Hugh Fulham-McQuillan

Theme on the Character and the Actor

Consider three deaths: the historical assassination of the Roman Emperor Julius Caesar, the fictional recreation of that assassination in Shakespeare’s Julius Caesar, and the assassination of Abraham Lincoln.

Three principals feature. The first is Marcus Junius Brutus, the original political assassin. To avoid confusion, we’ll refer to him by the name Caesar is said to have uttered with his last, blood drowned, breath: Brutus.

The second and third principals are among the greatest Shakespearean actors in 19th century America: Junius Brutus Booth, and his son, John Wilkes Booth. There will be no attempts to round out their characters in order to empathise with them and/or better understand pivotal moments in history. Aspects of their lives will be discussed, but only briefly and in relation to events that are bigger than men. They will remain photographs, left in the sun for too long.

The centripetal force which propels these three principals and three deaths is a fictional character. It is the Shakespearean role of Marcus Junius Brutus. It is the spider at the centre of this web that manages, with its sticky strands, to pull together and compress vast tracts of time and geography.

This character contains aspects of the historical Brutus, for it is a role based on his deeds. These aspects may be psychological, or physical. We are made of atoms and molecules. They continue after we die and become parts of other things or beings, until they die or are destroyed and so on. It is not inconceivable that these particles have a sort of memory, or that they may gravitate to that which is similar to one of their previous structures: the role of Marcus Junius Brutus, played by both Junius Brutus Booth, and his son, John. This is one possibility.

Another: popular psychology books state, “to be confident, you have to fake it till you make it.” If this is true, then the minds of men who are paid to pretend to be other people must be questioned. I cannot provide answers. I can only provide two excerpts and a quote.

The first is found in a letter from Junius to President Andrew Jackson in 1852: “You damn’d old scoundrel… I will cut your throat while you are sleeping” (he didn’t).

The second is taken from the diary of his son, John Wilkes Booth, a lesser actor but more successful assassin. It was written in 1865, days after killing Lincoln: “…I am here in despair. And why; For doing what Brutus was honored for … And yet I for striking down a greater tyrant than they ever knew, am looked upon as a common cutthroat.”

When John Wilkes Booth shot Lincoln, he repeated a line, first uttered by Brutus, that echoes through centuries and continents: “Sic semper tyrannis.” It is a cursed line. Tyrants -those who treat men like puppets- are rarely defeated. In fictionalising the Roman assassination, Shakespeare fastened reality to fiction, creating a möbius strip, a trap from which Junius Booth escaped. His son was less fortunate.

Hugh Fulham-McQuillan is from Dublin and is currently pursuing a PhD in psychology. He has previously been published in The Irish Times, Word Riot and Power’s 2012 Book of Short Stories.