I went to a political demonstration in the center of Jerusalem last week. No, I wasn’t wrapped up in the flag of either the pro- or the anti- Judicial reform revolution.
I was wrapped up in a play by William Shakespeare.
That play was Julius Caesar, performed outdoors in a beautiful Jerusalem park, in view of the Old City walls, by a troupe of Shakespearean actors called Theater in the Rough.
These talented men and women have performed a different Shakespearean play every year. As players and audience moved through the park from act to act, Jerusalem church bells or the Muslim call to prayer in the background, as haredi families picnicked in the park during their bein hazmanim summer vacation. The unusual, multicultural setting gave a whole new meaning to the idea of Shakespeare’s plays being performed in a “globe” theater.
Would Shakespeare's Julius Caesar reflect modern political issues?
I admit to having felt some trepidation going to this year’s play, and not just because of the perpetual problem of finding parking. As one of Shakespeare’s most political plays, the potential for the troupe to interpret Julius Caesar through their own political prism was high. In our hyper-politicized world, would the stress be on the fear that Caesar, a successful military commander, might become a tyrannical despot? Or would the actors focus on the manipulation that equally-ambitious leaders have used to rabble-rouse a population through fear and fake news?
The good news is that the troupe didn’t interpret the play according to contemporary left- or right-wing politics, leaving it to everyone in the audience to come to their own connections to current headlines. Kudos to the troupe for playing it that way – and kudos, if I might say so, to Shakespeare as well, for writing a play that doesn’t simplify politics (Roman politics of centuries ago, or Israeli politics today) into simple good vs evil, allowing for multiple, nuanced viewpoints.
And that, “friends, Romans, countrymen” – that might be part of the point of reading or watching a play by Shakespeare, or, for that matter, for reading or watching great works of literature generally. Some might say that the way to produce a play by Shakespeare is to make it relevant. I would argue that in our current atmosphere of echo chambers and short tweets, what is relevant – no, what is essential – is that we become critical readers, capable of looking past simple propaganda and political manipulation.
Great works can give us contrasting and even conflicting views, can teach us to ask questions and look past assumptions, and can help us see different sides of an issue, its nuances and distinctions.
With apologies to Shakespeare, I’ll re-word his most famous quote from Hamlet: “To demonstrate [Right or Left] or not to demonstrate? That is the question.” Here’s my answer: Before you head to whatever side-of-the-fence demonstration you’ve decided on, before you rush to judgment on any of today’s hot issues, make sure you’ve spent lots of time reading great books or watching rich plays. Meet fictional characters facing confusing moral dilemmas. Read about good people making bad choices. Understand the complexity individuals face in less-than-perfect societies.
If enough people begin to understand that life isn’t the black-or-white, good-or-evil proposition that today’s social media suggests, if enough citizens begin to see through political and media manipulation and learn to think things through on their own, then maybe we can turn today’s burning topics from potential tragedy to a contemporary version of Shakespearean comedy. Not comedy that necessarily ends in marriage, as in traditional Shakespearean plays, but comedy that allows for more civil discussion and a deeper understanding of the multi-faceted challenges our society faces today.
The writer is a senior lecturer in literature (including Shakespeare) at Michlalah-Jerusalem and Sha’anan College.