There I was in UVM’s Royall Tyler Theater watching a performance of Shakespeare’s Julius Caesar when I became aware that, for me at least, the evening was turning into a mash-up of ideas, memories and politics.
It began modestly enough as I recognized friends both onstage and in the audience. Then I realized that this tale of tumult, treachery and tragedy felt eerily contemporary to me.
I’d first read the play in the ninth grade. In tenth I’d read Caesar's "Gallic Wars" under a Latin teacher who’d been a hero in World War Two. And I’d seen the play three or four times as an adult.
More recently, I’d just finished a 600-page history of the first thousand years of Roman history. In the book titled SPQR for Senatus Populi, Que Romani – Latin for The Roman Senate and People - author and Oxford classics professor Mary Beard juxtaposes big ideas like war, peace, beauty, citizenship and power with mundane facts about slaves, sex and sewage.
So perhaps it was inevitable that when I heard the words “The fault, dear Brutus, is not in our stars, but in ourselves,” I found myself thinking of personal responsibility in fear-freighted, post nine-eleven America.
For more than a decade we’ve "let slip the dogs of war" by over-throwing governments, and calling it - in non-Shakespearean bureaucratese - regime change.
In this most bizarre election year, one could say of several candidates: "O judgment: thou art fled to brutish beasts, And men have lost their reason."
Caesar's threatened tyranny put me in mind of Putin's Russia, and Erdogan's Turkey.
I was reminded that in Elizabethan England, Shakespeare couldn’t celebrate an act of regicide since he needed the approval of Good Queen Bess. So he made Caesar's crime not about wearing a crown, but about his limitless ambition, when he has Cassius say, "Why man he doth bestride the narrow world like a Colossus and we petty men, walk under his huge legs, and peep about to find ourselves dishonorable graves!”
Then, in free association I jumped ahead two centuries to our Declaration of Independence and Jefferson's stirring revolutionary pledge of "our lives, our fortunes, our sacred honor."
And as I left the theater, more of Shakespeare’s words kept echoing in my head:
"How many ages hence/
Shall this our lofty scene be acted o'er/
In states unborn and accents yet unknown!"