What in Shakespeare's background is relevant to Julius Caesar?

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Susan Hurn | College Teacher | (Level 1) Educator Emeritus

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Shakespeare lived and worked in a monarchy, his career taking place during the reigns both of Queen Elizabeth I and King James I. They were not titular heads of state; they ruled England while the concept of Divine Right still was accepted by the English people. While they occupied the throne, their power was absolute, since English society viewed it as having been bestowed upon them through their lineage by God. This political structure is relevant to Julius Caesar because it, like all of Shakespeare's plays, was staged at the pleasure of the sitting English monarch, a reality he acknowledged in numerous ways through his plots and characters.

In Julius Caesar, for instance, a sharp distinction is drawn between the commoners and the ruling class. The common people are portrayed as inferior, unthinking creatures, easily swayed and manipulated--in other words, unfit to govern or have a say in government. This portrayal would have seemed reasonable to the ruling class in England, substantiating their own views of society. 

One scene in particular shows Shakespeare's recognition of the English throne. The night before Caesar's murder, Calpurnia is shaken by terrible dreams foreshadowing his death. Furthermore, strange and unnatural occurrences have taken place during the night; graves have given up the dead, a lioness has come into the city to deliver her cubs, ghosts roam the streets shrieking, and "fierce fiery warriors" have fought in the skies over Rome, raining blood down upon the city. When Caesar remonstrates with her that these signs apply to everyone, Calpurnia replies:

When beggars die there are no commets seen;

The heavens themselves blaze forth the death of princes.

Thus does Shakespeare pay tribute to the power of the throne. The death of a ruler is seen as a cataclysmic event, so profound that even nature itself rebels. Furthermore, the assassination of a ruler is most abominable of all for it most horribly disturbs the natural order which, in Shakespeare's world, was founded upon the Divine Right of the English monarch.


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enotechris | College Teacher | (Level 2) Senior Educator

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Although the concept of the Divine Right of Kings existed during the reigns of Elizabeth and James I, it was not as strong in England as it was in other countries.  From the time of the Magna Carta, the English promulgated the "Rights of the Common Man" and by the late 1600's the concept of Divine Right was a dead one in England.  The Reformation had caused social and political convulsions in England; Elizabeth as a crafty "Good Queen Bess" kept the peace and England enjoyed unprecidented prosperity.  Although there were still religious differences within the country, her even handedness in ruling gave the country a measure of religious freedom that had not been experienced under her father.  Because of the Reformation, Englishmen had certain rights, among them which religion to follow, had a representative form of government through Parliament, and had established the concept of the Rule of Law, from which no man, commoner or royalty, was exempt.  The Rule of Law is the brilliant governmental philosophy England gave the world.  What Shakespeare was doing through Julius Caesar, then, was celebrating the triumph of English government, indirectly praising his queen and country, by showing what kind of governmental tyrannies existed in the past and concurrently in other countries in his day.

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