Julius Caesar (Vol. 50)
For further information on the critical and stage history of Julius Caesar, see .
Written after such Shakespearean histories as Henry V and before such tragedies as Hamlet, Julius Caesar has been described by critics as a play that contains elements of both genres. Julius Caesar has also been regarded as a "problem play," due to Brutus's ambiguous status as a tragic hero who may or may not be justified in conspiring to assassinate Caesar. Scholarly examination has also linked the play's depiction of political and social conflict with events occurring in Shakespeare's England at the close of the reign of the aging Queen Elizabeth. Recent discussion of Julius Caesar has focused on the treatment of social class—more specifically, on the antagonism between classes as well as between members of the same class, and the extent to which class tensions contributed to the fall of the Roman republic.
The importance of class structure goes to the very heart of the play's performance. In his discussion of staging issues, Stuart Vaughan (1996) remarks that like other plays by Shakespeare, Julius Caesar has been performed in a variety of settings—most notably when Orson Welles shifted the play to the post World War I, fascist Rome of Mussolini. However, Vaughn warns that such "transplantation" should be done with care so that Shakespeare's "essential" meaning is not lost—a view shared by Sidney Finkelstein (1961). Finkelstein contends that setting Julius Caesar in fascist Italy results in a misrepresentation of the play's fundamental social conflicts. In other words, while dissent against Mussolini took the form of a democratic movement centered in the working class, the rebellion against Caesar was led by aristocrats, or patricians, and did not include the common people, or plebeians, who in fact regarded Caesar as their champion against the abuses of the patrician class. Jan H. Blits (1981) takes a somewhat different view, arguing that republican Rome depended on harmony between the patrician and plebeian classes and that this harmony has already disappeared by the start of the play when, during the feast of Lupercal (I.i), the plebeians demonstrate adherence to Caesarism, or "the voluntary surrender of their liberty" to a power such as Caesar's. Mary Hamer (1998) also connects disarray among the classes with the impending destruction of the republic. She, however, looks at the feast of Lupercal from the point of view of the tribunes who reveal their "fear" of the rise of Caesar and the dissolution of the republic by berating plebeians—that is, members of the very class they are appointed to protect. In contrast, Timothy Hampton (1990) and Wayne A. Rebhorn (1990) explore the connections between the Roman patricians and the aristocracy of Renaissance England. According to both critics, symbols and symbolic action are what distinguish the ruling class from the aristocratic class. Hampton asserts that both Caesar in Shakespeare's play and the rulers of sixteenth-century Europe relied on rhetoric and the image of the "virtuous ruler" to maintain control over the classes. Meanwhile, Rebhorn observes, the fact that the Elizabethan aristocracy was headed toward destruction as each member tried to surpass the other in dangerous feats of heroism is mirrored by a similar preoccupation between the patricians Brutus and Cassius. Ralph Berry (1988) places the demise of the republic and of the power of the patrician class at the feet of the members of the class themselves, asserting that the conspirators' plot was doomed to failure once they deferred to Brutus, not because he was right, but by virtue of his noble lineage.
Another aspect of Julius Caesar that has garnered scholarly interest is the importance of to the play. Just as did Hampton and Rebhorn, Naomi Conn Liebler (1981) draws a connection between ancient Rome and Elizabethan England when she remarks that Renaissance viewers of the play would have identified the plebeians' indulgence in Lupercalian rites with their own English celebrations; additionally, she remarks that these rituals—which serve as the opening to the play and which the tribunes complain have been perverted by the plebeians—also prepare the audience for subsequent perverse blood rituals undertaken by Brutus and his co-conspirators. Marjorie B. Garber (1974) and Lawrence Danson (1974) see the rituals and omens found throughout Julius Caesar as an important source of its tragic elements. For Danson, the tragedy is generated through misunderstanding of signs; for Garber, tragedy is achieved through the ultimate and genuine ritual of Brutus's self-sacrifice through death in the closing act of the play.
The role of Brutus as a tragic hero and as leader of the patrician class has been discussed by numerous critics. By contrast, David Lowenthal (1982) examines the play's namesake, arguing that Shakespeare presents Caesar as "the perfection of political or honor-seeking man" who all the same remains unconcerned with the plebeians who support him. Marshall C. Bradley (1994) looks at the Cynic Casca as a source of commentary on the various philosophies—Stoicism, Epicureanism, and proto-Christianity—that exist in the play; he also looks at Caesar's "bondman" as a "link between Caesar . . . and the greater body of conspirators"—in other words, between the ruler and the patrician class.
Stuart Vaughan (essay date 1996)
SOURCE: "Introduction to Commentary" in William Shakespeare: Julius Caesar, edited by Maurice Charney, Applause Books, 1996, pp. xix-xxv.
[In the following essay, Vaughan looks at Julius Caesar from the point of view of performance, discussing such elements as setting, stage design, casting, and directorial modifications to the play.]
Shakespeare's Julius Caesar is both tragedy and history play, but however readers and critics approach it, stage directors must deal with it as a play written for performance in the theatre.
The author of a play to be played in the neutral, architectural theatre of Shakespeare's day had only, in order to set place and time of day, to provide indications early in the dialogue of each scene as to when and where the new unit of action was occurring. Thus, scene design was a matter of words.
Notice how, in the first scene of Julius Caesar, Flavius says (1. 3) " . . . ought not walk/upon a labouring day," and later (1. 27) says, " . . . lead these men about the streets?" When the time of day changes, at the beginning of Act I, Scene iii, Cicero's first words are, "Good even, Casca." At 1. 3 ff., Casca and Cicero both describe the "tempest," setting the scene further, and Cassius, entering later, is greeted by Casca saying,...
(The entire section is 2867 words.)
Sidney Finkelstein (essay date 1961)
SOURCE: "On Updating Shakespeare: Part I," in Mainstream, Vol. 14, No. 7, July, 1961, pp. 21-32.
[In the essay below, Finkelstein argues against updating Julius Caesar to Mussolini's fascist Italy on grounds that such an update misrepresents the actual social conflict in the play—which occurs between patricians, who are anxious to hold on to power, and Caesar, who is supported by the plebeians in his bid for absolute rule.]
While this writer has not yet attended any of the American Shakespeare Festival Theatre performances at Stratford, Connecticut, both the advance publicity and the critical reviews of the opening performance of As You Like It indicate that certain methods of misinterpreting the Elizabethan giant, seeing themselves as a fresh look or, to quote a New York Times article of June 4th, as "A New Contemporary Image for the Bard," will be repeated and compounded. Our times are not unique in such errors, of course. In the 19th century, the practice was to cut the plays heavily and reshuffle the scenes, so that a production became a vehicle for one or two star actors in the leading roles, the great speeches and monologues being read almost in the spirit of a singer doing a succession of operatic arias. Now we do less cutting, and preserve the original fast-moving sequence of short scenes, priding...
(The entire section is 40113 words.)
David Lowenthal (essay date 1982)
SOURCE: "Shakespeare's Caesar's Plan," in Interpretation: A Journal of Political Philosophy, Vol. 10, No. 2 & 3, May & September, 1982, pp. 223-50.
[Below, Lowenthal argues that Shakespeare portrays the character Julius Caesar as a great but ruthless leader, uninterested in either justice or the welfare of the common people but focused instead on the continuance of Caesarism.]
Only one of Shakespeare's thirty-seven plays deals with an historical figure of the first rank. Coriolanus, Antony, Cleopatra, Henry V were of lesser greatness; Macbeth, Lear, Hamlet would have been lost in historical obscurity but for Shakespeare himself. With Julius Caesar, however, Shakespeare chose a man of almost unrivalled glory. Why Caesar and no other? Why four of ten tragedies about ancient Rome? What was Shakespeare's understanding of Caesar and Rome?
Designed in such a way as to mirror the complexity of their subjects, Shakespeare's plays were all bound to elicit a variety of interpretations and judgments. Parts stand out and speeches impress, but, as with the universe itself, the overall meaning remains elusive. To this common state Julius Caesar adds a complication deriving from the partisan political passions it provokes. Even Coriolanus is not its match in this respect, for the conflict between plebs and patricians is...
(The entire section is 22013 words.)
Rituals And Omens
Lawrence Danson (essay date 1974)
SOURCE: "Julius Caesar," in Tragic Alphabet: Shakespeare's Drama of Language, Yale University Press, 1974, pp. 50-67.
[In the following excerpt, Danson asserts that the murders and suicides touched off by and including the assassination of Caesar are in fact "meaningless " nonrituals and that the play does not achieve its tragic, ritualized status until the death of Brutus.]
In Julius Caesar we find, more starkly and simply than in Hamlet, those problems of communication and expression, those confusions linguistic and ritualistic, which mark the world of the tragedies. The play opens with the sort of apparently expository scene in which Shakespeare actually gives us the major action of the play in miniature. Flavius and Marullus, the tribunes, can barely understand the punning language of the commoners; had they the wit, they might exclaim with Hamlet, "Equivocation will undo us." It is ostensibly broad daylight in Rome, but the situation is dreamlike; for although the language which the two classes speak is phonetically identical, it is, semantically, two separate languages. The cobbler's language, though it sounds like the tribunes', is (to the tribunes) a sort of inexplicable dumb show.
And as with words, so with gestures; the certainties of ceremonial order are as lacking in Rome, as are the certainties...
(The entire section is 28282 words.)
Anderson, Peter S. "Shakespeare's Caesar: The Language of Sacrifice." In Comparative Drama III, No. 1 (Spring 1969): 3-26.
Stresses the importance of the verbal imagery used by Caesar's assassins, his allies, and the people in emphasizing the health of Rome and its government.
Bathory, Dennis. "'With Himself at War': Shakespeare's Roman Hero and the Republican Tradition." In Shakespeare's Political Pageant: Essays in Literature and Politics, edited by Joseph Alulis and Vickie Sullivan, pp. 237-61. Lanham, MD: Rowman & Littlefield Publishers, Inc., 1996.
Argues that in Julius Caesar and Coriolanus, Shakespeare demonstrates Republican Rome's inability to discourage civil strife without relying on external wars.
Bligh, John. "Cicero's Choric Comment in Julius Caesar" In English Studies in Canada VIII, No. 4 (December 1982): 391-408.
Asserts that Cicero's brief remarks on Casca's interpretation of the storm in Act One provide insight into how to understand not only the motives of characters in Julius Caesar but also those of the characters in Shakespeare's other histories and tragedies.
Blits, Jan H. "Caesarism and the End of Republican Rome: Act I, scene i." In The Journal of...
(The entire section is 1338 words.)