10 JUNE 2014
Rebellion and Sedition in Shakespeare
"Macbeth’s motives appear to be more personal than political; can the same be said for Cassius and Brutus?"
Sunday was a lovely day to consider Shakespearean sedition in situ. I was on a guided walk around the Borough district of London, the area just south of London Bridge where for hundreds of years activities that were not wanted in the City of London took place: nursing the sick, industrial processes and, in Shakespearean times, that challenging and anarchic thing, entertainment. The Rose and the Globe theatres were there. Bear baiting, cock fighting, taverns and brothels all vied for the visitors’ pennies.
Not only did you need to leave the more respectable areas of the city to go to see Shakespeare’s plays, but the very act of attending could encourage seditious behaviour according to the staunch Protestant minister John Northbrooke. In his 1576 treatise against ‘Dicing, Dancing, Vain Plays, or Interludes’ he wrote:
Go to plays ‘if you will learn how ….to murder, how to poison, how to disobey and rebel against princes.’
Can Julius Caesar and Macbeth really be seen as manuals for the seditiously inclined? Macbeth’s motives appear to be more personal than political; can the same be said for Cassius and Brutus? Secrecy is challenging for all. Macbeth murders at night in his own home, the conspirators in public in daylight. Their own deaths follow.
As we wandered past The Globe, I noticed the strap line for their new production of Julius Caesar ‘ Friends Close, Enemies Closer’ and I thought of the poignant moment when Caesar extends his hospitality to his would-be assassins in Act 2 Scene 2:
‘Good friends, go in and taste some wine with me’.
In Act 1 Scene 2 he has already shown how shrewd he is at spotting those who are dangerous, especially ‘that spare Cassius’. His overweening pride, however, does not allow him to fully explore the possibility of fear, making him vulnerable:
‘I rather tell thee what is to be feared
Than what I fear: for always I am Caesar’,
he tells Antony.
Macbeth clings to false hope as his world collapses, believing that no one can fulfil the witches’ prophecy that ‘none of woman born shall harm Macbeth’. He who was a rebel and is a regicide, having seemingly fulfilled other prophecies, shields himself from the possibility of his own downfall, ironically telling Macduff he bears ‘a charmed life’. After the fatal fight, Macduff enters with ‘the usurper’s cursed head’, a warning to all, like the heads of traitors that were displayed on the gate house of London Bridge.
Vicki Wienand is a former Head of English who taught English in a variety of schools, including one in Sydney. She then became a freelance publisher and began work on the Cambridge Schools Shakespeare series in 2011, becoming Series Editor with Richard Andrews. She co-edited Cambridge School Shakespeare Julius Caesar (latest edition) for the series.
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