Study Guide

Julius Caesar

by William Shakespeare

Julius Caesar Essay - No Spectre, No Sceptre: The Agon of Materialist Thought in Shakespeare's Julius Caesar

No Spectre, No Sceptre: The Agon of Materialist Thought in Shakespeare's Julius Caesar

Stephen M. Buhler, University of Nebraska-Lincoln

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 to the one offered in the above passage. Lucretius asks why, if Jove desires to command reverence and to reinforce pious practices, he would so often destroy the sites associated with that piety with his own thunderbolts; a cultural materialist might ask why, if Shakespeare indeed wanted to affirm the validity of the cultural edifices reinforcing the dominant ideology, he would so often leave major components of these constructs in ruins.3

Without becoming the dominant discourse of our time, critical approaches such as those advanced by Jonathan Dollimore in Radical Tragedy have themselves now come under nearly as strong an attack as Tillyard's once had. In a recent study of the skeptical in Shakespeare, Graham Bradshaw distinguishes between "dogmatic" and—in something of a pre-emptive strike aimed at Dollimore's work—"radical" modes of skepticism. He equates the former with "the terminal, materialistic nihilism of a Thersites, Iago, or Edmund"; this list could also include Cassius, whose skepticism is grounded in Epicurean philosophy. "Radical" skepticism is described as self-reflexive: it "turns on itself—weighing the human need to affirm values against the inherently problematic nature of all acts of valuing."4 The radical nature of this skepticism further problematizes belief as well, for in the examples of Edmund and of Cassius we see skeptics repenting. Bradshaw, though, does not account for the disturbing hollowness that marks these returns to more conventional values and beliefs. The unsettling effect does not stem from any lack of sincerity or even dramatic credibility, but rather from the impotence and ineffectuality that accompany the characters' penitence. Edmund's remorse comes too late to save Cordelia or ultimately Lear himself. In his return to what Lucretius terms the antiquae religiones (5.86), the old superstitions, Cassius has emulated his Stoic friend too well. He has not "tried to be better" than his professed philosophy would permit, as some critics have alleged, but has rather abandoned its principles, acting upon erroneous judgments of events as a result. In his own suicide Brutus repays Cassius' tribute in kind.

The correspondential order receives less than simple affirmation in Julius Caesar and the play consequently participates in what has been described as anti-essentialist strains at work in Renaissance culture. I cannot agree with the accusation that critics such as Dollimore are guilty of anachronism when they attach the term materialism to such strains of thought. John D. Cox has suggested that in the intervening centuries "philosophical materialism" has been identified with critiques of political culture: to apply the term with all its modern associations to the Renaissance is anachronistic and misleading.5 But while the term itself may not have had wide currency in the period, the ideas the term represents and their "modern" associations are not as inappropriate as Cox contends. Materialist philosophies were openly considered in the Renaissance and were judged both upon their supposed and actual political ramifications and upon the kind of challenges they presented to established social orders.6

Julius Caesar engages fully with the classical and Renaissance debates over philosophical materialism and its political import. It does so not only through its depiction of Cassius, the play's professed materialist, but also through its portrayal of Brutus, his political ally and philosophical adversary whose idealism contributes to the failure of the tyrannicides' cause. The classical heritage of political philosophy is a powerful presence in Julius Caesar, and the tension and friendship which exist between the Stoic Brutus and the Epicurean Cassius provide both sources of that power and bases for the play's analysis of power. Two important studies of the play, by David C. Green and Robert S. Miola, neglect to point out fully the political importance of these philosophical allegiances. What results in Green's case is a Tillyardian assurance that "Shakespeare respects the monarchical authority which Caesar for him represents." Miola provides the more sophisticated view that "no trustworthy source of sovereignty arises" in the play, but he still hears the political debate as only "a confusing cacophony of claims and counterclaims."7 The choice, however, is not merely one between naive order and problematic chaos, or between dominant ideology and polyvocal, heteroglossic subversion: there are strictly discernible voices in the political culture of Shakespeare's age and the historical period depicted in the play. Julius Caesar permits us to hear their counsel and to see the possible results of following or rejecting those policies.

James R. Siemon has noted that the play "fosters analysis and interpretation," most notably of the macrocosmic portents, "to a degree far beyond that encouraged in any other of the early plays,"8 and he points to Cassius' shifting reinterpretations of the storm in 1.3 as a crucial if "disconcerting" instance of the play's intellectual provocation. Siemon, though, sees Cassius as wavering between different readings which nevertheless are similarly grounded in a faith that these prodigies can "clearly reveal their 'true cause'" and show themselves to be "not arbitrary events but iconic signs" (p. 127). In this reading the play focuses upon an inconstancy and arbitrariness in such icons of which Cassius himself is unaware. But as an Epicurean, Cassius would be very mindful of precisely this question of the arbitrary nature of cosmological correspondences, and Shakespeare—following his Plutarchan sources—highlights Cassius' philosophical affiliations. Much of the play's success in placing correspondential schemes under scrutiny is due both to this character's initial insistence on such questioning and to his ultimate abandonment of the interrogative project.


Shakespeare and his contemporaries learned about the Epicurean analysis and rejection of the polis and its claims to validation through both natural and supernatural arguments from a variety of sources, both sympathetic and critical. In the former camp one finds Lucretius' De rerum natura, which explores not only Epicurus' scientific theories but their foundation in the sage's efforts to keep aloof from the state and from state religion, and the Lives of the Eminent Philosophers compiled by Diogenes Laertius, who concludes his survey with a dogged defense of the much-maligned philosopher. Critics who nonetheless provide a wealth of often-accurate detail about Epicureanism include Cicero, himself a player in the events depicted by Shakespeare, and Plutarch, who constantly reminds his readers of the philosophical affiliations of the principal conspirators, Cassius and Brutus. Along with these widely available—and widely read—classical sources, Shakespeare had more contemporary reasons to be interested in the skeptical analysis of religion and its relation to political power. The playwright alludes to these reasons at the end of Act 2, scene I of Julius Caesar, after Brutus has agreed to join and to lead the conspiracy.

All the other self-declared tyrannicides have left, when the aged and ailing Caius Ligarius visits the resolved Marcus Brutus. In playing tribute to his newly-acknowledged leader, Ligarius directs the following simile at Brutus: "Thou, like an exorcist, hast conjured up / My mortified spirit" (2.1.323-24).9 The precise terms of the compliment here are Shakespeare's alone, and do not appear in the Plutarchan original, Brutus II. In the witty praise of Ligarius there is more than a hint of problematization and outright criticism of Brutus' character and of the political scene in Rome. As Stephen Greenblatt has reminded us in connection with King Lear, exorcism was not only a highly suspect practice to a great many of Shakespeare's contemporaries, but a profoundly unsettling one as well. Commentators such as Samuel Harsnett, in his Declaration of Egregious Popish Impostures, as he justified Protestant suspicion and skepticism, may have been operating on the tactical assumption that "[t]o glimpse the designing clerical playwright behind the performance [that is exorcism] is to transform terrifying supernatural events into a human strategy."10 Greenblatt further argues that "acknowledging theatricality kills the credibility of the supernatural" in ways beyond the polemicist's control, in ways that often "unsettle all official lines" of denominational and factional authority (pp. 109, 128). A crucial point of contention in Julius Caesar is control over the systems of interpretation which recognize what is and is not supernatural validation. While the polemicist might paradoxically lose control in trying to insist on making such distinctions, the dramatist gains power by examining the struggle over interpretive control. Central to this struggle is the intellectual rivalry between friends and allies: Cassius, the Epicurean scoffer at portents, and Brutus, the Stoic believer in the organic integrity of the cosmos, and therefore in divination.11

Mark Rose has discussed the epithet exorcist in the context of the play, and deftly traces its impact on the rest of the passage with Ligarius: all the imagery involving decrepitude and disease follows as a consequence of the term. Can Brutus, as exorcist, heal the body politic by casting out the spirit of Caesar or will he invoke—indeed reinscribe—that spirit? With his now impolitic sympathies for the last strong man, Ligarius seems to be thinking as much of the spirit of Pompey as his own spirit being revived, and might therefore intend fully his use of the term conjured. As Rose succinctly states this aspect of the problem: "'exorcise' can mean to raise a spirit as well as to expel one. . . . Is Brutus an exorcist or a conjurer?"12 In many ways, however, the distinction is an artificial one in Shakespeare's time as well as in the play: all exorcisms and conjurations were subject to empirical and moral skepticism. One consequence of the epithet "exorcist" is to call into question Brutus' desirability and suitability as a leader. Throughout Shakespeare's plays as well as in the "official" Protestant religio-political view, the term suggests selfdeception at best and charlatanism at the worst.13 One may wonder, then, what kind of legitimacy could possibly accrue to a regime taking its direction from Brutus. Yet another consequence is more expansive: the term contributes to the play's questioning of all authoritative structures and personalities in the late Republic.

This is, after all, a play in which Cassius very deliberately endeavors to show how both the powerful and those who challenge that power can "transform terrifying supernatural events" into political strategies. It is also a play in which the title character himself comments on the frailty of human bodies and minds, "Men are flesh and blood, and apprehensive" (3.1.67), using the later term much as Theseus does in A Midsummer Night's Dream when he distinguishes between what Imagination may "apprehend" and what Reason "comprehends" (5.1.6-7).14 Caesar's words glance here at the very foundations of the Epicurean critique of political culture: the polis is supported by the cult of the gods, which is in turn sustained by humankind's apprehensive dread of its own mortality. The Epicurean solution recommends cultivating a detached and skeptical stance toward the polis. The Shakespearean program enables us to investigate the interrelations between philosophical allegiances, political praxis, and the skeptical detachment which, paradoxically, can link the first two most effectively.

The De rerum natura is a prime source here, and Shakespeare's use of Lucretius in Cassius' disquisition on thunder should come as no surprise. In borrowing from this work the playwright strengthens his character's involvement with Epicurean thought by incorporating elements from the classical world's most famous surviving work on Epicureanism, a work which is itself a product of the time that Julius Caesar depicts. Lucretius' skepticism toward the supernatural origin of thunder is connected with his sense that from the outset the cult of the gods was a justification for political society. The gods not only help to explain mysterious natural events, but also extend the long arm of punitive law into the next world, into the supernatural realm: this is, Lucretius suggests, the reason why religion has spread over great nations—"causa deum per magnas numina gentis / pervulgarit" (5.1161-62).l5 So Lucretius does more than urge his readers to distinguish between the true attributes of divinity and those attributes which are the products of what in another context Epicurus calls "vain imaginings."16 He also cautions his readers against believing in the civic ramifications of the cult of the gods. By their very nature ataraxic and impassive, the gods cannot possibly be angry at supposed violations of the natural and civic order; one may reject, then, any claim (or curse) that such anger will follow such a disturbance.

Cassius acts out Epicurus' defiance of the cult of the gods, as described by Lucretius. The De rerum natura proclaims that nothing could keep Epicurus from opposing Superstition: "quem neque fama deum nec fulmina nec minitanti / murmure compressit caelum" (1.68-69: neither fables of the gods could quell him, nor thunderbolts, nor heaven with menacing roar). Cassius continues in this vein, as he informs Casca:

For my part, I have walk'd about the streets,
Submitting me unto the perilous night;
And thus unbraced, Casca, as you see,
Have bar'd my bosom to the thunder-stone;
And when the cross blue lightning seem'd to open
The breast of heaven, I did present myself
Even in the aim and very flash of it.


Casca is understandably shocked, having earlier confessed to Cicero his fear that the thunder indicates that humankind—including his own droll self—has been "too saucy with the gods" (1.3.11). He believes it to be the role and even the duty of humankind "to fear and tremble/When the most mighty gods by tokens send/Such dreadful heralds to astonish us." In response to Casca's pious dismay at his behavior, Cassius announces that such heralds need not be interpreted along the lines of Caesarian pietas. He demonstrates this by reading these signs as "instruments of fear and warning/ Unto some monstrous state" (70-71). I emphasize the last two words to call attention to Cassius' insistence on linking politics with ways of viewing and reading the spectacular. Monstrous here retains its full Latinate associations with "showing" and with the wondrous and portentous, along with its obvious utility for expressing Cassius' moral indignation; state in this context refers to Rome as a political entity.

After revising the customary and corresponding reading of celestial events, Cassius can then attribute all interpretations of the night's prodigies to the exigencies of human polity. Caesar himself is, in Cassius' estimation,

a man
Most like this dreadful night
That thunders, lightens, opens graves, and roars
As doth the lion in the Capitol—
A man no mightier than thyself, or me,
In personal action, yet prodigious grown,
And fearful, as these strange eruptions are.


There is, Cassius implies, nothing inherently meaningful or ominous in these events, nothing which should inspire divine awe; no supernatural agency is needed to explain them. Similarly, Caesar's remarkable successes do not betoken divine favor since all-too-human factors suffice as explanation. Cassius suggests that an understanding of how nature truly operates, and of how human nature is prevailed upon, can keep one from being mystified by even the most dramatic of celestial or political phenomena. He thus provides a clearer philosophical rationale for his earlier sneer at "immortal Caesar" and his dismay that "this man/Is now become a God" (1.2.60 and 115-16).17 Already seeing the cult of the gods and absolute forms of authority as sharing a common origin, Cassius readily perceives Caesar engaged in a latter-day application of the same principles. While this might strike us as unlikely, since Caesar's credulity rivals that of Gloucester in Lear, one should note that Caesar (like Gloucester) is very selective in his superstitions: those that are most aggrandizing are the ones he comes to hold most tenaciously.


At this point Cassius functions not only as an Epicurean scoffer, but also as a kind of proto-Harsnett, debunking Roman superstition and pointing out the political consequences of credulous belief.18 Another conspirator, Decius Brutus, uses his own insight into the interworkings of religious and political authority in persuading Caesar to come to the Capitol. In an argument remarkable for its mediation between ancient beliefs and contemporary controversies, he interprets Calphurnia's dream in terms strongly reminiscent of the "old religion" in England before promising an imminent offer of royal power. Toward the blood issuing from Caesar's statue in the dream, Decius advises, "great men shall press/For tinctures, stains, relics, and cognizance" (2.2.88-89). Caesar responds favorably to this ceremonial language and transfers credence from Calphurnia's alarmist response to the complaisance Decius Brutus advises. Cassius, though, loses the interpretive control that his co-conspirator practices upon Caesar and that he himself displays with Casca: he eventually comes to believe in the involvement of the supernatural in both physical and human events. This is suggested even by the context in which Cassius' rejection of the supernatural appears: before Cassius arrives on the scene, Cicero laconically observes that "men may construe things after their fashion,/Clean from the purpose of the things themselves" (1.3.34-35). Cicero's words imply that there is a determined and determinable purpose at work in these prodigies, although his composure in the face of these wonders can suggest as much the wryly skeptical observer as the man of firm faith.

Later on, as Cassius looks ahead to the battle at Philippi, he tells Messala of his newfound respect for divination: "You know that I held Epicurus strong,/ And his opinion; now I change my mind,/ And partly credit things that do presage" (5.1.76-78). After describing the departure of the auspicious eagles and the arrival of dire birds of ill omen at his camp, Cassius concludes that his army is "ready to give up the ghost" (88). Even his repeated insistence that he believes in all this but partly is undercut by the dramatic irony of his haunted language, which increasingly hints at the supernatural as well as the natural. He describes himself as "fresh of spirit, and resolv'd/To meet all perils very constantly" (90-91). In his address to Brutus before battle, he goes so far as to assert that "The gods to-day stand friendly" (93) to their cause. In short, Cassius is undergoing a reversion to the antiquae religiones. He is haunted not only by the oracular birds and the shifting language of transcendence, but also by his sense that he has come full circle upon the date of his birth, that his "life is run his compass" (5.2.25).


In the dramatic logic of Julius Caesar, Cassius' newly superstitious turn of mind leads him directly to credit Pindarus' misinterpretation of the evidence, to believe that Titinius has been captured. One of the most important ways in which Shakespeare departs from Plutarch is in suggesting that Cassius' apostasy from Epicureanism leads to his fall into error and subsequent destruction. Cassius forgoes the philosophy's emphases on natural explanations and on direct observation. Plutarch, less attuned to the philosophy, enjoys something of a grim joke at Cassius' and Epicureanism's expense when Cassius, the persistent believer in empirical knowledge, suffers from weak vision and misinterprets what occurs.19 But Shakespeare ascribes the misinterpretation directly to Pindarus, thereby showing Cassius' mistake to be not relying on his own perceptions, not observing the tenets of his erstwhile philosophy. Despite his grief-stricken cry, Cassius has not lived to see his best friend taken before his face (5.2.35); deviating from his initial principles, he acts in accordance with what he has been told, rather than what he himself has observed. As Messala subsequently puts it in the same scene, such an error "show[s] to the apt thoughts of men/The things that are not" (68-69). Cassius' acceptance of the supernatural order initiates the credulity that culminates in his suicide. That death turns the tide of battle against the originally anti-superstitious defenders of the Republic.

Nearly two decades ago Jean Auffret noted some of the discrepancies between Plutarch's presentation of Cassius and his philosophy and Shakespeare's own portrayals.20 Commenting on the character's defiance of the thunderous omens, Auffret saw the connection between this scene and Lucretius' discussion of thunder and its psychological effects. While Auffret takes the philosophic background seriously, he does not consider fully the politics of that background. He takes the Lucretian passage out of its strongly political context and allows the old tradition that Lucretius fought and finally succumbed to melancholic madness to color his reading both of the passage and of Cassius' character. In Auffret's reading of the scene, "Cassius gets infected with the terror he describes—and so does Lucretius—, but his hysteria prepares us for his breakdown at 4.3.92-106 [where Cassius admits to Brutus how deeply pained he is that they are at odds] and his suicide" (p. 71). The "breakdown" Auffret detects in Act 4 is, rather, a demonstration of the strong friendship Cassius feels toward Brutus, and of the strong devotion with which Cassius accepts the Epicurean privileging of friendship. As we have seen, Cassius is far from "hysterical" in the scene with Casca; he effectively uses Epicurean skepticism to undermine political orders that claim legitimacy on supernatural grounds. Shakespeare's attribution of this rhetorical strategy to an Epicurean character has more contemporary precedents as well, and these precedents often take advantage of the parallels between the Renaissance conception of the Epicure and of the Machiavel.

At first this seems a patently risible connection when one considers both Epicurus' and Lucretius' resolve to avoid the corridors of power, termed the angustum iter ambitionis (the narrow—petty and constricting—road of ambition) in the De rerum natura (5.1132). But the association between Epicure and Machiavel can be justified partly by the historical phenomenon of Epicureanism's popularity among the well-to-do and the powerful during the era which spanned the passing of the Republic and the foundation of the Empire.21 Men of letters seemed particularly vulnerable. In addition to Lucretius' proselytizing, the Epicurean leanings (or at least training of Vergil and Horace) announce the philosophy's appeal. We can also see, in reaction, Cicero's tireless campaign against Epicureanism in works such as De finibus and De natura deorum. J. D. Minyard's comments in connection with Caesar and Epicureanism may also indicate Renaissance suspicions toward the philosophy: "Acceptance of Epicurean mechanical materialism and disregard of Epicurean moral conclusions would give someone a great field for action in the world, freeing him from fear and laying on him no obligations except to his own rationalizing sophistication" (p. 18). Such a suspicious attitude provides the rationale for Cicero's references to Epicureanism throughout the oration In Pisonem.22


It was often thought in the Renaissance that those who embraced Epicurean skepticism toward divine and political orders did so for their own selfish ends. Such characters were regularly depicted on the English stage: the name of the Machiavel, at this time, was Legion. So Cassius might be dismissed as philosophically and dramatically suspect, as he draws upon a marginalized body of thought to further his own ends. He freely translates the signs which seem to warn against Caesar's death as calling for Caesar's murder, and in a move which presages Iago's confidences to the audience in Othello, he freely admits that he is "inventing" the public call for Brutus to take action against Caesar. In Plutarch the letters which appeal to Brutus are authentic (Brutus 9.3-4); in the play Cassius not only pens the appeals himself but has one planted upon the iconic statue of "old Brutus," the founder of the Republic. Shakespeare's Cassius comes close to Iago in his stagemanagement of perception and most closely reminds us of the ensign in the lines, "If I were Brutus now and he were Cassius, / He should not humor me" (1.2.314-15). But we also find in the Renaissance—such as with the exposure of fraudulent exorcisms—a sense that anyone who believes in supernatural explanations for purely natural events joins the lunatic, the lover, and the poet in being of imagination all compact. So Cassius' rigorous debunking of the burgeoning Caesarian cult and his turning its tactics upon itself need not have been viewed with horror. The rich ambivalence of the character and his philosophy can be found in these famous lines: "The fault, dear Brutus, is not in our stars, / But in ourselves, that we are underlings" (1.2.140-41). While the final clause suggests personal ambition and a personal animus against Caesar, the rest of the sentence not only conforms to Epicurean resistance toward astral determinism but also accords nicely with Christian—especially Reformed Christian—dismissals of astrology. At least where political and religious values other than one's own are concerned, philosophical skepticism is acceptable, and its historical bases can often be explored with impunity.23

In addition, Cassius' suicide in response to the supposed capture of his friend is philosophically as well as psychologically consistent. After his heartfelt expressions (in 4.3) of pain at Brutus' criticisms of him, and of joyful relief when he and Brutus are reconciled, it comes as no surprise that Cassius considers friendship such a life-and-death issue. In fact the importance of Brutus' friendship to Cassius personally as well as politically leads Cassius to defer to Brutus' oftmistaken judgments and misperceptions. But the bond between friends is also of prime value in Epicurus' ethics: what replaces the political relationship that exists between and among human beings in the wake of the Epicurean renunciation of the polis is exactly friendship. Admirers of Epicurus point to this as evidence that the philosophy is not solipsistic or hedonistic; critics make similar concessions or point out the apparent inconsistency between a commitment to one's own personal pleasure and a concern for that of others.24 Failure to recognize the centrality of friendship in the Epicurean scheme of things has not only led Auffret to judge Cassius as psychologically unstable in his devotion to Brutus, but has also led Allan Bloom to see Cassius in these scenes as being in open conflict with Epicureanism:

The man whose doctrine insisted that all action is selfish turns out to be the truest and most sentimental of friends. He even dies for friendship. . . . This is no true Epicurean; it is rather a man who has schooled himself in a teaching which ran counter to a fund of common goodness and ordinary political weakness within him. In Cassius, we see the case of a man who thinks worse of himself than he ought to and does so because he has accepted a philosophy which depreciates, discourages, and explains away what is good in him. In the final crisis, this arbitrary shell breaks, and the true man emerges. But it is too late.25

Such pronouncements reflect both an unshakable prejudice toward Epicurean philosophy and a determined unwillingness to consider it either on its own terms or in the terms set out in Shakespeare and his sources. Despite Bloom's own training in philosophy, there is little sense here of the complexity at work in the classical philosophical traditions. Instead we have a reductive, even monolithic model of that tradition in which the moral and political significance of a philosophy is determined and held in stasis by its adversaries. Certainly a glance at Diogenes Laertius' definition of the Epicurean sage—"And he will on occasion die for a friend"26—should restrain any surprise at Cassius' responses and any conclusion that the philosophy suppresses human good. Cassius is, after all, confronted by the impending loss of men for whom he cares deeply; he faces emotional estrangement from Brutus and responsibility for Titinius' capture. What has been described in these scenes as "Cassius' generosity of spirit"27 is not only a matter of personality but also of philosophical principle. Shakespeare shows that what is most admirable in Cassius is sustained by his philosophy; what results in his and his compatriots' destruction is precipated by a fall from the Epicurean "faith."


Brutus attributes Cassius' death to Caesar's spirit, which "walks abroad, and turns our swords/In our own proper entrails" (5.3.95-96). It is not only Ligarius' "mortified spirit" which Brutus conjures up. While "Caesar's spirit, ranging for revenge" is first invoked by Antony (3.1.270), Brutus himself invokes the preconditions for the eventual triumph of both "Caesar" and the entire correspondential construct:

Between the acting of a dreadful thing
And the first motion, all the interim is
Like a phantasma, or a hideous dream.
The genius and the mortal instruments
Are then in council, and the state of man,
Like to a little kingdom, suffers then
The nature of an insurrection


And Brutus is the one who eventually calls the apparition he had seen before at the battle at Philippi by Caesar's name. Despite the stage direction of the First Folio—"Enter the Ghost of Caesar"—the play leaves open to question the identity and ontology of the apparition which Brutus sees. While Plutarch judges both that the apparition was the responsibility of Caesar's "great guardian-spirit [daimon]" and that "the phantom that appeared to Brutus showed that the murder of Caesar was not pleasing to the gods," he also has the image describe itself as Brutus' own "evil genius."28 Shakespeare follows this account ("Thy evil spirit") and suggests something of a physiological explanation by having Brutus share in the bad eyesight Plutarch assigns to Cassius. Brutus, the only one to see the spectre, identifies the apparition only in the final scene, after blaming Cassius' suicide on that mighty spirit and before ordering Strato to help him in taking his own life. Despite Cassius' skeptical opinion expressed earlier, that in conjuration the name of "Brutus will start a spirit as soon as Caesar" (1.2.147)—that is, never—Brutus carries out his early wish to "come by Caesar's spirit" (2.1.169) even though he must "dismember Caesar" and dismember his own faction and cause in the process. We should qualify David Bevington's understanding that Brutus is here "victimized by the unshakable flaw of rebellion [which] must force aside the very institutions of legitimate power that it had hoped to preserve"29 with a realization that in Shakespeare's play neither Brutus nor Cassius can shake off their rivals' claims to supernatural bases for power. They fall victim to the politically-grounded cult of the gods Lucretius militates against in the passages Cassius echoes and enacts.

Perhaps the most crucial deviation from Plutarch's account is the deletion of any hint of Cassius' skeptical reading of Brutus' apparition. In the Brutus, just before he comments upon "the superstitious fears which were gradually carrying even Cassius himself away from his Epicurean doctrines," Plutarch describes how Cassius tries to assuage his friend's fears that they have transgressed the limits of the political, natural, and supernatural orders:

"In our sect, Brutus, we have an opinion that we do not always feel or see that which we suppose we do both see and feel. . . . For the mind of man is ever occupied; and that continual moving is nothing but an imagination."30

This attitude, too, has an analogue in the De rerum natura. Working from the super-subtle images it received from the distant, detached, ataraxic gods, the human mind was able to embellish and intensify the impressions, through the power of the imagination:

Quippe etenim iam turn divom mortalia saecla egregias animo facies vigilante videbant, et magis in somnis mirando corporis auctu. his igitur sensum tribuebant propterea quod membra movere videbantur vocesque superbas mittere pro facie praeclara et viribus amplis.

(5.1169-74: The truth is that even in those days the generations of men used to see with waking mind, and still more in sleep, gods conspicuous in beauty and of marvellous bodily stature. To these therefore they attributed sensation, because they appeared to move their limbs and to utter proud speech in keeping with their splendid beauty and vast strength.)31

Lucretius suggests, moreover, that anxiety over a shakily established order gave strong impetus for these attributions, since this explanation is prefaced by his account of the earliest foundations of political society.

While Plutarch permits Cassius to retain no small measure of Epicurean skepticism toward transcendent orders even at this juncture, Shakespeare's compression of events allows for little in the way of recusancy. The only signs of resistance are his claims to place only partial credence in the omens and his sharing with Brutus a farewell "for ever, and for ever" (5.1.116, 119), still confident, perhaps, in his philosophy's belief that death is the cessation of consciousness and existence. While Brutus here may be flirting with his friend's philosophy, his earlier encounters with Epicurean materials show his distance from its principles. Brutus' insistence that by making Caesar the conspirators' sole target they will "carve him as a dish fit for the gods" (2.1.179) hints at the crimes of Tantalus. Epicurean philosophy interprets both the crime and punishment of Tantalus in ways which make him the type of the superstitious individual. In one version of the myth he serves his son Pelops as a meal to the gods out of desperation at not having enough (or anything special enough) to entertain them properly.32 In another version, much noted by Epicureans, Tantalus is eternally threatened by a rock hanging over him—that is what prevents him from satisfying either hunger or thirst.33 Brutus argues that the manner and singularity of Caesar's death must be pleasing to the gods, and he is more than ready to perceive supernatural expressions of their apparent disfavor. He and Cassius slip into superstitious belief, dragging their friends and allies down with them. Skepticism seems to have passed out of Cassius altogether and to have possessed—at least in part—the playwright and the audience. In this "spirit" we may even read Brutus' Stoicism as the source for his Senecan taste in bloody-minded, vengeful, and psychologically-driven ghosts;34 in the same spirit we may raise serious questions about the philosophical orientations of other characters as well.

It is Antony, we recall, who first invokes Caesar's spirit directly in his soliloquy after the death of Caesar. We can relate this invocation to similar ones in Shakespeare's Henriad: Richard's and Carlisle's incantatory "hauntings" of Bollingbroke and his descendents with the spectre of the deposed rightful king.35 Antony is able to recall Caesar's ceremonial rejection of the crown—with advantages—and use it against Caesar's supplanters. This tactical skill parallels Richard's ability to use the relinquishing of the crown against his enemies and Cassius' previous ability to manipulate appearances to politic ends. Interestingly, Caesar opines early on that "Cassius has a lean and hungry look," and suggests that we associate Antony with the "fat/Sleek-headed" men who sleep (well into the morning) the sleep of the sensually indulgent. Cassius is here identified with the asceticism of authentic Epicurean teaching and Antony with the Epicure of popular imagination.

While adapting his Plutarchan source, Shakespeare may well be echoing Horace's assessment of himself as a fat, sleek pig of Epicurus' herd.36 Antony, we soon learn, is no mere sensualist. It is Antony who, with Octavius, shows chillingly ataraxic detachment in negotiating which rivals and allies are to be executed and which spared; the two strongest pillars of the triumvirate partake aggressively in the role of Machiavel. We might also note the "friendship" Antony invokes in this scene is far removed from the depth of personal feeling for which Cassius ultimately dies. Yet Cassius does recognize Antony as a kindred spirit, if an enemy: he judges Antony to be a "shrewd contriver" (2.1.158), an estimation grandly fulfilled in Antony's manipulation of the crowd—using relics, significantly, to maximum effect. "Let it work" is Antony's own laconic, Iago-like comment on the mob violence he has unleashed (3.2.260) while triumphantly overshadowing Cassius' own machinations. This aspect of Antony's Epicureanism should be added to our understanding of the Epicurean elements at work in Antony and Cleopatra that have been observed by both Barbara Bono and Hilary Gatti.37


Shakespeare shares in his age's widespread mistrust of what motivates those who reject a correspondential relation between the cosmic and political orders. Through the drama of both personality and philosophy, however, he repeatedly ponders the validity of that relation: Julius Caesar does not echo Plutarch's belief that in these events we can clearly see that "Heaven wish[ed] to remove from the scene the only man who stood in the way"38 of change from republican to imperial governance. A similar complexity informs King Lear. Edmund may pay the price for sneering at all bonds of sympathy and then repent, albeit ineffectually. But Edgar, like the exorcists Harsnett wishes to expose, still has to invent proofs of such bonds for the benefit of his disillusioned father. Through its encounters with Plutarch and Lucretius, Julius Caesar shows "Caesar's spirit" extending the religious realpolitik reportedly expressed by James I as "no bishop, no king" to the genuinely radical skepticism of "no spectre, no sceptre." Decius Brutus' ability to link in Caesar's mind the "tinctures, stains, relics, and cognizance" of Calphurnia's dream with the promise of a kingly crown—and all as a ploy to lure Caesar to his death—is but one instance of Shakespeare pondering these political and metaphysical equations.

We can detect Renaissance versions and analogues of what our age calls cultural materialism not only in fissures in the correspondential facade. They can be found clearly in the ideas considered, debated, and dramatized in texts written and read during the period. The history of ideas, then, can lead us to a better grasp of historicized ideas, of the shifting social and political significances invested in intellectual and philosophical systems. The political materialist strain of Epicurean thought, which held a sometimes horrified fascination for readers and writers in the Renaissance, demands that some discrimination be made between Bradshaw's "materialistic nihilism" and skeptical inquiries into the grand scheme of correspondences that Tillyard thought was the age's World Picture. That same philosophical strain also indicates that materialism, with much of the term's more recent meaning, was part of the age's political consciousness as well as its unconscious.


1 All quotations from Lucretius are taken from the Loeb Classical Library edition, translated by W. H. D. Rouse and revised by Martin Ferguson Smith (Cambridge, Mass., 1982).

2 E. M. W. Tillyard, The Elizabethan World Picture (London, 1943), has been a prime locus of debate as well as a target. Even student guides written by traditional scholars have questioned Tillyard's contentions, as in Isabel Rivers, Classical and Christian Ideas in English Renaissance Poetry (London, 1979), p. 2: "the blending of these elements did not create one uniform world picture."

3 See, for example, Jonathan Dollimore, Radical Tragedy; Religion, Ideology, and Power in the Drama of Shakespeare and his Contemporaries (Chicago, 1984), esp. pp. 189-217. Alan Sinfield addresses the political significances at work in stagings as well as interpretations of Julius Caesar in Faultlines: Cultural Materialism and the Politics of Dissident Reading (Oxford, 1992), pp. 10-21.

4 Graham Bradshaw, Shakespeare's Scepticism (Brighton, 1987), p. 39. Similar—but far less nuanced—criticisms of cultural materialist readings have been offered by Robin Headlam Wells, Elizabethan Mythologies: Studies in Poetry, Drama, Music (Cambridge, 1994), pp. 12-15.

5 John D. Cox, Shakespeare and the Dramaturgy of Power (Princeton, 1989), pp. x-xi. David Cressy has detected other kinds of "anachronism and dislocation" in Radical Tragedy stemming from its theoretical foundations in Foucault's often ahistorical work; see "Foucault, Stone, and Social History," English Literary Renaissance 21 (1991), 125.

6 Cox observes that Augustinian Christianity often resisted claims of transcendentally-sanctioned political authority. Yet he is not always attuned to the problematics of Augustine's views on political authority, since what Cox calls "Christian political realism" often translates into quietism. Epicureanism's original strictures against involvement with political culture are themselves profoundly quietist.

7 David C. Green, "Julius Caesar" and Its Source, Salzburg Studies in English Literature 86 (Salzburg, 1979), p. 20. Robert S. Miola, "Julius Caesar and the Tyrannicide Debate," Renaissance Quarterly 39 (1985), 288.

8 James R. Siemon, Shakespearean Iconoclasm (Berkeley, 1985), p. 125.

9 All references to Shakespeare's plays are taken from The Riverside Shakespeare, ed. G. Blakemore Evants et al. (Boston, 1974).

10 Stephen Greenblatt, Shakespearean Negotiations (Berkeley, 1988), p. 107. John L. Murphy considers some of the more pragmatic political ramifications of the events Harsnett chronicles in Darkness and Devils: Exorcism and "King Lear" (Athens, Ohio, 1984), pp. 153-70.

11 For classical applications of the principle, see Thomas G. Rosenmeyer, Senecan Drama and Stoic Cosmology (Berkeley, 1989), p. 79: Seneca's interest in divination is related to Stoicism's conservative view that "the world is full of signs guaranteed by the benevolence of the gods."

12 Mark Rose, "Conjuring Caesar: Ceremony, History, and Authority in 1599," English Literary Renaissance 19 (1989), 297.

13 Greenblatt, pp. 114-16, briefly discusses exorcism in The Comedy of Errors, Twelfth Night, and All's Well That Ends Well While Harsnett's Declaration was not published until 1603, the cases which he describes date from 1585-1586.

14 The connection between Caesar's and Theseus' language has been drawn by Bradshaw, p. 4L Since his study avoids considerations of philosophical backgrounds, it touches on skepticism or materialism in Julius Caesar only briefly.

15 This assertion that punishment can only curb and channel violent ambition—not extirpate it—provides another possible link between Epicurean and Augustinian political theories.

16 From Epicurus' Principal Doctrine 30; see Diogenes Laertius, Lives of the Eminent Philosophers, 10:149. In the translation by R. D. Hicks for the Loeb Classical Library edition (Cambridge, Mass., 1925), the phrase is rendered as "illusory opinion."

17 Miola, p. 275, argues that "Shakespeare takes pains to corroborate Cassius' opinion of Caesar's unnatural usurpation." I would suggest, though, that Cassius reacts not so much to Caesar's "unnaturalness," but rather to Caesar's claims to supernatural power and significance.

18 Rose, pp. 292 and 295, suggests striking analogies between the militant republicans in Shakespeare's Rome and the militant reformers in Shakespeare's London: virtually all of Caesar's political opponents, most notably Cassius and Casca, express themselves in antiritualistic terms. Siemon, p. 143, also sees the Reformist "desire to reveal certain cultural and social patterns as both historically real and yet ultimately arbitrary in nature" reflected in Julius Caesar. He does not, however, observe similar desires motivating characters within the play or appearing as part of the philosophic temper of the age the play represents.

19 See the excerpts from Sir Thomas North in Shakespeare's Plutarch, ed. T. J. B. Spencer (Baltimore, 1964), p. 159; in the Loeb edition of Plutarch's Parallel Lives, vol. 6, trans. Bernadotte Perrin (Cambridge, Mass., 1918) the passage is found in Brutus 43.3. Green, p. 106, also notes this difference between Shakespeare and Plutarch.

20 Jean Auffret, "The Philosophical Background of Julius Caesar," Cahiers Élisabéthains 5 (1974), 69-71.

21 This popularity has been examined by J. D. Minyard in his monograph, Lucretius and the Late Republic (Leiden, 1985), esp. pp. 18-20 and 33-70.

22 Cicero, In Pisonem 28: "Audistis profecto dici philosophos Epicureos omnis res, quae sint homini expetendae, voluptate metiri; rectene an secus, nihil ad nos aut, si ad nos, nihil ad hoc tempus; sed tarnen lubricum genus orationis adulescenti non acriter intellegenti et saepe praeceps." (You surely have heard it said that the Epicurean philosophers evaluate by pleasure all the things for which men strive. Whether that is truly said is nothing to us, or if it be anything to us, it is nothing to the present matter. But for all that it is a slippery kind of message for a youth of no sharp wit and always a dangerous one.) I have used the C. F. W. Mueller edition of Cicero's Scripta, (Leipzig, 1893-1908), vol. 3, part 2, 189. For the polemical function of "Epicureanism" in this oration, see Phillip DeLacy, "Cicero's Invective against Piso," Transactions and Proceedings of the American Philological Association 72 (1941), 49-58.

23 I am reminded of how Greenblatt, p. 65, formulates both Elizabethan and twentieth-century attitudes: "There is subversion, no end of subversion, only not for us." But I am more skeptical than he is of both the will-tocontainment (in Shakespeare, his contemporaries, and ourselves) and its supposed effectiveness in squelching analyses of one's own culture and political structure.

24 Phillip Mitsis, Epicurus' Ethical Theory: The Pleasures of Invulnerability (Ithaca, 1988), pp. 98-101; source texts include Diogenes Laertius 10.118 and 120, and Cicero, De finibus 1.20.65-69. Charles Wells has connected Cassius' fierce devotion to friendship with Epicurean precepts; see The Wide Arch: Roman Values in Shakespeare (New York, 1992), p. 81.

25 Allan Bloom, with Harry V. Jaffa, Shakespeare's Politics (New York, 1964), pp. 103-04. As Darryl J. Gless sharply challenges Bloom's reading of the play, he also notes that, in spite of "relentless invocations of the classics, Bloom's convictions receive neither documentation nor specific argument"; see "Julius Caesar, Allan Bloom, and the Value of Pedagogical Pluralism," in Shakespeare Left and Right, ed. Ivo Kamps (New York, 1991), p. 187.

26 Diogenes Laertius, 10.120; translation by Hicks.

27 Vivian Thomas, Shakespeare's Roman Worlds (London, 1989), p. 57.

28 These passages appear in Plutarch, Caesar 69.2 and 69.5 in vol. 7 of the Loeb Parallel Lives (London, 1919). North, generally following Amyot, describes genius as "great prosperity and good fortune" in Caesar's case, and as "ghost" and "ill angel" in the case of Brutus' apparition. See Shakespeare's Plutarch, pp. 99-100; and Plutarch, Les vies des hommes illustres, trans. Jacques Amyot, ed. Gérard Walter 2 vols. (Paris, 1951), 2:485-86.

29 David Bevington, Tudor Drama and Politics (Cambridge, Mass., 1968), p. 249.

30 In this case, I have quoted the clearer rendering in Perrin's translation of Brutus 39.3; but see also Shakespeare's Plutarch, p. 152.

31Shakespeare's Plutarch, pp. 149-50; Brutus 37.1-3.

32 Servius Grammaticus, Commentarius in Aeneidos 6.603. Miola, p. 285, argues that the "dish fit for the gods" passage in Julius Caesar is an expression not only of piety but ultimately of fear, since it continues the play's descent "into a strange, unfathomable universe, wherein characters continually misconstrue and misunderstand [the gods'] wishes."

33 Lucretius, De rerum natura 3.978-83:

Atque ea nimirum quaecumque Acherunte profundo prodita sunt esse, in vita sunt omnia nobis nec miser inpendens magnum timet aere saxum Tantalus, ut famast, cassa formidine torpens; sed magis in vita divom metus urget inanis mortalis

(And assuredly whatsoever things are fabled to exist in deep Acheron, these all exist for us in this life. There is no wretched Tantalus, as the story goes, fearing the great rock that hangs over him in the air and frozen in vain terror; rather it is in this life that the fear of gods oppresses mortals without cause).

See also Cicero, De finibus 1.18.62, where Cicero's Epicurean interloculor, Torquatus, alludes to Tantalus and his fearful stone.

34 Marjorie Garber has suggested that the "Ghost of Caesar" has both a generic source in Senecan tragedy and an intradramatic basis in Brutus' psychological state; see Dream in Shakespeare: From Metaphor to Metamorphosis (New Haven, 1974), p. 50. A further connection might be made with the Ghost of Tantalus in Thyestes 107-21: his very presence, prompted by a Fury, "infects" his descendents' house; that infection is signalled by omens. Thyestes recalls these signs, especially the late, hesitant dawn, when he discovers how Atreus has taken vengeance upon him (1035-36). See Rosenmeyer, pp. 136-59, on "Sickness, Portents, and Catastrophe" in Senecan drama, especially pp. 140-42.

35 As in the persuasive reading by Harry Berger, Jr., in Imaginary Audition (Berkeley, 1989), pp. 66-73.

36 Horace, Epistolae 1.4.16.

37 Barbara Bono, Literary Transvaluation: From Vergilian Epic to Shakespearean Tragicomedy (Berkeley, 1984), esp. pp. 173-83. Hilary Gatti, "Epicurean Elements in Elizabethan Drama," a paper given at the Sixteenth Century Studies Conference in Tempe, Arizona, October 1987.

38Brutus 47.4. North, convinced that Rome "could no more abide to be governed by many lords" (that is, could no longer stand republicanism), declares that divine intervention was meant to keep Brutus from becoming the "only absolute governor" in the wake of the Republic's fall; see Shakespeare's Plutarch, p. 165.

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.