Shaw's Masterpiece

Caesar and Cleopatra - George Bernard Shaw

The problem I face when I approach this play is that there is so much in it I simply do not know where to start. There is the character of Julius Caesar that Shaw seems to capture perfectly, from the wise and kind leader to the man who would repetitively show mercy to his enemies: which resulted in his own destruction. There is also the idea of the new empire meeting the old empire, and the elder statesman meeting the child queen and the interaction between the two. Then there is a beautiful scene at the baby sphinx where Caesar and Cleopatra first meet, and while Caesar is aware of who he is talking to, Cleopatra is not.

First, though, I should mention that Hollywood turned this play into a very faithful movie, and by clicking in the image below you will be taken to You-Tube where you can watch the full length feature:

Anyway, the first thing that struck me was the interplay between Julius Caesar and Queen Cleopatra: it is nothing short of brilliant. They are both in effect monarchs, but their view of political leadership is radically different. Cleopatra comes from the old school where the monarch does not work and has everything done for her, whereas Caesar is more of a modern monarch in that he works and he takes his position seriously. Secondly, Cleopatra is a queen and she is not afraid to let people know that she is the queen, however Caesar never lets on that he is a monarch, and in fact when he was offered the crown he refused it because while he is a leader, a general, and a statesman, he does not want to be known as a monarch, or a king.

In many ways this was the nature of the Roman Empire, in that it is portrayed as being a modern empire, an empire where everybody pulls their weight and works hard – it was a nation of farmers and soldiers, and the idea of the leader living in luxury and living off the hard work of others is anathema. This is clearly shown in the banquet scene where Caesar rebukes Cleopatra for the exotic food that is being brought before him. This is also shown where Cleopatra is shocked that Caesar, a leader, does not sleep in a luxurious bed, but rather in a cot in a tent, and even then, he does not sleep because he is up all night working.

Thus what we see here is a clash of kingdoms; a clash of the old and the new. As I was reading this play it seemed to be reflective of England's occupation of India (despite that having occurred around a century prior to the play being written, but having it reflective of England and Egypt in Shaw's time simply did not seem to work because at that time Egypt simply did not come across as an exotic kingdom in its death throes). What we have is the modern empire coming into conflict with the empire that is still caught up in its traditional past. In another sense it could be reflective of England and China, especially with the boy emperor, who I believe was emperor of China around that time. Still, the image of Caesar as the noble and enlightened leader was not very reflective of the leadership of England of Shaw's day.

It is interesting that we have Caesar as the elder statesman of the young empire and Cleopatra as the girl monarch of the old empire. It seems to be reflective of the old empire being so caught up in tradition that it is no longer able to move forward, and as such it is not longer able to progress and grow, and as such is left with the mind of a child. It is even suggestive that when a child takes the throne, and the child is immature, then the kingdom itself is in trouble. However, with Rome we have the new empire, despite it being around seven hundred years old at that time (Egypt was much older though, around two and a half thousand years). However, the age of Rome is irrelevant because we have a new Rome that is maturing, and expanding, and despite still being embroiled in civil war (or on the verge on a new civil war) the empire had still to reach its height. This was not the case with Britain in 1898 because while it was still at its height and its destruction was inconceivable, with the rise of the other industrial powers, and Britain's downfall was not far off.