The first of William Shakespeare’s so-called Roman plays—which include Coriolanus (pr. c. 1607-1608, pb. 1623) and Antony and Cleopatra (pr. c. 1606-1607, pb. 1623)—Julius Caesar also heralds the great period of his tragedies. The sharply dramatic and delicately portrayed character of Brutus is a clear predecessor of Hamlet and of Othello. With Titus Andronicus (pr., pb. 1594) and Romeo and Juliet (pr. c. 1595-1596, pb. 1597), Julius Caesar is one of the three tragedies written before the beginning of the sixteenth century. It is, however, more historical than Shakespeare’s four great tragedies—Hamlet, Prince of Denmark (pr. c. 1600-1601, pb. 1603), Othello, the Moor of Venice (pr. 1604, pb. 1622), Macbeth (pr. 1606, pb. 1623), and King Lear (pr. c. 1605-1606, pb. 1608)—being drawn in large part from Sir Thomas North’s wonderfully idiomatic translation of Plutarch’s Bioi paralleloi (c. 105-115; Parallel Lives, 1579). A comparison of the Shakespearean text with the passages from North’s chapters on Caesar, Brutus, and Antonius reveals the remarkable truth of T. S. Eliot’s statement: “Immature poets borrow; mature poets steal.” In instance after instance, Shakespeare did little more than rephrase the words of North’s exuberant prose to fit the rhythm of his own blank verse. The thievery is brilliant.
Shakespeare’s originality, found in all his historical plays, is similar to that of the great classical Greek playwrights Aeschylus, Sophocles, and Euripides. They, too, faced a dramatic challenge very unlike that of later writers, who came to be judged by their sheer inventiveness. Just as the Greek audience came to the play with full knowledge of the particular myth involved in the tragedy to be presented, the Elizabethan audience knew the particulars of events such as the assassination of Julius Caesar. Shakespeare, like his classical predecessors, had to work his dramatic art within the restrictions of known history. He accomplished this by writing “between the lines” of Plutarch, offering insights into the mind of the characters that Plutarch does not mention and which become, on the stage, dramatic motivations. An example is Caesar’s revealing hesitation about going to the Senate because of Calpurnia’s dream, and the way he is swayed by Decius into going after all. This scene shows the weakness of Caesar’s character in a way not found in a literal reading of Plutarch. A second major “adaptation” by Shakespeare is a daring, dramatically effective telescoping of historical time. The historical events associated with the death of Caesar and the defeat of the conspirators actually took three years; Shakespeare condenses them into three tense days, following the unity of time (though not of place).
Although prose is used in the play by comic and less important characters or in purely informative speeches or documents, the general mode of expression is Shakespeare’s characteristic blank verse, which consists of five stressed syllables, generally unrhymed. The iambic pentameter, a rhythm natural to English speech, has the effect of making more memorable lines such as Flavius’s comment about the commoners, “They vanish tongue-tied in their guiltiness,” or Brutus’s observation, “Men at some time are masters of their fates.” As in most of his tragedies, Shakespeare follows a five-part dramatic structure, consisting of the exposition (to act 1, scene 2), complication (act 1, scene 2, to act 2, scene 4), climax (act 3, scene 1), consequence (act 3, scene 1, to act 5, scene 2), and denouement (act 5, scenes 3 to 5).
The main theme of Julius Caesar combines the political with the personal. The first deals with the question of justifiable revolutions and reveals with the effectiveness of concentrated action the transition from a republic of equals to an empire dominated by great individuals such as Antonius, influenced by the example of Caesar himself, and Octavius, who comes into his own at the end of the play. The personal complication is the tragedy of a noble spirit involved in matters it does not comprehend. Despite the title, Brutus, not Caesar, is the hero of this play. It is true that Caesar’s influence motivates Marcus Antonius’s (also called Mark Antony), straightforward and ultimately victorious actions throughout the play and accounts for his transformation from an apparently secondary figure into one of stature. It is, however, Brutus, as he gradually learns to distinguish ideals from reality, who captures the sympathy of the audience. Around his gentle character, praised at last even by Antonius, Shakespeare weaves the recurrent motifs of honor and honesty, freedom and fortune, ambition and pride. Honor as it interacts with ambition is the theme of Brutus’s speech to the crowd in the forum: “As Caesar loved me, I weep for him; as he was fortunate, I rejoice at it; as he was valiant, I honour him, but, as he was ambitious, I slew him.” After the deed, Brutus comments, “Ambition’s debt is paid.” One of the great, dramatically successful ironies of the play is that Antonius’s forum speech juxtaposes the same two themes: “Yet Brutus says he was ambitious/ And Brutus is an honourable man.” By the time Antonius is finished, the term “honour” has been twisted by his accelerating sarcasm until it has become a curse, moving the fickle crowd to call for death for the conspirators.
The conjunction of Brutus and Antonius in this scene reveals the telling difference between their dramatic characterizations. Whereas Caesar may have had too much ambition, Brutus has too little; Brutus is a man of ideals and words, and therefore he cannot succeed in the arenas of power. Cassius and Antonius, in contrast, are not concerned with idealistic concepts or words such as honor and ambition; yet there is a distinction even between them. Cassius is a pure doer, a man of action, almost entirely devoid of sentiment or principle; Antonius is both a doer of deeds and a speaker of words—and therefore prevails over all in the end, following in the footsteps of his model, Caesar. To underline the relationships among these characters and the themes that dominate their actions, Shakespeare weaves a complicated net of striking images: the monetary image, which creates tension between Brutus and Cassius; the tide image (“Thou are the ruins of the noblest man/ That ever lived in the tide of times”) connected with the theme of fortune; the star image (Caesar compares himself, like Marlowe’s Tamburlaine, to a fixed star while Cassius says, “The fault, dear Brutus, is not in our stars,/ But in ourselves, that we are underlings”); and the image of wood and stones used to describe the common people by those who would move them to their own will.
In yet another way, Julius Caesar marks the advance of Shakespeare’s artistry in its use of dramatic irony. In this play, the Shakespearean audience itself almost becomes a character in the drama, as it is made privy to knowledge and sympathies not yet shared by all the characters on the stage. This pattern occurs most notably in Decius’s speech interpreting Calpurnia’s dream, showing the ability of an actor to move men to action by well-managed duplicity. The pattern is also evident when Cinna mistakes Cassius for Metellus Cimber, foreshadowing the mistaken identity scene that ends in his own death; when Cassius, on two occasions, gives in to Brutus’s refusal to do away with Antonius; and, most effectively of all, in the two forum speeches when Antonius addresses two audiences, the one in the theater (who know his true intentions), and the other the Roman crowd whose ironic whimsicality is marked by its startling shift of sentiment. The effect of the irony is to suggest the close connection between functional politics and the art of acting. Antonius, in the end, defeats Brutus—as Bolingbroke defeats Richard II—because he can put on a more compelling act.