Nashville Great Books Discussion Group

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Friday, June 18, 2010

GEORGE BERNARD SHAW: Caesar and Cleopatra

Shakespeare’s play Antony and Cleopatra is a love story but it’s also the story of the clash between the cultures of Rome and Egypt. George Bernard Shaw’s Caesar and Cleopatra is a love story too and it’s also the story of the clash between the cultures of Rome and Egypt. So what’s the difference? In Shakespeare CLEOPATRA says: He (Antony) was dispos’d to mirth, but on the sudden a Roman thought hath struck him. For Shakespeare Rome was grimly firm; Egypt was pleasantly weak. Mark Antony was portrayed as sliding away from the manly Roman virtues into the extravagant pleasures offered by “the East” as personified in Cleopatra. In Shaw’s play Romans are generally portrayed as crude money-grabbers while Egyptians are portrayed as the truly civilized culture. Shaw has the Egyptian BELZANOR say: That shows that the Romans are cowards. His companion BEL AFFRIS replies: They care nothing about cowardice, these Romans: they fight to win. The pride and honor of war are nothing to them. This is a different interpretation than the one Shakespeare had made. For Shakespeare the Romans are proud and honorable. They’re just misled by the temptations of an alien Eastern culture. In Shaw’s play it’s the Egyptians who are a proud and honorable people; the Romans are mostly just tough and brutish soldiers from a simple and close-minded country.

But Shaw is too good a writer to follow the simplistic formula Egyptians good, Romans bad. As in real life, there are good and bad people on both sides. And the real fight is between clashing cultural values. Honorable people on both sides violently disagree. It’s not because one is good and the other one is bad, or because one is right and the other one is wrong. They disagree because they’re not starting from the same set of cultural assumptions. For example, the question of whom one should or should not marry and have sexual relations with. The following exchange takes place between honorable men: THEODOTUS: Caesar, you are a stranger here, and not conversant with our laws. The kings and queens of Egypt may not marry except with their own royal blood. Ptolemy and Cleopatra are born king and consort just as they are born brother and sister. BRITANNUS (shocked): Caesar, this is not proper. THEODOTUS: (outraged). How! CAESAR (recovering his self-possession): Pardon him Theodotus, he is a barbarian and thinks that the customs of his tribe and island are the laws of nature. BRITANNUS: On the contrary, Caesar, it is these Egyptians who are barbarians; and you do wrong to encourage them. I say it is a scandal.

Theodotus thinks it’s only natural for royalty to produce royal offspring. That’s the way he was raised. Britannus is horrified at the idea of a brother and sister having sex. That’s the way he was raised. Caesar is wise enough to see the irony at play here and makes this observation:
CAESAR: Scandal or not, my friend, it opens the gate of peace. For Caesar the main question is: what works? In some ways Caesar follows Mill’s Utilitarian philosophy to maximize the pleasure and minimize the pain. This often puts him in conflict with how the rest of the world thinks and acts. And it makes him different from most men. Here’s an example: POTHINUS: Caesar, I come to warn you of a danger, and to make you an offer. CAESAR: Never mind the danger. Make the offer. RUFIO: Never mind the offer. What's the danger? POTHINUS: Caesar, you think that Cleopatra is devoted to you. CAESAR (gravely): My friend I already know what I think. Come to your offer. Pothinus and Rufio are both good and honorable men. But they’re also products of their old fashioned cultures and find comfort in them. Caesar is a universal man and accepts new cultural values but he’s not really “at home” anywhere. Which is better? Shakespeare prefers the old fashioned English way of life. Shaw makes fun of it.


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