Likely written and first performed in 1599 between Shakespeare's Henry V and Hamlet, Julius Caesar occupies a transitional space between the genres of history and tragedy. Set in Julian Rome in 44 b.c., the play describes a senatorial conspiracy to murder the emperor Caesar and the political turmoil that ensues in the aftermath of the assassination. The play’s two tragic figures—the slain emperor and Marcus Brutus, Caesar's close friend and the head of the conspirators—have steadily attracted the attention of critics. Many late twentieth-century scholars have continued the tradition of analyzing the motivations and ambiguities inherent in Shakespeare's dramatization of these historical personages, particularly Brutus, and studying the play's powerful and complex evocation of early Imperial Rome. Recent criticism has additionally concentrated on the work's dramaturgical qualities and its metadramatic status as a play about theater and performance. Contemporary scholars have also engaged numerous other topics, particularly focusing on varied linguistic and ideological issues in the play, including its philosophical content and its depiction of rhetoric as an influential force in manipulating human behavior, destabilizing meaning, and reflecting the vagaries of history.
Late twentieth-century emphasis on the dramaturgy of Julius Caesar combines a number of perspectives, including the study of explicit, internal references to the work as drama, and of Shakespeare's manipulation of his audience. Robert F. Willson, Jr. (1990) examines the metadramatic nature of the conspirators, who see themselves “as actors in a precedent-setting, historical drama.” Enumerating theatrical metaphors presented during the murder, Willson calls attention to the Forum scene as a play-within-a-play that amplifies the drama's theme of passion as destroyer. Jean-Pierre Maquerlot (1995) highlights the formal ambiguities of the play, analyzing the work as a “Mannerist” drama in which Shakespeare controls audience expectations by coyly shifting their allegiances between Brutus, Caesar, and Antony. Dennis Kezar (1998) discusses Shakespeare's self-conscious use of dramatic spectacle and metadramatic irony in Julius Caesar, basing his observations around the play's motif of dismemberment.
Modern interpretations of character, informed to varying degrees by linguistic and psychoanalytic theory, have been consistently applied to Julius Caesar, resulting in ambivalent and ironic readings of Brutus, Caesar, and the other principal figures in the drama. Focusing on Brutus's attempt to disguise the brutal murder of the emperor beneath the language of ritual sacrifice, Lynn de Gerenday (1974) studies the thematic and psychological ambiguities with which the senator is depicted. Jan H. Blits (1982) offers a more traditional analysis, in which Brutus's idealized goals are thwarted by the political exigencies that arise in the power vacuum created after Caesar's death. Dennis Bathory (1996) follows a similar line, concentrating on Brutus's noble, yet futile, self-delusion as the chief cause of the conspiracy's failure to reinvigorate the republican ideals of Rome. James C. Bulman (1985) describes Shakespeare's deflation of heroic conventions as they are ironically applied to Caesar, Brutus, and Antony. Cynthia Marshall (1994) invokes poststructuralist theory in examining the destabilized historical identities of the female characters of the drama, Portia and Calphurnia.
Many critics are also interested in the play’s ideological issues and philosophical content. Maynard Mack (1981) sees Julius Caesar as decidedly modern in its historical outlook, featuring a theory of history as an irrational process that exists beyond the influence of human reason or of individualized intentions. James Howe (1994) further comments on the broad ideological framework of the drama by noting its affinities to the Buddhist conception of a ceaseless cycle of worldly suffering that can only be overcome by unlimited compassion. Probing more concrete philosophical elements in the drama, Stephen M. Buhler (1996) regards the Epicurean skepticism of Cassius in Julius Caesar as it illustrates the play's concern with political materialism. Günter Walch (1989) explores Shakespeare's dramatization of discursive oppositions, such as that between republican freedom and tyrannical authority, in the work. Highlighting the significant focus on rhetoric in the play, Norman Nathan (see Further Reading) analyzes Brutus's frequently neglected funeral oration to Caesar, while John W. Velz (1982) considers the importance of Caesar's commanding rhetoric and the tumultuous effects of Brutus's and Antony's public orations on the course of Roman history.