Is the play Julius Caesar real or imaginary? Did The conspirators exist and did they really kill Caesar? They say that Cleopatra is the lover of Caesar, so who is the wife of Caesar: Calpurnia or Cleopatra?
Shakespeare's play is mostly accurate, with changes in the timeline of events and real people dramatized.
The play Julius Caesar by William Shakespeare is based on facts, but as with any play, there are some liberties taken. First of all, we are talking about very ancient history, even from Shakespeare’s time. Shakespeare had to use sources to write the play, and so we are really depending on the accuracy of those sources to say whether the play is historically accurate or not. As with any adaptation based on real life, there will be some changes. Most of these have to do with timelines being greatly reduced and people being dramatized.
Shakespeare based his play on what must have seemed like the most accurate, or at least the most extensive, sources of the time. Most of his research seems to have been from Plutarch’s Lives. Generally speaking, we still consider these decent sources, because a lot of the information has been confirmed by other sources. There is a lot we do not know though.
The conspirators definitely existed, and everyone who is a character in the play was a real person. We do not know who the actual original leader of the conspiracy was, but the nominal leader was Marcus Brutus. The conspirators needed him because of the name recognition that he had. The conspirators assassinated Caesar on the Ides of March, 44 B.C..
The Brutus in the play is definitely an overly dramatized version of Brutus. Most historical sources do not show him as being quite so noble or elegant. He does seem to have had honorable intentions, but he was not reportedly a powerful speaker or a good leader. Antony is portrayed as loving to party but a good speaker and a loyal solider, and most importantly extremely dedicated to Caesar. Sources agree that Antony loved a party, but disagree on his role in the conspiracy.
Plutarch aside, Shakespeare is Shakespeare. Of course he took liberties. First of all, it is a play. The most dramatic difference is that things seem to move pretty quickly. We go from Caesar’s assassination to Antony’s speech to the meeting of the triumvirs in quick succession. In reality, things were much messier. Just figure a lot of time in between each thing, and many more speeches. In short, the senate was not enamored with Antony, and for a time there was a civil war with Antony fighting Octavius. The senate sent Lepidus to take care of Antony, and Antony joined forces with him instead. Soon, the three of them had formed a triumvirate to take Rome and the senate from Brutus and Cassius, forcing them and the other conspirators to flee.
There are other minor differences in the play. Caesar was actually killed at Pompey’s Theater, which is a nice bit of irony that you would think Shakespeare would want to include. Shakespeare just vaguely decides to call everything the capital. In actuality, there were many different buildings in which senate business could be convened, and that was where the senate was meeting that day.
So what about those famous words? History does note that there was a soothsayer, although all he did was warn Caesar that he was in danger. There was nothing specific about a day. Sadly, he did not say, “Beware the Ides of March!” or anything of the like. It is also generally accepted that Caesar probably did not say anything to Brutus, let alone the famous words Shakespeare puts in his mouth, “Et tu, Brtue?” I am sure he was thinking it though! We do know that he tried to pull his toga over his head.
What about Antony? Here historians seem to argue. Some say he made no speech at all. Most say he did. There are some who believe that Antony did indeed make a speech, a eulogy in Caesar’s honor, and it was amazing. He had actors in death masks and plenty of dramatics. I doubt he said this.
Friends, Romans, countrymen, lend me your ears;
I come to bury Caesar, not to praise him.
The evil that men do lives after them;
The good is oft interred with their bones;
So let it be with Caesar. The noble Brutus
Hath told you Caesar was ambitious:
If it were so, it was a grievous fault,
And grievously hath Caesar answer'd it. (Act 3, Scene 2)
That’s beautiful, and pure Shakespeare. Antony certainly used the occasion to turn the tide against Brutus and the other conspirators, but not as directly and sarcastically as Shakespeare did. As for the double speeches, that is a really neat Shakespearean invention too. The speech-off is a clever use of dramatics and necessary in a play when you have very little time.
In reality, there were plenty of speeches and Brutus surely made one. Just about everyone made one. The two speeches were not back to back and definitely not on the same podium. Antony believed that Brutus was going to kill him, and there is even a well-documented rumor that he tried to dress as a slave and flee when Caesar was assassinated.
Now on to Caesar’s wives. Shakespeare makes no mention of Cleopatra in this play, even though Caesar would have recently returned from his dalliance with her. Actually, in Egypt, there was serious business to do. Caesar had to ensure that Egypt remained under Roman control, and that meant ending civil war and ensuring that a friendly ruler was on the throne. Cleopatra was in danger from her own brother (who was also her husband) and in hiding, and Caesar put a stop to that. A bit of a war ensued, and Caesar spent some time in Egypt ensuring stability. He was there in the first place ending the Roman civil war with Pompey.
Did Caesar love Cleopatra? Their union produced a son, and by some measure they were married under Egyptian custom. However, Roman law would never recognize either the child or the marriage. Caesar acknowledged Caesarean but never seems to have paid too much attention to his son, and as far as Cleopatra was concerned, having a son secured her place on the throne and she was happy with that. Their union was a politically convenient one.
Did Caesar love Calpurnia? He seems to have loved her. He stayed married to her, even though she did not produce a child. History gives us accounts of many affairs, including the one with Cleopatra, and one with Brutus’s mother, Servilia. He was rumored to have given her a gigantic pearl. This does not mean Calpurnia did not accept this. She still cared about him. Calpurnia may actually have had dreams that Caesar was in danger.
Calpurnia here, my wife, stays me at home:
She dreamt to-night she saw my statua,
Which, like a fountain with an hundred spouts,
Did run pure blood: and many lusty Romans
Came smiling, and did bathe their hands in it… (Act 2, Scene 4)
There are actually several historical accounts of Calpurnia having a nightmare, although we are not sure exactly what it is. Plutarch says that Caesar avoided going to the senate based on the nightmare, but was persuaded to go anyway. This is basically what Shakespeare has happen.
So, in short, most of the play is accurate. Later, Shakespeare would expand on the relationship between Antony and Cleopatra in the sequel play, Antony and Cleopatra. He does address Julius Caesar and Cleopatra's relationship there.