by Sydney Hawk
Most of us have heard the name Brutus—in the theater, high school history class, or gossip circles. But if someone hasn’t, they have at least heard the phrase “backstabber” furiously uttered at the first sign of disloyalty. Though now a form of colloquial slang, the inspiration for these terms can be traced back to ancient Rome and the infamous emperor Julius Caesar’s downfall at the hands of Senator Marcus Brutus and his fellow conspirators. Although that’s not why these idioms are so deeply ingrained in our lexicons today. No, we owe that to Shakespeare.
In 1599, Shakespeare transformed history into a play about friendship, patriotism, and tyranny: Julius Caesar. Though not the title character, Brutus would become one of the most memorable tragic heroes to ever exist. Shakespeare portrayed him as a misguided patriot, as opposed to an untrustworthy murderer, with lines like, “If then that friend/ demand why Brutus rose against Caesar, this is my/ answer: not that I loved Caesar less, but that I loved/ Rome more.” With this depiction, Shakespeare uses the character of Brutus as a vehicle to pose political questions about his England that could otherwise not be presented, given the power of the monarchy and fear of retaliation.
In 2023, such restraints no longer exist. So how is Shakespeare’s Brutus still culturally relevant? To answer that, I went to the archives.
Et Tu Brute? Then Fall, Trump?
In 2017, New York City’s Public Theater staged William Shakespeare’s Julius Caesar for its annual Shakespeare in the Park. In light of the recent election, director Oskar Eustis made a bold creative choice: portraying Julius Caesar as Donald Trump. Why was this fitting? Because Julius Caesar is a tale of taking down tyranny. In an age of hyperpartisanship, nothing could be more pertinent.
Artistic license in hand, Eustis pulled no punches. Julius Caesar had blonde hair, donned an all too recognizable suit and red tie, and his wife spoke with a distinctly Slavic accent. With the possibility of subtlety already in the rearview mirror, he even went so far as to have Caesar tweet from a golden bathtub and mention shooting somebody on 5th Avenue, an overt reference to Trump’s 2016 boast that “I could stand in the middle of Fifth Avenue and shoot somebody and I wouldn't lose voters.”
In contrast, the director did not portray Brutus as an explicit avatar for some contemporary politician. Other than his modern-day dress, Brutus was portrayed as Shakespeare wrote him: a self-deemed moral and ethical man whose misguided murderous ambitions derived from his desire to preserve democracy. By forgoing the gimmicks with Brutus, Eustis presented him as the voice of the current liberal collective. And if that isn’t enough political commentary, then chew on Caesar’s graphic assassination, which was carried out by Brutus and a tribe of women and minorities beneath an American flag.
Such a blatantly unsubtle interpretation raises the question: is using Brutus as a means to fulfill a contemporary political agenda taking things too far? The conservative demographic argued yes. Before the play even opened, there was political uproar amongst the conservative community, which felt that staging the sitting president’s assassination was wildly inappropriate. Conservatives ventured that art is supposed to be an escape from life and politics, not a means to carry out a violent revenge fantasy.
In response to this controversy, two of the production’s significant sponsors pulled out. Delta wrote that regardless of one’s political affiliation, the staging “crossed the line on the standards of good taste.” Likewise, Bank of America conceded to the conservative community’s widespread outrage in the production’s decision “to provoke and offend.”
Fueling the blazing fire, one of Shakespeare in the Park’s performances was crashed by protesters who not only disrupted the production with their cries to “stop the normalization of political violence against the right” but also actually jumped on stage. After security removed the stage crasher, another protestor arose from the crowd to shout, “You are all Nazis…you are inciting terrorists.” In response, the production halted for under a minute, before ironically continuing with the line “Liberty! Freedom!,” causing the audience to erupt in a standing ovation.
This widespread desire for unobtainable political agency bore the New York City’s Public Theater’s evidently volatile form of Shakespeare fan fiction. Who would’ve thought that abandoning the traditional, historical representation of Brutus and using him as a vessel to explore contemporary politics would be more explosive than any other form of protest at the time? Let’s just say, Eustis wasn’t the first person to have this idea.
Et Tu Brute? Then Fall, Lincoln?
No, this is not the first time that Julius Caesar blurred the line between art and life. If you know anything about American history, you know that President Abraham Lincoln was assassinated by John Wilkes Booth. What you might not know (I didn’t until my journey to the archives) is that Booth was an actor, and not just any actor, a Shakespeare-obsessed thespian whose father’s name was Junius Brutus Booth. Sound familiar? That is none other than Marcus Brutus’s father’s name. With this knowledge in hand, it’s conceivable that Booth was inspired by Julius Caesar. And not only did he play the role of Brutus in a benefit performance leading up to the murder, but he also admitted that it was his favorite Shakespeare role. I guess it was his destiny to be remembered in the role.
Let me set the scene for you: it’s April 14, 1865, and President Lincoln is attending a performance of “Our American Cousin.” Booth, having just attended one of Lincoln’s speeches, is of the opinion that Lincoln has become a tyrant. With the imminent ending of the American Civil War, Booth held the belief that the confederacy should be restored, while the president did not. Just like his idol, Brutus, Booth saw himself as a liberator; this was his call to action. He infiltrated the theater’s balcony, shot Lincoln, and escaped, but not before yelling “sic semper tyrannis!” on stage, referring to the notion that tyrannical leaders must be overthrown.
However misguided, Booth was an actor through and through. In a twisted way, he performed Brutus on stage for a national audience. But what’s striking about his rendition of the role is that it was not performed within its intended context of ancient Rome, or even within a play. It was real life.
In As You Like It, Shakespeare writes, “All the world’s a stage, and all the men and women merely players,” and herein lies why Booth’s story is notable: it demonstrates how art and life are in constant dialogue.
What is Art, if Not Life?
Art imitates life. Julius Caesar is wrapped up in the intersection because it is both a depiction of history and a play. This play then unintentionally led to the assassination of Lincoln, and the cycle of art and life informing each other repeats time and time again. What’s important to note is that art needs life to be effective. A play like Julius Caesar, if taken only for its context, is no longer relevant. This was even true in Shakespeare’s time. So what compelled him to write about antiquated historical events? It was a discreet way to create an analogue for political situations and comment on them.
The tale is "a warning parable to those who try to fight for democracy by undemocratic means."
On the surface, Julius Caesar is about none other than Julius Caesar, but beneath the surface, it is a tale of tyranny and rebellion, much like Richard II or Henry IV. Dramatizing democracy and the misuse of power was Shakespeare’s preferred mode of microactivism when both were of significant concern in England, an Elizabethan-aged monarchy. With issues like religion, economics, welfare, military, etc., there was a lot to write about. Eustis simply continued this tradition with his Shakespeare in the Park production, albeit in a much more overt way. Like Shakespeare, he was compelled to produce the play because he felt its underlying message was pertinent to the contemporary American moment. Eustis argued that the tale is “a warning parable to those who try to fight for democracy by undemocratic means.” By adapting the characters’ portrayals to fit within the context of contemporary society, he re-established the text’s cultural relevance.
By this logic, Shakespeare in the Park did nothing wrong by producing a satirical staging. It participated in a long tradition of adapting not only Shakespeare, but art to speak to the current time period (like 10 Things I Hate About You, or the New York Public Theater’s 2016 production of The Taming of the Shrew, which featured an entirely female cast). Though Shakespeare did not dress Julius Caesar in a Queen Elizabeth costume, he used the ghosts of politics past to subliminally influence audiences. He did not force-feed his opinions. Shakespeare’s approach was much more subtle but likely out of necessity. Back then, mocking the Queen was a death wish. Now, not so much (the sitting president fortunately does not have the agency to assassinate a theater troupe for mocking their character). A more blatant approach is possible.
Knowing this, Eustis weaponized our need for scandal and shock to restore value to the narrative of Brutus and a just democracy. Without tying his portrayal so directly to modern-day politics, Eustis would not have been able to capture the attention of such a diverse range of people, as the nature of his artwork is what made it stand out in the news cycle. Instead, he would’ve reached a far smaller audience of Shakespeare fundamentalists. At the end of the day, whether you agree with Eustis’s political agenda is less important than whether his creative choices preserved the integrity of the play. Shakespeare was calculated in his decision to create beautiful ambiguities in his work for the purpose of it being remade, and remade, and remade again. It was this subtlety that paved the way for the eventual spectacle. Within our media ecosystem, there was no other way for Eustis to ensure that Shakespeare’s writing lives on.
Art is reflective of the moment, and the character of Brutus will forever be a vessel to explore contemporary politics because he exists within an intrinsically political play and because the nature of art is to evolve to reflect the present. Brutus is not constrained by his original identity as a Roman politician. Rather, he has become a character that is revived when concerns of tyranny arrive. So, who will he take down next?
This essay is part of the Shakespeare, Sort Of series, a project exploring archival research and Shakespearean adaptations. Find every SSO essay here.