NICK EICHER, HOST: Today is Tuesday, September 1st. You’re listening to WORLD Radio and we’re so glad you are! Good morning. I’m Nick Eicher.
MARY REICHARD, HOST: And I’m Mary Reichard. Well, it’s the first Tuesday of the month and that means it’s time for our Classic Book of the Month!
And for that, Emily Whitten joins us.
Good morning, Emily!
EMILY WHITTEN, GUEST: Hi, Mary!
REICHARD: What book would you like to talk about today, Emily?
WHITTEN: Well, with Election Day just around the corner, I thought we could take a look at William Shakespeare’s Julius Caesar. It’s a fairly short, five act play, but it offers a lot of insight about politics, human corruption, and what makes someone a good leader.
REICHARD: Enduring traits of the human condition, then. Sounds good.
WHITTEN: One note, this was the first of Shakespeare’s plays ever performed at the Globe Theater in 1599. Any guesses, Mary, what a play named Julius Caesar might be about?
REICHARD: I’ll go out on a limb and say, Julius Caesar, the Roman emperor. Final answer.
WHITTEN: Obviously, in some ways that’s true. Spoiler alert here. The play does revolve around the death of Julius Caesar, which happens at the center of the story in Act Three. But many argue Caesar’s good friend, Brutus, steals the show.
REICHARD: Et tu, Brute?
WHITTEN: That’s the guy. Here’s how actor Brian Cox introduced the play in the PBS program, Shakespeare Uncovered:
BRIAN COX: The scale is epic but the play is intimate, and it hinges on a decision that one of them must make, and that decision is Brutus’s. Should he kill Caesar? Should he kill his friend?
Mary, the first act opens with Julius Caesar returned from battle and set to become Rome’s first emperor. But of course, Rome had had elected officials and representative government for about 500 years prior to this. So some senators recruit Brutus to help them resist Caesar and save their country. In Act Three, the senators kill Caesar, but this doesn’t stop the push toward dictatorship. Eventually, a civil war leaves Brutus dead, and those left in charge, including Caesar’s protege, Mark Antony, go on to establish a tyrannical Roman empire. It will last about 500 years.
REICHARD: I guess that’s why they call it a tragedy.
WHITTEN: Exactly. Although, it’s not a total downer. The cautionary tale can benefit us in many ways today.
REICHARD: Why is that?
WHITTEN: For one thing, the play can teach us a lot about what dictators sound like. If we go back to the moment just after Caesar’s death, we hear two speeches that attempt to frame the killing. Brutus says he loved Caesar, but slew him because he loved freedom more. Mark Antony, then follows. Here’s a film version of how Antony’s speech begins. It’s produced by the Royal Shakespeare Company and set in West Africa:
ROYAL SHAKESPEARE COMPANY: Friends, Romans, countrymen, lend me your ears, I come to bury Caesar, not to praise him….
Paul Cantor is literature professor at the University of Virginia. He hosts a Shakespeare and Politics YouTube channel. In this lecture on Julius Caesar, Cantor summarizes the speeches by Brutus and Mark Antony:
CANTOR: Brutus’s speech is the last gasp of the Republic. He appeals to reason, he appeals to the public good of Rome. Antony goes straight for the jugular. You’re each getting 75 drachmas and the use of Caesar’s park. What’s in it for you? And of course, it’s a tremendously emotional speech. He bears Caesar’s wounds in a really shameful way.
By accepting Antony’s offer, the Roman people essentially give up their rights as citizens. Soon, we see the results. Antony and his cohorts list the political enemies they plan to murder. The pro-Caesar mob kills an innocent poet, Cinna, because he shares the same name as one of the conspirators. Here’s Cantor again:
CANTOR: It really, it looks ahead to the French Revolution, to Soviet Communism, to all the show trials of the 20th century. To the idea that anyone who thinks differently in the community will just be killed when he can’t stand up to the inquisition.
So, it’s kind of cancel culture on steroids, Mary.
REICHARD: I see the connection to today, for sure. Quite relevant. Emily, I wonder if you have any advice for Christians who pick up the book for the first time. Where should they start?
WHITTEN: I definitely recommend watching a video version of the play. You could also watch an introduction, like the Shakespeare Uncovered episode we mentioned. If you have young kids at home, you could read aloud great versions by Marcia Williams or Charles and Mary Lamb. You’re less likely to get lost in archaic language if you know the plot.
One final point if I may, Mary.
REICHARD: Of course.
WHITTEN: Leading up to the election, I plan to cover more insightful books on government and leadership, including Leadership as an Identity by Crawford Loritts. Here’s Loritts speaking at a conference in 2011:
LORITTS: As a pastor and a guy involved in Christian leadership for years, I mentor a lot of younger dudes. I spend so much time deprogramming them about these crazy expectations. Everybody is chasing down a platform when they ought to be chasing down Jesus.
I bring Loritts in here to point out that Caesar, Brutus, and Mark Antony all fail to be the leader Rome needs. They seek human goals by purely human means. And that proves disastrous.
Ultimately, Julius Caesar reminds us that every human government will come to an end someday. So, yeah, let’s avoid the mistakes of the past if we can, let’s seek the good of Rome, but let’s seek “first the kingdom of God and His righteousness….” That’s where our hope lies.
REICHARD: Thank you for the recommendation today, Emily.
WHITTEN: You’re very welcome, Mary. Happy reading!
REICHARD: For August, Emily recommended Julius Caesar by William Shakespeare. For more classic book ideas, just search for Classic Book of the Month at worldandeverything.org.