Brutus is a commanding figure in the Public Theater’s Free Shakespeare in the Park production of “Julius Caesar.” The wily Mark Antony also looms large. But the most fearsome character in the show isn’t standing on stage — not even in the person of a Donald Trump-like Caesar — but instead storming the bleachers and shouting in the aisles. It’s the mindless Roman mob, or, as director Oskar Eustis’s politically slanted production slyly insinuates, it’s the ecstatic mobs at a Trump rally. Although the show whipped up controversy when funders pulled out over right-wing objections, the furor isn’t warranted: Anyone who reads the plays knows Shakespeare’s main message is that no matter how much you want to get rid of your current political leader, don’t kill him.
That last message is lost on people on both sides of the political spectrum, as we’ve seen with Kathy Griffin’s grisly photo and all the other nasty stuff the left is dredging up these days. Shakespeare’s message needs to be taken to heart, because Brutus’ assassination didn’t restore the Republic, but ultimately led the way for Octavian to set up the Principiate (usually called the Empire) as Augustus.
As far as the dreaded mob is concerned, the Roman mob was an urban mob on the dole. As long as most people worked, they didn’t have time to be an irresponsible mob. But the social dislocations of the late Republic and the patronage driven nature of Rome led to that mob, which not only survived the Empire’s establishment and remained a potent force as long as the city of Rome was important, but transferred itself to Constantinople and made waves there.
The crisis of the Republic that led to Julius Caesar’s brief rule was, in a real sense, the product of its success. Having conquered large areas around the Mediterranean, its political system, formed in a city-state, was no longer able to work properly. The real question for us is this: is our form of government, formed in agrarian colonies, suitable for a country that essentially rules the world? People on neither side are really asking this question. The right wants to run the clock back, and the left wants to keep the form of the system while fundamentally altering its result. Comparing Donald Trump to Julius Caesar dooms the left because the transition that Rome underwent was done by a relative.
If we are reaching the tipping point that Rome reached, we need to stop asking the question, “How do we restore this country to its ideal state?” and ask “Who is best positioned to take advantage of this mess and come out ahead?” Answering that question, and finding the leader to make it happen, will decide how this Republic makes its transition to the next stage.