between the players and the Public Theater. A call to boycott the hashtag rose up among them. Some even tried to warn New York taxpayers that their money was being used by a group that sought to undermine our democracy by disrespecting our president. Let me put this another way, there are some some on Twitter who think @HollowCrownFans, a private Twitter handle, is owned by unknown left leaning public entity. That’s how fucking crazy this is getting! And now, these same people are trying to connect anything from a playwright, who has been dead for over 400 years, to the anti-Trump movement. This is how insane and ignorant this is getting.

Shakespeare in the park is not only being disrupted and boycotted by Trump supporters, Delta Airline and Bank of America have pulled their support of the theater, even though the play is not a celebration of the death of a leader. Nor is it a call to assassinate the president of the United States. If anyone at Delta or B of A had bothered to see the play they’d know this.

The media is not helping. The News Week’s author, on writing about the production, admits he has not viewed the play. He quotes the director as saying “ Julius Caesar is a warning parable to those who try to fight for democracy by undemocratic means”. Yet this quote is lost on the author who ignores it and goes on to talk about how the critics have a point. No. They. Do. Not. The director, by choosing to Trump as a stand-in is warning us that, no matter who is in charge, we must always let democracy rule. How much more clearer can this message get?? Yet the author goes on to talk about his own reading and understanding of the play, but his later message is hollow because of his argument against the production of a modernized version of the play. This author claims to have taught Shakespeare, yet he is ignorant of the history of modernizing the plays and worse, shows his ignorance of why plays are often modernized. We modernize them in order to show how relevant Shakespeare’s work is even today, and historically human behavior has not changed much over time. By modernizing Shakespeare we keep him close to us and allow him to continue to teaching us many much needed lesson.

There is no doubt that America is divided today and any little spark tends to result in a firestorm. I get it. But this catering to the dumbing down of America by the media and big businesses is only adding fuel to the fires. I cannot help but laugh at those who are boycotting Shakespeare as they are allowing their own ignorance and hate to shine for all to see. Yet, by the same hand, I fear for our country, as episodes like these are further dividing our country.

No there is no big conspiracy. Shakespeare doesn’t hate Trump, #ShakespeareSunday is a just game for fans of Shakespeare to enjoy, and Julius Caesar is not a celebration of murder. Oh, and I have a new game for you. Its called, #GetoffTwitter&GoReadaBook.

As you like it or Rosalind as a role model

Pastoral play: a literary work dealing with shepherds or rural life in a usually artificial manner and typically drawing a contrast between the innocence and serenity of the simple life and the misery and corruption of city and especially court life. https://www.merriam-webster.com/dictionary/pastoral

As You Like It

Category: Comedy

Time of events: Late Middle Ages

Location: The Forest of Arden, France

First Performed: 1599-1600

Source material: Thomas Lodge’s Rosalynde, Euphues Golden Legacie, written 1586-7 and first published in 1590

Most notable mentions: The famous “seven ages of man” speech. Some of Shakespeare’s best verse speech writing.

 

The plot

Some years ago, Duke Senior was banished and usurped by his brother, Duke Frederick, and now lives in the Forest of Arden, with his noblemen. Senior’s daughter Rosalind has been allowed to remain at court with Frederick’s daughter Celia, but she incurs Frederick’s displeasure, (she is becoming more popular than he) and is banished. Celia decides to run away with her, and they leave for Arden with Rosalind disguised as a man, and accompanied by Touchstone, a clown. Rosalind changes her name to Ganymede, and Celia to Aliena (Ganymede is a youth thought to be so lovely by the gods that they allowed him to live in Olympus as their cup bearer. Aliena in Latin means foreign; to be from somewhere else).

Before they leave, Rosalind falls in love with one of the sons of Rowland De Boys—Orlando, who is ruled and hated by his elder brother, Oliver. Orlando foils Oliver’s plan to have him killed in a match against the Duke’s chief wrestler, Charles, by soundly defeating the champion.

Orlando is then advised by his servant Adam that he must leave the court and escape from his brother’s wrath so the two flee to Arden. They are starving when they encounter Duke Senior, who takes them in, delighted to discover that Orlando is the son of his old friend Sir Rowland.

Rosalind and Celia observe two shepherds, Corin and Silvius, talking, and learn of Silvius’s love for Phebe, a shepherdess. They buy pastures and herd from them, and decide to live as shepherds. Touchstone spends much time in the company of Audrey, eventually wooing her (though not by honest means). Jaques, a melancholy nobleman of Duke Senior’s company, becomes fascinated by Touchstone, and spends much time talking to him. Later in the play, Phebe falls for “Ganymede” which causes confusion between “Ganymede” and Silvius, until Rosalind reveals herself to everyone.

Orlando leaves love messages for Rosalind all over the forest, and for all to find. Both Roslind and Celia find the badly written poems, and though Roslind is madly in love with Orlando, she is able find humor in his writing. When the two girls meet Orlando again, ‘Ganymede’ persuades Orlando to treat ‘him’ as his Rosalind, so that he may practice wooing.

Frederick, believing Celia and Rosalind to have fled with Orlando, sends Oliver after his brother, threatening to take the De Boys’ lands if Oliver returns without him.

Oliver is saved from a lion, and a snake by Orlando, and the two brothers are reconciled. Oliver relates the story to the two girls, and having repented finds that Celia has fallen for him, and he for her.

As events push Rosalind to a point that she must reveal herself, she gathers everyone together so that as one they learn the truth. There is much confusion at first but like all good comedies, everyone is satisfied. Phebe agrees to marry Silvius. Rosalind is reunited with her father, and marries Orlando. Oliver marries Celia. Touchstone marries Audrey.

The third son of Sir Rowland, Jaques (yes there is a second character named Jaques), arrives to announce that Frederick had intended to invade the forest with an army, but on his way he met a religious man who converted him from his harsh ways, and he has now begun a religious life. Duke Senior is given his land and title back, allowing the characters to return to “civilization”.

You would be forgiven if the theme of court vs. country life reminds you of A Midsummer’s Night dream. Yes, Shakespeare repeats the contrasts between civilization and those who live beyond the court. As with AMSND, the actions in the forest depict a dream like quality, where people are not necessarily as they seem, and love is shown in its many forms. There is the passionate love between Orlando and Rosalind, both of whom at one time swear they will die without the other. Then there is the unrequited love Silvius has for Phebe; the lustful “love” Touchstone has for Audrey; the mature love between Oliver and Celia, and the love between family members.

This play is considered to be a pastoral comedy because Shakespeare employs the conventions of pastoral literature. The pastoral, the lost world, or forest, is set in a simple, rural environment, which becomes the idea image of all things desirable to honest people. To Touchstone, the one character that is dishonest in love, finds the setting “tolerable”. But Duke Senior, who fled a corrupt court, finds solace in the forest and agrees to return to the court knowing he can take what he learned in the forest back home. This is not unlike what happens today when we return from a life changing vacation. In fact we can look at this play as a type of vacation from everyday life. The forest gives the characters an opportunity to revaluate what and who is important to them, thus allowing them to return to court life with a fresh understanding of themselves and those around them. Yet they cannot return to the court until the corruption has been removed.

If the court is corrupt, the forest represents openness, tolerance, simplicity, and freedom. The traits of the court vs. the forest are found in the traits of those who live in the opposing settings. The court is the natural setting of Oliver and Fredrick, while the forest is the natural setting for the lovers who find themselves able to do and say that which they might never in the court. Which brings us to Rosalind and Celia; the women find not only love, but also their voices.

Much has been written about Rosalind. She is a favorite among audience and critics alike. Most “women of Shakespeare” lists find her at the top (although Beatrice is my favorite) because of her wit, self-awareness, and ability to subvert the limitations that society imposes on her as a woman. Without hesitation she disguises herself as a young man in order escape with Celia without fear of assault. She can only buy a piece of land for the cousins as a man, and as a man she tutors Orlando on the ways of love. There is great comic appeal to Rosalind appearing as a man, yet some modern female audiences members pose this question after seeing the play for the first time; “Why does Rosalind keep up the counterfeit for so long?”

The obvious answer would appear to be that in order to keep the comedy and plot going, Rosalind must continue to act the part. Yet, there is more to her disguise than appearance alone.

Shakespeare’s audience would have felt a measure of unease at the sight of a women taking charge, buying property and wooing a man. In Shakespeare’s time, the gender roles were strictly enforced and any woman acting out of her assigned role would be seen as wicked. Shakespeare is mindful of this and uses the disguise to mask her gender while allowing her boldness and intellect to shine through. But Shakespeare doesn’t completely mask her gender as some of her best lines happen when she is alone with Celia, gently reminding the audience that women can be and are witty even as they make fun of themselves.

Here is Celia trying to get Rosalind to stop talking and listen to her encounter with Orlando

Celia: Cry “holla” to thy tongue, I prithee. It curvets unseasonably. He was furnished like a hunter.

Rosalind: Oh, ominous! He comes to kill my heart.

Celia: I would sing my song without a burden. Thou bring’st me out of tune.

Rosalind: Do you not know I am a woman? When I think, I must speak. Sweet, say on.

As much as audiences love Rosalind, it is good to remember that it is Celia who makes the argument that the two must leave the court. Celia, who is not banished by her father, choses her beloved cousin over her father and easy court life. Celia is the voice of reason when Rosalind is unable to think clearly. Together they demonstrate a new kind of woman, one that would be unfamiliar to Shakespeare’s audience. Which is why she continues to play the part until forced to reveal her true identity.

We’d like to believe that this strong self-reliant woman is common in our modern world, that the lengths Rosalind has to go in order to protect herself is foreign to us. But as we know, this is not the case, and why this play, these two characters, are important to us today. They are a good case examples of why we still need Shakespeare.

Many young women today might be shocked that up until the late 70’s women were not offered credit cards, and that banks declined home loans to single women. My own mother once tried to close a store credit card account only to be told that “her husband would have to call to close it”. In the last few months we have witnessed female senators being interrupted, and in one case, told she cannot ask a question of a hearing witness. In February of this year, the Senate voted to silence Elizabeth Warren for quoting Coretta Scott King, yet her male counter-parts quote famous people all the time.

Yes, we have come a very long way from the days of strict gender roles, but the underling attitudes towards bold, decisive women have not. Strong females in the work place are labeled with words like, “bitch, cold, calculating”, while men who hold the same position are labeled “driven, hard-working, and displays strong leaderships skills”. We may not have to dress like men to buy homes or share power in a relationship, but we are painfully aware that we are mere players on a man’s stage. We need Rosalind to remind us of who we can and should be. This beloved character of Shakespeare is a wonderful role model for young women-minus the male attire.

Works Cited
Sparknotes As You Like it Plot summary

Folgers As You Like It, print edition