Notes on Brutus
This week’s strip was fast-tracked to the front of the queue, in light of recent events that Julius Caesar seemed to resonate with.
Caesar’s funeral is a disturbing political image, presenting a world where reasoned argument collides with demagoguery, and comes off second best. The opening of Brutus’ speech is dull, painfully so, but the things he says are important – it’s a plea for people to listen to the facts and come to informed judgments. To Brutus, it seems less important that people agree with him, than that those who disagree have at least understood the situation and thought about it. As a latter-day politician succinctly put it, it is not cool not to know what you’re talking about.
Antony, by contrast, will use any means necessary to get people on his side, but his most successful tactics are appeals to base emotion and outright bribery – and this approach tramples all over the opposition. It’s interesting that Shakespeare never gives us a scene where the people of Rome actually get their
£350 million to spend on the NHS seventy-five drachmas each. But he does give us a scene where they kick a poet to death.
The lonely, ugly death of Cinna the poet is something that resonates horribly with the UK’s recent rise in hate crimes. Cinna dies because a politician invoked the hate and anger of the populace and directed it at an “other”, then didn’t care what they got up to once they’d served their purpose. And what people do in situations like that is usually not very nice.
That it’s a poet who Antony’s mob murder feels very contemporary too – they go for the guy who can read and write. The guy who might bring some factual information to the table that doesn’t fit their emotion-driven narrative. The other famous angry mob in Shakespeare, Jack Cade’s rebels in Henry VI Part Two, march under a rallying cry of “The first thing we do, let’s kill all the lawyers!” presumably because the people in this country have had enough of experts. There’s a strain of anti-intellectualism prevalent in both of these sub-plots, which feels disturbingly familiar in an era of Donald Trump and bear-baiting tabloids.
Of course, looking to Shakespeare for political relevance will only get you so far – he’s a product of the Tudor age, and therefore has a belief in the divine right of kings (or indeed queens). In his world, tampering with absolute monarchy and the right of succession generally invites chaos, and creates opportunities for psychopaths who murder while they smile. And yet, he shows great sympathy for Brutus, the idealistic believer in representative democracy, who is willing to take unpopular steps for what he believes are valid reasons, but who is also perhaps a man who is desperately out of place in his own time.
Apologies if this has all got a bit serious. I hope you will all return next week for the return of some old favourites and the start of the biggest Zounds ever!