Hello again from your pal Louis Butelli, currently playing Cassius in Folger Theatre’s Julius Caesar. We’re in the home stretch: we must close on December 7. Come on down and see us!
One of the fascinating things about performing in a long run of a play
by William Shakespeare is the way the play continues to unfold over time. Living with such rich and complex language yields new discoveries; I’ve been consistently surprised by Julius Caesar, and how it contains thoughts and notions that I hadn’t remembered about the play.
As a man of the theater, Shakespeare constantly put references to his own craft and its practitioners into his work. Hamlet fans will certainly recognize this from the “advice to the players” speech, wherein the Dane coaches a troupe of actors who are rehearsing his play. Hamlet remarks that “the purpose of playing…was and is, to hold, as ‘twere, the mirror up to nature.”
In The Tempest, the wizard Prospero stages an elaborate masque to celebrate the wedding of his daughter. At its conclusion, he says “our revels now are ended. These our actors, as I foretold you were all spirits and are melted into air, into thin air.” In his epilogue, Prospero asks the audience to “release me from my bands with the help of your good hands. Gentle breath of yours my sails must fill, or else my project fails which was to please.”
In Henry V, Shakespeare places a Chorus into the action, which begins the play and each act of the play with a prologue, and ends the play with an epilogue. This Chorus is constantly reminding us that we are in the theater, and begs us to use our imaginations and forgive the short-comings of the performers. Right off the bat the Chorus wonders “can this cockpit hold the vasty fields of France? Or may we cram within this wooden O the very casques that did affright the air at Agincourt?”
Lately, I’ve been noticing how often Shakespeare calls our attention to the fact that we are players playing at Julius Caesar.
Early on, Brutus and Cassius question Casca about the offstage cheering they had heard. Casca describes the scene of Antony offering Caesar a crown in the public square, with a crowd looking on. Casca says of Caesar, “if the tag-rag people did not clap him and hiss him, according as he pleased and displeased them, as they use to do the players in the theater, I am no true man.”
Later, when the conspirators visit his garden, Brutus warns them not to let on that they are up to no good. He says, “good gentlemen, look fresh and merrily; let not our looks put on our purposes, but bear it as our Roman actors do, with untired spirits and formal constancy.” Having killed Caesar, and dipping his hands in Caesar’s blood, Cassius asks “how many ages hence shall this our lofty scene be acted over in states unborn and accents yet unknown?”
Sometimes the references even leap from play to play. It is believed that Hamlet was first performed very soon after Julius Caesar sometime in 1599 or 1600. Shakespeare had a company of actors for whom he wrote, and with whom he sometimes performed.
It is likely that the original cast of Julius Caesar would also have comprised the original cast of Hamlet. This lends a kind of winking pleasure to the following exchange between Hamlet and Polonius, as the audience gathers to watch Hamlet’s play for the king:
Hamlet: My lord, you played once i’ the university, you say?
Polonius: That did I, my lord; and was accounted a good actor.
Hamlet: What did you enact?
Polonius: I did enact Julius Caesar: I was killed i’ the Capitol; Brutus killed me.
Hamlet: It was a brute part of him to kill so capital a calf there.
This love for his own craft and his fellow poets and players, this exuberance and joy in storytelling, this warm embrace of audiences are part and parcel of working on the plays of William Shakespeare. His delight in the art form is passed directly on to us, both the artists presenting the plays, and the audiences that come to experience them.
Until next time!