Written by Claire Hansen in Criticism and Research | 17.02.2015
The murder of Cinna the Poet in Julius Caesar is a contentious scene.
Over the course of the play’s production history, this scene (Act Three, scene three) was often cut. Gary Taylor describes how the scene is:
[S]o superfluous that it was almost invariably cut in revivals throughout the eighteenth century and most of the nineteenth, so superfluous that it continues to be ignored in almost all critical discussions of the play.(Gary Taylor, 'Bardicide' in Shakespeare and Cultural Traditions: The Selected Proceedings of the International Shakespeare Association World Congress, Tokyo, 1991, edited by Tetsuo Kishi, Roger Pringle and Stanley Wells, Newark: University of Delaware Press, 1994, p. 333.)
If not considered ‘superfluous’, the murder of Cinna is often interpreted as an unflattering portrayal of mob violence. The oration scene – in which the crowd is swayed first by Brutus, and then by Antony – is also sometimes read as evidence of the plebeians’ fickleness and disloyalty (Act Three, scene two).
But can the Roman public of Julius Caesar be reinterpreted? Taylor argues that the behaviour of the crowd as depicted by Shakespeare in Julius Caesar does not correlate to real-life crowd behaviour (see pp. 336-7). This blog post looks at two critical interpretations which re-empower the Roman public.
Alan Sinfield’s reading of the plebs uses his cultural materialist framework to offer what he calls an ‘anti-reading’ or ‘creative vandalism’ of the play (Faultlines: Cultural Materialism and the Politics of Dissident Reading, Berkeley: University of California Press, 1992, p. 24). In this reading, Sinfield explains:
I would move the plebeians to the centre, challenging directly the tendency of criticism to see them as the eternal mob and the tribunes as rabble-rousers[.](Sinfield, p. 17)
In his version of the play, he offers an alternative reading which spotlights the plebeians and sidelines the patricians (for more, see p. 20).
Building on this reinterpretation of the public in Julius Caesar, a more recent article by Christopher Holmes gives far more credit to the plebs:
The plebs in Julius Caesar have, on the whole, received harsh treatment in Shakespeare studies, and their treatment of Cinna has become a touchstone for discussions of Shakespeare’s attitudes towards the common people. What happens to Cinna, however, is not self-evident, nor is it necessarily mindless mob violence. Taking seriously the possibility that the plebs are players in their own right in the struggles for temporal order might profoundly disturb the fashion in which we construe Julius Caesar.(Holmes, Christopher. 'Time for the Plebs in Julius Caesar', Early Modern Literary Studies 7.2, 2001, p. 2)
Holmes counters traditional understanding of the plebeians in the play (and specifically in the Cinna scene) by asking:
What happens if Cinna does not die? One consequence of such a comic reading is that [we] might no longer read Julius Caesar through the lens of the ideological myth of the crowd, that irrational, cruel, fickle, and easily manipulable mob.(Holmes, p. 20)
Holmes’ reading of the scene reinterprets the attack on Cinna as a ‘parody’, as he argues a case can be made for the behaviour of the plebs as ‘a theatrical political gesture’ (p. 23). In his analysis, Cinna is not torn to pieces by an angry mob who instead 'turn him going' (3.3.31).
I would be interested to hear your interpretation of the plebeians in Julius Caesar, and the Cinna scene in particular. Join us on Facebook to share your thoughts on the play.
For more resources on the public in Julius Caesar, see:
- Holmes, Christopher. 'Time for the Plebs in Julius Caesar', Early Modern Literary Studies 7, no. 2 (2001): 1-32.
- Munro, Ian. The Figure of the Crowd in Early Modern London: The City and Its Double. New York and Basingstoke: Palgrave Macmillan, 2005.
- Patterson, Annabel. Shakespeare and the Popular Voice. Cambridge: Basil Blackwell, 1989.
- Sinfield, Alan. Faultlines: Cultural Materialism and the Politics of Dissident Reading. Berkeley: University of California Press, 1992.
- Spotswood, Jerald W. '"We Are Undone Already": Disarming the Multitude in Julius Caesar and Coriolanus', Texas Studies in Literature and Language 42, no. 1 (2000): 61-78.
- Zander, Horst, ed. Julius Caesar: New Critical Essays. New York: Routledge, 2005.