Monday, February 21, 2011

Where the fault lies

One of the joys of teaching Shakespeare is that his works are timeless, cited almost daily in the media.

We're just starting to read Julius Caesar in my AP English Language and Composition class, and I've come across two recent references to the play – one that in my opinion accurately invokes a quote, and one that exudes irony.

First, here's an excerpt of a description of the documentary Reagan, where the author accurately invokes a couple of memorable lines from the play:
"Ronald Reagan as a man, as compared to his legacy, is rich territory for exploration, and a line from Shakespeare's Julius Caesar is just one of the many things that springs to mind after viewing filmmaker Eugene Jarecki's latest opus, Reagan (Jarecki's Why We Fight won the 2005 Sundance Film Festival Grand Jury Prize: Documentary). Speaking at his funeral, Mark Antony said of Caesar, 'The evil that men do lives after them; the good is oft interred with their bones.'"

The second example comes from Cal Thomas, self-described as America's #1 nationally syndicated columnist, who references the oft-repeated "the fault is not in our stars, but in ourselves" quote in his January 10, 2010 column "Explaining Evil."  In the aftermath of the January 8, 2011 Tucson shooting, Thomas contends that the shooter, Jared Lee Loughner, is solely to blame for the tragedy, that the individual bears fulls responsibility for his action; Thomas interprets the quote to mean the singular "self" in a collective sense – as in, "we're each responsible for our own actions, and we shouldn't blame society for the things that we as individuals choose to do." I agree in part. Loughner acted on his own and wasn't forced to fire into a crowd. There's no disputing that.

Thomas argues that it's not contemporary vitriolic political talk that's to blame: "Radio, TV and social media didn’t exist when actor John Wilkes Booth, a confederate sympathizer, shot and killed Abraham Lincoln," Thomas argues.  Personally, I think the "fault" in the Arizona tragedy is in "ourselves" exactly the way Shakespeare originally intended, not in the way Thomas uses the quote.

As I reread the quote tonight in the context of the play, the allusion Thomas makes is full of irony.  Here's the full quote:
"Men at some time are masters of their fates:
The fault, dear Brutus, is not in our stars,
But in ourselves, that we are underlings."

Death of Caesar by Michele Cammarano, 1798.
The quote is uttered by the character Cassius, who plots the murder of a politician because he's jealous and paranoid. When Cassius says "the fault is not in our stars, but in ourselves," he is speaking to none other than Brutus (he of "et tu Brute?" fame).  When Cassius uses the word "ourselves," he is speaking as a self-appointed savior of the republic; he's worried that too much power will be centralized into one office. And when Cassius utters these words, Brutus is conflicted – on the one hand he worries that Caesar's growing popularity will be a threat to the republic, but on the other hand he's Caesar's friend.  Brutus, however, never contemplates such a rash act as murder until Cassius shrewdly and persistently manipulates Brutus to come to the conclusion that the only way to save the republic is to assassinate the leader who threatens the ideal.

There was no talk radio or cable TV in Caesar's time either. Brutus and his cronies target Caesar in a calculated assassination, incited by lies and guileful language. It's true that we don't need social media to do that. But the "fault" was, and always will be, in "ourselves" – in the individual sense and in the collective sense. Just like Shakespeare meant it.