Study Guide

Julius Caesar

by William Shakespeare

Julius Caesar Essay - Julius Caesar and the Properties of Shakespeare's Globe

Julius Caesar and the Properties of Shakespeare's Globe


Julius Caesar and the Properties of Shakespeare's Globe

Dennis Kezar, Vanderbilt University

"The World makes many vntrue Constructions of these Speaches."1

For an antitheatricalist such as Stephen Gosson, the Renaissance stage travesties the courtroom, leaving the defendant with no voice and replacing a single judge with an injudicious jury: "At stage plays it is ridiculous, for the parties accused to reply, no indifference of judgment can be had, because the worst sort of people have the hearing of it, which in respect of their ignorance, of their fickleness, and of their fury, are not to be admitted in place of judgment. A judge must be grave, sober, discreet, wise, well exercised in cases of government, which qualities are never found in the baser sort."2 In his indictment of drama Gosson charges poets and players with reducing the accused to a lifeless and common text, "openly blown into the ears of many and made a byword" (p. 167); and he charges the audience, "carried away with every rumor," with blind injustice: "they run together by heaps, they know not whither; and lay about with their clubs, they see not why. Which thing the ancient Philosophers considering called them a monster of many heads" (p. 164).

Conspicuously, few apologists for Renaissance theater directly engage Gosson's assertion that the stage is a law court perverted, that it submits false evidence to a biased, bacchant audience. Indeed, Thomas Heywood admits the malleability of this audience only when insisting upon the virtues of fictionalized exempla: "Lively and well spirited action . . . hath power to new mold the hearts of the spectators and fashion them to the shape of any noble and notable attempt."3 Philip Sidney may obliquely concede the contingency of such modeling upon the audience's judgment when, for instance, he claims for the poet power "to bestow a Cyrus upon the world to make many Cyruses, if they will learn aright why and how that maker made him."4 But Sidney and the protheatricalists celebrate the bloodless "sweet violence"5 of an exemplary and embellished drama that moves the spectator to virtuous and prescribed behavior; Gosson argues not only that this same transaction can promulgate vice—both intentionally and unintentionally6—but also that it commits felonious violence against the object of representation itself. Far from a "glass of behavior," Gosson's theater presents men as silent exteriors before a dangerously subjective audience, an inversion of the ideal courtroom: "For the place, no private man's life ought to be brought in question or accused, but where he may plead in his own defense and have indifferent judges to determine the case" (p. 163). Thus he approves of Roman theatrical censorship for restoring the judiciary to its rightful place: "[the Roman censors] would not have the life and behavior of the citizens, subject either to a poet's inkhorn, or a player's tongue, but to the seat of justice" (p. 165). In contrast to this fixed institution of judgment, he finds the Renaissance "common" stage an interpretively open-ended venue, where the inwardness of a "private man's life" becomes the property of a public both ductile and unpredictable.7 At its most penetrating, Gosson's criticism of drama reveals the violence of what we might call "other-fashioning"—the coercion involved when a playwright silences a subject, appropriates that subject as spectacle, and displays it before the dubious construction of numberless judges.

Ironically, we find the most unflinching response to this definition of theatrical violence not in the prose of Gosson's opponents, but in the very public drama he seeks to censor. In my reading of The Tragedy of Julius Caesar, I claim that Shakespeare explores this same violence with acute self-consciousness; and that, more specifically, the dismemberment of Cinna the poet at the center of the dramatic action emblemizes the potentially ruinous energies of other-fashioning—focuses the anxieties about theatrical appropriation and audience response—that preside with thematic centrality over the play. Such a reading will involve an inversion of the paradigm typically imposed on the Renaissance stage when "self-fashioning" is the issue: rather than a cultural space that enables but ultimately contains a potentially subversive auto-poesis.8 I argue that Shakespeare represents in this play a stage subversive for its incontinence, a theater in which self-presentation dissolves before the alterative gaze and indeterminate interpretation of the spectator. Julius Caesar will have a doubled part in this essay, however. While I seek to demonstrate that in his play Shakespeare metatheatrically considers the relation—as conceived by the antitheatricalists—between the playwright, his matter, and his audience, I also attempt to historicize this self-consciousness, arguing that the play appears in a time (1599) and a place (the Globe) at which the nature of this relation is being energetically redefined and debated. This reading of Julius Caesar, then, tries to present the play as a dramatic reading of a contentious contemporary issue, a critical representation of the public theater's epistemological economy. For it is through this critique that Shakespeare defines both the dramatist and his customers as roughhandlers of the representations they fashion and watch; it is through this critique that Shakespeare considers public drama's potential for irresponsibility. In so doing, he defines the playwright as implicated in a process of which many apologists for theater would absolve him: guilty by association with an untrustworthy audience, a corrupt jury, Shakespeare's dramatist knowingly violates the subjects he stages.


"Fashion it thus "

It might be objected that Gosson's view of theater as mistrial arises merely from his concern with a topical stage's potential for libel, a concern in fact shared by the state censors in Renaissance England.9 But Gosson conceives the injury of theatrical misrepresentation much more broadly, so that even Roman history can be victimized by Elizabethan dramatic adaptations:

If a true history be taken in hand .. . the poets drive it most commonly unto such points, as may best show the majesty of their pen .. . or wring in a show, to furnish the stage, when it is too bare; when the matter of itself comes short of this, they follow the practice of the cobbler, and set their teeth to the leather to pull it out.

So was the history of Caesar and Pompey . . . when the history swelled, and ran too high for the number of the persons that should play it, the poet with Procrustes cut the same fit to his own measure; when it afforded no pomp at all, he brought it to the rack, to make it serve.

(Plays Confuted in Five Actions, pp. 168-69)

Sidney's alchemy, whereby the brazen world of nature and history becomes golden, is here described as a violent and opportunistic craft. For Gosson does not seem to share Sidney's view of the inutile specificity of history; nor does he justify poetic fiction as the conversion of mundane fact into neoplatonic Truth. Rather, Gosson's "true history" exists as a prior authenticity endangered by subsequent authors who take it "in hand" and "make it serve" their own artistic designs—by playwrights who falsify historical evidence and "wring in" shows in order to construct compelling theatrical cases.

Something of this rhetoric of coercive and manipulative representation distinguishes Shakespeare's own metadramatic reflections upon the act of staging history. In the Prologue to The Life of Henry the Fifth, for instance, the Chorus admits the difficulty of dramatizing epic, and concedes the impossibility if not the impropriety of "cram[ming]" the play's historical subject "Within this wooden O"; and as the audience, we become accomplices to this constrictive, farcical force when we are invited to "Suppose within the girdle of these walls / Are now confined two mighty monarchies."10 While Shakespeare's "Chorus to this history" grapples with the presentational problem of daring "to bring forth / So great an object .. . On this unworthy scaffold," however, it also introduces the interpretive consequences of treating an historical subject as a spectacular "object." By invoking the audience's "imaginary forces," this Chorus indicates that dramatist and spectator must collaborate in fashioning and evaluating the evidence before them, and implies that the ultimate meaning of dramatic representation resides in the subjective and constitutive response of the audience: "Linger your patience on, and we'll digest / Th' abuse of distance, force a play" (2.Chorus.31-32). If one subscribes to Gosson's dark view of the playwright and his "worst sort of audience, moreover, this collaboration not only misrepresents "true history" through the dramatist's self-interested manipulation of the record, but also subjects the characters of that history to the equally suspect reception of spectators who—like an autonomous jury—follow their own ends in arriving at their verdict.

Julius Caesar dramatizes both sides of this exchange, demonstrating the potential violation of history and its subjects by theatrical representation and audience response. Replying skeptically to Casca's reading of the wonders and prodigies that herald the fifteenth of March, in fact, Cicero might be said to epigrammatize the open-ended process of other-fashioning: "Indeed it is a strange-disposed time. / But men may construe things after their fashion, / Clean from the purpose of the things themselves" (I.3.33-35). Primarily, of course, these lines warn against the inadvertent misprison central to tragedy—the defiance of augury, omens, and prophecy that generically signals Caesar's fall; the "hateful Error" that ruins Cassius, who dies having "misconstrued everything" (5.3.84). But in Shakespeare's history play Cicero's words resonate with a significance beyond the tragic myopia that can doom such interpreters. For the hermeneutic he describes—the subjective speculation and objectified spectacle that, for Gosson, corrupt the courtroom and reduce history to histrionics—also describes the theatrical mode by which men knowingly victimize others in Julius Caesar. Like the word "theater" itself (at once a place where one goes "to view" and a place where scenes are staged "to the view"), his verb "construe" blurs the distinction between the act of interpretation and the act of representation. Indeed, Cicero's insight becomes the conspirators' strategy as they construct their plot. Like the portents and soothsaying Caesar must ignore if this plot is to succeed, for instance, Calphurnia's dream has an internal validity and "purpose" that the conspirators must construe "after their fashion" if the show is to go on. Thus Decius claims that she has "all amiss interpreted" her vision (2.2.83), and he provides an alternative reading that effectively leads Caesar to his slaughter. Similarly, although Brutus regrets "That every like is not the same" (2.2.128), he realizes the republicans must represent Caesar as a simulacrum of himself in order to alienate him in the people's eyes. In a soliloquy that...

(The entire section is 2295 words.)


"A strange-disposed time"

Although poet remained both the popular and technical term for the playwright during Shakespeare's lifetime,24 there are reasons both historical and textual to suppose that dramatists working in England's increasingly public theaters had occasion to reevaluate and revalue this term. As Elizabeth's court blurred the distinction between private courtship and public courtiership, so her elaborately theatricalized self-presentation erased the boundaries between stagecraft and statecraft. When political power can be dramatized, power itself devolves to a public where interpretive possibilities proliferate. On the Renaissance public stage, sovereign...

(The entire section is 2518 words.)


"Censuring Rome"

Julius Caesar seems to know no other medium than the public stage, as critics have long demonstrated by pointing out its preference for the rhetorical mode over the lyrical, for public declamation and customary proverbs over private reflection and soliloquy.46 As Brutus responds when asked if one can ever properly know one's self: "No, Cassius, for the eye sees not itself / But by reflection, by some other thing" (1.2.52-53). Frequently, this "other thing" proves to be the speculum of theater itself. In a marketplace reeking of the commoners' breath, Caesar is clapped and hissed for his political dumbshow "according as he pleas'd and displeas'd" his plebein...

(The entire section is 2916 words.)


Significantly, every act of writing in Julius Caesar draws blood. In the broadsheets Cassius writes "in several hands," "wherein obscurely Caesar's ambition shall be glanced at" (1.2.316, 319-20); in the anonymous notes Cinna the conspirator throws in Brutus' way (1.3.145); and in the proscription list on which Antony damns lives with spots of ink (4.1.6), the injury textually inflicted seems to correspond with the author's intention. And yet the conspirators, as we have seen, involuntarily involve themselves in their own plot the moment they script it and declare it finished. Antony in turn loses sole authorship of his counterplot as it becomes the collaborative product of the other triumvirs. Having judged...

(The entire section is 3576 words.)