Public Humanities

“I come to bury Caesar, not to praise him:” Shakespeare and the Politics of Interpretation

[5-7 minute read]

During my last month writing for Metathesis, I talked about the contemporary desire to find political meaning in Shakespeare’s plays. Then in June, Shakespeare in the Park staged a performance of Julius Caesar in which the actor playing Caesar consciously invoked the image of President Trump, mimicking his vocal affectation and his mannerisms. This performance was met with public backlash, as voices responded with anger at the idea of a publicly funded art institution staging the assassination of the sitting President. As someone who studies early modern drama, it was a surreal moment to see the nation spend a few days in the middle of Summer having a conversation focused on how to properly interpret Act 3 of Julius Caesar. For a moment in June 2017, the text of a play from 1599 about the death of a Roman Consul in 44 BC was at the heart of a public debate over the relationship between art and politics.

Image 1Per the performance, this was a Caesar who could stab a man on fifth avenue and not lose a supporter.

Most surprising to me was the outpouring of reactions to the controversy that framed it as one over interpretations of the play. These responses attempted to announce, as clearly as possible, that Julius Caesar is not a play that endorses political violence – and they were built upon textual arguments and close-readings.[1] These responses, from sources like The Guardian and The New York Times to The AV Club and The Atlantic, centered on the idea that a sufficiently skillful reading of the text of Julius Caesar would clear up any confusion over whether or not the production supported the actions of the Roman conspirators. By extension, this assumption meant a skillful reading would also appropriately address – and perhaps deflate – any anger of what the play was perceived to say about President Trump. For these responses, the portion of the public angry about the performance was simply missing the point of the play, or as Atlantic frames it, it was a case of “[m]isplaced [o]utrage.” The Guardian piece brings in Stephen Greenblatt to explain how dissenters are missing “the point of the play.” Even the statement by the theater itself is built partially on this premise, stating “Shakespeare’s play, and our production, make the opposite point: those who attempt to defend democracy by undemocratic means pay a terrible price and destroy the very thing they are fighting to save.” Invoking the authorial voice of Shakespeare alongside their own production decisions, the statement reads as not only a defense of artistic integrity, but also a pointed claim: at the heart of the controversy is a misreading of Julius Caesar.

Now, these responses also seem intent on producing a singular interpretative lens through which to view the play. These readings gloss over the idea that while one can read Julius Caesar as a play that is deeply skeptical about the conspiratorial action of figures like Cassius and Brutus, it can also be read as a play in which a demagogue exploits a mob of Roman citizens and preys upon their anger and resentment to compel them to destructive violence. This notably includes a scene in which the mob tears a poet to shreds because they dislike his verses, an equally prescient interpretation. However, for me, the fascinating aspect of these responses lies less in the specific interpretations that they provide for Julius Caesar, and more in the underlying assumption that the entire ordeal stemmed from a debate over the textual meaning of Act 3 of Julius Caesar, with the accompanying suggestion that this would be cleared up through the authoritative voices of individuals who were simply better readers. This move signals an important divide in how the various voices in the conversation conceptualize the place of the stage (and other arts) in public discourse. Shakespeare, these responses seem to imply, is more in danger of being misread than anything else. The political undercurrents of the play are not dangerous; rather, the possibility that they will be misunderstood is dangerous and that must be warded against.

Central to this conversation is the implication that the theater is a site of political tension and that the interpretation of this tension can be, and often is, a deeply political act. This is certainly not a new debate. For another examination of the relationship between theater and the present administration, see Ashley O’Mara’s Persuasive Performance: Theater and Conversion. Tensions surrounding the theater and the role of drama in the Anglophonic world date back to the foundation of the first public theaters and in my next post, I’m going to explore how debates over the place of the theater in public political life have evolved since Shakespeare’s work were first performed on the London stage.

[1] Putting my own personal interpretative cards on the table: Julius Caesar is not a play that endorses political violence. Also, it should be noted that the original story that generated anger around the performance neglected to mention that the play in question was Julius Caesar.

Evan Hixon is a third-year Ph.D. student in the English Department. His studies focus on Early Modern British theater with an emphasis on Shakespeare, political theory and Anglo-Italian relations. His current research work examines the rise of English Machiavellian political thought during the reign of Elizabeth I.


Adventures in academic-land

No one likes to come off as stupid (or not smart enough) at a gathering, big or small.

Right now, you might be disagreeing with my statement and telling yourself or whoever is sitting beside you, “That’s not true! I don’t mind being ignorant because not everyone knows everything. At least, I get rid of my ignorance by being a good listener!” I used to tell myself that too. But if I was being really honest, I knew that whenever I heard a huge academic term like “heteronormative” or “historicize” and didn’t know what it meant in the given context, for a split second I would feel quite stupid. Now imagine the feeling when you start dating someone from the field of academia!

That feeling of stupidity increased exponentially whenever I was around my partner’s friends. They would talk about microagressions, cultural zeitgeist, postmodernism, cryptic eroticism, antiquity, etc., and I would nod along with a smile on my face, all the while trying to wrap my head around the concepts they were talking about. Yeah, I have been through many a Joey Tribbiani moment.

You know where it gets worse, though? When you work on a university magazine with intelligent and witty undergraduates who seem to be fluent in the same rhetoric. They could start a conversation on social issues that intersect across myriad identities with a panache that would put many members of the Congress to shame. It was not just awareness of the times they were living in; it was the eloquent way they could sum up their thoughts using the words that the situation warranted. It is as inspiring as it is intimidating.

And this is where I feel cheated with my undergraduate education. I had decided I wanted to be a journalist when I was in high school. I followed the straight and narrow path during my undergraduate degree to achieve that goal. And no one stopped me to help me realize that there were other things I could learn on the way. For my professional parents, law, medicine and engineering were the careers for winners. To get them to allow me to pursue journalism was hard enough: imagine telling them I wanted to take up gender studies as even a minor. Queer theory was OUT OF THE QUESTION!

Thankfully, though, having met a group of sharp-as-a-whip undergrads and dating a very intelligent academic opened up opportunities for me at graduate school. As a business student, I could not use my credits for classes at the Hall of Languages. After all, if I want to run a successful business in the future, I have to learn about analyzing financial statements and conducting effective market research. So, even with the limitations I faced, I realized I could sign out books about marginalized sexualities and genders from the library, talk to my personal academic about the hypersexualized representation of black men, and chat with my other academic friends about the chauvinistic depictions of women in the media. In hindsight, I realize that to understand myriad identities and their history will probably make me better at my craft.

To engage in these conversations and immerse myself in issues that interest me makes me happier—if not less stupid. I have a long way to go, though, before I can actually be even as smart as the undergrads I spoke about.

To move out of our comfort zone and learn something beyond our immediate curriculum is an important ingredient for our personal and professional growth. It helps broaden horizons and creates perspectives that we hadn’t encountered before. It creates a nuanced thinking process. And graduate school presents the perfect opportunity for all that. Thankfully.

Aishik Barua is a 2nd-year MBA student concentrating on media marketing. He is particularly in love with TV shows (from The Sopranos to The Flash), books (from The Little Prince to the Harry Clifton series) and a myriad number of modern era conspiracy theories. When he is not screwing his eyes at some website’s Google Analytics page, he could be found doodling with his sketch pencils, cooking a new dish or simply engaging in general goofiness.

About being a well-meaning, presumptuous neighbor

She asked me, “Is it true? Do your people wear loin cloths on a daily basis? Also, what about snakes? Do they slither around everywhere, like on the streets and stuff?” Having heard that, you’d expect me to be apoplectic with rage and indignation. You’d expect me to rant about India being a developing nation with world-class infrastructure, educational institutions, physiological amenities, and several other what-nots. You’d at least expect me to tell the rude lady to get her facts straight. But I did none of those. Why? Because she had just fed me a substantially large portion of her scrumptious dinner spread. But also, because she was not being mean or sarcastic. She was genuinely ignorant, and needed clarification about these absurd things she has gathered knowledge of through her American news channels (read: FOX).

Yet, she was a homemaker from a nondescript town in rural America. Right in the thick of things at one of the nation’s largest universities, a colleague complimented me on my perfect English pronunciations and diction. Of course a compliment is a good thing—not when it comes with the hint of unmasked surprise though. It was almost unbelievable to him that my spoken English was so vastly different from The Simpsons’ Apu Nahasapeemapetilon. I get it though. I mean how can an ethnic man who speaks perfect English be considered “exotic”? There needs to be at least the slightest hint of an accent.



Pictured: A fictional character

Things get more bizarre about halfway across the world or around 8,500 miles away from here. When I was packing my bags to travel the said 8,500 miles from India to the US, a very well-meaning relative of mine quipped, “Please make sure you shower every day. It’s cold up there, so the people don’t shower every day, and they start to stink. Please don’t fall into that mold.” Imagine how surprised she would be if she visited me here and realized that the only ones who don’t shower every day are my new neighbor, my big fat cat and her husband.

However, if you thought my well-meaning relative had bizarre notions, wait till you hear what my other well-meaning relatives’ notions were. Apparently, white girls wear short dresses and lure the good Indian boys, so at no cost was I to fall into their “trap.” I am to go back and marry a good Indian girl who wears a sari and shows off her midriff because, God knows, a woman’s bare legs are more tempting and scandalous than her bare midriff.

The fact is though, if you and I sat down to analyze the psyche of my well-meaning relatives as well as that good American lady and that good white lad, we will realize that they are all inherently nice people who are ignorant of the ways of people who exist miles away from them. They were brought up on cultural stereotypes, compounded with their own embellished imaginings of what the far-east or the far-west might be like. We could shame them or reprimand them for their statements, but we know that that’d be futile. As the small community of students who have the privilege of soaking in the culture of two very different worlds, it is our duty to educate them.

We could politely tell the good ole lady that what she was asking me was mildly racist. We could tell my colleague that even though sometimes art imitates reality often it is a mere exaggeration. And we could tell my well-meaning relatives that their regressive opinions about the west could well be the reason of the growing rape culture in their own nation. It is important to use our knowledge as the ‘glocal’ citizens of this generation to engage in these discussions. It is important to help them realize the need and reality of having bridged the gap between ‘us’ and ‘them.’ It is important to initiate them into cultural and racial sensitivity that us as graduate students have had the privilege of learning and understanding. It is important to help them help us make this world a better place. After all, isn’t that what all of us as a global community eagerly want?

Images from Wikipedia and

Aishik Barua is a 2nd-year MBA student concentrating on media marketing. He is particularly in love with TV shows (from The Sopranos to The Flash), books (from The Little Prince to the Harry Clifton series) and a myriad number of modern era conspiracy theories. When he is not screwing his eyes at some website’s Google Analytics page, he could be found doodling with his sketch pencils, cooking a new dish or simply engaging in general goofiness.

Wait, what do we do?

Wait, what do we do? – Staci Stutsman (29 August 2014)

I’ve spent a lot of the summer traveling around and visiting friends and family from back home. We eat, we drink, we catch up. Inevitably, these catching-up conversations wind their way back around to one of my loved ones asking, “So, wait, what do you do?”  As an English Ph.D. student just finishing up coursework, I spend a good deal of the academic year sequestered off from the real world; I am absorbed in the latest reading assignment, pushing through a seminar paper, or rushing through that week’s to-do list.  It’s quite easy to forget that there’s a real world out there, a real world filled with actual people who live actual lives that are not dictated by the academic clock.

While there are many competing ideas about how to define the Public Humanities, I believe it means that one should connect in significant ways with the public outside of academia. It means having engaged and sustained conversations about the world, the texts we consume, and our ideas. Kristen Case notes that “the most substantial contribution of the humanities to public life does not come through empowering elite students and faculty members to reach out to their communities.” Instead, it comes from “extending the most fundamental element of a real humanities education—the power to doubt and then to reimagine.”

With this in mind, the Syracuse University English graduate students wish to launch this blog.  This blog is not meant as a benevolent vehicle through which we most graciously bestow our ideas onto the public. Rather, it will be meant as a forum through which to start conversations.  We want to demonstrate exactly “what we do” by doing it with the public.  We want to let the public in on our process as we collectively doubt and then reimagine. We want to use the skills we have gained through our humanities education—the power to think critically about the world, close read, and engage with theory—to have conversations with the public outside of our small cohort, our discipline, and the university. We are interested in hearing how other graduate students are engaging in public humanities pursuits so that we can learn from each other.  We want this conversation to be made widely available, not locked behind a pay wall. And we want to hear others’ voices.

With that said, we welcome you all to this conversation.  A monthly blogger will post weekly and these posts will reflect the diversity of English studies in general and our department specifically. We hope that you read, join in if you wish, and share with others.

Staci Stutsman is a fourth year PhD student and teaching associate in the English department.  She will be taking her qualifying exam on film and television melodrama this fall.  She teaches introductory level film and popular culture courses and spends her free time binge watching TV, board gaming, and working out.