As you probably know if you subscribe to this blog, I love to review adaptations of Shakespeare, so imagine my delight when I realized that the classic teen comedy Mean Girls from 2004, (and the current Broadway show of the same name), is based on Julius Caesar! This movie doesn’t have Shakespearean dialogue or the names or locations, but the essence of the play is the same, albeit with a more modern ending.
In Shakespeare’s play and Tina Fey’s script, the main antagonist is popular, dangerous, and inspired fear and envy from everyone. Regina George and Caesar both rule their empires through their armies, intimidation, their wealth, and their supreme self confidence. In addition, both names are associated with royalty- Regina in Latin means queen.
I didn’t realize that the movie has its roots in Julius Caesar until I saw this video from the YouTube channel The Take: https://youtu.be/FRfoEzZbK_Y. It was when I watched this video, that I realized Mean Girls character Janis was an analog for Shakespeare’s character Cassius, the man who sets the plot in motion to assassinate Caesar.
In the movie, Janis meets a well meaning girl and manipulates her into betraying Regina. Look at this clip where after Cady feels betrayed by Regina, Janis outlines her conspiracy, with a Roman sword in her hand! https://youtu.be/D0JMoa4QfA0
Like Cassius, Janis claims that once Regina is destroyed, the social order of the high school will change from a dictatorship to a democracy, but what she really wants is to supplant and replace Regina and make herself the new queen Bee. Even her name is a clue to her malevolent nature, she is named after the Roman god with two faces!
Sir Patrick Stewart as Cassius in the 1972 RSC production of Caesar
Similarly in Julius Caesar, Cassius convinces Brutus that once Caesar dies, Rome will be a republic again. In real life, Brutus was Caesar’s close friend, so Brutus agonizes over whether he is doing the right thing and whether he owes more loyalty to Rome, or his friend Caesar: https://youtu.be/IoDwXjKIenI
If Janis is Cassius, what about Brutus?
Cady Heron (played in the movie by Lindsay Lohan), is naive but intelligent. Like Brutus, she is manipulated and carefully chosen to betray the king. Janis chooses Cady because she’s pretty enough to get close to Regina, her looks are like social currency. Brutus’ social currency was his family: he was descended from the founder of the republic so he leant credibility to the conspiracy. He was also close in family to Caesar and Cassius.
In both stories once the monarch is destroyed, the power vacuum immediately starts to close; rather than change the social order, a new monarch arises. In Caesar, the second triumvirate takes over for the first, and Caesar’s nephew Augustus eventually becomes the supreme ruler of the Roman empire.
In Mean Girls, once Regina loses her social cache, Cady takes her place.
Then when Janis exposes Cady and Regina, she briefly basks in becoming a new Queen Bee- her revolution to overthrow a tyrant has paid off, bit now she is the tyrant herself. This actually mirrors the real Julius Caesar, who took power from the feared dictator Lucius Cornelius Sulla.
Bust of Sulla
Like Regina and her Burn Book, Sulla kept a list of people he saw as threats called the Proscriptions, only Sulla used it to execute the people on the list and seize their property. Caesar started his career as a populist soldier working for the Senate against Sulla and for the people, but became a dictator himself, the very thing he was sworn to oppose!
The movie does end on an encouraging note when the adults finally step up and address the terrible things that their students are doing, which has important lessons about bullying that every young person should see.
Tina Fey actually admitted that she herself was a Mean Girl in high school, so there’s a great deal of honesty when her character confronts the kids about the consequences of bullying each other.
Though the movie ends happily, the Cesarian parallels are not over; even though this high school has been democratized, the problems that created this Mean Girls autocracy remains. As you can see in the final minutes of the movie, a new crop of Plastics arrive just as the old group disbanded.https://youtu.be/LshX2God-wkIn four years when the regime changes again, will there be a new Caesar?
After rewatching clips from the movie, I realized that Tina Fey actually made a Caesar reference right there in the movie! https://youtu.be/GPDt6cMYvoM In this clip, Gretchen is in English class, perfectly paraphrasing Cassius’ speech in Act I, Scene ii, even the part about Caesar being a colossus:
Cassius. Why, man, he doth bestride the narrow world
Like a Colossus, and we petty men
Walk under his huge legs and peep about
To find ourselves dishonourable graves.
Brutus and Caesar: what should be in that ‘Caesar’?
Why should that name be sounded more than yours?
Write them together, yours is as fair a name;
Sound them, it doth become the mouth as well;
Weigh them, it is as heavy; conjure with ’em,
Brutus will start a spirit as soon as Caesar.
Now, in the names of all the gods at once,
Upon what meat doth this our Caesar feed,
That he is grown so great? Age, thou art shamed!
Rome, thou hast lost the breed of noble bloods!
When went there by an age, since the great flood,
But it was famed with more than with one man?
When could they say till now, that talk’d of Rome,
That her wide walls encompass’d but one man?
Now is it Rome indeed and room enough,
When there is in it but one only man.
O, you and I have heard our fathers say,
There was a Brutus once that would have brook’d
The eternal devil to keep his state in Rome
As easily as a king. I.ii. 226-252.
Now I know Mean Girls is based more on a book and by Tina Fey’s own experiences than Shakespeare, but the point is that the next time you are bored and angry about having to read a play based on a guy who’s been dead for over 2,000 years, take a look at the lunch table next to you and you’ll see that things haven’t changed that much.
If you liked this post, please consider signing up for my online class, “The Violent Rhetoric Of Julius Caesar,”
The class breaks down some of the most famous speeches in Julius Caesar and gives you some tips and tricks on how to write persuasive speeches like Antony’s “Friends, Romans, Countrymen,” speech. Use these powers for good though, not to turn your school into a Mean Girls dictatorship!
Also, if you love Mean Girls and Shakespeare, check out Much Ado About Mean Girls by Ian Doescher, author of the William Shakespeare’s Star Wars trilogy.
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If you like this post, I have two online classes that you might like: I’m going to teach a class on the violent rhetoric of Julius Caesar, and a course about Shakespeare and teenagers. Register now at Outschool.com!