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(Shakespearean Criticism)

Julius Caesar

Written after such Shakespearean histories as Henry V and before such tragedies as Hamlet, Julius Caesar has been described by critics as a play that contains elements of both genres. Julius Caesar has also been regarded as a "problem play," due to Brutus's ambiguous status as a tragic hero who may or may not be justified in conspiring to assassinate Caesar. Scholarly examination has also linked the play's depiction of political and social conflict with events occurring in Shakespeare's England at the close of the reign of the aging Queen Elizabeth. Recent discussion of Julius Caesar has focused on the treatment of social class—more specifically, on the antagonism between classes as well as between members of the same class, and the extent to which class tensions contributed to the fall of the Roman republic.

The importance of class structure goes to the very heart of the play's performance. In his discussion of staging issues, Stuart Vaughan (1996) remarks that like other plays by Shakespeare, Julius Caesar has been performed in a variety of settings—most notably when Orson Welles shifted the play to the post World War I, fascist Rome of Mussolini. However, Vaughn warns that such "transplantation" should be done with care so that Shakespeare's "essential" meaning is not lost—a view shared by Sidney Finkelstein (1961). Finkelstein contends that setting Julius Caesar in fascist Italy results in a misrepresentation of the play's fundamental social conflicts. In other words, while dissent against Mussolini took the form of a democratic movement centered in the working class, the rebellion against Caesar was led by aristocrats, or patricians, and did not include the common people, or plebeians, who in fact regarded Caesar as their champion against the abuses of the patrician class. Jan H. Blits (1981) takes a somewhat different view, arguing that republican Rome depended on harmony between the patrician and plebeian classes and that this harmony has already disappeared by the start of the play when, during the feast of Lupercal (I.i), the plebeians demonstrate adherence to Caesarism, or "the voluntary surrender of their liberty" to a power such as Caesar's. Mary Hamer (1998) also connects disarray among the classes with the impending destruction of the republic. She, however, looks at the feast of Lupercal from the point of view of the tribunes who reveal their "fear" of the rise of Caesar and the dissolution of the republic by berating plebeians—that is, members of the very class they are appointed to protect. In contrast, Timothy Hampton (1990) and Wayne A. Rebhorn (1990) explore the connections between the Roman patricians and the aristocracy of Renaissance England. According to both critics, symbols and symbolic action are what distinguish the ruling class from the aristocratic class. Hampton asserts that both Caesar in Shakespeare's play and the rulers of sixteenth-century Europe relied on rhetoric and the image of the "virtuous ruler" to maintain control over the classes. Meanwhile, Rebhorn observes, the fact that the Elizabethan aristocracy was headed toward destruction as each member tried to surpass the other in dangerous feats of heroism is mirrored by a similar preoccupation between the patricians Brutus and Cassius. Ralph Berry (1988) places the demise of the republic and of the power of the patrician class at the feet of the members of the class themselves, asserting that the conspirators' plot was doomed to failure once they deferred to Brutus, not because he was right, but by virtue of his noble lineage.

Another aspect of Julius Caesar that has garnered scholarly interest is the importance of to the play. Just as did Hampton and Rebhorn, Naomi Conn Liebler (1981) draws a connection between ancient Rome and Elizabethan England when she remarks that Renaissance viewers of the play would have identified the plebeians' indulgence in Lupercalian rites with their own English celebrations; additionally, she remarks that...

(The entire section is 95,446 words.)