Julius Caesar Caesar, Julius
by William Shakespeare

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(Shakespearean Criticism)

Julius Caesar

See also Julius Caesar Criticism (Volume 63).

Much of the recent critical debate regarding Julius Caesar has focused on the political parallels between Elizabethan England and ancient Rome as Shakespeare depicted it. While most critics hesitate to presume knowing Shakespeare's intentions in this matter, many maintain that Shakespeare's use of various themes and concepts supports a comparison of the political climate of ancient Rome and England in the late sixteenth and early seventeenth centuries. John Jump (1974) argues that Julius Caesar, like Shakespeare's English history plays, supports the "Tudor myth" (the justification of Queen Elizabeth I's right to the throne). Shakespeare, Jump maintains, demonstrates this through the play's examination of the conflict between Republicanism and Caesarism, which Jump compares to a monarchist political system, and the strength gained by Caesarism by the end of the play. Mark Rose (1989) suggests an analogy between the tribunes in the play and the Puritan preachers of Shakespeare's time. Rose argues that one of the primary concerns of the play is the controversy over the absolute authority of a ruler and that this same concern was an important issue in Elizabethan England, especially given the close interweaving of religion and politics in that society. Puritan reformers, like the Roman tribunes, Rose demonstrates, felt that power should reside with the people, not with the crown, while religious conservatives up-held the belief that the monarchy is the reservoir of power. In another comparison between Shakespeare's Rome and Elizabethan society, Wayne A. Rebhorn (1990) sees Julius Caesar as a struggle among aristocrats, that is, the senators, to prevent one of their own (Caesar) from transcending his position and thereby destroying the political system which allows aristocrats to wield their power as a class. Rebhorn likens Caesar to the Earl of Essex, who, by leading a revolt against Queen Elizabeth, challenged the absolute authority of the crown, and at the same time threatened the power of the aristocracy by creating turmoil in that class. Rebhorn further supports his argument by comparing the factionalism of Queen Elizabeth's court to that of the Roman senators.

Another issue that has been a topic of scholarly commentary since the eighteenth century is Shakespeare's portrayal of Brutus. Twentieth-century criticism on the character of Brutus has challenged his status as a hero, a characterization established by many earlier critics. Gordon Ross Smith (1954) focuses his attention on Brutus's willfulness, demonstrating that Brutus controls people and situations and is guided by his self-righteous belief in his own virtue. Smith shows that the combination of these factors contributes to Brutus's downfall. In another assessment, Richard A. Levin (1982) questions Mark Antony's praise of Brutus as "the noblest Roman of them all." Levin offers as evidence in his case against Brutus the fact that while the other conspirators killed Caesar primarily out of envy, Brutus murdered someone for whom he had expressed love and friendship.

Scholarly debate also focuses on Shakespeare's treatment of the facts of Roman history that were available to him in Thomas North's translation of Plutarch's Lives of the Noble Grecianes and Romans (1579). T. J. B. Spencer (1955) chronicles the history of criticism regarding this issue, stating that as early as 1680 Shakespeare's treatment of ancient Rome was praised by British poet and playwright Nahum Tate. Spencer reflects that Shakespeare's portrayal of the civilization continues to influence modern thinking on the subject. Arthur Humphreys (1984) analyzes Shakespeare's use of Plutarch's work in creating the drama, commenting on details ignored or embellished upon by Shakespeare and suggesting possible reasons for such adaptations. Humphreys also identifies other sources from which Shakespeare may have drawn, including Suetonius's De vita Caesarum and Appian's

(The entire section is 95,339 words.)