The first of William Shakespeare’s so-called Roman plays—which include Coriolanus (pr. c. 1607-1608, pb. 1623) and Antony and Cleopatra (pr. c. 1606-1607, pb. 1623)—Julius Caesar also heralds the great period of his tragedies. The sharply dramatic and delicately portrayed character of Brutus is a clear predecessor of Hamlet and of Othello. With Titus Andronicus (pr., pb. 1594) and Romeo and Juliet (pr. c. 1595-1596, pb. 1597), Julius Caesar is one of the three tragedies written before the beginning of the sixteenth century. It is, however, more historical than Shakespeare’s four great tragedies—Hamlet, Prince of Denmark (pr. c. 1600-1601, pb. 1603), Othello, the Moor of Venice (pr. 1604, pb. 1622), Macbeth (pr. 1606, pb. 1623), and King Lear (pr. c. 1605-1606, pb. 1608)—being drawn in large part from Sir Thomas North’s wonderfully idiomatic translation of Plutarch’s Bioi paralleloi (c. 105-115; Parallel Lives, 1579). A comparison of the Shakespearean text with the passages from North’s chapters on Caesar, Brutus, and Antonius reveals the remarkable truth of T. S. Eliot’s statement: “Immature poets borrow; mature poets steal.” In instance after instance, Shakespeare did little more than rephrase the words of North’s exuberant prose to fit the rhythm of his own blank verse. The thievery is brilliant.
Shakespeare’s originality, found in all his historical plays, is similar to that of the great classical Greek playwrights Aeschylus, Sophocles, and Euripides. They, too, faced a dramatic challenge very unlike that of later writers, who came to be judged by their sheer inventiveness. Just as the Greek audience came to the play with full knowledge of the particular myth involved in the tragedy to be presented, the Elizabethan audience knew the particulars of events such as the assassination of Julius Caesar. Shakespeare, like his classical predecessors, had to work his dramatic art within the restrictions of known history. He accomplished this by writing “between the lines” of Plutarch, offering insights into the mind of the characters that Plutarch does not mention and which become, on the stage, dramatic motivations. An example is Caesar’s revealing hesitation about going to the Senate because of Calpurnia’s dream, and the way he is swayed by Decius into going after all. This scene shows the weakness of Caesar’s character in a way not found in a literal reading of Plutarch. A second major “adaptation” by Shakespeare is a daring, dramatically effective telescoping of historical time. The historical events associated with the death of Caesar and the defeat of the conspirators actually took three years; Shakespeare condenses them into three tense days, following the unity of time (though not of place).
Although prose is used in the play by comic and less important characters or in purely informative speeches or documents, the general mode of expression is Shakespeare’s characteristic blank verse, which consists of five stressed syllables, generally unrhymed. The iambic pentameter, a rhythm natural to English speech, has the effect of making more memorable lines such as Flavius’s comment about the commoners, “They vanish tongue-tied in their guiltiness,” or Brutus’s observation, “Men at some time are masters of their fates.” As in most of his tragedies, Shakespeare follows a five-part dramatic structure, consisting of the exposition (to act 1, scene 2), complication (act 1, scene 2, to act 2, scene 4), climax (act 3, scene 1), consequence (act 3, scene 1, to act 5, scene 2), and denouement (act 5, scenes 3 to 5).
The main theme of Julius Caesar combines the political with the personal. The first deals with the question of justifiable revolutions and reveals with the effectiveness of concentrated action the transition from a republic of equals to an empire dominated by great individuals such as Antonius, influenced by the example of Caesar himself, and Octavius, who comes into his own at the end of the play. The personal...
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