Saturday, 3 February 2018

The Ascent of Reason

In Ars Poetica the Roman poet Quintus Horatius  Flaccus (65 BCE to 8 BCE), known as Horace, wrote "Parturient montes, nascetur ridiculus mus" (Line 139). Roughly translated this reads "the mountains will go into labour and produce a ridiculous mouse". Horace is poking fun at Herculean efforts yielding meagre results. Could Shakespeare have had this thought in mind when he wrote Much Ado About Nothing. The sentiment is  exactly the same.  In addition Horace also wrote "Graecia capta ferum victorem cepit et artes intulit agresti Latio" (Epistles, Book II, Lines 156-157) which translates as "Conquered Greece took captive her savage conqueror and brought her arts unto primitive Rome".
When I was at school this was taught simply as "Conquered Greece Conquered Rome". Although the Roman armies conquered the Grecian empire, Greek philosophy, science and arts became highly respected and influential in the Roman Empire.  Horace also wrote Carpe Diem or Seize the Day. A work colleague who left school at 15 with no qualifications but was a keen angler once told me that Carpe Diem meant Seize the Carp!!  Its a poor translation but the intention is still there provided one is going fishing for Carp!
Ralph Fiennes in Julius Caesar

In 2005 I saw the RSC production of Julius Caesar at the Barbican in  London. The play was directed by Deborah Warner and featured Simon Russell Beale, Anton Lesser and Ralph Fiennes. However, the production is best remembered for the crowd scenes which featured over a 100 young actors to recreate an authentic Roman riot. I hope that the stage had been suitably reinforced!!  However, I think the genius of Shakespeare's Julius Caesar is not so much to be found in the crowd scenes but in the subtle dialogue between the characters that is often softly spoken. Shakespeare was writing his plays during the Renaissance when the rediscovery of ancient Greek texts was revolutionising Europe. Of course the texts themselves had not been lost its just that they had been translated into Arabic and preserved in Middle Eastern centres of learning. In centres such as Toledo and Palermo  these works were translated first into Hebrew and then into Latin or into the vernacular and then circulated via monasteries and centres of learning. In two separate dialogues in Julius Caesar we can see how the dawn of the age of reason has begun to influence Shakespeare. In Act I, Scene 2 Cassius says "The fault dear Brutus is not in our stars, but in ourselves, that we are underlings". In Roman times such a statement would have been unthinkable. The Romans believed in pre-destiny and in the will of the gods which was written in the stars. Cassius refutes this belief and instead implies that Brutus and he can change their destinies. Shakespeare here is being critical of astrology and the influence of the stars on men's fortunes.
Elsewhere in Julius Caesar in Act I, Scene 3 Casca is worried about a fiery storm and other portents that he attributes to a civil strife in heaven which will spill over onto the Earth! However, Cicero allays Casca's fears and simply states that "Indeed, it is a strange-disposed time: But men may construe things after their fashion". Cicero's response is clear minded and measured and shows how the rational mind may explain such events as natural  rather than divine occurrences. The Renaissance was an interesting time and Shakespeare's works provide a useful commentary and insight into this fascinating period.

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