For further information on the critical and stage history of Julius Caesar, see SC, Volumes 7, 17, 30, 50, and 63.
Julius Caesar contains elements of both Shakespeare's histories and tragedies, and has been classified as a “problem play” by some scholars. Set in 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 emperor's demise, however, is not the primary concern for critics of Julius Caesar; rather, most critics are interested in the events surrounding the act—the organization of the conspiracy against Caesar and the personal and political repercussions of the murder. Shakespeare's tragedies often feature the death of the titular character at the play's end. Many commentators have noted that Julius Caesar's unusual preempting of this significant event—Caesar is killed less than halfway through the play—diminishes the play's power early in the third act. Scholars are interested in the play's unconventional structure and its treatment of political conflict, as well as Shakespeare's depiction of Rome and the struggles the central characters face in balancing personal ambition, civic duty, and familial obligation. Modern critics also study the numerous social and religious affinities that Shakespeare's Rome shares with Elizabethan England.
Shakespeare's ambiguous portrayal of Brutus and Caesar, the central figures of Julius Caesar, often complicates analyses of their respective roles in the play. Maurice Charney (1996) sees Brutus as an essentially sympathetic figure whose tragedy stems from sacrificing his private self to public concerns. Charney likens Shakespeare's portrayal of Caesar to the playwright's depiction of Richard II. Charney contends that Shakespeare attempted to control the audience's reaction to Caesar, portraying him first as an “insolent king” then, after his death, as a “tragic victim.” Vivian Thomas (see Further Reading) finds both Brutus and Caesar flawed. Thomas contends that both men demonstrate poor judgment at critical moments, succumb to societal pressures, and ultimately become victims of faulty self-assessment. René Girard (1991) describes the relationship between Brutus and Caesar in different terms, likening Brutus to a lover who finds the object of his affection (Rome) with another lover (Caesar). Krystyna Kujawinska-Courtney (1993) argues that the play's treatment of Julius Caesar's character is focused on whether Caesar should be viewed as insolent, impious, and imperfect, or as sacred and idolized. Kujawinska-Courtney contends that Shakespeare's manipulation of his character “shakes the audience's confidence that either Caesar is the correct one.” Mary Hamer (1998) compares Portia's role in Julius Caesar with that of Calpurnia, and examines the ways in which the education of women and the Roman conception of marriage contribute to the fate of the Roman wives. Hamer suggests that Portia's education, along with the expectation that she suppress it, contributes to her suicide, and finds that Calpurnia's lack of an education allows her a certain freedom of expression that Portia does not possess.
Julius Caesar's dynamic characters and political implications have inspired numerous stage and film adaptations. Anthony Miller (2000) examines Joseph Mankiewicz's 1953 film version of the play, which features Marlon Brando as Antony. Miller contends that the production is layered with political innuendo, and argues that Mankiewicz's adaptation cannot be classified simply as a cold war propaganda piece or as an anti-McCarthyist statement. The film draws parallels between the Roman Empire and the United States in the early 1950s, Miller maintains, in that both Rome and the United States can be described as classical republics and as centers of a worldwide empire. Bruce Weber (2000) reviews the 2000 stage production of Julius Caesar directed by Barry Edelstein. Like a number of other reviewers, Weber finds the production disappointing and unmoving. Weber praises only Jeffrey Wright's portrayal of Marc Antony, and contends that the other performances focused on obvious overt personality traits rather than internal emotional and psychological struggles. Charles Isherwood (2000) similarly applauds Wright's performance, describing the rest of the production as lukewarm at best. David Barbour (2000), on the other hand, praises the set design and finds the production as a whole swiftly paced and controlled.
Many critics associate Julius Caesar and its treatment of Rome with Shakespeare's England. Although Northrop Frye (see Further Reading) cautions that Shakespeare's tragedies are reflective of Elizabethan society only to a limited extent, the critic finds similarities between the depiction of social order in Julius Caesar and the social order of Elizabethan England. Barbara L. Parker (1995) identifies a different connection between the play and Elizabethan England. Contending that Elizabethan Protestants viewed Rome as the seat of power of the Catholic Antichrist, Parker suggests that Julius Caesar may be read as a satire of Papal Rome, in which Caesar represents the Antichrist. Parker explains that Shakespeare seemed to imply that the mob's worship of Caesar closely resembles Roman Catholic worship of the Pope. Charney suggests reading Julius Caesar within the context of Shakespeare's English history plays, which he finds contain “a reflection of the realities of Elizabethan England.” David Daniell (see Further Reading) concurs, arguing that the question of the morality of rebellion, which is a central concern of the English history plays, is treated in a more intensely dramatic way in Julius Caesar. In addition, Daniell lists several parallels between Queen Elizabeth I and Caesar the tyrant. Like Charney and Daniell, R. A. Yoder (1973) finds an association between Rome and England. Yoder maintains that Rome and the England of Shakespeare's history plays may be viewed as studies of disintegration and the progression of power, and finds that Shakespeare depicted both Rome and England as empty and wasted.
SOURCE: Charney, Maurice. Introduction to Julius Caesar, by William Shakespeare, edited by Maurice Charney, pp. ix-xvii. New York: Applause, 1996.
[In the following essay, Charney offers an overview of Julius Caesar. The critic examines the way in which Shakespeare compressed historical events, the relation of the play to Shakespeare's English history plays, and the play's treatment of the conflict between public and private life, particularly the way this conflict affects Brutus.]
The historical events on which Julius Caesar is based cover a period of about three years, from October, 45 b.c., to October, 42 b.c. But Shakespeare compressed and transposed what he found in Sir Thomas North's translation of Plutarch's Lives of the Noble Grecians and Romans (1579), so that one has the impression that everything takes place in a few days. The play begins with Caesar's triumph, celebrated in October, 45 b.c., for his defeat of Pompey's sons in Spain; this event is combined with the Feast of Lupercal on February 15, 44 b.c. (Act I, scene i). The next sequence (I.ii-III.iii) represents a continuous piece of action, starting with the winning of Brutus to the conspiracy, continuing with the murder of Caesar, and culminating in Antony's funeral oration (with a grotesque aftermath in the death of Cinna the Poet). All of this takes place on the ides of March (March 15, 44 b.c.) and on the day just before it. The complicated happenings of Acts IV and V are telescoped into a few significant scenes that follow one another swiftly. The proscription of the enemies of the Triumvirate (IV.i) occurred in November, 43 b.c., Brutus met Cassius at Sardis early in 42 b.c. and quarreled with him there (IV.ii and iii), and the two battles of Philippi fought in October of the same year are made into a single battle (V.i-v). Shakespeare endows the disparate historical events with a feeling of dramatic and temporal inevitability, and he also convinces us of his fidelity to an authentic vision of ancient Rome.
Julius Caesar can be dated with some assurance in 1599, that critical moment between Henry V and Hamlet when Shakespeare was at the very mid-point of his career. After the heroic and epic celebration of England in Henry V, Shakespeare turned to the best-known crisis of Roman history, and he produced in Julius Caesar a play closer to tragedy than any of the English history plays that preceded it. There are obvious differences between English and Roman history, although it is possible that the events surrounding Caesar's assassination were more familiar to the audience than those of the remote English past (the period of King John, for example). One of the advantages of looking at Julius Caesar from the perspective of the English history plays is that we are likely to find in both many continuities in political, moral, and social assumptions.
This is of special importance on the issue of republicanism. Nothing in Shakespeare's earlier plays suggests that he would find the cause of the conspirators attractive. On the contrary, Brutus and Cassius would seem to be linked with Jack Cade, Northumberland, Worcester, and Scroop as rebels against lawfully constituted authority. Shakespeare was no simple-minded exponent of the Tudor pieties about the divine right of kings, but he did hate the bloodshed and human grief associated with political upheaval. Revolution is associated with a vision of political chaos. The revolutionary cause of Brutus and Cassius has no natural appeal for Shakespeare. To this argument we may add the strongly monarchic sentiments of the English history plays and, in fact, of all Shakespeare's royal plays, even those with weak or evil kings.
Julius Caesar is unique among Shakespeare's works in giving the impression of regicide without actually having a king in it. Its subject is the structure of Roman politics at the near-accession of Caesar, but Shakespeare has adapted his Roman setting to the pattern of ideas in the English history plays, which are in turn a reflection of the realities of Elizabethan England. The presence of the Roman mob in Julius Caesar keeps us aware of the public character of the play, since the mob is the final arbiter of political power. The Roman mob is indistinguishable from the English mob of the history plays: they are unwashed, have stinking breaths and greasy caps, are vociferous, violent, capricious, fickle, and, above all, easily moved by any strong appeal to their emotions.
There is an emphasis on public life in Julius Caesar, with its appropriate duties, ceremonies, and style of speech, but one always has the sense of a contrast, implied or stated, between the public figure and the private person. Caesar “in his nightgown” (or dressing gown) conversing with his wife Calphurnia or inviting the conspirators—ironically, his “Good friends”—to “go in and taste some wine with me” (II.ii.126) is a very different character from the sardonic demigod of the Senate House putting down Metellus Cimber. And Antony's confidential and personal manner with the mob in his funeral oration proves to be only a calculated public show from which Antony himself stands aloof: “Mischief, thou art afoot, / Take thou what course thou wilt” (III.ii.254-5). This is a chilling anticlimax to the passions of the oration. After the brief but savage interlude of Cinna the Poet (III.iii), we see Antony again with his fellow triumvirs calmly pricking down the names of those who are to die, a bit of horsetrading with the lives of near relatives. Here is politics as naked power, all pretense of human concerns dropped, and the swiftness and lack of sentiment of Act IV, scene i, match the preceding scene of Cinna's absurd murder. Both scenes display the same shocking impersonality and viciousness of the political forces unleashed by Antony's oration.
In Brutus, the public-private conflict begins to develop its potentialities for tragedy. As he admits to Cassius (giving Cassius a wedge to split his resistance), he is “with himself at war” (I.ii.46). This is the generic condition of the tragic protagonist. As he tells Cassius in the quarrel scene, he is “armed so strong in honesty” that all threats, doubts, hesitations, second thoughts, and self-questionings pass by him “as the idle wind” (IV.iii.67-8). This is not literally what he says to Cassius, but one feels sympathetic to Cassius' exasperation with Brutus' four-square, priggish, and overbearing “honesty,” the bloody honorableness that Antony exposes so cuttingly in his oration. Brutus' inner conflict ends very abruptly in Act II, scene i, and public determinations replace any private doubts, although there is an air of foredoomed sadness that hangs over Brutus in Acts IV and V. His quarrel with Cassius seems to indicate that the conspiracy has gone sour, its sense of selflessness and dedication swallowed up by talk of money—“so much trash as may be graspèd thus” (IV.iii.26)—and Brutus is beginning to feel his isolation from the other conspirators.
We may say, then, that the tragedy of Brutus lies in the sacrifice of his private self to public and abstract commitments. We cannot argue away the human predicament stated so simply and with such fallible logic in Brutus' soliloquy about Caesar:
It must be by his death; and for my part, I know no personal cause to spurn at him, But for the general: he would be crowned.
“Personal” and “general”: this is the basis of Brutus' tragic choice. We know that he will choose the general, public good over any merely personal considerations, in the same generous or overweening spirit in which Caesar tells Artemidorus, “What touches us ourself shall be last served” (III.i.8). Yet I think Shakespeare wants us to grasp that the sacrifice of the personal, human cause to the general, political one always has tragic implications.
Brutus is primarily a sympathetic figure, yet there are many touches to indicate that, unlike the many tragic characters whom he foreshadows (especially Hamlet), he has very limited self-awareness. His garden soliloquy contemplating the death of Caesar is so full of logical flaws that one can only believe that these are intended to characterize Brutus' way of thinking, and Cassius' little plot to win Brutus depends strongly on flattery for its success. Cassius is an anomalous figure in these early scenes, very close to the conventional villain. His soliloquy at the end of Act I, scene ii, has many similarities to those of Iago and Edmund, and we are repelled by his smug gloating over how easy a mark Brutus is.
We are repelled by it because we are convinced that it is true. Brutus is represented as the only innocent idealist among the shrewd and rancorous conspirators; as Antony sums it up in his set speech at the end:
He only, in a general honest thought And common good to all, made one of them.
We are not surprised, therefore, that Brutus should make the three tactical errors that Plutarch notes: he spares Antony's life, he allows Antony to speak a funeral oration for Caesar, and he risks all by engaging the enemy at Philippi. We think the better of Brutus for all these decisions, but we are clearly meant to understand that Cassius would have done otherwise. “That spare Cassius” has the true conspiratorial temperament.
Brutus is sincerely disturbed by the human implications of the conspiracy. “Let's be sacrificers, but not butchers, Caius” (II.i.166), he says, as if he needed to remind Cassius of the true purpose of the conspiracy, as he does later in the quarrel scene (IV.iii). There is much self-indulgence and wish-fulfillment in Brutus' desire to kill Caesar without having “dirty hands.” The murder teaches Brutus something about the real nature of killing, and in the exhilaration of the moment he is soon directing his...
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SOURCE: Kujawinska-Courtney, Krystyna. “Julius Caesar: Two Visions of the Past.” In “Th' Interpretation of the Time”: The Dramaturgy of Shakespeare's Roman Plays, pp. 26-58. Victoria, B.C., Canada: University of Victoria, 1993.
[In the following essay, Kujawinska-Courtney argues that the play's treatment of Julius Caesar's character is focused on whether Caesar should be viewed as insolent, impious, and imperfect, or as sacred and idolized. Kujawinska-Courtney contends that Shakespeare's manipulation of his character “shakes the audience's confidence that either Caesar is the correct one.”]
How Caesar should be seen, how his past (shadowy in the play...
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SOURCE: Hamer, Mary. “Portia and Calpurnia.” In William Shakespeare: Julius Caesar, pp. 30-41. Plymouth, U.K.: Northcote House Publishers Ltd., 1998.
[In the following essay, Hamer studies the characters of Portia and Calpurnia in Julius Caesar, and examines the ways in which the education of women and the Roman conception of marriage contribute to their fate.]
When Portia enters and starts to speak, it is the first time, as we realize, that the voice of a woman has been heard. In public Calpurnia expressed only acquiescence and stood silent. Or perhaps we haven't even thought that was odd, for to some people the life we are shown in Shakespeare's Rome is...
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