Garry Wills on the Ides of March, Rhetorically Speaking

The Ides of March, George Clooney’s latest directorial turn, stars Ryan Gosling as a campaign manager in a hotly contested Democratic primary that evokes both recent and ancient history. The film, adapted from a 2008 play by the name of Farragut North, plays on memories of the past two presidential elections, mingling Obama-style rhetoric with the events the playwright Beau Willimon witnessed working on the team behind Howard Dean’s 2004 bid for the Democratic nomination. Yet the title, which was notably switched from the Washington, D.C. Metro stop that Willimon used for his play, suggests that one source of the inspiration for the movie lies much farther back.

Pulitzer Prize-winner Garry Wills’s book Rome and Rhetoric: Shakespeare’s Julius Caesar, looks specifically at this classical source of inspiration for Clooney’s adaptation, highlighting the ways in which it is Shakespeare’s portrayal of ancient Rome in particular that sticks with us to this day. While other Elizabethan playwrights may have been more familiar with the historical minutiae surrounding Caesar, Brutus, and their fellow senators, Wills argues, Shakespeare took “an intuitive as opposed to scholarly approach to the classics” that allowed him to captivate his audiences with the drama of the Ides of March and their aftermath. Ben Jonson’s Roman plays were “homework,” bogged down by facts from books, whereas Wills says of Shakespeare that, “The book he read most surely is the human heart.”

In that book, Shakespeare found timeless renderings of honor, friendship, and loyalty, but also the power of oratory to “make or unmake the state,” a concept that rings true in our experience of the highly charged elections of the past decade. Of Julius Caesar, Wills writes, “There are, I repeat, no villains in this play. Though each character has his own self-interest, and a readiness to use or do away with other characters, all think they are doing so for the honor or glory or persistence of Rome.” While some might debate the notion that there are no villains in American politics, it is easy to see why a hint of Shakespeare’s Rome might emerge in the title of a film centered on the lengths the characters on our national stage have gone in pursuit of the honor or glory or persistence of the country. Rome and Rhetoric proves that more than four hundred years after its first performance, Julius Caesar is as relevant as ever.

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