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A Cat, a Dog, and Shakespeare: The Perfect Sunday Afternoon

One reason I keep paying a cable bill is to be able to watch Turner Classic Movies. I had just finished a batch of Sunday chores and was resting a moment on the couch, wedged between Chatterly the cat and Gypsy the dog (an Australian Kelpie), and saw that TCM was about to air Julius Caesar, directed by Joseph Mankiewicz, and produced in 1953. 


I read Julius Caesar for the first time when I was in sixth grade. It was a great time to read it, because it seemed fresh and real to me, even though some of the centuries-old English was challenging. 


James Mason as Brutus
The movie made me wish that Joseph Mankiewicz had directed more of Shakespeare's works for cinema. The balance the movie strikes is oh, so totally just right. It does not go so far into cinematic territory that we lose the work's theatricality, but travels far enough by camera that it provides a sense of seamless reality only a movie can create.  The casting was brilliant.  James Mason was at his best as Brutus, and he carries the film on his shoulders, which is in no way a criticism of any of the other actors--simply praise for Mason.  His character needs to shoulder the play--and Mason made that happen.


More impressive still is the sheer, vibrant, living, breathing English that Shakespeare gave us. I had the great fortune of meeting poet William Stafford and taking various classes from him. One of the first things he told us is that language is for swimming. When we speak, think, or write, we are swimming in language. We are two separate entities, the language and our selves, yet we are not apart. 


There were moments in this movie when I had goose bumps, listening to that lively language flow from the screen into my living room; moments when sixth grade came back to me in full color--the small paper back of Julius Caesar, the classroom I carried the book into, and phrases... phrases as fresh today as they were to me so many years ago:  


"Cowards die many times before their deaths; the valiant die but once."
"But for my own part, it was Greek to me."
"He reads much; He is a great observer, and he looks Quite through the deeds of men."
"This was the most unkindest cut of all."
"If you have tears, prepare to shed them now."
"The eye sees not itself but by reflection."
"When love begins to sicken and decay, It useth an enforced ceremony. 
There are no tricks in plain and simple faith."
"There is a tide in the affairs of men, Which taken at the flood leads on to fortune."


Deborah Kerr as Portia
The lines of Portia, wife of Brutus, though few, are remarkable. Among them: "Dwell I but in the suburbs Of your good pleasure? If it be no more, Portia is Brutus's harlot, not his wife."


Whatever is spoken, though, is said artfully and organically. Here is poetry that swims and takes us with it. Often, after watching a movie, I feel a vague dissatisfaction, a sense I've been diverted, distracted, informed, or entertained, but not fulfilled. That was not the case today. My ears, mind and heart were washed in the glory of a gifted language, and I felt revived. The cat purred. The dog wagged her tail. They must have liked it, too.

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