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  • In Accents Yet Unknown: Reenacting Caesar’s Death in a Roman Prison
  • Maria Valentini (bio)

This essay focuses primarily on the Italian film Cesare deve morire (2012), an adaptation and appropriation of Shakespeare’s Julius Caesar acted by prisoners in Rebibbia District Prison, Rome.1 If we use Linda Hutcheon’s definition of adaptation as “a derivation that is not a derivative—a work that is second without being secondary” and Jean Marsden’s description of appropriation as “seizure for one’s own uses,” this production can be seen to fall into both of these (partly overlapping) categories.2 At the same time, the shape-shifting Julius Caesar finds a poignantly revealing representation in its new form. This paper intends also to highlight the relevance of the presence onstage of Caesar’s dead body, both in the English play and in the prison courtyard, in an attempt to demonstrate that the physical presence of the corpse is a determining element in both works. While examining the choices made by the Italian directors in order to tailor the language and the scenes to the setting of a contemporary prison, some more general considerations are made on the possible affinities between theatre and jail and on some of the implications of reading and acting Shakespeare during imprisonment.

In 2012, Paolo and Vittorio Taviani, both in their early eighties, winners of many prizes, and well known for their literary adaptations (Tolstoy, Pirandello, Dumas) produced the film Cesare deve morire (Caesar Must Die).3 This film, which we could call a docudrama or docufilm, is based on a performance of Shakespeare’s Julius Caesar by prisoners held in the Carcere di Rebibbia, a high-security prison in the eastern suburbs of Rome.4 The film won the 62nd Berlin Film Festival, five David di Donatello awards, and was selected as the Italian entry for the best foreign language Oscar at the 85th Academy Awards. The production records the yearly project carried out by the Italian theatre director Fabio Cavalli, [End Page 183] which consists in involving prisoners—whose crimes range from drug trafficking and participation in organized crime to murder, and whose sentences vary from ten to fifteen years to life imprisonment—in acting activities organized as part of a rehabilitation program. The Taviani brothers had been to see one of these performances and suggested to Cavalli that he should attempt to put on Shakespeare’s Julius Caesar and that they might try to film the phases of its production, from casting and rehearsals to the actual performance on the prison stage. Cavalli agreed and the project took place. There are numerous factors specific to this Roman play contributing to making this adaptation particularly striking and memorable. The staging of the Forum scene particularly, with Caesar’s dead body and speeches concerning the legitimacy of murder, acquires special resonance for inmates who know they will end their days in that same place.

Widely recognized as a watershed in Shakespeare’s dramatic writing, coming almost certainly in 1599 between the comedies and histories and just before the great tragedies and thus a kind of gateway to plays where the nature of power is seen in a larger perspective and with deeper symbolic significance, Julius Caesar has lent itself to multiple interpretations and classifications. Moral exemplum, chronicle, or revenge tragedy, derived mainly (but possibly not only) from North’s translation of Plutarch’s Lives—the lives in question being those of Caesar, Brutus, and Antony—it has often been seen as a play lacking a main character, the eponymous protagonist speaking only six percent of the total lines and dying before the middle of the play. The real theme, then, is not so much Julius Caesar but his death and the debate over the legitimacy of the killing of a sovereign when—and if—he is on his way to becoming a tyrant, a theme which has inevitably encouraged numerous rewritings for both stage and screen and which, as we shall see, brought out abundant parallels with the personal history of the Italian offenders who acted in Cesare deve morire, most of whom came from the south of Italy and were involved in criminal organizations with...


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pp. 183-194
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