Julius Caesar is one of the plays Shakespeare wrote in an extraordinary burst of creativity in and around 1599.
Much Ado About Nothing, Henry V, As You Like It and an early draft of Hamlet are believed to have also been completed around this time. A performance of Julius Caesar is described by Swiss tourist Thomas Platter in his diary in September of 1599. It may have been the play that opened the new Globe Theatre, although Henry V and As You Like It also vie for that title.
The posthumous First Folio (1623) version is considered the original and only official publication of this text. Julius Caesar appears towards the end of the Folio, in the ‘tragedies’ section. On the contents page it is listed as ‘The Life and Death of Julius Caesar’. Julius Caesar is one of four plays that use ancient Rome as their backdrop. The others are Titus Andronicus (written in the early 1590s), Antony and Cleopatra (written around 1606) and Coriolanus (written around 1607). Together, the four Roman plays cover a swathe of ancient Roman history, from the early republic (Coriolanus) to the fall of the republic (Julius Caesar) to the rise of the empire (Antony and Cleopatra) to the late empire (Titus Andronicus). Titus is the only one of the four that is entirely fictional and not based on recorded historical events. As always with historically based works Shakespeare melds fact, fiction, and legend in Julius Caesar to produce a challenging, ambivalent drama that reflects some of the issues of Shakespeare’s own political climate.
Before writing Julius Caesar, Shakespeare had written almost all of his history plays and at least seven comedies. This was just his third tragedy, after Titus Andronicus and Romeo and Juliet. It should be noted, however, that Shakespeare’s plays usually defy classification. Just as the comedies can delve into the darkness of the human experience, Julius Caesar explores love and relationships in many forms. In fact, the word ‘love’ or its derivatives appear 40 times in the play.
Julius Caesar is political, short (almost half the length of Hamlet) and action-driven, but although the second half is dominated by war the play is really about the power of words and rhetoric. Characters are torn down for language, built up by language and manipulated through language. Cinna the poet is killed by the mob just after the Forum scene, a symbolic silencing of truth and art, and when Brutus and Octavius face each other in a parley before battle they fight with words and about words:
Brutus: Words before blows: is it so countrymen?
Octavius: Not that we love words better as you do.
Brutus: Good words are better than bad strokes, Octavius.
Act 5, Scene 1
One of the greatest achievements of Julius Caesar is its representation of varied voices from varied classes. We don’t just see Rome from the Senate chamber; we hear the opinions, discontent, fears and passions of the cobbler, the plebeian, the ruler, the senator, the artist, the revolutionary and the foot soldier.
The assassination of Caesar works as an axis for the action, and the play is thus split into two parts. The first half poses the question whether unsatisfied subjects should subvert a tyrannous leader by any means necessary, and the second half maps the regret and realisation that violent usurpation is not the answer. What Shakespeare points out is that history makes legends of these fallen leaders, and the legend can be as tough an opponent as a living tyrant.
Shakespeare’s main source for the text is Plutarch’s Lives of the Noble Grecians and Romans, as published in translation by Thomas North in 1579. Many character and plot details are lifted directly from the source material, and even some of the phrases are copied word for word. But Shakespeare makes the story his own by adjusting characters and situations to suit his needs. Plutarch describes both Cassius and Brutus as ‘leane and whitely faced fellows’, yet Shakespeare applies this description only to Cassius and presents Brutus as the epitome of male virtue and constancy. Shakespeare shifts the date of Caesar’s triumph to six months earlier and has it occur at the same time as the Lupercal, and he also gives Caesar the famous final words “Et tu Brute?” rather than just having him pull his toga over his head in silence as Plutarch does. Shakespeare also has the conspirators assemble at Brutus’ house the night before the assassination rather than Cassius’, allowing Portia to appeal to Brutus and play on his conscience while his destiny waits on the other side of the door.
Shakespeare and History
Shakespeare’s central source for Julius Caesar was Plutarch’s Lives. However, as always, he never let the facts stand in the way of a good story.
As in most of his histories, Shakespeare telescopes time. Historically, Caesar’s triumph was in October of 45BCE and the Feast of Lupercal on 15th February the following year, however Shakespeare makes these events simultaneous. The assassination of Caesar was a month later historically, but in this play it seems only days later. The Forum scene (Act 3, Scene 2) includes, in one sequence, action that in fact took place in several different places over a period of six weeks,and historically there were nine months between Brutus and Cassius meeting at Sardis and the battle at Philippi. Shakespeare compresses this time gap. Shakespeare also increases the number of wounds on Caesar from 23 to 33 – perhaps a reference that echoes the death-age of Christ.
The ‘pulpit’ where both Antony and Brutus go to speak is anachronistic – corresponding to an Elizabethan, not a Roman place of public address. Other anachronisms in the play include a striking clock, a book with ‘the leaf turned down’, and costuming anomalies such as nightcaps and doublets. Shakespeare’s era was a time of fascination with what could be learned from antiquity, rather than how accurately history could be reported.
Every question about leadership and tyranny in Julius Caesar is in fact a question directed at Shakespeare’s own society. For example, the link between Elizabeth and Julius Caesar is clear – a temporal ruler claiming divine rights. In the latter years of her rule, Elizabeth was known in almost mythological terms such as ‘Gloriana’ (Edmund Spenser’s Faerie Queen), and fastidiously controlled the production and dissemination of her image. Caesar was similarly linked to mythology – called the father of Oberon (King of the Fairies) and linked to legendary exploits such as the building of the Tower of London.
Shakespeare’s bending of history was not a new concept. Plutarch, in his introduction to the life of Alexander the Great in Lives of the Noble Grecians and Romans, reminds the reader: “My intent is not to write histories, but only lives… Oftentimes a light occasion, a word, or some sport makes men’s natural dispositions and manners appear more plain than the famous battles won, wherein are slain ten thousand men, or the great armies or cities won by siege or assault.”