Sunday Meditations: The Bible and the Myth of Julius Caesar

Every so often, when I talk about the hurdles to understanding the Bible, I refer to the plays of William Shakespeare.

The reason for this is that we all acknowledge that, when it comes to Shakespeare, we usually need a little help.  Yes, someone can read Shakespeare’s plays without knowing anything about Shakespeare or the plays and get benefit from them, maybe even insight.  But we all agree that, if you really want to get the most out of a Shakespearean play, we usually need a little help understanding what’s going on.

Why is this?  Because the language is from the sixteenth century, which makes it a challenge even for English speakers.  Also, we are unfamiliar with many of the idioms, jokes, and references of the time.  We’re unfamiliar with the historical circumstances.  We may be unfamiliar with Shakespeare’s sources.  There are these large, contextual gaps between us and Shakespeare, and we’re talking about documents written four hundred years ago in English by an English man.

We all realize how much help we need to really get something out of Shakespeare’s plays, and yet we think an English translation of a collection of Hebrew and Greek documents written in the Near East 2000 – 2500 years ago is instantly intelligible to anyone who picks it up.

There are other ways the analogy of Shakespearean plays can help us understand the Bible, and one of these is the play “Julius Caesar.”

First of all, Shakespeare is not making all of this up, but he also was not present for the events he writes about.  He’s working from a source – Plutarch’s Lives of the Noble Greeks and Romans (which is also working from sources).  While some of the biblical writings were written by people who were present for the events they describe, many were not.  The authors worked from stories, traditions, and other writings.

Second, Shakespeare does not stay strictly with the source material.  He dramatizes conversations.  He changes some details for effect.  He combines two Battles of Philippi into one.  He changes locations (once to avoid having to create another set).  He does these things because his goal is not to present a raw sequence of events as we might see them on videotape of what happened to Julius Caesar.  His goal is to produce a play.  It’s a story that is meant to communicate themes that Shakespeare wants the audience to encounter.

So, we do not accuse Shakespeare of fraud, here, or all the material in the play of being something he just made up.  It was never Shakespeare’s intent to produce a bio-pic.  Julius Caesar was a real person and the events in the play are essentially what happened to him, but there’s a degree of license taken with “the facts” for the purposes of communication.

Third, and this is the main point of this post, is that what Shakespeare has done is presented us with a myth.

I don’t mean “myth” in the careless sense we sometimes use it to mean “something wholly untrue.”  Disturbingly, we typically contrast “myth” and “fact,” where myth is a pervasive story or belief that is untrue versus fact which is what’s real.

I mean “myth” much closer to its ancient sense, which is a story that is more concerned with communicating a true meaning than reporting true facts.

In “Julius Caesar,” we are given insight into a much larger struggle in both the characters of Caesar and Brutus.

On the one hand, we have Caesar who has defeated the sons of Pompey.  Flush with victory over his political and military rival, he hungers for the crown of Rome, but even moreso, he hungers for the approval of the people and is enraged to discover they do not want him as their ruler.

On the other hand, we have Brutus, who could arguably be the main character.  Brutus is Caesar’s friend, but he fears Caesar may abuse his power, and the other conspirators (who are killing Caesar for financial and political gain) use this to lure him into the conspiracy.  He struggles powerfully between feelings of duty, love, patriotism, and loyalty.

Looming over all is the spectre of chaos as Rome’s leadership descends into a cauldron of violence and squabbling.

Shakespeare is not interested in creating a chronicle of the details of Caesar’s assassination.  Shakespeare wants the audience to experience what all this means.  By focusing on that level, by crafting a true myth of Julius Caesar, Shakespeare pulls his audience into the event.  We may not have been there for the assassination, but we very well may have observed these same powerful forces at work in our own leaders, or perhaps they have been at work in our own heart, and thus the play becomes both something we can identify with and a warning for us if we do not untangle these knots in our own situation.  The play becomes both powerful and useful for the people who read it, not just a presentation of facts.

And it is not unlikely that Shakespeare was thinking of England at exactly that time as an aging Queen Elizabeth had refused to name someone to take the crown.  Perhaps it is not just an accident of budget that Caesar is wearing an Elizabethan doublet in the play and not a toga.

It is not in spite of, but precisely because, Shakespeare has given us a myth of Julius Caesar that the play can continue to speak to our hearts and be useful to us as we contemplate ourselves and our leaders, today.  Yes, we have to reframe the meanings for our context.  The leaders of America are not Roman Caesars (right?) or English queens.  Their allies are not people who have received forged letters from Senators inspiring them to conspiracy (uh, right again?).  But what happened to Caesar as Shakespeare presents it to us can be used to understand and perhaps be of some help in our present situation, and this is the power of operating at the mythological level.

Perhaps the power of Scripture is lessened if we strip everything out to get at the “real history” behind it, as interesting as that might be to historical studies.  But perhaps the power of Scripture is also lessened if we treat it as though it is a factually perfect history book interested primarily in factual news reporting.

Perhaps the power of Scripture to pull us into its world, speak to our hearts, and provide us usefulness in our present situation and for generations to come, lay in its character as myth.

A true myth.

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