What fools these mor­tals be!

A teach­ing mo­ment is lost when Shake­speare is re­duced to rant

The Washington Times Daily - - COMMENTARY - By Suzanne Fields Suzanne Fields is a colum­nist for The Wash­ing­ton Times and is na­tion­ally syn­di­cated.

Julius Cae­sar is dead. (Again). Long live “Julius Cae­sar.” Whether the fa­mous dead Ro­man is a look-alike for Don­ald Trump, with a blond comb-over and a long red tie, a cool black dude in a tai­lored suit sug­gest­ing Barack Obama, or a 1930s Or­son Welles with a Sam Browne belt re­sem­bling Ben­ito Mus­solini, the char­ac­ter has cap­tured the imag­i­na­tion of pub­lic and play­ers since Shake­speare wrote it more than four cen­turies ago. The spec­ta­cle changes with fresh cos­tumes and new sets to em­pha­size con­tem­po­rary is­sues for spe­cific au­di­ences, but the words con­tinue to plumb psy­cho­log­i­cal depth and mea­sure hu­man in­sight no mat­ter where and when it’s played, or who plays it.

More’s the pity that the furor over the fleet­ing pro­duc­tion of “Julius Cae­sar” in New York’s Cen­tral Park draws most of the pub­lic at­ten­tion to cur­rent pol­i­tics, and misses an op­por­tu­nity to ex­pand ap­pre­ci­a­tion for the Bard’s lan­guage and his bril­liant char­ac­ter stud­ies, en­livened by many points of view.

To re­phrase and ex­pand the words of Ham­let, “the play’s the thing.” The words can prick the con­science of a king or a sub­ject, a pres­i­dent or a voter, even a di­rec­tor and an au­di­ence. They can ac­ti­vate emo­tions, broaden the power of the brain and deepen un­der­stand­ing, but it’s im­por­tant not to al­low them to nar­row the fo­cus to con­tem­po­rary an­i­mosi­ties. That only re­in­forces prej­u­dice, and doesn’t sharpen in­sight.

With a me­dia, so­cial and oth­er­wise, ob­sessed with po­lar­iz­ing ha­treds, we miss an­other op­por­tu­nity to stretch the mind.

In all the bit­ter protests and de­fenses of the sum­mer’s pro­duc­tion of “Cae­sar” in the park, it’s a good bet that few of the fren­zied opin­ion­a­tors have ever ac­tu­ally read or watched the whole play. “Julius Cae­sar” was once a sta­ple of high-school English classes, but a limited, in­for­mal sur­vey sug­gests that few grad­u­ate from high school or even col­lege hav­ing read it. A for­mal sur­vey sup­ports my spec­u­la­tion that teach­ing Shake­speare is in dra­matic de­cline.

The Amer­i­can Coun­cil of Trus­tees and Alumni (ACTA) a non­profit aca­demic watch­dog for tra­di­tional ed­u­ca­tional stan­dards, found two years ago that only 4 of the na­tion’s 52 high­est-ranked uni­ver­si­ties and col­leges have a Shake­speare re­quire­ment, and only 8 per­cent of the top uni­ver­si­ties re­quire even English ma­jors to take a course in Shake­speare. Since many of these English ma­jors be­come English teach­ers, it’s not likely they will teach what they haven’t stud­ied. They prob­a­bly wouldn’t rec­og­nize the ti­tle of the ACTA re­port as taken from “Julius Cae­sar”: “The Unkind­est Cut: Shake­speare in Ex­ile in 2015.”

Lit­er­ary crit­i­cism suf­fers on the con­tem­po­rary cam­pus be­cause there’s so much em­pha­sis on race, class, gen­der and sex­u­al­ity. Re­quire­ments are re­duced for the study of Shake­speare’s plays, and they’re ex­pand­ing for “non-canon­i­cal tra­di­tions,” giv­ing equal weight to other forms of ex­pres­sion.

Af­ter the ACTA re­port en­cour­aged a se­ri­ous dis­cus­sion of the need to “brush up your Shake­speare,” an in­ner-city teacher at a high school in Sacra­mento wrote in The Wash­ing­ton Post that she does not think she is “cheat­ing” her stu­dents by not teach­ing Shake­speare. “I do not be­lieve that a long-dead Bri­tish guy is the only writer who can teach my stu­dents about the hu­man con­di­tion,” wrote Dana Dus­biber, cap­tur­ing multi-culti zeal. “So I ask, why not teach the oral tra­di­tion out of Africa, which in­cludes an equally rel­e­vant com­men­tary on hu­man be­hav­ior?”

This could be taken as satire if she were not so earnest in her lit­er­ary equiv­a­lency ar­gu­ment, but it’s a sad ex­am­ple of the think­ing that in­fects ed­u­ca­tion across a broad spec­trum of both think­ing and ge­og­ra­phy. Writ­ers of the ACTA re­port couldn’t re­sist ap­ply­ing an­other quo­ta­tion from Ham­let, “O! what a no­ble mind is here o’erthrown.”

One rea­son “Julius Cae­sar” be­came a sta­ple for stu­dents in high school was that the lan­guage is straight­for­ward, more rhetor­i­cal than po­etic, il­lus­trat­ing the power of sim­plic­ity with dozens of well-cho­sen mono­syl­labic words, as in, for ex­am­ple: “Lend me your ears.” At the same time, the drama en­gages a va­ri­ety of com­plex points of view, of­fer­ing sub­stan­tial red meat for teenagers to de­bate so­cial and psy­cho­log­i­cal mo­tives, and to see how dif­fi­cult it is to un­tan­gle prin­ci­ple from pas­sion, per­sonal emo­tion from po­lit­i­cal mo­tive, naive ac­tion from harm­ful con­se­quence.

The sim­plis­tic rhetoric of the con­spir­a­tors bathing their hands in the blood of the dead Cae­sar, and cry­ing, “Peace, free­dom and lib­erty!” is not so glibly ex­pe­ri­enced when Mark Anthony shakes those bloody hands, and the sym­bol­ism runs onto his flesh with the real blood of a mur­dered hu­man be­ing.

When so­cial me­dia po­lar­ized the sum­mer’s pro­duc­tion of “Julius Cae­sar,” an­other Shake­spearean in­sight was lost, an in­sight that might ap­ply to those who ar­gue from their own nar­row con­vic­tions, and not from the play: “The fault, dear Bru­tus, is not in our stars, But in our­selves.”


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