If you would consider the true cause

A message from the director

My day job is taking shortened versions of Shakespeare’s plays to high schools around Victoria, as an aid to education and an introduction for secondary students to Shakespeare’s words in performance. Yes, I get paid to do this. Yes, my job is pretty excellent.

One of the greatest parts of the job is that after every show we spend around half an hour taking questions from the students about the work that we do – sometimes about acting, sometimes about Shakespeare. Sometimes about whether it’s awkward to kiss another man. We play Romeo and Juliet traditionally.

One of the most common questions is – Why is Shakespeare still important? Why do the stories told in London 400 years ago matter?

Now that’s an easy one.

Leaving aside the exceptional vocabulary, the unparalleled poetry, the matchless invention and incredible depth of imagery – which in itself is enough to qualify Shakespeare as the greatest dramatist the English language has ever seen – his stories are of that very special brand of theatre that tell us, not just a story, but a little more about who we are.

They describe the human condition.

Romeo & Juliet describes love in its’ many forms; Macbeth is a portrait of the dark potential in every person, as well as an exceptional description of madness by modern psychiatric standards; Hamlet quite potently shows us what grief is; and Julius Caesar depicts a government of uncertainty, instability and betrayal.

These are situations we recognise.

The text comments on our contemporary political events through an innate understanding of how humans work with and respond to power. The carefully drawn relationships reveal several perspectives of political life and the dangers of each course of thought – the moral opposed to the corruptible; the brutish and the meek weighed against each other.

These comparisons pose an interesting question – who is the villain of the piece? And who is the hero? We could claim that, seeing as the play is named after him, Julius Caesar is the protagonist. Except that (SPOILERS) he dies halfway through and his play continues almost without him in it.

Cassius, Brutus, Antony – the narrative follows all these men, and we could paint all three as heroes or villains. They embody the best and the worst of mankind in their working towards the betterment of Rome, but none are entirely appealing or abhorrent. It seems that political life can lead to questionable courses of action to attain your goals.

These are men that we should recognise.

Less obvious in the text, but just as present, is a comment on the power of ideology. It is words that change the Roman world, words that sway the populace and words that cause leaders to rise and fall. Words were the weapons of Shakespeare’s stage – they always were and always will be mightier than swords.

And once the words are out there, you can’t pull them back.

Our recent election was won by words, true and false. Democracy is about shaping the words to our will and using them against our opposition. But when the words are disconnected from the cause – when the clever use of words is more important than why we use them – our moral aims are tarnished.

As Brutus muses, the abuse of greatness is when it disjoins remorse from power.

All our characters act for the good of Rome, as we hope all our politicians work for the good of Australia, but in both cases there is danger in the corrupting allure of power and the abuse of greatness. And if both our leaders and our opposition are using their clever words to gain power without nobler cause, who do we follow?

Our Julius Caesar seeks not to tell you what has happened to our politicians, rather we hope to discover who our politicians truly are – and more importantly, why we should pay close attention to the way they wield their words.

For we are at the stake,
And bay’d about with many enemies;
And some that smile have in their hearts, I fear,
Millions of mischiefs.

Julius Ceasar

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