See also Julius Caesar Criticism (Volume 63).
Much of the recent critical debate regarding Julius Caesar has focused on the political parallels between Elizabethan England and ancient Rome as Shakespeare depicted it. While most critics hesitate to presume knowing Shakespeare's intentions in this matter, many maintain that Shakespeare's use of various themes and concepts supports a comparison of the political climate of ancient Rome and England in the late sixteenth and early seventeenth centuries. John Jump (1974) argues that Julius Caesar, like Shakespeare's English history plays, supports the "Tudor myth" (the justification of Queen Elizabeth I's right to the throne). Shakespeare, Jump maintains, demonstrates this through the play's examination of the conflict between Republicanism and Caesarism, which Jump compares to a monarchist political system, and the strength gained by Caesarism by the end of the play. Mark Rose (1989) suggests an analogy between the tribunes in the play and the Puritan preachers of Shakespeare's time. Rose argues that one of the primary concerns of the play is the controversy over the absolute authority of a ruler and that this same concern was an important issue in Elizabethan England, especially given the close interweaving of religion and politics in that society. Puritan reformers, like the Roman tribunes, Rose demonstrates, felt that power should reside with the people, not with the crown, while religious conservatives up-held the belief that the monarchy is the reservoir of power. In another comparison between Shakespeare's Rome and Elizabethan society, Wayne A. Rebhorn (1990) sees Julius Caesar as a struggle among aristocrats, that is, the senators, to prevent one of their own (Caesar) from transcending his position and thereby destroying the political system which allows aristocrats to wield their power as a class. Rebhorn likens Caesar to the Earl of Essex, who, by leading a revolt against Queen Elizabeth, challenged the absolute authority of the crown, and at the same time threatened the power of the aristocracy by creating turmoil in that class. Rebhorn further supports his argument by comparing the factionalism of Queen Elizabeth's court to that of the Roman senators.
Another issue that has been a topic of scholarly commentary since the eighteenth century is Shakespeare's portrayal of Brutus. Twentieth-century criticism on the character of Brutus has challenged his status as a hero, a characterization established by many earlier critics. Gordon Ross Smith (1954) focuses his attention on Brutus's willfulness, demonstrating that Brutus controls people and situations and is guided by his self-righteous belief in his own virtue. Smith shows that the combination of these factors contributes to Brutus's downfall. In another assessment, Richard A. Levin (1982) questions Mark Antony's praise of Brutus as "the noblest Roman of them all." Levin offers as evidence in his case against Brutus the fact that while the other conspirators killed Caesar primarily out of envy, Brutus murdered someone for whom he had expressed love and friendship.
Scholarly debate also focuses on Shakespeare's treatment of the facts of Roman history that were available to him in Thomas North's translation of Plutarch's Lives of the Noble Grecianes and Romans (1579). T. J. B. Spencer (1955) chronicles the history of criticism regarding this issue, stating that as early as 1680 Shakespeare's treatment of ancient Rome was praised by British poet and playwright Nahum Tate. Spencer reflects that Shakespeare's portrayal of the civilization continues to influence modern thinking on the subject. Arthur Humphreys (1984) analyzes Shakespeare's use of Plutarch's work in creating the drama, commenting on details ignored or embellished upon by Shakespeare and suggesting possible reasons for such adaptations. Humphreys also identifies other sources from which Shakespeare may have drawn, including Suetonius's De vita Caesarum and Appian's Chronicle of the Romans' Wars.
T. J. B. Spencer (lecture date 1955)
SOURCE: "Shakespeare and the Elizabethan Romans," in Shakespeare Survey: An Annual Survey of Shakespearian Study and Production, Vol. 10, 1957, pp. 27-38.
[In the following lecture, Spencer surveys criticism regarding Shakespeare's treatment of the details of ancient Roman life and culture, commenting on the playwright's influence on modernjconceptions of ancient Rome.]
Shakespeare has, at various times, received some very handsome compliments for his ancient Romans; for his picture of the Roman world, its institutions, and the causation of events; for his representation of the Roman people at three critical stages of their development: the turbulent republic with its conflict of the classes; the transition from an oligarchic to a monarchic government which was vainly delayed by the assassination of Julius Caesar; and the final stages by which the rule of the civilized world came to lie in the hands of Octavius Caesar. These are quite often praised as veracious or penetrating or plausible. Moreover, the compliments begin early, and they begin at a time when no high opinion was held of Shakespeare's learning. The name of Nahum Tate, for example, is not a revered one in the history of Shakespeare studies; yet in 1680 he wrote:
I confess I cou'd never yet get a true account of his Learning, and am apt to think...
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Politics And Power
Norman Sanders (essay date 1964)
SOURCE: "The Shift of Power in Julius Caesar" in A Review of English Literature, Vol. 5, No. 2, April, 1964, pp. 24-35.
[In the following essay, Sanders traces the movement of political power in the play, arguing that Octavius regains the power formerly possessed by Caesar.]
It has frequently been noted that Julius Caesar has a special atmosphere which sets it apart from both Shakespeare's other Roman plays and his tragedies in general. Many critics have seen this atmosphere, in the main to be a product of the distinctive style that Shakespeare fashioned for the play. T. S. Dorsch, the play's most recent editor, has suggested that the language is 'in keeping with the gravity and dignity traditionally associated with the Roman character', and instances the clarity and simplicity of the speeches, the comparative lack of humour, and the relative absence of highly descriptive poetry. All this is true, but the appropriateness of the style goes further than this. Julius Caesar is a play of which the impact is predominantly intellectual; even in the theatre the characters' thoughts and actions demand judgement rather than strong emotional sympathy. In addition, it is also a 'masculine' play—the only one in the canon apart from Henry V in which the female principal has no leading role: Portia and Calpurnia are severely...
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Gayle Greene (essay date 1980)
SOURCE: "The Power of Speech / To Stir Men's Blood': The Language of Tragedy in Shakespeare's Julius Caesar," in Renaissance Drama, Vol. XI, 1980, pp. 67-93.
[In the following essay, Greene argues that in Julius Caesar, Shakespeare equates language with power and creates a setting in which the fate of the characters is dependent on their ability to employ the art of rhetoric to their advantage.]
Eloquence hath chiefly flourished in Rome when the common-wealths affaires have been in worst estate, and that the devouring Tempest of civili broyles, and intestine warres did most agitate and turmoile them.
Montaigne, "Of the Vanitie of Words"
When Antony concludes his funeral oration by modestly disclaiming the powers of rhetoric he has so abundantly displayed—
I am no orator, as Brutus is; …
But (as you know me all) a plain blunt man …
For I have neither wit, nor words, nor worth,
… nor the power of speech
To stir men's blood; I only speak right on.
[The Arden Shakespeare, ed. T. S. Dorsch, 1955, III.ii.219-225]
—he draws attention to the very arts of oratory which...
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Gordon Ross Smith (essay date 1959)
SOURCE: "Brutus, Virtue, and Will," in Shakespeare Quarterly, Vol. X, No. 3, Summer, 1959, pp. 367-79.
[In the essay, Smith maintains that Brutus's most distinguishing trait is his willfulness, which is strengthened and guided by his self-righteous belief in his own virtue.]
For the last century and a half the most frequent critical comments upon Shakespeare's portrait of Brutus have been that he is imperfectly realized, that Shakespeare himself did not understand him, or that he is too virtuous a person ever to have been alive. Coleridge asked, "What character did Shakespeare mean his Brutus to be?" E. E. Stoll wrote that the chief thing in Brutus is "the neglect of analysis or motivation.… He is acting from some lofty and solemn sense of duty—he is a reformer, though without a cause or motive—we can see no more.… His conduct … is, as conceived by Shakespeare, unjustified." Granville-Barker repeatedly laid his burden at Shakespeare's door by writing, "Shakespeare himself is still fumbling … and why should his Brutus not be fumbling too?" And further on, "The plain fact is, one fears, that Shakespeare, even if he can say he understands Brutus, can in this last analysis make nothing of him.… Shakespeare … is not sufficiently attuned to this tragedy of intellectual integrity, of principles too firmly held". So also Margaret...
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John Jump (lecture date 1974)
SOURCE: "Shakespeare and History," in Critical Quarterly, Vol. 17, No. 3, Autumn, 1975, pp. 233-44.
[In the following lecture, Jump compares Julius Caesar with Shakespeare's English history plays, arguing that in none of these plays does Shakespeare question the "Tudor myth," which justified Queen Elizabeth I's right to the throne.]
I first read Julius Caesar at the age of fourteen or fifteen. Even then I was surprised to find that the character who gave his name to the play was killed early in Act III, that is, before the play was half over. Was Shakespeare playing fair when he called it The Tragedy of Julius Caesar?
Granted, he gives us a memorable portrait of an ailing dictator. Caesar has been an able and courageous soldier and is evidently an able and courageous political leader. But he has serious weaknesses. We do not depend upon the malice of Cassius for our knowledge of these; nor am I thinking merely of physical disabilities.
Caesar is arrogant. He prides himself on being quite distinct from 'ordinary men' (III.i.37); he asserts that unlike them he is 'constant as the northern star' (III.i.60); and he claims uniqueness in that he 'unassailable holds on his rank,/Unshaked of motion' (III.i.69-70). At the same time, he is vain and susceptible to flattery. Shakespeare exposes this...
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Anson, John. "Julius Caesar: The Politics of the Hardened Heart." In Shakespeare Studies: An Annual Gathering of Research, Criticism, and Reviews, edited by J. Leeds Barroll, 1966, pp. 11-33.
Argues that contrary to previous critical analyses, Julius Caesar should be read as a Roman play with a social and historical purpose rather than as a character study.
Berry, Ralph. "Julius Caesar: A Roman Tragedy." In Dalhousie Review 61, No. 2 (Summer, 1981): 325-36.
Analyzes Julius Caesar from the assumption that Rome is the social determinant of the play's action and maintains that the meaning of "Roman" is a central concern.
Chi, Chi'iu-Lang. "Julius Caesar: The Tragedy of a Blind Idealist in Politics." In Tamkang Journal: Liberal Arts, Business, Sciences, and Engineering 20 (May, 1983): 389-402.
Maintains that Brutus causes his own destruction by adhering to misguided political idealism.
McAlindon, T. "Julius Caesar." In Shakespeare's Tragic Cosmos, pp. 76-101. Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 1991.
Examines several aspects of Julius Caesar, including its central themes, characterization, historical context, and its accuracy with regard to Roman history.
Palmer, D. J. "Tragic Error in Julius Caesar." In Shakespeare Quarterly XXI,...
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