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What shall we do about Claudius? I Claudius, Episode 4.

October 6, 2021
I, Claudius (1976) - Episode 03 - What Shall We Do About Claudius? –  VideoKiwi & Gif

It occurs to me that most episodes of this drama count as “fall of…” episodes. As soon as you start to develop any kind of rapport with a given character – they’re toast.

Episode One: Fall of Marcellus

Episode Two: Fall of Drusus

Episode Three: Fall of Julia

Episode Four: Fall of Posthumus

Episode Five: Fall of Augustus

Episode Six: Fall of Germanicus

Episode Seven: Fall of Livia

Episode Eight: Fall of Sejanus

The model sort of collapses after this. Episode Four shows young Claudius as the family embarrassment. He meets the prickly duo of historians Pollio and Livy. According to Seutonius it was Livy rather than Pollio who befriended Claudius, but Robert Graves and Jack Pullman have Pollio be the one who advises Claudius to play up his reputed idiocy as a survival strategy. Graves does this because Pollio was the more upright republican of the two.

For the rest of the episode – indeed for much of the series up until his accession – we are never quite sure how many of Claudius’s bits of clumsy business are consciously performed or not.

Claudius passes out when he witnesses his first games. Historical accounts of Claudius suggest that as an emperor he was inordinately fond of bloodthirsty spectacles and couldn’t get enough of violent gladiatorial contests. Yet when Derek Jacobi’s Claudius turns to jelly once the swords start to clash it does not feel like he’s following Pollio’s advice. His sister Livilla (Patricia Quinn), meanwhile, gets a sexual rush of excitement watching lives on the line to the extent that Augustus himself looks a bit troubled.

It’s hardly worth noting that the inability of the BBC to stage actual gladiatorial contests only adds to the drama of the scene as everything has to be conjured from the reactions of spectators. There’s also a delicious little scene where Livia condescends to visit the gladiators back-stage so as to insult them and bully them into stop trying to stay alive.

At the beginning of the episode we learn of the disaster of the Teutoburg Forest, also described as the Varian Disaster. The legions of Varus were ambushed and massacred and Augustus did not take the news well. “Quintili Vare, legiones redde!” Accordingly, Brian Blessed gets to shout a lot. Which, it turns out, he’s good at. The loss of a hefty chunk of the imperial war machine plays second fiddle to the main plot which involves Livia’s plot to remove Posthumus from the succession with the help of Livilla.

It’s at this point that we need to confront the fact that I Claudius, while offering great roles for female actors, also sponsors a fair amount of paranoid misogyny. Livia, Livilla, Messalina, Agrippina the Younger… etc. etc. There’s a good scene with Livia and Livilla. They are both utterly ruthless, but Livia was always able to subordinate the sexual to the political – unlike her grand-daughter. In this scene also, Livia starts to explain the ultimate rationale for her actions – the avoidance of civil war. It’s not that she’s especially fond of Tiberius for his own sake (who is?) but she’s pledged to an unambiguous hereditary principle that seems to her the only antidote to ruinous civil broils? What are a few aristocratic poisonings weighed in the scale against Pharsalus, Philippi, or Actium?

John Castle plays the ominously named Posthumus – so called because he was born shortly after his father Agrippa died. It’s a thoughtful and sympathetic performance, but one which has little to do with the rakish ne’er do well that both the historical record and the logic of the drama demands that he be. He is one of Claudius’ few friends, of course, and one of Claudius’ few early interventions into decisive history occurs when Postumus the temporary escapee makes time to inform Claudius of his suspicions regarding Livia.

It is difficult to watch this episode now (which means that it was difficult for many to watch it in 1976 but the difficulty went unacknowledged). Everything we know about the large scale discrediting of rape testimony makes the Livilla set up all the more deplorable.

At the end of the episode Claudius gets married for the first time, to Plautia Urgulanilla. All his four marriages were disastrous. It is revealed when they are both asked to stand up for the ceremony that Plautia is much taller than him. Everybody finds this hilarious.

Thoughts on other episodes:

Episode 1:

Episode 2:

Episode 3:

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