Julius Caesar (Vol. 63)
For further information on the critical and stage history of Julius Caesar, see SC, Volumes 7, 17, 30, and 50.
Likely written and first performed in 1599 between Shakespeare's Henry V and Hamlet, Julius Caesar occupies a transitional space between the genres of history and tragedy. Set in Julian Rome in 44 b.c., the play describes a senatorial conspiracy to murder the emperor Caesar and the political turmoil that ensues in the aftermath of the assassination. The play’s two tragic figures—the slain emperor and Marcus Brutus, Caesar's close friend and the head of the conspirators—have steadily attracted the attention of critics. Many late twentieth-century scholars have continued the tradition of analyzing the motivations and ambiguities inherent in Shakespeare's dramatization of these historical personages, particularly Brutus, and studying the play's powerful and complex evocation of early Imperial Rome. Recent criticism has additionally concentrated on the work's dramaturgical qualities and its metadramatic status as a play about theater and performance. Contemporary scholars have also engaged numerous other topics, particularly focusing on varied linguistic and ideological issues in the play, including its philosophical content and its depiction of rhetoric as an influential force in manipulating human behavior, destabilizing meaning, and reflecting the vagaries of history.
Late twentieth-century emphasis on the dramaturgy of Julius Caesar combines a number of perspectives, including the study of explicit, internal references to the work as drama, and of Shakespeare's manipulation of his audience. Robert F. Willson, Jr. (1990) examines the metadramatic nature of the conspirators, who see themselves “as actors in a precedent-setting, historical drama.” Enumerating theatrical metaphors presented during the murder, Willson calls attention to the Forum scene as a play-within-a-play that amplifies the drama's theme of passion as destroyer. Jean-Pierre Maquerlot (1995) highlights the formal ambiguities of the play, analyzing the work as a “Mannerist” drama in which Shakespeare controls audience expectations by coyly shifting their allegiances between Brutus, Caesar, and Antony. Dennis Kezar (1998) discusses Shakespeare's self-conscious use of dramatic spectacle and metadramatic irony in Julius Caesar, basing his observations around the play's motif of dismemberment.
Modern interpretations of character, informed to varying degrees by linguistic and psychoanalytic theory, have been consistently applied to Julius Caesar, resulting in ambivalent and ironic readings of Brutus, Caesar, and the other principal figures in the drama. Focusing on Brutus's attempt to disguise the brutal murder of the emperor beneath the language of ritual sacrifice, Lynn de Gerenday (1974) studies the thematic and psychological ambiguities with which the senator is depicted. Jan H. Blits (1982) offers a more traditional analysis, in which Brutus's idealized goals are thwarted by the political exigencies that arise in the power vacuum created after Caesar's death. Dennis Bathory (1996) follows a similar line, concentrating on Brutus's noble, yet futile, self-delusion as the chief cause of the conspiracy's failure to reinvigorate the republican ideals of Rome. James C. Bulman (1985) describes Shakespeare's deflation of heroic conventions as they are ironically applied to Caesar, Brutus, and Antony. Cynthia Marshall (1994) invokes poststructuralist theory in examining the destabilized historical identities of the female characters of the drama, Portia and Calphurnia.
Many critics are also interested in the play’s ideological issues and philosophical content. Maynard Mack (1981) sees Julius Caesar as decidedly modern in its historical outlook, featuring a theory of history as an irrational process that exists beyond the influence of human reason or of individualized intentions. James Howe (1994) further comments on the broad ideological framework of the drama by noting its affinities to the Buddhist conception of a ceaseless cycle of worldly suffering that can only be overcome by unlimited compassion. Probing more concrete philosophical elements in the drama, Stephen M. Buhler (1996) regards the Epicurean skepticism of Cassius in Julius Caesar as it illustrates the play's concern with political materialism. Günter Walch (1989) explores Shakespeare's dramatization of discursive oppositions, such as that between republican freedom and tyrannical authority, in the work. Highlighting the significant focus on rhetoric in the play, Norman Nathan (see Further Reading) analyzes Brutus's frequently neglected funeral oration to Caesar, while John W. Velz (1982) considers the importance of Caesar's commanding rhetoric and the tumultuous effects of Brutus's and Antony's public orations on the course of Roman history.
Criticism: Overviews And General Studies
SOURCE: “The Modernity of Julius Caesar,” in Everybody's Shakespeare: Reflections Chiefly on the Tragedies, University of Nebraska Press, 1993, pp. 91-106.
[In the following essay, originally published in 1981, Mack concentrates on the modern view of history presented in Julius Caesar—a conception of history as a process guided principally by nonrational forces rather than by reason, idealism, or conscious human influence.]
In a tribute composed to introduce the collection of plays that we now call the First Folio, Shakespeare's fellow playwright Ben Jonson spoke of his colleague's works as not of an age but for all time. Though the compliment was something of a commonplace in Renaissance funerary rhetoric, it has proved to be remarkably clairvoyant, at least up to the present hour. And of no play, perhaps, has the continuing relevance been more striking than that of Julius Caesar, which again and again twentieth-century directors and producers have successfully presented as a parable for our days.
Among the many aspects of the play that contribute to its modernity, one in particular, to my mind, stands out, and it is to this exclusively, leaving out much, that I want to call attention here. The place to begin is the second scene.
We have just learned from scene I of Caesar's return in triumph from warring on...
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Criticism: Dramaturgy And Metadrama
SOURCE: “Julius Caesar: The Forum Scene as Historic Play-within,” in Shakespeare Yearbook, Vol. 1, Spring, 1990, pp. 14-27.
[In the following essay, Willson analyzes Act 3, scene 1 of Julius Caesar—in which Brutus and Antony give their funeral orations to Caesar—and examines Shakespeare's use of metadramatic allusions to the theater and the play's theme of ‘destructive passion.’]
That Brutus, Cassius, and the other conspirators see themselves as actors in a precedent-setting, historical drama is revealed in Cassius' exclamation following the assassination:
How many ages hence Shall this our lofty scene be acted over In states unborn and accents yet unknown.
To amplify Cassius' prophetic claim, Brutus echoes the sentiment in a characteristically philosophical observation:
How many times shall Caesar bleed in sport, That now on Pompey's basis lies along No worthier than the dust!
Such theatrical metaphors are of course common to Shakespearean tragic poetry. Hamlet affirms his “motive and … cue for passion” by adapting a play to sting his uncle's conscience. Lear speaks of “this great stage of fools” onto which crying infants are ushered at their birth. Macbeth compares his Herod's role to that of a “poor player” uttering an...
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SOURCE: “Julius Caesar and ‘Dramatic Coquetry,’” in Shakespeare and the Mannerist Tradition: A Reading of Five Problem Plays, Cambridge University Press, 1995, pp. 72-86.
[In the following essay, Maquerlot evaluates Julius Caesar as a Mannerist drama fraught with ambiguity, and contends that Shakespeare constantly altered audience sympathies toward Caesar.]
In the second volume of his book on Shakespeare's histories, Professor Paul Bacquet rightly insists on the pedagogical function of the Chorus in Henry V. The role of the Chorus, he argues, is more systematically developed in this play than in any other of the same period, and serves to guide the spectators through the play's various episodes and also to encourage them to perform an act of ‘collective imagination’ without which there would be no dramatic illusion.1
It seems to me that the Chorus' repeated plea to the audience to compensate mentally for the material limitations of stage production serves another equally indispensable, if less obvious, purpose, which is to secure the audience's adherence to the play's ideological message. In Shakespeare's view, the people assembled in the playhouse would be all the more willing to accept that a few square metres of boards in the centre of that wooden ‘O’ might represent the battlefield of Agincourt if they could be made to feel party to the...
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SOURCE: “Julius Caesar and the Properties of Shakespeare's Globe,” in English Literary Renaissance, Vol. 28, No. 1, Winter, 1998, pp. 18-46.
[In the following essay, Kezar maintains that in Julius Caesar Shakespeare explored the potential ‘irresponsibility’ of theater as it appropriates history, subverts audience response, and dismembers self-presentation.]
“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...
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Criticism: Philosophy And Theology
SOURCE: “The Speculative Eye: Problematic Self-Knowledge in Julius Caesar,” in Shakespeare Survey, Vol. 40, 1988, pp. 77-89.
[In the following essay, Scott considers Shakespeare's ironic treatment of self-knowledge in Julius Caesar.]
Terry Eagleton began his early book on Shakespeare and Society by quoting from Ulysses' effort to draw Achilles into action in act 3, scene 3 of Troilus and Cressida; at Ulysses' urging, Achilles remarked on the notion that we see ourselves only by reflection:
The beauty that is borne here in the face The bearer knows not, but commends itself To others' eyes … For speculation turns not to itself Till it hath travel'd and is mirror'd there Where it may see itself
and Ulysses continued,
no man is the lord of anything, Though in and of him there be much consisting, Till he communicate his parts to others
Eagleton read these words as saying that ‘uncommunicated qualities don't have any real existence at all; a man is not simply known to others through communication, he can only know his own experience by putting it in a communicable form’ and that ‘a man who contracts out of public life is contracting out of reality’. He did not discuss the parallel and in some ways more challenging exchange when Cassius tries to recruit...
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SOURCE: “The Cause of Suffering and the Birth of Compassion in Julius Caesar,” in A Buddhist's Shakespeare: Affirming Self-Deconstructions, Associated University Presses, 1994, pp. 96-113.
[In the following essay, Howe interprets Julius Caesar in terms of Buddhist conceptions of samsara (the endless cycle of worldly life and death) and compassion arising from the acceptance of life as suffering.]
In several subsequent plays, Shakespeare enlarged his exploration of both the frightening and the fortunate implications of this awareness of our confusion about the self and the world. Indeed, as he began more and more to emphasize the tragic mode of perception, his shift may seem natural. Tragedy (and history, as we have seen with Richard III) is specifically the discourse of the empowered. Linking themselves to the inexorable turning of the wheel of fortune, its principal characters place the ebb and flow of political power in the foreground. As a result, from the Buddhist point of view, they also enact in this foreground the first two of the Buddha's Four Noble Truths, perceptions that by now may seem familiar: first, that suffering is a constant in human life; and second, that the cause of this suffering is our mistaken belief in a solid self and our consequent endless self-entrapment in the vicious cycle of hope and fear—our constant striving to achieve happiness by satisfying...
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SOURCE: “No Spectre, No Sceptre: The Agon of Materialist Thought in Shakespeare's Julius Caesar,” in English Literary Renaissance, Vol. 26, No. 2, Spring, 1996, pp. 313-32.
[In the following essay, Buhler regards the Epicurean skepticism of Cassius in Julius Caesar as it illustrates the play's concern with political materialism.]
Postremo cur sancta deum delubra suasque discutit infesto praeclaras fulmine sedes, et bene facta deum frangit simulacra suisque demit imaginibus violento volnere honorem?
(Lucretius, De rerum natura 6.417-20: Lastly, why does he shatter holy shrines of the gods, and even his own illustrious habitations, with the fatal thunderbolt, why smash finely-wrought images of the gods and rob his own statues of their grandeur with a violent wound?)1
In Julius Caesar, Shakespeare depicts a cosmological as well as a political struggle. The correspondential order of things is manipulated on all sides of an increasingly bloody conflict, and the downfall of one faction occurs when its members stop manipulating that order and begin, partly and then thoroughly, to credit it. For that reason alone the play lends itself well to criticism of what might be called “naive Tillyardism.”2 A workable argument along such lines would be similar...
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Criticism: Rhetoric And Meaning
SOURCE: “Orator and Imperator in Julius Caesar: Style and the Process of Roman History,” in Shakespeare Studies, Vol. XV, 1982, pp. 55-75.
[In the following essay, Velz delineates the combined influence of oratory and command on Roman history in Julius Caesar.]
Among the sigla of Roman life in Julius Caesar, two, oratory and the role of the imperator, have been seen by commentators only fractionally.1 Discussion of oratory has focused on the Forum speeches of Act III, Scene ii without cognizance of the numerous other formal discourses, primarily deliberative, that dominate the first half of the play and are distantly echoed in the epideictic oratory of Act V.2 Discussion of “Caesarism” has focused on Caesar himself—pompous, fallible, illeistic3—without recognition that his imperiousness is conveyed by his grammatical mood as well as by his references to himself, and that others in the play, especially Octavius in Act V, also speak his imperial-imperious style.
It is important to see oratory and the imperial mode as and where they are in Julius Caesar because oratory is the energizing force behind the process of history in the play, while the Imperium is the telos of that process. The roles of orator and imperator are linked at the moral core of Julius Caesar;...
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SOURCE: “The Historical Subject as Roman Actor and Agent of History: Interrogative Dramatic Structure in Julius Caesar,” in Shakespearean Illuminations: Essays in Honor of Marvin Rosenberg, edited by Jay L. Halio and Hugh Richmond, Associated University Presses, 1998, pp. 220-36.
[In the following excerpt, originally published in 1989, Walch comments on the volatility of historical and linguistic meaning in Julius Caesar, concentrating on the oppositional discursive structure of the drama.]
Our time is characterized by rapid social and political changes, growing concern about the future, and an increasing awareness of the individual's precarious situation. This has been made clear by the pivotal role of power relations in scholarship and the arts from such contemporary theoretical discourses as structuralism, post-structuralism, the New Historicism, some forms of psychoanalysis, and Marxism. The GDR's current lively interest in the anniversary of the French Revolution, for instance, has not been limited to a handful of specialized historians, but involves artists and musicians and, above all, the general public. History is traditionally a strong component of this country's intellectual and cultural life and seems now to be acquiring a new significance. Methodologically this calls for an open approach and for a richer understanding of history. Humankind will not survive the onslaught of...
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Criticism: The Roman Hero: Interpreting Character
SOURCE: “Play, Ritualization, and Ambivalence in Julius Caesar,” in Literature and Psychology, Vol. 1, November, 1974, pp. 24-33.
[In the following essay, de Gerenday explores the psychological and thematic significance of Brutus's ritualization of Caesar's murder, and the resulting ambiguity this produces in Julius Caesar.]
Indeed, it is a strange-disposed time: But men may construe things after their fashions, Clean from the purpose of the things themselves.
Cicero, Act I, scene iii
One of the frustrations of reading criticism on Julius Caesar is the extent to which we may be caught up in the critic's attempt to determine what attitude we should assume toward the play as a whole, and toward the character of Brutus in particular. This propensity for either/or interpretations; this need for a norm of heroism and villainy; this insistence that, in the words of one graduate student, lamenting the ambiguity of the main characters, “there's got to be a good guy, there's got to be,” violates the psychological insights of a “problem play” in which ambivalence is the norm, the meaning and the motivation. The way out of endless partisan speculation, which ignores L. C. Knight's observation that “human actuality is more important than any political abstraction,”1 is suggested by the central significance the drama of...
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SOURCE: “Politics and the Ethics of Intention: Brutus' Glorious Failure,” in The End of the Ancient Republic: Essays on ‘Julius Caesar,’ Carolina Academic Press, 1982, pp. 39-61.
[In the following essay, Blits studies the motivations of Brutus, and finds that in his inability to reconcile virtue and political action, Brutus ultimately fails to realize his idealized intentions for Rome.]
Edward Gibbon, the historian of Rome, begins his study of Brutus by drawing attention to the wide discrepancy between his illustrious reputation for patriotic virtue and his actual contribution to his country:
The memory of Caesar, celebrated as it is, has not been transmitted down to posterity with such uniform and encreasing applause as that of his Patriot Assassin. Marc Antony acknowledged the rectitude of his Intentions. Augustus refused to violate his Statues. All the great Writers of the succeeding Age, enlarged on his Praises, and more than two hundred Years after the Establishment of the Imperial Government the Character of Brutus was studied as the Perfect Idea of Roman Virtue. In England as in France, in modern Italy as in ancient Rome, his name has always been mentioned with Respect by the Adherents of Monarchy, and pronounced with Enthusiasm by the Friends of Freedom. It may seem rash and invidious to appeal from the Sentence of Ages; yet surely I may be permitted...
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SOURCE: “Ironic Heroism in Julius Caesar: A Repudiation of the Past,” in Modern Critical Interpretations: William Shakespeare's Julius Caesar, edited by Harold Bloom, Chelsea House Publishers, 1988, pp. 121-32.
[In the following essay, originally published in 1985, Bulman investigates Shakespeare's manipulation of heroic conventions in his depiction of Brutus, Antony, and Caesar.]
The idioms Shakespeare employed to delineate heroism in his early plays were too restrictive to allow him a personal signature. It is not by chance that these plays for years were thought to be the work, or at least to contain the work, of other dramatists: they fully partake of the conventions that were the stock-in-trade of stage heroism. But together they constitute only Shakespeare's apprenticeship to already-established writers. Within a few years, he was forging a mimesis more sophisticated than any that had yet been tried and, as a consequence, was recutting the heroic patterns that only yesterday he had found fashionable enough. His new heroes were characterized by their awareness of conventional expectations, and their tragedies arose from their failure to live up to them—from their inability to wear hand-me-down roles with any comfort or conviction. The authenticity of the plays themselves sprang likewise from their simultaneous employment and repudiation of the conventions that had bodied forth a heroic...
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SOURCE: “Portia's Wound, Calphurnia's Dream: Reading Character in Julius Caesar,” in English Literary Renaissance, Vol. 24, No. 2, Spring, 1994, pp. 471-88.
[In the following essay, Marshall discusses Portia's self-wounding and Calphurnia's dream of Caesar's death as they represent the linguistic instability of character in Julius Caesar.]
“If the body had been easier to understand, nobody would have thought that we had a mind.”1
Roland Barthes sardonically described the Mankiewicz film of Julius Caesar as portraying “a universe without duplicity, where Romans are Romans thanks to the most legible of signs: hair on the forehead.”2 The film's use of hair fringes to signify Roman identity and its use of sweat to signify thought were to Barthes examples of “degraded spectacle,” for according to his professed “ethic of signs,” “it is both reprehensible and deceitful to confuse the sign with what is signified” (p. 28). Barthes approves those signs which are “openly intellectual and so remote that they are reduced to an algebra” and those which are “deeply rooted, invented, so to speak, on each occasion, revealing an internal, a hidden facet, and indicative of a moment in time, no longer of a concept.” He objects to “hybrid” (p. 28) forms—those which are intentionally presented as...
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SOURCE: “‘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, Rowman & Littlefield, 1996, pp. 237-61.
[In the following essay, Bathory examines the relationship between self-knowledge and politics in Julius Caesar and Coriolanus, and elucidates the affinity between Brutus's self-delusion and the collapse of the Roman Republic.]
“We make out of the quarrel with others, rhetoric, but of the quarrel with ourselves, poetry.”
—William Butler Yeats
Shakespeare's challenge to Roman republicanism suggests that the political virtue upon which Rome rested was well suited to Rome's imperial foreign policy but was less well suited to its domestic politics. Honor not justice provides the political foundation of the Roman Republic. The Roman tradition had led time and again to the forging of internal peace in time of domestic crisis by going to war with a foreign enemy. This strategy, Shakespeare suggests, failed to educate either Roman leaders or citizens in the most important lessons of politics—the arts of sustaining a regime while simultaneously sustaining the virtue of its citizens. Shakespeare knew that Rome was touted as a model worthy of emulation, and he was...
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Berry, Ralph. “Communal Identity and the Rituals of Julius Caesar.” In Shakespeare and the Awareness of the Audience, pp. 75-87. London: Macmillan, 1985.
Maintains that the struggle to define the meaning of ‘Roman’ is the principal subject of Julius Caesar.
Blits, Jan H. “Manliness and Friendship in Shakespeare's Julius Caesar.” Interpretation 9, Nos. 2-3 (September 1981): 155-67.
Examines the manly virtues and masculine relationships that inform Shakespeare's portrayal of Rome in Julius Caesar.
Bono, Barbara J. “The Birth of Tragedy: Tragic Action in Julius Caesar.” English Literary Renaissance 24, No. 2 (Spring 1994): 449-70.
Evaluation of Julius Caesar that comments on the play's sources and deconstructive nuances, as well as its motifs of subverted authority and feminine reproductive power appropriated for political ends.
Brockbank, Philip. “Julius Caesar and the Catastrophes of History.” In On Shakespeare: Jesus, Shakespeare and Karl Marx, and Other Essays, pp. 122-39. Oxford: Basil Blackwell, 1989.
Approaches Julius Caesar from the perspective of tragic finalities—the deaths of Caesar and Brutus—mediated by historical continuity.
Burt, Richard A. “‘A...
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