Malcolm Hebron situates Julius Caesar in the context of Shakespeare's life and times, examining the contemporary political relevance of the play's themes of Republicanism and assassination. He explores the play's use of rhetoric and theatricality, and assesses its reception over the past 400 years.
Choice of subject
Why did Shakespeare choose in 1599 to write about the assassination of Julius Caesar and its consequences? Of course, we cannot know the answer to this, but various possible explanations suggest themselves and help us to place the play in the context of the playwright’s life and times. He had just completed Henry V, bringing to an end the two great cycles of English history plays – with King John, nine plays on the subject of English history. He had mastered the art of sculpting historical drama from huge volumes of chronicle. Perhaps Shakespeare now felt ready to revisit the subject of Roman history (the setting for his gory hit of 1592, Titus Andronicus), usually the province of learned aristocrats and university-educated writers. And it would seem he felt ready to address more profound political and psychological issues than he had in Titus. It certainly helped that he was close to the printer Richard Field, who had contacts in the court and could have provided the playwright with access to the big folio of Plutarch’s Lives, whose biographies of Caesar, Brutus and Antony make up the historical source for the play.
Another speculation is that the ‘Bishops’ Ban’ of 1599, which outlawed satire and banned publication of some writers (such as Thomas Nashe) altogether, made Rome a more comfortable subject than the English monarchy to explore. Censorship was certainly more intense, prompted partly by the great matter of the time: the royal succession. It was not clear who would succeed the ageing and childless Elizabeth I, and even oblique comment on the subject was extremely dangerous. There were fears that the swashbuckling Earl of Essex – saluted at the end of Henry V – might lead some kind of popular coup against the Crown on his return from Ireland. So a play about the military adventurer Caesar, an aristocratic coup and the hideous consequences of the resulting power vacuum, may have suggested itself as a subject which sailed close enough to the wind to capture an audience, but not so close as to risk the wrong kind of attention. It is interesting to note that both Julius Caesar and Hamlet deal with the final moments of a decaying state – the Roman Republic, Elsinore – vulnerable to external invasion and internal faction.
Julius Caesar is a tragedy, and it deals intensively with politics. Its title has aroused some surprise over the years, since Caesar only appears in a few scenes (his ghost appears later, but interestingly Plutarch does not even say it is Caesar’s ghost that Brutus sees). It is rather like calling Macbeth the Tragedy of Duncan. Yet the play does certainly show us the tragedy of Caesar, carried away by his new powers and killed by his closest friend; and it shows at the same time the tragedy of Brutus, a great man whose rationale for political assassination leads only to personal and national disaster. And, anyway, Julius Caesar was the better-known name and so likely to draw a larger crowd. Shakespeare had written about a double tragedy before in Romeo and Juliet, and would do so later with Macbeth and Lady Macbeth, and Antony and Cleopatra (or Antony, and Cleopatra as the telling comma in the Folio punctuates it). He had written a play ending in the assassination of a king (Richard II) and was no doubt intrigued to try a new structure where the assassination happens halfway through, leaving space to show its personal and national consequences. Its assignation to the tragedies section of the Folio is not surprising. Julius Caesar corresponds to the medieval view of tragedy as the fall of a great man; and it can also be read in the classical way, as an object lesson in the great being undermined by their own hubris or flaws.
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Mark Antony wins the crowd, delivering his speech over Caesar’s wounded corpse.
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Politically, the play looks at the Roman Republic (respublica, Commonwealth) at the moment that precipitated its demise. Renaissance readers were well aware of the achievements of the Roman Republic, that period between the expulsion of the kings in 509 BC and the Imperial period which began in 27 BC. The assassination of Caesar in 44 BC was the beginning of the end. It followed the brutal power struggle between Caesar and Pompey, by which time Republican institutions had been completely eroded, and power lay in the hands of vastly wealthy warrior-generals who could bribe whole populations to support them. In Julius Caesar we find the Republic in a decadent state: Greek-derived philosophies like Epicureanism (Cassius) and Stoicism (Brutus) are occupying the minds of nobles, and there is much talk of omens and dreams. No foreign powers are being conquered, no rousing patriotic sentiments are to be heard. It is a far cry from the manly patriotic virtues of ancient Rome. We could see Brutus as a champion of the Republic against the would-be tyrant Caesar, but it is not an easy interpretation to substantiate: really he says very little about the republican ideal besides a vague abstract assertion of his loyalty to Rome, whatever that means (‘not that I lov'd Caesar less, but that I lov'd Rome more’ (3.2.21–22).The other conspirators are motivated, as Antony correctly states, by ‘envy of great Caesar’ (5.5.70). After the assassination we descend into a twilight world of ruthless culling of opponents (Act 4, Scene 1), demeaning bickering between friends and allies (Act 4, Scene 3) and a final battle in which all aspirations other than the will to power have evaporated. The breach between Antony and Octavian which will lead to the conflict of Antony and Cleopatra can already be glimpsed. Julius Caesar’s third tragic hero is the Roman Republic itself.
Against republicanism, another political system is monarchy. This was of course the state of affairs in England, and political theorists and other writers were duty-bound to extol its virtues. But that did not stop them from warning about the dangers of monarchy descending into tyranny. Is that what Julius Caesar is about? Certainly we see Caesar as a kind of cult figure, surrounded by flatterers, referring to himself in the third person and enjoying the power of life and death in his reception of petitions. He is not a king – a king, in Tudor theory, is legitimised by a royal line of descent, ordained by God – but is in danger of becoming one, at least in the estimation of his opponents. This was a well-known view. Plutarch writes of Caesar that ‘the chiefest cause that made him mortally hated was the covetous desire he had to be called king’. The Renaissance essayist Montaigne comments in ‘The Tale of Spurina’ on ‘that furious passion of ambition by which he was so forcibly carried away’.
The History of Scotland by George Buchanan, 1690
George Buchanan was at the forefront in arguing for limits to the power of monarchy.
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Where do the play’s sympathies lie? Are we to sympathise with the noble Brutus, driven to the political murder of his friend by his higher loyalty to a great ideal? Is the play about the inevitable bloodshed which follows a single ruler’s assumption of tyrannical power? Or is it a warning that, however imperfect a single ruler might be, some measure of control is always preferable to the horrors of mob rule and civil war? Readings have been made along all these lines, but they are never entirely convincing. Perhaps we are asking the wrong question. Julius Caesar is a drama, not a pamphlet, and its field of enquiry is the behaviour of high players in the drama of politics – their internal thoughts and external acts. And all of this is realised through the staple of Renaissance education, rhetoric – the art of persuasive speech. One exercise familiar to Shakespeare and many of his listeners was to argue in utramque partem, on both sides of a question (we see this across Shakespeare’s work; the most famous example is Hamlet’s ‘To be or not to be’ (3.1.55)). Indeed, the question of whether or not Brutus was right to kill Caesar was a set topic for ‘on both sides’ argumentation. Thus, the play supplies material to justify Brutus: he is motivated by a high ideal, not out of personal envy; he is patriotic, and his decision is coolly pondered. But at the same time we can use it to argue against him: at the start of the play he has dark, brooding thoughts he cannot utter; he is vulnerable to the rhetorical persuasion of Cassius, who uses the banal tools of flattery and fright to bend Brutus’s ‘mettle’ to his goal (1.2.309); and he can only rationalise his position by drifting into an elaborate metaphor based merely on a supposition about what Caesar wants: ‘He would be crowned: / How that might change his nature, there’s the question’ (2.1.12–13). Brutus’s momentous decisions and all that follow are based on that slender ‘might’. Crucially, he says nothing about what is meant to follow Caesar’s death and appears not to foresee the turmoil into which his beloved Rome will be thrown: he is simply too intellectually detached from the actual workings of the political world in which he finds himself. Equally, we can interpret Caesar as an ambitious tyrant, on the basis of his staged refusal of the crown (testing out public reaction?), his ominous ‘silencing’ of the tribunes who remove decorations celebrating his triumph over Pompey and his conceited third-person references to himself. Yet, there is little sign of Caesar actually behaving in a tyrannical fashion. Even Brutus bases his assassination on the tenuous thought of what Caesar might do were he to become ‘king’. Looking at Antony in utramque partem we can see him both as a grieving and courageous friend and as a scheming manipulator. The characters will show us a different face depending on what angle we view them from.
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Rhetoric, then, points us each way, just as it sends the plebeian crowd each way in the famous scene where first Brutus and then Antony addresses them (Act 3, Scene 2). One certainty in the play is the contemptible malleability of the common multitude. Having once adored Pompey, they are now celebrating Caesar; moments after commending Brutus they are carving a passage of destruction through Rome having been ‘moved’ by Antony. But the noble protagonists are equally at the mercy of persuasive speech, including their own. Brutus is persuaded by Cassius to join the conspiracy. Evidence is accepted on the basis of report: crucially we do not actually see the scene in which Caesar refuses the crown and have only Casca’s biased word for it. Caesar himself is first persuaded one way then the other as he decides whether to go to the Capitol (Act 2, Scene 2). Antony’s emotive claim that he remembers Caesar’s mantle works in the moment but questions arise when passions have cooled (really? You remember the exact day he put it on? And that happened to coincide with a famous victory over the Nervii?). There is no corroborating evidence for Caesar’s will as announced by Antony. Words and narratives take on their own life, unanchored by concrete proof. Brutus and Caesar are both victims of their own eloquence as they conjure up images of themselves – the stoical republican, the fearless leader, more dangerous than danger itself, a meaningless proposition (2.2.44–45) – which then prompt their actions. Speech is moulding character and motivation rather than the other way around. Shakespeare is clearly fascinated by the workings of persuasion: Cassius working on Brutus reads in retrospect like an early version of Lady Macbeth working on Macbeth or Iago working on Othello. Another fascination seems to be the agony of decision-making. Brutus longs for action to bring an end to the torment of internal debate:
Between the acting of a dreadful thing
And the first motion, all the interim is
Like a phantasma or a hideous dream. (2.1.63–65)
This phantasm of interior conflict is where Hamlet chiefly lives; Macbeth, too, wants to be free from thought (Strange things I have in head, that will to hand’ (3.4.138)). To the hyper-sensitive mind, almost any act is a relief from thinking.
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Closely connected to rhetoric is theatre. We see in Julius Caesar Shakespeare taking advantage of the new space of the Globe. This is clear in implicit directions such as Antony’s ‘Shall I descend’ (3.2.160), where he presumably comes down from the balcony area to the stage. The very opening of the play seems to merge the real audience with the plebeians on stage: both have taken a holiday to see a spectacle, both are to be worked on by ‘actors’, and both frighten certain authorities – the speech of the tribunes closely echoes that of contemporary Puritan preachers, who saw theatres as a risk to good social order. By their departure from their proper routines, leaving their work and not carrying the signs of their trade, the plebeians in the opening scene represent a disintegration of just this order. So at the start, Shakespeare seems conscious of the meanings inherent in the space of the theatre itself. Within the action of the play, moments strike us as deliberately theatrical. Threaded through Julius Caesar is the topic of publicly enacted ritual and the extra-verbal meanings it can carry: in Caesar’s carefully staged public appearance, in Brutus’s rather crazed idea that the conspirators bathe in the blood of Caesar to convey the idea of religious sacrifice, and in the staged suicides in the last Act, the players turn to ceremony to give some shape and solemnity to their actions. Julius Caesar lends itself to a kind of meta-theatrical reading. It is a play which examines its own foundations: pretence (Antony’s act in his funeral oration), persuasion and spectacle. All can be vehicles for deceit and self-deceit as well as for truth and moral instruction. As Shakespeare holds the mirror up to petty, self-deluding human nature he also holds it up to his own art.
Photograph of Orson Welles as Brutus in Julius Caesar
Fascist imagery in Orson Welles’s 1937 production of Julius Caesar: Death of a Dictator.
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Julius Caesar has a long stage history. This is not guaranteed, even when the name of Shakespeare is attached: King John is far less often performed, for example. In comparison to that standalone English play, the tragedy of Julius Caesar comes across as remarkably fresh and accessible. Its analysis of frail humanity, which aspires to political ideals and regularly falls to the contrivances of crowd manipulation and realpolitik, makes it perennially relevant across the globe. To take one example, its dramatising of the conflict between monarchy and republican government has spoken intensely to the American experience. Maria Wyke’s fascinating book, Caesar in the USA, traces the classical education of privileged American youth and the national identification of Caesar with autocratic British rule. An American production at Philadelphia’s Southwark Theatre in June 1770, advertised itself as 'The noble struggles for Liberty by that renowned patriot Marcus Brutus . . . shewing the necessity of his [Caesar’s] death'. A gruesome crossover from art to life occurred when the actor John Wilkes Booth acted alongside his brothers in a production of the play in 1864, taking the part of Marc Antony while Brutus was played by his brother Edwin. The next year he assassinated President Lincoln, apparently crying ‘Sic semper tyrannis’ (‘Thus always to tyrants’) – words attributed to the historical Brutus and also the motto of the State of Virginia. The American tradition of Julius Caesar as essentially a defiance of tyranny is evident in the subtitle of Orson Welles’s radio recording, ‘Death of a Dictator’. More recently, the play has been set in modern Africa in a celebrated production by RSC director Gregory Doran (2012), evoking parallels between ancient Rome, Shakespeare’s Elizabethan age and the fragile political structures of modern states. The play’s lessons are still being taught by contemporary history: in Libya and Iraq dictators have been toppled, only to be replaced with a power vacuum and ensuing horrors. In the West, the idealistic rhetoric of political leaders is routinely regarded with distrust and disdain, and the future of democratic systems is far from assured. New Age interests are our equivalent of the play’s dreams and soothsayers. Spin doctors and media agents perfect the art of rhetoric which Antony has learned by intuition. Revivals of Jonson’s learned Roman plays Sejanus and Catiline are rare – perhaps their virtues require more attention – but Shakespeare’s taut picture of events surrounding one of the world’s most famous political murders still holds up its mirror. So often the villains get the best lines, and if we are to take away a moral from this play it may be Cassius’s crisp reminder of free choice and responsibility: ‘The fault, Dear Brutus, lies not in our stars / But in ourselves, that we are underlings’ (1.2.140–41).
Letter from Abigail Adams to John Adams, 1776, quoting Julius Caesar
In a letter to her husband, the American Ambassador to Britain, Abigail Adams quotes from Julius Caesar.
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 John Ripley, Julius Caesar on Stage in England and America, 1599–1973 (Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 1980), p. 100.