Politics & Policy

Augustus and Shakespeare

Thoughts on the 2,000th anniversary of Augustus’ death.

Today, August 19, is the 2,000th anniversary of the death of Augustus, a man whose accomplishments include dying in his eponymous month.

He was the first emperor of Rome, taking power after the struggles that followed the deaths of Julius Caesar and the Roman Republic. He was Caesar’s grandnephew; Caesar had no legitimate children, so he adopted Augustus as his son and heir.

Augustus was one of Rome’s best emperors; he reigned over peace and prosperity, and was basically a benevolent dictator. And though he founded history’s greatest empire, the English-speaking world may know him best from Shakespeare.

Augustus received the name “Augustus” from the Senate after he defeated Mark Antony at Actium; he was born Gaius Octavius. He is, of course, the Octavius in Shakespeare’s Julius Caesar — the Octavius who, in the play, calls Marcus Lepidus “a tried and valiant soldier,” and is rebuffed by Mark Antony: “So is my horse, Octavius.”

Julius Caesar, the play, is one of the great accomplishments of Western culture. It’s not counted among Shakespeare’s histories, but it is reasonably accurate, history-wise. Brutus and Cassius and colleagues assassinated Julius Caesar to save the Roman Republic; the Republic fell and was replaced by an empire. Brutus did consent, contrary to Cassius’s advice, to Mark Antony’s speaking at Caesar’s funeral; Antony did extol Caesar’s love for Rome, read his will, and rile up the crowd to the point that it rioted.

He may or may not have said it as well as Shakespeare’s Antony:

I am no orator, as Brutus is;

But, as you know me all, a plain blunt man,

That love my friend; and that they know full well

That gave me public leave to speak of him:

For I have neither wit, nor words, nor worth,

Action, nor utterance, nor the power of speech,

To stir men’s blood: I only speak right on;

I tell you that which you yourselves do know;

Show you sweet Caesar’s wounds, poor poor dumb mouths,

And bid them speak for me: but were I Brutus,

And Brutus Antony, there were an Antony

Would ruffle up your spirits and put a tongue

In every wound of Caesar that should move

The stones of Rome to rise and mutiny.

In the play, a Roman in the audience responds — shouts — “We’ll burn the house of Brutus!” Burning things has always been a popular European response to controversy. Shakespeare wrote Julius Caesar in the 1590s, about 100 years after Botticelli burned some of his own paintings in Savonarola’s Bonfire of the Vanities. Botticelli was not as great an artist as Shakespeare, but he’s not too far behind. His paintings burning in a heap in Florence stands as one of history’s great wastes. Right now, Shakespeare is intimately intertwined with another.

Antony’s speech, and Octavius and the rest of the play, are best seen in the 1953 movie starring Marlon Brando, James Mason, and John Gielgud. It’s one of the happily large number of fine Shakespeare movies. There’s a superb Richard III, a good Midsummer Night’s Dream, an exceptional Othello (the 1995 edition). The actor Ralph Fiennes surprised everyone by making a Coriolanus a couple years ago; it’s very good. In 1996 a fellow named Trevor Nunn directed a Twelfth Night which may be my favorite movie. Olivier did Hamlet and a couple of histories; Zeffirelli’s Romeo and Juliet is revered. Joss Whedon just directed a very, very good Much Ado about Nothing; Polanski did a remarkable, if somewhat grotesque, Macbeth. Peter Brook directed a tremendous King Lear, and, recently, British TV aired high-quality TV movies of Richard II, both Henry IVs, and Henry V. Things could be a lot worse, Shakespeare-film-wise.

Five very good Shakespeare movies were directed by Kenneth Branagh. The first one, Henry V, earned him an Oscar nomination for best director. His second, Much Ado about Nothing, was an honest-to-God hit. His third, Hamlet, was the only time in human history the unabridged play will feature in a feature film. His fourth, Love’s Labour’s Lost, was a Fred Astaire–style musical, or tried to be. It’s a flawed but good movie; it got mediocre reviews and lost money. His latest Shakespeare, As You Like It, fizzled; in its first year, it only managed a theatrical release in Italy.

But it’s a masterpiece. Bryce Dallas Howard and David Oyelowo star as Rosalind and Orlando, and they’re both really, truly brilliant. The film seems a little peculiar to begin with — it’s set in Colonial Japan — but it settles in wonderfully. As You Like It has some of Shakespeare’s best writing, it’s one of his best comedies, and Branagh’s movie is, at times, achingly beautiful. It was released in 2006, and Branagh hasn’t produced a Shakespeare movie since. Maybe I’m wrong, but I worry that after As You Like It’s cold-shoulder reception, he has given up on the idea. When Brutus stabbed Caesar (“the unkindest cut of all”) — Brutus, who “was Caesar’s angel: Judge, O You gods, how dearly Caesar loved him!” — “Ingratitude, more strong than traitors’ arms, quite vanquished him; then burst his mighty heart.”

I would like, so far as it’s possible, to avoid that situation with Branagh. He may not be Botticelli, but right now, his art’s being wasted — there are a lot of Shakespeare plays to be done, and he’s the man to do them.

So, on this 2,000th anniversary of Augustus’s death, you might ponder lessons in the fragility of republican systems, or watering the tree of liberty with the blood of patriots and tyrants, or ill-conceived assassinations. I’ll be thinking about how we could all use a movie of Antony and Cleopatra.

— Josh Gelernter is a writer in Connecticut.

EDITOR’S NOTE: This column has been amended since its initial posting.

Josh Gelernter — Josh Gelernter is a weekly columnist for NRO, and a frequent contributor to The Weekly Standard.

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