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Why is the death of Julius Caesar mentioned in the play "Hamlet"?

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susanglass | Student, Undergraduate | eNotes Newbie

Posted June 27, 2008 at 4:39 AM via web

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Why is the death of Julius Caesar mentioned in the play "Hamlet"?

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sullymonster | College Teacher | (Level 1) Educator Emeritus

Posted June 27, 2008 at 10:52 AM (Answer #1)

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The references to Caesar and to Alexander the Great are done for a few reasons.  One of the themes of this play is that of death and decay.  Hamlet, over the course of the story, comes to terms with the idea that all humans are destined to return to dust.  His fear of "what dreams may come" are resolved with his understanding that death is a part of life.  Here is his quote in reference to both historic leaders: 

  • Alexander died, Alexander was buried, Alexander returneth
    into dust; the dust is earth; of earth we make loam;
    and why of that loam, whereto he was converted, might
    they not stop a beer barrel?
    Imperious Caesar, dead and turn'd to clay,(205)
    Might stop a hole to keep the wind away.
    O, that that earth, which kept the world in awe
    Should patch a wall to expel the winter's flaw! (Act V, scene i)

Another reason for mentioning these leaders is that they both were forced into their positions at an early age due to the death of their fathers.  Alexander was 13 and Caesar was 16.  Hamlet's age is a point of contention amongst critics, but many agree that he likely in his early 20s.  His father's death has given him responsibilities he was not prepared for.

Finally, in reference to Caesar particularly, it should be noted that he was killed by those people who were supposed to be his friends, just as Hamlet's father was killed by his trusted brother.

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lit24 | College Teacher | Valedictorian

Posted June 27, 2008 at 11:49 AM (Answer #2)

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The death of Julius Caesar is mentioned thrice in "Hamlet."

1.In ActI sc.1. Horatio tells Bernardo and Marcellus that in ancient Rome just before Julius Caesar was assasinated "The graves stood tenantless and the sheeted dead/Did squeak and gibber in the Roman streets."  The appearance of the ghost is a bad omen and Horatio warns that something evil will soon befall the nation, for young Fortinbras of Norway in violation of an earlier treaty is about to invade Denmark.

2. In ActIII sc 2. when Hamlet is getting ready to stage his play Polonius remarks :"I did enact Julius Caesar: I was killed i' the/Capitol, Brutus killed me." This clearly proves that the same actor who played the role of Julius Caesar is now playing the role of Polonius.  It supplies important internal evidence in dating "Hamlet."  It helps the critics to establish that "Hamlet" was premiered in the same season that "Julius Caesar" was staged. But more importantly, there is the sharp  ironic contrast in the character and  death of Julius Caesar the emperor and Polonius the sly courtier: Polonius is killed in the bedroom of the queen in ActIII sc.4: "Thou wretched, rash, intruding fool, farewell!"

3. In Act V sc1 at the  cemetery Hamlet tells Horatio: "Imperious Caesar, dead and turned to clay/Might stop a hole to keep the wind away," cynically emphasising the wothlessness of all human life and its endeavours.

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robertwilliam | College Teacher | (Level 2) Senior Educator

Posted August 16, 2008 at 9:48 AM (Answer #3)

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Shakespeare's play 'Julius Caesar' was likely composed at around the same time as 'Hamlet', and therefore it is likely that the subject matter for the one was in Shakespeare's mind when writing the other. Scholars are unsure which came first, though common consensus today seems to be that 'Julius Caesar' came just before 'Hamlet'.

Some scholars have also argued that Richard Burbage, known to be the first actor to play Hamlet, was also the first Brutus in 'Julius Caesars', and thus his interchange with Polonius in Act 3, Scene 2 (when Polonius claims 'I did enact Julius Caesar') might be an in-joke, particularly if the actor playing Polonius also played Caesar in Julius Caesar.

Whether this is true or not is unknown: but of course, the reference to Burbage/Hamlet murdering Polonius/Caesar is an ominous foreshadowing of Polonius' murder by Hamlet later in the play, in the closet scene.

Another echo between the two plays comes when, in the first scene, Horatio refers to the largely known Elizabethan story that, when Julius Caesar was assassinated, ghosts 'did squeak and gibber in the Roman streets'. Compare Calpurnia's (Caesar's wife's) line from Act 2, Scene 2 of Julius Caesar: she dreams of her husband's assassination and foretells that 'ghosts did shriek and squeal about the streets.' It seems likely that one of these lines refers to the other.

The death of Julius Caesar, as well as being a very famous historical event, was clearly in the writer's mind.

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frizzyperm | College Teacher | Valedictorian

Posted August 18, 2008 at 8:48 PM (Answer #4)

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(briefly: Hamlet's on the cusp of adulthood. His comfortable life is blown away and tragedies surround him. He desparately tries to understand this new reality. He falls into a deep depression. People seem false. The world seems cold. Death fascinates him. He contemplates suicide.)

Hamlet's a student of the early renaissance. He goes to 'modern' Wittenburg University (Mother disapproves of it) His parents are more medieval, uninfluenced by Greco/Roman civilisation. (Rome in 150AD was far in advance of Denmark in 1600. The idea of a previously glorious civilisation was fascinating, mysterious, scary) 

Julius Ceasar must seem a demi-god to Prince Hamlet; an all-powerful ruler of a vast, cultured, long-vanished empire. Yet, for all his power, Julius was murdered by his best friend, Brutus ('Brutal' comes from him). This betrayal echoes his own father's betrayal; his mother's; his friends'; his girlfriend's and, perhaps most importantly, the world's betrayal of his beliefs.

He compares Ceasar in life, to mud in death. What's the point, if the ruler of the world is killed by his friend and turns to mud?

Imperious Caesar, dead and turn'd to clay,
Might stop a hole to keep the wind away.

O, that that earth, which kept the world in awe
Should patch a wall to expel the winter's flaw!

It's a terrifying vision of death. Nothing Endures. Look on my works, ye mighty, and despair!

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