In 1599, when Julius Caesar was first performed, Queen Elizabeth I, the Tudor Queen, was in the final years of her 45-year reign (1558–1603). It was a period of history called the “Age of Discovery,” a time of scientific growth, a rebirth of the arts, and exploration of the recently discovered continents of North and South America. Historical plays were popular during Shakespeare’s lifetime and people were eager to learn about worlds other than their own. A play like Julius Caesar taught them about Roman history, and at the same time, provided them with a mirror of their own society—a peacetime monarchy after a hundred years of warfare and before the Civil War that began in 1642.
Elizabeth’s reign was one of the most secure known by the English in hundreds of years. But her throne came under attack from Roman Catholic plots to replace the Protestant monarch with a Catholic. While Shakespeare was writing Julius Caesar, Elizabeth’s own favorite, the Earl of Essex rebelled in 1601, intending to replace the Queen’s Secretary of State, Sir Robert Cecil, with a group of young aristocrats. His plan failed. But even more damaging attacks on the idea of monarchy came from loyal Puritans. Radicals like Peter Wentworth and John Field wanted democracy and called for “liberty, freedom and enfranchisement,” words echoed in Shakespeare’s play.
Like Julius Caesar, Queen Elizabeth had no heirs to follow her on the throne. In...
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