Friday, June 18, 2004

Transmitting our historical legacy

Shakespeare's play "Julius Caesar" is presently being performed in Kansas City and their theater critic, Robert Trussell, made some interesting observations about the importance of Shakespeare’s play in transmitting knowledge of the Roman Empire to successive generations:

"Funny thing about Americans. We may not know jack about history, but we've all heard of Julius Caesar.

He has impressed himself on us in movies, plays, comic books, children's literature and endless number of biographies. Photographs of his marble bust have been published around the world.

He has been played by famous actors on stage, in movies and on television. The self-mythologizing would-be ruler of Rome is as famous a name as Nero and Caligula, younger relatives who ruled Rome after Julius slept soundly with the fishes.

But this might not have been the case had a handful of ancient writings, particularly Plutarch's parallel lives of the ancient Greeks and Romans, failed to survive. Or if Sir Thomas North had not translated Plutarch into English. Or if somehow Willie Shakespeare had not gotten around to reading North's translation. Because, friends, whether we're talking about big fat movies or long tedious miniseries or scholarly novels or simplified histories or comic strips, most of what we think we know about the Roman Republic comes from Plutarch through Shakespeare."

He also mentions his first exposure to Shakespeare’s play was in the form of a parody by comedian Brother Dave Gardner:

"On his RCA album Rejoice, Dear Hearts, he delivered his own warped impression of Joseph L. Mankiewicz's 1953 film version of Shakespeare's play with John Gielgud, Marlon Brando and James Mason.

"This is the true story of Julius Caesar if it were presented by the Down Home Players," Brother Dave enunciated in his unique Southern patois. "Now the mighty Caesar have returned from a quail-huntin' trip down in South Carolina and on his arm is Mark Antony...and Mark Antony speaks to the might' Caesar in his fluent Roman Italian voice and he say, 'Hey, Julius.' "

In 15 minutes of verbal gags and trippy digressions Brother Dave offered a fairly accurate summary of the first part of the play, paraphrasing Shakespeare at will.

"Let me have me them fat sleek-headed cats that sleeps all the time and eats all the time and don't never think about nothin'," Brother Dave's Caesar tells Antony, later expressing his distrust of Cassius: "He nibbles them No-Doze and drinkin' that Air Wick and sits in that little house away from the house and meditates. Oh, he thinks too much. He 'bout half-smart."

I guess if a work is skewed this much and still instigates an interest in the real history, we shouldn’t be too critical of Hollywood’s recent efforts!

- Libitina
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