On the Ides of March last year, I explored the rhetoric of what is possibly my favorite speech in all of Shakespeare: Antony’s funeral eulogy for Caesar, in which he whips the plebeians into a murderous frenzy. As I was last year, I remain a little in awe of the strange cultural phenomenon surrounding this day. Quotes from Plutarch and Shakespeare are everywhere — and I wonder how many people are consciously aware of whom they’re quoting, or if those phrases have so permeated our world that they’ve detached entirely from their original context.
I make my living now with my head in the early modern era, but I’ve always kept one foot trailing in the classics, particularly in this fascinating period where the Republic crashed and metamorphosed into the Empire. Fortunately, Shakespeare gives me fertile territory on which to indulge both of my historical obsessions. And I’m not alone — those of us in the Shakespeare world seize on the opportunity that this cultural awareness provides (carpe occasionem?). Twitter is full of our enthusiasm today, and a video on Pursued by a Bear explores the play’s place in the common consciousness as well as providing an interesting analysis the dearth of really good productions of the show.
This year, I thought I’d take a look at a particularly interesting staging moment which precedes the great speech I explored last year: when Antony greets the conspirators just after Caesar’s murder. Two of the most visually striking moments in Julius Caesar are Caesar’s assassination and the subsequent decision of the conspirators to wash their hands in the corpse’s blood. This scene can pack quite a bit of power — especially in a theatre like the Blackfriars Playhouse, where the actors share light with the audience — but it also lends itself to quite a bit of mess. Blood is something that actors and production companies have to negotiate with, deciding how much to use, what kind to use, where to hide blood packets, whether or not it can get on clothing (and if so, how to get it out; if not, how to keep that from happening). Often, productions choose to stylize the blood in this scene, for those very practical reasons. I will always champion the use of live blood, however, because of what happens later in the scene.
Where is Antony?TREBONIUS
Fled to his house amaz’d:
Men, wives, and children stare, cry out, and run,
As it were doomsday.
Fates, we will know your pleasures:
That we shall die, we know; ’tis but the time
And drawing days out, that men stand upon.
Why, he that cuts off twenty years of life,
Cuts off so many years of fearing death.
Grant that, and then is death a benefit:
So are we Caesar’s friends, that have abridged
His time of fearing death. Stoop, Romans, stoop,
And let us bathe our hands in Caesar’s blood
Up to the elbows, and besmear our swords:
Then walk we forth, even to the marketplace,
And, waving our red weapons o’er our heads,
Let’s all cry ‘Peace, freedom and liberty.’
Stoop, then, and wash. How many ages hence
Shall this our lofty scene be acted over
In states unborn and accents yet unknown?
How many times shall Caesar bleed in sport,
That now on Pompey’s basis lies along,
No worthier than the dust?
So oft as that shall be,
So often shall the knot of us be call’d
The men that gave their country liberty.
First of all, this is weird. There is just no getting around that this is a really strange thing to do with someone you’ve just killed. This is not a bit of a historical culture, not something Romans just did when they killed someone. To me, it reads as Brutus coming a little unhinged. Then, think about how deep you would have to plunge your hands into a dagger wound — likely a puncture far more than a rending gash — to get up to the elbow in blood. It’s pretty gruesome, and I think that the more real and visceral the blood appears, the more the audience is going to feel the grotesque aspect of the scene, rather than dismissing it as, “Oh, a thing people just did back then.” Live blood also gives the other actors a lot to work with — physically as well as figuratively — in terms of how much they are on board with Brutus or not. If at least a couple of the conspirators are visibly uncomfortable with smearing themselves up to the elbow in blood, that also transmits some important information to the audience.
Secondly, it’s ambiguous whether or not Trebonius washes his hands in blood along with the rest of the conspirators. He’s on stage at this point, but as someone who did not actually take part in the stabbing, I think there’s justification for not having him join in the literal bloodbath. You could certainly choose to have him wash in blood at this point, but I think there’s more money in having him hold back, because of what happens when Antony — whom Trebonius detained outside the Senate, whom he kept from coming to Caesar’s aid — enters.
But here comes Antony:
Welcome, Mark Antony.
O mighty Caesar! Dost thou lie so low?
Are all thy conquests, glories, triumphs, spoils,
Shrunk to this little measure? Fare thee well.
I know not, gentlemen, what you intend,
Who else must be let blood, who else is rank:
If I myself, there is no hour so fit
As Caesar’s death hour, nor no instrument
Of half that worth as those your swords, made rich
With the most noble blood of all this world.
I do beseech ye, if you bear me hard,
Now, whilst your purpled hands do reek and smoke,
Fulfil your pleasure. Live a thousand years,
I shall not find myself so apt to die:
No place will please me so, no mean of death,
As here by Caesar, and by you cut off,
The choice and master spirits of this age.
O Antony! Beg not your death of us.
Though now we must appear bloody and cruel,
As by our hands, and this our present act
You see we do: yet see you but our hands
And this the bleeding business they have done:
Our hearts you see not; they are pitiful:
And pity to the general wrong of Rome,
As fire drives out fire, so pity, pity
Hath done this deed on Caesar. For your part,
To you our swords have leaden points, Mark Antony:
Our arms in strength of malice, and our hearts
Of brothers’ temper, do receive you in,
With all kind love, good thoughts, and reverence.
Your voice shall be as strong as any man’s
In the disposing of new dignities.
Only be patient till we have appeased
The multitude, beside themselves with fear,
And then, we will deliver you the cause,
Why I, that did love Caesar when I struck him,
Have thus proceeded.
I doubt not of your wisdom:
Let each man render me his bloody hand:
First, Marcus Brutus, will I shake with you;
Next, Caius Cassius, do I take your hand;
Now Decius Brutus, yours: now yours, Metellus;
Yours, Cinna; and my valiant Casca, yours;
Though last, not least in love, yours, good Trebonius.
Gentlemen all: Alas, what shall I say?
Antony comes in and shakes each man’s bloody hand, one by one, and as he names them, it’s hard to feel that he’s doing anything other than marking them down for retribution. And then, at last, he comes to Trebonius, who did not stab Caesar himself, but who was nonetheless instrumental to the plot, the means by which Antony was not there to defend his friend. So if Antony has just shaken six other bloody hands, his own would be quite smeared with blood by this point — which he then transfers to Trebonius. If his hands have been clean till that point, Antony’s gesture makes a powerful statement: Trebonius is, in his eyes, every bit as guilty, every bit as culpable, and Antony is every bit as determined to take him down. So, while you could have Trebonius engage in the blood-smearing earlier on, I think you get greater payoff from saving it for this moment.
An exploration of this and other staging challenges in Julius Caesar can be found in our Study Guide — and the play will be part of the 2013 Actors’ Renaissance Season. I’m going to be serving as dramaturg for that production, so I’m sure next March 15th, I’ll have something new to share. Until then, cavite idus Martii, everyone!