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Julius Caesar

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Submitted By chrisr2013
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Composers of texts often seek to present their opinions in such a way that influences the responder to agree or empathise with the composer. In both Shakespeare’s Julius Caesar and Shekhar Kapur’s Elizabeth, the composers’ perspectives on these historical figures and events are portrayed in unique ways which contradict and are contradicted by perspectives from other sources. Reasons for these differences can include the form of text and context of the composer, both of which affect not only the composer’s perspective, but the way in which they present it.

Both Julius Caesar and Elizabeth are forms of text which serve primarily to entertain the audience. Even supposedly ‘historical’ plays and films do not have to adhere strictly to the ‘facts’ of history, but often stray from such accuracy in order to enhance entertainment value. For this reason, the viewpoint they may present on historical events or personalities can often conflict with accounts from other, more strictly historical, sources.
For example, Julius Caesar was largely based off and echoes Plutarch’s Life of Caesar, and yet the two differ notably in many respects, such as the depiction of the funeral oratories given by Brutus and Antony. In Plutarch’s history, events are recounted very drily and matter-of-fact: “Brutus… came down from the capitol, and spoke to the people.” There is no direct quotation, details of the speech, or emotive language. Shakespeare on the other hand has both men give a detailed and well-crafted speech, Brutus’ to logically absolve himself of guilt and Antony’s to craftily and eloquently turn the public against the conspirators. Shakespeare employs rhetorical techniques appropriate for a stage play, such as the repetition of “but Caesar was ambitious”, and “Brutus is an honourable man”, which communicate to the audience the dubious nature of the conspirators’ justifications, and build upon Antony’s characterisation as a master politician. Such techniques excite a response of suspense and curiosity from the audience. In addition to this, he contrasts Brutus’ logical, reasoned language (“that you may be the better judge”) with Antony’s highly emotive language (saturated with words such as “rage”, “inflame”, “weep”, “love”), which position the audience to – like the onstage public – side with Antony. Shakespeare also uses rhetorical questions in both men’s speeches to draw the audience in and make them to consider the questions raised. Antony’s speech was not at all recounted by Plutarch, according to whom the rage of the public against the conspirators was awakened by the sight of Caesar’s corpse and reading of his will independent of Antony. However, the reason for these conflicting accounts is clear: Plutarch sought merely to record an accurate recount of events in an historical manner, whereas Shakespeare was free to fabricate events for dramatic effect. The former sought to inform, and for the reader’s response to be a heightened understanding of events, whereas the latter intended for the audience’s response to be more emotional (shock or sympathy), and achieved this by direct and emotive language, as well as dramatic techniques. In this way, each composer’s perspective was influenced by his form (play or history), and the way in which he presented his representation manipulated the reader (or viewer)’s response.
Similar breaks from history in order to fit the form of film can be found in Kapur’s Elizabeth. Perhaps the most glaring of these is the sex scene between Lord Dudley and Queen Elizabeth; as the latter is famously labelled ‘the Virgin Queen’ and was much revered for her chastity, such a portrayal may seem odd. Historians such as Alison Weir (Elizabeth, the Queen) flatly contradict it: "Elizabeth was too much mistress of herself and too great a stateswoman to succumb to the temptations of illicit sex". Her word choice itself manipulates the reader – juxtaposing “mistress of herself”, an image of strength, with “succumb”, which is an image of weakness. It effectively persuades the reader of such an unlikelihood. Of course, as with the differences between Shakespeare’s and Plutarch’s versions of Brutus’ and Antony’s speeches, the conflicting perspectives on Elizabeth’s virginity between historians such as Weir and film directors such as Kapur can be understood by the difference of their text form. Histories, where something (such as the queen’s virginity) is unclear or unproven, must take the logical stance, which in this case is the probability of her having been unable to sleep with a man due to the constant surveillance of her ladies and court, as well as the pressures associated with being Queen. Film directors, however, are under no such pressure to be rational, and may take the route more exciting or entertaining to a modern audience. Sex, of course, is often just the type of ‘excitement’ which adds appeal to a modern audience, as well as making a somewhat foreign time setting like Elizabethan England more relatable to 21st century audiences. Elizabeth’s sex scene is shot using soft lighting, slow camera movement around the bed, and often the shot is obscured by gauzy linen. This is combination with the soft violin music produces a very sensual feel to the scene, making it not simply a sex scene, but also a very intimate and personal depiction of one. This was because Kapur’s titular figure was intended to be one with whom the audience could relate, rather than a historical figure to study, as in strictly historical works about her (such as that by Weir). Ahistorically showing Queen Elizabeth engaging in activities such as crying and making love make her more relatable.
Other ways in which historical liberties were taken for the sake of the film form include condensing a number of events into a shorter space of time, in order to make the story more action-packed and fast-paced, as is expected by a modern audience, as well as the fictional execution of a number of characters who were in actuality loyal to the queen and died of natural causes. Kapur’s representation of Queen Elizabeth and her time certainly conflicts with written histories of the queen, but these choices have been intentionally made to serve the purpose of the text form: film. Kapur himself asserts that “history has always been an interpretation”, and Kapur’s interpretation is such that is geared towards a modern medium and audience, though this is in conflict with other historical interpretations. As in Shakespeare’s Julius Caesar, historical accuracy in Elizabeth was often sacrificed for the sake of entertainment and tailoring the story to manipulate the audience’s response in such a way as would fit the expectations of the text form.

But form is not the only factor which influences the perspective and representation of it in a text. Another is of course the context of the composer, and how this shapes his or her opinions and the way in which he or she can express them. Thus, composers whose texts examine the same personality or issue may present conflicting representations based on the limitations or paradigms of their time and circumstances. In addition to this, the extent to and way in which responders are influenced by the representation may also be affected by the composer’s time and context. This can be seen in Julius Caesar, which can be read as an analogous political comment on the issue of succession in England at the time. In Shakespeare’s time the airing of one’s opinions on political and social issues was highly censored and at times even dangerous. This necessitated such commentary to be in forms such as plays like Julius Caesar, which draws parallels between an historical political atmosphere and the contemporary one, which the audience of the time would have realised. Queen Elizabeth was, like Caesar at the time of the play, an ageing ruler who had brought her people great success in terms of the military, economy, international power and culture. However, like Caesar she was also a largely autocratic ruler whose succession was unclear. Shakespeare used the play to voice a pressing public question: would the death of such a ruler mean civil war? As was sensible in Elizabethan England, Shakespeare’s play shows clear support of the monarch, and projects a warning against plots to assassinate him or her. In Julius Caesar, bad omens such as “men in fire walking up and down the street”, lions in the capitol, and bad dreams forebode and decry the conspirators’ plan, suggesting to both characters and the audience in The Globe that intention to kill a monarch is an unholy act unsanctified by the divine. Shakespeare’s portrayal of Caesar as an infirm, doubting, fallible man with “the falling sickness” and who wishes to please his wife belie the conspirators’ description of him as a tyrant, and the conspirators’ eventual deaths – symbolically with the same weapons they used to kill Caesar – suggests that Shakespeare’s perspective was that in support of imperialism and the autocratic ruling power. However, if he had not been influenced by his time and his support of his contemporary ruling power, perhaps this perspective would have been quite different. A conflicting perspective which supports the opposite – rebellion against tyranny, and the actions of the conspirators – based on the composer’s personal political context, is the bust of Brutus sculpted by Michelangelo in the context of 1540s Florence. Michelangelo resented the ruling Medici family in Florence, and saw Brutus as a symbol of liberation and freedom from autocratic oppression. His sculpture is of the “heroic” trend, depicting Brutus as strong, handsome, and noble. Brutus’ chin is not lowered in shame of being a murderer, but neither is it lifted in arrogance; the bust achieves a perfect balance of pride of humility. The carved face has little expression save a slight frown of thoughtfulness, as the level eyes gaze into the distance. On the one hand, this correlates with the statement of Antony in Shakespeare’s play that Brutus was “the noblest Roman of them all”; yet on the other, it offers an unspeaking support of Brutus and the conspirators which is conspicuously lacking in Shakespeare’s representation. Responsible for these conflicting perspectives is the political context of their composers’ times and attitudes, and the ways in which they support their views – be they literary or theatrical techniques, or visual representations – support and prove these perspectives. Similarly, the context of Elizabeth director Shekhar Kapur shaped his perspectives on the historical characters and events as well as the way he portrayed them. The interest in Elizabeth I as a strong female ruler has figuratively exploded in recent years due to the progression of feminism and female empowerment, and Kapur’s depiction of Elizabeth – who by the end of the film emerges ruthless and strong, surrounded by bowing courtiers, defeated enemies and gazing directly into the camera – echoes this sentiment. It is in direct contradiction with earlier historians such as G. R. Elton, who describes Elizabeth’s “womanly failures” and her “unpleasingly old-maidish traits”. Elton, writing in the 1950s and having been brought up in the conservative Czech Republic, was in turn influenced by his contextual paradigms in regards to the weakness of women and their unfitness for rule (he also expresses that it was “unfortunate… that so much turned on women”). His depiction of Elizabeth as a woman is not the only way in which Kapur displays the influence of his context: Elizabeth has received criticism for being anti-Catholic, for its harsh depiction of the Pope and English Catholics. Such a perspective is becoming increasingly common in modern film, as seen in examples such as The da Vinci Code, in correlation to the decline of Catholic and Christian power in modern society. In Elizabeth Queen Mary is portrayed as being deformed, ugly, cruel and mentally unhinged; the other Catholics in the film are consistently dressed in black, are malevolent, and images of the cross dominate scenes of torture and pain. Of course even in modern times there are conflicting views in regards to such a representation: historian Franco Cardini of the University of Florence protested in response to the film’s release: “Why put out this perverse anti-Catholic propaganda today, just at the moment when we are trying desperately to revive our Western identity in the face of the Islamic threat?” However, Cardini’s own context should be considered: as a devout Catholic himself, and resident of Italy, the home of Catholicism, his perspective would inevitably be biased towards defending Catholicism. Kapur’s response to the allegations of anti-Catholicism, however, is denial: he maintains that his film is “non anti-Catholic. It is anti extreme forms of religion”, something “relevant to us now” because of the modern threat of terrorism fuelled by extreme forms of religion. Again, Kapur’s context as a member of the modern society has influenced him in the way he represents his opinion on extreme forms of religion, even though it has caused conflict. Thus the effect of context on composer and therefore perspective can be seen in Kapur’s Elizabeth as well as in Shakespeare’s Julius Caesar.

In both texts, the views presented by the composers have conflicted with either previous or subsequent perspectives on the same personalities, events and themes. These differences have been cause by the requirements and limitations of the text forms (play and film) as well as the contexts of the composers (both political and social). The diverse range of differing opinions have all found expression in different ways and with the employment of differing techniques, with various effects on the responder.…...

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