(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 these rituals—which serve as the opening to the play and which the tribunes complain have been perverted by the plebeians—also prepare the audience for subsequent perverse blood rituals undertaken by Brutus and his co-conspirators. Marjorie B. Garber (1974) and Lawrence Danson (1974) see the rituals and omens found throughout Julius Caesar as an important source of its tragic elements. For Danson, the tragedy is generated through misunderstanding of signs; for Garber, tragedy is achieved through the ultimate and genuine ritual of Brutus's self-sacrifice through death in the closing act of the play.

The role of Brutus as a tragic hero and as leader of the patrician class has been discussed by numerous critics. By contrast, David Lowenthal (1982) examines the play's namesake, arguing that Shakespeare presents Caesar as "the perfection of political or honor-seeking man" who all the same remains unconcerned with the plebeians who support him. Marshall C. Bradley (1994) looks at the Cynic Casca as a source of commentary on the various philosophies—Stoicism, Epicureanism, and proto-Christianity—that exist in the play; he also looks at Caesar's "bondman" as a "link between Caesar . . . and the greater body of conspirators"—in other words, between the ruler and the patrician class.


(Shakespearean Criticism)

Stuart Vaughan (essay date 1996)

SOURCE: "Introduction to Commentary" in William Shakespeare: Julius Caesar, edited by Maurice Charney, Applause Books, 1996, pp. xix-xxv.

[In the following essay, Vaughan looks at Julius Caesar from the point of view of performance, discussing such elements as setting, stage design, casting, and directorial modifications to the play.]

Shakespeare's Julius Caesar is both tragedy and history play, but however readers and critics approach it, stage directors must deal with it as a play written for performance in the theatre.

The Setting

The author of a play to be played in the neutral, architectural theatre of Shakespeare's day had only, in order to set place and time of day, to provide indications early in the dialogue of each scene as to when and where the new unit of action was occurring. Thus, scene design was a matter of words.

Notice how, in the first scene of Julius Caesar, Flavius says (1. 3) " . . . ought not walk/upon a labouring day," and later (1. 27) says, " . . . lead these men about the streets?" When the time of day changes, at the beginning of Act I, Scene iii, Cicero's first words are, "Good even, Casca." At 1. 3 ff., Casca and Cicero both describe the "tempest," setting the scene further, and Cassius, entering later, is greeted by Casca saying, "What night is this!" And so it goes through the plays, with verbal description doing the jobs of defining place and time.

With only an occasional bench or chair to bring on, the action could flow from scene to scene without those stops which the scene changes of the modern theatre so often demand. Also, this neutral stage was utterly flexible, instantly taking on whatever guise the playwright required. At the beginning of Act II, when Brutus enters calling his servant and asking for a taper in his study, we sense right away that we are "at home" with Brutus, and when he talks about the "progress of the stars," we know he is outside and it is still night, as it had been in the previous scene. Shakespeare's audience in the theatre had no need for the written description "in his orchard" which precedes this scene, or for any of the other scenic descriptions which have been placed at the beginnings of scenes to help the reader. The speed and flexibility of Shakespeare's stage allowed him a dramatic structure of swift development and unfettered imagination.

At the Restoration of the monarchy in 1660, Charles II and his courtiers came back from their travels in exile wanting to see plays on the new-fangled Italianate proscenium, or "picture frame," stage. From that time until very recently, proscenium stages were the standard and expected stages for all sorts of dramatic and musical entertainments requiring a theatre. This stage, with its "open mouth," demands scenery to fill it. The art of perspective painting was quick to answer. An interest in archaeology led to "authentic" period settings and costumes for Shakespeare in the 19th Century. Realism and the proscenium theatre abetted one another on into the 20th Century. After World War II, the British director Tyrone Guthrie, having created a production in a Tudor church hall, realized the advantages of the open stage and the three-sided auditorium for Elizabethan drama. At Stratford, Ontario, and later in Minneapolis, he inspired the building of such theatres. Since then, open stages confronting three-sided auditoriums have sprung up across the United States.

For Shakespeare production, that has been a very good thing. The absence of a curtain behind which scenery can be changed forces Shakespeare's speed, flexibility, and scenic neutrality on the modern director and frees him from the constraints of proscenium staging.

This open stage, with the audience on three sides, pushes the director into special choreographic solutions. In the proscenium theatre, actors are arranged in what amounts to a line across the stage so they are all visible from the house simultaneously. With the open stage, if people on thesides are to see, the movement must be circular, like a wheel, instead of back and forth. Too, there must be enough circulation for all the members of the audience to see what is important most of the time. This makes for exciting visual compositions, flowing into each other with ceaselessly vigorous movement. Instead of "tricking" the actors into a straight line, the director can place the important elements center and group the other actors around that center in a much more natural way. Indeed, on such a stage, one can "block" a whole Shakespeare play in one day, by simply telling the actors to stand in a circle and walk toward whomever they are addressing.

Take the assassination scene in Julius Caesar (II.i). On the picture frame stage, one would probably place Caesar on a center platform three or four steps tall, with the conspirators and other senators spread out on either side of him. How much more interesting this can look on the open stage, using the same central platform for Caesar, but placing the others in a full circle around him. Each one can speak to Caesar from where he is without regard to "opening up the picture." Casca, who has been deputed to strike first, can get into place behind Caesar without the maneuvering necessary on a picture frame stage, and the confusion after Caesar falls can be arranged much more spectacularly. Then, after Antony enters, he can move to Caesar's body and later to each of the conspirators, ranged in their circle, without the unnatural parading back and forth which the proscenium stage enforces.

Modern directors of Shakespeare must be prepared to mount their productions on both types of stages, or "in-the-round" as well, and very different productions will result, in terms of amount of scenery, nature, and number of properties, and the shape of the stage pictures and movement patterns. While "in-the-round" and the open stage may not be suitable for all types of plays, most modern directors prefer the open stage for Shakespeare.

Historical Period

Julius Caesar is placed in Roman times and is about historical figures from that period. It deals with major events of that time which actually occurred, even though Shakespeare has compressed and interpreted as his artistic needs dictated. It might appear at first glance that no question would then arise as to the period in which the play would be set and costumed.

Since at least the 1920s, however, directors have been transplanting classics, and especially Shakespeare's plays, from their ostensible period to other times, political climates, and modes of behavior.

Today, finding a "resonance" between some other historical time and the play's stated period offers a basis for transplanting period: "as if," say, The Merchant of...

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Social Class

(Shakespearean Criticism)

Sidney Finkelstein (essay date 1961)

SOURCE: "On Updating Shakespeare: Part I," in Mainstream, Vol. 14, No. 7, July, 1961, pp. 21-32.

[In the essay below, Finkelstein argues against updating Julius Caesar to Mussolini's fascist Italy on grounds that such an update misrepresents the actual social conflict in the playwhich occurs between patricians, who are anxious to hold on to power, and Caesar, who is supported by the plebeians in his bid for absolute rule.]

While this writer has not yet attended any of the American Shakespeare Festival Theatre performances at Stratford, Connecticut, both the advance publicity and the critical...

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(Shakespearean Criticism)

David Lowenthal (essay date 1982)

SOURCE: "Shakespeare's Caesar's Plan," in Interpretation: A Journal of Political Philosophy, Vol. 10, No. 2 & 3, May & September, 1982, pp. 223-50.

[Below, Lowenthal argues that Shakespeare portrays the character Julius Caesar as a great but ruthless leader, uninterested in either justice or the welfare of the common people but focused instead on the continuance of Caesarism.]

Only one of Shakespeare's thirty-seven plays deals with an historical figure of the first rank. Coriolanus, Antony, Cleopatra, Henry V were of lesser greatness; Macbeth, Lear, Hamlet would have been lost in historical obscurity...

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Rituals And Omens

(Shakespearean Criticism)

Lawrence Danson (essay date 1974)

SOURCE: "Julius Caesar," in Tragic Alphabet: Shakespeare's Drama of Language, Yale University Press, 1974, pp. 50-67.

[In the following excerpt, Danson asserts that the murders and suicides touched off by and including the assassination of Caesar are in fact "meaningless " nonrituals and that the play does not achieve its tragic, ritualized status until the death of Brutus.]

In Julius Caesar we find, more starkly and simply than in Hamlet, those problems of communication and expression, those confusions linguistic and ritualistic, which mark the world of the tragedies. The play opens with...

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Further Reading

(Shakespearean Criticism)

Anderson, Peter S. "Shakespeare's Caesar: The Language of Sacrifice." In Comparative Drama III, No. 1 (Spring 1969): 3-26.

Stresses the importance of the verbal imagery used by Caesar's assassins, his allies, and the people in emphasizing the health of Rome and its government.

Bathory, Dennis. "'With Himself at War': Shakespeare's Roman Hero and the Republican Tradition." In Shakespeare's Political Pageant: Essays in Literature and Politics, edited by Joseph Alulis and Vickie Sullivan, pp. 237-61. Lanham, MD: Rowman & Littlefield Publishers, Inc., 1996.

Argues that in Julius...

(The entire section is 1338 words.)