Julius Caesar’s Cassius: A Woman of Color

Julius Caesar is, in my opinion, something of a struggle to read. Of all the Shakespearean works I’ve read, Caesar is the one with the fewest lines spoken by a woman, and the 1953 film adaptation that my class watched in accompaniment with the text was dull, to say the least, even with handsome Marlon Brando. Three things alone intrigued me about the

jc_portia_brutus
Deborah Kerr as Portia and James Mason as Brutus in the 1953 film. Image from a screenshot, film in the public domain.

play: Portia and her extreme dramatics, the relationship between Brutus and Cassius, and the character of Cassius himself. Or rather, herself.

As I mentioned in my introduction post, while reading Caesar, my teacher assigned me the part of Cassius. This was more or less a total game-changer in how I related to the text. Cassius acts subversively, but does so surreptitiously, pulling strings and orchestrating secret plots without once putting herself in the spotlight. In fact, that pattern of behavior is essential to Brutus’s character and arc: without Cassius making him the figurehead of the coup, he likely would not have fallen from grace, or at least would not have done so quite as hard. So, given the text, Cassius must be cunning and manipulative. Cunning and manipulative…huh. Sure sounds like a classic characterization of ambitious woman, doesn’t it?

Now, I’m fully aware that women were not generals or senators in Rome, but I’m not proposing this interpretation for historical accuracy. I’m proposing it for accessibility, particularly to one of the less accessible plays. I wouldn’t say Cassius is feminine, but his tactics are certainly more like the those used by women, as seen in other literature. For the sake of more interesting theatre, a female Cassius could be cast without compromising plot.

In fact, the Donmar Warehouse has presented a female Cassius already, in their all-female production of Julius Caesar in 2013. The all-female cast, according to critic Ben Brantley, did not diminish the high-testosterone aggression of the show. So, surprising no one, a woman Cassius is achievable—and a black woman Cassius as well, as Donmar’s Jenny Jules demonstrated. Which leads me to this notion: that Cassius could be well characterized by a non-white actor, particularly one of Middle Eastern (or North African) descent.

israssius
An image of a good friend of mine who would make a wonderful Cassius. Image of and by Isra Kazi.

The plot of Caesar hinges on Cassius’s hatred of and lack of faith in the titular character. Cassius detests Caesar’s increasing power, and how citizens of Rome seem to worship him. This would be true even if Cassius was simply an honorable adherent of democracy. But then consider that Rome is a symbol of imperialism; of conquering and destroying other cultures. As long as we’re suspending disbelief, if a woman can be a senator and general, why not a Syrian woman? Or an Egyptian woman (to match Antony and Cleopatra with a nice little tie-in)? Particularly as we know that Romans often took their conquered as slaves, it makes sense that Cassius would grow up opposed to conquerors, with a resentment towards brutal imperialism. My favorite line to supplement this point:

Caesar, thou art revenged,

Even with the sword that killed thee. –5.3.48-49

Literal? Yes. But also figuratively, consider: when a nation forcibly removes the empire that conquered it, it often may suffer political divisions of its own. Ergo, the sword that killed the conqueror, may kill the wielder in return. The parallel is certainly not a stretch. (See here for information about a politically relevant production of Caesar: set in contemporary Africa, a good example of my point.)

Julius Caesar is, in most cases, a collection of white men struggling for power. I’m not saying that interpretation isn’t interesting –it can be—but what can open it up to a wider audience is an interpretation that, while taking literary conventions and history into account, also reflects modern politics. Let Cassius be a woman of color. See where that takes you.

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