Julius Caesar Essay - Julius Caesar (Vol. 63)

William Shakespeare

Julius Caesar (Vol. 63)


Julius Caesar

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 Pompey's sons. We have seen the warm though fickle adulation of the crowd and the apprehension of the tribunes. Now we are to see the great man himself. The procession enters to triumphal music; with hubbub of a great press of people; with young men stripped for the ceremonial races, among them Antony; with statesmen in their togas: Decius, Cicero, Brutus, Cassius, Casca; with the two wives Calphurnia and Portia; and, in the lead, for not even Calphurnia is permitted at his side, the great man. As he starts to speak, an expectant hush settles over the gathering. What does the great man have on his mind?

Caesar: Calphurnia.
Casca: Peace, ho! Caesar speaks.
Caesar: Calphurnia.
Calphurnia: Here, my lord.
Caesar: Stand you directly in Antonius' way
When he doth run his course. Antonius.
Antony: Caesar, my lord?
Caesar: Forget not in your speed, Antonius,
To touch Calphurnia; for our elders say,
The barren, touched in this holy chase,
Shake off their sterile curse.
Antony: I shall remember.
When Caesar says, “Do this,” it is performed.


What the great man had on his mind, it appears, was to remind his wife, in this public place, that she is sterile; that there is an old tradition about how sterility can be removed; and that while of course he is much too sophisticated to accept such a superstition himself—it is “our elders” who say it—still, Calphurnia had jolly well better get out there and get tagged!

Then the procession takes up again. The hubbub is resumed, but once more an expectant silence settles as a voice is heard.

Soothsayer: Caesar!
Caesar: Ha! Who calls?
Casca: Bid every noise be still. Peace yet again!
Caesar: Who is it in the press that calls on me?
I hear a tongue shriller than all the music
Cry “Caesar!” Speak. Caesar is turned to hear.
Soothsayer: Beware the ides of March.
Caesar: What man is that?
Brutus: A soothsayer bids you beware the ides of March.
Caesar: Set him before me; let me see his face.
Cassius: Fellow, come from the throng; look upon Caesar.
Caesar: What say'st thou to me now? Speak once again.
Soothsayer: Beware the ides of March.
Caesar: He is a dreamer. Let us leave him. Pass.


It is easy to see from even these small instances, I think, how a first-rate dramatic imagination works. There is no hint of any procession in Plutarch, Shakespeare's source. “Caesar,” says Plutarch, “sat to behold.”1 There is no mention of Calphurnia in Plutarch's account of the Lupercalian race, and there is no mention anywhere of her sterility. Shakespeare, in nine lines, has given us an unforgettable picture of a man who would like to be emperor, pathetically concerned that he lacks an heir, and determined, even at the cost of making his wife a public spectacle, to establish that this is owing to no lack of virility in him. The first episode thus dramatizes instantaneously what I take to be the oncoming theme of the play: that a man's will is not enough; that there are other matters to be reckoned with, like the infertility of one's wife, or one's own affliction of the falling sickness that spoils everything one hoped for just at the instant when one had it almost in one's hand. Brutus will be obliged to learn this lesson too.

In the second episode the theme develops. We see again the uneasy rationalism that everybody in this play affects; we hear it reverberate in the faint contempt—almost a challenge—of Brutus's words as he turns to Caesar: “A soothsayer bids you beware the ides of March.” Yet underneath, in the soothsayer's quiet defiance as he refuses to quail under Caesar's imperious gaze, and in his soberly reiterated warning, Shakespeare allows us to catch a hint of something else, something far more primitive and mysterious, from which rationalism in this play keeps trying vainly to cut itself away: “He is a dreamer. Let us leave him. Pass.” Only we in the audience are in a position to see that the dreamer has foretold the path down which all these reasoners will go to their fatal encounter at the Capitol.

Meantime, in these same two episodes, we have learned something about the character of Caesar. In the first, it was the Caesar of human frailties who spoke to us, the husband with his hopeful superstition. In the second, it was the marble superman of state, impassive, impervious, speaking of himself in the third person: “Speak! Caesar is turned to hear.” He even has the soothsayer brought before his face to repeat the message, as if the thought that somehow, in awe of the marble presence, the message would falter and dissolve: how can a superman need to beware the ides of March?

We hardly have time to do more than glimpse here a man of divided selves, then he is gone. But in his absence, the words of Cassius confirm our glimpse. Cassius's description of him exhibits the same duality that we had noticed earlier. On the one hand, an extremely ordinary man whose stamina in the swimming match was soon exhausted; who, when he had a fever once in Spain, shook and groaned like a sick girl; who even now, as we soon learn, is falling down with epilepsy in the market place. On the other hand, a being who has somehow become a god, who “bears the palm alone,” who “bestrides the narrow world Like a colossus” (1.2.135). When the procession returns, no longer festive but angry, tense, there is the same effect once more. Our one Caesar shows a normal man's suspicion of his enemies, voices some shrewd human observations about Cassius, says to Antony, “Come on my right hand, for this ear is deaf” (1.2.213). Our other Caesar says, as if he were suddenly reminded of something he had forgotten, “I rather tell thee what is to be feared Than what I fear, for always I am Caesar” (1.2.211).

Wherever Caesar appears hereafter, we shall find this distinctive division in him, and nowhere more so than in the scene in which he receives the conspirators at his house. Some aspects of this scene seem calculated for nothing other than to fix upon our minds the superman conception, the Big Brother of Orwell's 1984, the great resonant name echoing down the halls of time. Thus at the beginning of the scene:

                              The things that threatened me
Ne'er looked but on my back. When they shall see
The face of Caesar, they are vanishèd.


And again later:

                              Danger knows full well
That Caesar is more dangerous than he.
We are two lions littered in one day,
And I the elder and more terrible.


And again still later: “Shall Caesar send a lie?” (2.2.65). And again: “The cause is in my will: I will not come.” (2.2.71)

Other aspects of this scene, including his concern about Calphurnia's dream, his vacillation about going to the senate house, his anxiety about the portents of the night, plainly mark out his human weaknesses. Finally, as is the habit in this Rome, he puts the irrational from him that his wife's intuitions and her dream embody; he accepts the rationalization of the irrational that Decius skillfully manufactures, and, as earlier at the Lupercalia, hides from himself his own vivid sense of forces that lie beyond the will's control by attributing it to her:

How foolish do your fears seem now, Calphurnia!
I am ashamèd I did yield to them.
Give me my robe, for I will go.



So far we have looked at Caesar, the title personage of the play and its historical center. It is time now to consider Brutus, the play's tragic center, whom we also find to be a divided man—“poor Brutus,” to use his own phrase, “with himself at war” (1.2.46). That war, we realize as the scene progresses, is a conflict between a quiet, essentially domestic and loving nature, and a powerful integrity expressing itself in a sense of honorable duty to the commonweal. This duality is what Cassius probes in his long disquisition about the mirror. The Brutus looking into the glass that Cassius figuratively holds up to him, the Brutus of this moment, now, in Rome, is a grave studious private man, of a wonderfully gentle temper as we shall see again and again later on; very slow to passion, as Cassius's ill-concealed disappointment in having failed to kindle him to an immediate response reveals; a man whose sensitive nature recoils at the hint of violence lurking in some of Cassius's speeches, just as he has already recoiled at going with Caesar to the market place, to witness the mass hysteria of clapping hands, sweaty nightcaps, and stinking breath. This is the present self that looks into Cassius's mirror.

The image that looks back out, that Cassius wants him to see, the potential other Brutus, is the man of public spirit, worried already by his uncertainty about Caesar's intentions, lineal descendant of an earlier Brutus who drove a would-be monarch from the city, a republican whose body is visibly stiffening in our sight at each huzza from the Forum, and whose anxiety, though he makes no reply to Cassius's inflammatory language, keeps bursting to the surface: “What means this shouting? I do fear the people Choose Caesar for their king” (1.2.79). The problem at the tragic center of the play, we begin to sense, is the tug of private versus public, the individual versus a world he never made, any citizen anywhere versus the selective service greetings that history is always mailing out to each of us. And this problem is to be traversed by the other tug this scene presents, between the irrational and the rational, the destiny we imagine we can control and the destiny that sweeps all before it.

Through 1.2, Brutus's patriotic self, the self that responds to these selective service greetings, is no more than a reflection in a mirror, a mere anxiety in his own brain, about which he refuses to confide, even to Cassius. In 2.1, we see the public self making further headway. First, there is Brutus's argument with himself about the threat of Caesar, and in his conclusion that Caesar must be killed we note how far his private self—he is, after all, one of Caesar's closest friends—has been invaded by the self of public spirit. From here on, the course of the invasion accelerates. A letter comes, tossed from the public world into the private world, into Brutus's garden, addressing, as Cassius had, the patriot image reflected in the mirror: “Brutus, thou sleep'st. Awake, and see thyself!” (2.1.46). Then follows the well-known brief soliloquy (which Shakespeare was to expand into the whole play of Macbeth), showing us that Brutus's mind has moved on from the phase of decision to the inquietudes that follow decision:

Between the acting of a dreadful thing
And the first motion, all the interim is
Like a phantasma, or a hideous dream.


Brutus anticipates here the dreamlike mood and motion with which Macbeth moves to the murder of Duncan. What is important to observe, however, is that these lines again stress the gulf that separates motive from action, that which is interior in man and controllable by his will from that which, once acted, becomes independent of him and moves with a life of its own. This gulf is a no man's land, a phantasma, a hideous dream.

Finally, there arrives in such a form that no audience can miss it the actual visible invasion itself, as this peaceful garden-quiet is intruded on by knocking, like the knocking of fate in Beethoven's Fifth Symphony, and by men with faces hidden in their cloaks. Following this, a lovely interlude with Portia serves to emphasize how much the private self, the private world, has been shattered. There is something close to discord here—as much of a discord as these gentle people are capable of—and though there is a reconciliation at the end and Brutus's promise to confide in her soon, this division in the family is an omen. So is the knock of the latecomer, Caius Ligarius, which reminds us once again of the exactions of the public life. And when...

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Criticism: Dramaturgy And Metadrama

Robert F. Willson, Jr. (essay date 1990)

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...

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Jean-Pierre Maquerlot (essay date 1995)

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...

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Dennis Kezar (essay date 1998)

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...

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Criticism: Philosophy And Theology

William O. Scott (essay date 1988)

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...

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James Howe (essay date 1994)

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...

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Criticism: Rhetoric And Meaning

John W. Velz (essay date 1982)

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...

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Günter Walch (essay date 1989)

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...

(The entire section is 6825 words.)

Criticism: The Roman Hero: Interpreting Character

Lynn de Gerenday (essay date 1974)

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...

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Jan H. Blits (essay date 1982)

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...

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James C. Bulman (essay date 1985)

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 entire section is 4027 words.)

Cynthia Marshall (essay date 1994)

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...

(The entire section is 6619 words.)

Dennis Bathory (essay date 1996)

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...

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Further Reading


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...

(The entire section is 741 words.)