Live true, die anyway

Posted: Thursday, February 18, 2010

"To thine own self be true," Shakespeare wrote in Hamlet. It's a line that's become something of a platitude, often quoted as advice for living an honest, authentic life: Live true to your nature, it suggests, and all will be well.

Courtesy Of Carl Brodersen
Courtesy Of Carl Brodersen

But Shakespeare the tragedian knew very well that living true to one's nature was no guarantee of happiness - on the contrary. In many of his plays, as in classical Greek tragedy, the hero who follows the path he believes is right is quite often doomed; the inevitability of his choices, and his inability to act otherwise, is one of the basic tenants of the form.

In Shakespeare's "The Tragedy of Julius Caesar," which Theatre in the Rough begins performing tonight, the characters follow their true natures with disastrous results, said the play's director Aaron Elmore. Though the decisions they make may be right for them individually, they rub up against those of other characters, creating friction, eventually building to violence and death. It is this dynamic within the group of characters, and the audience's apprehension of it, that fuels the play, Elmore said.

"What drives the action from the tippity top all the way to the end is the audience's relationship with this group of people," he said.

"They're constantly pursing their own natures at the expense of the group."

This makes the play unusual for Shakespeare, Elmore said, as most of his plays revolve around a central character, blood relationship or romantic involvement. Though Caesar is the title character, he dies midway through the play and isn't the focus of most of the action.

"He dies very early, so why is it his tragedy? I think it's just that - because of his nature, he's unable to avoid any choice but what he did," Elmore said.

The action involves the intersecting motivations of Caesar (Ed Christian) and three others: Marcus Brutus (Katie Jensen), Caesar's friend who turns against him after he suspects he's becoming a tyrant; Caius Cassius (Michael Matthews) a conspirator who eggs Brutus on; and Mark Anthony (Dan Reaume), who aligns himself with the Roman people against Brutus after Caesar's death.

The psychological struggles and intrigue are borne out in violent ways throughout the play; the famous assassination scene is but one example.

"It's a very bloody play," Elmore said. "By the time we get to act two, there's an entire civll war going on."

This makes for a very exciting, dynamic play, one that Elmore said is among Shakespeare's most simple in terms of language.

Elmore has added a chorus, or narrative role, to the beginning of some scenes to help explain the historical setting and other elements in brief descriptive passages. But an understanding of the politics and history involved in Caesar's story, and an appreciation of the pageantry of the Romans, is only a part of the whole. It's the human element that really makes the story move.

"Politics, design, location -- it's really extra, it's how the story gets told, but the real story is this journey that you end up taking with this group of people, and I find that very unique in the whole cannon."

• Contact Arts & Culture editor Amy Fletcher at 523-2283 or

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