Political Acts and Political Acting: Roman Gesture and Julius Caesar

Miranda Fay Thomas


Cicero once claimed that, ‘everyone knows how few actors there are, or ever have been, whom we could bear to watch,’ and also quipped, ‘we have to study actors as well as orators, that bad practice may not lead us into some inelegant or ugly habit.’ While at grammar school, Shakespeare and his actors would have been tutored in Roman rhetorical devices such as considered speech, but also the use of gesture. Consequently, it is likely that this knowledge of Roman oratorical traditions influenced both Shakespeare’s writing and the movements used by his actors.

The quandary of gesture is that it is motivated by the need for conviction rather than morality: an ambiguous performative issue that was not lost on Cicero or Quintilian. A play such as Julius Caesar revels in such ambiguities: the connections between hands and agency abound in Shakespeare’s political drama, with over 40 references to hands. The play’s message about the ethical dilemmas of performance is all the more troubling for its application to reality: Francis Gentleman commented in 1773 that all members of Parliament should be made to memorise the play.

This paper explores the manipulative dangers of Roman gesture and the parallels Shakespeare draws with the performance of politics. The agency of gesture is all the more potent for its ephemerality: hands continually writ e and re-write the script of the political moment on air that leaves no trace of its record; its very deniability ensures the continuance of misdeeds and malpractices. Whether using a handshake to wordlessly seal conspiracy, rearing a knife in an assassination, or being emotionally and politically manipulative through gesticulation, Shakespeare’s play reveals not only how hands can alter the course of history, but how such theatrical practices themselves aid and abet such a diversion.

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