Shakespeare is the master. I’m not much of a reader, never have been, but he is my all time favourite writer and one I return to time and time again. Proclaiming the bard as your favourite literary figure is hardly a revelation but it’s not just his eliquant way with words or his many powerful tales of heart churning trajedgy or blood boiling violence which I love so much. What, in my opinion, make him the master is his undeniable and ingenious manipulation of us the audience. To understand his writings you have to see them, not read them and his, some may say, cynical manipulation of those watching becomes apparent but only if you look and listen closely.
I love his words, I love and admire greatly anyone who can say so much in so few a words. I love his deep meaning and dirty, complex view of the world. His stories of violent betrayal, savage retribution and the inevitable mind bending regret must have seemed as fresh and twist ridden to the Elizabethan era, as a Tarantino tale seemed to movie goers of the 90’s. Long drawn out self ponderings on suicide, mental breakdowns, murder, cross dressing and fantasy lands, which would make Tim Burton’s seem mundane, would all be controversial or shocking now but these are not his greatest legacy or literary strength. It is only when you see his plays you realise his genius, I learnt some of his best monologues, I watched some of his best movie adaptations but it wasn’t until I went to see his plays that I saw a different angle to his works.
Beneath many of his plays is a hidden game happening, either pointing the audience to an unspoken truth more related to the age in which the play is written, or on occasions playing games with the audience themselves. Some of his plays have hidden messages as relevant today as in the 1600’s. One of my favourite for this manipulation is Julius Caesar. For those unfamiliar with the twists of this particular historical tale, in simplistic terms Caesar is betrayed by those around him and is assassinated before, one of his now mournful killers, allows Mark Anthony to speak. In his rhetoric filled “Friends, Romans, countrymen, lend me your ears” speech he incites the crowds to turn on their would be liberators. There are many messages to the audience that can and have been seen in the play. Caesars failure to listen to the “beware the ides of March” speech may tell those in power to ignore the commoner at their peril. Caesars manipulation by his wife and then friend Mark Anthony may even suggest that those in power are still only humans and still fallible. A controversial message in the reign of Elizabeth I but no doubt the final blood soaked end, for those attempting to alter the natural order, may have reduced any offence taken by the then queen. Shakespeare likes making statements but for me his biggest statement of the story is how easy the crowd, and not just the one in the play, can be manipulated by smart words and clever management of a scene. Throughout the play we rarely see Caesar and instead only hear of his actions thus allowing us, as the audience, to only see him through the eyes of others. There is no reason why Shakespeare could not have shown us these scenes on stage but this would allow the audience to form its own opinion of Caesar. Instead it is important that we the audience agree with the assassins, their arguments of it being for the good of Rome must hold fast with no doubt in our minds. Remember those watching would not have known the outcome of the play and at the moment Caesar is killed it is important for us the audience to rejoice. Marcus Brutus is an important character as he is our moral compass, he fights with his own love of Caesar to do what is needed for Rome. We see this turmoil and must be left in no doubt that if even Brutus will pierce his flesh, for country and his people, then it is an act that must have happened. We the audience must be a part of that act, we must agree and be eager to see it through. I imagine Shakespeare wanted cheers as the words “then fall, Caeser” were spoken by the man himself in his final moments of life.
Now Shakespeare, having taken us with his players, turns the knife on them and us. Mark Anthony uses rhetoric to not only turn the crowd on stage but to turn us the audience. He uses phrases like “honourable men” in growing disdain as the speech progresses as if forcing this fact down our throats until we gag on it. He tells stories of the same moments we only heard of through others earlier in the play but now spun with different light. He uses every one of Caesars weaknesses, the same weaknesses that made us cheer at his death, to make him seem human and thus wronged by his premature mortality. Mark Anthony never aims his visible manipulation at us the audience instead at our mirror image on stage and he makes us blame the assassins rather than ourselves to allow us an escape from our own shortcomings. I think Shakespeare meant more than anything else for this play to prove his power of manipulation over us and us alone. He wants to show how easy he can have us baying for blood and how easily he can turn our lust on anyone he chooses.
In an era before “media” influence, the power of speech was almighty and as in so many of his plays, above his words or stories, his powerful manipulation and spin of us, the crowd, make him a master of his art. Was he simply flexing his literary muscles and indulging in his own power or trying to make a moral statement? We will never know but his art form and the messages it teaches us are as relevant today as they have ever been.
I love looking at it like a “game” as you say. I love teaching it to my students that way as well. It’s just so interesting. Also, insulting in Shakespearian – always a hit. : ) Great blog!