This is an illustration from A conference about the next succession to the crowne of Ingland, probably by the exiled Jesuit priest Robert Persons (1546–1610; sometimes spelt ‘Parsons’) It helps to show the political situation in which Shakespeare wrote Julius Caesar.
What does the book argue?
By the 1590s, it was clear that England’s monarch Queen Elizabeth (1533–1603) was not going to marry and produce an heir to the throne. Political stability centred on the monarchy and a ban was in place in England on public discussion of the succession.
This book, however, was published in Antwerp. It concludes by arguing that just as deposing Richard II (1367–1400) had been justified in 1399, deposing Queen Elizabeth was now justified. By the same logic, Shakespeare’s Richard II is thought to have been given a special performance immediately before the Earl of Essex launched a rebellion against Elizabeth in 1599.
The illustration lays out a family tree of the English monarchy from the time of William the Conqueror up to the date of composition, 1594. Then, it says in the caption at the top left, ‘there are 12 different persons that by the way of succession do pretend each one of them to be next after Her Majesty that now is.’
At face value, A conference weighs up the various claims to the throne in a neutral and objective manner and argues that there is no clear favourite. Nevertheless it was widely seen to promote the claim of Isabella, the Catholic infanta of Spain. The book’s claims of impartiality are further undermined by its dedication to the Earl of Essex. Persons’s biographer, Victor Houliston, calls this ‘mischievous’.
What is its relevance to Julius Caesar?
The ‘tyrannicide’ debate over whether or not the assassination of Julius Caesar was justified has been running continuously since it happened in 44 BC. Tyrannicide is the killing of a tyrant: an unjust or vicious ruler. The critic David Daniell argues that this would have resonated with the public in the later years of Elizabeth I’s reign, though it would have been dangerous to express such views openly.
Yet Shakespeare’s Caesar is not a tyrant in the way his Richard II or Macbeth are tyrants. And if the argument for tyrannicide is the restoration of calm and order, then the bloody civil wars and suicides that end Julius Caesar do not justify it.
Instead, the scholar Robert S Miola argues that the debate around tyrannicide guided Shakespeare’s reading of Plutarch and ‘transformed a confused welter of historical fact and legend into a taut, balanced and supremely ambivalent drama’.