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

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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.

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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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Why We Need Modernized Shakespeare: An Introduction

Well met, sweet reader!

My name is Hannah Wisterman. I’m currently a student, studying mass communication with some English on the side. I’m also a long-time fan of the theatre, with a particular fondness for Shakespeare. How do those things come together? Well, it should come as no surprise that the storylines, tropes, and language that Shakespeare immortalized are now used all over mass media, both directly and indirectly. Doubtful? There’s been two films made of Romeo and Juliet with big-name actors in the past 20 years, and a film of Macbeth with Michael Fassbender and Marion Cotillard was released just a year or so ago, not to mention the films that borrow storylines (For example, She’s The Man, 10 Things I Hate About You). Clearly Shakespeare isn’t as antiquated as one might think.

As the Bard’s legacy continues propelling into the modern era, I think it’s important that we continue re-evaluating how to interpret and present it. Shakespeare’s home theatre, the Globe, has done a great job of that from an acting and directing standpoint, and theatres everywhere have reimagined settings, characters, and contexts to keep Shakespeare’s work relevant. Through this blog, I’d like to pick up on some of their examples and hone in on possible new approaches to Shakespeare’s work, from LGBT subtexts to race-cognizant productions and more. It is often said that the beauty of Shakespeare’s work is its enduring and universal relatability; in a vibrantly diverse society, we should explore how to make that true.

From my own experience as a woman, reading and watching Shakespeare is simultaneously thrilling and disappointing. As much as I love the stories, traditionally-produced Shakespeare is starved for positive female representation—not to mention PoC and disabled characters. For a long time, I thought this was just a limitation of the style, until, when teaching Julius Caesar, a teacher had me read Cassius’s lines in class. In a flash, I realized that modern Shakespearean casting can be not only gender-blind, but gender-inclusive. Suddenly, Shakespeare felt much more dynamic, much more alive. That epiphany and subsequent excitement is why I want to write this and share it: so that readers, actors, directors, designers, and plain old fans of Shakespeare can breathe new life into classic work.

A portion of my Shakespeare mini-library. These are some of the resources to which I will refer.
A portion of my Shakespeare mini-library. These are some of the resources to which I will refer.

On this journey of revitalizing and reimagining the Bard, I will propose new readings of works, analyze nontraditional approaches set forth by others, look critically at characters’ relationships and roles—anything that feels relevant. I welcome idea proposals! This as much learning as it is sharing, for me, so I will be referring to a few resources, both my own copies and online.

My expertise is, regrettably, limited, so I of course won’t be covering Shakespeare’s entire body of work; most likely, there will be a handful of plays I return to regularly. (Just so everyone’s expectations are clear.)

This is a challenging undertaking, but one for which I’m excited. Let the show begin!

Follow the author on Twitter (@wisterfairy) for updates and musings.