Julius Caesar is one of Shakespeare’s best-known and most-loved plays. For well over a hundred years, schoolchildren the world over have been exposed to its story and language in the classroom, and as a result it contains some of Shakespeare’s most famous lines. Who knows how many people—living and dead—have at one point in their lives committed to memory Mark Antony’s address to the crowds in the forum: “Friends, Romans, Countrymen. Lend me your ears!”
But no matter how much we might take the play for granted today as a “classic,” or a piece of “high culture,” the histories of people reading, performing, and witnessing Julius Caesar are surprisingly diverse, and contain some unexpected details.
The first evidence we have for Julius Caesar in performance comes from the diary of Thomas Platter, a Swiss tourist travelling in England in 1599. On 21st September, he describes going to a playhouse in London (perhaps the Globe) and seeing 'the tragedy of the first Emperor Julius with at least 15 characters very well acted.'
Danced a jig
But the next detail he records tells us something unexpected about what was considered “normal” practice in the Shakespearean theatre. After the play’s conclusion, four of the actors reappeared on stage, shed the historical roles they had inhabited for the past two hours, and danced a jig for the audience.
Records of theatre companies acting Julius Caesar for the next 40 years are sparse. However, after the re-opening of the London theatres following the Restoration of Charles II in 1660, the play entered the regular repertory and has been performed frequently ever since.
Some of the most notable cast members have included the actor and theatre manager Thomas Betterton (Brutus at the Theatre Royal, 1684), Thomas Sheridan, father of the novelist Richard Sheridan (Brutus, Haymarket, 1769), and the famous Regency actor and producer John Philip Kemble (Brutus, Covent Garden, 1814).
Julius Caesar’s popularity in the nineteenth- and early twentieth-century theatre, both in Europe and America, all but guaranteed that it would cross over into the medium of film and television. Although the 1953 MGM production, starring John Gielgud as Cassius, James Mason as Brutus, and Marlon Brando as Mark Antony, is probably the best-known, there have been many others.
The BBC alone has made nine full television versions of the play, the first as early as 1938, only two years after the first commercial television broadcast in the UK.
John Wyver, producer of the 2012 RSC/Illuminations Julius Caesar, has done a considerable amount of research into that first production, and has recently described his findings on the Screen Plays blog. His other reviews of the early BBC Julius Caesar productions in the United Kingdom, accessed via the British Universities Film and Video Council’s Shakespeare Archive, provide a vivid insight into the richness of the play’s history of engagements with the medium of television.
Some of the most personal and vivid encounters with Julius Caesar, however, have occurred on the page rather than the stage. In 1854, while she was honeymooning in Germany, the novelist George Eliot stayed up one evening listening to her partner, George Henry Lewes, read from the play. George 'read Julius Caesar aloud as far as far as Caesar’s appearance in the senate house', she recorded in her diary. 'Very much struck with the masculine style of this play and its vigorous moderation,' she concluded.
The poet Edward Thomas took a volume of Shakespeare with him when he went on active service with the Royal Artillery in World War I. Sitting up late one night in his dugout near Arras, he wrote to his wife, Helen, describing the eerie quiet of the front as midnight approached: 'So far there has only been a distant roll [of enemy artillery fire] now and then as I sat reading Julius Caesar, warm in front because of the fire, cold behind because of a door leading up into the street.' Three weeks later, he was killed when a German shell passed close enough to him for its shockwave to stop his heart.
Some of the most intensive—and politically significant—interactions with a copy of Julius Caesar on record, however, occurred in Africa. Members of the African National Congress, imprisoned on Robben Island by South Africa’s Apartheid regime, circulated among themselves a disguised copy of Shakespeare’s Works, which eventually became known as the 'Robben Island Bible.'
'Robben Island Bible'
Members annotated and signed their favourite passages, the greatest density of which occurs in the margins of Julius Caesar. Nelson Mandela, for instance, marked Caesar’s lines, 'Cowards die many times before their deaths … death, a necessary end, will come when it will come,' leaving his signature and the date—16 December 1979—beside them.
The 'Robben Island Bible' will be on display at the British Museum from July 2012 as part of the forthcoming exhibition 'Shakespeare: Staging the World'. This unique copy of Shakespeare was among the motive forces that led director Gregory Doran to stage Julius Caesar using African actors in an African setting for the 2012 RSC production.
Perhaps the last word should go to Doran, who traces the complex history of the play’s reception in Africa and explains its influence on his own production: 'One of the inspirations behind setting Julius Caesar in Africa was discovering the Robben Island Shakespeare and that Nelson Mandela had chosen to autograph lines from the play, asserting that it spoke in a particular way to his continent … The actor John Kani put it most succinctly when he told me that Julius Caesar was quite simply “Shakespeare’s African play”'.