After two weeks of trying to fit a viewing of the 1953 Julius Caesar film starring James Mason, John Gielgud, and Marlon Brando into our schedule, we finally succeeded. Even for homeschoolers, finding a two-hour block of time at home can be very difficult. We finally settled for twenty minutes on a Monday afternoon, forty minutes the same evening, and a panicked hour on Tuesday afternoon, just before our iTunes rental expired.
First, a comment about the HD version: wow. Mom, who was once a professional photographer with a focus on fine art and film photography, thought she would hate the look of the black and white film converted to HD. Nope. It was gorgeous.
Second, compared to other Shakespeare films we have seen, it was very easy to follow. We discussed this afterwards; was it easy to follow because of editing? Because we had just read an abridged student version of the play and had discussed it at length before watching? Or perhaps, was it just a more straightforward, elegantly written script, with the major events following a trajectory that our 21st century mindset could easily digest? It might have been due to all three of these, but we were surprised (after grappling with some of the historical plays on PBS’s The Hollow Crown) to find the story so easy to follow, and the speeches relatively easy to understand.
But on to our exam question: who is the protagonist of Julius Caesar? Is it Caesar? or Brutus? and why?
Both girls voted for Brutus. In their essays, both stated that Caesar died in the middle of the play, and therefore really couldn’t fulfill what they viewed as the main job of the protagonist, which is to carry the plot through to the end. However, they also felt that Caesar was a difficult character to either like or sympathize with, and both girls asserted that a protagonist must be someone that the audience can relate to in some fashion, or at least empathize with.
We sat back for a moment and tried to think of a story with a despicable or otherwise completely unsympathetic protagonist, and came up empty-handed.
Going back to the movie, all of us agreed early on that Cassius, the man most responsible for Caesar’s assassination, had some of the best speeches in the early parts of the play. Brutus spent most of his time brooding. As far as moving the plot along, Brutus didn’t do much. In that sense, he was failing the classic requirement that a protagonist move the plot along. Cassius did a lot more in that department, but did not pass the test for likability. In fact, Shakespeare comes close to making Cassius a cut-out character, in the sense that he is almost a caricature of a rabble-rouser. But it was actually Cassius who plotted to murder Caesar, gathered supporters, convinced Brutus, and made the plan a reality. This would give him protagonist status except that he is so dislikable, it isn’t possible to elevate him above Brutus. Brutus, however, is almost boring. He spends most of the movie being “good” but doing very little. In fact, the girls pointed out that Brutus makes some dumb decisions over the course of the play while Cassius generally makes wise recommendations, which are ignored. How strange that Brutus, the supposed protagonist, does very little and makes some dumb mistakes!
And speaking of a caricature, Mark Antony, aside from the famous “Friends, Romans, countrymen” speech, spends most of the play looking handsome and confident, but doing little to advance the plot.
In the end, we concluded that far from giving us an action-adventure play, Shakespeare is actually showing us the tragedy of how politics really works. My girls found themselves doubting Mark Antony’s sincerity during his famous funeral speech. Later on, his smirking confidence seemed to confirm their suspicions. The fact that Cassius, the hot-tempered rabble-rouser, seemed to consistently offer good advice that was ignored, seemed tragic and all too plausible. And Brutus, the “good” man, spent far too much time brooding over justice, and wasn’t careful enough when he chose his friends. The point of the play, it seems, is that at the end of the play, no one is better off, no matter how much effort was expended in an effort to preserve liberty in Rome.