June 15, 2017

What Julius Caesar teaches us about tragedy in politics: Reflecting on yesterday’s shooting


Two days ago, I wrote about public outcry in response to the current production of Julius Caesar in New York’s Central Park. In the production, Julius Caesar is portrayed as a stand-in for Donald Trump, stabbed on the floor of the Roman senate. Those opposed to the production claim it encourages violence toward Trump and his political allies.

Since my post, we’ve learned that James T. Hodgkinson III, sixty-six, drove from Belleville, IL to Arlington, VA with a rifle and a handgun — with the intent, it seems, of assassinating Republican members of congress. And when he found some, he opened fire, injuring at least four.

To borrow from another Shakespearean tragedy, “give sorrow words”: I’m deeply saddened by this shooting. I’m saddened by this and all violence. It’s wrong and horrific. But I must say again that this is not what Shakespeare was after, and it is (or should be) obvious to anyone who sat through this production of Julius Caesar that violence doesn’t work.

Political expediency has terrible consequences. Cassius and Brutus stabbed an ambitious emperor, and Rome declined for hundreds of years thereafter. It was the end of Roman republicanism. Even Cicero, who supported Caesar’s assassination but did not participate, wrote that “expediency… must be measured by the standard of moral rectitude.”

Said another way, a quick solution should be evaluated by its own goodness or evil.

It’s this very principal that people naturally react to when watching Julius Caesar and witnessing the violence yesterday. If you’ve ever been unsure, look at how quickly Congress came together to mourn Hodgkinson’s shooting of the congressional baseball practice. Look at how, for the most part, social media outpourings condemned the violence.

In the play, Cassius and Brutus abandon their integrity for a quick fix. Mark Anthony’s simple repetition of phrases proclaiming Brutus’s and Cassius’s honor—“So are they all, all honourable men”—emphasizes how much honor they lose by being violently possessed. No one needs to tell the crowd that Brutus has been dishonored, but by hearing the question of his honor brought up, the mobs of Rome quickly come to the conclusion that Brutus is a villain. Anarchy besets Rome.

In the aftermath of the shooting, some political blowhards have tweeted about the Central Park production. Those blowhards have been retweeted by others, including Donald Jr. So in short, I humbly request that people who don’t want to engage in the scholarship necessary to understand Shakespeare confer onto the public (probably via Twitter) sympathies and words of sorrow only. If you say otherwise, you risk sounding and looking as foolish as Brutus:

Set honour in one eye and death i’ the other,
And I will look on both indifferently,
For let the gods so speed me as I love
The name of honour more than I fear death.

There is nothing virtuous about murder. It is perhaps Brutus’s hamartia to believe his honor more important than life and peace. And so Shakespeare is still trying to teach us four hundred years later.



Peter Clark is a former Melville House sales manager.