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“Friends, Romans, football fans: Lend me your ears”

Jason Scherschligt

I recently saw Shakespeare’s Julius Caesar at the Guthrie’s Dowling Studio. As my wife and I left home to attend the show, I expressed a minor, stereotypical regret: Yes, I was glad for our date night, but disappointed that I had to miss that night’s NFL playoff game between the New England Patriots and the Denver Broncos.
I had been eager to watch the powerhouse Patriots, led by the league’s most glamorous star, quarterback Tom Brady, take on the upstart Broncos, led by young Tim Tebow. Tebow’s unconventional skills had brought the Broncos a series of unlikely late season victories, including an overtime win against our hapless hometown Vikings. (OK, that one was less unlikely.) He became a sudden darling of the American hype machine due to his penchant for heartstopping victories and to his earnest persona and open displays of evangelical Christian faith.
As the NFL season progressed, Tebow’s myth grew, and he became the subject of lightweight debates about sports clichés like the value of “intangibles” and invocations of God’s will in meaningless sports contests. His many fans praised his moral fiber, his upright manner, his leadership and composure. They often expressed their praise in language of miracles and mysticism. (“In the victory over the Steelers, Tebow threw for 316 yards. You know, as in John 3:16?”) His detractors quickly tired of Tebow’s squeaky clean image, searching for hypocrisies in his expressions of faith and mostly noting that he may not actually be that great of a player. (His passing statistics hovered near the bottom of the league, and many of Denver’s victories were better credited to Denver’s stout defense than to Tebow’s play.)

The rout of an empire

Such were my thoughts as I shut off my smartphone updates and turned my attention to Julius Caesar. This is an arresting production of Shakespeare’s tale of conspiracy and violence. Director Rob Melrose and his cast of young actors give the script a cool, contemporary staging, featuring a spare set, high-def video, and thumping hip-hop. Caesar, Marc Antony, Brutus, Cassius, and Portia are presented as ultramodern politicians, and though they speak of Rome and warhorses, the visual vocabulary is of motorcades and cabinet meetings. There’s nary a toga in sight.

His many fans praised his moral fiber, his upright manner, his leadership and composure.

Such a staging, especially during this election year, is clearly designed to connect Shakespeare’s themes to modern American politics. Leaders scheming to shape the will of the populace and compromising principles for political position are as applicable now as they were in Elizabethan England or ancient Rome. I say this as no great insight; the connection is overt.
The public images of these characters are something quite apart from their private selves. The public Caesar is a creation, and the man who inhabits that creation is only a co-collaborator. Indeed, how the Roman plebeians ultimately regard Caesar will not be determined by Caesar himself, but by the competing orations delivered by Brutus and Antony in the play’s pivotal scene. When Antony’s rhetoric bests Brutus’, public opinion turns and the world descends to violence.
What the masses don’t see, but what Shakespeare reveals in the play’s quieter moments, is how ordinary the private Caesar is. The “colossus” of Rome is deaf in one ear. He’s prone to fevers. He’s not even a good swimmer. In public, he wears a power suit; in private, he wears pajamas.
As I left the theater that night, I noticed a nearby bar showing the Broncos-Patriots game. I stopped on the sidewalk and watched for a bit, through a window, across a room, on a silent TV broadcasting action occurring on a field a thousand miles away.
When I saw the score — a Patriots rout — I wondered how Tebow, colossus of Denver, had fared and how this loss would affect his mythology. The character of Tim Tebow is an uncommon leader, a potential savior of our flawed culture who could run for office some day. But is that really the man? I have no idea. I only know that, as I choose who will lead our institutions and receive my admiration, I’ll remember Shakespeare’s words and beware our tendency to “construe things after their fashion/ Clean from the purpose of the things themselves.”
Jason Scherschligt manages Web content and collaboration for Capella University in Minneapolis. He and his family live in Plymouth, Minnesota, where they attend St. Philip the Deacon Lutheran Church (ELCA). He is also a board member of Metro Lutheran.

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