05/25/2012 04:01 pm ET Updated Jul 25, 2012

The Glories of Caesar -- Patriotism, Ambition, Corruption

Shakespeare has become a minor obsession at our house. Over the past several years, we have seen several plays, mainly at the Guthrie, a theater up in Minneapolis. So far the list includes Julius Caesar, Henry V, Macbeth, Winter's Tale, Much Ado About Nothing, Midsummer Night's Dream, Merchant of Venice, Twelfth Night, and Comedy of Errors. And this January, we saw Shakespeare's Julius Caesar for a second time.

True confession: Shakespeare's pretty cool, but I have a major obsession with things Roman. Four years of Latin will do that; I still remember translating Caesar's famous Commentarii de Bello Gallico during my second year. The Emperors are fascinating; their "idiosyncrasies" make up my favorite parts of Suetonius' Twelve Emperors and Plutarch's Lives. William Shakespeare probably read both during his schooldays, and Plutarch's book in particular became a source for him.

Shakespeare's play, however, is more about politics than it is about ancient heroes, about the politics of Rome as the elected government gave way to dictatorship. It's a story about patriotism and corruption, about conspiracies and alliances. It's a story about leadership and the contrast between freedom and tyranny.

As I read up on Julius Caesar before seeing it, I found a variety of opinions on what the play is about (not all that unexpected, actually, since it is a play by Shakespeare). Some critics look at the play as a statement about the dangers of an absolute monarch -- they look at the play's performance in Elizabethan and Jacobean England as the most significant thing about it. Others zero in on the way the people -- the mob of Romans -- is portrayed, and how their fickleness influences events.

This play appears to have no "hero" in the classic sense, because the action revolves around several main characters: Julius Caesar, Marcus Brutus, Caius Cassius, Mark Antony, Octavius Caesar. If you pay close attention to the language and action, though, a protagonist does emerge -- Brutus -- a tragic hero who is undone by his patriotic opposition to the tyranny of a dictator. He participates in the plot to assassinate Caesar because, as he puts it, he "loves Rome" more than he loves Caesar.

That love for Caesar is what makes Brutus' decision so noble, because he really does admire and respect the man. If he saw any other way to stop Caesar from destroying the Republic and becoming the absolute ruler of Rome, he would take it. But violence is presented as the only option. So he chooses it, and thus begins his journey towards his doom.

The Guthrie production used a modern setting to tell their version of the story. This isn't really Rome, the set and costumes proclaim, it is Washington, D.C. The men and women walking about the stage aren't Roman aristocrats, they are politicians, with the "mob" transformed to ordinary Americans, supporting whoever has grabbed the stage in front of them and is making the most noise. Press conferences replaced speeches to crowds, helicopters replaced horses, and, except in the assassination scene, machine guns replaced spears and swords.

At some points the parallel became disturbing. Julius Caesar looked eerily like Barack Obama, and his wife Calpurnia resembled Michelle. It would be a truly "political" parallel if Brutus and Cassius looked like Mitch O'Connell or John Boehner, but they didn't. Brutus was also an African-American actor. Cassius looked more like a Kennedy. I didn't find clear condemnation or clear praise involving any politicians on the stage of American politics today.

Whatever the intentions of the director and actors, the story became very contemporary and, therefore, carried with it the power to disturb -- one of the hallmarks of great art. This play, staged that way asks a lot of questions: What if the Imperial Presidency that some Americans seem to support became a reality? What if members of Congress let their powers wither away from lack of use and gave the president ultimate power over state and society? What if it didn't happen in one fell swoop but over several years, during the reigns... terms of presidents from different parties?

Impossible, I scoff, it can't happen here. We're not Romans, I assert, because we've got the lessons of history to instruct us. We would notice how much power the presidency was accumulating. We wouldn't do that to ourselves. Right?