Gary Taylor

Act Three, Scene Three of Julius Caesar ends with the murder of a poet. It begins with a stage direction: Enter Cinna the poet, and after him the Plebeians. This direction creates two oppositions. The poet is opposed to the plebeians. And ‘Cinna the poet’ is opposed to ‘Cinna the conspirator’, a character with the same name but a different vocation. On these two oppositions – between poet and plebeians, between poet and conspirator – Shakespeare builds his narrative of bardicide.

You might object that he inherited these oppositions from history. But of Plutarch’s two accounts of ‘the murder of Cinna’, only one even mentions, in passing, that the victim was ‘a poet’. Given a choice, Shakespeare chose to make Cinna a poet. He also chose to dramatise this superfluous episode. In inserting this scene and insisting upon Cinna’s vocation, he asserted a relationship between literature and politics. Whether ‘the aesthetic and the ideological are necessarily intertwined in literature and literary criticism’ is the question vigorously debated by the 19 contributors to Shakespeare Left and Right, a question repeatedly and vehemently asked in the current American debate about ‘political correctness’. But in this scene from Julius Caesar the relationship between politics and poetics is not imported by a Post-Modernist critic, but demanded by Shakespeare.

Moreover, Shakespeare did not simply transcribe into the sign-language of the theatre a historian’s prose: he changed the story – and changed it in ways which make it, if anything, less dramatic. Plutarch does not say how the plebeians slew Cinna. Shakespeare insists, five times, that the plebeians dismember him. It is not easy to dismember an actor on stage; it would have been especially difficult in the Elizabethan theatre. Why so insistently demand a theatrically impossible dismemberment?

In dismembering Cinna Shakespeare must have remembered, and expected many playgoers to remember, the death of Orpheus. Orpheus – the Muse’s own son, the mythological original and iconographic epitome of the poet – was murdered by a crowd which tore him to pieces. Five times elsewhere in the 1590s Shakespeare explicitly referred to Orpheus, who was part of the Renaissance literary system, its emblem books and dictionaries, its cheap pamphlets and expensive masques, its popular and esoteric discourses.

By making Cinna’s death visually, verbally and actively echo that of Orpheus, Shakespeare implies that what happened to Cinna is not an accidental narrative episode but a recurrent pattern in the history of culture. Plutarch’s Cinna is ‘a poet’, once; Shakespeare’s Cinna is (three times) ‘the poet’. Cinna’s death is Orpheus’s death is the death of ‘the poet’, as a Platonic and social category.

Shakespeare, in dramatising Plutarch, generalises and emphasises the murder of the poet. This emphatic generality would also have been encouraged by the circumstances of the play’s early performances. Julius Caesar was seen by a tourist on 21 September 1599; most scholars now agree that this must have been one of its first performances. In June 1599, the government decreed ‘that no satires or epigrams be printed hereafter,’ and on 4 June many published satires were, by order of Archbishop Whitgift and Bishop Bancroft, publicly burned. Julius Caesar was thus probably being written at a time when books were being burned. Is the timing coincidental? It was not coincidental that the first American revival of Julius Caesar which restored this scene took place in 1937, when books were being burned in Germany: Orson Welles portrayed the plebeians who murder Cinna as Fascist Brown-shirts. In 1937, in 1599, Julius Caesar dramatised an attack on a poet, at a time when poets were being attacked outside the theatre.

Act Three, Scene Three of Julius Caesar is Shakespeare’s Defence of Poetry. The death of the author is here attributed to a strong misreading. The ambiguous proper noun ‘Cinna’ is misinterpreted by a plebeian auditory, who attribute to it a political meaning which it does not have. The poet Shakespeare constructs a scenario in which the poet is unmistakably innocent; the poet’s work, unmistakably apolitical; the poet’s intentions, unmistakably clear; the popular reading of the poet, unmistakably mistaken.

But this very scene, which denies that the poet is a political agent, is itself a political act – was a political act in 1599, and has been one ever since. Every disavowal is an avowal. Consider, for instance, Shakespeare’s portrayal of the populace. Shakespeare had two models for the crowd that murders a poet, and he altered both. The crowd that murdered Orpheus knew who it was murdering, and why. In a long poem printed in 1597, the legend of Orpheus is made the occasion for extensive satire on women; Bacon’s De Sapienta Veterum of 1609 explains ‘it is wisely added in the story that Orpheus was averse from women and from marriage; for the sweets of marriage ... commonly draw men away from performing great and lofty services ...’; in Fletcher’s play of 1617, Orpheus tries to persuade the Mad Lover that the love of women is a hellish plague. The hostility of women to such a poet is understandable. The Orpheus myth – in which a crowd of women murders a male poet, deliberately – was always overdetermined by gender, and the cultural logic of that myth is perpetuated by those who see feminist criticism as an enemy of literature.

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