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 it more than Common Report allows him. I am sure he never touches on a Roman Story, but the Persons, the Passages, the Manners, the Circumstances, the Ceremonies, all are Roman.
And Dryden, too, in conversation said "that there was something in this very tragedy of Coriolanus, as it was writ by Shakespeare, that is truly great and truly Roman". And Pope (for all his comparison of Shakespeare to "an ancient majestick piece of Gothick Architecture") declared in his Preface that he found him
very knowing in the customs, rites, and manners of Antiquity. In Coriolanus and Julius Caesar, not only the Spirit, but Manners, of the Romans are exactly drawn; and still a nicer distinction is shewn, between the manners of the Romans in the time of the former and of the latter.
The odd thing is that this veracity or authenticity was approved at a time when Shakespeare's educational background was suspect; when the word "learning" practically meant a knowledge of the Greek and Roman writers; when the usual description of Shakespeare was "wild"; when he was regarded as a member of what Thomas Rymer called "the gang of the strolling fraternity".
There were, of course, one or two exceptions; Rymer wrote, towards the end of the seventeenth century, in his most cutting way about Julius Caesar:
Caesar and Brutus were above his conversation. To put them in Fools Coats, and make them Jackpuddens in the Shakespear dress, is a Sacriledge. … The Truth is, this authors head was full of villainous, unnatural images, and history has only furnish'd him with great names, thereby to recommend them to the World.
There was, too, the problem of Shakespeare's undignified Roman mobs. It was obvious that Cleopatra's vision of a Rome where
With greasy aprons, rules, and hammers, shall
Uplift us to the view
was derived from Shakespeare's own London. And Casca's description: "The rabblement hooted and clapped their chopped hands and threw up their sweaty night-caps … "—this was the English populace and not the Roman plebs. Dennis thought that the introduction of the mob by Shakespeare "offends not only against the Dignity of Tragedy, but against the Truth of History likewise, and the Customs of Ancient Rome, and the majesty of the Roman People". But the opinions of Rymer and Dennis were eccentric; the worst they could say against Shakespeare's Romans was that they were not sufficiently dignified; and this counted for very little beside the usual opinion of better minds that Shakespeare got his Romans right.
More surprising, therefore, was Shakespeare's frequent neglect of details; and it was just at this time that the scholars and critics (if not the theatrical and reading publics) were becoming sensitive to Shakespeare's anachronisms, his aberrations from good sense and common knowledge about the ancients, and were carefully scrutinizing his text for mistakes. It was apparent that, when it came to details, Shakespeare's Romans often belonged to the time of Queen Elizabeth and King James. And the industrious commentators of the eighteenth century collected a formidable array of nonsense from his plays on classical antiquity: how clocks strike in ancient Rome; how Cleopatra has lace in her stays and plays at billiards; how Titus Lartius compares Coriolanus's hm to the sound of a battery; and so on. Above all, it could be observed that Shakespeare was occasionally careless or forgetful about ancient costume. Coriolanus stood in the Forum waving his hat. The very idea of a Roman candidate for the consulship standing waving his hat was enough to make a whole form of schoolboys break into irrepressible mirth. Pope softened the horror by emending hat to cap; and Coriolanus was permitted to wave his cap, not his hat, in the texts of Theobald, Hanmer, Warburton, and Dr Johnson, and perhaps even later. What seemed remarkable and what made the eighteenth-century editors so fussy about these anachronisms was Shakespeare's inconsistency in his historical reconstructions: his care and scrupulosity over preserving Roman manners, alongside occasional carelessness or indifference. The very reason they noticed the blunders was that they jarred against the pervading sense of authenticity everywhere else in the Roman plays.
I take it that Dryden and Pope were right; that Shakespeare knew what he was doing in writing Roman plays; that part of his intention was a serious effort at representing the Roman scene as genuinely as he could. He was not telling a fairy tale with Duke Theseus on St Valentine's Day, nor dramatizing a novelette about Kings of Sicilia and Bohemia, but producing a mimesis of the veritable history of the most important people (humanly speaking) who ever lived, the concern of every educated man in Europe and not merely something of local, national, patriotic interest; and he was conscious of all this while he was building up his dramatic situations and expositions of characters for the players to fulfil. It can, therefore, hardly fail to be relevant to our interpretations of the plays to explore the views of Roman history in Shakespeare's time. It is at least important to make sure that we do not unthinkingly take it for granted that they were the same as our own in the twentieth century to which we belong or the nineteenth century from which we derive. It is worth while tracing to what extent Shakespeare was in step with ideas about ancient Rome among his contemporaries and to what extent (and why) he diverged from them.
"Histories make men wise." Ancient, and in particular Roman, history was explored as the material of political lessons, because it was one of the few bodies of consistent and continuous historical material available. Modern national history (in spite of patriotism) could not be regarded as so central, nor were the writers so good; and the narratives in the scriptures were already overworked by the parson. Roman history was written and interpreted tendentiously in Europe in the sixteenth century, as has happened at other times. In writing his Roman plays Shakespeare was touching upon the gravest and most exciting as well as the most pedantic of Renaissance studies, of European scholarship. Although Shakespeare himself turned to Roman history after he had been occupied with English history for some years, nevertheless it was Roman history which usually had the primacy for the study of political morality. Yet in spite of the widespread interest in ancient culture among educated persons, the actual writing of the history of the Greeks and Romans was not very successful in England in the sixteenth century. There was no history of the Romans in Shakespeare's lifetime comparable (for example) to the History of Great Britain by John Speed or the Generali Historie of the Turkes by Richard Knolles. Sir Walter Raleigh did not get very far in his History of the World and dealt only with the earlier and duller centuries of Rome. Probably the reason for the scarcity of books of Roman history and their un-distinguished nature was that the sense of the supremacy of the ancients and of the impudence of endeavouring to provide a substitute for Livy and Tacitus, was too strong. So explained William Fulbecke, who published a book called An Historicall Collection of the Continuali Factions, Tumults, and Massacres of the Romans in 1601 and dedicated it to Sackville, Lord Buckhurst (the primary author of A Mirror for Magistrates). "I do not despaire" (wrote Fulbecke) "to follow these Romanes, though I do not aspire to their exquisite and industrious perfection: for that were to climbe above the climates: but to imitate any man, is every mans talent." His book is a poor thing. And so is Richard Reynoldes' Chronicle of all the Noble Emperours of the Romaines (1571). And the translations of the Roman historians, apart from North's Plutarch, before the seventeenth century are not particularly distinguished. But for this very reason the books on Roman history are useful evidence for the normal attitude to the Romans and their story in Shakespeare's lifetime. For it is not so much what we can find in Plutarch, but what Shakespeare noticed in Plutarch that we need to know; not merely Plutarch's narrative, but the preconceptions with which his biographies could be read by a lively modern mind about the turn of the seventeenth century; for
men may construe things after their fashion
Clean from the purpose of the things
It is by no means certain that we, by the unaided light of reason and mid-twentieth-century assumptions, will always be able to notice the things to which Shakespeare was sensitive.
First then, the title of William Fulbecke's book is worth attention: An Historical Collection of the Continuali Factions, Tumults, and Massacres of the Romans and Italians during the space of one hundred and twentie yeares next before the peaceable Empire of Augustus Caesar. There is not much of the majesty of the Roman People (which Dennis desiderated) in these continual factions, tumults and massacres. In his preface Fulbecke writes:
The use of this historie is threefold; first the revealing of the mischiefes of discord and civili discention. … Secondly the opening of the cause hereof, which is nothing else but ambition, for out of this seed groweth a whole harvest of evils. Thirdly the declaring of the remedie, which is by humble estimation of our selves, by living well, not by lurking well: by conversing in the light of the common weale with equals, not by complotting in darke conventicles against superiors.
Equally tendentious is what we read on the title-page of the translation of Appian as An Auncient Historie and exquisite Chronicle of the Romanes Warres, both Civile and Foren in 1578;
In the which is declared:
Their greedy desire to conquere others.
Their mortali malice to destroy themselves.
Their seeking of matters to make warre
Their picking of quarels to fall out at home.
All the degrees of Sedition, and all the effects
A firme determination of Fate, thorowe all the
changes of Fortune.
And finally, an evident demonstration, That
peoples rule must give place, and Princes
This kind of material (the ordinary stuff of Roman history in the sixteenth century) does not lend itself to chatter about the majesty of the Roman people. In fact, the kind of classical dignity which we associate perhaps with Addison's Cato or Kemble's impersonation of Coriolanus is not to be taken for granted in Shakespeare's time. The beginning of Virgil's Aeneid, with its simple yet sonorous arma virumque cano, might by us be taken as expressive of true Roman dignity. Richard Stanyhurst, however, in his translation of Virgil in 1582 rendered it:
Now manhood and garboyles I chaunt. …
"Garboyles", it will be remembered, was Antony's favourite word to describe the military and political exploits of Fulvia.
So much for Roman history as "garboyles". Secondly, besides the "garboyles" and encouraging them, there was a limitation in viewpoint due to the fact that the moral purpose of history in general, and of Roman history in particular, was directed towards monarchs. When Richard Reynoldes published his Chronicle of all the noble Emperours of the Romaines, from Julius Caesar orderly. … Setting forth the great power, and devine providence of almighty God, in preserving the godly Princes and common wealthes in 1571, he gave the usual panegyric: "An historie is the glasse of Princes, the image most lively bothe of vertue and vice, the learned theatre or spectacle of all the worlde, the councell house of Princes, the trier of all truthes, a witnes of all tymes and ages … " and so forth. The really important and interesting and relevant political lessons were those connected with princes. It was this that turned the attention away from republican Rome to monarchical Rome: the Rome of the Twelve Caesars and their successors. Republican Rome was not nearly so useful for models of political morality, because in sixteenth-century Europe republics happened to be rather rare. (Venice, the important one, was peculiar, not to say unique, anyway.) Republics were scarce. But there were aspiring Roman Emperors all over the place.
Sometimes the political lesson was a very simple one. In dedicating his Auncient Historie and exquisite Chronicle of the Romanes Warres in 1578, the translator states:
How God plagueth them that conspire againste theyr Prince, this Historie declareth at the full. For all of them, that coniured against Caius Caesar, not one did escape violent death. The which this Author hathe a pleasure to declare, bycause he would affray all men from disloyaltie toward their Soveraigne.
We need not, perhaps, put too much emphasis upon this argument, because the book was being dedicated to the Captain of the Queen's Majesty's Guard. But more sophisticated writers showed the same interest. Sir Walter Raleigh in his History of the World on occasions pointed the suitable political moral. But the problems that interested him and set him off on one of his discussions were those relevant to the political situation in the sixteenth and early seventeenth centuries. The story of Coriolanus, for example, does not interest him at all; he compresses Livy's fine narrative into nothingness, though he spares a few words for Coriolanus's mother and wife who prevailed upon him "with a pitiful tune of deprecation". But the problem of the growth of tyranny fascinates him. He never got as far as Julius Caesar. He had to wind up his History at the beginning of the second century B.C. But he gets Caesar into his discussion. The problem of the difference between a benevolent monarchy and an odious tyranny, and the gradations by which the one may merge into the other—that was the real interest; and Imperial Rome was the true material for that.
So that, in spite of literary admiration for Cicero, the Romans in the imagination of the sixteenth century were Suetonian and Tacitan rather than Plutarchan. An occasional eccentric enthusiasm for one or both of the two Brutuses does not weigh against the fact that it was the busts of the Twelve Caesars that decorated almost every palace in Europe. And it required a considerable intellectual feat to substitute the Plutarchan vision of Rome (mostly republican) for the customary line of the Imperial Caesars. Montaigne and Shakespeare were capable of that feat. Not many others were. The Roman stuff that got into A Mirror for Magistrates naturally came from Suetonius and historians of the later Caesars. One of the educators of Europe in the sixteenth century was the Spaniard Antonio de Guevara. His Dial of Princes (which was a substitute for the still unprinted Meditations of the Emperor Marcus Aurelius) was translated by North with as much enthusiasm as Plutarch was. Guevara, whose platitudinous remarks on politics and morals—he was a worthy master for Polonius—gave him a European reputation, naturally turned to Imperial Rome to illustrate his maxims and observations on life. The Emperor Marcus Aurelius was his model of virtue (though he included love-letters from the Emperor to a variety of young women in Rome—which seems rather an incongruous thing to do for the over-virtuous author of the Meditations); and when Guevara wanted examples of vices as well as virtue, to give more varied moral and political lessons, he again naturally turned to the Roman monarchs. His Decada, in fact, gives lives from Trajan onwards. Among them appears a blood-curdling life of a certain Emperor Bassianus, a name which we shall not remember from our reading of Gibbon, but one with which we are thoroughly familiar from Titus Andronicus. This account of Bassianus is a shocking thing, translated with considerable energy into English in 1577 by Edward Hellowes in A Chronicle, conteyning the lives of tenne Emperours of Rome and dedicated to the Queen. The life of Bassianus (whom we know by his nickname of Caracalla—but Renaissance writers had too much respect for Roman Emperors to use only their vulgar nicknames) is one of almost unparalleled cruelty: how he slew his brother in the arms of his mother; how he slew half the Vestal Virgins because (so he said) they were not virgins, and then slew the other half because (so he said) they were. I will not say that it is a positive relief to pass from the life of Bassianus by Guevara to Shakespeare's Titus Andronicus (and there to find, by the way, that Bassianus is the better of the two brothers). Still, we feel that we are in the same world. Titus Andronicus is Senecan, yes; and it belongs to what Mr Shandy would call "no year of our Lord"; and its sources probably belong to medieval legend. Yet, as made into the play we know, it is also a not untypical piece of Roman history, or would seem to be so to anyone who came fresh from reading Guevara. Not the most high and palmy state of Rome, certainly. But an authentic Rome, and a Rome from which the usual political lessons could be drawn. Titus was entered in the Stationers' Register in 1594 as "a Noble Roman Historye", and it was published the same year as a "Most Lamentable Ro-maine Tragedie", and by sixteenth-century standards the claim was justified. One could say almost without paradox that, in many respects, Titus Andronicus is a more typical Roman play, a more characteristic piece of Roman history, than the three great plays of Shakespeare which are generally grouped under that name. The Elizabethans had far less of a low opinion of the Low Empire than we have learned to have. In fact, many of the qualities of Romanity are in Titus. The garboils; the stoical or Senecal endurance; the many historical properties: senators and tribunes and patricians. It was obviously intended to be a faithful picture of Roman civilization. Indeed, the political institutions in Titus are a subject that has been rather neglected. They are certainly peculiar, and cannot be placed at any known period in Roman history, as can those in Coriolanus or Julius Caesar; and they afford a strange contrast with the care and authenticity of those later plays. In Titus Andronicus Rome seems to be, at times, a free commonwealth, with the usual mixture of patrician and plebeian institutions. Titus is himself elected emperor of Rome on account of his merits, because the senate and people do not recognize an hereditary principle of succession. But Titus disclaims the honour in favour of the late Emperor's elder (and worser) son. Titus is a devoted adherent (not to say a maniacal one) of the hereditary monarchical principle in a common-wealth that only partly takes it into account, and he eventually acknowledges his mistake. He encourages, by his subservience, the despotic rule on which Saturninus embarks, passing to a world of Byzantine intrigue, in which the barbarians (Southern and Northern, Moors and Goths), both by personalities and armies, exert their baneful or beneficent influence. And finally, by popular acclaim, Lucius is elected emperor "to order well the state" (says the second Quarto). Now, all these elements of the political situation can be found in Roman history, but not combined in this way. The play does not assume a political situation known to Roman history; it is, rather, a summary of Roman politics. It is not so much that any particular set of political institutions is assumed in Titus, but rather that it includes all the political institutions that Rome ever had. The author seems anxious, not to get it all right, but to get it all in. It has been suggested that Titus Andronicus was the work of a fairly well-informed scholar. It seems to be a quintessence of impressions derived from an eager reading of Roman history rather than a real effort at verisimilitude. Still, I think that Titus would easily be recognized as typical Roman history by a sixteenth-century audience; the claim that it was a "noble Roman history" was a just one.
Bearing this in mind, one can see why Plutarch was no rival to Suetonius (and his imitators and followers) as a source of impressions of the Romans. Suetonius's rag-bag of gossip, scandal, piquant and spicy personalia, provided the material for a large proportion of the plays written on Roman themes, including a number of University plays. Indeed the estimate of the popularity of Plutarch in the sixteenth century seems to have been rather exaggerated—at least, the popularity of Plutarch's Lives. It was Plutarch's Moralia which were most admired, and most influential, those essays on such subjects as 'Tranquillity of Mind', and 'Whether Virtue can be Taught', and so forth, which constantly provided exercises for translation, including one by the Queen herself. These things came home to men's business and bosoms far more than the parallel lives of the Greeks and Romans, and were admired for much the same reason as Dr Johnson's Ramblers and Martin Tupper's Proverbial Philosophy: they perfectly hit the moral preoccupations of the time; and were the model for Montaigne, and thence for Bacon. It was really the eighteenth century that was the great age of Plutarch's Lives, when there were two complete new translations, many partial ones, and frequent convenient reprints. In Shakespeare's time the Lives were confined to large and cumbrous folios. We, when we want to study the relation between Shakespeare's Roman plays and Plutarch's lives, can turn to those handy selections prepared for the purpose by Skeat or Tucker Brooke or Carr. Or, if we are prompted by curiosity or conscience to set about reading the whole thing, we can turn to the manageable volumes of the Tudor Translations or to the handy little pocket volumes of the Temple Classics. But Shakespeare, when he read Plutarch, could not turn to a volume of selections illustrating Shakespeare's Roman plays. He had to take a very heavy folio in his hands. We have to read 1010 folio pages in the 1579 edition before we come to the death of Cleopatra. (It need not be suggested that Shakespeare read 1010 folio pages before he came to the death of Cleopatra.) It is certainly not a literary experience comparable with picking up a novelette like Pandosto or Rosalynde, or reading a little book about the Continual Factions, Tumults and Massacres of the Romans. It was rather a serious thing for a busy man of the theatre to do. It was probably the most serious experience that Shakespeare had of the bookish kind.
In Shakespeare's three principal Roman plays we see a steadily advancing independence of thought in the reconsideration of the Roman world. In Julius Caesar, it seems to me, he is almost precisely in step with sound Renaissance opinion on the subject. There has been a good deal of discussion of this play because of a supposed ambiguity in the author's attitude to the two principal characters. It has been suggested, on the one hand, that Brutus is intended to be a short-sighted political blunderer who foolishly or even wickedly struck down the foremost man in all the world; Dante and survivals of medieval opinion in the sixteenth century can be quoted here. We have, on the contrary, been told, on very high authority in Shakespeare studies, that Shakespeare followed the Renaissance admiration for Brutus and detestation for Caesar. It has also been suggested that Shakespeare left the exact degrees of guilt and merit in Caesar and Brutus deliberately ambiguous in the play, to give a sense of depth, to keep the audience guessing and so make the whole dramatic situation more telling. But all this, it seems to me, obscures the fact that the reassessment and reconsideration of such famous historical figures was a common literary activity in the Renaissance, not merely in poetry and drama (where licence is acceptable), but in plain prose, the writing of history. In seems hardly legitimate to talk about "tradition", to refer to "traditional" opinions about Caesar and Brutus, when in fact the characters of each of them had been the subject of constant discussion. In the nineteenth century you could weigh up the varying views of Caesar held by Mommsen or Froude or Anthony Trollope or Napoleon III of France, and read their entertaining books on the subject. It was not so very different in the sixteenth century. I am not suggesting that Shakespeare read the great works on the life and character of Julius Caesar by Hubert Goltz (1563) or by Stefano Schiappalaria (1578) where everything about him was collected and collated and assessed and criticized. But other people did. And Shakespeare, writing a play of the subject, could hardly live in such intellectual isolation as to be unaware of the discussion. It would, I think, be quite wrong to suggest by quotation from any one writer such as Montaigne that Caesar was generally agreed to be a detestable character. On the contrary, the problem was acknowledged to be a complicated and fascinating one; and the discussion began early, and in ancient times. Men have often disputed (wrote Seneca in his De Beneficiis, a work translated both by Arthur Golding and by Thomas Lodge), whether Brutus did right or wrong. "For mine owne part, although I esteemed Brutus in all other thinges a wise and vertuous man, yet meseemeth that in this he committed a great errour"; and Seneca goes on to explain the error: Brutus
imagined that such a Citie as this might repossesse her ancient honour, and former lustre, when vertue and the primitive Lawes were either abolished, or wholly extinguished; Or that Iustice, Right, and Law, should be inviolably observed in such a place, where he had seene so many thousand men at shocke and battell, not to the intent to discerne whether they were to obay and serve, but to resolve under whom they ought to serve and obay. Oh how great oblivion possessed this man! how much forgot he both the nature of affaires, and the state of his Citie! to suppose that by the death of one man there should not some other start up after him, that would usurpe over the common-weale.
Likewise William Fulbecke (writing in 1586, though his book was not published until 1601), while seeing the calamities Caesar was bringing upon the Roman state, could not praise Brutus for permitting himself to participate in political assassinations:
M. Brutus, the chiefe actor in Caesars tragedie, was in counsel deepe, in wit profound, in plot politicke, and one that hated the principality whereof he devested Caesar. But did Brutus looke for peace by bloudshed? did he thinke to avoyd tyrannie by tumult? was there no way to wound Caesar, but by stabbing his own conscience? & no way to make Caesar odious, but by incurring the same obloquie?
Fulbecke summarized his position in the controversy: "Questionless the Romanes should not have nourished this lyon in their Citie, or being nourished, they should not have disgraced him."
In writing Julius Caesar and Antony and Cleopatra Shakespeare was keeping within a safe body of story. Those persons had been dignified by tragedies in many countries of Europe and many times before Shakespeare arose and drove all competitors from the field. But with Coriolanus it was different. There was apparently no previous play on the subject. It was more of a deliberate literary and artistic choice than either of the other two Roman plays. He must have discovered Coriolanus in Plutarch. As for Caesar and Cleopatra, he presumably went to Plutarch knowing that they were good subjects for plays. But no one had directed him to Coriolanus. The story was hardly well known and not particularly attractive. The story of the ingratitude he suffered, the revenge he purposed and renounced, was told by Livy, and, along with one or two other stories of Roman womenfolk (Lucretia, Virginia), it was turned into a novella in Painter's Pallace of Pleasure; there is a mention in Titus Andronicus. More than Julius Caesar or than Antony and Cleopatra, Coriolanus (perhaps by the rivalry or stimulation of Ben Jonson) shows a great deal of care to get things right, to preserve Roman manners and customs and allusions. We have, of course, the usual Roman officials, and political and religious customs familiarly referred to; and we have the Roman mythology and pantheon. But we are also given a good deal of Roman history worked into the background. Even the eighteenth-century editors who took a toothcomb through the play for mistaken references to English customs could find very little; and it requires considerable pedantry to check these. Moreover, in Coriolanus there is some effort to make literary allusions appropriate. The ladies know their Homer and the Tale of Troy. The personal names used are all authentically derived from somewhere in Plutarch; Shakespeare has turned the pages to find something suitable. He is taking great care. He is on his mettle. Dozens of poetasters could write plays on Julius Caesar or on Cleopatra. Dozens did. But to write Coriolanus was one of the great feats of the historical imagination in Renaissance Europe.
Setting aside poetical and theatrical considerations, and merely referring to the artist's ability to "create a world" (as the saying is), we may ask if there was anything in prose or verse, in Elizabethan or Jacobean literature, which bears the same marks of careful and thoughtful consideration of the ancient world, a deliberate effort of a critical intelligence to give a consistent picture of it, as there is in Shakespeare's plays. Of course, Ben Jonson's Catiline and Sejanus at once suggest themselves. The comparison between Shakespeare's and Ben Jonson's Roman plays is a chronic one, an inevitable one, and it is nearly always, I suppose, made to Jonson's disadvantage. At least it had its origin in their own time; for Leonard Digges tells us, in his verses before the 1640 Poems, that audiences were ravished by such scenes as the quarrel between Brutus and Cassius, when they would not brook a line of tedious (though well-laboured) Catiline. Of course, Ben Jonson's two plays are superior to any other Roman plays of the period outside Shakespeare (those of Lodge, Chapman, Massinger, Marston, or Webster, or the several interesting anonymous ones). But when Ben Jonson's are compared with Shakespeare's, as they cruelly must, their defect is a lack not so much of art as of sophistication. There is a certain naivety about Ben Jonson's understanding of Roman history. Of course, in a way, there is more obvious learning about Catiline and Sejanus than about Shakespeare's Roman plays. There must have been a great deal of note-book work, a great deal of mosaic work. It is possible to sit in the British Museum with the texts of the classical writers which Jonson used around you and watch him making his play as you follow up his references (not all, I think, at first hand). But the defect of Jonson's Sejanus is lack of homogeneity of style and material. Jonson mixes the gossip of Suetonius with the gloomily penetrating and disillusioned comments on men and their motives by Tacitus. It is the old story; "who reads incessantly and to his reading brings not a spirit and judgment equal or superior" is liable to lose the advantages of his reading. After all, it doesn't require very much effort to seem learned. What is so difficult to acquire is the judgment in dealing with the material in which one is learned. This is not something that can in any way be tested by collecting misspellings of classical proper names in an author whose works have been unfairly printed from his foul papers and prompt-book copies. Shakespeare brought a judgment equal or superior to whatever ancient authors he read however he read them. Ben Jonson did not; his dogged and determined scholarship was not ripe enough; he had the books but not always the spirit with which to read them. There are occasions when we can legitimately place parts of their plays side by side. Consider the portents which accompanied the death of Julius Caesar, something which obviously interested Shakespeare very much. His description of them in Hamlet is unforgettable. His introduction of them in Julius Caesar is beautifully done. Some of the excitable Romans are prepared to believe any yarn about lions and supernatural fires and so forth. The amiable and unperturbed Cicero asks Casca:
Why are you breathless? and why stare you
And he answers Casca's fustian about "a tempest dropping fire" with mild scepticism:
Why, saw you any thing more wonderful?
His response to the contagious panic which Casca has acquired from
a hundred ghastly women,
Transformed with their fear; who swore they
Men all in fire walk up and down the streets,
is to be quite unimpressed by anything that a lot of hysterical old women swore they saw; and he then leaves, with the remark that the weather is too bad for a walk that evening:
Good night then, Casca: this disturbed sky
Is not to walk in.
Compare this with the account of the portents that accompany the conspirators' oath and the blood-drinking in Catiline. (Jonson got little of it from the excellent Sallust but from an inferior source.) It is given no connexion with the varying emotions of the observers, there is no sceptical note: it merely seems to be there because "mine author hath it so". Indeed there is some-thing medieval about it, and about Jonson's treatment of his characters in Catiline. He takes sides emphatically. He does what some critics would like Shakespeare to do in Julius Caesar; that is to tell us plainly which is the good man and which is the bad man. There is a sort of pre-Renaissance naivety about Jonson's setting up Catiline as an example of unmitigated villainy and Cicero as an example of unmitigated virtue. It is comparable with what you find in Chaucer or in Lydgate about the slaying of the glorious and victorious Julius Caesar by that wicked Judas-like figure called Brutus Cassius with bodkins hid in his sleeve. There is a sense of unreality about it, a recurring feeling that Ben Jonson doesn't really know what he is talking about—the feeling of hollowness you get when Jonson starts praising Shakespeare by shouting
Call forth thund'ring Æ schilus,
Euripides, and Sophocles to us,
Pacuvius, Accius, him of Cordova dead,
To life againe, to heare thy Buskin tread,
And shake a Stage. …
Is this the writing of a well-informed person? We can stand for Seneca, of course. But it is hard to include the Greek tragedians, too little known and too little available to make the comparison intelligent; and as for Accius and Pacuvius, there could be few criticisms more pointless than to ask anybody to call forth their meagre fragments, those ghostly writers, mere names in biographical dictionaries. Perhaps it is only Ben Jonson's fun. I would like to think so. But I doubt it. I fear he wants to be impressive. Like a medieval poet, he has licence to mention the names of great authors without their books.
There may very well be, in Shakespeare's writings, a good many vestiges of the medieval world-picture. His mind may have been encumbered, or steadied, by several objects, orts, and relics of an earlier kind of intellectual culture. But it is scarcely perceptible in his Roman plays, which can be brought to the judgment bar of the Renaissance revivification of the ancient world, and will stand the comparison with the major achievements of Renaissance Humanism (as Ben Jonson's will not). We find there a writer who seems in the intellectual current of his times. Shakespeare had what might be described as the scholarship of the educated creative writer—the ability to go and find out the best that is known and thought in his day; to get it quickly (as a busy writer must, for Shakespeare wrote more than a million words in twenty years); to get it without much trouble and without constant access to good collections of books (as a busy man of the theatre must, one often on tour and keeping up two homes); and to deal with his sources of information with intelligence and discrimination. The favourite notions of learning get around in ways past tracing. Anyone who is writing a play or a book on any subject has by that very fact a peculiar alertness and sensitivity to information and attitudes about his subject. Shakespeare did not write in isolation. He had friends. It would be an improbable hypothesis that he worked cut off from the intellectual life of his times. Indeed, all investigations of the content of his plays prove the obvious: that he was peculiarly sensitive to the intellectual tendencies of his age, in all spheres of thought. His scholarship was of a better quality than Jonson's, because (one might guess) he was a better listener, not so self-assertive in the company of his betters, and was therefore more able, with that incomparable celerity of mind of his, to profit from any well-informed acquaintance.
Finally, in understanding the picture of the ancient world in these plays, the part played by Shakespeare himself in creating our notions of the ancient Romans should not be forgotten. It has become difficult to see the plays straight, to see the thing in itself as it really is, because we are all in the power of Shakespeare's imagination, a power which has been exercised for several generations and from which it is scarcely possible to extricate ourselves. It is well known, I believe, that Shakespeare practically created the fairies; he was responsible for having impressed them on the imagination, the dainty, delightful, beneficent beings which have become part of the popular mythology. To suggest that Shakespeare also practically created the ancient Romans might be regarded as irresponsible. Still, the effect that Shakespeare has had on the way the Romans exist in our imaginations is something that might well be explored. We have had in England no great historian of Rome to impose his vision of the Roman world upon readers. Gibbon begins too late; and the English historians of Rome who wrote in the sixteenth, seventeenth and eighteenth centuries are mediocre and practically unread. We have had, on the one hand, no Mommsen; on the other, we have had no Racine, no Poussin, no David, no Napoleon. But since the early nineteenth century generations of schoolboys have been trained on Julius Caesar and Coriolanus. When English gradually penetrated into the schools as a reputable subject, it was in the sheep's clothing of Shakespeare's Roman plays that it entered the well-guarded fold; and so gave the coup de grâce to classical education in England. It can hardly be doubted that Shakespeare's Julius Caesar has had more effect than Caesar's own Commentaries in creating our impressions of his personality. Indeed, Shakespeare has had no serious rival on the subject of Ancient Rome. Neither All for Love nor Cato has stood the test of time and changing tastes. Neither the importation of Ben Hur from America nor the importation of Quo Vadis from Poland has affected Shakespeare's domination over the imagination. Besides, they belong to the wrong period. Novel writers have generally turned to the age of the Twelve Caesars, rather than to the Republic, for precisely the same reasons as did Shakespeare's contemporary playwrights; it is so much more lurid; there are so many more "garboyles". The spirit of Suetonius lives on. Shakespeare, perhaps, chose with a better instinct or with surer taste.
Jean-Marie Maguin (essay date 1974)
SOURCE: "Play Structure and Dramatic Technique in Shakespeare's Julius Caesar," in Cahiers Elisabethains, No. 5, April, 1974, pp. 93-105.
[In the following essay, Maguin argues that the structure and dramatic technique of Julius Caesar reinforce the play's symmetry and offer insight into its meaning.]
A few plain figures may provide the simplest approach to the problems of play structure and dramatic technique in Julius Caesar.
According to F.E. Halliday in a Shakespeare Companion the play totals 2,478 lines only, which makes it a short tragedy, only exceeded in brevity by Macbeth (2,108 lines) and Timon of Athens (2,373 lines), to keep our terms of comparison amongst the tragedies. The average number of lines of the Shakespearian canon play (i.e. excluding Pericles, Henry VIII, and The Two Noble Kinsmen, these being half-size plays anyway) is about 2,880. This makes Julius Caesar 400 lines shorter than the canon average, roughly the length of the play's fourth act.
The first two acts are of equal length, counting approximately 550 lines each, which makes each stand for just above one fifth of the five act play. The third act—upon which the play hinges since it is marked by the disappearance of the title character—is also the longest act of the play with a number of lines slightly superior to 600. Then follow acts of decreasing length. Act IV numbers little more than 400 lines, Act V just over 350. The last act, noticeably the shortest of all, is also the one that includes the highest number of scenes: five, as against three scenes for Acts I, III, and IV, and four scenes for Act II.
Let us also say that the division into acts as given in the only text we have, the 1623 Folio, and into scenes in modern editions, seems reasonable enough. The only textual problem is the apparent malformation of the play at Act IV, scene 3 when the death of Portia is reported twice.
Most critics have attempted to single out Julius Caesar from the rest of Shakespeare's dramatic production by saying that this was the only play in which the title-character disappeared as early as Act III, scene 1. Valid as this distinction may be—even if it makes light of the relative length of acts—when one wishes to compare the play with the rest of Shakespeare's drama, it becomes useless, worse even, misleading, when one decides to examine the internal problems of the play structure.
We contend that it is both more accurate and more useful to describe the disappearance of Julius Caesar as taking place just before the mathematic half-way mark of the play. We are then left with the simple view of a play whose first half prepares the death of a central character and whose second half deals with the human and political consequences of this death. Critics Norman Rabkin and Nicholas Brooke have in perceptive analyses argued that Julius Caesar is above all a revenge play. That Julius Caesar has many features of the revenge play no one would dream of denying, and yet the structure of the play as we have just try to define it is not that of the conventional blood revenge play as exemplified by The Spanish Tragedy or The Revenger's Tragedy. Whereas the last two plays present the original blood offence as having been committed to the detriment of the revenger before the play starts, this offence is not committed in Julius Caesar before one half of the play has elapsed. Therefore it is only the second half of the play that may be strictly be assimilated to the conventional type of the blood revenge play. From this point of view the structure of the action in Julius Caesar is nearer that of Macbeth than that of Hamlet.
In the first half of the play the death of Caesar, either the desire to bring it about or the wish to prevent it, pervades the imaginations of all characters. This is the project that motivates them one way or another and inspires them with a constant sense and awareness of the future. The business of the play with its moves and counter-moves is that of any action-drama pacing forward to a single aim.
In the second half of the play, on the other hand, the death of Caesar, either the desire to avenge it or the eagerness to materialize its political significance in a new form of government, lives alone in the minds of all characters. They all look back to the moment of Caesar's death. This is their motivation. They are possessed by their memories, inspired with a sense of the past. The business of the play is entirely dependent on a past offence; as such it closely resembles that of the conventional blood revenge play.
The conflicting political ambitions of the triumvirs and the Republicans do create an impression of movement forward in the second half of the play but this impression is dispelled at once by close examination. In Act III, scene 2, lines 254-75 and in Act V, scene 1, lines 39-44, Antony, the leading personality of the triumvirate, gives clear indications that his main motive for action is revenge. Brutus' statement in Act V, scene 1, lines 113-14, that
this same day
Must end that work the ides of March begun
proves beyond doubt that since the day of the assassination little of importance has been achieved. Time, in a way, has checked its course when Caesar died.
Thus, for both sides, the moment of Caesar's death is the common, unchanging point of reference. Caesar's death, situated half-way through the play, is the absolute, obsessive moment of the tragedy.
This extremely simple linear structure, dominated by the central event of Caesar's death, is illustrative of the fact that our perception of time, real or dramatic, is structured by a few historic events which, as such, are privileged and capture preceding and subsequent circumstances in their orbit by causal attraction. The force of the play lies in the simplicity of a structure that overrides the classical division into acts.
Wilson-Knight in his essay on The Eroticism of Julius Caesar emphasises the duality of the character of Caesar when he writes:
Antony ( … ) loves Caesar as man and hero and does not like Brutus, distinguish between the two. Cassius despises him as a man, and therefore will not believe in him at all as a hero, and thinks him therefore dangerous.
This limpid analysis stressing the flesh-spirit duality of Caesar is not only helpful within but also without the bounds of character-study. The flesh-spirit duality of Caesar is an all important structural element in the tragedy. This duality is ironically solved half-way through the play by the killing of Caesar. From that moment on, the flesh having been destroyed, Caesar becomes a pure spirit literally and figuratively and dramatically speaking. The conspirators have killed and eliminated what they loved or despised but not what they feared. The revengers have lost what they loved but not what they admire, that is to say the moral type, the political model. The profound irony of the play is inseparable from the above mentioned simple dramatic structure.
Whereas on the level of dramatic and psychological issues, the play moves from duality before to unity after the death of Caesar, on the political level of the embodiment of power, it moves from unity or unicity to complexity since to the power of one man succeed the rivalries of five men: Antony, Octavius and Lepidus on the one hand, Brutus and Cassius on the other.
Pleasing as it may be in its simplicity, the structural pattern of the play: two symmetrical, contrasting halves hinging upon one central event, must not lead us to dispense with an examination of the original nature of each act, or scene. The division into five acts, like the sonnet or other poetic forms is to be analysed, first of all, in its rigidity as a conventional structural clue to specific inventions, and secondly in its degree of pliancy as the writer stretches the universal to fit the particular.
To start with the obvious, Julius Caesar is a tragedy in five acts. We notice straightaway that the five act sequence lends itself particularly well to the above mentioned symmetry around a central event. The third act containing the murder of Caesar is flanked on either side by equivalent groups of two acts each—if of course we consider the acts as such, independently from their respective lengths. The effect of symmetry allowed mathematically speaking by the conventional dramatic pattern is enhanced by the dramatic function and particular atmosphere of the individual acts. At either end of the play, Act I and Act V are very distinctly, almost exclusively, acts of introduction and conclusion, the initial and terminal points of a curve ascending steadily through Act II, culminating in Act III, decreasing through Act IV. This curve alone describes dramatic tension in the play. From the point of view of the atmosphere, the shouting and the bustle of Act I, filled with triumphant marching on and off the stage, is symmetrically echoed by the shouting and the bustle of the battles in Act V.
Acts II and IV, formed in a pendent around Act III, are both domestic acts. In Act II we are successively introduced in the homes of Brutus and Caesar where conjugal peace suffers from the stress of political fears. Act IV, dominated as it is by the third scene, the third longest scene in the play, pictures the wrangling between the triumvirs, then the violent quarrel and final reconciliation between Brutus and Cassius, friends but also brothers-in-law. Here again, as in Act II, we face domestic tensions and domestic peace. The discordant tones of the quarrels in Act IV echo the noise of the storm at the end of Act I and through most of Act II. The visitation of the ghost at the end of Act IV brings back some of the supernatural terrors which mark the end of Act I and most of Act II. Similarly, the gentleness of Brutus with Lucius in Act IV echoes an earlier passage in Act II while Portia, who first appeared in Act II, is reported dead in Act IV.
Act III, the central act of the play, is framed by two murders, that of Caesar by the conspirators at the beginning and, at the end, that of Cinna the Poet by the enemies of Caesar's enemies. The global significance is that violence, in accordance with the grim prophecy of Antony at the end of Act III, scene 1, has become truly universal: both tyrant and poet have perished, the guilty and the innocent will die.
So far, the play's symmetry appears almost perfect. Yet it would be wrong to suggest that it is the act division as such which impresses an audience with a sense of symmetry during a dramatic performance. The division into acts is meant neither to be felt nor to shape the audience's reactions. Although there is a change of setting between Act I and Act II, the night sequence that opens at Act I, scene 3 to end somewhere around Act II, scene 2, line 58 with Decius hailing Caesar, provides an undeniable run-on effect. Similarly, despite swift changes of setting, there is continuity between Act II and Act III. The dramatic hinge is situated in Act II, scene 2, at line 107 when Caesar makes up his mind:
Give me my robe, for I will go.
The only point in the play where the act division corresponds to a time lapse immediately perceptible by an audience is the fracture between Act III and Act IV. When the dramatic thread is taken up again, each political faction has had time to recruit and try the valour of its armed forces. Yet even in this case the change of setting is not effected until the beginning of Act IV, scene 2, when the action is removed from Rome to the rebels' camp near Sardis.
In production the play is too short to tolerate more than one interval. This interval can be placed either at the close of Act III after Antony has swayed the minds of the people or even better we think at the end of Act III, scene 1, following upon the exit of Antony and Octavius' servant bearing the body of Caesar. The second half of the performance would then start with the oratory of Brutus and Antony in the Forum. Thus, in terms of dramatic production, we are back at something less fragmented than a five-part structure: a two-part structure hinging on the death of Caesar. The interval helps to materialise a symmetry that although underscored in some ways by the five-act convention suffers from it in other directions.
The decreasing length of Acts IV and V is remarkable. Act V is just over half the size of Act III. It also counts most scenes: five as against four in Act II and three in Acts I, III, and IV. It is an act dominated by business and, in a sense, marred by it. The dramatic effect is one of 'jumpiness' and forbids the audience to concentrate for very long on any one feature. The difficulty of course is one specific to history plays as a genre. Whilst the destiny of the individuals portrayed is inseperable from the fate of the human masses they have set in motion, the necessarily restricted stage area of a theatre is unsuitable for large numbers. When he wrote Julius Caesar, Shakespeare was already possessed of the experience acquired in the English histories. In his first Roman play he deliberately concentrates all the business of battles in one short act, the last of the play. He also resorts to a technique for keeping numbers off stage while allowing their over-riding importance to be felt. This is the technique of the running commentary on the battle provided by a main or secondary character, Brutus in scene 2, Cassius and Pindarus in scene 3. This is similar to the device resorted to in Act I, scene 1 for the heard but unseen offering of the crown. In both cases the technique, not altogether unlike that of the Chorus of Greek and Latin tragedy, results in an actual extension of backstage business while preventing the stage from becoming overcrowded. However, the effect in Act V is less successful than in Act I. This is due to the exceptionally fascinating nature of the offstage business: fighting and bloodshed. The audience is thwarted in its morbid desire to see and is at least as frustrated as short-sighted Cassius whose infirmity is here conveniently brought in, perhaps in an attempt to have us forget our own predicament by making it shared by a fellow spectator on stage. The shortness of the scenes is a strong witness to the fact that Shakespeare was aware of the dangers of prolonging this type of situation. We cannot help feeling that Act V is largely sacrificed to inescapable dramatic stumbling-blocks. Shakespeare is getting rid of the military business and a few characters as well. They all die swiftly, Cassius rashly, Brutus with quick determination. Titinius' elegiac speech over the body of his friend Cassius, just before his own death, is probably intended as a means to slow down the dizzy swirl of events engulfing men. It partly succeeds.
The examination of Act V was necessary to show that Shakespeare's reliance on the five-act structure is neither careless nor carefree. The varying length of the acts points to a very significant warping or adaptation of the received structure to fit the particular dramatic situation.
Dramatic technique might be defined as the particular handling of received structures. As such, it covers all that is relevant to the playwright's structuring ability, his capacity to create under the face of a chosen convention an entirely original structure serving his specific dramatic requirements. Words and situations are the elements of this original structuring. Their positioning in the play, their recurrence with or without variations create moments of stress or unstress whose relative situation determines in turn an overall structure proper to condition intellectual, moral and aesthetic responses in an audience subjected to these tensions. The framing of Act HI by the death of the tyrant and the death of the poet is an instance of the dramatic technique in Julius Caesar. The concentration of all battles in Act V and of all staged deaths in Acts HI and V are others.
A prominent feature is the use made by Shakespeare of parallel situations within the play. An example of these parallels is afforded by the psychological evolution of characters destined to die or be stricken in their family. Caesar and Calphurnia evolve from scepticism to superstition. Cassius, though an Epicurean, partly gives way to faith in omens at the close of his life. Brutus' defeat is prefaced by the visitation of a ghost. These details are not, it must be remembered, Shakespeare's own creation; he borrows them from North's Plutarch. Yet they are arranged in the play in such a way that rather than the actuality of the omens preceding great men's deaths it is the change of great men's minds, their sudden, anguished focussing upon the world of superstitious terrors that acts as a dramatic warning of their deaths.
In the same way, the repetition of a figure of rhetoric throws a verbal spell on the speakers, acts as a veritable verbal doom. In Act I, scene 2, lines 311-12 Cassius says:
If I were Brutus now, and he were Cassius
He should not humour me.
and in Act HI, scene 2, lines 228-30 Antony tells the citizens:
But were I Brutus
And Brutus Antony, there were an Antony
Would ruffle up your spirits.
Thus, unwittingly, two speakers by separately contemplating an exchange of identity with Brutus create, in effect, beyond their temporary opposition, an indissoluble trio, that of the three noble Romans destined to self-destruction, Cassius and Brutus in the course of the play, Antony later and in another play, in Antony and Cleopatra.
The phantasm of suicide and its actualization, with or without friendly assistance, colour the atmosphere of the whole play which could be defined as a study of the fascination of death. The parallels are numerous and the fact that their elements are situated in all the acts of the play without exception counterbalances the concentration of staged deaths in Acts HI and V only. In Act I, Caesar's epileptic fit, during which he is reported to have offered the Romans the opportunity to cut his throat as a proof of his political honesty, is echoed a scene later by Cassius baring his 'bosom to the thunder stone' to prove to himself, the gods, and men that his cause is just. In Act II, Portia's self-inflicted wound is in a way an inconclusive suicidal gesture to be perfected by her actual suicide reported in Act IV. In Act III, scene 1 Cassius fearing that the conspiracy has been discovered, threatens to do away with himself; in Act IV, scene 3 he offers his dagger to Brutus and begs death of his friend in exactly the same way as Antony had begged death of Caesar's murderers in Act III, scene 1. In Act V, scene 1 Brutus conjures up the memory of Cato's suicide. Scene 3 of the same act is marked by the actual suicides on stage of Cassius and Titinius; scene 5 by that of Brutus. To say that such an impressive series contributes to the creation of the 'Roman' atmosphere intended for the the play is one thing; the particular arrangement of the episodes in the play is quite another: it represents the structuring of maniacal desire, its building up to actualization. Yet within the play there is no discourse on suicide comparable to that which was to appear in the later play of Hamlet.
In a similar way, it is clear that the dramatic structure of Act II is founded on a parallel portrayal of man and wife: Brutus and Portia on the one hand, Caesar and Calphurnia on the other. Here the dramatic technique consists in a parallel mode of presentation aimed at emphasizing differences in character situation and character relationship.
An odd and interesting parallel exists between the offering of a crown to Caesar by Antony in Act I, and the posthumous crowning of Cassius by Titinius in Act V. The similarity is disturbing. It may mean that in both cases there is no other intention in the reported or staged gestures than that of expressing friendship. In retrospect this throws a grave doubt on the reality of Caesar's monarchic ambition as seen by Shakespeare. On the other hand, if we choose not to doubt the political significance of the crown offered to Caesar by Antony in Act I, there is a pathetic derision in the posthumous crowning of Republican Cassius. Neither interpretation can be fairly favoured, and the parallel results in a permanent ambiguity, which is characteristic on the whole play on the political level.
Calphurnia's dream as reported by Caesar in Act II, scene 2, lines 75-82 is the basic theme of a triple variation including not only verbal play but also ritualistic physical display. The first variation is purely verbal. It is the redescription and reinterpretation of the dream by Decius. This follows immediately upon Caesar's original report. The omen of death is twisted into a 'happy' political prophecy. What happens in fact is that Decius answers the initial enigma of the dream by another enigma, relying on Caesar's fundamental self-assurance and love of flattery to make him overlook the basic ambiguity of the image of Rome sucking reviving blood from its leader. Blood to revive what? Prosperity as Caesar thinks, or liberty as Decius does? The second variation illustrating physically the prophetic meaning of Decius' enigma comes in the shape of Brutus' urgent desire to see the Romans perform a ritualistic blood smearing of their hands and swords after the murder of Caesar:
Stoop, Romans, stoop,
And let us bathe our hands in Caesar's blood
Up to the elbows, and besmear our swords:
Then walk we forth, even to the market-place,
And waving our red weapons o'er our heads,
Let's all cry, "Peace, freedom, and liberty!"
The third and last variation is offered in a passage of Antony's speech to the citizens in Act III, scene 2 when he presses them to grab the sacred blood relics of murdered Caesar:
Let but the commons hear this testament,
Which, pardon me, I do not mean to read,
And they would go and kiss dead Caesar's
And dip their napkins in his sacred blood,
Here then are the 'great men' who, according to Decius, were to press 'For tinctures, stains, relics, and cognizance' in fact simple citizens now performing a rite materially no different from that performed by Brutus and his confederates, but of different significance. What they have in mind is neither peace nor liberty but civil war and revenge. These four parallel passages show that the ultimate fickleness in Shakespeare's version of the Caesar story is not that of the mob but that of words themselves whose ambiguity is infinite and tricks Caesar, Brutus, and Decius as easily as it does the commoners of Rome.
Lastly we must mention another feature of the dramatic technique on the verbal level: the creation of an ironic verbal chain that is unwittingly and prophetically forged by the characters to run parallel with the sequence of events over which their control is obviously partial. In order to emphasize the absurd injustice of Caesar's tyranny Cassius says to Brutus in the course of their initial conversation of Act I, scene 2: "Brutus" will start a spirit as soon as "Caesar". He implies that they are equals in that neither can do so. In Act II, scene 1 Brutus exclaims:
We all stand up against the spirit of Caesar
O, that we then could come by Caesar's spirit,
And not dismember Caesar!
In Act IV, scene 3, in answer to Brutus's question, the ghost identifies himself as:
Thy evil spirit, Brutus.
In Act V, scene 1 Cassius, discouraged, mentions the birds of prey that form:
A canopy most fatal, under which
Our army lies, ready to give up the ghost.
In Act V, scene 3 Brutus, facing the body of Cassius, concludes:
O Julius Caesar, thou art mighty yet!
Thy spirit walks abroad, and turns our swords
Into our own proper entrails.
From the initial jocular remark to the last despondent statement the evolution of the whole play can be faithfully traced. While the words are perceived because they appear at crucial moments in the play, the verbal chain thus formed also contains a structuring germ, acts as a true backbone of dramatic composition. When we. isolate it as we have done we obtain an ironic summary of the entire work.
We have given only a few examples of what we feel are the most important features of the dramatic technique. We cannot, on the other hand, overemphasize the danger of suggesting by such a study that dramatic composition is merely an abstract game of construction meant to provide literary critics with an abstract game of analysis. From the playwright's point of view each dramatic statement carries within itself an ideal structure that is a gestalt: the most easily recognizable form of the statement intended. For the critic the genuine test of play structure comes first with the dramatic performance and only later with textual study.
Arthur Humphreys (essay date 1984)
SOURCE: In an introduction to Julius Caesar, by William Shakespeare, edited by Arthur Humphreys, Oxford at the Clarendon Press, 1984, pp. 1-83.
[In the following excerpt, Humphreys offers a detailed overview of the play's background, discussing its place in the Shakespearean canon, the sources used by Shakespeare, and Shakespeare's treatment of Roman values.]
The Play's Date...
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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...
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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...
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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....
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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...
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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....
(The entire section is 430 words.)