In the summer of 2017, New York City’s Shakespeare in the Park staged a production of Julius Caesar that proved unexpectedly controversial. As played by Gregg Henry, Julius Caesar had pursed lips, inscrutable blond hair, and an extra-long red tie. Sound familiar?
And—as the play calls for—he got viciously murdered halfway through the play. Right-wing news outlets like Fox News and Breitbart carried stories about this seditious show where Donald Trump gets viciously stabbed to death, and multiple sponsors pulled their support from the production.
It’s remarkable to think that Julius Caesar, written more than four centuries ago, still has the power to provoke. But one of the reasons why Shakespeare remains the unshakable cornerstone of the Western canon is that every generation finds a new way that he speaks to their times.
In Shakespeare’s own time, England was undergoing enormous political and social upheaval. The country was wracked by famine and plague, threatened by religious violence, and confronted with political crises whose resolutions were often unclear.
Shakespeare also wrote at a time of vigorous censorship. It was literally against the law for the theater to directly comment on current events. All plays back then had to be approved by an official who could demand changes to scripts or ban them outright. The political undercurrents of Shakespeare’s period are hidden in his plays, but they’re in there, helping to shape these works that would in turn shape our own understanding of the world.
So what political currents are likely influencing Shakespeare while he’s writing his plays? What can we learn about our present political moment from reading his works now? How have theater makers wrestled with staging the politics of Shakespeare’s plays? Those are the questions we’re investigating in Lend Me Your Ears, my new podcast miniseries for Slate.
Each month, we’ll investigate a different Shakespeare play: Julius Caesar, Richard II, King Lear, Measure for Measure, Othello, and Coriolanus. I’ll talk with experts—critics, historians, scholars, and theater makers—about Shakespeare’s England and the problems it faced. Together, we’ll dig into the plays to see how he’s responding to his current events, and the ways they map onto our own.
As we journey into Shakespeare’s world and work, you may want to take the opportunity to (re)read the plays or watch the movie versions—but it’s not necessary for enjoying Lend Me Your Ears. Whether you’re a Shakespeare neophyte or carry the complete works on your Kindle, we’ll tell you what you need to know.
Our first episode, which you can hear right now by subscribing in your favorite podcast player or clicking play below, is about Julius Caesar. It’s about why the fall of the Roman Republic spoke to people living in a monarchy in the late 16th century, and how Shakespeare’s version of that story continues to speak to us today.
We start with Caesar because it’s one of Shakespeare’s most accessible works, and it’s about a republic falling apart into violence, unrest, and demagoguery. The things that happen in Julius Caesar are the things we’ve begun to fear could happen in our own lifetimes. As we’ll hear, they’re things Shakespeare was worried about too.